Who was William the Conqueror? What really happened at the Battle of Hastings?

William the Conqueror
William, a Norman duke, was crowned William I, King of England, on Christmas Day 1066. Credit: GL Archive / Alamy Stock Photo

William I – also known as William the Conqueror – defeated King Harold II at the Battle of Hastings, marking the end of Anglo-Saxon England. He ruled from 1066-1087

William the Conqueror’s arrival on the shores of southern England changed the course of British history. In 1066, he defeated King Harold II at the Battle of Hastings – a triumph that marked the end of Anglo-Saxon England. Born at Falaise Castle in 1028, ‘William the Bastard’ was the illegitimate son of Robert of Normandy and his mistress Herleva. He gained the title Duke of Normandy after his father’s death in 1035. William was knighted in 1042 and soon gained a reputation as a fearless young warrior.

He became the most powerful ruler in northern France and set his eyes across the Channel to England, then ruled by Edward the Confessor. The cousins had known each other since childhood. William claimed his cousin had promised him the English throne.

King Harold’s coronation

Meanwhile, Harold Godwinson, the most powerful man in England, also claimed to be Edward’s chosen successor. Just a day after the English king’s death in January 1066, he was crowned King Harold II at Winchester Cathedral. His coronation enraged William, who claimed Harold had sworn to defend his right to the English throne. William mobilised his troops to invade England and sought support from across Europe, including a papal blessing.

Harold faced two other threats. At Stamford Bridge near York, he defeated the forces of his brother Tostig and his Norwegian foe Harald Hardrade. The victory left Harold’s troops exhausted but, aware of the Norman threat across the Channel, they marched 300 miles south in a matter of days.

 

The Bayeaux Tapestry tells the story of the Norman Conquest
The Bayeaux Tapestry tells the story of the Norman Conquest. Credit: Shutterstock/SCN Archives Nationales

Meanwhile, William landed unopposed at Pevensey and set up camp at Hastings. The Norman forces attacked the ill-prepared Anglo-Saxon troops nearby on 14 October 1066. At first, they couldn’t break Harold’s shield wall, leading to William’s horsemen fleeing with the English forces in pursuit. However, William, ever the fearsome warrior, rallied his mounted knights and attacked their pursuers.

But the Norman horsemen later feigned two retreats, fooling Harold’s troops and leading to the Englishman’s slaughter. By nightfall, Harold had been killed in battle.

King William’s coronation

William had won and, on Christmas Day 1066, the Norman duke was crowned William I, King of England, at Westminster Abbey. He rewarded those who had supported him during the invasion with large areas of lands confiscated from Anglo-Saxon nobility. He also rewarded his half brother, making him Bishop of Bayeux. It is thought that Odo commissioned the Bayeux Tapestry. This embroidered work of art tells the story of the Norman Conquest of England, and is 231 feet long and 19.5 inches wide.

A seemingly pious man, William also ordered the building of Battle Abbey on the spot where Harold fell. This was to both commemorate the victory and pay penance for the bloodshed. William also supported monastic reform across the country, earning the respect and support of church leaders.

But William still had to deal with unrest throughout his reign, which he often crushed with violence and cruelty. To help secure his hold over England, William introduced the Norman practice of building castles, including the Tower of London.

White Tower Tower of London
William built the White Tower, part of the Tower of London. Credit: Historic Royal Palaces

Castles encouraged feudalism, providing a lord with control over the surrounding countryside. This system was predominant until the 15th century. In 1085, William ordered a detailed survey of the counties of England, providing accounts of land held by the king and his tenants-in-chief.

The result was The Domesday Book. This is one of the most remarkable administrative accomplishments of the Middle Ages and a formal recognition of the feudal system. After spending much of the past 15 years of his life in Normandy, William fell from his horse during the siege of Mantes and died from injuries in 1087. His mark on history – both English and Norman – remains undiminished.

Key dates

  • 1066 – King Harold II dies at the Battle of Hastings
  • 1077 – The Bayeux Tapestry is completed in Canterbury, Kent
  • 1086 – The Domesday Book is published, a survey of 13,418 settlements used to assess England’s taxable assets

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