William the Conqueror’s Good Intentions

The trauma of William the Conqueror’s invasion of England resonated for centuries.  But England had seen other invading kings – not least Cnut, only fifty years before.  What was different about William?

William the Conqueror, depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry. Pic Wikimedia Commons

William didn’t see himself as a brutal invader.  He believed he had the divine right to be King of England, and simply could not understand why his subjects did not love and obey him.

Believing in his divine right, he hired troops to force obedience.  And while some of those troops were honourable professionals, others were mercenary ‘chancers’ – men taking a chance to win wealth.  

Often these chancers were second or third sons, who, under the custom of ‘first son inherits all’ prevalent on the Continent, had nothing.  William recruited them not only from Normandy, but from surrounding French-speaking territories.  The greed of these chancers launched a spiral of wrongs that led William to war crimes, and the English to sorrow and woe.

The first step was that William did not become King immediately after winning the Battle of Hastings in 1066.  While William sat in his tent at Hastings waiting for the English to bring him his crown, the English gathered in London to choose Edgar, a teenage scion of the House of Wessex, for their next king.

William retaliated by terrorising a great swathe of villages around London.  That violence forced the surviving English administration to ‘submit’.  Having surrendered under duress, they did not feel the natural loyalty to William that he desired.

And because the English had not rushed to welcome him, William decided to punish those he declared were ‘traitors’.  The lands of all everyone who fought against him at Hastings – indeed, of all those who did not swear fealty now – were forfeit.

William used these forfeit lands to reward his mercenaries, those French-speaking chancers who had followed him.

And the widows, the orphans, those who might rightfully expect to remain in their homes and inherit the lands of their dead husbands and fathers?

Sometimes, says Freeman1 in his majestic study of the Conquest, a widow ‘obtained a grant of some portion’.  In other cases, he adds, “The widow or daughter of the former owner was constrained to give herself and her lands to a foreign husband.”

William thought it an excellent idea to marry his men to widows and heiresses: they could stay in their homes, and the plan lent legitimacy and continuity to his men inheriting the land.  Further, he believed, it would ‘blend the races’ of his two dominions, uniting them as one.

How sadly his plan backfired.  While chancers grabbed the opportunity to become landowners, few women wished to marry men who had slaughtered their friends and family.  And here is the terrible part – the women ‘were constrained’.  Women fled to nunneries, writes historian Marc Morris2, ‘To avoid rape.’

This shows how deeply the invaders were loathed.  Because marriage then was not as we understand it today.  As Richard Fletcher3 explains, “Marriage, let there be misunderstanding about it, was a business choice for the two families concerned.  It was not a matter for individual choice.  Still less was it a matter for romance…”

But even in this environment, women did not want to ‘marry’ a man from the army that had killed their husbands, sons, and friends.  As the women fled, the invaders took possession of the land anyway. 

Hence, the greed and lust of William’s mercenaries provoked more resentment, in turn fuelling more rebellion from the English – and ever harsher punishments from William.

In the north, as far as I can discover, there were no nunneries at this period.  In fact, the most famous shrine in Northumbria, St Cuthbert’s in Durham, specifically didn’t allow women to enter.  Hence, northern women had no sanctuary to flee to.

Women were forbidden to visit the shrine of St Cuthbert, northern England’s patron saint.
Pic wikimedia commons

What must it have been like to live through such times?

Read more about the Norman conquest in Yorkshire in my guest blog at https://englishhistoryauthors.blogspot.com/


1 The History of The Norman Conquest, its causes and results, vol IV, by Edward A Freeman

2  The Norman Conquest, the Battle of Hastings and fall of Anglo Saxon England by Marc Morris

3 Bloodfeud by Richard Fletcher

About Helen Johnson

Freelance writer specialising in Yorkshire's history and heritage.

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