Monday, May 5, 2014

1066 Part 4: William the Bastard, ahem, the Conqueror

William the Bastard Conqueror

As far as name recognition goes, few historical figures compete with William the Conqueror.  Maybe Alexander the Great, Christopher Columbus surpass him, but in the English speaking world "William the Conqueror" and "1066" are an enduring pair.

Born around 1028 to Duke Robert, second son of Duke Richard II (the Good) of Normandy. Richard's death in 1026 left succession to his eldest son Richard III, who died suspiciously a year later.  Robert's complicity has always been assumed and for that reason and other conflicts with the Church, he was encouraged to take a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in 1034. Knowing that death on such a long journey was highly possible, he named his illegitimate son William as his heir.  He also made his vassals swear an oath of allegiance to the child. After reaching Jerusalem, Robert took ill and died.

Oaths to dead men are hard to enforce, and throughout much of his minority William was frequently the target of powerful Norman lords who wished to control the duchy by controlling him.  Close relatives and advisers died frequently.  

Some solidity to his power was brought by his victory at Val-es-Dunes in 1047, with King Henry of France adding support to William's forces against rebellious Normans.  The relationship between the Norman dukes and French kings was always a contentious one, and in this context, William's desire for the English throne makes sense.  Like all vassals, he wanted a base of power independent of his lord. His claim on the English throne was through his grandfather, Richard II, whose sister was King Edward's mother, Emma. Pro-Norman and Pro-Saxon historians have spent centuries debating Edward's intentions, but he was considered a viable successor by Edward during the period of the exile of the Godwin family.  

Favored or not in 1066, William pursued his claim in a bold crossing of the English channel and met Harold's army on 14 October, 1066.  Victory was not certain, for Norman cavalry had yet to develop into the shock troops that would mark the knights of the later Medieval period.  With the death of Harold later in the day, the English forces collapsed and William pushed on towards London.

Below: In a moment of doubt and confusion at Hastings, William removed his helmet to show his men that he still lived.

Numerous Saxon nobles submitted to William and he was crowned as the King of England on Christmas Day, 1066.  Despite the coronation, resistance to William continued for several years.  His brutal response, particularly the "harrying of the north" laid such waste to the country that even some of his contemporary supporters were disturbed.

While his numerous detractors then and throughout history might disagree, "the Conqueror" is a better epithet than "the Bastard."  Throughout his entire reign, he energetically and enthusiastically expanded his reach.  From Normandy, he made vassals of lords in Brittany and Maine.  Form England, he campaigned against the Welsh and Scots, forcing King Malcolm of Scotland to be his man.

His success against rebellions diminished in his autumn years . His eldest son Robert and brother Odo led one such uprising, even defeating the Conqueror in 1078 at Gerberoi. Supposedly, William was unhorsed and wounded by Robert.

In 1087, a raid by the French on Normandy roused the now obese William to his last campaign. While pillaging the French town of Mantes, his horse reared and William ruptured himself on the pommel of his saddle, and died days later.  One final indignity awaited the King.  As his coffin was being moved, his body tumbled out and the smell from his bloated corpse sickened onlookers.

Modelling and playing William

William is frequently depicted by miniature sculptors and as an in-game character.  Gripping Beast offers two, mounted and unmounted, as does Crusader Miniatures.

Gripping Beast's four pack includes William, his half brother Odo and two support character. William is shown raising his helmet at Hastings.

I am very fond of Black Tree Designs Norman command pack, and it includes a couple of nice miscellaneous figures.

Above, William (center) flanked by a Crusader Miniatures Norman (left) and another BTD Norman (right).  Below, a falconer from the Black Tree Norman command pack.

In rule systems with characters, he is nearly always given top ratings.  Field of Glory rates William as an Inspired Commander. SAGA's depiction is one of the most powerful historical characters.  His abilities include a limited activation of two units per turn, instead of the usual one, and the ability to field non-mounted Hearthguard archers.  

Suggested Reading:

Marc Morris' The Norman Conquest is my preferred history on English politics in the eleventh century and William's invasion of England.  It is clearly written, objective and up to date on recent findings.

For a biography on William, I like David C. Douglas' William the Conqueror.  Published in 1964, a good era for historical writing. It is modern enough to be free from antiquarian language but too early to be afflicted with the social history fads and obsessions of modern scholarship.

I suppose anything can be given a humorous treatment, including the Norman invasion. The Doomsday Book (No Not That One) by Howard of Warwick is set in the days after Hastings, as a small group of men are sent by William to scout the English countryside.  At times, it is laugh-out-loud funny with its characters and Pythonesque wordplay.  Funniest character is easily Le Pedvin, an irritable one eyed Norman whose only response to continual frustration is a desire to kill something.  The Norman with an eye-patch in the photo above is my homage to this character.

Next in my 1066 series is the Conqueror's half brother, Odo, the man perhaps responsible for the tapestry which gives us our most contemporary visual record of the Norman conquest.


  1. Excellent post, very informative. I play Normans in SAGA, so looking forward to the next in this series :-) Cheers, Paul.

  2. Hopefully it won't be too long. I've got the figures painted and my research finished. The plan is to create a "homebrew" character card for him as well.

  3. Nice work on all of these fine characters. No Norman army would be complete without an appropriate William figures - I am guilty of this!

  4. Great inspiration for me as I am putting together a Norman warband for Saga right now. Thanks for this.