(born 1027, ruled 1066–87), called William the Conqueror, was an illegitimate son of Robert I, duke of Normandy. His mother was a tanner's daughter. William succeeded his father when he was only seven years old. At 24 he had made himself the mightiest feudal lord in all France by various conquests, but his ambition was not satisfied. He laid plans to become king of England also.
William married Matilda, daughter of Baldwin V, count of Flanders, in 1053. She was descended from the old Anglo-Saxon line of kings. Among their children were four sons: Robert, future duke of Normandy; Richard, who died as a youth; William Rufus, who succeeded his father as king of England; and Henry, who succeeded William Rufus. One daughter, Adela, became the mother of England's King Stephen.
Edward the Confessor, king of England, was William's cousin. William used his connection with Flanders to put pressure on Edward to extort a promise that he would become heir to the English throne. It is probable that Edward made some kind of pledge to William as early as 1051. Edward died childless on Jan. 5, 1066. William then claimed the throne on the basis of this promise. The English, however, chose Harold, earl of Wessex, as their king.
William prepared a large expedition and set sail for England. On Oct. 14, 1066, he defeated and killed Harold at Hastings in one of the decisive battles of the world (see Hastings, Battle of). Then he marched on London, and on Christmas day he was crowned king.
After subduing England's powerful earls, William seized their lands for his Norman nobles and ordered the nobles to build fortified stone castles to protect their lands. As payment for their fiefs, the nobles supplied the king with armed knights. French became the language of the king's court and gradually blended with the Anglo-Saxon tongue.
William won the loyalty of the mass of the people by wisely retaining the old Anglo-Saxon laws, courts, and customs with only a few changes. Thus the principle of self-government, which lies at the root of the political system of English-speaking peoples, was preserved and strengthened. At the same time, William taught the English the advantages of a central government strong enough to control feudal lords.
Toward the end of his reign, William ordered a great census to be taken of all the lands and people of England. This survey was called the Domesday Book. The original may still be seen at the National Archives in Kew, Surrey. “So very narrowly did he cause the survey to be made,” complained the old Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, “that there was not a single rood of land, nor an ox, or a cow, or a pig passed by, and that was not set down in the accounts.”
William was often on the continent dealing with his widespread holdings. He died there in 1087 from injuries received while warring with Philip I of France. William was a man of great stature and had a tremendous voice. Such was the good order he established that, according to a quaint historian of his time, “any man, who was himself aught, might travel over the kingdom with a bosom of gold unmolested, and no man durst kill another, however great the injury he might have received from him.” He was succeeded in Normandy by his eldest son, Robert, and in England by his second son, William II, called William Rufus.
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