Born at the end of the 1020s in Falaise, Guillaume was only seven or eight years old when his father Robert the Magnificent, powerful Duke of Normandy, died while returning from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. The legitimacy of the young duke is disputed, and his adolescence is marked by a series of plots which aim to dismiss him, even to take his life. Guillaume nevertheless managed to establish himself as an influential and respected duke, and the Duchy of Normandy experienced a particularly prosperous period.
Normandy maintains tenuous ties with England: King Edward the Confessor, driven from his kingdom by the Viking Knut the Great who managed to take over, went into exile in Normandy for more than twenty years. Guillaume is also close to Harold Godwinson, brother-in-law of King Edward. At the end of his life, Edward the Confessor, once again fully king of England instead of the Vikings, had no descendants. He promises his throne to William, Duke of Normandy, who hastens to make Harold take an oath, so that he swears that he will not stand in his way. This is the starting point of the mythical Norman conquest of England, recounted by the invaluable Bayeux tapestry.
The Spirit of the place
Despite his oath, Harold Godwinson had himself crowned King of England the day after the death of Edward the Confessor. William the Conqueror, furious, therefore nourishes the project of a vast expedition against this perjured and usurping king, in order to recover a throne which, according to him, is rightfully his. The immense Norman outfit set off in the fall of 1066, and crossed the English Channel. William did not choose his moment at random: King Harold and his armies are in the north of the country, busy ousting another pretender to the throne of England, King Harald Hardrada of Norway.
The History Factory
William and Harold finally clash on October 14, 1066 during the legendary Battle of Hastings, in which the Normans emerge victorious. Harold is killed in battle, and William is crowned King of England at Westminster on Christmas 1066.
How did William, Duke of Normandy, manage to conquer England and become master of such a vast territory? How did he manage his lands? Today, what sources and what images do we have left of this legendary Norman epic?
To talk about it
Veronique Gazeau is Emeritus Professor of Medieval History at the University of Caen.
She has notably published:
Francois Neveux is professor emeritus of medieval history at the University of Caen.