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’



William last week had just seen off the last of the major English rebellions he was to face. Not that he wasn’t to have 10 more years of dashing about keeping his kingdom together, you understand, but one category of trouble has been closed down. Just for another one to open up.
William was reasonably family minded. He had 9 children an seemed pretty keen on Matilda, his wife. He had 5 daughters, one of whom, Adela, we will see again as the wife of Stephen of Blois. He had 4 sons, of whom one, Richard died before him, leaving him with three boys, Robert, probably born in 1054, William, born in 1056, and then Henry, born rather later in 1068. We are going to be living in the company of these 3 for the next 50 years or so.
The eldest was called Robert Curthose. Most people suggest that he’s called Curthose because he wore shot stockings, logically enough I suppose, though I don’t know the clothes people wore back then well enough to imagine a Norman knight with a pair of short socks. But I did see one interpretation of Curthose as meaning that hew was short and squat, and that would also give him short socks and so does seem to make sense. So I am going to go with that. Robert is one of the figures of the Norman age, who was to have a life that was hard and glamorous in equal measure. He would be one of the leaders of the First Crusade – but was destined to spend almost 30 years imprisoned by his brother. But at this point in our story Robert is 30 and he has the wild and warlike reputation that seems appropriate for the son of the average Norman king or noble. There was much of his character that was well regarded and approved of – he was brave, an excellent fighter; he was adventurous and without doubt a man to be noticed. But he was also to prove himself a better fighter than general, and that he had more of the characteristics of his grandfather than his father – he was basically all fur coat and no knickers. During his time as Duke of Normandy, the Barons liked him because they could basically get away with plenty of stuff.
We’ll come to William and Henry a bit later. Though it is worth noting that for whatever reason William Rufus was thought to be the Conqueror’s favourite son, and clearly so; and that the brothers weren’t great friends, and more like rivals. Robert expected to succeed William, but he certainly couldn’t be sure of it. The Normans were not given to dividing their inheritance, something the AS were much more likely to do. So Robert could certainly expect to receive his father’s patrimony – i.e. Normandy. And in fact William had probably already publically made him his heir for Normandy, with the consent of his feudal lord, Philip of France. But England, which William had acquired by conquest – well, it would have been perfectly in order for the Conqueror to give that to another of his sons.
So Robert felt restless and worried, poor lamb. He was 29, and wanted some of the action, and the glory. His mother, Mathilda, was clearly more sympathetic, and although she will play the role of the peacemaker, she also let her maternal sympathy go to unhelpful lengths, proving her son with men and horses. It’s unlikely that his father gave him much quality time or sat down for a heart to heart though, so in 1078 his restlessness and ambition broke out into open rebellion. The Conqueror family were at the time in South East Normandy campaigning against a rebellious noble or two. The brothers quarrelled, which ended up in a chamber pot being tipped over Robert’s head, and his hurt pride spilled over into rebellion. He and his companions rode to the Norman capital at Rouen and tried to seize the castle. They failed, and ran over the side of the rebels they’d been fighting against earlier. Predictably, he’d chosen the losing side, but he wasn’t ready yet to be chastened, and started looking for friends. At this point, Philip of France sidled up to him, eyes gleaming, and showed him lots of sympathy and offered to help. He proposed the same he’d made to Edgar Atheling – to provide a castle over the border from which he could organise raids into his father’s territory, He suggested a place called Gerberoy, which, incidentally looks like a lovely place for a visit. William, obviously, was having none of this, and in 1079 appeared in front of Robert’s castle. But things didn’t go as he expected. Actually he was met in combat by his son, wounded in the arm and might have been killed by him if Robert hadn’t recognised him, stopped and let him go. William Rufus was also hurt at the same time, and interestingly an English companion Toki, son of Wiggot of Wallingford. Which gives some indication of the continuing involvement of the old English Thegnage.
All this seemed to bring the parties to their senses for a while. Mathilda and Roberts friends intervened. William was at first unimpressed, and threatened to blind on eof Matilda’s servants if she didn’t stop whining about it, but eventually William and his son were reconciled; William made great play of again recognising Robert as his heir and co-ruler of Normandy. And this seemed to quieten things down for the next few years.
William did his best to involve his son in the family business. So in 1079 -1080, the north flared up again, with yet another invasion from Malcolm Canmore, king of Scots in 1079 and the killing of the Prince Bishop of Durham, Walcher by the Northumbrians in 1080, just generally because he was a bit of an arse. William sent Odo of Bayeux up to fix the Bish, and Robert up to fix Malcolm. Robert reached Edinburgh, but couldn’t bring things to a conclusion, so he came back and founded, incidentally, Newcastle.
And for a while things go quite in William’s reign. The English are at last subdued, his nobility are nobling, Lanfranc is re-organising the church. Matilda died in 1083, and at least outwardly William seemed to be sad about that. His troubles such as they are tend to be from the traditional enemy, the Welsh, and now his own Nobles. So William’s a bit bored in 1081 so he goes on a bit of a welsh raid for example. Some of the hardness of William’s character is shown by the episode in 1082 with his half brother Odo Of Bayeux. At this time, the papacy is in the wars, with the HRE Henry trying to depose the reforming Pope Gregory. Odo, apparently bored of building up his vast wealth by raping the English countryside, wanted to hop off with his knights and go and support Gregory. William was livid. He did not want Gergory supported, he did not want any of his men restoring the power of a papacy he was trying hard to ignore. So he stripped Odo of his titles as earl of Kent, and slung him in jail, where he remained until after William’s death.
Now we do not know all of the facts here, one of the frustrations of Medieval history. But it does look terribly hard. Odo has been a faithful and useful leftenant for William all his life. Yes, he’s been well rewarded, but William owed a lot to him. But once crossed, or when the affairs of state were threatened, William was to show again and again that he was hard and utterly ruthless, and previous and personal history counted for little.
In 1085, the family of Svein the unprouncable comes back for once last time into our story. Svein died in 1074, and was succeeded by 5 sons in turn, and one of these, Cnut IV, inherited his father’s desire to regain the throne of England when he came to the throne in 1080. Cnut had plans both internally and externally. He was a devout Christian, and strengthened the power of the church, but he also increased the power of the crown at the expense of his nobility. But his big ambition was England. He’d already been over for a look in 1069 and 1075. In 1085 we got a fleet together, helped out by his allies – Count Robert of Flanders and Olaf of Norway. Everything was ready when a distraction appeared in the form of Emperor Henry VI, who seemed set to invade Denmark. So Cnut sent the fleet home to gather their harvest, to come again next year. But next year, the country rose in revolt, and Cnut was murdered in a church with his brother and followers, and the threat disappeared.
But William didn’t know that in 1085, and it’s clear he took the threat seriously. He put a large army together and brought them into England, where they fed like locusts on the local population and vassals, as armies are wont to do. William got this army to devastate the land close to the coast, to deprive Cnut and his army food if and when they landed. All of this caused considerable pain to the local population, and they would have been mighty pleased to get the all clear.
William tried a few more outlandish tactics to boot. Clearly he was not yet fully convinced that the Anglo Saxons were trustworthy, so he gave the following command that the English:
‘should shave their beards, adopt the weapons and clothes of the Normans style and become completely like Frenchmen in order to delude the eyes of the invaders’
I’m not quite sure what the plan really was; was the idea that the Vikings would be confused and think they’d come to the wrong place? Or maybe William thought the English would join them when they landed.
One of the interesting things about this is of course the clear implication that Normans and English dressed differently. By and large, the Normans were clean shaven with hair cut high up the back. The English had longer hair, moustache and beards. Women meanwhile wore their hair longer; unmarried women wore their hair loose, and married wore it bound. Obviously fashions moved with the times. William Rufus was a good deal more louche than his father, and hairstyles were long and flowing during his reign and that of Henry. The Church did not approve, something they spent a lot of time doing with Rufus.
But in William’s time, the Normans clearly rather looked down on these English, with their un military long hair and fashions.
But anyway, we now come to 1085, and the making of the Domesday Book. It is rare that the history of government administrative practices receive so much attention, but something about it has always really caught the imagination. In the winter of 1085-6, William called a Magnum Consilium, i.e. a Great council, which was the successor of the Witan. And he floated his idea that they really ought to know what they had in their kingdom. No doubt everyone told him it was a great idea.
There has been a long and continuous debate about why Domesday was created. One of the theories that is currently popular comes back to the Danes and their threatened invasion of 1085. The theory runs that this got William thinking. How many troops should he have been able to raise? Could he have organised the feeding of his army better by understanding what vassals could do what? And that it was this, therefore, that made William undertake the Domesday survey.
But of course there are 2 other reasons, equally if not more popular.
1 was money. William liked money. He really liked money. And of course money was important to him to maintain his army and keep his family in the lifestyle they’d become accustomed to. William wanted a detailed record so he knew exactly how much tax he could take.
The second is land ownership. We’ve just been through the largest and quickest transfer of land ownership in English history. William needed to know who’d got what; and also to create a record which legalised all that landholding, and drew a line under any arguments. He could understand and manage the relative strengths of his major lords, and make sure none of them became too over powerful.
My own theory is that William was thinking of all those historians through the centuries who will pore over its lore, searching for truth and insights.
Of course the answer is probably that William thought of all of these things, and thought they were all good reasons to do it – probably with eh exception of the Historian thing. The survey was a staggering thing – astoundingly beautifully produced, with neat ranks of figures and information; extraordinary detail, down to how many pigs old Oswulf’s got. It’s an absolute goldmine of information for the Historian, of course, and it’s easy to get lost in all the various peregrinations.
The undertaking of the survey itself clearly astonished contemporaries; and curiously in the ASC there’s a sort of embarrassed shame on behalf of the king. Here’s what it says:
‘so very closely did he let it be searched out that there was not a single hide nor rod of land – not, further, it is shameful to tell, though it seemed to him no shame to do it – not an ox, a cow, a pig was left out.’
You see what I mean? This Chronicler thinks it’s all wrong. The survey probably caused all kinds of trouble. The thing was carried out by queries at the hundred courts. You can picture the old Thegn’s son shouting that the land had belonged to him while the Norman who’d taken his land smugly recorded the lands as his.
Either way, the survey was taken, and in 1086 was presented back to a no doubt delighted William. William had organised another get together at Winchester at Easter, where we bore his crown. These crown wearings feel more than a bit odd to the modern mind. Essentially old Bill would get his full kit on – crown, regalia and all – and get the great men of the kingdom to come and watch him. He’d do this 3 times a year, and I guess it basically re-emphasised the royal authority. It’s very much a tradition that’s associated with the Conqueror; it’s not something that happened under the Anglo Saxons, and it’s not something that William’s successors were to continue to anything like the same extent. William was a pugnacious character who spent his own life, and indeed spent the lives of many of his subjects, to his self aggrandisement and the business of managing a feudal kingdom – so who’s to say he shouldn’t spend a bit of each year wallowing in it?
This year he also organised another massive get together in August at Old Sarum.
The results of the Domesday survey were presented to him there. And at the same time, the ASC records;
‘There his counsellors came to him, and all men who were holding land that were of worth from all over England, whoever’s vassals they were. They all bowed to him and were his vassals and swore him oaths of loyalty that they would, against all other men, be loyal to him’
I suppose you have to be a bit paranoid to stay on a throne in those days, and William was making absolutely sure that he’d made the deal clear. In his land settlement he’d made sure that everyone held land from him, no one held land any more of their own right. Here is has dragged everyone from all corners of the kingdom to reinforce the point – I’m the boss, everything comes from me. I was involved in some online forum debate recently about the development of democracy and the concept of the sovereignty of the people. So it’s useful to remember William as a base point. There was an elective principle in AS Kingship that survived from the days of Germanic folk custom – a small survival it must be said. That’s all gone now. Forget sovereignty of the people. This land and its people belong to William and his family. Period.

1086 was a hard year for the English. A survey that confirmed their servitude. A famine caused by hideous weather. And just to put the cherry on the cake, William levied a heavy geld before hopping off back home to Normandy. And all the Chronicler could say was: ‘God amend it when it be his will’.
As a little footnote, Edgar Atheling left William’s court. Just like Edwin, Morcar, and Robert Curthose, Edgar had found that in practice William was not prepared to give him any authority or role. So he sold up all his property, and managed to get himself together 200 men, and head off for adventure into Apulia in Italy. Sadly, it was not to be a great success, and he’ll be back. One day we must put Edgar’s life together into one consolidated life, because it is an interesting one
1087 continued to be hard, with pestilence following famine as is so often the case. But for William it was just another year of bashing down moles back into their holes. This year’s mole was the Vexin yet again, when the capital of the French Vexin, Mantes, sent its garrison raiding over into the Norman Vexin. William demanded that the French king surrender 3 of his castles in recompense. So in July he attacked, sacked and burnt Mantes, leaving death in his wake.
But this time, William’s number had come up. My son tells me with great relish that William died because he burst. In fact he kind of bursts twice. Bursting number 1 comes in Mantes, when William, now enormously fat, is thrown violently against the pommel of his saddle, and ruptures something. He was taken immediately in great pain to Rouen, though expected to recover, but over the next 6 weeks he continued to get worse. His adversary Philip of France didn’t try to hide his delight, mocking William as lying in Rouen ‘like a pregnant Woman.
William finally accepted that he was dying, and tried to make provision for his succession. His eldest son, Robert, though reconciled in 1080 had again set off for exile in 1083, unable to bear the iron control exercised over him by his father; Matilda had of course died in 1083 so there was no peacemaker left, so relations were not good. William clearly also favoured his second son Rufus, but had twice confirmed Robert as Duke of Normandy. So he went for a compromise. He decreed that Robert should indeed inherit the homeland of Normandy; but Rufus should have England. For the third son, Henry, there would be a massive fortune of 5,000 lbs of silver to buy himself a nice pad. Rufus was with his father, and was dispatched to England to take up his throne.
After his death, William was taken as he requested to where his heart was, i.e. Caen and buried at the Abbey of St Etienne. All the Bishops and Abbots of Normandy were there. But unfortunately the whole thing ended in chaos and confusion. William’s body was too far and gross for the coffin, and it wouldn’t close. So they trued to squidge it shut, and we come to the second bursting, when the rotten body burst and innards split over the church, with resulting stench and yukiness. The ceremony was rushed quickly to an end and everyone legged it, leaving William’s body lying deserted in plain view.
And so we get to the end of the reign of one of the most famous of England’s historical figures. There are many things that were not change very much by William. The governance and administration of England stayed very much the same. The Normans introduced no new methods of Agriculture. English law remained in place, for both Anglo Saxon and Anglo Danish inhabitants. It did gain a new layer of law and custom, in feudal law, but that only affected those who held land in fiefs. The mass of the population remained English and the rhythm of daily life would have seemed similar to before. Trade and towns, for example would have suffered badly initially; it would have been affected by war, the tearing down of houses to make way for castles, and the severing of trade with Scandinavia or Flanders. But after the initial crisis, things got back on track, and the Norman lords themselves contributed with the establishing of new boroughs in their lands.
But while it’s possible to emphasise the continuity, though, there’s no getting away from the fact that William made an enormous impact on England. Many of them we’ve been through over the last 3 episodes or so. The church was brought much more closely into line with the continental mainstream, and some reforms effected. The fabric of the church received a dramatic facelift which is still with us today. The old English aristocracy was completely swept away, and replaced by almost exclusively Norman lords. A new language was established as the official language of England, and English as a language of literature disappeared for a while.
A big one is that scarcely definable shift from the public, community orientation of public life to the personal, feudal. England is now William’s personal possession, managed by his tenants in chief. And the radical re-adjustment of England’s centre of gravity. England is still a small, damp, rather irrelevant island off the continental coast, but it is now part of the continental game for every. Its previous focus on the Island of Britain and the Scandinavian world had changed for ever.
And what about the man? The ASC has a real go at William in the 1087 entry, and also does a bit of a retrospective which you’d find hard to argue with, as coming from a contemporary who had probably met him. I’ll put a link on the website again to the ASC – really, go to the entry for 1087 and it’ll tell you all you need to know about William the Conqueror.
William was a hard arse. No two ways about it. He had no worries about the ruler’s responsibility towards his people, he was out to create and rule a family business and kingdom He would use anyone, from his half brother downwards, in exactly the way he needed to further his ends. He was ruthless about making the right decision, whatever the impact on the relevant person. That doesn’t mean he was necessarily unfair – just that if you messed up, you may not get a second chance. Once you were out of favour, that was it, no way back. He had enormous strength of will. Everyone therefore knew where they stood with him, and that meant he was well served by many of his companions; but he lacked the flexibility maybe to bend men more subtly to his will, and adapt his behaviour to different needs – again, think of Robert, Edgar, the earls.
The Chronicler makes the point well:
‘He was mild with good men who loved God and over all measure hard with men who spoke against his will.’
He was avaricious. The Chronicler puts it:
‘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’
His avarice had practical day to day consequences on ordinary people, since it communicated itself down the line. Here’s how the chronicler puts it:
‘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’
So basically, William set a high price for his grants of land. That meant the new landowners screwed the locals to make a profit.
But while William was hard, he was also straightforward. He was clever and cunning. He got his priorities right and usually made the right decisions. He was a competent military commander, and effective organiser. He was genuinely devout.
Overall William was effective. Here’s the chronicler again:
‘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.’
The historian Frank Barlow, who is now my constant companion where Frank Stenton once was, puts it very well:
‘ 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’
I’d contrast that with Alfred the Great – a man who does feel to transcend his time. But none the less, a great and effective leader who had as much impact in England’s history as did Alfred.
Which seems a neat and tidy place to leave our podcast this week. Next week, we’ll hear about William Rufus, and very different man to his father, and start the story of 3 brothers.



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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