William the Conqueror & the Ely Rebellion

William the Conqueror & the Ely Rebellion

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Consolidating the Conquest

After the Battle of Hastings in October 1066 CE, William, the Duke of Normandy made short work of the south-east of England, quickly capturing Dover Castle, Canterbury, Winchester, and finally London. Crowned William I of England on Christmas Day, 1066 CE had been an excellent year for the Conqueror. Unfortunately, the next five years were much more troublesome. Two mini-invasions by Harold II' sons, who sailed from their retreat in Ireland to the west coast of England, were swept back, attacks from Wales were repulsed, and three rebellions based around York were finally stamped out by William's 'harrying of the north' - a sustained campaign of terror over the winter of 1069-70 CE when villages, crops, and livestock were torched to prevent any future rebellion. Loyal Norman nobles were eventually replacing all the old Anglo-Saxon elite, and motte and bailey castles were erected across the country to finally install some semblance of order. In 1071 CE, there remained, though, one final challenge to William's authority, a dangerous alliance of the few remaining Anglo-Saxon rebels and a Viking army led by King Sweyn II of Denmark.

Hereward the Wake, whose exploits are told in enriched tales of the later medieval period, was willing to fight to get his lands back again.

The Danish Raid of 1069 CE

The Viking Danes had always exploited any trouble in England to launch raids and grab what booty and slaves they could. In addition, the Anglo-Saxon rebels had been calling for assistance in their efforts against William ever since his victory at Hastings. In September 1069 CE King Sweyn Estrithsson sent his brother, Asbjorn to lead a raid on the eastern coast of England. The Danish fleet consisted of around 300 ships and, at York, it linked up with the rebels and their figurehead, Edgar aetheling, great-nephew of Edward the Confessor (r. 1042-1066 CE). On 21 September, the castles of York were taken, the commanders ransomed off, and the ordinary troops massacred. William responded by marching at the head of an army to the north, but by the time he arrived the rebels had fled the city and the Danes had retreated down the River Trent with their extensive booty from York. Without a fleet of his own, William could not pursue the Danes and so he returned to the old policy of the Anglo-Saxon kings and paid them to leave English shores. It was to be only a temporary solution to the Danish threat as the raiders ignored their side of the bargain and remained in the impenetrable marshes of Lincolnshire over the winter. The Danes avoided all direct conflict, and it seemed this first invasion was really only intended to establish a bridgehead. The following year, Sweyn would be on English shores in person.

Hereward the Wake

In 1070 CE Asbjorn's Danish force had been depleted by the hunger and the cold of the harsh winter but they were now bolstered by the arrival of reinforcements led by Sweyn himself. The Danish king probably realised that the depleted force was now no longer sufficient to attempt a full-scale invasion but at least he could orchestrate a typical Viking raid and bring back home some booty. This looked an attractive possibility as, in May 1070 CE, Ely, then an island in the fens of East Anglia, had become the rallying point of the dying-but-still-smouldering Anglo-Saxon rebellion. Sweyn sent his brother to lead a force into the fens, where they linked up with a local nobleman Hereward the Wake who, like so many Anglo-Saxons, had lost his family estates to the new Norman overlords and was now reduced to living the life of an outlaw. Hereward, whose exploits are told in enriched tales of the later medieval period, was willing to fight to get his lands back again.

The joint rebel-Danish army marched on Peterborough in May/June 1070 CE, targeted, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, because William intended to appoint a new abbot at the abbey there, the Norman Turold of Fécamp (aka Turold of Malmesbury). The abbey itself was attacked and, despite valiant resistance from the monks, it was sacked and looted of its treasures and stored up wealth, the excuse being these riches should be kept from grasping Norman hands (and in truth William had been raiding other monasteries in 1070 CE to pay his armies). Hereward may have sought to use this treasure to pay an army to continue the resistance against William. In the event, the Danes promptly claimed the loot for themselves and, happy with their bounty, they made another pay-off deal with William and sailed off back home. In one of those delicious ironies of history and a tale of 'crime never pays', most of the Danish fleet and, with it, the treasure was sunk in a North Sea storm.

The loss of his Danish allies and his loot did not deter Hereward from fighting on, and he established his base at Ely Abbey from where he launched a sustained guerrilla campaign. Hereward was so successful that he began to attract the few remaining Anglo-Saxon rebels from across the country. By the first months of 1071 CE, numbers had swelled and included three big-name additions: Athelwine, the former bishop of Durham, Morcar, the former earl of Northumbria, and the on-off rebel who kept slipping in and out of favour with the king, Earl Waltheof. Now looking like a major rebellion might be organised, several small expeditions were sent by the king, including one led by the trusted commander William Malet, but all proved unsuccessful. The Conqueror was compelled to intervene personally.

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William Fights Back

In the summer of 1071 CE, an army was mustered and a fleet assembled for a two-pronged attack on the rebels. The fleet approached from the east coast through the Wash and then sailed down the River Ouse, cutting off the abbey of Ely. Meanwhile, from the south-west, a land army marched from Aldreth (or Stuntney in the east in some sources), pushing across to Ely. William, overcoming the difficult terrain, made use of local knowledge to find a track through the marshes where he had to build a causeway to reach the island itself using timber and stones brought for the purpose. According to the most detailed (but often fantastical) source on the Ely rebellion, the 12th-century CE Gesta Herewardi, William also had the timbers and logs laid over inflated sheepskins to ensure the causeway could stay afloat (which it did not at the first attempt at crossing, drowning many men).

When the causeway was ready and the army crossed it, the king was presented with another problem. The abbey was built of stone and presented a formidable challenge to the attackers. Siege engines had to be brought in over the causeway and fortifications were set up to encircle the abbey. In the event, all these pre-attack preparations brought swift dividends, and the defenders, realising a long siege was about to get underway, either escaped in small boats or gave themselves up. Not for the first time, William's formidable military reputation combined with his meticulous attention to preparation and logistics had won him the situation without any actual fighting being necessary.

Many of those rebels unfortunate enough to be captured were mutilated or blinded, still more were imprisoned for life, including Athelwine and Morcar. On the other hand, Earl Waltheof settled with William, even marrying his niece Judith. Hereward escaped with a small group of rebels, later meeting his death at the hands of some Norman soldiers, or making peace with William, or living in exile on the Continent, depending on which medieval source you believe of this larger-than-life figure.


After Ely, William looked to the north. The king of the Scots, Malcolm III (r. 1058-1093 CE) had long been giving both refuge and military support to the Anglo-Saxon rebels and especially to Edgar aetheling, whose sister Margaret the king had married. In 1072 CE William, with England now free from rebels, could finally turn his attention to Scotland, and with a combined land and sea operation, he put a stop to the regular raids into Northumbria. Malcolm's submission was achieved and, as part of the peace bargain, Edgar was exiled to Flanders. William had finally secured both his realm and his place in history as one of the greatest of military commanders.

William the Conqueror

England's first Norman king, the formidable William I, was born in 1028 at Falaise Castle. Wiliam was the illegitimate son of Robert 'the Devil' or the Magnificent, Duke of Normandy and his mistress Herleve, (sometimes called Arlette) the daughter of Fullbert, a tanner of Falaise. Before history renamed him the Conqueror he was more commonly known to his contemporaries as William the Bastard. Herleve was reported to have attracted Duke Robert with her dancing, in some accounts, he is said to have first caught sight of her while she was washing her linen in the castle moat.

The Norman dynasty had been founded by Robert's ancestor Rollo or Hrolf the Ganger, a Viking raider chief, who was granted the duchy by Charles the Simple, King of France, in 911, at the Treaty of Saint-Clair-Sur-Epte, in exchange for feudal allegiance and conversion to Christianity at which he took the baptismal name of Robert.

Falaise Castle

William's mother, Herleve, also had a daughter, Adelaide, to Duke Robert. Although they had a long relationship, the gap in their social standing rendered marriage out of the question and Herleve was married off to one of Robert's vassals, Herluin, a knight. From this marriage, Herleve produced two further sons, Robert, who later became Count of Mortain and Odo, destined to become Bishop of Bayeux and Earl of Kent and also to play a part in England's history.

William, Duke of Normandy

Duke Robert decided to expiate his sins, which were many, by going on pilgrimage in 1034. Since he had no legitimate heir to succeed him, he persuaded his unruly barons to accept the illegitimate William as the future Duke of Normandy. On his return journey from the Holy Land Robert died suddenly and the young William succeeded to the Dukedom by his father's will with his great-uncle Robert, archbishop of Rouen serving as Regent.

The barons exhibited no loyalty to the"'base born" child and thereafter William grew up in the school of adversity. He had to learn, very early, how to survive. The barons constantly rebelled and anarchy reigned in Normandy during the years of William's minority. William's guardians were murdered in succession. At first, custody of the young duke was given to Duke Alan of Brittany, after his death Gilbert of Brionne took charge of William. Gilbert was killed within months, and another guardian, Turchetil, was also killed around the time of Gilbert's death. Osbern, the nephew of Gunnor the wife of Duke Richard I, was killed whilst guarding his door. His maternal uncle, Walter, at one point, resorted to hiding the child with some poor people. In 1046, William's cousin, Guy of Burgundy, led a rebellion in Normandy and attempted to seize William at Valognes, forcing him to seek refuge with King Henry of France. William was formed and moulded by this savage and insecure childhood into the stark and often ruthless ruler he was later to become.

Statue of William

In 1047, he returned to Normandy and asserted his authority, crushing the rebels at Val-es-Dunes after which he began to restore order in his Dukedom. At Alencon, the burghers insulted his birth by hanging "hides for the tanner" over the walls. On taking the town he exacted a terrible revenge and had both their hands and feet amputated. One of life's great survivors, William finally emerged as undisputed Duke of Normandy.

William matured into a tall, thick-set man with reddish hair, which receded from his forehead early. According to measurements of his thigh bone, he stood about 5' 10" tall. His voice was rasping and guttural. William undoubtedly possessed considerable powers of leadership and courage. He was devout and inspired loyalty in his followers, but could also be ruthless and cruel.

William of Malmesbury provides us with a detailed description of the king in his Historia Anglorum:-

'He was of just stature, ordinary corpulence, fierce countenance his forehead was bare of hair of such great strength of arm that it was often a matter of surprise, that no one was able to draw his bow, which himself could bend when his horse was in full gallop he was majestic whether sitting or standing, although the protuberance of his belly deformed his royal person of excellent health so that he was never confined with any dangerous disorder, except at the last so given to the pleasures of the chase, that as I have before said, ejecting the inhabitants, he let a space of many miles grow desolate that, when at liberty from other avocations, he might there pursue his pleasures.

His money anxiety is the only thing on which he can deservedly be blamed. This he sought all opportunities of scraping together, he cared not how he would say and do some things and indeed almost anything, unbecoming to such great majesty, where the hope of money allured him. I have here no excuse whatever to offer, unless it be, as one has said, that of necessity he must fear many, whom many fear.'

William negotiated a marriage in 1049 to Matilda of Flanders, a descendant of the old Saxon House of Wessex and daughter of

Baldwin, Count of Flanders and Adela, daughter of Robert II, King of France. Tradition states that when Duke William sent representatives to her father's court to request Matilda's hand in marriage, she retorted by proudly informing the representative that she was far too high-born to consider marrying a bastard. Furious on receiving this response, William rode to Bruges, where he confronted Matilda on her way to church, he pulled her off her horse and threw her down in the street in front of her attendants and rode off. An alternative version of the legend states that he rode to her father's court in Lille, marched defiantly into her room and threw her to the ground in her room and hit her. Whereupon it is said Matilda refused to marry anyone but William. They were an ill-assorted pair, he strongly built and five feet ten inches tall and she ( as it emerged when her skeleton was exhumed) extremely short. It proved, however, to be a highly successful union and produced a large family.

The Conquest of England

The Duke of Normandy visited his English cousin, Edward the Confessor, in 1051. Edward and his brother Alfred had spent much of their childhood in exile at the Norman Court, their mother, Emma, had been a daughter of the House of Normandy. During this visit, Edward is purported to have promised his Norman cousin the crown of England, should he die without issue. The true heir was Edgar the Atheling, Edward's great-nephew, the grandson of his elder brother Edmund Ironside, but he was still a child and knew little of England, having spent much of his life in exile in Hungary. Others also coveted the English throne, the chief candidate amongst these was Harold, son of the powerful Godwine, Earl of Wessex, whose sister, Edith, was married to King Edward the Confessor.

Harold was unfortunately shipwrecked on the coast of Normandy, where he found himself the unwilling guest of Duke William. The Confessor was now unlikely to survive long and Harold was anxious to return to England to forward his ambitions there. However, before he would allow his guest to leave, William required him to swear an oath to support his claim to the crown upon Edward's death. Under duress, Harold finally consented and swore the oath on holy relics.

Edward the Confessor finally breathed his last in January 1066, and was buried in his foundation of St. Peter, Westminster, which had been consecrated but ten days previously. It was reported that on his deathbed he had nominated Harold Godwinson as his successor who was duly accepted as King by the Saxon Witangemot or council of elders, which traditionally elected the next English King.

Back in Normandy, on receipt of this ominous news, the formidable Duke William flew into a rage. He began to build an invasion fleet to take by force what he considered to be his by right. The Pope himself, due to Harold's foresworn oath on holy relics, supported William's enterprise. After Harold was crowned by Archbishop Stigand, a portentous star was seen in the skies, this has now been identified as Halley's comet, many in that superstitious age saw it as an omen of the wrath of God on the perjured King Harold and his followers.

Harold assembled the fyrd, the Saxon militia of freemen, in preparation for William's imminent landing, whilst the Duke prepared his fleet and waited for good weather to set sail for England. In mid-September, Harold Hardrada, King of Norway, invaded England, accompanied by Tostig, Earl of Northumbria, Harold's unruly and discontented brother, who had earlier been banished and his earldom confiscated.

William from the Bayeux Tapestry

Harold marched his army north in haste to meet the invaders at Stamford Bridge in Yorkshire, where he

won a decisive victory over the Viking army. At this time, the winds William had been pensively awaiting turned favourable and he set sail with his massive invasion fleet. News of his landing at Bulverhythe was conveyed to Harold, who responded by hurrying south to meet him, giving his exhausted army no respite. Had Harold rested and reorganized his army, the outcome of the impending battle and English history could have been very different.

On 14th October, the Saxon and Norman forces clashed in the fateful Battle of Hastings. Harold took up a defensive position on Senlac Ridge. The Norman army was thus forced to attack uphill, placing them at a disadvantage.

The Saxon army formed a shield wall along the edge of the hill which rebuffed repeated Norman attacks. A rumour arose in the Norman ranks that Duke William was dead, causing panic and flight. Many of the Saxon fyrd pursued the fleeing Normans down the hill. William put heart into his army by loudly announcing he still lived. The Normans rallied, Harold's brothers Gyrth and Leofwine were both slain on the battlefield.

The battle continued for most of the day, Harold and his Saxons fought with steely determination for possession of their country. As dusk began to fall over Hastings, William ordered his archers to fire high into the air and one of these arrows is said to have hit Harold in the eye, blinding him, although this point is disputed by some sources. Whether this was the case or not, Harold fell mortally wounded under the dragon standard of Wessex.

The Saxon army, seeing that the day was lost, began to flee the field. The housecarls, Harold's trained professional militia, loyally and valiantly defended the body of their King to the last, but they too finally fell and Harold's body was mutilated by the Normans, a vindictive act, which William punished. The battle was lost and Anglo-Saxon England died with Harold on the battlefield that day.

Harold's Stone at Battle Abbey

Harold's deeply distressed mistress, Edith Swan-neck came to William pleading for her lover's body and offering him its weight in gold in exchange, but William coldly refused her distraught request. He had Harold buried in a secret location. William proceeded to London, where he was crowned King of England at Edward the Confessor's foundation of Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day, 1066.

He accepted the surrender of the Saxon Earls Edwin of Mercia and Morcar of Northumbria along with that of the child claimant, Edgar Atheling. On the whole, the south of England submitted to Norman rule, whereas in the north resistance was more prolonged. William responded by subjecting the English to a reign of terror. Determined to punish and crush rebellion to his rule and strike abject fear into English hearts, he laid waste vast tracts of Yorkshire, which suffered under a great famine for nine years after as a result. He rewarded his Norman and French followers by distributing the confiscated lands of the English to them.

The Harrying of the North

In 1068 the brothers, Earls Edwin and Morcar rose in revolt with the support of Gospatric, William marched through Edwin's territory and built a castle at Warwick. Edwin and Morcar submitted, but William continued to York, building castles at York and Nottingham before returning south. On his journey south, William began constructing further castles at Lincoln, Huntingdon, and Cambridge and placed his supporters in charge of these new visible expressions of Norman power in England, among them William Peverel, thought to be his illegitimate son, at Nottingham and Henry de Beaumont at Warwick.

In 1069, Edgar Atheling rose in revolt against William's rule and attacked York. Although William returned to York and built another castle, Edgar remained at liberty, and in the autumn of that year he joined forces with King Sweyn of Denmark. The Danish king brought a large fleet to England and attacked not only York but Exeter and Shrewsbury. York was taken by the combined forces of Edgar and Sweyn. Edgar was duly proclaimed King of England by his Saxon supporters, but William responded with haste, ignoring a revolt in Maine. William symbolically wore his crown in the ruins of York on Christmas Day 1069, and then marched to the River Tees, ravaging the surrounding countryside as he proceeded north. Edgar fled to Scotland, where Malcolm III, King of Scots was married to his sister Margaret. Waltheof, Earl of Northumbria, who had joined the revolt, submitted to William, along with Gospatric, Earl of Northumbria, and both were pardoned and allowed to retain their lands. But William's vengeance was not satiated, he marched over the Pennines during the winter and defeated the remaining rebels at Shrewsbury before building two further castles at Chester and Stafford.

In 1070 the heroic Hereward the Wake rose in a rebellion against Norman rule which centred on the Isle of Ely. William led an army to Ely, where Hereward, joined by a small army led by Morcar, the former Saxon Earl of Northumbria made a desperate stand. Eventually, the Normans bribed Abbot Thurstan of Ely to reveal a safe route across the marshes, which resulted in Ely being taken. Morcar was captured and imprisoned, but Hereward managed to escape into the wild fenland to continue his resistance.

White Tower

William was a savage and formidable ruler, by modern standards an exceedingly cruel one, but his methods produced the desired results and extinguished the fires of opposition. Many castles and keeps were built across the country to enforce his rule, originally wooden towers or earthen mottes, in all over 80 castles were established during the reign, including the White Tower, the first building in the Tower of London complex. The dominating shadow of the White Tower loomed menacingly over medieval London, a visible expression of Norman power.

Anglo-Saxon England was radically altered by the Norman conquest, it changed the entire way of life then established in the country. Its laws, aristocracy and church were altered and it introduced the French feudal system. The Anglo-Saxon language was replaced by Norman French as the language of the upper classes, modern English is the natural outgrowth of both. The role of the conquerors and the conquered can still be detected in many English words, the Saxon cow, tended by the lowly Saxon villein became the Norman beef when it appeared on the lord's table. The Saxon swine became Norman gammon. There are countless other examples in modern English which amply illustrate the role of Saxon servant and Norman master.

The Norman Feudal System, which William introduced into England, was a complicated hierarchical structure whose apex sat the king. Lords held their lands under the king in exchange for homage and military assistance rendered to him in times of need. William's conversion of the New Forest into a royal hunting ground saw the introduction of harsh and severe forest laws, which caused great resentment amongst the Anglo-Saxons. William changed England's laws and inflicted harsh punishments for offenders. Murder became an officially punishable crime in England and slavery was abolished.

The Bayeux Tapestry

The new King's half brother, Odo, Bishop of Bayeux, commissioned a tapestry to commemorate his brother's victory in 1078. It depicts a series of scenes leading up to and during the conquest. In common with other embroidered hangings of the early medieval period, this piece is conventionally referred to as a "tapestry", although it is not a true tapestry in which the design is woven into the cloth it is, in fact, an embroidery. Titles are included in many scenes to point out names of people and places or to explain briefly the event being depicted.

The Domesday Book

In December 1085, William decided to commission an enquiry into the extent of his dominions to maximise taxation. All Norman lords and barons whom King William had granted land in England were ordered to collect information on their domains, which was to be sent to William's advisors. Officials were then dispatched to the 34 counties that then constituted the kingdom of England to check the information and acquire more. The officials were instructed to ask fixed questions including what the particular place was called, who owned it, how many resided there, even how many cattle were kept there. For each landholding, questions were phrased to discover how much the land was worth during the reign of Edward the Confessor, before the conquest. They took evidence on oath from the Sheriffs, the barons and their Frenchmen and from the whole Hundred, the priests, the reeves and six villagers from each village. The work was rendered more difficult by the fact that most of England's population spoke Anglo-Saxon or Old English at the time whilst William's officials spoke Norman-French. This unique survey was known to history as the Domesday Book. The Domesday Book still survives today in the Public Record Office, London and is an extraordinary document for its time.

Robert Curthose, eldest son of the Conqueror

The last years of William's life were spent fighting in Normandy, Amongst those opposing him was his rebellious eldest son, Robert, nicknamed Curthose by his father, due to his short legs. In a battle in January 1079, Robert unhorsed William in combat and wounded him, ceasing his attack only when he recognized his father's voice. Humiliated, King William cursed his son then raised the siege and returned to Rouen.

At Easter 1080, reconciliation between father and son was engineered by Queen Matilda. The family were reunited in Breteuil, in northern France, for celebrations to mark the betrothal of William and Matilda's 14-year-old daughter, Adela, to Stephen, Count of Blois. Matilda then encouraged William to make peace with his estranged half-brother, Odo, the Bishop of Bayeux.


Tomb of William the Conqueror in the monastery of St.Stephen at Caen in Normandy

When Matilda fell seriously ill, William rushed to Normandy to be at her bedside. He wrote to Robert at Gerberol Castle, asking him to immediately come to Rouen. Matilda died at Caen, in November 1083 in her early fifties, after a lingering illness, her husband was at her bedside for her final confession. In her will she left large amounts of money to the poor and her royal sceptre and crown to Holy Trinity Abbey. She was buried in the choir of Holy Trinity, l'Abbaye aux Dames, her own foundation, in Caen, Normandy. Following her death William, much effected by her loss, was said to have became more short-tempered, gloomy and severe.

On 9th September 1087, whilst riding through the smouldering ruins of the sacked town of Mantes, in what must have appeared to him as, like an act of divine retribution, William was thrown from his horse when it trod on burning ashes and sustained severe abdominal injuries. The chronicler William of Malmesbury records:-his stomach protruding over the forward part of his saddle was injured when he was thrown against the pommel and his internal organs ruptured.) William retreated and returned to his capital at Rouen. His condition continued to worsen and, mindful of the afterlife to come, he "gave way to repeated sighs and groans." Begging those to pray for him, William confessed his sins and sought pardon. His treasure was distributed to the churches and the poor, "so that what I amassed through evil deeds may be assigned to the holy uses of good men.' Orderic Vitalis stated that William repented of the severity of his rule in England on his deathbed, '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, especially in Yorkshire. In mad fury, I descended on the English of the north like a raging lion and ordered that their homes and crops with all their equipment and furnishings should be burnt at once and their great flocks and herds of sheep and cattle slaughtered everywhere. So I chastised a great multitude of men and women with the lash of starvation and, alas! was the cruel murderer of many thousands, both young and old, of these fair people.'

The King, now aged fifty-nine and mortally injured, was carried to the convent of St. Gervais in Rouen, the Norman capital. There he summoned his younger sons, William and Henry, to his deathbed. Robert Curthose remained at the court of France. William confessed his sins and sought pardon. His treasure was distributed to the churches and the poor, "so that what I amassed through evil deeds may be assigned to the holy uses of good men."

England was bequeathed to his second surviving and favourite son, William Rufus and despite his bitter differences with Robert Curthose, he left Normandy to him. To Henry, the youngest son, later destined to inherit all his dominions, he left 5,000 silver pounds. He is reported to have ruminated on and repented of his many sins, transgressions and cruelties at the end. He tried to salve his conscience, before preparing to meet his maker and fearing for his immortal soul, he ordered all the treasure he possessed in Rouen to be given to the church and the poor and forgave his enemies. William the Conqueror died on 9th September 1087, having ruled England for 21 years.

William was buried in the monastery of St.Stephen at Caen in Normandy, an abbey he had previously founded as an act of repentance for his consanguineous marriage to Matilda of Flanders. The body was broken as it was lowered into the sepulchre, made too short by the stonemasons and the ceremony was interrupted by a dispossessed knight. A stone slab with a Latin inscription, in the abbey church of Caen today marks the burial place of the first Norman King of England. His grave has since been desecrated twice, in the course of the French Wars of Religion his bones were scattered across Caen, and during the tumultuous events of the French Revolution, the Conqueror's tomb was again despoiled.

The children and grandchildren of William the Conqueror and Matilda of Flanders

(1) Robert 'Curthose' Duke of Normandy (1054 -1134) m.Sybilla of Conversano

(i) William Clito, Count of Flanders (d.1128) m. Sybil of Anjou

(2) Richard (circa 1055 - 1081)

(3) WILLIAM II (circa 1056 - 1100)

(6) Adela (circa 1062 - 1138) m. Stephen, Count of Blois

(ii) Theobald, Count of Blois (d. 1151)

(iii) Henry, Bishop of Winchester

(iv)STEPHEN, KING OF ENGLAND (d. 1154) m. Matilda of Boulogne

(7) HENRY I (circa 1068 - 1135) m. (i)Edith of Scotland (ii) Adeliza of Louvain Issue by (i):-

(i)William the Atheling (circa 1103-1128)m. Matilda of Anjou

(ii) MATILDA (circa 1103 - 1162) m. (i) Henry V, Holy Roman Emperor (ii) Geoffrey Plantagenet, Count of Anjou

Hereward the Wake

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Hereward the Wake, (flourished 1070–71), Anglo-Saxon rebel against William the Conqueror and the hero of many Norman and English legends. He is associated with a region in present-day Huntingdonshire and Northamptonshire.

In 1070, expecting a conquest of England by King Sweyn II of Denmark, Hereward and some followers joined a force of Danish sailors who had come to Ely. Together they sacked Peterborough Abbey, perhaps to prevent its treasures from falling into the hands of the new Norman abbot, Turold. Soon after, Sweyn made peace with William the Conqueror, and so the Danes returned home. Hereward, however, established himself on the Isle of Ely, which in 1071 became a refuge for Anglo-Saxon fugitives, notably Morcar, earl of Northumbria. William’s forces eventually captured the isle after a methodical assault, but Hereward managed to escape. He is the hero of Charles Kingsley’s last novel, Hereward the Wake (1866).

This article was most recently revised and updated by Amy Tikkanen, Corrections Manager.


To imagine what life was like for the Saxons who refused to accept Norman rule following Norman conquest, this amateur video (17mins), The Last Saxon, recreates a sense of being hunted down by Norman forces.

Hereward was a Saxon rebel who eventually accepted the feudal system and Norman rule to reclaim the land he'd lost.


Still revered nearly a 1,000 years later by some in England as a great symbol of Englishness - here's a song and video inspired by him! Here's a simple whiteboard video detailing his story.

A heroic figure who inspired the legend of Robin Hood
There's even a band named after him!

This video provides a lot of useful information, though the voiceover is done by computer voice translation!

Exiled as a young man (just 18) by Edward the Confessor, he became a mercenary, returning to England in 1069 to find his brother's head impaled where his land and property once was. Enraged to hear Normans boasting about this, he killed 14 of them at a feast . their head's replaced his brother's above his old house!

There are many books on Hereward!
Along with the former Saxon earl of Northumbria, Morcai, he led a rebel force to Ely, which William struggled to defeat - many of his soldiers died when a wooden causeway across the treacherous marshes collapsed. Hereward and Morcai joined the Danish king there, and looted Peterborough Abbey for gold . which the Danish king fled with . and which also caused the Ely monks to betray him to the Saxons, showing them how to safely get across the marshes. Hereward escaped to the surrounding countryside, the Fens.
Several conflicting accounts exist as to Hereward's fate thereafter, the Gesta Herewardi states that while in attempt to negotiate with William he was provoked into a fight which led to his capture and imprisonment, however, he was later liberated by his friends while in the course of being transferred from one castle to another. Hereward's former gaoler persuaded the king to negotiate again, and he was eventually pardoned by William. The Estoire des Engleis, written by Geoffrey Gaimar claims Hereward lived for some time as an outlaw in the Fens, but that as he was on the verge of making peace with William, he was set upon and killed by a group of Norman knights. Even after his death, people still visited a wooden castle in the Fens that was known to the peasants as Hereward's Castle. (source)

William struggled to defeat the rebels at Ely, who had picked their defensive base well. He tried laying planks across the marsh, but this collapsed, killing many soldiers.

He brought in witches to curse the rebels . shockingly, this failed!

Bribery won out . monks who feared Hereward and the rebels would rob them as they had done the Peterborough monastery betrayed them, telling William's men how to safely cross the marshes.

William won the Battle of Hastings, but he faced a long fight to defeat his remaining opponents, determined to oppose and undermine Norman rule and the feudal system that transferred wealth and land from many of the previous, Saxon elites.

There are several books on Hereward - check with your parents
before accessing any of these, as some portray the brutal realities quite starkly.

James Wilde's novel is a recent example (Amazon UK), but there have also been comic books and kids books . have a look for yourself online.

William the Conqueror

William the Conqueror was an innovator in government. He built a strong centralized administration staffed with his Norman supporters. He was also not about to put up with any backtalk from the newly conquered English.

He subdued the south and east easily, but the north rose in rebellion. William's response was the ferocious "Harrying of the North" (1069-70), which devastated the land in a broad swath from York to Durham. The results of this burning and destruction left much of the area depopulated for centuries.

Following on the heels of northern resistance the most famous English rebel of them all, Hereward the Wake, stirred up resistance to the Norman conquerors in East Anglia from a base at Ely, deep in the fenland. Eventually Hereward, too, was subdued, perhaps bought off, and the land was William's to hold.

Early Castles
One of the ways he ensured that he held it was to build castles everywhere. These were often hurried affairs in a continental "motte and bailey" design, usually in wood, only later replaced with stone. Most were built with forced local labour on land confiscated from English rebels. The castles were given to Norman barons to hold for the king.

In theory, every inch of English land belonged to the Crown and William's vassals had to swear fealty directly to the Crown. Contrast this with the earlier Saxon practice where each man swore allegiance to the person of his lord (click here to review). Now William was making loyalty to the nation, in the form of the Crown, supersede loyalty to the individual person of a lord.

William's Church
Anglo-Saxon churchmen were replaced gradually by Normans appointed by William. Under the administration of Lanfranc, Norman Archbishop of Canterbury, new monasteries were founded, while rules and discipline were enforced more stringently.

Church and lay justice were separated the bishops were given their own courts, allowing common law to evolve independently. William retained the right to appoint bishops and impeach abbots. He used these churchmen as his major administrators, which made perfect sense, for they were by far the best-educated members of society. Indeed, they were often the only educated members of society.

The Domesday Book
The thing for which William I is best remembered, aside from winning the battle of Hastings and making England a European kingdom, is the Domesday Book. The Domesday Book was, in effect, the first national census. It was a royal survey of all England for administration and tax purposes.

William needed proper records so that his new, efficient Norman bureaucracy could do its job, especially when it came to collecting all the revenues due to the crown. Inspectors were sent into every part of England to note the size, ownership, and resources of each hide of land.

Contrary to popular belief, some small areas did seem to have escaped the assessors notice, but for the times the Domesday Book represented an amazing accomplishment. It also left exact records behind which give historians a lot of data about Norman English life.

See here for a map of the major towns in England at the time of the Domesday Book.

Occupation, resistance, subjugation: the bloody aftermath of 1066

When the armies of King Harold of England and Duke William of Normandy met in battle on the Sussex coast near Hastings, the invader triumphed and Harold was killed in the most significant clash of the Norman conquest &ndash and perhaps the most famous event in British history. But, says writer James Aitcheson, though it&rsquos often assumed that this battle secured England for William, in fact 1066 &ndash for all its bloodshed and political drama &ndash was merely the beginning of the Conquest, and Hastings only its opening engagement. Here, he explores the aftermath of 1066…

This competition is now closed

Published: October 14, 2016 at 7:59 am

For several years after the battle of Hastings, England was riven by conflict as the invaders fought to extend and consolidate their rule in the face of native resistance and incursions from outside the kingdom.

In the weeks immediately following the battle, William ravaged the southern shires before marching on London. Having secured the city’s submission that December, he was crowned king of the English on Christmas Day, ushering in a new French-speaking ruling dynasty.

Over the winter of 1069–70, the conflict reached its climax with brutal attacks on the civilian population of England – among the worst atrocities ever to take place on British soil. In a campaign that became known as the Harrying of the North, William’s knights comprehensively laid waste to Yorkshire and the neighbouring shires, razing entire villages and putting their inhabitants to the sword, slaughtering livestock and destroying stores of food.

This ‘scorched-earth’ operation was one of the defining episodes of the Conquest, not just from a military-political perspective but also because it shaped modern perceptions of the Normans as a tyrannical and merciless warrior class. But how had it reached the point that such brutal measures were considered necessary, and why was the north targeted?

Early difficulties

When William set sail from Normandy in 1066, he could not have dreamed of a more complete and decisive victory than that he won at Hastings. Harold lay dead, along with his brothers, Gyrth and Leofwine, and many other influential noblemen who might otherwise have helped continue the resistance struggle against William.

Yet in those early months of the Conquest, the invaders’ position was precarious. There may have been only 20,000 Normans in England – possibly fewer – attempting to control a country with a population of about two million. Outnumbered in a foreign land, it was perhaps to be anticipated that the conquerors’ paranoia should soon spill over into violence.

Some of this stemmed from misunderstanding. At William’s coronation, Norman guards stationed outside Westminster Abbey misconstrued the shouts of acclamation by Englishmen inside as hostile yells. Panicking, the guards set fire to neighbouring houses and called to those inside the church to flee to fight the flames. Only the clergy and William himself – trembling violently, we’re told – remained within to continue the ceremony.

It wasn’t long, however, before the first sparks of genuine insurrection flared. In the summer of 1067, while William was absent from England, a then named Eadric (known as se wilda – ‘the Wild’) joined forces with King Bleddyn of Gwynedd and King Rhiwallon of Powys to launch raids on the Normans in Herefordshire. Also that year the men of Kent, who had taken up arms against the invaders, joined forces with Eustace, count of Boulogne, who sailed across the Channel and attacked Dover but was swiftly repelled.

The unrest continued into the following year. In the early weeks of 1068 the citizens of Exeter – including Harold’s mother, Gytha – rose up, and sent letters to other towns in the south-west exhorting them to do the same. In response William laid siege to the city, which held out for just 18 days before surrendering. A few months later, Harold’s sons launched raids on Somerset, Devon and Cornwall with a fleet of 52 ships. They pillaged widely but failed to establish a foothold – if, indeed, that was ever their intention – and withdrew to Ireland with their plunder.

Co-ordinated resistance

Up to that point, the risings had been local in nature and were swiftly suppressed before any significant damage could be done. Concerted and widespread rebellion against Norman rule was slow to develop, perhaps due to a lack of clear leadership in the aftermath of Hastings. However, in the summer of 1068 at last a more cohesive resistance began to take shape.

The principal instigators were Edwin and Morcar, the titular earls of Mercia and Northumbria respectively, whose authority had been severely curbed since 1066. Under the new regime they exercised little real power, and William had handed over parts of their earldoms to his supporters.

Several Northumbrian nobles rallied to Edwin and Morcar’s cause, as did Bishop Æthelwine of Durham and King Bleddyn of Gwynedd. One of our principal sources for this period, Orderic Vitalis, wrote that the leading men of both England and Wales came together and sent out messengers across Britain to foment insurgency. “A general outcry arose against the injustice and tyranny which the Normans and their comrades-in-arms had inflicted on the English,” he wrote. “All were ready to conspire together to recover their former liberty.”

Despite such efforts, the rebellion proved to be short-lived resistance quickly crumbled as William swept through the English Midlands. In an effort to impose control, the Conqueror established castles in major English towns: Warwick, Nottingham, York, Lincoln, Huntingdon and Cambridge.

Nevertheless, it was the first large-scale coordinated resistance the Normans had faced, and a sign of things to come. Even by early 1069, William’s hold on England was not assured indeed, he was still not master of the entire kingdom – his authority extended no farther north than York. Beyond lay the vast and troublesome region of Northumbria, which had thus far resisted his attempts to bring it under his control – and it was from there that the greatest threat to his rule would emerge.

The crisis of 1069

William’s early attempts to assert control over the Northumbrians had seen him appoint native English earls – first Copsig, then Gospatric – to govern them. Both appointments had been dismal failures: Copsic was assassinated by a rival in 1067, while Gospatric defected in 1068 to support Edwin and Morcar. Finally, in January 1069, William sent one of his own men, Robert Cumin, at the head of an army to take the region by force – only for the Norman troops to be ambushed and slaughtered at Durham.

Worse was to come. In the summer of 1069 the Normans found themselves at the centre of a perfect storm as their many enemies all began marching at once. Foremost among those foes was a coalition of Northumbrian noblemen, including Gospatric but headed by Edgar Ætheling, grandson of the short-reigning King Edmund Ironside (r1016). Edgar, still only around 17 years old in 1069, Edgar had bid for the crown before: in 1066, after Harold’s death, he had been briefly acclaimed king by Archbishop Ealdred of York, backed by Edwin, Morcar and the men of London.

The Northumbrian threat was compounded in August when a Danish invasion fleet numbering some 240 or 300 ships (depending on which source we believe) arrived in the Humber, from where Vikings had previously launched several invasion attempts. The Northumbrians and Danes swiftly formed an alliance, and together attacked York.

Meanwhile there was further trouble on the Welsh border, where Eadric the Wild had once more allied himself with the Welsh kings, and also this time with the men of Chester. The men of Devon and Cornwall were in revolt at the same time, though it’s unlikely that these risings were all co-ordinated rather, the impression given by the sources is that their timing was coincidental. Nonetheless, the crisis tested the Normans to the limit and marked a crucial turning point in the Conquest.

Leaving his deputies to tackle the insurrection in the south-west, William first confronted Eadric and his allies, crushing them at Stafford, before marching north. He reached York a little before Christmas only to find that, on hearing of his approach, the Northumbrians and their Danish allies had strategically withdrawn, the former to hiding places in the hills and woods, the latter to their ships on the Humber.

Frustrated by his failure to meet his principal enemies in battle, William was forced to adopt a new strategy. First, he secretly approached the Danes, promising them a vast amount of silver and gold if they would leave England in the spring, to which they readily agreed. William then turned his attention to the recalcitrant Northumbrians. Shortly after Christmas 1069 he divided his army into raiding parties, which he dispatched to carry out the now infamous Harrying of the North.

Shock and awe

The objective of the campaign was twofold. First, William sought to flush out and eliminate the Northumbrian rebels. More importantly, by comprehensively destroying the region’s resources, he sought to put an end to the cycle of rebellions in the north by ensuring that any future insurgents – or invading Viking armies – would lack the means to support themselves.

In a way, it was an admission that his previous policies regarding the northerners had failed. On two occasions he had installed one of their own to govern them – both times without success – and his single attempt to take the region by force had proved a costly disaster. In the end, William seems to have decided on a destructive strategy: if Northumbria could not be his, he would leave nothing there for his enemies.

The Harrying was as efficient as it was effective. William’s armies, we’re told, spread out over a territory that spanned 100 miles, reaching as far north even as the River Tyne. The 12th-century chronicler John of Worcester wrote that food was so scarce in the aftermath that people were reduced to eating not just horses, dogs and cats but also human flesh.

Orderic Vitalis, a contemporary of John, claims that as many as 100,000 people perished as a result of famine in the following months – a significant proportion of the total population of England. Though we might be rightly suspicious of Orderic’s round total, a figure somewhere in the tens of thousands is not hard to believe – which would make the death toll of the Harrying comparable in magnitude to that of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima in 1945.

While Yorkshire and the north-east bore the brunt of William’s wrath, parts of Lincolnshire, Cheshire, Staffordshire and Shropshire also suffered. The resulting refugee crisis saw survivors fleeing as far south as Evesham Abbey in Worcestershire, where a camp was established by Abbot Æthelwig, who ensured that food was distributed to the survivors. The abbey’s chronicle relates, though, that many of those starving folk died not long after their arrival “through eating the food too ravenously”, and that the monks had to bury five or six people every day.

The affected region took a long time to recover. Symeon of Durham, another 12th-century author, wrote that for nine years after the Harrying no village between York and Durham was inhabited, and that the countryside remained empty and uncultivated. Even 16 years after the event, in 1086, when the great systematic survey of England known as Domesday Book was compiled, one-third of the available land in Yorkshire was still listed as vasta (waste).

Over the course of just a few weeks, then, William not only clearly demonstrated the punishment awaiting those who rose against him, but also snuffed out any remaining hopes the rebels might still have of someday driving out the invaders. It’s true that there were further risings in the years to come, but William never again faced a crisis of the same magnitude as he did in 1069.

What Hastings had heralded, the Harrying confirmed. The Normans were here to stay.

James Aitcheson studied history at Emmanuel College, Cambridge. He is the author of four novels set during the Norman conquest the latest, The Harrowing (Heron, 2016), follows five English refugees fleeing the Normans during the Harrying of the North.

To listen to our podcast on the story and legacy of the Norman Conquest, click here.

William the Conqueror & the Ely Rebellion - History


Ely began life as an island, effectively isolated by the surrounding fens. Its name means Isle of Eels, for the eels which swam in the waters surrounding it. So abundant were the eels that they were used as currency in the past. Imagine paying your rent in eels!

It was the isolation of Ely which attracted the last great "English" hero to hold out against the Norman invaders. Hereward the Wake used Ely as his base during his bitter rebellion against William the Conqueror. The rebellion lasted several years against the superior Norman forces, before Hereward was finally defeated, or as some histories suggest, bribed to stop.

It was not until the Fens were drained in the 17th and 18th centuries that Ely's isolation ended. The cathedral still rises above the surrounding flat land like a beacon, calling to pilgrims.

There is more to Ely than the cathedral, however, though the cathedral is reason enough to visit. Several fine medieval buildings grace the city, notably the Bishop's Palace, King's School, and St. Michael's.

Oliver Cromwell once lived in Ely, and his 14th-century half-timbered house is now home to the local Tourist Information Centre.

Near Ely is another remarkable church, this time in ruins. Crowland Abbey was once the grandest abbey in the country. It was founded by King Ethelbald of Mercia in memory of his kinsman, St. Guthlac, who lived here as a hermit until his death in 714.

Ely is a peaceful small town, filled with beautiful Georgian buildings.

What to see

  • The Bishop's Palace - the 15th-century residence of the Bishops of Ely.
  • Ely Cathedral - One of the finest Norman cathedrals in Britain.
  • Ely Museum - In the Old Gaol House.
  • Oliver Cromwell's House - Home to Cromwell from 1636-46 - a fine half-timbered house.
  • Stained Glass Museum - In the Cathedral

Also, see our more in-depth look at Ely and the cathedral.

Most photos are available for licensing, please contact Britain Express image library.

About Ely
Address: Ely, Cambridgeshire, England
Attraction Type: Town
Location map
OS: TL537 803
Photo Credit: David Ross and Britain Express


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Hereward the Wake

The legendary Hereward the Wake, the guerrilla leader who headed Anglo- Saxon resistance to William the Conqueror for five years has been called one of history's "greatest Englishmen".

The earliest references to his parentage are found in the Gesta Herewardi, which records he was the son of Edith, a descendant of Oslac of York. It is also been stated that Leofric, Earl of Mercia and his wife Lady Godiva were Hereward's parents, however, little credence is given to this theory. Abbot Brand of Peterborough is said to have been the uncle of Hereward. Recent research by Peter Rex has put forward the plausible theory that Hereward may have been the son of a prominent Anglo-Danish magnate called Asketil, the brother of Abbot Brand.

Hereward the Wake

His contemporary, Leofric the Deacon described Hereward as- 'comely in aspect, very beautiful from his yellow hair, and with large grey eyes, the right eye slightly different in colour to the left but he was stern of feature, and somewhat stout, from the great sturdiness of his limbs, but very active for his moderate stature, and in all his limbs was found a complete vigour. There was in him also from his youth much grace and strength of body and from practice of this when a young man the character of his valour showed him a perfect man, and he was excellently endowed in all things with the grace of courage and valour of mind. '

The Domesday Book confirms that a man named Hereward held lands at Witham on the Hill and Barholm with Stow in the southwestern corner of Lincolnshire as a tenant of Peterborough Abbey. Before his exile, Hereward had lands as a tenant of Croyland Abbey at Crowland, eight miles to the east of Market Deeping in the neighbouring fenland.

Known in his own time as Hereward the Outlaw, the epithet "the Wake" is first mentioned in the late fourteenth-century Peterborough Chronicle, which could either derive from 'watchful' or from the Wake family, Norman landowners who acquired his lands in Bourne, Lincolnshire, after his death, they claimed descent from Hereward's daughter by his second wife, Alftruda.

Hereward the Wake

Primary sources on Hereward's exploits are either brief or sometimes enigmatic. They consist of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, the Domesday Book, the Liber Eliensis (Book of Ely), and much the most detailed, the Gesta Herwardi Saxonis ('Deeds of Hereward the Saxon'), compiled by monastic scholars in the eleventh century.

Hereward, by all accounts, a hot-headed young man, was exiled from England at the age of eighteen for disobedience to his father and was declared an outlaw by the Saxon King Edward the Confessor. After spending some time in military activity on the continent as a mercenary for the Count of Flanders, Hereward returned to England following the Norman conquest, either in late 1069 or 1070 to discover his family's lands had been confiscated and given to the Norman Ivo de Taillebuis and his father and brother killed, his brother's decapitated head was placed on a spike at the entrance to his house.

Overhearing Normans ridiculing his countrymen at a drunken feast, Hereward exacted a bloody revenge for his family, with the aid of only one follower, he is said to have killed fourteen of them. The next day fourteen Norman heads had replaced that of his brother at the gate. He then went to Peterborough Abbey where he was knighted by his uncle Abbot Brand. After returning briefly to the continent while the heated situation cooled, he returned again to England.

In 1070, Hereward took part in a rebellion against Norman rule which centred on the Isle of Ely. The Danish king Sweyn Estrithson sent a small army to try to establish a camp on the Isle of Ely, where Hereward joined them. Brand had been replaced at Peterborough Abbey by a Norman abbot, Turold of Fecamp. With the aid of the Danes, ‘Hereward and his crew’ stormed and sacked Peterborough Abbey, claiming that he wished to save the Abbey's treasures from the rapacious Normans.

William the Conqueror led an army to Ely, where Hereward, joined by a small army led by Morcar, the former Saxon Earl of Northumbria, made a desperate stand. Ely at that time was an island in the fenland, William was foiled on three occasions by Hereward in his attempts to build a causeway across the impassable marshes, known as the Aldreth Causeway. However, during William's first attack the weight of the troops on the bridge was so great that the causeway sank and many soldiers drowned.

The legends surrounding Hereward state that the third time, while William was encamped at Brandon, Hereward rode there, meeting a potter, whom he persuaded to exchange clothes, in disguise and carrying their potter's wares, he daringly managed to enter William's camp and overheard his plans. William even went as far as employing a witch to curse the band of Saxon rebels. Following the construction of William's third causeway, his troops proceeded along it in an attempt to take Ely, Hereward's men, who lay hidden in the reeds, set fire to the area, engulfing the Normans in flames, those who tried to escape were either drowned or killed by Anglo-Saxon arrows.

On the eighth day, they all advanced to attack the island with their entire force, placing the witch in an elevated position in their midst. Once mounted she harangued the isle and its inhabitants for a long time, denouncing saboteurs and suchlike and casting spells for their overthrow. And when she had gone through this disgusting ceremony three times, as she had proposed, the men who had hidden all around the swamp. set the reeds on fire' -Gesta Herewardi.

The Normans then bribed Abbot Thurstan of Ely to reveal a safe path across the marshes, which resulted in Ely at last being taken. Morcar was captured and imprisoned, but Hereward managed to escape into the wild fenland.

Several conflicting accounts exist as to Hereward's fate thereafter, the Gesta Herewardi states that while attempting to negotiate with William he was provoked into a fight which led to his capture and imprisonment, however, he was later liberated by his friends while in the course of being transferred from one castle to another. Hereward's former gaoler persuaded the king to negotiate again, and he was eventually pardoned by William. The Estoire des Engleis, written by Geoffrey Gaimar claims Hereward lived for some time as an outlaw in the Fens, but that as he was on the verge of making peace with William, he was set upon and killed by a group of Norman knights. Even after his death, people still visited a wooden castle in the Fens that was known to the peasants as Hereward's Castle.

William the Conqueror

Life of William the Conqueror - Death of William the Conqueror - Short Biography of William the Conqueror - Bio of William the Conqueror - Genealogy - Lineage - Nickname - Born - Died - English - England - Monarch - Royal - Royalty - Famous Medieval King of the Middle Ages - History and interesting Information about William the Conqueror - Facts - Info - Era - Life - Times - Period - Famous Accomplishments - England - Age - Middle Ages - Medieval - King of England - Key Dates and events - English King - William the Conqueror Achievements - Life of William the Conqueror - Death of William the Conqueror - Short Biography of William the Conqueror - Bio of William the Conqueror - Life Story - Genealogy - Lineage - Nickname - Born - Died - English - England - Story - Monarch - Royal - Royalty - Achievements - Story about William the Conqueror - Famous Medieval King of the Middle Ages - History and interesting Information about William the Conqueror - Facts - Info - Era - Life - Family - Father - Mother - Children - Times - Period - England - Age - Middle Ages - Medieval - King of England - English King - Famous Accomplishments - Story of William the Conqueror - Key Dates and events in the life of William the Conqueror - Written By Linda Alchin

William the Conqueror and the Feudal System

After the Battle of Hastings the Normans, led by William the Conqueror and his army now marched on Dover where he remained for a week. He then went north calling in on Canterbury before arriving on the outskirts of London. He met resistance in Southwark and in an act of revenge set fire to the area. Londoners refused to submit to William so he turned away and marched through Surrey, Hampshire and Berkshire. He ravaged the countryside and by the end of the year the people of London, surrounded by devastated lands, began to consider the possibility of surrender. (1)

According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a group of senior figures, including Earl Edwin of Mercia, Earl Morcar of Northumbria, Edgar Etheling, Ealdred, Archbishop of York and "all the best men from London, who submitted from force of circumstances. They gave him hostages and swore oaths of fealty, and he promised to be a gracious lord to them." On 25th December, 1066, William was crowned king of England at Westminster Abbey. (2)

After his coronation, William the Conqueror claimed that all the land in England now belonged to him. William retained about a fifth of this land for his own use. Another 25% went to the Church. The rest were given to 170 tenants-in-chief (or barons), who had helped him defeat Harold at the Battle of Hastings. These barons had to provide armed men on horseback for military service. The number of knights a baron had to provide depended on the amount of land he had been given.

When William granted land to a baron an important ceremony took place. The baron knelt before the king and said: "I become your man." He then placed his hand on the Bible and promised to remain faithful for the rest of his life. The baron would then carry out similar ceremonies with his knights. By the time William and his barons had finished distributing land there were about 6,000 manors in England. Manors varied in size, some having only one village, while others had several villages within its territory.

Norman Feuldal System

Richard FitzGilbert is an example of someone who did very well out of the Norman invasion. Richard had the same mother as William the Conqueror, Herleva of Falaise. His father, Gilbert, Count of Brionne, one of the most powerful landowners in Normandy. As Herleva was not married to Gilbert, the boy became known as Richard FitzGilbert. The term 'Fitz' was used to show that Richard was the illegitimate son of Gilbert. (3)

When Robert, Duke of Normandy, William's father died in 1035, William the Conqueror, inherited his father's title. Several leading Normans, including Gilbert of Brionne, Osbern the Seneschal and Alan of Brittany, became William's guardians. A number of Norman barons would not accept an illegitimate son as their leader and in 1040 an attempt was made to kill William. The plot failed but they did manage to kill Gilbert of Brionne. As Richard was illegitimate, he did not receive very much land when his father died. (4)

When William the Conqueror, decided to invade England in 1066, he invited his three half-brothers, Richard FitzGilbert, Odo of Bayeux and Robert of Mortain to join him. Richard, who had married Rohese, daughter of Walter Giffard of Normandy, also brought with him members of his wife's family.

Richard FitzGilbert, was granted land in Kent, Essex, Surrey, Suffolk and Norfolk. In exchange for this land. Richard had to promise to provide the king with sixty knights. In order to supply these knights, barons divided their land up into smaller units called manors. These manors were then passed on to men who promised to serve as knights when the king needed them. (5)

Richard FitzGilbert, Earl of Clare estates (1066-86)

Richard FitzGilbert was given the title, the Earl of Clare. The baron often lived in a castle at the centre of his estates. FitzGilbert built castles at Tonbridge (Kent), Clare (Suffolk), Bletchingley (Surrey) and Hanley (Worcester). His knights normally lived in the manor that they had been granted. Once or twice a year, FitzGilbert would visit his knights to check the manor accounts and to collect the profits that the land had made. (6)

Barons often kept about a third of the land in the manor for their own use (the demesne). Another large area was given to the knight who looked after the manor. The rest was divided up between the church (the glebe land) and the peasants who lived in the village. Those peasants who were freeman would rent the land for an agreed fee. However, the vast majority of the peasants were unfree. These unfree peasants, who were called villeins or serfs, had to provide a whole range of services in exchange for the land that they used. The main requirement of the serf was to supply labour service. This involved working on the demesne without pay for several days a week. As well as free labour, serfs also had to provide the oxen plough-team or any equipment that was needed.

Defending his Empire

In 1067 William and his army went on a tour of England where he organised the confiscating of lands, built castles and established law and order. His chroniclers claim that he met no opposition during his travels around the country. After appointing his half-brother Odo of Bayeux, and William FitzOsbern, as co-regents, William went to Normandy in March 1067.

While he was away, disturbances broke out in Kent, Herefordshire, and in the north of the country. William returned to England in December, 1067, and over the next few months the rebellions were put down. However, in 1068, another insurrection, led by Harold's sons, took place at Exeter. Once again he successfully defeated the rebels. Afterwards he built castles in Exeter and other key towns. This included Durham which was the scene of a rebellion in 1069. (7)

William also had to deal with raids on the north led by King Sweyn of Denmark. In September 1069, Sweyn's fleet sailed into the Humber and burnt York. William's army forced the Danes to retreat and then crushed another uprising in Staffordshire. He then burnt crops, house and property of people living between York and Durham. The chroniclers claim that the area was turned into a desert and people died of starvation. The revolt finally came to an end when William's troops captured Chester in 1070. A. L. Morton argues that "the greater part of Yorkshire and Durham was laid waste and remained almost unpeopled for a generation". (8)

In 1071 another revolt broke out. Led by Hereward the rebels captured the Isle of Ely. He held out in the fen country for more than a year. During this period Earl Edwin of Mercia and Earl Morcar of Northumbria, were killed. William personally led the Norman army against Hereward. He managed to escape but William punished the rebels he caught with mutilation and lifelong imprisonment and built a new castle at Ely. (9)

William returned to Normandy in 1073 and later that year conquered Maine. While he was away Waltheof, the Earl of Northumbria, began to conspire against him. Geoffrey of Coutances led the fight against the uprising and afterwards ordered that all rebels should have their right foot cut off. Waltheof was arrested: "His motives, even his actions, were uncertain at the time and have been contentious ever since. Waltheof certainly did not rebel openly. It may have been simply (as one later version had it) that he knew about a conspiracy against the king and was slow in reporting it, or (following another account) that he went along with the plot when it was first put to him, only to have immediate reservations and throw himself on the king's mercy." William had him executed - the only time capital punishment was inflicted on an English leader during his reign. (10)

In 1077 William's eldest son, Robert Curthose, suggested that he should become the ruler of Normandy and Maine. When the king refused, Robert rebelled and attempted to seize Rouen. The rebellion failed and Robert was forced to flee and established himself at Gerberoi. William besieged him there in 1080 but his wife, Matilda of Flanders, managed to persuade the two men to end their feud. (11)

Odo of Bayeux had been left in control of England while William was in Normandy. In 1082 William heard complaints about Odo's behaviour. He returned to England and Odo was arrested and charged with misgovernment and oppression. It was also claimed that Odo was preparing an expedition to Rome to become pope after Gregory VII. Found guilty he was kept in prison for the next five years. (12)

The Domesday Book

In 1085 William returned to England to deal with a suspected invasion by King Canute IV of Denmark. While waiting for the attack to take place he decided to order a comprehensive survey of his kingdom. There were three main reasons why William decided to order a survey. (1) The information would help William discover how much the people of England could afford to pay in tax. (2) The information about the distribution of the population would help William plan the defence of England against possible invaders. (3) There was a great deal of doubt about who owned some of the land in England. William planned to use this information to help him make the right judgements when people were in dispute over land ownership. (13)

William sent out his officials to every town, village and hamlet in England. They asked questions about the ownership of land, animals and farm equipment and also about the value of the land and how it was used. When the information was collected it was sent to Winchester where it was recorded in a book. About a hundred years after it was produced the book became known as the Domesday Book. Domesday means "day of judgement".

William's survey was completed in only seven months. When William knew who the main landowners were, he arranged a meeting for them at Salisbury. At this meeting on 1st August, 1086, he made them all swear a new oath that they would always obey their king. John F. Harrison, the author of The Common People (1984) points out that "from this unique document we have an unparalleled picture of early medieval society in England, including much about the peasantry." (14)

In later life William became very fat. In 1087 William was told that King Philip of France described him as looking like a pregnant woman. William was furious and on mounted an attack on the king's territory. On 15th August he captured Mantes and set fire to the town. Soon afterwards he fell from his horse and suffered internal injuries. Ordericus Vitalis said that as he was "very corpulent" he "fell sick from the excessive heat and his great fatigues". (15)

William was taken to the priory of St. Gervase. Close to death, he directed that Robert Curthose should succeed him in Normandy and William Rufus should become king of England. William said on his deathbed that "I tremble when I reflect on the grievous sins which burden my conscience, and now, about to be summoned before the awful tribunal of God, I know not what I ought to do. I was too fond of war. I was bred to arms from my childhood, and I am stained with the rivers of blood that I have shed." (16)

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