Royal Panoply Brief Lives of the English Monarchs
By Erickson, Carolly
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2006 Erickson, Carolly
All right reserved. ISBN: 0312316437
"He was a very stern and violent man,
so that no one dared to do anything contrary to his will."
It was a miracle that William survived his childhood. Born in 1028, the natural son of Robert, Duke of Normandy, young William was left fatherless at age seven when Robert died while on pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
Eleventh-century Normandy was a savagely turbulent society, in which aggressive and unruly landowners struggled endlessly for preeminence, under the overlordship of the duke. At the best of times, these feuding magnates were held in check by the greater power of a strong overlord, as well as by the force of custom and feudal law; at the worst of times, there was little or nothing to restrain their instinct to combat one another in treacherous, frequently brutal warfare.
Before he left for his pilgrimage, Robert had made young William heir to the duchy--and heir to its political turmoil. Protected by his uncle Walter, his mother's brother, who slept in William's room and was his bodyguard, the child duke spent many watchful nights alert for the sound of hoofbeats, listening for marauders andwould-be kidnappers intent on capturing and controlling him so that the lands and wealth of Normandy could become theirs.
Year after year, with the Norman countryside in near anarchy, Walter continued to keep the young duke safe, snatching him up when danger threatened and taking him out of the castle and into a nearby village, to some anonymous peasant hut, where they could stay hidden. Meanwhile the great magnates fought among themselves, each one a petty warlord in his castle stronghold, from which he went out from time to time to attack his enemies.
By the time he grew out of childhood, William must have been wary in the extreme, habituated to violence for it was occurring all around him. He lived in the midst of private wars, accustomed to hearing news of assassinations and casual murders. Of his five official guardians, one was murdered while out riding, another poisoned, two others, including William's tutor, assassinated after being violently attacked in William's own bedchamber.
Amid this vortex of mayhem, William grew to young manhood, and at the age of fifteen or sixteen, established his independent court at Valognes. Toughened by his years of exposure to merciless bloodshed and calculated injury, William was becoming a formidable fighter himself, physically strong, skilled with the sword and bow, an expert rider and possessed of uncommon courage and strength of purpose.
He needed no mentor to teach him the tactics of warfare; he had learned them by observation. He knew that territory was captured, and control over it consolidated, by castle-building. That allies had to be won by gifts and benefits conferred, and enemies intimidated by the burning of villages and fields and much pitiless slaughter. To rule, one had to be skilled in making war. And to wage war successfully required a hardened toughness of mind; there was no room for clemency or forgiveness, only a ruthless determination to spread fear.
Though still in his teens, William was already formidable. A rival arose, Guy of Burgundy, and a group of rebel magnates formed around Guy. Their intent was to capture and kill William at Valognes, and to make Guy Duke of Normandy. Somehow, William was warned of what was to happen--or perhaps his heightened instincts were aroused. In any case, he managed to escape his captors, and to ride as fast as he could to Falaise (his birthplace) where his mother's family lived. Still pursued, he made his way to the court of Henry, King of France, his overlord, and begged for protection. Early in 1047 King Henry, William and their fighting men met the rebel magnates at Val-ès-Dunes, a wide plain, and defeated them in a hard-fought, hand-to-hand battle.
The reputation William gained in that battle, a reputation for bravery, ferocity and supreme skill with lance and sword, made his name respected. He killed at least one great warrior, a man much older than himself, on the field of Val-ès-Dunes, and although the victory was in fact won by King Henry and his men, it was William who gained the all-important renown, and about whom songs began to be sung and stories to grow.
"Great was the mass of fugitives, and fierce the pursuit," wrote the chronicler Wace of the rebels' flight. "Horses were to be seen running over the plain, and the field of battle was covered with knights running haphazard for their lives." Bodies were heaped in mounds, corpses clogged the river, filling it so completely that mill wheels could not turn.
William's repute was growing, but in order to maintain the authority he had gained, he had to subdue the entire duchy, castle by castle, town by town. For the next thirteen years, from the age of nineteen to thirty-two, the duke devoted himself to the bloody work of reconquering the lands with which his father had invested him.
He invaded towns, burning them and seizing everything of value, then killing the defenders and installing his men in newly built castles to guard them. He besieged castles held by rebel lords and stormed them, in scenes of great slaughter. He seized defiant landholders and had them blinded and castrated as punishment for their disloyalty. His calculated ruthlessness was successful: convinced that they could not escape the duke's wrath, towns surrendered and asked for William's protection, and magnates swore loyalty to him, offering their wives and children as hostages, pledges of their good faith.
In his thirties, Duke William ruled over Normandy with an iron hand, keeping order among the ever restless feudatories, presiding over his ducal council, dispensing justice, holding the everpresent threat of anarchy at bay. Though he could no longer count on the support of the French king--King Henry had in fact turned against William and become his enemy--he gained the alliance of Baldwin V, Count of Flanders, who became his father-in-law. William married Baldwin's daughter Matilda, with whom he had nine children, four sons and five daughters.
A larger arena of opportunity offered itself when William's distant cousin Edward the Confessor named William his heir. Edward, a Norman by culture and with many Norman courtiers, had been crowned king of England in 1042, and had no children; though others claimed the succession, William believed it to be his by right, because of Edward's verbal bequest, and expected to become king when Edward died. William was well aware, however, that Earl Godwin of Wessex, the greatest of the
English lords, dominated King Edward and coveted the crown for himself and his heirs. Although he fully intended to reign in England, William was prudent enough to pave the way for a future alliance with the family of Earl Godwin by arranging the betrothal of his daughter Agatha to Harold, Earl Godwin's second son.
By the mid-1060s Duke William had become a hard, flinty, forceful man, active and dominant, and accustomed to being obeyed. He was physically imposing, tall and thickset and muscular with a grating, guttural voice which carried well. William was an exceptionally strong man, his arms and shoulders so well developed that he could draw a bow which no one else could bend while standing in his horse's stirrups.
No personal records survive to reveal his inner thoughts, but William impressed others as possessed of granite will and unswerving determination; perhaps, had he failed in his greatest enterprise, the judgment of his contemporaries might have been different. What is striking about William, when compared to his peers and to his successors, is his self-control. He did not allow anger, greed or vanity to force him into thoughtless action, nor did he let his expanding power make him egotistical or tyrannical.
If the monastic chroniclers of the time are to be believed, William was temperate and self-disciplined in his daily life, eating and drinking in moderation, observant of his religious obligations, faithful to his wife and an exacting (if sometimes mean and cutting) patriarch to his many children. In an age of aristocratic excess, surrounded by powerful men often carried away by grandiosity, and even oftener prey to vice, William seems to have stood out as unique. As to his follies and foibles, the records are silent.
Certainly Duke William was remarkable in his ability to do many things at once. To maintain order in Normandy, supervise his army of knights, oversee the day-to-day work of government, keep potential enemies at bay (William was ever alert to treachery, a legacy of his danger-filled childhood), while planning for the expansion of his rule into England must have required extraordinary dedication and fixity of purpose. He could not afford to grow lax, or to be careless; nothing short of vigilant, vigorous attentiveness would do if he was to retain his hold on affairs.
King Edward was aging. By 1064 William was making his preparations, planning how he would take his army of mounted knights and footsoldiers across the Channel to England--an extremely expensive undertaking, and one fraught with risk. No doubt he anticipated a long and grueling process of subduing the English, stretching out over years. He added to his treasury by seizing control of the county of Maine, and added to his army by gaining a number of landowners and knights in Brittany. (Though the Normans were contemptuous of the Bretons, William now needed Breton support, while the Bretons, for their part, were eager to join any enterprise that promised to bring them land and wealth.)
A key step in William's preparation occurred in 1064, when by good fortune his principal rival for Edward's throne, Harold Godwinson, needed William's help. Harold had succeeded to his father Godwin's lands and title in 1053, and was the dominant English noble, wealthy and so influential with the mild-mannered King Edward that he had become a sort of "sub-king" himself. Yet when Harold came to Normandy in 1064, he swore an oath of loyalty to William, promising to do all in his power to secure William's succession to Edward's title of king. Harold's betrothal to William's daughter was one token of this pact. Later chroniclers, describing the events of 1064, embellished the story of Harold's oath by saying that William had tricked Harold, who never intended to pledge himself formally. But this tale was invented after the fact.
On January 5, 1066, King Edward died and immediately Harold, aban-doning his oath to William and claiming that the late king had named him, Harold, as his successor, had himself crowned in Westminster Abbey.
Harold had good reason for haste. England was looked on as a prize for the taking, much the way Normandy had been seen in William's childhood. The Danish king Swein Estrithson and the Norwegian king Harold Hardrada both contemplated invading the country, and besides William of Normandy there were at least two other potential claimants: Edgar Atheling, King Edward's nephew, and Harold Godwinson's own brother and former ally Tostig, then living in exile in Flanders.
As soon as he knew that Edward had died, William was active. Discounting Harold's seizure of the crown, indeed dismissing Harold as a usurper and oath-breaker, William met with his principal supporters and summoned them to follow him to England, to claim the throne that he believed to be rightfully his. He solicited, and won, the backing of the pope. He hired mercenary soldiers from Poitou, Burgundy, Maine and especially Brittany; a few even came from southern Italy, among them boat-builders skilled in designing horse transports. Men were sent out from the ducal court to buy provisions, horses, carts, rope and arms. Shipwrights were assembled at Dives-sur-Mer to build a fleet large enough to carry the army and its supplies.
By August all was ready--but the winds were unfavorable for a Channel crossing. While William waited, another invasion fleet, under Harold Hardrada, landed in Yorkshire and Harold Godwinson met and defeated the Norwegian forces at Stamford Bridge on September 25, 1066. The Norman fleet embarked two days later, and landed at Pevensey on September 28. It was not until the morning of October 14 that William attacked Harold Godwinson's army at Hastings. William led his men himself, wearing saintly relics around his neck for protection and with the papal banner waving above his head. According to tradition, the Norman knights went into battle "singing a song of Roland," with a minstrel going before them, singing and juggling with his sword.
The English army was utterly defeated, and Harold was killed. Victorious, William camped that night on the battleground, surrounded by enemy bodies and abandoned arms and equipment.
He had won--but England itself, the land, the people, had yet to be conquered, and for the next twenty years William labored to subdue and consolidate his conquest. He used the same tactics he had adopted in Normandy as a young man. He built castles, nearly a hundred of them, often tearing down dozens of existing structures to make way for the defensive mound of earth, wooden tower and palisade ramparts. He dispossessed the Anglo-Saxon aristocracy and gave the lands to his Norman and Breton followers. He stormed towns and plundered them, killing many of the local inhabitants. He punished those who had fought against him and took hostages from among those he spared.
England had become a land under occupation, and the occupiers were hated. Normans were ambushed and killed, rioting and violence broke out. At William's coronation the guards standing at the doors of the cathedral, hearing shouts of acclamation from inside, thought that a riot was beginning; immediately they set fire to the houses nearby--their automatic reaction to any resistance--and caused panic among those attending the ceremony.
William must have been aware of the risks he ran in assuming the English crown, taking on leadership of a turbulent society, knowing that he himself might well become a target for assassins. England might be invaded again, or the undisciplined north or west might prove to be unconquerable. And there was a more personal risk: that William himself, who was thirty-eight in the year he claimed the English kingdom, might not have the strength or health to sustain the labors he would have to undertake. Shortly before his alarm-ridden coronation, William fell sick--and so did many of his fighting men. Camped in the open, in the drizzle and cold of late fall, they contracted dysentery, and had to rest for five weeks before attempting to move on to London.
William seems to have made an effort to learn English, "so that he could understand the pleas of the conquered people without an interpreter, and benevolently pronounce fair judgments for each one," the chronicler Orderic Vitalis wrote. But he made little progress, other than to learn to swear "By the resurrection and splendor of God!" With his closest advisers, Archbishop Lanfranc, whom he brought from the monastery of Bec in Normandy and made Archbishop of Canterbury, and William's half-brothers Bishop Odo of Bayeux and Robert of Mortain, the king spoke French, as he did with his family and servants. Even his jesters Berdic and Adelina joked in French.
For though he had become a king, and was the ruler of a large and prosperous realm, William was still duke of Normandy and conceived of his domains as a single unified political entity. His Norman barons owned lands on both sides of the Channel, their interests spanned the entire enlarged realm. When the king made the crossing to Normandy, as he did, by one historian's reckoning, at least seventeen times in the twenty-one years of his English reign, many of his barons went with him, along with an armed retinue.
Indeed William spent well over half his reign in Normandy, asserting and reasserting his authority, campaigning, checking the aggression of the counts of Anjou. Once Normandy had been temporarily pacified, the king returned to England, marching swiftly to crush rebellions in Wales, where Edric the Wild was in revolt, in Kent, where one of the French magnates, Eustace, Count of Boulogne, was defying royal authority, and in Dover, where the city of Exeter, in league with neighboring towns, held out against the king's army for eighteen days in 1067.
Only by ceaseless vigilance could the peace be maintained--and the keeping of peace and order was a prerequisite to good governance. Every time a rebellion was put down William built castles to secure his hold on the region. Exeter, Warwick, Nottingham, Lincoln, York, Huntingdon, London, Cambridge--the roll call of fortifications is long. Norman fighting men, supplemented by local levies led by Saxon military commanders, kept order, along with mercenaries hired from time to time. Those who did not cooperate were imprisoned, their relatives taken hostage and often maimed or killed, their possessions seized. Through coercion, sheer terror and the force of the stern king's dominant personality, a brittle peace was achieved--until shattered by fresh acts of defiance.
Peacekeeping was expensive, and to pay for it William taxed the English (as he did his subjects in Normandy) very severely. He relied on the Anglo-Saxon sheriffs to collect revenues and imposed extraordinary taxes from time to time over the entire kingdom. Together with the lands of his half-brothers Odo and Robert, William owned, as his direct property, nearly half the land in England; his personal annual revenue was extremely large. In addition, he drew income from trade, from tolls imposed in towns, and from judicial fines--all of which subsidized the costs of rule.
The English perceived their Norman king as an oppressor. In his reign, the Anglo-Saxon chronicle reads, "things went from bad to worse." The former ruling class was all but exterminated, dead in battle or forced into peasant poverty. To his English subjects, the new king seemed a cruel, ruthless and fearsome lord who "expelled bishops from their sees, and abbots from their abbacies; he put thegns [Anglo-Saxon barons] in prison." Yet even the most outspoken of William's English critics acknowledged that he had an exceptional measure of majesty and regal dignity, and was "stronger than any predecessor of his had been." "Any honest man could travel over his kingdom without injury with his bosom full of gold," the monastic chronicler wrote, "and no man dared strike another."
It was, of course, an exaggeration--or rather, an idealized image. No English roads near York were safe when in 1069 the Danish king Swein Estrithson invaded with a force of 240 ships and a large army, and the Norman garrisons surrendered, and parts of Dorset, Somerset and East Anglia were unsafe when in rebel hands in the late 1060s. William managed to bribe the Scandinavian invaders and send them back to Denmark, but further assaults came in 1075 and 1085, proof that to outsiders, England did not appear to enjoy stable Norman rule.
His energies divided between England and Normandy, and his authority threatened by frequent invasions and rebellions, William needed to be able to rely on his sons to be his deputies. But the oldest and most promising of his sons, Richard, was dead, the victim of a hunting accident in the New Forest. And William's second son, Robert, the one on whom he most needed to rely, was a severe disappointment.
Short and stout, brave and adventurous, Robert was an attractive character, but he lacked the calculated prudence that was such a marked trait in his father. Robert was rash, thoughtless, prodigal with money, impetuous and cocksure. Many of the young barons and knights were drawn to him, for he was generous and gave them gifts and promised more gifts, plus lands and favor, in the future. But William found little to admire in Robert and treated him with malice and mockery. (The queen, on the other hand, lavished all her affection on her second son.) William called Robert "Curthose" ("Short-Boot") and sneered at his companions--entertainers, hangers-on, prostitutes of both sexes; William preferred his third son and namesake, Prince William, who though he lacked Robert's charm and popularity, was a solid fighter in his father's mold.
In 1077 King William suffered his first serious military defeat, losing many men and horses and much treasure during an unsuccessful attempt to besiege the castle of Dol in Brittany. He was forced to retreat--something he rarely did--and the loss signaled a major reverse in his military fortunes. He was nearly fifty, becoming tired and slow. Once fit and strong, William had become very fat--the French king taunted him, saying he was as fat as a pregnant woman--and no longer the feared campaigner he had once been.
William's enemies, perceiving his decline in vigor, began to close in, the Scots king Malcolm raiding on the ill-defined northern border of England, and Norman, Angevin and Breton opponents making war on the continent. Robert Curthose, ambitious and resentful, demanded that his father turn over control of Normandy and Maine to him, and when William refused, Robert led a rebellion against him. In one hard-fought battle, against Robert's men, William was unhorsed and wounded, probably by Robert Curthose himself, and would have died had not one of his English knights rescued him at the cost of his own life. In order to restore peace William had to retreat and promise the right of succession to Normandy to Robert--a humiliating concession.
William's domains were beginning to slip from his control. A second rebellion by Robert Curthose, acts of disloyalty by William's half-brother Odo (whom William imprisoned), and a major invasion of England from Denmark called for all the king's remaining force; he mustered men in Normandy and brought them across the Channel to fight, forestalling the loss of his English realm.
To raise money to pay for this immense effort, William undertook an ambitious land survey. He sent men to every county in England to find out exactly how much land each landowner held, how many beasts he owned, how many serfs labored on his estates. "His inquiry was so strict," the chronicler wrote, "that there was not a hide nor a yard of land nor even an ox or cow or pig that was omitted from the record." The results of this detailed survey, still preserved in the Public Record Office in London, became known as Domesday Book, or the Book of Doomsday, the biblical Last Judgment. Though full of omissions and inaccuracies, the Domesday survey constitutes the most ambitious statistical undertaking of any medieval government. To the English of 1086, the Domesday surveyors were messengers of catastrophe. William's subjects were well aware that the purpose of the inquiry was to increase taxes, and King William's taxes were already rapaciously high. The English rioted, they resisted--but in the end, they were forced to pay.
Now nearing sixty, William went campaigning once again. He pillaged and burned the town of Mantes, and while riding through the ruins of the town, he was mortally injured. He was taken, in great pain, to the priory of Saint-Gervais in Rouen where, with his sons William and Henry, his brother Robert of Mortain and a group of clergy and servants around him, he lay on his deathbed. Robert Curthose was not present, he was in revolt and was at the court of the French King Philip.
Though it must have pained him to bequeath his duchy to a faithless, rebellious son, William passed Normandy on to Robert, giving the English kingdom to William--along with his crown and scepter--and giving his youngest son Henry a large sum of money from his treasury. Both William and Henry left, even before the old king died, William to secure his kingdom and Henry to claim his funds.
William had hardly taken his last breath before all his friends and attendants had gone, the servants of his bedchamber stealing all his arms, his goblets and plates, even the clothes off his dead body and the linens from his bed, "leaving the corpse," the chronicler Orderic Vitalis wrote, "almost naked on the floor of the cell."
The funeral was delayed, to allow time for the king's body to be transported to Caen, to the Abbey of St. Stephen. Unfortunately, by the time the funeral rites could be held, the body, swollen and bloated, had putrefied and the mass had to be hurried, so overcome were the mourners by the terrible stench.
In death William was all too mortal--but in the minds of his subjects he was something more, a man of superhuman energies and charisma. When they learned that he was dead they cowered in fear, expecting vast natural catastrophes to follow. For nothing short of great disasters, they felt, could mark the passing of so fearsome a king.
Copyright © 2003 by Carolly Erickson Continues...
Excerpted from Royal Panoply by Erickson, Carolly Copyright © 2006 by Erickson, Carolly. Excerpted by permission.
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