The History of the Norman Conquest

William the Bastard

William was born at Falaise in about 1027 or 1028, the illegitimate son of Duke Robert the Magnificent and Herleve, usually thought to be a tanner’s daughter. When Robert died on pilgrimage in 1035, the young William several times narrowly escaped death at the hands of enemies who had no wish to accept him as rightful duke. However, with the help of a number of close allies he managed to survive and, assisted by the French king, Henry I, defeated a coalition of rebels at the battle of Val-ès-Dunes in 1047. As he strengthened his grip on Normandy he faced aggression from Henry, now worried by his vassal’s increasing power. Aided by the Count of Anjou, Henry pushed into Normandy only to be defeated at Mortemer in 1054. A similar invasion in 1057 ended when the French rearguard was cut off and destroyed at the ford at Varaville. When both Henry and the count of Anjou died in 1060, William was given a respite from pressure on these borders. However, he had never commanded in a pitched battle before Hastings, and had fought only in two.

William was an impressive figure. A single surviving thighbone from his tomb at Caen suggests a man about 5 feet 8 inches tall, above average for his day. He married Matilda, daughter of the count of Flanders, probably in 1051, despite initial objections to the match, thus securing an ally on his eastern flank. Matilda was a diminutive figure but an able consort, producing two future kings of England, William Rufus and Henry I.
William seems to have had enough charisma to convince his magnates to support his invasion plans. By sending Lanfranc of Bec to plead his case in Rome he managed to have the invasion of England labelled as a crusade, and to obtain a papal banner from Pope Alexander II. His nature had a ruthless streak and he well knew when to use it to speed an enemy to surrender. At the siege of Alençon in 1051 he cut off the hands and feet of those who insulted his birth.

The relationship between the English and Norman ruling houses came from Emma, sister of William’s grandfather, who married King Ethelred of England. Their sons, Alfred and Edward, were sent to the Norman court for safety as the Danes overran England. Here Edward grew up with Norman ways until he succeeded to the English throne in 1042. Norman chroniclers assert that the childless Edward had promised William the crown, and it is just possible that the Duke visited England in 1051. According to the Bayeux Tapestry, Earl Harold visited Normandy, probably in 1064 or 1065, presumably to confirm William’s succession. Whether Edward changed his mind on his deathbed will never be known, but he may have decided England would not accept a Norman on the throne. Unfortunately, the Normans did not recognise such changes of mind once an oath was made, and William still considered himself rightful king.