Those interested in European Royalty and its history know the story of how William II, Duke of Normandy became King of the English in 1066. In this short series I will instead examine what type of King William the Conqueror was and how he ran his administration.
The Norman conquest of England began in 1066 after William II, Duke of Normandy conquered England to capture the throne he believed was rightfully his. And although William was crowned King of the English on Christmas day in 1066 his subduing and conquest of England was not completed until 1071. English nobles and the populace in general did not easily and willingly submit to Norman rule.
As part of his efforts to secure England, William ordered many castles, keeps, and mottes built – among them the central keep of the Tower of London, the White Tower. These fortifications allowed Normans to retreat into safety when threatened with rebellion and allowed garrisons to be protected while they occupied the countryside. The early castles were simple earth and timber constructions, later replaced with stone structures.
At first, most of the newly settled Normans kept household knights and did not settle their retainers with fiefs of their own, but gradually these household knights came to be granted lands of their own, a process known as subinfeudation. William also required his newly created magnates to contribute fixed quotas of knights towards not only military campaigns but also castle garrisons. This method of organising the military forces was a departure from the pre-Conquest English practice of basing military service on territorial units such as the hide.
By William’s death, after weathering a series of rebellions, most of the native Anglo-Saxon aristocracy had been replaced by Norman and other continental magnates. Not all of the Normans who accompanied William in the initial conquest acquired large amounts of land in England. Some appear to have been reluctant to take up lands in a kingdom that did not always appear pacified.
Although some of the newly rich Normans in England came from William’s close family or from the upper Norman nobility, others were from relatively humble backgrounds. William granted some lands to his continental followers from the holdings of one or more specific Englishmen; at other times, he granted a compact grouping of lands previously held by many different Englishmen to one Norman follower, often to allow for the consolidation of lands around a strategically placed castle.
The medieval chronicler William of Malmesbury says that the king also seized and depopulated many miles of land (36 parishes), turning it into the royal New Forest region to support his enthusiastic enjoyment of hunting. Modern historians have come to the conclusion that the New Forest depopulation was greatly exaggerated.
Most of the lands of the New Forest are poor agricultural lands, and archaeological and geographic studies have shown that it was likely sparsely settled when it was turned into a royal forest. William was known for his love of hunting, and he introduced the forest law into areas of the country, regulating who could hunt and what could be hunted.
Before I do a deep dive into William’s Administration I’d like to give some background on William’s wife who played a large role in his life.
William was married to Matilda, or Maud, who was the daughter of Baudouin V, Count of Flanders, and Adela, herself daughter of King Robert II of the Franks.
When William was preparing to invade England, Matilda outfitted a ship, the Mora, out of her own funds and gave it to him. Additionally, William gave Normandy to his wife to rule during his absence. Matilda successfully guided the duchy through this period in the name of her fourteen-year-old son; Robert, and no major uprisings or unrest occurred.
Even after William conquered England and became its king, it took her more than a year to visit the kingdom. Matilda was crowned queen on May 11, 1068 in Westminster during the feast of Pentecost, in a ceremony presided over by the archbishop of York. Three new phrases were incorporated to cement the importance of queens, stating that they were divinely placed by God, shared in royal power, and blessed her people by her power and virtue.
Despite having been crowned queen, she spent most of her time in Normandy, governing the duchy, supporting her brother’s interests in Flanders, and sponsoring ecclesiastic houses there. Only one of her children was born in England; Henry was born in Yorkshire when Matilda accompanied her husband in the Harrying of the North.
For many years it was thought that she had some involvement in the creation of the Bayeux Tapestry (commonly called La Tapisserie de la Reine Mathilde in French), but historians no longer believe that; it seems to have been commissioned by William’s half-brother Odo, Bishop of Bayeux, and made by English artists in Kent.
Matilda and William had nine or ten children together. He was believed to have been faithful to her and never produced a child outside their marriage. There is no evidence of any illegitimate children born to William.