The Greatest People in History Series - William the Conqueror

One of the Greatest People in History

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How Much do You Really Know about William the Conqueror?

William the Conqueror's Castle in London

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The Greatest People in History - William the Conqueror

The Greatest People in History and What We Can Learn from Them - William the Conqueror

William the Conqueror was born in 1027, in a castle on a steep hill, that still stands today near the French town of Falaise. William's story is unlike most of the other stories I tell of the greatest people in history, both because of the time period and because William was born into great power and wealth unlike so many of the other great people I have covered. Nevertheless, he still deserves to be on this list as in order for him to attain such heights he had to endure adversity and overcome obstacles, both of which are the 2 main prerequisites for inclusion in this series.

A Lesson from William the Conqueror

This is not a history lesson nor even much of a biography. It is more of a short overview of William and his rise to greatness with the aim of first allowing you to know his background and his upbringing, for the sake of familiarity, followed up by a life lesson. I shall cover at least one of the obstacles William the Conqueror faced in his rise to fame and then explain how he was able to overcome the problem. Finally, I'll leave you with a life lesson that hopefully, you can take away and at the very least, think upon it and perhaps even implement it in your own life and affairs.

I have persecuted its native inhabitants beyond all reason. Whether gentle or simple, I have cruelly oppressed them; many I unjustly inherited; Innumerable multitudes, especially in the county of York, perished through me by famine or the sword." – William the Conqueror.

Little Known Facts about William the Conqueror

  • William was of Viking Origin, descended from Viking invaders that had pillaged Northern France in the late ninth and early tenth centuries.
  • He was known by many at the time as William the Bastard because he was the product of an affair between his father, Robert I Duke of Normandy and a woman named Herleva.
  • William could not speak English, even as king of England. As a result, French was spoken in England's courts. This went on for centuries and is the reason English is so unique today.
  • A strapping youth, William later became sensitive about his weight and size which ballooned later on in his life.
  • It is thought that millions of people are descended from William the Conqueror. Every English monarch since William the Conqueror is believed to be a descendent of the Norman-born king including Queen Elizabeth II.

Thrust into Kingship at an Early Age

William's father was the Duke of Normandy, Robert the Magnificent or, as he was called behind his back, Robert the Devil. Duke Robert was descended from the vikings, just as all rulers of Normandy were and he often displayed the fiery temper and aggressiveness so often associated with the Vikings. Even as a young child Robert had stabbed a tutor who dared to chide him for his laziness. Those traits appeared to be inherited by William too as people later said he showed his strength even as a newborn by the way he would clutch at the straw on the floor of the nursery where he lay. By the age of five he was already dominating all his little friends.

Robert the Devil had no other sons besides William, so when the father died on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, his kingdom fell to his eight-year-old heir. For years, he was kept in hiding to protect him from assassins.

By the time William was twenty and had assumed the full powers of Duke, there had been 2 major attempts on his life by the other lords of Normandy, who did not wish to be ruled by a boy. Both attempts were thwarted, however, due to those incidents, William became extremely mistrustful and from then on believed that if someone betrayed him, then he should show no mercy.

Harold Godwinson Swearing Fidelity to Duke William

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"See, I have taken England with both my hands." - William the Conqueror upon tripping and falling into the sand as he alighted from a boat.

William the Conqueror Invading England in 1066

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York Minster - William The Conqueror

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A lesson from William the Conqueror

The Battle of Hastings

Having gathered a massive force of 10,000 men from Normandy and all over Europe, by means of a rallying call that stretched right across Europe to Italy, William made plans to attack England in August, 1066. Those plans were thwarted, however, when strong gales in the channel destroyed many of his ships even before they had embarked. The invasion was delayed and subsequently didn't take place until September which although morale sapping for his men, actually turned out to be a blessing in disguise. The English troops, waiting on the coast for the Norman army ran out of food and had to be disbanded, leaving England open to the oncoming attack from the Normans. That same month, Norway invaded the north of England. Harold, forced to choose between two invasions, one underway and one on the way, sent his armies north to battle the Norwegians. Tostig, Harold's own brother had betrayed him and struck a deal with William, presumably in exchange for wealth and lands. While Harold was commiting his armies North and fighting off what appeared to be a Norwegian invasion force, the Duke of Normandy, William the Conqueror was preparing his invasion force in the south.

The Battle of Hastings Army Movements

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The Death of King Harold at the Battle of Hastings

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Location of the Battle of Hastings

A markerHastings -
Hastings, East Sussex, UK
[get directions]

This is where the fateful battle of Hastings was fought. King Harold was slain by an arrow that pierced his eye as legend would have it.

The Defeat of King Harold

Two hundred miles away in Yorkshire, Harold heard the news that the Normans had landed on his unprotected coast. He set out immediately, riding at full speed, his soldiers struggling to keep up with him. Within a week he was in London, where he gathered what new forces he could. They set out like lightening and seventy miles later they came upon the Normans in Hastings.

The Battle of Hastings lasted only one day, but it was a day in which years seemed to come and go. William and Harold started out with about the same number of men - 10,000 each - but English reinforcements trickled in from the countryside, hour by hour. The Normans were fresh and anxious for battle. They included the finest knights William had been able to find. The English soldiers ranged from the elite royal guard to the barely trained recruits of the locals. Most of them were weary from their march down the length of England, and they hadn't rested since the long hard battle with the Norwegians.

The Norman army, by far the fresher of the two armies soon began to gain a foothold in the battle and they sent volley after volley of Norman arrows raining down upon the English, one of which struck King Harold in the eye. The wound was a mortal one, however, Harold somehow managed to fight on valiantly until he was eventually slain by Norman swordsmen.

After the Battle of Hastings, William began his march of triumph through England, burning and killing as he went. Nowhere, did he meet strong resistance. There was no man in England who had the strength and leadership to unite its people. At last, a delegation of bishops and nobles came to his camp and offered William the throne. On Christmas Day, 1066, he was crowned William I of England in Westminster Abbey. When the crown was placed on his head, the nobles let up such a cheer that Norman soldiers outside made the dreadful mistake of thinking a riot had broken out. Many people were killed before order was restored.

The Coronation of William the Conqueror

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The Result of Having a Vision, Goals and the Iron Will to Do What is Necessary

William the Conqueror was the first real king of England. After more than 600 years of disorder, he established unity, structure and stability to the land. Although capable of savagery, he was no more savage than his times, and far more visionary. He revolutionized the social, political and military structures of the nation and laid the groundwork for its emergence as a major nation. He was able to accomplish all this partly because of luck and coincidence, but mostly through his own character and force of will. He was steadfastly firm in his purpose and faithful to his goals. Early on he decided what he wanted and set out with clarity and determination to attain it, never deterred by obstacles or what sometimes seemed like overwhelming odds against him. He was always willing to take calculated risks, and never afraid to fight. As a result, he became one of the greatest soldiers and rulers of the Middle Ages, and a man who personifies what it once truly meant to be a King of England.

Once a Saxon Stronghold, this Stone Castle on the Isle of Purbeck in England was Rebuilt in Stone by William the Conqueror in 1067

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William the Conqueror's Coat of Arms

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Said to be the Ancient Viking Standard Borne by the Norman Roger "Corbeau" (i.e. Raven) of Pays de Caux, Normandy, who fought at Hastings with William the Conqu

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A Lesson from One of The Greatest People in History - William the Conqueror

Although it would appear that there was much fortune on the side of Duke William before and during the invasion of England, it was by no means easy. First of all, William's army was no match for the English soldiers who incidentally, tended to be larger and more robust than their Norman counterparts. Secondly, the English ships which would attack any invasion force long before it could make landfall, were powerful and experienced in the art of naval warfare. This didn't deter William. He enlisted men from Italy and France to fight in his army and promised them wealth and land in return for their service. As well as that, he built a huge fleet of ships using wood from the great forests of Normandy to carry his men across the channel. William had a vision, and the iron will to see that vision become reality.

Without a vision, and without goals to complement that vision we are like travelers on a long and winding road, with no destination, no map and no purpose. Lost. We must have at least some idea of where we are going to end up in the coming years, as otherwise we are burdened with a sense of hopelessness and dissatisfaction that eats away at us. We have all had that feeling. The feeling most of us get when we are just entering our twenties and someones asks, "What do you want to be?" and we answer, "I really don't know." Some, like William, are luckier and their vision is plain to see and made easier by certain events and favorable circumstances. However, for the rest of us, the answer lies within. 'Know thyself' is a sentiment passed through generations and generations by wisemen who knew the answer to one's purpose, one's bliss is within. Analyze your mind, your history and the events of your life and look for the things that stand out or seem to be repeated over and over. Therein lie the clues to the vision within you.

What William the Conqueror is Alleged to Have Said to His Men before the Battle of Hastings

"Fight your best and put everyone to death; for if we conquer, we shall be rich. What I gain, you gain; If I conquer, you conquer. If I take the land, you will share it.... Remember, if you should flee from the field, more will die in flight than would have died in battle. We will never return to Normandy disgraced. With God's aid we shall conquer.

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In the French town of Mantes, at the age of 59, William was mortally injured.

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Conclusion to William's Life Lesson

Finally, you will need an iron will in order to make your vision become your reality, the life that you seek. There will be things that you will have to do that you don't like, but don't back down. Imagine life and your journey to fulfillment as this: A river too deep and powerful to swim across yet spanned by stones, some small, others large, several unstable and unbalanced and some that are so sharp they may cut if stepped on in the wrong position. Your aim is to cross that river and in order to do so, you must leap from one stone to the next, learning as you go. You may stay on one of the stones if you wish, if you are too afraid to continue. Perhaps if you are not willing to pay attention to the lessons learned from previous stones then you may fall and get wet. Your ultimate goal though, is to reach the other riverbank, your vision, your ultimate goal.

Practice doing things that you don't like. It sounds crazy, I know! It works though, because too often, we give up too easily when something seems unpleasant or difficult. We take the easy route and for a short time we feel satisfied but it isn't long before we are faced with yet another circumstance, task, job or person that we hate and what do we do? You got it. We take the easy route. PRACTICE DOING WHAT YOU DON'T LIKE DOING and in doing this you will be better preparing yourself for the trials and tribulations you are to face in the pursuit of your ultimate vision for your life!

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What are your thoughts on William the Conqueror? 7 comments

Alastar Packer profile image

Alastar Packer 4 years ago from North Carolina

Another excellent article in your series Richie. William certainly changed the course of history at the Battle of Hastings. I remember seeing that famous painting in the Nat Geo mag as a boy and its always stayed in my mind. The Bayeux Tapestry is one of the greatest treasures from the early middle ages with its depiction of the battle also. I like your 'lesson from William' especially and he must have had a strong queen beside him don't you think.


ata1515 profile image

ata1515 4 years ago from Buffalo, New York.

Great hub, William was one of the best leaders of the Medieval world, and he certainly had iron will. I was sad your poll did not have Napoleon Bonaparte, Hannibal Barca, or Scipio Africanus, who are the three greatest conquerors, generals, or leaders that have ever existed.

Voted up and shared!


Richawriter profile image

Richawriter 4 years ago from On Top of the World Author

Thanks Alastar for stopping over to read the newest in my series. It was a hard write I'll tell you that much! I struggled to find the lesson in his life and for a few days I considered just throwing in the towel, but no. Using an 'iron will' and my vision (hahah) I managed to find the answer, which ironically turned out to be the very thing I myself needed at that moment!

Yes, In the material I have on him, there was little mention of his queen but you know what they say, "Behind every great man, there is a great woman pushing!"

I remember that Bayeux Tapestry from middle school and how it fascinated me as my history teacher enthusiastically told us the story of William and the creation of the tapestry.

Take care Alastar!


Richawriter profile image

Richawriter 4 years ago from On Top of the World Author

Hey ata1515,

Thank you for your kind comment.

I understand your sadness over my not placing Napoleon Bonaparte, Hannibal Barca, or Scipio Africanus in the poll, because I see that history is your 'thing.' Thanks for telling me though because I found so many sources and was never fully able to properly put those great people in their rightful places.

I try to mix my polls and you will probably find those guys on one of my other "greatest people in history" hubs in the greatest generals poll.

I see you have some great hubs on history, especially medieval times and I'm off to read about Alexander the Not-So-Great!

Take care!


JKenny profile image

JKenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

Great Hub Richawriter. William certainly changed the course of British History, he effectively put an end to the endless wars between the Saxon tribes, and created the England we still recognise today. Reading this, reminded me of when I read the Domesday book. Apparently the area where I live now was owned by the Abbey of St.Mary in Pershore, and was worth just 8 pounds.


Richawriter profile image

Richawriter 4 years ago from On Top of the World Author

Thanks JKenny!

Yes, William may have been ruthless when he needed to be but as you say, he created the England we see today. I haven't actually read the Domesday book, but I would love a read of it as it must be so interesting. Reading that book would really fire my imagination and take me right back to those times, in my imagination. Fantastic.

I look forward to reading some of your hubs. Very interesting looking work you have over there. History, just my cuppa tea!

Take care.


dougwest1 profile image

dougwest1 4 months ago from Raymore, MO

Good Hub. I liked all the pictures.

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