The Middle Ages were the time of impressive political and military leaders. Among them, the name of William the Conqueror occupies a decent place. The Battle of Hastings and the subsequent conquest of England by Normans had long-term consequences. Actions of William have influenced political borders, royal dynasties, systems of government and even the English language. This paper is an attempt to show how the actions committed a thousand years ago have influenced the modern life.
William the Conqueror
In 1066, William Duke of Normandy with only a few thousand soldiers crossed the Channel to try and become the ruler of England. His bold effort was a success: it was the last time a foreign invasion of England succeeded. Ultimately, due to the Norman Conquest William and his followers not only seized the throne, but greatly influenced all subsequent history of England, to a degree that could not be foreseen by William himself.
William was born about 1028 in Falaise in Normandy. He was an illegitimate (his opponents called him William the Bastard), yet the only son of Robert I, Duke of Normandy. Robert died in 1035 on the road from Jerusalem, which he had visited as a pilgrim. Before his pilgrimage to Jerusalem, Robert declared William to be his heir. Being eight years old the boy became Duke of Normandy.
The inheritance of the title not only ensured him a convenient of a rich, powerful man but put him at risk of certain dangers. William was a little boy, but he appeared to be higher in the hierarchy than numerous adult feudal barons. Not surprisingly, the ambitions of barons were stronger than their loyalty, and the death of Robert was followed by several years of anarchy, during which all William’s guards and his personal teacher were killed. Even with the help of the French king Henry I and all his power it was a miracle that William managed to survive his childhood. In 1042, when he was about fifteen years old, he was made a knight. Subsequently, he took a personal interest in political events. William had won several small conflicts with the feudal barons of Normandy and finally managed to establish a full control in his lands. Of course, his illegitimate birth was a particular obstacle, and his enemies often treated him as a bastard.
In 1063, William captured the neighboring province of Maine and was recognized as sovereign in another neighboring province – Brittany. In the period from 1042 thru 1066 Edward the Confessor was the King of England. Since he had no children, there have been many maneuvers to take the English throne. From the point of view of kinship, William’s claims to take Edward’s place were rather weak – Edward’s mother was William’s grandfather’s sister. In 1051 Edward, perhaps influenced by the talents demonstrated by William, promised to make William his heir.
In 1064, Harold Godwin—the most powerful of the English lords, an ally and relative of Edward the Confessor—fell into the hands of William. William treated him well but kept Harold in custody until he received from the prisoner his loyalty oaths and promises of support in the struggle for the throne. Many people would not consider the promise obtained in such a way as legal or moral obligation. Harold Godwin was of the same opinion. When Edward died in 1066, he demanded the English throne for himself and the council of English lords, which was often involved in decisions about the inheritance of the throne, elected him as a new king. William, who wanted to expand his state and who was obviously angry at Harold for the fact that he had broken his word, decided to invade England to protect his demands by force of arms.
William gathered his fleet and army on the French coast and was ready to sail in early 1066, but the expedition was delayed for several weeks due to strong northerly winds. Meanwhile, Harald Hardrada, King of Norway, organized his invasion of England from the North Sea. Harold Godwin kept his army in the south of the country in readiness to repel William. Now he had to move it to the north to repel the Norwegians. On September 25, at the Battle of Stamford Bridge, King of Norway was slain and his army was defeated.
Two days later the wind at the Channel changed and William quickly ferried his troops to England. Maybe Harold should have allowed the enemy to approach his army or at least should have given his soldiers some rest before the battle. Instead, his troops rapidly marched to the south, towards William. English and Norman armies met on October 14, 1066 in the legendary Battle of Hastings. After a long fight, William’s cavalry and archers broke the Anglo-Saxon forces. Shortly before nightfall, King Harold was dead. Two of his brothers were slain earlier in the skirmish, and the British no longer had a leader who could challenge William’s claim to the throne. The same year on Christmas William was crowned in London. He had a wife, who gave birth to four sons and five daughters. William the Conqueror died in 1087 in the city of Rouen in northern France. Since then, every English monarch is his descendant.
The Battle of Hastings was very important in its consequences. It gave the whole of England into the hands of William the Conqueror, who immediately came to London, was crowned and began to build an impregnable castle – the Tower of London. During William’s first five years on the throne there have been a number of isolated riots, but the new king put them down. William took the advantage of these rebellions as a pretext for the confiscation of all British lands and declaring them as his property. Much of this land was later distributed to his most loyal Norman supporters, who owned them as the property of their vassals. The new king divided England into large and small plots that were given to Norman and other French barons and simple soldiers, obliging them to participate in military service and pay taxes. As a result, virtually all of the Anglo-Saxon aristocracy was deprived of property and replaced by Normans. It sounds dramatically, yet, in fact, only a few people were involved in the transition of power. For the farmers cultivating the land, it was merely an ordinary change of owners. Later William successfully dealt with nation-building, having created one of the most robust and harmonious feudal systems throughout Europe. Similar to Normandy, the power of the monarch was much stronger than it was in other countries of the epoch.
William has always claimed to be the true king of England, and during his reign the English institutions were largely preserved. Since William was interested in getting information about his new possessions, he ordered a detailed census of the population and seized property. The findings were recorded in a large “Domesday Book”, which appeared to be a priceless source of historical information. The original manuscript was preserved and is held in the National Archives in London.
The accession to the throne of William the Conqueror marked the beginning of a creative period in the history of England. William had to make important changes in the United Kingdom. William already had a rich experience in solving complex political problems, which he tried to use in his new country. The basis of his power was a new feudal nobility and support of the church. It is natural that the reforms in England primarily affected these social strata. William’s experience suggested that achieving a dominant position in Normandy had been possible due to skillful use of traditions that had existed in the duchy before him. After becoming King of England, he chose the same path: with a maximum benefit for himself he tried to use monarchical traditions and institutions of power that had already existed in the conquered kingdom. This approach contributed to a softer impact of the conquerors on England. The king tried to fit Norman customs to the British traditions.
The remarkable fact is that although William the Conqueror was, perhaps, the most important of all the kings of England, he was not an Englishman but a Frenchman. He came from France and died there; he spent most of his life in France and he could speak only French. It is noteworthy that thr monarch was illiterate.
In assessing William’s impact on history, it is remarkable that the Norman conquest of England would had not taken place without him. He was not a true heir to the English throne, and, besides his ambitions and abilities, there were no other historical reasons or necessity for the Norman invasion. No army had invaded England from France since the Roman conquest a thousand years before William. After William, everyone who tried to attack this country from France or some other place has failed. Thus comes the important question of the effect of the Norman conquest.
Norman conquerors were relatively few in number but had a tremendous influence on English history. For a long time, at least five or six centuries prior to the Norman Conquest, Englishmen and their culture were generally Teutonic. The Normans themselves were descendants of the Vikings, but their culture and language were French. Consequently, the Norman conquest brought together British and French culture. Today it may seem natural, but for centuries before William the Conqueror English culture had been in contact for the most part with Northern Europe. As a result, the country appeared to be a mixture of French and Anglo-Saxon cultures, a mixture that could not be formed under different circumstances. William brought to England a more progressive form of feudalism. Norman kings, unlike their Anglo-Saxon predecessors, had under their command the army of several thousand armed knights – a considerable army according to medieval concepts. The Normans were skilled rulers, and the British government has become one of the most authoritative and effective administrations in Europe.
Another significant result of the Norman conquest was the expansion of the English language. As a result of this event, the English language was enriched by a lot of new words – in fact, so many words, that current English dictionaries contain more words of French or Latin origin than original Anglo-Saxon words. Moreover, in three or four centuries after the Norman Conquest, the English grammar has changed rapidly, mostly in the direction of simplification. However, for the Norman Conquest, modern English would only be slightly different from Low German and Low Dutch. This is only one example in which a very common language would not exist in its modern form but for the actions of one individual. Today, English is the most widespread language in the world.
It is also worthwhile noting the influence of the Norman Conquest on France. For about four centuries after the conquest, a series of wars took place between the English kings (who, because of their Norman origin, had significant areas of land in France) and the French kings. The reasons for these wars are directly related to the Norman Conquest – prior to 1066 England and France were not at war with each other. In many ways, England differs significantly from all the countries of continental Europe. Also, being a great empire, with the help of its democratic institutions, England still has a strong influence on the rest of the world, and this influence is completely disproportionate to its size.
It is unclear to what extent these aspects of the British political history are the consequences of William’s activities. Historians will always disagree on the issue why contemporary democracy was developed initially in England, rather than, for instance, in Germany. The English culture is a mixture of Anglo-Saxon and Norman cultures, and this mixture was the result of the Norman Conquest. On the other hand, it is not reasonable to give William too much credit for the subsequent growth of English democracy. For sure, a century after the Norman Conquest there was little democracy in England.
As to the formation of the British Empire, the influence of William looks clearer. Until 1066 England was the object of constant invasions. After 1066, the roles have changed. Thanks to the strong centralized management, created by William, which was supported by his followers, and thanks to strong military forces under their command, nobody invaded England since then. Instead, England itself has always been engaged in overseas military operations. Naturally, when Europe’s power spread across the oceans, England eventually seized more colonies than any other state. Of course, one cannot give William credit for the subsequent development of British history, but the Norman conquest had been an indirect factor that influenced much of what happened thereafter. Consequently, the long-term influence of William the Conqueror was very significant.
The emergence of Norman king in England was bound to change the system of life in the country. The state transformations, carried out by William, had long-term consequences, particularly in the area of justice and finance. William created a feudal state of a special type. Transformation in the church led to the changes in the internal structure of the medieval Western Christianity and its influence on the outside world, giving birth to new ideas in politics and intellectual life.
The Battle of Hastings remained in history as the event that had changed the course of the world history. Year 1066 was one of the turning points in the historical development. William the Conqueror had an impact on the lives of future generations through his heirs (they still sit on the English throne), which made England a superpower, greatly influencing the world politics.