William I

(1028—1087) king of England and duke of Normandy

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king of England (1066–87) and duke of Normandy (1035–87), known as ‘the Conqueror’, was born at Falaise in central Normandy. William's succession to the duchy occurred when he was 8 and had the prior agreement of the Norman magnates and of his lord, the king of France. The first years of his rule in Normandy were turbulent and his survival at times precarious. But after defeating Norman rebels in 1047 and 1053–4, he established a formidable control within the duchy which was never thereafter seriously threatened. William began to make territorial gains to the south of Normandy in the 1050s and in 1063 acquired the large county of Maine. In 1051 he received a promise of succession to the English kingdom from Edward the Confessor, apparently out of gratitude for the protection which Edward had been given while in exile in Normandy, and in 1066 he defeated Harold Godwineson at the battle of Hastings to make good his claim. Six years of often brutal campaigning, which included the notorious ‘harrying of the North’ in the winter of 1069–70, were needed to complete the subjugation of William's new kingdom. After 1072 he visited England only infrequently, usually to deal with crises such as the revolt of the earls in 1075 or the threatened invasion from Denmark in 1085. On his death‐bed, he divided his lands between Robert Curthose, who received Normandy, and his second surviving son, William Rufus, who was given England.

William's achievement was based on a powerful personality, which appears to have overawed almost all who came into contact with him, and a strong physique which made him one of the most formidable warriors of his day. A capacity for often excessive cruelty and for leadership in war was combined with an unbending will and a shrewd political mind. His wife Matilda, to whom he was faithful in a way which is remarkable among contemporary medieval kings and aristocrats, often acted as his deputy in Normandy when he was in England. He maintained English overlordship over Wales and Scotland. He was lucky in that Harold Godwineson's victory at the battle of Stamford Bridge over Harold Hardrada removed a contender whom William would otherwise have had to fight and in that Edgar the Atheling was not a credible alternative around whom the English could unite after 1066. William's death was followed by a civil war between his sons over his inheritance, which was not finally resolved until Henry I's reunification of Normandy and England in 1106.

Subjects: British History.

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