England became part of the Roman Empire in A.D. 43, but by the fifth century the empire was so vast and unwieldy that its more far-flung territories became susceptible to foreign invasion. The Angles and Jutes from the Danish peninsulas and the Saxons from Germany were among the first aggressors, setting up multiple Anglo-Saxon kingdoms across the island. Until the Norman Conquest in 1066, England was divided into regions, each with its own ruler. Eventually, Wessex emerged as the most powerful of these regions, but England nonetheless spent centuries attempting to stave off invasions from the Norse and the Danes. In 1016, after fourteen years of war, the Danish prince Cnut conquered England and became its king. Cnut’s son Edward ascended the throne in 1042, and became known as the pious Edward the Confessor. But this was an age before the laws of inheritance stipulated that the king’s firstborn son must inherit the throne. And Edward had no heirs at all. When the time came to choose his successor, he had three options: one was a fourteen-year-old boy known as Edgar the Aethling. One was Harold Godwinson, the Earl of Wessex. The third was William, Duke of Normandy.
Edward bet on the wrong horse.
William I (1028-1087) “William the Conqueror”
The conquest of England began with a bastard.
Robert the Devil, Duke of Normandy, developed a passion for a woman below his social station. Herlève was the daughter of a lowly tanner from Falaise, so marriage was unthinkable. Some say she attracted Robert with her dancing; others believe that Robert saw her washing her linen (a charming medieval way of referring to her underwear) in the castle moat, and lost all sense of reason and decorum.
Out of this passion “William the Bastard” was born. And then Adelaide. And then Herlève was conveniently married off to one of Robert’s knights. Robert died on July 2, 1035 on his way home from Jerusalem, where he had made a pilgrimage to expiate his sins. His oldest son, only six or seven years at the time, was now Duke William of Normandy.
William had bad luck with babysitters; one by one, his guardians got themselves assassinated. His father’s vassals showed the little boy no allegiance. Instead they mocked his origins, throwing tanner’s hides over the walls of Alençon, after he asserted his authority in 1047, at the age of nineteen. However, William, dark-haired, tall (at 5’ 10”) and sturdily built (despite his pot belly) was determined to show the city burghers who was boss; he hacked off their hands and feet.
In 1049 he made a bid for the hand of the tiny (at 4’ 2”) Matilda of Flanders, a descendant of England’s Saxon House of Wessex and King Robert II of France. But the Pope initially forbade William to pursue his suit because he was too closely related to Matilda. Matilda herself evidently wasn’t too keen on being wed to a bastard and threw a tantrum. After learning of his rejection, her suitor rode hell for leather to find Matilda and violently grabbed her by her long braids, in an effort to yank some sense into her head. Matilda ultimately agreed to marry William and they both ignored the papal ban on their union.
Despite this horrific courtship, and their height differential, they enjoyed a fruitful (and faithful) marriage. Matilda bore William nine healthy children, all of whom lived to adulthood, a remarkable feat for the era.
William, Duke of Normandy— known as William the Conqueror after the Norman Conquest of England—had at one time been promised by Edward the Confessor that he would succeed him on Britain’s throne. But he was doublecrossed by Edward’s brother-in-law, the English earl Harold Godwinson, who insisted that Edward had changed his mind on his deathbed and claimed the crown for himself. Betrayed and enraged, William decided to cross the Channel to confront Harold, securing the Pope’s blessing for his invasion. The backstory of the Norman Conquest and the famous Battle of Hastings in which William emerged victorious are chronicled in the panels of the Bayeaux Tapestry [see sidebar]. With his great flair for the dramatic, the Conqueror was crowned king of England on Christmas Day, 1066, at Edward the Confessor’s large stone church that would later become part of the foundation of Westminster Abbey.
Over the next five years William crushed one petty revolt after another, and by 1071 he had subdued all of England. He thanked his Norman followers with large gifts of land, confiscating estates that had belonged to rebellious Anglo-Saxon nobles, thus wiping out the English aristocracy.
Enforcing his iron-fisted rule, he built a series of castles across the kingdom, including Windsor Castle and the White Tower, the first edifice to be constructed in the fortress that would become the Tower of London.
Not all of William’s great achievements were constructed of brick and mortar. In December 1085, he ordered a survey of the kingdom’s estates for tax purposes, in order to ascertain the topography of the property (woodland, pasture, ponds) and how much livestock each landowner possessed, as well as how much the crown itself owned. The result was the Domesday Book; over 13,000 locations are chronicled in the volume, only two of which were owned by native Englishmen.
In 1087, William crossed the Channel to quash an uprising in an oft-disputed Continental territory known as the Vexin. On September 9, he was thrown from his horse as it trod upon the smoldering ashes of the town of Mantes. As William lay dying of severe abdominal injuries, he quickly named his heir. The system of primogeniture, where the right of inheritance went to the eldest son, was not yet in use, and so William was able to choose his successor. The Conqueror’s second son William Rufus thus ascended England’s throne, while his literally rebellious first son, Robert Curthose, (whose disenchantment with his father had at one point degenerated into open revolt), inherited the dukedom of Normandy.
Even William’s burial was not without incident. The stalwart king had gained a considerable amount of weight over the course of his fifty-nine years, and was a tight squeeze into his coffin. His corpse burst open during the funeral service and the odor of rotting flesh permeated the church.