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About the Author
David Bates is professorial fellow, University of East Anglia. His books include Normandy Before 1066 and The Normans and Empire. He lives in Cambridge, UK.
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William the Conqueror
By David Bates
The History PressCopyright © 2013 David Bates
All rights reserved.
SETTING THE SCENE
The eleventh-century duchy of Normandy was the springboard for a movement of expansion which took the Normans to many parts of the then known world. The Norman Conquest of England, for example, should not be seen merely as the subjugation and colonisation of the English kingdom, but also as the creation of a base from which other Normans were to extend their power into other parts of Britain during the later eleventh and twelfth centuries. Also in the eleventh century, another group of Normans secured military and political domination over southern Italy and the island of Sicily, while during the same period yet other Normans took part in pilgrimages and wars against the Moslems in Spain, and some made a major contribution to the First Crusade of 10961100. Their military trademark was the mounted knights who have been made familiar by the scenes of warfare portrayed on the Bayeux Tapestry, magnificently disciplined shock troops normally capable of defeating less adept contemporaries, like the English, Welsh and Scots, in open warfare.
This great era of Norman activity has left some prodigious memorials, like the architectural remains which symbolise their domination over northern France, Britain and southern Italy. William the Conqueror's own monument is surely the town of Caen within his duchy of Normandy, with its great abbey church of St Etienne and its castle. In southern Italy, there are many splendid reminders of the Normans' presence, while in England we can still see cathedrals such as Durham and Norwich, and castles such as the Tower of London and Chepstow. For a number of reasons, historians have tended in recent years to look at this Norman expansion and the so-called Norman achievement in an increasingly critical and analytical way. For example, until the publication of a book by Professor R.H.C. Davis entitled The Normans and their Myth in 1976, there was almost universal acceptance of the idea of the Normans as a race with unique military abilities. However, it is now appreciated that this was a thesis substantially developed by twelfth-century Normans who wrote after the great victories had been achieved, and that it was therefore a myth created by a people who had already succeeded, rather than evidence which can be used to explain success. In 1982, my own book Normandy Before 1066 stressed as the fundamental causes of Norman expansion a mixture of violence and social change within Normandy. It further argued that historians of the Normans and Normandy should concentrate on social and economic changes rather than accepting simplistic notions about Norman national and racial character.
As a consequence of these and other publications, there has been considerable recognition that military expansion and social mobility were widespread characteristics not simply of the Normans, but of eleventh-century French society. Or, to put this another way, the Normans were merely the leaders of sections of a much larger migration of peoples which involved men and women from many parts of France. When we look more closely, we see that Normans were not, for instance, the dominant group on the First Crusade or in Spain, and that even in one of their greatest conquests, southern Italy, the proportion of Normans to other Franks was probably around one in four, while Flemings, Bretons and others took a prominent role in the settlement of Britain. The expansion can be explained by changes to the social structural within the warrior aristocracy of the French kingdom, at the heart of which were the ambitions of numerous adventurous, ambitious warriors and the personal qualities of a number of great war leaders who provided direction and inspiration. As far as understanding William's career is concerned, a major consequence of putting the Norman achievements in their French context is that there is no longer any predetermined reason for his success: he was part of an eleventh-century historical process in which a number of French warrior leaders made extensive conquests because there was a supply of warriors ready to follow them; he most certainly should not be associated in any way with a supposedly unique Norman genius for war and conquest. William was in reality one of several eleventh-century French territorial princes who had successful careers as conquerors, and it is important therefore to put his life against the background of their achievements.
The origins of the duchy of Normandy lay in an early tenth-century settlement by Vikings around the town of Rouen and the River Seine. The leader of these first settlers, Rollo, our William's great-great-great-grandfather, was given authority in the lands he controlled by a grant from the then King of the Franks, Charles the Simple, a ruler who claimed authority over a kingdom roughly equivalent to modern France. The agreement between them is usually known as the Treaty of Saint-Clair-sur-Epte, after the place on the border of the two men's lands where they met. The much larger region which we call Normandy was subsequently created through a mixture of force and diplomacy by Rollo and his successors, who led expeditions outwards from their base near Rouen and imposed their authority on fresh waves of Viking settlers, as well as on Frankish natives. By the early eleventh century the territory they had conquered was of the same extent as the eleventh- and twelfth-century duchy of Normandy, and was generally called 'Normandy' (Normannia or terra Normannorum, the land of men from the North) by contemporaries. By the standards of a medieval society, it was economically quite prosperous. Its chief town, Rouen, was, for example, renowned as a trading centre, and must in many ways have resembled that other great Viking and post-Viking commercial town, York, about which now know so much from archaeological excavations. Its ruler in the early eleventh century, Duke Richard II (996-1026), William the Conqueror's grandfather, was also the first man regularly to use the title 'Duke of the Normans'.
Richard II was held in high esteem as a warrior and a Christian ruler by those eleventh-century historians who wrote about him. He was also the last Norman ruler to maintain relations with the Scandinavian peoples from whom he and his warrior aristocracy were descended. Historians continue to debate the extent and longevity of Scandinavian influence within Norman society. Most would, however, accept that by Richard's time Normandy was in general terms distinguished from the neighbouring Frankish regions only by its unique origins. The Normans remembered, and sometimes paraded, their Scandinavian past. Yet they spoke French and were governed in a way which was in all essential characteristics French. They had converted to Christianity, and Richard's reign was in fact a time of major developments in the Norman Church, since he summoned the religious reformer William of Volpiano to preside over a reorganisation of four out of the five abbeys which then existed in the duchy. A splendid indication of how far the eleventh-century Normans differed from their Viking ancestors is, of course, the Battle of Hastings itself, where the descendants of the tenth-century Viking settlers in Normandy fought as a thoroughly Frankish cavalry force and defeated an English army dependent in considerable degree on Viking military methods. In the case of the eleventh-century Normans in general, therefore, as well as in the specific personal case of William the Conqueror we are looking at men who were culturally French and whose political outlook was essentially Frankish.
A central feature of Normandy's tenth-century evolution was that it became an autonomous, self-governing territorial principality, within which the duke's authority was, in practice, supreme. The fact that the original Viking settlement had been theoretically subject to the authority of the King of the Franks caused both Rollo and his successors, down to and beyond Richard II, to become vassals of the kings and to regard their duchy as a constituent part of the kingdom of the Franks. However, this habitual relationship of lord and vassal became increasingly devoid of meaning, and the actual power of the King of France within Normandy steadily dwindled away to nothing. The change was not simply a consequence of initiatives taken by the Norman rulers, but rather was part of a general development throughout tenth-century France which is often described as 'the rise of the territorial principalities'. Its result was that the effective power of the French king retreated until it was limited to a small region around Paris and Orléans, while authority similar to that exercised in Normandy by Richard II also passed to other major territorial rulers such as the Counts of Flanders, Anjou and Brittany. The frontiers of the principalities controlled by rulers of this type were ill-defined and fluid; each one had a central core, but otherwise they expanded and contracted with the military power of their rulers. In the areas between the major principalities there was land controlled by lesser powers such as, to the south of Normandy, the counts of Maine and the lords of Bellême, who tried to manipulate the rivalries of the greater powers around them.
An awareness of the political geography of northern France is essential background to an understanding of William's career. It is also crucial to appreciate that the first decades of the eleventh century were notable for incessant wars between princes in which Duke Richard II normally took the side of the French King Robert the Pious (996-1031). The course of events at this time was, however, dominated by formidable warriors like Count Fulk Nerra of Anjou (995-1040) or Count Odo of Blois-Chartres (996-1037). Count Fulk began a notable expansion of the lands ruled by the counts of Anjou – continued by his son Count Geoffrey Martel (1040-60) – which gave them control over lands stretching from the southern frontiers of Normandy in the north to Poitou and the Saintonge in the south, and from near Nantes in the west to Tours in the east. The buccaneering Count Odo also expanded his lands and, in the course of a turbulent career, laid claim to two kingdoms. The arrogant self-confidence of these rulers' aggressive campaigns, as well as the essential instability of French society at this time, are contextual matters which cannot be over-emphasised. The young William the Conqueror was born within a well-established and essentially Frankish territorial principality, but also into a very troubled and uncertain world, where princes and nobles were engaged in a ruthless competition for power, where violence and unrestrained aggression were central to the way of life of the aristocracy, and in which threats and opportunities existed on all sides.
A final factor to which attention must be drawn is the tenth-and early eleventh-century relations between Normandy and the kingdom of England. Their geographical proximity meant that there was a longstanding Norman interest in major events across the Channel, and also close relations at many levels. There is, for example, clear evidence of economic and cultural contacts in the tenth and eleventh centuries. In addition, the two lands shared a common Scandinavian heritage, which was founded on the extensive settlement in both of peoples of Scandinavian origin. There were marriages between the two lands' ruling families, of which the most important for our purpose is the one in the late tenth century between Duke Richard II's sister Emma and the English King Æthelred the Unready. At the time of this marriage both Normandy and England were sucked into the vortex of the raids which culminated in Cnut's conquest of England in 1016. Their roles in these events were, however, radically different. The English kingdom, having conquered its erstwhile Viking predators during the tenth century, became a prey to this second murderous wave; the long reign of King Æthelred the Unready (978-1016) is essentially a tale of disaster and final collapse. Normandy, however, ruled by a count and an aristocracy descended from Scandinavians, initially welcomed the new intruders. In or around the year 1003 Richard II even went so far as to make a treaty which permitted the Danes to dispose of loot gathered in England in Normandy, and gave them free use of Norman harbours. However, after King Æthelred had fled with his wife and three children to Emma's brother Duke Richard in 1013, the children, who included the future King Edward the Confessor, were left behind when their parents returned to England – Æthelred to defeat and death and Emma, somewhat later, to marry her family's supplanter, King Cnut (1016-35). Edward and his brother and sister thereafter lived under the protection and patronage of a number of northern French princes. The prominent part taken by the Norman dukes in providing a refuge for the exiles was the basis from which eleventh-century Norman historians developed the thesis that the Norman dukes were King Edward's consistent supporters and that Edward eventually promised William the Conqueror the succession to the English kingdom out of gratitude.
The Social Context
Medieval states, be they kingdoms, counties, duchies, or other units, were usually governed by a single source of authority, a man who bore the title of king, count or duke. For this man to succeed, leadership – and above all leadership in war – was of paramount importance. It is a basic fact of the sociology of medieval western Europe that the stability of kingdoms and territorial principalities was essentially dependent on their having a ruler whose personality commanded respect. England's medieval history illustrates this general point exceptionally well, with several outstanding examples of the successful warrior chieftain in Richard the Lionheart, Edward I and Henry V, as well as of the weak and/or tyrannical ruler, like Stephen, John or Edward II. A ruler's military abilities were especially important in the eleventh century which, as has already been emphasised, was an exceptionally violent period in western Europe's history. Princes like Counts Fulk Nerra and Geoffrey Martel of Anjou or Count Odo II of Blois-Chartres were dominant personalities similar to the successful English kings mentioned above, and one or all of them might well have provided a 'role-model' for the young William to emulate.
All rulers of this early medieval period were theoretically unrestrained by any constitutional or legal limitations over the way they governed. They wielded immense arbitrary power and could dispense favour and disfavour at will. Contemporary political theory regarded a ruler such as a King of England or a Duke of Normandy as being responsible for the upholding and enforcement of law, but not necessarily as being answerable to it. He was not supposed to act unjustly, but in practice he could choose his favourites and deprive others of patronage and reward. However, when it came down to the practicalities of government, a ruler had to be relatively circumspect in order to balance loyalties and command the respect of his aristocracy. He had to be a good lord to his followers by being generous to them, by respecting their rights, and by protecting their lands. If he failed to do these things, he faced discontent and possibly rebellion.
A ruler like William was required by contemporary ideals to be always accessible to his subjects. In battle, this meant that he should be seen to be providing an example, something at which, as we shall see, William was outstanding. Accessibility was also of fundamental importance in peacetime. An anonymous late eleventh-century writer criticised William's grandfather Duke Richard II for shutting himself away from his people, and told how the duke had to be brought to his senses to resume the behaviour expected of a medieval prince. A portrait drawn of the way of life of William's great-grandson, King Henry II (1154-89), by Walter Map is surely also appropriate to William himself:
Whatever way he goes out he is seized upon by the crowds and pulled hither and thither, pushed whither he would not, and, surprising to say, listens to each man with patience, and, though assaulted by all with shouts and pullings and rough pushings, does not challenge anyone for it, nor show any appearance of anger.
Privacy would have had a very small place in William's life.
Excerpted from William the Conqueror by David Bates. Copyright © 2013 David Bates. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
List of Plates viii
List of Abbreviations xiv
Prologue: Writing a Life of William the Conqueror 1
1 The First Years 16
2 From Childhood into Adolescence 49
3 The Shaping of Things to Come 91
4 The Making of a Reputation 127
5 On to the Attack 164
6 The Year of Victory 211
7 King of the English 258
8 Victory Transformed 295
9 From Crisis to Triumph 329
10 Cross-Channel Rule 373
11 Political Consolidation and Personal Loss 423
12 The Final Years 451
13 Death and Legacy 483