Normans in European History by Charles Homer Haskins
"We, conquered by William, have liberated the Conqueror's land". So reads the memorial to the British war dead at Bayeaux, Normandy. Commemorating those who gave their lives to free France in 1944, it also serves to remind us of an earlier conflict. For the English, the Norman conquest remains deeply embedded in the national psyche. As the last contested military invasion to have succeeded in conquering this proud island nation, the date of 1066 is the one every citizen can remember. For them, William will forever be the "Conqueror", the last invader to beat them in an open fight. For others, notably the French, he is the "Bastard", a reference not only to his lineage.
William's conquest of the island arguably made him the most important figure in shaping the course of English history, but modern caricatures of this vitally important medieval figure are largely based on ignorance. William is a fascinating and complex figure, in many ways the quintessential warrior king of this period. Inheriting the Duchy of Normandy while still an infant and forced to fight for his domain almost ceaselessly during his early years, William went on to conquer and rule England, five times larger and three times wealthier. In doing so, he demonstrated sophisticated political and diplomatic skill, military prowess and administrative acumen. Although he lived by the sword, he was a devout man who had only one wife, to whom he remained faithful.
However, peering back nearly 1,000 years to understand William does not just require a suspension of 21st century values and prejudices, because the evidence itself is far from complete. The historical record includes chronicles and documents, most notably the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the famous Domesday Book and the Bayeux tapestry, leaving scholars to attempt the meticulous and painstaking process of piecing together the narrative of his life and determining what William and the Normans might actually have been like. At the same time, those scholars are the first to admit the limitations of these abilities, since the few people who could write in medieval England and Normandy often had important agendas and prejudices of their own, or they were recording events decades after they occurred.