William the Conqueror
By Susan Abernethy
The Freelance History Writer
Young William was the illegitimate child of Duke Robert of Normandy. We know little of his life when he was a very young boy. Duke Robert died when William was seven leaving him to rely on other men to rule his duchy until he came of age. These years were fraught with peril. Perhaps these times made William the warrior he would become, strong enough to lead the conquest of England in 1066.
William was the son of Duke Robert I of Normandy and Robert’s mistress Herleva of Falaise. Robert never married. From the evidence of the chroniclers, Robert probably met Herleva around 1027 and William was born sometime between September 1028 and September 1029. Robert’s liaison with Herleva would benefit her family. Her father became Robert’s chamberlain and her brothers Walter and Osbern appear in charters from the time so they must have been important to Robert’s administration. Walter in particular would play a part during William’s early perilous years. Robert eventually married Herleva to one of his knights, Herluin, Vicomte Conteville. She would have three children with Herluin, Odo, Robert and an unnamed daughter. Odo and Robert would be very close to William later in his life.
So where did William spend his infancy and early childhood? We can speculate he was with his mother, possibly in Falaise with her family. Or maybe he lived with his father either in his castle in Falaise or traveling with him to his various holdings in the duchy. Was he actually taken care of by his mother or was there a nurse? We will never really know the answers to these questions.
After years of fighting and consolidation and attacks on the church, Duke Robert decided to leave his Norman duchy and travel to the Holy Land on pilgrimage, perhaps in an attempt to reconcile his differences with the church. There were many who advised him against it. He had fought hard and there was finally some peace in the land. He left no adult heir, only the bastard William. He would be leaving his lands open to more fighting at the very least, conquest at the worst. Robert called a meeting of his nobles and had them recognize William as his heir and made them swear fealty and obedience to William. Duke Robert’s uncle, Robert, the archbishop of Rouen, possibly was the force behind also getting the consent of King Henry I of France to William being the successor to his father’s dukedom. He may have even sent William to perform homage to his overlord the king. Henry also invested William with the insignia of knighthood. Duke Robert then left for his journey sometime in 1034-35.
Robert travelled to the Holy Land and was returning through Asia Minor when he became ill and died at the Bythynian Nicaea sometime within the first three days of July, 1035. The reign of Duke William had begun and he was but seven years old. The first guardians of William were the men who had supported his father in the last years of his reign. These included Robert, the archbishop of Rouen, Count Alan of Brittany and Osbern, Robert’s steward. Another man who supported William was Turold who is mentioned as being one of William’s tutors.
The Archbishop of Rouen held the most power during this time with the help of other ducal officials. At first, there was not much of a reaction to Robert’s death and William’s accession. There were other, more legitimate heirs who could have claimed they should be duke. Perhaps they didn’t feel they were strong enough to fight the archbishop. But this stability rapidly deteriorated when Archbishop Robert died on March 16, 1037.
Immediately, there was a vacuum at the top of the ducal government and fighting began over who would have control over the young duke. The conditions of the ducal household were dangerous, especially for anyone who had supported William in the beginning. Alan of Brittany died in 1039 or 1040 by violent means. His position as head tutor was taken by Gilbert, a count who had been an intimate friend of Duke Robert. Gilbert was murdered while out riding on the orders of Ralph of Gacé, one of the sons of Archbishop Robert of Rouen. About the same time, Turold was assassinated. Osbern the steward was involved in a scuffle right in William’s bedchamber and was killed.
William’s household was a complete disaster. William’s uncle Walter, brother of his mother Herleva began to sleep in his bedchamber. He frequently had to grab William from his bed in the middle of the night and escape for safety, seeking refuge in the homes of the poor. We have to wonder how all this turmoil affected William.
William had some other uncles who were half-brothers of his father named Mauger and William. Mauger was named archbishop of Rouen and William became count of Arques. These two began to exercise some power at this time. Revenues were steadily being collected and Duke William or those who were acting for him seemed to have some control over an armed force. But there was internecine war going on among several Norman families in addition to the chaos of William’s household. It was very difficult to administer justice. The peasants suffered greatly and were organizing to defend themselves.
Throughout all this chaos, King Henry was taking his duties as overlord of Normandy very seriously. He regarded William as his ward and took an interest in his safety. Henry considered Normandy to be a part of his royal demesne. The troubles in Normandy could have consequences for the stability of northern France and Henry probably felt it was in his best interests to intervene. He did make several forays into Normandy and took control of a few fortresses and towns before returning to Paris, all with the assistance of Norman nobles. William also received some positive assistance from Count Baldwin V of Flanders. During these years, the idea of William marrying Baldwin’s daughter Matilda may have originated.
When William became a teenager, there were signs he was beginning to discriminate among his councilors and he was taking initiatives on his own. But his personal power was still too weak to take full authority. In 1046, the disorder in the duchy was beginning to develop into a concerted attack on William himself. The plot was originated in lower Normandy and was led by Guy of Burgundy who had a legitimate claim to the dukedom. His plan was to overthrow William and take control of Normandy. Guy gathered powerful support from his holdings as well as from middle Normandy and from the west. Tradition says the plot began with an attempt to capture and murder William at Valognes which was in the heart of his enemies’ territory. William was forewarned and escaped on horseback at night. After several stops he made his way to Falaise and was resolved to call upon King Henry for help.
William arrived before Henry in person and asked for aid against his enemies. As William’s overlord, Henry agreed to help his vassal. In early 1047, Henry entered Normandy at the head of an army and made his way to Caen where he met up with some meager troops which William had raised from upper Normandy. Together they travelled a couple of days to the plain of Val-ès-Dunes where they met the rebels who had crossed the river Orne. Although the battle of Val-ès-Dunes was a decisive event in the history of Normandy, records of the fight are light on details.
Map of the Battle of Val-ès-Dunes. By Pethrus via Wikimedia Commons
The battle appears to have been fought by cavalry with little or no infantry or archers and no long range weapons. There were many engagements of small groups of cavalry. The rebels may have been disorganized due to the defection of Ralph Tesson to the side of the Duke. The fighting was bitter. William apparently struck down with his own hand a soldier named Hardez from Bayeux who was a vassal of the great warrior Rannulf of Avranches. Rannulf himself appears to have lost heart and the tide began to turn against the insurgents. Realizing they were getting hammered, the rebels left the field in a panic, being chased by King Henry and William’s men. Some were trampled by those who were fleeing and many of the rebels were driven into drowning in the Orne.
Val-ès-Dunes really signified a victory for King Henry but William had escaped from the immediate threat of a direct attack. William’s power was still insecure but the battle could be deemed as the beginning of William’s dominance of Normandy. His minority was over and he now began a fight of survival and endurance that would last from 1047 to 1060.