From a French Cradle to the English Crown
In 1028, an unmarried French woman bore a son to the Duke of Normandy. People taunted the boy with the nickname ‘William the Bastard’. Yet he not only became a formidable Norman ruler: he became one of England's most brutal and influential kings.
From the Battle of Hastings to the Domesday Book, William was responsible for truly extraordinary events in England's history. Find out how a brutal childhood, some lucky breaks and a festering angry grudge shaped the man who changed Britain forever.
William is eight years old when his father goes on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. The duke’s nobles swear allegiance to William, should he fail to return. Sure enough, the duke soon falls ill and dies. William inherits the duchy but Normandy is quickly plunged into civil war. The young duke finds himself under constant threat of deposition by powerful rivals.
William clings to power in a politically volatile France – a hotbed of conflict between warring independent provinces. It’s every duke for himself. Another rival, this time William's cousin, leads a rebellion against him. At the battle of Val-es-Dunes, William, by now a tall and able warrior in his twenties, enlists the support of the French king and wins a decisive victory. He emerges as a ruthless leader, punishing the rebels by cutting off their hands and feet, and establishes Normandy as a powerful state. He marries Matilda of Flanders, a strategic move which seals an alliance with a rich neighbouring state.
William's friend and distant cousin was Edward the Confessor, King of England. Edward had sought refuge in Normandy when Viking invaders overthrew his father, King Æthelred. It's thought William and Edward developed a friendship and when Edward returned to England he was more familiar with the culture and customs of northern France than in his new kingdom. In 1051, a childless Edward supposedly writes to William promising him the crown when he dies. As Edward's kin, William is satisfied the rightful heir has been named as successor. The English crown has his name on it.
King Edward's right-hand man was Harold, an earl and member of the Godwinson family, a powerful Anglo-Saxon dynasty. Harold swears to help William secure the English throne after Edward's death.
On his death bed, King Edward names Harold Godwinson as his heir. Harold wastes no time – he is crowned the next day. William is furious when he learns of Harold’s surprise succession: he's been betrayed by a usurper. He immediately rallies support from neighbouring French provinces and calls on the Pope to support him. The Pope backs his fight for the English crown and grants William one of the first papal banners. The nation’s future will be decided on the battlefield.
William arrives on the Sussex coast. Harold marches his troops 200 miles south to meet the Norman invaders in Hastings. Although his men are tired, the battle is closely fought: at various points, both leaders are feared dead. It’s brutal and bloody – thousands are slaughtered. At dusk, the Normans finally overcome the English and Harold is killed when an arrow lodges in his eye. William is crowned in Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day.