Chapter 5

Duke William

William the Illegitimate shouldn’t have survived his childhood. Abandoned by his father at the tender age of eight, he was a helpless pawn in the dangerous game of Norman power politics. Pushed in front of a huge assembly of the great magnates of Normandy, probably bewildered and not quite understanding what was happening to him, he would have known only that his father was leaving. The men around him, barely concealing their hunger for his throne, would have provided little comfort, and most of the attention in any case must have been on Duke Robert as the various nobles tried to position themselves for his absence.  

  We have no record of the parting words between father and son they were never to see each other again but one hopes there was at least some attempt to soften the blow, probably mixed with some advice and an exhortation to be a man. Practical administration of the duchy would of course have been put in the hands of others, but William must have been terrified when the moment came, of both his father’s absence and the weight of expectations. The sight of his father moving slowly away must have been among the loneliest feelings of William’s life.  

The danger of Robert’s death to the stability of the duchy was mitigated somewhat by the time it took for news of it to filter back to Normandy. The duke left after the Christmas celebrations in 1034 and although he expired early the next spring, word didn’t reach Normandy until August of 1035. By that time the Norman nobles had had nearly a year to get used to the idea of William as duke. Had Robert died at home, William could have been easily brushed aside after all Robert himself had done exactly that to his own nephew when he seized power.  

Despite his youth and inexperience, however, things weren’t quite as bleak for William as they at first seemed. There were two important things working in his favor. The first was that all the various uncles, great uncles, and cousins who might have made a bid for the throne had all publicly accepted William as duke and sworn to support his claim. This meant that they couldn’t openly break their allegiance without outraging popular opinion and it undoubtedly saved his life. The second advantage was in his guardians. Robert had left a talented group of men to protect and shepherd his son through the minority of his reign. Chief among these was the archbishop, Robert, William’s great uncle, the elder statesman of the family and the head of the Church of Normandy. 

For two years Normandy was as stable as could be expected with power in the hands of a committee. The enormous prestige of the archbishop smoothed the transition, but there were limits to what the cleric could do and it soon became clear that William’s father had frittered away much of the internal strength of Normandy. Past Norman dukes had understood that peace rested on a tamed aristocracy and had consequently strictly regulated where and when their vassals could build castles. During Robert’s reign, however, that had almost completely broken down. Most of William’s relatives were counts; all had lands loyal to them as well as multiple castles, and saw no reason why they shouldn’t build more. With Robert’s death having whetted the appetites of the ambitious, the nobility began expanding their power at William’s expense. Unauthorized castles started springing up throughout Normandy, further weakening central authority, and there was little the child in Rouen or his advisors could do to prevent it.  

Things worsened for William during the second year of his reign when his great uncle the archbishop, died. Without a man of such prestige to control them, William’s remaining guardians began fighting among themselves for preeminence. Whoever controlled William would have an obvious advantage, so for the next few years the young duke was treated as a pawn and moved around to whichever guardian was momentarily dominant. 

While William’s entourage was distracted, unrest spread. Thanks to all the new castles it became effectively impossible for a central authority to gain control, and even minor knights began to make power grabs of their own, carving out virtually independent principalities. Even worse, they also started to involve themselves in the game of capturing, and thereby controlling, William. 

Throughout the decade, the boy was constantly on the move, hustled by a shrinking number of guardians from one stronghold to the next in a desperate bid to stay ahead of the assassin’s blades. Relentlessly the noose drew tighter. The young duke’s tutor was cut down on his way home and several advisors were pulled from their saddles and butchered. William’s most powerful protector, Osbern fitz Arfast (Osbern the son of Arfast), known as the ‘Peacemaker’ for his diplomatic abilities, took the precaution of sleeping in his ward’s bed, but even this wasn’t enough. An assassin managed to slip past the guards and slit Osbern’s throat right in front of his horrified charge.  

Two other guardians, Count Gilbert and Count Alan, managed to hold things together, but in 1040 Gilbert was killed while besieging a rebel castle and the following year both Alan and William’s tutor were assassinated.  

What ultimately spared William, was the realization by the nobility that a destabilized Normandy was to their advantage. A weak duke was harmless enough and infinitely preferable to the strong personality that would inevitably seize power in the event of an assassination. What the nobility really wanted was to be left to their own devices, and the illegitimate and youthful William could hardly interfere in their affairs. Far better to keep him scared and running, and then do what they pleased.  

The bishop, Yves II of Belleme, an odious man who had recently killed his own wife to marry a more distinguished candidate, set the tone by carving out an independent domain within the borders of the duchy. When some political enemies were rash enough to enter his territory he chased them into a nearby cathedral and tried to force his way in. Since the doors proved too stout for his knights, he burned it to the ground with everyone still trapped inside. The fact that such behavior was inappropriate for a bishop even one as secular as Yves never seemed to have crossed his mind. The Lord of Belleme, like so many of his fellow nobles, would tolerate no challenge to his authority.  

By now all vestiges of central authority had disappeared. Whoever controlled the local castle controlled the surrounding area, and the chaos started to attract the attention of predatory neighbors. The duke of Brittany, a cousin of William’s, announced that before Robert had left for Jerusalem he had entrusted his son to Brittany’s care a patently false claim that he couldn’t prove and that no one believed. Probably expecting this reaction, the duke invaded, but died just after crossing the border and the threat vanished. A more serious attack, however, soon followed. King Henry I of France, known to his contemporaries as ‘Henry the ‘Castle-grabber’ was trying to gain control of the Seine Valley. Chasing an enemy over the border into Normandy, he demanded that a Norman castle be immediately turned over to him as an advance base. When the frightened guardians of William complied, the king demolished the fortress, and then rebuilt it to his own specifications in a successful bit of saber rattling.  

The entrance of the king triggered a revolt. Many of the nobles, tired of rapacious ducal relatives and guardians, flocked to the king’s banner in the hope that he would provide a more effective overlord. Even Falaise, the duke’s birthplace, was seized by the rebels and fortified for the king.  

With the situation growing more desperate by the hour, the one figure that no one had heard from, or expected to, abruptly made his appearance. William was fifteen years old, a man by the standards of the time, and ready to assert himself. Rallying his guardians, he chased the rebels out of Falaise, and led a spirited defense against the main conspirators. King Henry, sensing the wavering loyalty of the Normans, and in any case not prepared for a long engagement, withdrew, claiming that he had demonstrated his power and proved his point.  

It’s not surprising that William would finally emerge as a formidable personality. He must have had reserves of strength to survive such a childhood, and he had little patience for the fractious guardians who had held the reigns of power for him. Dismissing them en masse he surrounded himself with new advisors, mostly young and talented individuals who would stay with him for the rest of his life and become some of the largest landowners in England. 

William, however, was playing a dangerous game. Most of the dismissed counselors were members of the ducal family, and they found it impossible to endure both the loss of their prestige and the humiliation of watching ‘new men’ get promoted over their heads. Some of them had as good a claim to the throne as William and an idea began to form that perhaps he could be removed after all. 

At first they tried to respectfully petition that they be restored to their posts, but when William continued to show unmistakable signs of independent thought, they realized that the ground was shifting. For Yves II and his ilk there was only one course of action now available: the duke had to die.  

An abortive assassination attempt was made in 1045, largely failing through the disorganization of its members, but this only served to increase their determination. Choosing Guy of Burgundy, an older cousin of William as ringleader, they made further plans to assassinate William. Speed was of the essence. By 1046 William was nearly eighteen, and they could feel their chances slipping away. When William left for a hunting trip in western Normandy, the conspirators made a solemn vow to murder him when he returned to the lodge for the night.  

Fortunately for William, a jester overheard the conversation and warned the duke not to return home. Wary of his companions, William immediately fled, avoiding main roads and towns, fording rivers where he could and plunging through forests at full speed. At Ryes he met a friendly local lord who gave him a fresh horse and his three sons as an escort, and the four of them managed to make it safely to Falaise where he took refuge in the castle.  

With half the duchy in revolt, William didn’t know whom he could trust, so in desperation, he appealed to his feudal overlord, King Henry the ‘Castle-grabber’. This surprising decision turned out to be a shrewd move. The history between the two men was not so important as alliances shifted quickly in feudal Europe. A king was only as strong as his control over his vassals, and Henry had good reasons to support William. A weak duke propped up by royal power was infinitely preferable to a strong candidate like Guy of Burgundy, so he marshaled his army and joined William in Falaise.  

The combined army met the rebels at the plain of Val-es-Dunes, and risked everything in a pitched battle. Even with several defections, the rebels had numbers on their side, but they lacked coordination as Guy failed to impose himself and each noble disposed of his forces as he saw fit. An early skirmish managed to knock the king off his horse, but the royal forces rallied and after several hours of fighting the rebel army broke apart and was slaughtered as it tried to flee across a nearby river.16    

Although Guy of Burgundy managed to escape to the castle of Brionne and hold out for a few years, the revolt was effectively finished. The lesser nobility was exiled, and the more important ones were pardoned and returned chastened to court. William, for his part, wanted to make good use of the victory and moved quickly to consolidate his power. Oaths could be a potent force in medieval Europe and William perhaps motivated by the dim memories of his father’s Christmas ceremony held a great ‘peace council’ near the site of his victory. It was an open-air meeting where the banks of the River Orne, so recently choked with rebel bodies, served as a potent reminder of the duke’s power, and William invested the full weight of his office in the proceedings. Monks solemnly processed carrying precious relics belonging to a nearby abbey, and the assembled nobility swore to respect the peace.  

It was a momentous achievement, and to commemorate it William built a little chapel on the site dedicated to Peace.

The young duke had good reason to be proud. Still only twenty years old he had survived his childhood and against the odds had become a force to be reckoned with. The lawlessness and infighting had not quite ended - some still saw him has a pawn to be controlled - but he had taken great strides to stabilize the duchy. Now for the first time, his thoughts began to turn towards marriage to ensure the future of the dynasty.  

Medieval marriages among the powerful were political matches chosen by others feelings rarely if ever entered into the equation but William had the rare luxury of independence. His father was dead, his mother wasn’t in a position to influence anything and his advisors were either his age or had been discredited and removed. He was one of the few rulers of his time who got to choose his own wife, and he was determined to have it sanctioned by the Church to avoid the mistake of his father.  

If William wanted to marry for love, he was also practical enough to make it politically advantageous for himself as well. After some searching, his eye settled on the beautiful17 Matilda, daughter of his powerful neighbor the Count of Flanders and niece of the king of France. She would prove an inspired match. Nearly the same age as William, she was a formidable personality in her own right and they would apparently remain faithful to each other their whole lives. Uncharacteristically for a Norman duke, there would be no mistresses or illegitimate children.  

Before they could get married, however, a potential problem arose. William and Matilda were fifth cousins and the Church forbade unions to the seventh degree. It was also discovered that Matilda’s mother had been betrothed for a time to William’s uncle and although the marriage hadn’t been carried through, it was still seen as a violation of the accepted familial distance.  

Such issues were common enough in the Middle Ages. Since marriages were usually contracted between members of the same class, the royal pool had become somewhat shallow; nearly everyone was related to everyone else, and unless there were political reasons to object, most times a polite blind eye was turned.

Pope Leo IX, however, had a number of reasons to make life difficult for the Normans. As one of the first great reforming popes he believed that rulers should provide an example for the masses, and Normandy was notorious for the bad behavior of its clergy. Along with rampant simony - the practice of buying church offices - the worldly clerics often showed a complete disregard for their flocks. A steady stream of complaints about Norman abuses came to the attention of the pope, and he had reasons of his own not to ignore them.  

For one thing he depended on the German18 emperor, Henry III, for support, and Henry was currently quarreling with Matilda’s father. More importantly as far as Pope Leo was concerned was the fact that the Norman mercenaries who had arrived in Italy were becoming quite a nuisance. Led by a ferocious pair of brothers named Humphrey and Robert Guiscard, they had so alarmed everyone with their growing power that Leo himself was about to personally lead a coalition army to chase them out of Italy. Therefore, when the request came from William for permission to marry Matilda, the pope responded by holding a council condemning simony instead – a clear message of his disapproval.

Not surprisingly, most of the Norman bishops skipped the event. They were almost certainly guilty and had no desire to face condemnation for their concubines and other indiscretions. Those that did attend returned to Normandy with the unwelcome news that the pope had specifically forbidden the marriage.  

William went ahead anyway, and the next year married Matilda in a private ceremony. He didn’t have long to wait for the political winds to change. The Norman brothers Humphrey and Robert smashed the pope’s great army and took him captive. A year later Leo was dead and the next pope decided it was wiser to make peace with Norman power. In exchange for a commitment to build two abbeys and several charitable institutions, William’s marriage was officially sanctioned.  

By that time William had other things on his mind. The Count of Anjou had moved into neighboring Maine and had seized some of its castles on the border.  This threatened both Normandy and its neighbors, and King Henry, always wary of over-mighty vassals, arranged a joint expedition with William to check him. When William arrived, the inhabitants of an adjacent town made the poor decision to hang animal hides on the walls and beat them with sticks, chanting “the skin of the tanner belongs to his trade” a less than subtle taunt about William’s low birth and his mother’s occupation. The furious duke responded by capturing thirty-two members of the garrison and having their hands and feet cut off in full view of the town. They promptly surrendered.  

The whole campaign was just as short, and (if Norman sources are to be believed) William proved so gallant and masterful on his horse that even the Count of Anjou was impressed. At one point the Norman duke evicted a garrison by having two children sneak into a castle and set it on fire. This kind of resourcefulness, however, ultimately backfired. King Henry, unnerved by the speed at which William progressed, became convinced that his ally was now too powerful. Abruptly switching sides, he made an alliance with Anjou and wheeled around to crush the presumptive duke. 

The royal treachery was particularly dangerous because it happened to coincide with yet another rebellion by two of William’s uncles, so he resorted to a policy of falling back and biding his time. The king, finding no resistance and confident of success, divided his forces in half, sending one column under the command of his brother to Rouen, while he mopped up any resistance in the countryside. Unfortunately for the royal forces, however, the king’s brother proved to be totally incompetent.  

By the time he reached upper Normandy, the royal sibling had stopped making even the most preliminary nightly precautions. While bivouacking in the little village of Mortemer, his soldiers got their hands on the wine supplies and decided to sleep off its effects without bothering to post a guard. The Norman army fell on them in the middle of the night, leaving few survivors. William informed the king of the debacle by having an envoy climb a tree and shout news of it into Henry’s camp. The king prudently withdrew and without his support the rebellion collapsed.  

If anything, the abortive invasion had strengthened William. The duke was left in firm control of his domain with a burnished military reputation that cowed his vassals and made rebellion less likely. He could afford to be magnanimous in victory. Both of his rebellious uncles were exiled but they were given generous stipends as befitted sons of a duke.  

King Henry, however, wasn’t finished with William. He had clearly underestimated this dangerous young man, and needed to undermine his reputation before he grew too powerful. In 1057 he again allied with the Count of Anjou and marched into southern Normandy, determined to topple the duke from his throne. This time, the allies formed one army and headed for the coast.  

With no rebellion to worry about William was in a much stronger position, but he didn’t intend to risk his new credibility in a battle against a larger army. He was content to play his waiting game, refusing to engage the royal army until an opportunity presented itself. This tactic paid off once again. The king wasn’t knowledgeable about local tides, and while he was crossing a marshy estuary, the rising water cut his army in half. William pounced, and the stranded soldiers panicked, many drowning in the sea. King and count were powerless, forced to watch impotently from the other side as the disaster unfolded.  

The defeat dealt a serious blow to the king’s prestige, and although he managed to extricate himself from Normandy, he was never the same again. Three years later, both king and count were dead and the political situation of France had changed drastically. The new king was only eight and the Count of Anjou died childless. Two of the count’s nephews started a civil war to seize power; a state of affairs that the crafty William did his best to prolong. For the first time in his life Duke William was free from external threats.  

Normandy had never been more confident. Despite the unrest, the duchy was richer than its neighbors, and distinguished immigrants began to wander in.  Lanfranc, a celebrated teacher from Pavia, brought a young St Anselm, helping to start a literary revival that would soon spread to all of France. A large Jewish community settled in Rouen, making it a center of commerce, and a luxury wine trade began to flourish. The increased revenue trickled down to the nobility, who in turn built new abbeys and churches, further spreading the revival of learning.  

William was now uniquely placed for the great opportunity of his life.  Unchallenged at home or abroad, in his early thirties with a brimming treasury, and a confident principality at his back, it must have seemed as if anything was within his grasp. Buoyant and self-assured, he turned his eyes towards the rich kingdom across the Channel.  


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