Born c. 1028 as Duke William the Bastard, neither his parents nor his peers could have ever imagined the life he would lead. Disadvantaged in noble society due to his illegitimate birth, William nonetheless enjoyed a comfortable childhood as the only son of Duke Robert.
His father died just nine years after William’s birth and, with the support of King Henry of France and his great-uncle, Archbishop Robert, he inherited the Dukedom of his father despite several challenges owing to his illegitimate birth and his young age.
Unfortunately, William inherited the position of his father not only at a very young age, but with the legal status of a child born out of wedlock. These two factors made him an easy target to a great many nobles vying for control over his territory, and from a young age, William was embroiled in a civil war with the region’s aristocrats fighting for control over the young Duke and his territory.
He was a personal friend of King Edward ‘The Confessor’ of England, and the grandson of Edward’s uncle Richard II of Normandy. Originally, a powerful member of the nobility named Harold Godwinson had been intended for the throne of England, however during the later years of the king’s life Godwinson’s family fell out of favour, and Edward promised the throne to William instead.
This muddled line of succession is cited by historians as the main cause for the dispute that arose upon Edward’s death, which concluded with William defeating his rivals and being crowned king.
The Doomsday Book is a famous manuscript record of a great survey conducted by order of William I. The primary reason for its creation was William’s dire need for taxes in order to fund his armies, and so he ordered surveyors to set about the land and record the wealth, titles, and lands of all of his new subjects.
The book also helped familiarise William with his newly claimed territory, as he had lived in Normandy for the majority of his life up to that point and knew very little of England, having only visited briefly in his past.
The Battle of Hastings was the climactic finale of the three-way dispute between Harold Godwinson, Harold Hardrada of Norway, and William of Normandy - three powerful competitors for the English throne in 1066.
After Godwinson emerged victorious from a long and drawn-out battle in the northern country against Hardrada, his only available course of action was to march his tired, depleted army southwards in order to meet William in battle. The battle was almost doomed from the start and, as anyone could have predicted, ended in Godwinson’s defeat, marking the beginning of the nation-defining Anglo-Saxon conquest of England.
A little known fact about Normandy during the Middle Ages was that it was governed primarily by the descendants of Viking conquerors who had been made the rulers of the region under the authority of the French king, in exchange for providing their protection against other raiders and pledging to cease their own plundering.
Although only nine of his ten lived to adulthood, this was an impressive number for his time. Of the nine children his wife Matilda gave birth to, two would be kings of England: Henry I and William II of England.
During the time of his reign and even before, William knew very little to no English. As a result, the courts of the country and the nobility all conversed in French. Historians cite this fact as responsible for the implementation of French lexicon into the modern English language - for example, the words ‘Apostrophe’, ‘Toilet’, ‘Café’, and ‘Irony’ are all descended from Mediaeval French vocabulary!
The Germanic name William was rare in England, until the man named William came to sit upon the English throne. Common tradition has often seen many young boys named after the reigning monarch of their times, leading to a great many parents naming their son ‘William’. The trend continued, naturally, and has been one of the most commonly given English forenames for the last one thousand years.
Possibly one of the most famous, if not THE most famous English monarch of all time, William’s conquest saw the Anglo-Saxon language replaced with a hybrid of Anglo and French, known today as ‘English’, as well as the introduction of many aspects of French culture. New architecture, new cuisine, the Feudal system and England’s hot-and-cold relationship with France all trace their origins back to him. Rightly renowned as one of the greatest soldiers and rulers of the Middle Ages, William’s enduring legacy is one that will certainly never be forgotten.