William the Conqueror: going out with a bang

Most astrophysicists hold that The Big Bang Theory is the leading explanation about how the universe began.

William The Conqueror: prior to 1066

Details of William’s life leading up to the famous date of 1066 are based on differing, conflicting, and often unreliable narratives. The medieval machinations and rivalries of the royals, the nobility, and the church are sometimes vague, sometimes ambiguous, and quite often almost impossible to unravel.

But what we do know is:

  • William’s early life was undoubtedly difficult.
  • European politics was complicated and dangerous.
  • Normandy was in political chaos—some historians have described it as anarchy.
  • It is believed that William was seven or eight when he became Duke of Normandy.
  • The epithet, “William the Bastard,” illustrates another problem—his illegitimate birth.

Contemporary written descriptions indicate a burly and robust appearance, and he became quite fat in later life. He was pious, a good horseman, he enjoyed hunting and appears to have been in excellent health until old age. There is no evidence of an interest in intellectual pursuits or scholarship.

William the Conqueror and Matilda of Flanders

There are several versions of a tempestuous courtship prior to marrying Matilda of Flanders. She became Queen of England and Duchess of Normandy when they married in 1051. She then bore William nine or ten children. He is believed to have been faithful and never produced a child outside their marriage—a rare trait in a medieval monarch.

There is absolutely no doubt that William’s conquest of England altered the course of English history. Rules concerning land tenure and military service changed—quite dramatically.

Building the Tower of London was started almost immediately. Many other castles, a concept virtually unknown in England prior to the Norman invasion, soon proliferated as a symbol of the new regime.

Even the clergy was ‘Normanised’.

William’s first task was the pacification of the North and he had to contend with significant resistance and several rebellions, as well as an attack by the Danes.

Introduction of The Feudal System

So, although he gained the reputation of being bloodthirsty and ruthless, there is no doubt that William was an able administrator. He introduced the feudal system to England.

The country was separated into sections of land under the control and management of a nobleman who had fought for him in battle. They were expected to take an oath, collect taxes in their region, and provide William with soldiers as required. But some of these land-packages were still too large to manage alone. Many were further divided and given, in turn, to trustworthy Norman knights. Each of these followers was required to collect taxes and provide soldiers to serve the nobleman in the same way as he served the king.

Many French words, usually associated with government, law, art, literature, and, especially food, entered the English language. Even today, it is estimated that English speakers know 15,000 or so French words before starting to learn French.

But perhaps William’s greatest achievement can be seen as having linked England, economically, socially, and culturally, with France. Unfortunately half of contemporary UK politicians and voters appear to disagree—some quite violently. Whatever the outcome of the current fraught political situation, Brexit appears poised to widen the gulf between Britain and the European Union.

William and the ‘smaller bang’

Finally, back to the smaller big bang as it applies to William.

ATTENTION: Be warned, some readers may find these closing sentences somewhat ‘scatological’ and even offensive.

His funeral at the Abbey of Saint-Étienne in Caen was a rather inauspicious event. It was plagued by mishaps. A fire broke out disrupting the cortege. There was an objection from a member of the congregation concerning who owned the land the church was built on.

The coffin was too short. The corpse was too long—and too fat. As he was being stuffed into the casket, his putrefying body and bloated bowels burst. When, metaphorically speaking, the excrement hit the fan, the evil-smelling intestines filled the church with a foul and nauseating smell. The stench was so overpowering that almost everyone fled.

What a bastard of a funeral! But nothing like going out with a bang, I suppose.

Do you have anything to add to the story/history of William the Conqueror? Please share in the Comments section below.

Image credits
1. Statue William the Conqueror via wikipedia
2. Tapisserie de Bayeux via Wikipedia
3. Hastings 1066 via Amazon
4. Tower of London via Wikipedia
5. Church of Saint Etienne – interior -via wikipedia

About the Contributor

Ray Johnstone

Ray is an artist & writer. His favourite subjects are nudes and portraits. Art holidays for groups & families are catered for in their 800-year-old house La Petite Galerie in Gascony. They also take up to 6 walkers on the 'best bits' of the Pilgrims Route to Compostela. Check out Ray's 100+ articles - he has his own column called 'Perspectives'

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