The Young Bastard

William Duke of Normandy

Covering the years 1027-1066

Written by Geoff Boxell

William was the bastard son of Robert the Magnificent, Duke of Normandy, and Arlette the daughter of Fulbert, a master tanner of Falaise. Bastardy amongst the Normans, was not considered a draw back, though later, as the church became more assertive, things changed. Robert was a dashing, though at times unrealistic ruler. He waged war to restore his neighbours, Baldwin, Count of Flanders, and Henry, king of the Franks, to their thrones. His attempt to persuade his brother-in-law, Knute the Mighty, to step down in favour of Robertís cousins, Alfred and Edward (later the Confessor), was not so successful. With his son, William, only seven years old, Robert decided to go on pilgrimage to Jerusalem, leaving the Duchy and his son, in the hands of his cousin Alain of Brittany and three other councilors. He put his mistress, Arlette, into the care of Herluin of Conterville, on the understanding that, if he did not return, Herluin would marry her. He then, with only a small band, rode off on a pilgrimage that was speckled with extraordinary tales, such as riding a mule, shod with gold shoes into Constantinople, and being carried in a litter carried by black slaves. At Jerusalem itself, he offered to pay the entrance fee for all the Christian Pilgrims at the gate, a gesture so magnificent, that the Saracen Parsha in control of the city was shamed into returning the money. On the return journey, Robert died of fever at Nicea.

The Dukeís long absence, and later death, did not bode well for William. It was not long before the Norman barons forgot the oath they had sworn to their absent Duke to uphold his son and the dukedom soon erupted into a series of private wars and vendettas, during the course of which, William's councilors were all killed off one by one. The chief protector, Alain of Brittany, was poisoned whilst besieging one of the rebels. The most notable assignation was that of Williamís seneschal, Osbern Crepon. Osbern was stabbed to death in his bed. The young William was sharing the bed and drenched in his seneschalís blood.

After this event, William was taken by his maternal uncle, Walter Fulbert, and hidden amongst the peasant folk of Normandy. Meantime, Roger of Tosny claimed the Dukedom. However, he and two of his sons died in battle with local landowners. The land collapsed into anarchy.

The French King, Henry, made the most of the chaos in Normandy to seize two key border fortresses. William, who by now had re-emerged from hiding, was compelled to concede. A reason for this, in addition to the power of liege lord, King Henry, may have been the attempt of Toustain Ansfredson, the governor of Falaise to carve out an independent holding for himself. William quickly crushed the revolt by welding together an unlikely alliance of old enemies and rebels, French mercenary knights, and the citizens of his motherís hometown of Falaise.

In 1041, when William was 14, a Church Council at Nice, cobbled together a Truce of God that restricted fighting from sunset on Wednesday to sunrise on Monday during Lent and Advent and from Rogations until Whitsuntyde. The following year William called a council to meet at Caen and, to everyoneís surprise, the Truce was adopted in Normandy. The exception was Williamís own ducal troops. For five years the Duchy had a period of relative peace. The storm, when it broke, came from the most characteristically Scandinavian parts of Normandy centred around Bayeux and Coutances. The instigator was Williamís cousin, Guy of Burgundy, who aspired to be the new duke. The uprising was supposed to start with Williamís murder. Fortunately for William his fool, Gollett, heard of the plot whilst entertaining local barons and managed to get away and warn the Duke. William fled on horseback without an escort. On reaching the town of Ryes, he was recognised by an old knight by the name of Hubert. The man gave William a fresh horse and two of his sons to protect him, himself remaining to send Williamís frustrated pursuers off in the wrong direction.

With a greater part of his lands now in uproar, William swallowed his pride and sought help from his liege lord, King Henry. The king, ever ready to stop strong power blocks developing, especially ones that could enclose his own lands in the Isle de Paris, backed William against Burgundy. Despite being outnumbered, William and Henry defeated Burgundy at the battle of Val-es-Dunes, helped no doubt by the last minute defection from Burgundyís army of Ralf ĎThe Badgerí and his troops. The campaign ended with the siege of Brionne. After its surrender, Guy went returned to his native Burgundy to plot mischief against his uncle, Count William, while William of Normandy went around demolishing rebel castles.

Now without an apparent challenger to his Dukedom, William was free to go to the aid of King Henry who was having problems with Geoffrey the Hammer of Anjou, a neighbour of Williamís. William's involvement was more than that of a vassal, Geoffrey had claimed the county of Maine. The Dukedomís founder and the leader of the Viking hoard, Hrolf Ganger had annexed this border territory to Normandy, but the land had since slipped into semi-independence. By capturing the youthful Count Hugh and imprisoning his guardian, Bishop Gervaise, Geoffrey found himself in trouble with not only the French king and the Duke of Normandy, but also the Pope! The Count of Ajou and his supporters seized two key border fortresses on the Norman border, Alencon and Domfront. After setting a siege to Alencon, William moved onto Domfront.

Again the tactic was to besiege the town and starve the defenders into submission. During the siege, William and a party of less than 50 were hunting in nearby woods. Their movements had been betrayed to his enemies and an alleged party of 300 horsemen and 700 infantry were laid in ambush. Not surprisingly they were discovered, but rather than run, William and his force attacked and routed the enemy. After an attempt to relieve the siege by Geoffrey failed, largely through bluff on the part of William, a date was set for the townís surrender. William moved back to Domfront.

It was there that one of the most infamous incidents in Williamís career happened. An outpost deciding that they were safe, mocked the Duke by beating hides to remind him of his bastardy and his motherís humble birth. His vengeance on the 32 defenders taken alive was to have their hands and feet cut off and flung over the wall of the town as a reminder of what would happen to them. The town surrendered. William then moved into Maine itself and occupied the land.

On his return to Normandy, William faced another revolt, this time by his fatherís first cousin, William Count of Mortain. The plot was betrayed though an inadvertent remark made to a poor knight, Robert Bigod. Robert had sought permission to joining his fellow Normans who were either re-claiming Southern Italy or Sicily for Christendom, or acting as brigands and ravaging the land, depending on whose side you were. Mortain told him not to bother as he would soon have plenty of land to give to his supporters. Bigod reported all to his Duke who snuffed the plot out before it caught fire and exiled Mortain. A revolt, those by William of Eu came to nothing, but another, by the Dukeís uncle, William of Arques was more threatening. As a warning he built a tower to watch Arques castle, but as soon as he left, his uncle seized the tower and in addition proclaimed himself as the rightful Duke. William turned, gathered local forces and, making all haste caught his uncle and his troops off guard and forcing them back into the castle. Under siege, the rebels appealed to Henry of France, who enjoyed playing his powerful subjects off against each other. Henryís army was intercepted and ambushed after a feign flight. Their superior numbers allowed them to raise the siege. For reasons best known unto himself, Henry then withdrew allowing William to close the iron ring around the castle and starve it into surrender. His uncle, he forgave, but from then on kept on a very short leash and surrounded only by those William trusted.

With a seeming peace in his hand, William turned his thoughts to marriage and, in view of the long lasting monogamous and affectionate union, possibly love. The lady of his attention was Matilda of Flanders, a distant cousin of Williamís and the niece of King Henry of France. This diminutive lady who, when seated on a throne, needed a high foot stool, was a brilliant match for William. Flanders, sitting across the borders of France and the Holy Roman Empire, was wealthy, a key strategic holding, and under the current Count Baldwin, a powerbroker. They must have looked very unusual as the tiny Matildaís husband was as tall as his famous forefather, Hrof Ganger (i.e. Rolf the Walker) Ė a man so tall that he couldnít ride a pony as his feet dragged on the ground and thus had to walk everywhere.

The couple came within the limits of cousinship, so the Pope refused to allow them to marry. Normally a decent bribe would have solved the problem, but Leo IX was having problems with Matildaís father, who was in dispute with the Emperor, whom the Pope backed. The couple ignored the ban and married. William left his favourite cleric, the Italian Lanfranc to sort the Pope out despite the churchmanís own misgivings. Meantime the Pope excommunicated the pair, and laid Normandy under an interdict. The Pope died, and the new one, Nicholas II was more understanding, corrupt, or perhaps just intimidated by the rouge Normans who were running amok in Southern Italy at the time, and allowed the marriage to stand. In penance William and Matilda raised two great religious houses.

Whilst Lanfranc was sorting out the final details of the settlement, King Henry decided that William, now allied through marriage with the powerful Count of Flanders, needed his wings clipped. To this end he formed an alliance with the errant Geoffrey of Anjou. Geoffrey provided troops, but somehow avoided actual participation in the invasion of Normandy. King Henry led the army up the Seine valley, his force split into two equal parts, one on each riverbank. That on the right bank was commanded by Henryís brother, Odo. After ravaging the countryside they settled at the small town of Mortemer to reorganise. Williamís half brother, Robert of Mortain, made a dawn attack, setting fire to the houses. Thousands perished, and hundreds captured.

William, who faced the Kingís army on the left bank, was informed of his brotherís victory. His problem was that his conscience held him back from attacking his liege lord. To overcome the problem he sent the hereditary standard-bearer of Normandy, Ralph of Tosny. This man, in the dark of night and in an apocalyptic voice, announced to the French army that the troops on the other bank had been slaughtered. The next morning William advanced and found the French king and his men had all fled. Peace was soon settled with the perfidious Henry allowing William feudal right over any land that he may conquer from Geoffrey of Anjou. In addition, he evacuated the border castles he had seized when William was a boy. During a skirmish outside the castle of Ambrieres, Geoffrey was taken prisoner and not released until he had acknowledged William as his overlord.

In 1051 things were quiet enough for William to visit his distant cousin, Edward the Confessor, King of the English. Edward, who had been raised in Normandy and was culturally more Norman than English, had just exiled his most powerful Earl, and the man who in many ways ran the country, Godwin of Wessex. The exile was the result of Godwin refusing to punish the men of Dover for ruffling the feathers of Eustace of Boulogne and his French following. Edward, tired of being dominated by Godwin and his tribe of relations, including his own queen, and annoyed at the general dislike of the English for his French friends, had used the removal of the Godwin clan to increase the number of his French supporters and to strengthen ties with Normandy. If the claimed decision of of Edward to make William his heir was ever made, it had to be during this visit. The prime mover no doubt was the Norman Archbishop of Canterbury and political animal, Robert. The fact that it could even have been considered shewed the lack of understanding that the Normanís had for English culture. The kingship was semi-elective, with the Witan voting who, out of the suitable candidates, would become king.

Williamís English sojourn was short as, across the Channel, King Henry and Count Geoffrey consoled themselves with another alliance, though it was not until March 1057 that Normandy was again invaded. The allies ravaged that part of the Duchy west of the Seine, whilst William withdrew before them. At Varaville the Kingís army crossed the Dives to commence the pillage of the eastern part of Normandy. William waited until the King and Count and their bodyguard had crossed, and then struck. At just the right time, with the spring tide ensuring that the river could not be forded, Williamís horsemen stuck the rear guard, whilst armed peasants, keen on revenge hit the French flanks, whilst archers poured a deadly fire into those on the bridge. In the ensuing chaos the bridge collapsed. The river and its marshes soon became clogged with dead French. In 1060 both Geoffrey and Henry died, and with them most of Williamís problems. Henryís heir, Phillip, was a minor and his Regent was Williamís father-in-law, Baldwin of Flanders. Geoffreyís heir, another Geoffrey, had his handís full hanging onto Anjou and thus left William in peace for many years.

The Normans in England had no such peace as their overbearing manner had alienated both Earls and folk. When Godwin and his sons reappeared in the land, Edward was forced by the Witan to re-instate them to their former positions. The Norman favourites fled, including Archbishop Robert, William Bishop of London, and Ulf Bishop of Dorchester. Robert took with him to Normandy two of the hostages that Godwin had been compelled to hand over to king Edward on his exile, his nephew, Hakkon, and his young son, Wulf.

Williamís time from 1060 to 1064 was taken up in re-organising the Duchy and trying to reform and purge the church. In 1064 he was ready to conquer Maine, which as mentioned earlier, he had a tentative claim over. In 1062 the Count, Herbert II had been expelled by the citizen of the capital, Le Mans and been replaced by Geoffrey of Anjou. Herbert had then appealed to William for help and accepted vassalage as part of the terms for assistance. His sister was to marry Williamís eldest son, Robert Curthose and Herbert would marry a daughter of Williamís. Should he die childless, the county would become Williamís. William had done nothing much to help Herbert and in 1064 Herbert died without ever marrying Williamís daughter, as she was still too young, as indeed was Herbertís sister too young to marry Robert. However, this did not stop William claiming Maine in the name of his son.

Herbertís sister and her husband, Biota and Walter of Mantes seized the city of Le Mans. William then moved down the Sarthe valley and laid waste the land before besieging the city. With Williamís troops also devastating Walterís own lands, the siege was not long. Although pardoned, both Walter and Biota died suddenly whilst enjoying the Dukeís hospitality. Even with their deaths, the campaign was not over as the greatest vassal of Maine, Geoffrey of Mayenne had removed himself to his home town and castle. William followed and besieged him. It seemed as if it would a long drawn out affair, till someone noticed that the children of the town came out and played by the town gate during the day. Children from the Norman camp were recruited and sent to play amongst those of Mayenne. When the children went inside the walls the Norman boys followed and then set fire to the town. With the townsfolk occupied in putting out fires, the Normans stormed and took the walls. The town soon surrendered and then the castle. Geoffrey of Maine acknowledged William as his liege lord, whilst William, on behalf of his son Robert, acknowledged Geoffrey of Anjou as his, at least for the county of Maine. And thus a tangled web was woven that would ensnare him in the future.

In the autumn of 1064 occurred the inexplicable visit of Earl Harold Godwinson, who on his fatherís death had been made Earl of Wessex and become the kingís chief councillor. The reasons for the visit have been speculated upon ever since. It may have been an official embassy from King Edward, confirming William as his heir, though the presence of falcons and hounds plus the role of the Witan in deciding who would hold the kingship are against it. It may have been a fishing and hunting trip gone wrong, though the known expertise of the Anglo-Danish navy would seem against it. It may have been a family visit to Flanders, where Godwin and some of the family had lived in exile and whoseí Count was related via the marriage of his daughter, Judith, to Tosti Godwinson. But there was no apparent reason for the visit. The most likely cause was an attempt by Harold to retrieve the hostages, and do a little diplomatic snooping on the side. Whatever; the ships were caught in a storm and ended up on the coast of Ponthieu, whose Count kindly made the English all hostage and held them to ransom. William was informed and redeemed Harold and his men by threats and money.

During the time William had Harold at his court there is said to have been talk of Harold marrying Agatha, the Bastardís daughter, and of Haroldís sister Ælfgifu being married to a senior Norman baron. During this time Count Conan of Brittany made one of his periodic attempts to shrug off Norman overlordship after one of the Breton nobles gave his fealty direct to William. Harold joined William on the campaign, gaining recognition for his personal rescue of some of the Norman contingent from quicksand by lying on a shield and pulling them free. The campaign followed the usual Norman pattern of relieving and setting siege to various strongholds until at Dinan, Count Conan had the town walls burned down around him and submitted.

Haroldís reward was for William to knight him and award him arms. To an English Earl this may have been regarded as no more than gift giving, but to the French Normans it was seen as Harold accepting William as his Lord. The matter was further complicated by the oath on holy bones that Harold was said to have taken to do all in his power to make William king of England. The oath, if it was taken, would under church understanding, be invalid as it was taken under duress, but it would have been sufficient to have rattled Harold. It would also have been enough to ensure his release. Harold returned to England with Hakkon, but without his brother, Wulf. Shortly after that King Edward had a prophetic dream of the tree of England being split asunder, not to be rejoined.

His foreboding started to be fulfilled later that year when Northumberland revolted against its earl, Tostig Godwinson. The cause of the revolt seems to have been Tostigís absences and the insensitive hand of his huscarls. Whilst it may be pointed out that Tostig was a southerner, he was half Danish, and the man the rebels elected earl in his place was Morcar, a Mercian and the brother of Edwin Earl of Mercia. Their family had oft been in dispute with the men of Northumberland. Earl Harold was sent by King Edward to crush the rebels. However after talking with them he returned and asked that the king and the Witan consider accepting the northernerís terms. This was accepted, despite Edwardís annoyance at the slight to his favourite. Whilst this prevented civil war, it did little for Earl Harold as his brother and family put themselves into exile in Flanders where Tostig brooded and plotted vengeance for the slight he felt his brother had caused him.

On 05 January King Edward the Confessor died after committing the country into Haroldís capable hands. That day the Witan met and unanimously proclaimed Harold king. Harold was crowned the following day. On 09 January, as he was hunting at Quevilly near Rouen, William was told of the events in England, and began making his plans to take the crown of England.


The years 1027-66 shaped the man who was to gain the crown of England after killing the last King of the English in battle on Senlac Ridge. He had learned from the barons to trust but few of them and keep the rest on a tight rein. His experiences with the King of France shewed him that over powerful subjects are dangerous. The French king had spent Williamís early years either using him to keep other Dukes and Counts in order, or using them to curb Williamís own ability to act independently.

To gain independence and shake off French interference, William needed a power base that was outside the authority of the French king, and also that of the Holy Roman Emperor. To ensure the loyalty of his barons he needed to remove all the tangled web of multiple fealties prevalent on continental Europe. To prevent his barons from become over powerful, he needed to ensure that their holdings were scattered rather than a physical whole. All this he achieved by conquering England. Unfortunately he didnít ask the English if they wanted him, because they didnít. Unfortunately William as almost all the Normans settled in England during the Confessorís time and after the Conquest, never understood the English, or their culture. He, and his descendants, and his followers descendants, are still reaping the problems that this caused.

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