William The Conqueror 1066

William The Conqueror

The year 1066 was a very important one in history of British. In that year two English kings died and an invader captured the throne. 'By the splendour of God I have taken possession of my realm; the earth of England is in my two hands.' With those words William leapt ashore as he invaded Anglo Saxon England in September
1066. His forces met the English army led by King Harold at the Battle of Hastings. After a gruelling fight, King Harold was killed and William became the first Norman King Of England. Harold had been king for only ten months. What right had William, who did not even speak English, to be England's king? He was ambitious and being a king was more important than being a duke. He claimed that the previous English king, Edward the Confessor (r.1042-66), who had grown up in Normandy, had promised that William would be the next king. But, when Edward died in January 1066, it was Earl Harold of Wessex, a powerful and popular Anglo Saxon noble, who was crowned as the new king. So William invaded England and settled the matter by force.

Conquering the land

Following his coronation on Christmas Day 1066, at Westminster Abbey, William sent his Norman soldiers to every part of the kingdom. Their task was to establish strongholds by building castles and dealing with anyone who would not accept William as king. At first, William tried to rule with the cooperation of the Anglo Saxons, but the greed of his Norman nobles for land soon caused bitter resistance. Although William was a religious man and fair to his friends, he was brutal towards his enemies. When English rebels burnt down a Norman castle at York in 1069, William was furious. He ordered his soldiers to destroy every village, to burn the crops and to kill all the animals over a wide area. This was called the 'harrying of the north' and led to a terrible famine in which many people died from starvation. This is how a monk, Simeon of Durham, described the event:
'It was horrific to see human bodies rotting in the houses and the roads, and there was a terrible smell and a great silence fell over the land.'

Feudalism and homage

William rewarded his Norman supporters by giving them land that he had seized from the English. This helped ensure that they stayed loyal. They shared out some of their land to other Norman soldiers in a system known as feudalism. In return for this land everyone had to promise loyalty and service to the king. This was called homage.

The Conqueror dies

Even as one of the England Kings, William still gave a great deal of attention to his lands in France. In 1087 he attacked a French town whose soldiers had raided his land. He ordered his men to burn down the entire town. As he rode through the burning ruins a hot cinder made his horse stumble. William was thrown off and seriously hurt. He knew he was dying. As he remembered his many cruel deeds, we are told, he became frightened of facing God. On his death bed he is supposed to have said: ‘ I persecuted the native inhabitants of England beyond all reason, I am stained with the rivers of blood that I have shed.'

Extract from “Medieval Britain, Medieval Monarchs”, written by Nigel Smith. East Sussex: Wayland Ltd, 1996.

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