25 Death of a Conqueror

The last years of William the Conqueror's reign were mainly the meat and drink of the Norman King – beating off other feudal lords, keeping your nobles down, trying not to let your sons eat you. But plus there was, of course, the super-famous Domesday Book. This week at the History of England podcast we end the reign of the Conqueror

25 Death of a Conqueror

Family troubles

Robert Curthose William had three sons that survived him – Robert, William and Henry. Robert cut up rough – he was bored, and wanted his authority now; he was worried that his Dad preferred William, and might cut him out. In 1079 his rebellions almost led to patricide, but Robert recognised his father at the last moment and drew back. Robert and his father were reconciled, and Robert was again recognised as the Co-Duke of Normandy. But in 1083 Robert took off again, and was not to be reconciled before William's death.

Domesday Book

A lot of ink has been spilt over Domesday book. So I won't spill a lot. Just to say, that Domesday was probably created because of:

  • Money: William wanted to know how much money he could get from taxing his nobles
  • War: in 1085, England was threatened with invasion by Cnut of Denmark. William realised he needed to know exactly who owed him men, and how many.
  • Landholding: There had been a landholding revolution. Here was a good chance to make sure the King knew who had got what.

Now you too can play around with Domesday! The PASE wesbite allows you to find out who owned your town in 1087. Be patient, it takes a bit of working out, but it's a superb website.

Death of a Conqueror

William burst in 1087 while attacking Mantes. He died at Caen, and then he burst again when they tried to squeeze him into his coffin. Before he went he gave Normandy to Robert, England to William Rufus, and £5,000 to Henry to buy himself a place of his own. So what to say about the man who brought my favourite English period to an end? It's impossible not to admire him isn't it? Certainly not a couch potatoe, anyway. The Anglo Saxon Chronicle again proves it's worth with a very good summary – so click here and look at the relevant entry. But here are a few snippets.

‘The King granted his lands on hard terms . . . the king let it go into the hands of the man who bid the most . . . nor cared how sinfully the reeve got it from poor men. They raised unjust tolls, and many other injustices they did which are hard to recount’

and not just that;  ‘The king and the head men loved and loved too much the greed for gold and silver and cared not how sinfully it was obtained’.

On the other hand: ‘He was mild with good men who loved God and over all measure hard with men who spoke against his will.’ … ‘Good peace he made in this land, so that a man of any account might fare over the kingdom with a bosom full of gold unmolested; and no man dared kill another, even if he had done much evil to him.’

Let me leave the last word to my guide and mentor in these years, Frank Barlow. I think he gets it right when he said:

‘ William never gives the impression of having been born out of the proper time. He was no barbarian leader. Neither was he a statesman. He had learned the art of government in the hardest school, so that a conquered country groaned under his rule but could not withhold a grudging admiration’

2 thoughts on “25 Death of a Conqueror

  1. For all his faults, and by our modern standards William had a great many, one does have to admit that he changed England in more ways than any other monarch who comes to mind. If you rank a medieval English king as “great” because he won battles, you might put Richard I and Henry V on the list with William. If you are looking at changes in society he might appear with Henry VIII, my point is that by almost any measure you select, William makes the short list of great English kings. And talk about going out with a bang!

    1. Yes, I entirely agree – there are few king who have changed England more than William I and Henry VIII.

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