William the Conqueror is paradoxically the most familiar name in English history and yet the least known of all kings.
He is just taken for granted — a legend with a famous date and a famous battle. Before 1066, he was not called William the Conqueror, but William the Bastard — at least behind his back.
In his youth he was taunted by sneering hecklers. True, he was the son of Robert the Magnificent, Duke of Normandy and his beautiful mistress, Arletta. But born in 1024, William, though illegitimate, was favored by his father and cosseted and treasured by his mother Arletta.
Although Robert the Magnificent later would wed Estreth, daughter of King Canute of England, there was no issue. Robert decreed his heir and next Duke would be his baby son, William — despite the illegitimacy.
He made the Norman lords swear their loyalty and fealty to the son. But Robert didn’t remain in Normandy to solidify his son’s claim. He embarked on a crusade to Jerusalem to bring blessings and holy glory to himself and his family. But at age 25 in 1035, he died, leaving the 8-year old boy fatherless.
The Norman lords broke their oaths and tried to hunt down William and kill him. Arlette hid him deep in the Normandy forest in woodchoppers’ huts, who rotated the hiding places — unaware that he was the Duke.
A brave and fearless teenager, he had to defeat the forces of rival Norman claimants to nail down his dukedom of Normandy. Now, “Norman” is a corruption of “Norse-man,” a Viking from the North.
Their Norman forebears were Viking pirates who had ransacked and pillaged southwest France. The Norsemen conquered the region and made it their ducal realm.
But it was the French who “conquered” them. The Viking pirates invaded as bearded pagans, speaking Norse (akin to Danish).
After five generations, they were clean-shaven, Christians worshipping Jesus, not Odan or Thor, and speaking French, not Norse.
At age 22,William fell blindly in love with Matilda. He had other girlfriends, but he became smitten with Matilda, the daughter of Baldwin V of Flanders and Adelise of France, the great-great granddaughter of Charlemagne. The count was dead set against his fair, slim and comely daughter wedding this “bastard” from Normandy. But his adamant opposition only increased William’s ardor.
He carried her off as his bride, but now Pope Leo IX refused to sanction the marriage. He placed an interdict as a result of William’s defiance.
The interdict was a terrible thing. Doors of the Norman churches were barred with intertwined branches closing them to worshippers. But William persisted. He enlisted his clergy friend, Lanfranc, to persuade the new Pope, Nicholas II, to lift the ban.
Lanfranc gained the confidence of the new Pope, and it was after long negotiations that he arranged that William and Matilda would build four hospitals for the sick, blind, and aged in the chief Norman towns, Rouen, Bayeux. Caen and Cherbourg.
Thus came into being at Caen two of the noblest monuments of Romanesque art of the 11th century — one dedicated to St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, and the other to the Holy Trinity. The first Abbot of St. Stephen’s was William’s friend, Lanfranc.
Then followed the Duke’s conquest of neighboring Maine and defeat of the arrogant and ambitious Geoffrey of Anjou, chief vassal lord of King Henry of France. With French challenges to William vanquished, William now looked westward across the channel to England.
William had a favorite aunt, Emma, and he visited his famous great aunt Emma in 1050. Emma was now in her mid-60s. Lady Emma had been first married to Ethelred the Unready, one of the worst monarchs in English history.
“Unready” came from “redeless” meaning “without counsel” because he wouldn’t listen and blundered into folly.
Their son was Edward the Confessor. He was called that because of his chastity towards his wife, Emma perceived, in the same kingly weakness in son, the Confessor. Supposedly it was Aunt Emma who first planted the seeds of the English monarchy with William.
She happily concurred when the feckless Confessor named William as his English royal successor. But Harold, the son of Earl Godwin, could be a problem.
He was the dominant English earl when his father died. But Edward the Confessor, sents Harold to Normandy to confirm his recognition of William.
Before a relic of the Holy Cross and priests as witnesses, Harold delivered his oath to William in 1060. But when Edward the Confessor died in January 1066, he left a will that bequeathed his throne to Harold.
The Pope, Alexander, sided with William and sanctions his invasion of England. William assembled his fleet for invasion. They were fearsome ships with one mast and triangular sails and on their prow was a figurehead of a boar, stag or wolf, with William’s being a leopard.
They landed at Pevensey Bay, near Hastings, on Sept. 28, 1066. To their surprise, they met no resistance. Unknown to William, King Harold was fighting the Norwegian King Harald, who had landed in friendly Scotland and had moved south to York.
Harald of Norway dispatched a messenger with this boastful taunt to Harold of England: “How much of England should be given to me?” Harold’s reply said, “Seven feet of English ground, as you are taller than other men.” But the Norwegian Harald early fell to the ground an arrow through his throat. His armies rallied in hand-to-hand combat, but darkness came and they fled.
Harold’s army arrived at Hastings fresh from victory, but weary from battle and a forced march south. They chose a defensive position behind a wooden fortress on the heights of Senlac on Oct. 13.
The next morning, the whole multicolored army of William, their armor and banners flashing in the morning haze met with a terrible blast of trumpets and war cries from the Senlac hill.
In equally matched numbers of 7,000 men, William’s archers would supply the crucial difference. William ordered them to aim their shalfs high so that they dropped on English heads — atop their leather mailed defensive coats.
Among the first victims from arrows falling from the sky was King Harold. Almost blind, Harold tried to rally his English soldiers, but the advancing Normans with axes and swords hacked them to bits. After 10 hours, midnight neared and the blackness of dire defeat loomed for the embattled English.
William the Conqueror was crowned on Christmas Day, 1066, in the newly built Westminster Abbey by Edward the Confessor.
James Humes , a former White House speechwriter, is visiting historian at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and the author of "The Reagan Persuasion."
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