Biographies – William I and William II

Mini biographies of William I, and his son William II, the first two Norman kings of England.

It is not always easy to select information to share when writing about historical people as accounts sometimes vary depending on the sources, the prejudices of the chronicle writer, and the influence of the writer’s patrons. Here I add my ‘two bob’s worth’. In addition, at the bottom of the post I have provided links to the works of a couple of chronicle writers from the Medieval era who have shared their own thoughts on the reigns of William I and II.

• William, the Conqueror and Matilda of Flanders

William I
Reign: 1066-1087
Birth: 1027/1028, Falaise, Normandy, France
Death: 7 September 1087, Rouen, France
Burial: St Stephen Abbey, Caen, Normandy
Father: Robert, Duke of Normandy
Mother: Herleva (Arlette)
Marriage: 1053 – Matilda of Flanders
Robert Curthose, Duke of Normandy
William II Rufus, King of England
Cecilia (Cecily), Abbess of Holy Trinity, Caen
Adeliza (Alice)
Alison (Ali)
Adela, m. Stephen, Count of Blois *
Constance, m. Alan IV Fergent, Duke of Brittany
Henry I, Beauclerc, King of England and Duke of Normandy

As already noted William was the illegitimate son of Robert I, Duke of Normandy and Herleva (Arlette), a tanner’s daughter. William was very young when he became Duke and, although he had his supporters, he also faced hostility and powerful forces aligned against him. He had to fight to keep his position and it wasn’t until about 1047 that he was finally secure as Duke of Normandy. These events give us some insight into William’s nature and I will hazard a guess and say that the air of dogged determination, authoritative leadership, and his steely resolve to assert and fight for what he considered rightfully his which characterises his conquest and rule of England most likely stems from these early difficulties.

Although there were outbreaks of unrest, some serious, the Norman conquest of England had largely been completed by 1070. However, the smooth working of the feudal system depended on a king’s ability to control his vassals. William was astute in the selection of his leading barons and to further strengthen his position he distributed their estates over various parts of the kingdom so that there was no great concentration of power. The only exception to this measure was along the unsettled borders of Wales and Scotland. It was the ‘Marcher Lords’ who posed the biggest danger to royal authority and after the revolt of the Earl of Hereford, William exacted an oath which made each tenant directly responsible to the king. This was a severe restriction of the powers of his tenants in chief. In addition, the chief clergymen of the church were almost entirely replaced by Normans. For example, Lanfranc replaced the English Archbishop of Canterbury and under him a great period of building began. William also ordered the compilation of the ‘Domesday Book’ in 1086, a detailed survey of all the manors of England showing who held them, their size, number of villeins, amount of stock, and value.

He died at The Convent of St Gervais near Rouen in 1087. It has been stated that William died as a result of injuries he sustained when he was either thrown hard against the pommel of his saddle or from being thrown from his horse. Unfortunately his burial was just as marred by strife as his coronation 21 years before in December 1066 had been. William was buried in the Abbaye aux Hommes, which he had founded, in Caen. Apparently his stone tomb had been made too small to fit his body, requiring it to be unceremoniously squashed into the chamber. His resting place has been defiled and his bones scattered in the centuries since his death – a rather inglorious end for William, the Conqueror.

Matilda of Flanders
Born: c.1031
Died: 1083
Burial: l’Abbaye aux Dames, Caen, Normandy
Father: Baldwin V, Count of Flanders
Mother: Adela Capet, daughter of Robert II of France

Matilda of Flanders, Queen consort of England and wife of William I, was a direct descendant of Alfred the Great (seventh generation) and her marriage to William strengthened his claim to the throne.

Matilda was said to be diminutive, perhaps only approximately 5 feet tall, but it seems she was a feisty person. According to legend, she told the representative of Duke William, who had come asking for her hand on his behalf, that she was far too high born to consider marrying a bastard. Apparently William himself then sought her out and took his revenge. There is more than one version of the story:

Firstly, that William rode from Normandy to Bruges and found Matilda on her way to church. He dragged her off her horse by her long braids, threw her down in the street, and then rode off.

Alternatively, William rode to her father Baldwin’s home in Lille, threw Matilda to the ground by the braids, and then violently shook or hit her before leaving.

Whatever the real story may be, Matilda decided to marry William. A papal ban on the grounds of consanguinity did not dissuade either of them and they were wed in 1053. The couple had eleven children.

During the time that William was preparing to invade England, Matilda outfitted a ship called the Mora out of her own money and gave it to him and at one time it was thought that she was involved in the creation of the Bayeux Tapestry (now thought to have been commissioned by William’s half-brother Odo, Bishop of Bayeux). She died in 1083 and was buried at l’Abbaye aux Dames, which she had founded, in Caen.

* Adela, m. Stephen, Count of Blois – King Stephen’s parents

• William II

William II, Rufus
Reign: 1087-1100
Birth: 1056/1060, Normandy, France
Death: 2 August 1100, New Forest
Burial: Winchester Cathedral
Father: William I
Mother: Matilda of Flanders

William was educated under the watchful eye of Lanfranc. His chief adviser as king was Ranulf Flambard. William was an effective soldier and a ruthless ruler. However, his reign was marked by long and difficult struggles with the Church. He sought to bring the Welsh marches and the Northern counties under English control but wasn’t entirely successful. He was killed in an accident in the New Forest while hunting with Walter Tyrell when a stray arrow pierced him in the heart. His younger brother Henry did not rush to organise funeral rites or to bury William. Instead his immediate action was to secure the Treasury in Winchester.

William Rufus did not marry and it is not easy to form a completely accurate picture of his character as most contemporary chroniclers were unsympathetic toward him due to his troubled relations with the Church.

Links to other websites:
• The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
The Years 1052-1069
The Years 1070-1101
• Assessment of William I


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