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Conquest - 12: The Tanner's Grandson, Duke William - Did He Have, or Even Need, a Sense of Humour?

Updated on June 7, 2019

The home stronghold, Falaise Castle

Falaise Castle, view from below - impregnable fortress in white Norman stone
Falaise Castle, view from below - impregnable fortress in white Norman stone
'Bird's eye view of a virtual reconstruction of Falaise Castle
'Bird's eye view of a virtual reconstruction of Falaise Castle | Source

William was about five when his father Duke Robert set out on pilgrimage to the Holy Land

Many years earlier he had his brother William poisoned or slain in order to succeed to the duchy. The duke was slain by robbers - it is said - on his way home (interestingly enough this was the fate that befell Svein Godwinson in the same region) near Constantinople in Byzantium.

Robert had made his barons swear an oath of loyalty to his young son William should he not return. Tutors and guardians were appointed whom Robert thought fit to raise a young duke. But to begin with William's military guardian, Gilbert de Brionne was first to be slain in a civil wat in AD1040. Order broke down in Normandy as barons jockeyed to better their lot, building castles to consolidate ill-gotten territorial gains.

William was at a loss; his steward Osbern was killed in front of him one night, and were it not for his maternal uncle Mauger, Archbishop of Rouen and his step-family, he would have followed Osbern into the herafter. He survived with the help of the family of Herluin de Conteville, who had married William's mother Herleve, and saw his first battle as leader at Val-es-Dunes. He was now eighteen and in the army of Henri, the Frankish king who arrived to put down a rebellion in AD1047 against the young duke in western Normandy.

The young duke learned his war-craft the hard way, gleaning knowledge from raiding and horseback skirmishing that was prevalent at the time, along with siege warfare on seemingly impregnable fortresses. One of his opponents at Val-es-Dunes, Guy of Burgundy, fled to his own castle at Brionne, a stone hall on an island in the River Risle. William was unable to take it head-on and resorted to blockading Guy. Finally, after three years - Guy was obliged to surrender and was banished. He came out of this better than many of his contemporaries.

As well as threats from within and from Guy of Burgundy, William was challenged from the south by Geoffrey of Anjou, who had taken the fortified towns of Domfont and Alencon. William had laid siege to Domfont around AD1051. Again he blockaded the town but was thwarted by the slowness of this method. Results were long in coming during sieges in those days. In order to break the deadlock he left the siege lines with his men over hard ground in the dead of night to reach Alencon at dawn, having covered about thirty miles (50km). The town's inhabitants were taken wholly off their guard, as were the defenders of the small fortress across the river from Alencon that was meant to defend the town. William called on the garrison to surrender but they refused, choosing instead to hurl insults - one gesture of draping hides over the walls as a reference to William's grandgather Fulbert - and the infuriated duke ordered an assault. The fortress was taken, defenders mutilated, hands and feet were cut off. Although this treatment seems extreme today, by the practices of the time the lives of the garrison were his for refusing an offer of surrender . The townsfolk across the river yielded on learning the fate of the garrison and news quickly reached Domfont. This tale was told approvingly by the duke's Norman biographers, giving William the reputation of being a hard man to beat. He knew when to show this ruthless streak, and did likewise during the earlier years of his reign in England.

Another rebellion, this time by his uncle William of Arques in AD1053 had to be dealt with urgently, on account of the king of the Franks supporting the insurgent. As a Frankish relief force with fresh supplies for the beleaguered Arques neared the castle, Duke William's men sprang an ambush. William of Arques surrendered shortly afterward and the Frankish king Henri was embarrassed. Henri invaded the duchy a year later with the aid of Geoffrey of Anjou, keen to bring the duke to heel. While Duke William used evasive tactics against what he knew to be an overwhelming force, his barons attacked a Frankish force at Mortemer in the east of Normandy. They raided the Frankish camp at dawn, set it ablaze and took many knights to hold for ransom. Henri pulled back, his pride having taken another battering. He tried again in AD1056, leading his men directly to the heart of Normandy. Going by way of Evreux he head for the coast to show his might. When turning to cross close to the mouth of the River Dives his men found a causeway through the tidal waters. When half the king's train had crossed to the other bank William led his men in an attack on the greater part of the train and rearguard. Henri was powerless to intervene as the tide had turned. He was forced to watch as his men were hacked to pieces, drowned or captured, his wealth borne away by the Normans. He is said to have been mortified by the incident and died not long later in AD1060.

The young duke had showed himself to be a master of his domain. In AD1053 he had made a good match with Matthilde, daughter of the Flemish Count Baldwin, which helped in the defence of his north-eastern boundary and gave him a link with one of the richest kingdoms, wealth coming in over-sea from steady trade. Baldwin latterly became guardian of the new Frankish king Philippe, so here was a glimmer of a threat from Paris and from the north-east.

Throughout the years of warring William had gathered around him a body of true, reliable friends who liked the way he dealt with threats to his duchy and who were well-rewarded for their loyalty. Amongst his many friendships, his closest was with William fitzOsbern. He also enjoyed the support of his half-brother Odo - made Bishop of Bayeux when still under-age - and Robert, whom he raised to the County of Mortain. both were extremely useful aides in his military aims.

In the early 1060's William took advantage of the death of Geoffrey of Anjou, penetrating deep into the heart of the earlier Angevin protectorate of Maine. He took Le Mans in AD1063. Brittany was another prize he aspired to. Regarded by Normans in the same way as England looked to Wales. William had plans to go into Brittany against Conan in AD1064 but an unawaited guest showed earlier in the year. The Earl of Wessex was shipwerecked off the coast of Pointhieu, to be surrendered willingly by Count Guy in return for gold and land. Harold would prove instrumental to William's schemes in more ways than one.

Fledgling state on the rise

Bayeux cathedral - half-brother Odo was appointed to the bishopric when he was still young
Bayeux cathedral - half-brother Odo was appointed to the bishopric when he was still young | Source
Coutances cathedral, its bishop Geoffroi another staunch ally of William
Coutances cathedral, its bishop Geoffroi another staunch ally of William | Source
The once fledgling county of Normandy expanded rapidly throughout the 10th Century. By 1066 it spanned both seaward banks of the Seine and bordered on Brittany to the south-west
The once fledgling county of Normandy expanded rapidly throughout the 10th Century. By 1066 it spanned both seaward banks of the Seine and bordered on Brittany to the south-west | Source
An Angus McBride painting shows William on horseback shortly after his stumble on the shore in Sussex near Hastings
An Angus McBride painting shows William on horseback shortly after his stumble on the shore in Sussex near Hastings | Source
See description below
See description below | Source

Duke of Normandy, later King William I of England - love him or hate him, he made a mark on Britain's history - not only England but also Scotland and Wales. His end was ignoble, perhaps fitting. Did he provide the impetus for the 'colonisation' of Wales, Scotland and Ireland? We know he invaded Scotland and forced Malcolm III into a treaty at Abernethy near the east coast in 1074. He had also given the Marcher lords free hand in their dealings with the Welsh. Ireland would wait until the reign of Henry II

For his behaviour toward the common folk of the North

in 1069 William was censured by those who supported him, including the Vatican. Church and nobility alike were appalled at his treatment of the vulnerable in Yorkshire, northern Lincolnshire, Staffordshire and Shropshire. He believed he was hitting back at rebels by denying them food supplies. Many rebels were able to steal food from their Norman masters, hunt down the king's deer in forests - on pain of mutilation or death if found - and many left for Scotland or Wales. So effectively he hurt only the innocent. He was known for being magnanimous to nobles who submitted to his mercy, but evidently this mercy did not extend to commoners. Eadgar the aetheling, Earl Gospatric and Earl Waltheof he accepted back several times - Waltheof was betrayed by his wife Judith, William's niece, for his alleged part in a plot against the king and was executed outside the city walls at Winchester. His co-plotters were given an amnesty. Fate had caught up with the son of Siward 'the Dane'.

Next: 11 - Duke William and his Kindred

© 2012 Alan R Lancaster


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    • alancaster149 profile imageAUTHOR

      Alan R Lancaster 

      9 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

      I like that one, Neil. So did the wife - it brought a wry smile whilst she stirred her coffee.

      As for Yorkshire Pudding with wine, that's a waste of a good Yorkshire Pudding. Ale is what you drink with it, my lad (Hrrumph)! - and words to that effect. It's the Normans that brought wine drinking, as they weren't up to much in the ale-making stakes. Still, they brought cider-making with them and that keeps a lot of people happy here (don't reckon much to it myself, though).

    • Neil Sperling profile image

      Neil Sperling 

      9 years ago from Port Dover Ontario Canada

      a history lesson spoken in a language that is easy to follow and not get lost. I like your simple to the point style as if you were telling the story over dinner. Yorkshire pudding and a glass of wine?

      Reminds me of the drunk who knocked on my friends door asking for a push on a cold rainy night. My friend said "no - it is 3 AM, raining and your drunk" and slammed the door shut. After returning to bed his wife convinced him to go back out and give him a push - he put his pants back on a second time and went into the rain - not seeing the drunk he hollered "you still there?" --- drunk replied "yeah" ---- "still want a push?"... again the drunk said "yeah... pleeeze" -- my friend could still not see him - only hear him.. "well where are you?" he yelled.... the drunk replied "over here on the swing"

      Keep on writing and sharing my friend... "See Ya When Yor Better Dressed"


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