Medieval England - William the Conqueror

Year
1027
William is born in Normandy
1047
William defeats the local barons and takes control of
Normandy
1066
William lands invasion force at Hastings
Battle of Hastings, Harold is killed and William is
crowned King William I of England on Christmas Day 1066
1069
Harrying of the North
1072
Rebel Hereward the Wake surrenders to William, country
is at peace
1078
William commenced work on what is now known as the
Tower of London
1085
The Doomsday book is commissioned by William
1087
On the 9th September 1087 William dies, his second son
William is crowned William II

The Early Years

William was born in 1027AD, the illegitimate son of Robert, Duke of Normandy, and his mistress Herlevaof Falasia who he lived with until his father’s death in 1035 when he was granted the title Duke of Normandy.
For the next 12 years until William was old enough to rule, Normandy, was governed by a weak council of noblemen and William’s guardians, it wasn’t until 1047 that William took control of the region by defeating the rebellious barons who had plagued Normandy under the council.
To strengthen his position he initially had support from Henry 1 of France and used war, diplomacy and marriage to Matilda of Flanders to gain independence from the rest of France.
In England the confusion over the succession following Edward the Confessors' death allowed William the opportunity to seize the throne for himself. Particularly when he had virtually been promised the throne by Edward the Confessor when he had asked William for Norman support to defeat his father in law Earl Godwin in 1051. William was therefore furious when Godwin’s son Harold took the crown (who it is said had also sworn allegiance to William in 1064) and plotted retaliation.

The Battle of Hastings

In the spring of 1066 William and his barons began to draw up plans for the invasion of England and on 27th September 1066 set sail from St Valery, Normandy with a force of 600 ships carrying approx. 10,000 men.
William’s battles with the warring Barons in Normandy had made him into a battle hardened leader with a reputation as a great tactician skillfully using combinations of his archers, cavalry and infantry to maximum effect.
His army anchored off Pevensey Bay which was perfect to allow his fleet to maneuver and land his troops, behind Pevensey was a large area of flat ground which his army used to make their main camp. The old Roman Fort at Pevensey was also fortified and used as Duke William's headquarters.
After the successful disembarking of his army William then scouted the land around Pevensey and camped 8 miles to the east at what is now known as Hastings.
The Norman Knight was well armed, well trained and an experienced warrior
In the meantime King Harold had his own problems. The Viking King Hadrada had invaded England and he had marched up to Stamford Bridge near York to fight him. Harold defeated Hadrada and killed him along with his own brother who had also sided with the Vikings.
Yet his celebrations were cut short, he soon learned that the Normans had invaded from the south and he quickly marched his weary troops to meet William.
The two armies met at Senlac Hill outside of Hastings with William setting out his army with the archers at the front, then the infantry and the cavalry at the rear. Harold meanwhile had taken up a position on higher ground on a narrow 800 yard long ridge but this was a bad mistake as it restricted his troops movement and made it almost easy for an experienced campaigner like William.
The battle of Hastings in 1066, between the Normans under William and the Saxons under Harold
Reports on how long the battle lasted vary from anywhere between two and as much as six hours. The result was a win for the Normans over Harold's worn out and tired army putting an end to Anglo Saxon rule in England.
The legend reads, that Harold, was killed by an arrow in the eye, but this is now thought to be highly unlikely.
Following Harold's defeat there was no opposition to stop William and he marched victorious onto London where he was crowned William 1st on Christmas Day 1066 beginning three centuries of Norman rule across Britain.

Resistance to Norman Rule

William’s invasion dramatically changed British history but not everyone liked what he had achieved. Initially there was resistance to William’s conquest and uprisings against his rule broke out across the country.
These uprisings, were quickly and ruthlessly, quelled by the Normans. The defeated rebel’s lands were seized and given to the Normans.
Perhaps the most famous English rebel was Hereward the Wake who fought the Normans from his base in the fens around Ely, but after time he too was forced to surrender to the Normans and by 1072 the country was finally at peace.

Castles

Part of William’s master strategy to keep the peace was to build numerous castles across England he soon realised that with only 10,000 soldiers in England he was heavily outnumbered by the Anglo – Saxons.
In the early years the castles were built very quickly and were usually made out of wood, it wasn’t until later that stone castles were built.

Motte and Bailey Castles

These early castles were constructed of wood using forced labour on land taken from the English rebels in a design called ‘motte & bailey’. Usually they were built in sight of other castles on high ground or on river bends.
The first stage of construction was to dig a large mound of earth or ‘motte’ with a flat top on which they would build a tower house or keep surrounded by a fence in which the Norman lord would live.
Motte and baily castles were quick to put up but not as secure as the later stone castles that replaced them
The second part of the construction was the ‘bailey’ at the foot of the ‘motte’. This included the buildings where his lordship’s workers and soldiers lived and worked. It was surrounded both by a fence and, where possible, a moat of water with a drawbridge.
The beauty of these castles was that they were quick to build and provided almost instant protection against rebellion. The downside was they were only ‘temporary’ and made of wood, which was susceptible to fire.

Stone Castles

As the Normans began to establish themselves in a particular area they left their motte and bailey castles and started to build stone ones.
These stone castles took many years to build but they were extremely well made, very strong and well protected making them virtually impossible to destroy or capture. Many of these castles still stand today 900 years later.
After the site had been carefully chosen the forced labour backed by skilled craftsmen would build a rectangular stone tower or keep first, this was where the lord and his family would live.
A good example is the White Tower (part of the Tower of London) work began on this building in 1078. The stone tower was much stronger than the old timber motte and bailey castles and it’s height provided a better look out position and made it virtually impregnable from attack.
In the keep you would have basements where provisions were stored along with the dungeons for any prisoners. On the ground floor there were guard rooms and kitchens, on the first floor would be the great hall used for entertaining, conducting courts and day to day business. The upper floors would be used as living quarters and included a chapel for his lordship’s family.
A spiral staircase would lead up to the battlements on the roof, which was guarded by soldiers.
Outside the keep was the ‘bailey’ which contained stables and outbuildings. Surrounding the bailey was a stone wall which itself had built into it many guard towers for extra protection. A moat was then dug around the wall.
To get into the bailey visitors had to cross a drawbridge through a gatehouse, which could be raised in case of attack.

Manor Houses

The Norman lords would be responsible for large areas of land and tended to divide it into ‘manors’, which were controlled by lesser lords known as ‘lords of the manor’. They would swear loyalty to his lordship in exchange for the estate.
The lord of the manor would build a house, cattle buildings, barns and look out towers, which they surrounded with a protective fence and possibly a moat.

The Doomsday book

If you had to name one thing that William the Conqueror was famous for apart from the Battle of Hastings it would probably be The Doomsday Book, which was commissioned by William in Christmas 1085.
The name Doomsday Book however was not applied until sometime in the 12th Century. Such was the detail requested that people compared it to the Last Judgment or Doomsday in the Bible when the deeds of Christians were written in the Book of Life and placed before God for judgment,
Why William asked for this to document to be written is still debated today although many think it was purely for financial reasons to see how much taxes he could raise. The book itself falls into two manuscripts – the Great Doomsday and the Little Doomsday.

The Great Doomsday

This forms the main manuscript and documents details from all the English counties south of the rivers Ribble and Tees in 413 pages. It shows there were only 18 towns with over 2000 people living in them. Although the book was supposed to include all major towns, two of the biggest, London and Winchester were inexplicably excluded.

The Little Doomsday

For some reason a separate manuscript was completed for the three counties of Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex and these form the Little Doomsday, a total of 475 pages. This gives an indication as to how much detail from the Great Doomsday was edited out from the final version!

The Book Itself

The main manuscript or Great Doomsday was written by one unnamed person in Latin on parchment made of sheep skin. Black and red inks were used with the red being used for any corrections and the county titles.
To complete the survey, England was split into seven circuits and Royal commissioners were sent out to gather data from the numerous shire juries and courts. It’s main function was to provide a record of landholders in 1086 and at the time of Edward the Confessor. The commissioners recorded the following data:-

Place names – who owns it now and who owned it before 1066

How many ploughs were kept on the land

How many slaves, freemen, cottagers and villagers lived on the land

How much of the land was woodland, pasture or meadow

Did the land contain mills or fishponds and if so how many

Details of any other buildings such as churches, castles etc were also recorded

This was perhaps the first true census of the country and contains entries for 13,418 places and provided such a wealth of information that it was still being used in the Middle Ages to help resolve legal and tenancy issues
The Doomsday Book shows that most of the land (unsurprisingly) was owned by the aristocracy of the time and some of the lands were vast with approximately twelve barons controlling a quarter of England.
The majority of these landowners all came from France although there were a few Anglo Saxons and Danes who managed to hold land under Norman rule.
The usage of the land in Norman times is interesting, the book reveals that :-

35% of the land was used for arable purposes (growing grain such as barley or wheat)

25% meadow (grazing land or growing hay) or pasture (grazing land)

15% was wooded

25% used for other purposes.

The arable land produced vast quantities of grain crops such as wheat, barley and oats and to grind the grain the Doomsday Book reveals there were approx. 6,000 water mills in existence.
Animals were a valuable commodity and totals of sheep, cows, goats, oxen, horses and bees were recorded. Fishing was also important to the economy with rivers and fishponds noted along with their estimated yearly catches.

The Doomsday Book Today

The book gives historians and geographers a tremendous perspective of what life was like in 11th century England.
It enables us to understand more about the Feudal System, how the land was divided amongst the social classes and it has even helped to settle boundary disputes over the years.
The Doomsday Book is now kept in the Public Records Office in Kew, London but after all these years it is now in fragile condition and it is far too valuable to be shown in public. A copy though has been made and this can be seen in a special exhibition at the P.R.O.

The Feudal System

William, rather than forcing Norman law on the Anglo Saxons, cleverly began to fuse Anglo Saxon law with Norman law.
His first move was to disable the power of the Anglo Saxon landowners by establishing a Feudal System economy into Britain. This was a very simple yet effective system of land management, which had been used in his native Normandy, and enabled him to strengthen his rule. The villages and manor houses were allowed to run their own affairs so long as they agreed to military service and monetary payments to the crown.
To enforce this the old Anglo Saxon office of sheriff was given greater power such as the power to settle legal disputes in shire courts on behalf of the king, responsibility for keeping the peace and collection of taxes.
William declared he was owner of all the land in England, of which he kept a quarter for his own personal use, some was given to the church and the rest was leased out.
The King though was the only person who could decide who leased this land and he leased only to people who were loyal to him and swore an oath to that effect, these were the wealthy and powerful Barons who supported William in his invasion in 1066.
The Barons were the Lords of the Manor and they had complete control over their land, giving out justice, setting taxes, pay rent to the king and provide arms and men when required for military service.
Usually the Barons set aside some of their land for their loyal knights who had to protect their baron and his family. The knights would also allow some of their land to be used by the serfs and peasants who provided free labour and food to the knights, they were not allowed to leave the manor or marry without permission.

Religion

William appointed Normans to replace the Anglo Saxon clergy and even appointed an Italian Lanfranc as Archbishop of Canterbury. Lanfranc then reorganised the English church by setting up new monasteries and establishing church courts to deal with any disputes to Canon Law.
William retained the authority to appoint Bishops, who he used as his advisors and administrators, which made a lot of sense as they were the most educated people in the country.

Conclusion

William died on 9th September 1087, although he was renowned for his hard-line approach to rebellion and disloyalty he left behind an extremely well protected, financially sound, largely unified country, with a centralised Government.