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William the Conqueror


William I, or William the Conqueror as he was later known, ruled England in the late 11th century. One of his most important legacies was the Domesday Book which was basically the first ever census. It gives historians today an invaluable record of England's towns, land and citizens in 1086.

William the Conqueror was born in Falaise, Normandy in 1028 and was the illegitimate son of Duke Robert I of Normandy and Herleve, the daughter of a local tanner. His father died when William was just 7 and despite his nickname "William the Bastard", William was declared the rightful successor and heir to the Duchy.

His great uncle looked after the Duchy until William was of age to take the responsibility, and at the tender age of 15 William was knighted by King Henry I of France.

William initially had to contend with the rebellion of his kinsmen in Normandy and even invasions of his territory by King Henry I, his former ally. In 1057 he defeated the French army at the Battle of Mortemer.

He became a respected and experienced military commander and was credited with unifying Normandy. Around this time he married Mathilda, the daughter of Count Baldwin V of Flanders.

William the Conqueror began to look further afield, to the throne of England which his distant cousin Edward the Confessor had promised him. William and his invasion force of around 7,000 men, with the support of the Pope and Emperor Henry IV, crossed the English Channel to confront Harold II.

He and his troops landed at Pevensey and quickly built defenses at Hastings. Harold's depleted armies had only just defeated an invasion by the King of Norway at the Battle of Stamford Bridge, and were forced to travel south and meet the new threat.

In the initial Battle of Hastings, the Norman assault failed and the Saxons' defense held its own. Three of William's horses were killed beneath him in the fighting and rumour had it that William was dead, but he rode with his helmet raised to show he was still very much in the fray.

William regrouped his cavalry and archers and during the next assault Harold II was hit in the eye by an arrow and then killed by the sword of a knight. The English forces fled and William was crowned the first Norman King of England on Christmas Day, 1066 in Westminster Abbey.

It was not an easy rule for William the Conqueror and it took 6 years to consolidate his rule. William had an Abbey built on the site of the Battle, with the high altar marking the place where Harold fell. The ruins of Battle Abbey can still be seen in the town of Battle which grew up around it.

One further relic of the momentous battle was that William's half-brother Odo, the Bishop of Bayeux commissioned the making of the Bayeux tapestry, recording the event. It can still be seen today in Bayeux with a replica in Reading, Berkshire..

Uprisings continued, particularly in the north of England, Devon, Cornwall and Wales. William the Conqueror ordered the building of more than 80 motte and bailey castles, which were defensive wooden towers on earth mounds behind a "bailey" or wall. The Cathedrals at Durham and Canterbury were also rebuilt along with the White Tower at the Tower of London.

William confiscated land from the English nobles and demanded loyalty in exchange for land which was tenanted to his allies. One of the reasons William ordered the Domesday survey was to assess his land holdings and ensure loyalty from his tenants.

William reorganized justice and administration and appointed sheriffs. He also made the New Forest a royal game reserve and generally ruled by fear. He died in battle in Normandy in 1087, having bequeathed Normandy to his eldest son, Robert. His second son, William Rufus succeeded him as King of England and his third son Henry received his legacy in silver.

William was buried at Caen in the Abbey of St Stephen. His burial place is marked by a simple stone.

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