To claim the English crown, William invaded England in 1066, leading an army of Normans to victory over the Anglo-Saxon forces of Harold Godwinson (who died in the conflict) at the Battle of Hastings, and suppressed subsequent English revolts in what has become known as the Norman Conquest.
His reign, which brought Norman culture to England, had an enormous impact on the subsequent course of England in the Middle Ages. In addition to political changes, his reign also saw changes to English law, a programme of building and fortification, changes to the vocabulary of the English language, and the introduction of continental European feudalism into England.
As Duke of Normandy, he is known as William II. He was also, particularly before the conquest, known as William the Bastard.
William is believed to have been born in either 1027 or 1028, and more likely in the autumn of the latter year. He was born the grandnephew of Queen Emma of Normandy, wife of King Ethelred the Unready and later of King Canute the Great.
Against the wishes of Pope Leo IX, William married Matilda of Flanders in 1053 in the Cathedral of Notre Dame at Eu, Normandy (Seine-Maritime). At the time, William was about 24 years old and Matilda was 22. William is said to have been a faithful and loving husband, and their marriage produced four sons and six daughters. In repentance for what was a consanguine marriage (they were distant cousins), William donated St-Stephen's church (l'Abbaye-aux-Hommes) and Matilda donated Sainte-Trinité church (Abbaye aux Dames).
Feeling threatened by the increase in Norman power resulting from William's noble marriage, Henry I attempted to invade Normandy twice (1054 and 1057), without success. Already a charismatic leader, William attracted strong support within Normandy, including the loyalty of his half-brothers Odo of Bayeux and Robert, Count of Mortain, who played significant roles in his life. Later, he benefitted from the weakening of two competing power centers as a result of the deaths of Henry I and of Geoffrey II of Anjou, in 1060. In 1062 William invaded and took control of the county of Maine, which had been a fief of Anjou.
Fortuitously for William, his crossing was delayed by weeks of unfavourable winds. William managed to keep his army together during the wait, but Harold's was diminished by dwindling supplies and falling morale with the arrival of the harvest season. Harold also consolidated his ships in London, leaving the English Channel unguarded. Then came the news that the other contender for the throne, Harald III of Norway, allied with Tostig Godwinson, had landed ten miles from York; Harold was forced to march against them.
Before he could return south, the wind direction turned and William crossed, landing his army at Pevensey Bay (Sussex) on 28 September. Thence he moved to Hastings, a few miles to the east, where he built a prefabricated wooden castle for a base of operations. From there, he ravaged the hinterland and waited for Harold's return from the north.
William chose Hastings as it was at the end of long penninsula flanked by impassable marshes. Battle was on the isthmus. William at once built a fort at Hastings to guard his rear against potential arrival of Harold's fleet from London. Having landed his army, William was less concerned about desertion and could have waited out the winter storms, raided the surrounding area for horses and started a campagn in the spring. Harold had been reconnoitering the south of England for some time and well appreciated the need to occupy this isthmus at once.
Harold, after defeating his brother Tostig Godwinson and Harald Hardraada in the north, marched his army 241 miles to meet the invading William in the south. On 13 October, William received news of Harold's march from London. At dawn the next day, William left the castle with his army and advanced towards the enemy. Harold had taken a defensive position atop the Senlac Hill/Senlac ridge, about seven miles from Hastings, at present-day Battle, East Sussex.
The Battle of Hastings lasted all day. Although the numbers on each side were about equal, William had both cavalry and infantry, including many archers, while Harold had only foot soldiers and few if any archers. Along the ridge's border, formed as a wall of shields, the English soldiers at first stood so effectively that William's army was thrown back with heavy casualties. William rallied his troops, however -- reportedly raising his helmet, as shown in the Bayeux Tapestry, to quell rumors of his death. Meanwhile, many of the English had pursued the fleeing Normans on foot, allowing the Norman cavalry to attack them repeatedly from the rear as his infantry pretended to retreat further. Norman arrows also took their toll, progressively weakening the English wall of shields. A final Norman cavalry attack decided the battle irrevocably, resulting in the deaths of Harold, killed by an arrow in the eye, and two of his brothers, Gyrth and Leofwine Godwinson. At dusk, the English army made their last stand. By that night, the Norman victory was complete and the remaining English soldiers fled in fear.
Although the south of England submitted quickly to Norman rule, resistance in the north continued for six more years until 1072. During the first two years, King William I suffered many revolts throughout England (Dover, western Mercia, Exeter) and Wales. Also, in 1068, Harold's illegitimate sons attempted an invasion of the south western peninsula, but William defeated them.
For William I, the worst crisis came from Northumbria, which had still not submitted to his realm. In 1068, with Edgar Ætheling, both Mercia and Northumbria revolted. William could suppress these, but Edgar fled to Scotland where Malcolm III of Scotland protected him. Furthermore, Malcolm married Edgar's sister Margaret, with much éclat, stressing the English balance of power against William. Under such circumstances, Northumbria rebelled, besieging York. Then, Edgar resorted also to the Danes, who disembarked with a large fleet at Northumbria, claiming the English crown for their King Sweyn II. Scotland joined the rebellion as well. The rebels easily captured York and its castle. However, William could contain them at Lincoln. After dealing with a new wave of revolts at western Mercia, Exeter, Dorset, and Somerset, William defeated his northern foes decisively at the River Aire, retrieving York, while the Danish army swore to depart.
William then devastated Northumbria between the Humber and Tees rivers, with his Harrying of the North. This devastation included setting fire to the vegetation, houses and even tools to work the fields. He also burnt crops, killed livestock and sowed the fields and land with salt, to stunt growth. After this cruel treatment the land did not recover for more than 100 years. The region ended up absolutely deprived, losing its traditional autonomy towards England. However it may have stopped future rebellions, scaring the English people into obedience. Then, the Danish king disembarked in person, readying his army to restart the war, but William suppressed this threat with a payment of gold. In 1071, William defeated the last rebellion of the north through an improvised pontoon, subduing the Isle of Ely, where the Danes had gathered. In 1072, he invaded Scotland, defeating Malcolm and gaining a temporary peace. In 1074, Edgar Ætheling submitted definitively to William.
In 1075, during William's absence, the Revolt of the Earls was confronted successfully by Odo. In 1080, William dispatched his half brothers Odo and Robert to storm Northumbria and Scotland, respectively. Eventually, the Pope protested that the Normans were mistreating the English people. Before quelling the rebellions, William had conciliated with the English church; however, he persecuted it ferociously afterwards.
The mischief of William's elder son Robert arose after a prank of his brothers William and Henry, who doused him with filthy water. The situation became a large scale Norman rebellion. Only with King Philip's additional military support was William able to confront Robert, who was based at Flanders. During the battle in 1079, William was unhorsed and wounded by Robert, who lowered his sword only after recognizing him. The embarrassed William returned to Rouen, abandoning the expedition. In 1080, Matilda reconciled both, and William revoked Robert's inheritance.
Odo caused many troubles to William, and he was imprisoned in 1082, losing his English estate and all royal functions, except the religious ones. In 1083, Matilda died, and William became more tyrannical over his realm.
William initiated many major changes. He increased the function of the traditional English shires (autonomous administrative regions), which he brought under central control; he decreased the power of the earls by restricting them to one shire apiece. All administrative functions of his government remained fixed at specific English towns, except the court itself; they would progressively strengthen, and the English institutions became amongst the most sophisticated in Europe. In 1085, in order to ascertain the extent of his new dominions and to improve taxation, William commissioned all his counselors for the compilation of the Domesday Book, which was published in 1086. The book was a survey of England's productive capacity similar to a modern census.
William also ordered many castles, keeps, and mottes, among them the Tower of London's foundation (the White Tower), which were built throughout England. These ensured effectively that the many rebellions by the English people or his own followers did not succeed.
His conquest also led to French (especially, but not only, the Norman French) replacing English as the language of the ruling classes for nearly 300 years. Furthermore, the original Anglo-Saxon culture of England became mingled with the Norman one; thus the Anglo-Norman culture came into being.
William is said to have eliminated the native aristocracy in as little as four years. Systematically, he despoiled those English aristocrats who either opposed the Normans or who died without issue. Thus, most English estates and titles of nobility were handed to the Norman noblemen. Many English aristocrats fled to Flanders and Scotland; others may have been sold into slavery overseas. Some escaped to join the Byzantine Empire's Varangian Guard, and went on to fight the Normans in Sicily. By 1070, the indigenous nobility had ceased to be an integral part of the English landscape, and by 1086, it maintained control of just 8% of its original land-holdings. However, to the new Norman noblemen, William handed the English parcels of land piecemeal, dispersing these wide. Thus nobody would try conspiring against him without jeopardizing their own estates within the so unstable England. Effectively, this strengthened William's political stand as a monarch.
William died at age 59 at the Convent of St Gervais in Rouen, capital city of Normandie, France, on 9 September 1087. William was buried in the Abbaye-aux-Hommes, which he had erected, in Caen, Normandy.
According to some sources, a fire broke out during the funeral; the original owner of the land on which the church was built claimed he had not been paid yet, demanding 60 shillings, which William's son Henry had to pay on the spot; and, in a most unregal postmortem, William's corpulent body would not fit in the stone sarcophagus.
William's grave is currently marked by a marble slab with a Latin inscription; the slab dates from the early 19th century. The grave was defiled twice, once during the French Wars of Religion, when his bones were scattered across the town of Caen, and again during the French Revolution. Following those events, only William's left femur remains in the tomb and some skin particles
As Duke of Normandy and King of England he passed the titles on to his descendants. Other territories would be acquired by marriage or conquest and, at their height, these possessions would be known as the Angevin Empire.
They included many lands in France, such as Normandy and Aquitaine, but the question of jurisdiction over these territories would be the cause of much conflict and bitter rivalry between England and France, which took up much of the Middle Ages, including the Hundred Years War and, some might argue, continued as far as the Battle of Waterloo of 1815.
William is known to have had nine children, though Agatha, a tenth daughter who died a virgin, appears in some sources. Several other unnamed daughters are also mentioned as being betrothed to notable figures of that time. Despite rumours to the contrary (such as claims that William Peverel was a bastard of William) there is no evidence that he had any illegitimate children,
William has also been portrayed on screen by Thayer Roberts in the film Lady Godiva of Coventry (1955), John Carson in the BBC TV series Hereward the Wake (1965), Alan Dobie in the two-part BBC TV play Conquest (1966; part of the series Theatre 625), and Michael Gambon in the TV drama Blood Royal: William the Conqueror (1990).
On a less serious note, he has been portrayed by David Lodge in an episode of the TV comedy series Carry On Laughing entitled "One in the Eye for Harold" (1975), James Fleet in the humorous BBC show The Nearly Complete and Utter History of Everything (1999), and Gavin Abbott in an episode of the British educational TV series Historyonics entitled "1066" (2004).