William the Conqueror Reassessed

In the popular imagination, William the Conqueror is, without doubt, the villain, yet the sources we have for his life are ambivalent. Marc Morris revisits the evidence to show the man behind the mythology: neither good nor bad, but complex and human.

Redeemed: William the Conqueror riding with his soldiers, English, c.14th century.
Redeemed: William the Conqueror riding with his soldiers, English, c.14th century.

Almost every October for the past 30 years, weather and ground conditions permitting, re-enactors from all over Europe have assembled on the site of the Battle of Hastings to replay the most famous clash-of-arms in English history before an appreciative crowd. While Norman knights and English housecarls slug it out and archers carefully let fly with blunted arrows, spectators are treated to a live commentary intercut with pre-recorded speeches by the two commanders. As you might expect, the English king, Harold Godwinson, comes across as an essentially decent chap, albeit weary and exasperated. By contrast, his adversary, Duke William of Normandy, sounds like a maniac, ranting furiously in a cod-French accent – Napoleon filtered through the lens of Hitler. Unsurprisingly, when the audience is invited to voice their support, there is loud cheering for the home team but only polite and scattered applause for the visitors, barely audible above the booing. In this 950th anniversary year, one suspects that the preferences of the crowd may be even more marked than usual.

All of which is to say that the English tend to approach the topic of 1066 with certain hard-wired assumptions, which extend to our understanding of William the Conqueror. If Harold is the doomed hero, it follows that William is the cunning villain and must therefore possess the full panoply of villainous characteristics: authoritarian, duplicitous, mirthless and cruel. That is frequently the way he is written up in popular history books about the Conquest.

Recovering the characters of individuals who have been dead for the best part of a millennium is difficult and sometimes impossible, even in the case of kings. The kind of personal correspondence that survives from later centuries and sometimes illuminates their inner thoughts is entirely lacking. This means we can perceive them only through the words of others and, in the 11th century, this means the words of contemporary chroniclers, who are invariably partisan. Most of the main sources for the politics of this period are what we would nowadays regard as propaganda and all of them were written by churchmen, who were inclined to interpret the events they described as part of a divine plan.

Such sources can easily lead us astray. In the case of William the Conqueror, it is common for modern writers to quote extensively from his death-bed speech, in which the dying king expresses his remorse for the conquest of England, saying at one point: ‘I treated the native inhabitants of the kingdom with unreasonable severity, cruelly oppressed high and low, unjustly disinherited many and caused the death of thousands by starvation and war.’ This may be true, but these words are not William’s own. They were written 40 years after his death by a chronicler called Orderic Vitalis, who was fond of putting speeches into the mouths of his protagonists. Orderic was born in Shropshire to an English mother soon after the Conquest and was horrified by the violence it had unleashed. His feelings on the subject are clear and understandable. William’s remain unknown.

Lost in translation

Similarly, the sources can mislead if they are mistranslated. The three most recent academic biographies of William have all maintained that, contrary to modern expectations, some contemporaries remembered the king for his good nature – his cheerfulness, his affability and his generosity. A description of William’s funeral by the chronicler Hugh of Flavigny does indeed use such words, as well as ‘humility’ and ‘eloquence’. Unfortunately it uses them to describe the recently deceased abbot of Verdun rather than the recently deceased king. Once Hugh’s testimony is properly understood and discarded, evidence of a genuinely jovial Conqueror becomes thin. The occasion when the king presented a Norman abbot with a knife and jokingly pretended to stab him with it suggests that, if William did possess a sense of humour, it was not necessarily a sophisticated or endearing one.

What, then, can we say about the man who conquered England in 1066? As far as his physical appearance goes, the sources are very limited. On the subject of his reputation, our sources are best described as mixed. Orderic Vitalis, despite deploring the effects of the Norman Conquest, considered the Conqueror himself to have been a good king and described him as a peace-loving ruler who had protected the Church and relied on the counsel of wise men. The German chronicler Wenric of Trier was altogether less forgiving and condemned the king for having established his reign with ‘murder, rape, butchery and torment’.

The most interesting verdict on William is that of the anonymous English monk who wrote an obituary of the king in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. Like Orderic Vitalis, he praised William for defending the Church and keeping good order, but at the same time lamented the harshness of the Conqueror’s rule. William, the chronicler explained, had oppressed Englishmen by forcing them to build castles, impoverished them with his taxes and introduced a hated new jurisdiction in the form of the royal forest. ‘Assuredly’, the obituary concluded, ‘in his time people suffered grievous oppression and manifold injuries.’

While he condemns him for being harsh, however, this well-informed Englishman does not accuse William – unlike some modern commentators – of being cruel. The Conqueror, it is true, sometimes behaved in ways that today would be regarded as unacceptably savage. On three occasions he is reported to have punished rebels with mutilation, variously depriving them of hands, eyes and feet. Yet in this respect William was no more cruel than any of his contemporaries; the 11th century was a cruel time. In Anglo-Saxon England, for example, slaves could be killed if they offended their masters; they could be stoned to death if they were male and burned to death if female. At the same time, some modern historians have argued that William was excessive in incarcerating his enemies for long periods, citing the testimony of Guibert Nogent, who commented that the king did not habitually accept ransoms, preferring to detain his prisoners indefinitely. Again, this was true. By the time of his death in 1087, William had many high-status captives, including his own half-brother, Bishop Odo of Bayeux, and Wulfnoth, a younger brother of King Harold, who had been held in Normandy as a hostage since 1051.

A typical king?

This argument, however, misses a fundamental point. What was surprising about William’s behaviour as king of England was not that he imprisoned his enemies for a long time, but that he bothered to imprison them at all. In pre-Conquest England the preferred solutions for dealing with political opponents were banishing them into foreign exile or simply having them killed. Between the start of the 11th century and 1066, the court of every king of England, whether the stereotypically Viking Cnut or the saintly Edward the Confessor, had witnessed multiple political murders. Among the Anglo-Saxon aristocracy, bloodfeuds would simmer from one generation to the next and old scores were settled in ambushes, scalpings and dinnertime massacres.

All this changed after 1066. ‘No man dared to slay another’, remarked the author of William’s obituary in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, ‘no matter what evil the other might have done him’. Although many of the English elite had perished at Hastings or during the course of the rebellions that followed, only one high-ranking Englishman – Earl Waltheof of Northumbria – was deliberately put to death, beheaded in 1076 for his role in a plot against the king the previous year. After that no earl was executed in England until 1306. Far from making English politics more cruel, William had ushered in a period of chivalrous clemency that would last for over two centuries.

Childhood trauma

The Conqueror’s preference for sparing his political enemies rather than executing them might conceivably be traced back to his childhood. When his father, Duke Robert I, ‘the Magnificent’, died in 1035, William was a boy of seven or eight and Normandy was rocked by a bitter factional struggle in which many nobles were murdered: one of them reportedly had his throat cut at Vaudreuil in the chamber where William was sleeping. These experiences, generally assumed to have desensitised the young duke to extreme violence, may conceivably have had the opposite effect. When William eventually took power himself, the killings came to an end.

One factor that did have a clear impact on William’s morality from a young age was the arrival in Normandy of Lanfranc of Bec. Arguably the most famous scholar in Europe in the mid-11th century, Lanfranc had travelled to the duchy from his native Italy in search of a more ascetic form of monasticism, but ended up as adviser and tutor to the future Conqueror. It was to Lanfranc, said the duke’s chaplain, William of Poitiers, that William entrusted the direction of his soul. After the Conquest, William appointed his spiritual mentor as Archbishop of Canterbury and reportedly did everything that he recommended, including ending the slave trade that still flourished in England in 1066. According to William of Malmesbury, the Conqueror was a diligent Christian, attending mass and hearing vespers and matins every day.

William’s Christianity contained an almost puritanical streak. Not only did the king, at Lanfranc’s urging, compel priests to put away their wives and mistresses; he was also unusually chaste himself, to the extent that in his youth some contemporaries wondered whether he might be impotent. These whispers were in due course proved wrong, for William went on to father at least nine children, but significantly all of them were conceived in wedlock with his wife, Matilda. The Conqueror was highly unusual by contemporary standards in having no known illegitimate offspring. Plausibly this may have been because he was ashamed of his own illegitimacy. No one called him ‘the Conqueror’ during his own lifetime – that soubriquet did not really began to catch on until the 13th century – but plenty of chroniclers referred to him as ‘the Bastard’, including the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles for 1066.

William’s piety and sense of moral rectitude had a profound influence on his career. It is common to hear it said that the Norman Conquest was a speculative adventure, a worthwhile punt for a warrior duke engaged in an insatiable quest for wealth. Many of William’s followers were persuaded to accompany him by the promise of fantastic rewards. It is doubtful, however, that William himself regarded the invasion of 1066 in such terms, because the odds against its success were so insanely high. It is more likely that the duke decided to risk everything that year because he believed that the English throne was indeed his by right and that God would therefore grant him safe passage across the sea and victory in battle. This was not an exercise in freebooting of the sort undertaken by his distant Viking ancestors; more a quasi-religious quest, fuelled by the same kind of zealotry that would soon send his successors eastward on crusade.

William’s success was due to the combination of his undoubted skills as a warrior and his unshakeable faith. He was, in the words of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, ‘too relentless to care, though all might hate him’. He may not have been cruel to his aristocratic opponents, but his unflinching belief that he was right led him to commit acts that caused the deaths of countless thousands of ordinary folk. His notorious ‘Harrying of the North’ during the winter of 1069–70, which reduced England beyond the River Humber to a desert, led to widespread famine and a death toll in excess of 100,000. The words of remorse put into William’s mouth by the half-English Orderic Vitalis may be invented, but we can well believe that as he lay dying the Conqueror had much to repent.

Marc Morris is the author of William I: England’s Conqueror (Allen Lane/Penguin Monarchs, 2016).

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