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Today in history... an explosive end for first Norman King

12:00am | & News

This month marks 950 years since William the Conqueror's French forces first set foot on British soil in 1066, while today, September 9th, is the anniversary of his death in 1087.

After defeating King Harold at the Battle of Hastings in October 1066, William became the first Norman King of England. His 21-year reign would see the establishment of a strong Norman nobility, the commissioning of the Domesday Book and the building of a string of new castles, many of which survive to this day.

Born around 1028 at Falaise in Normandy, William was the illegitimate son of Robert I, Duke of Normandy, and his mistress Herleva, who was most likely part of the Duke's household. The fact that his parents were not married gave their only son his first, unofficial but widely used, title – William the Bastard.

When his father died William was only seven or eight, but the support of Henry I, King of France, enabled him to succeed his father as Duke of Normandy despite his illegitimacy. Even with the King's support, the first years of his rule were anarchic, with a series of challenges to his power. Somehow he managed to survive them, eventually gathering more supporters to consolidate his power.

By the time he was a young man, William was emerging as a natural leader. Historical accounts describe him as burly and robust, with great stamina and the strength to draw a bow which most others could not. According to one account he was "without equal as a fighter and a horseman", a keen huntsman but also devoted to his Catholic religion.

His marriage in the 1050s to Matilda of Flanders also provided him with a powerful ally, though there is evidence that the marriage was more than a political alliance. Although Matilda initially rebuffed him for being a bastard, she later refused to marry anyone else and bore him nine or 10 children. When she died in 1083 William was consumed with grief.

Once firmly established in France, William turned his attention to England where he was a contender to succeed the childless Edward the Confessor, his first cousin once removed. Other claimants included a powerful English earl, Harold Godwinson, who was named the next king by Edward as he lay on his deathbed.

Harold succeeded to the throne in January 1066, but William immediately disputed his claim and began making plans for an invasion. Other claimants included Harold's brother, Tostig, and his ally King Harald Hardrada, of Norway. When they landed in Northumbria, Harold was forced to march north to confront them, defeating them at the Battle of Stamford Bridge, in Yorkshire, on September 25th, in which both Tostig and Hardrada were killed.

Two days later William's invading army set sail from France, landing on the south coast on September 28th and establishing a stronghold at Hastings. King Harold rushed back to face this new foe but was forced to leave half his already weakened army in the north to repel any other invaders.

When he faced William across the battlefield near Hastings on October 14th their armies were roughly equal in size, but Harold's men were exhausted from their forced march south. Even so they initially proved effective, inflicting heavy casualties on the Normans. But when William's forces feigned a retreat the English broke in pursuit and were set upon by the Norman cavalry.

The deciding moment seems to have been Harold's death, some accounts claiming he was slain by William himself, but others that he died from an arrow to the head as depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry. By the end of the day William was victorious, but several other smaller conflicts followed before William's position was secure. He was crowned the first Norman King of England in Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day 1066, having finally earned an upgrade from William the Bastard to William the Conqueror.

Once crowned, William set about consolidating his power, granting lands throughout England to his Norman noblemen and encouraging them to build castle strongholds. Throughout his reign William was forced to regularly quell rebellions and repel Danish invaders, especially in the north.

He also had to defend his domains in northern France and it was there, not in England, that he died. He had grown fat in later life and when his horse reared during a battle the pommel of his saddle punched him so hard in the gut that he suffered internal injuries. Infection set in and he died several weeks later, on September 9th.

As priests tried to force his body into a stone coffin which was too small they pushed on his bloated and infected abdomen, causing it to burst open and sending mourners running from the stench – an ignominious end for a powerful and influential king.


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