My Weekly Reader 18 October 2018.

Being born-out-of-wedlock was a major social disgrace for many centuries.  It is not so today[1] and it was not so in 11th Century Europe.  Duke Robert “the Devil,” duke of Normandy fathered a child with the presumably winsome Herleve, a tanner’s daughter.[2]

Their son, William “the Bastard,” claimed the title of Duke of Normandy after his father’s death during a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.  He made good that claim by a combination of favorable circumstances and his own remarkable abilities.  Chief among them were ability as an organizer and as a soldier, and a practical ruthlessness.  These qualities struck fear among those who opposed him or who might think about opposing him.  The latter group included his own vassals.  William also possessed a sincere Christian faith, marked by his generous donations to the foundation of churches and abbeys in his territory.[3]  This won him the support of the Church.

Early success at one difficult task encouraged him to raise his sights.  England lost the last of the ruling dynasty of kings (1066).  William set out to seize the crown for himself.  His chief rival for the crown, Harold Godwinson, faced multiple enemies.  Harald “Hardrada,” a Norwegian challenger, had added Godwinson’s own brother, Tostig, to his allies.  Godwinson had won the support of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Stigand, but Stigand was under a cloud with Rome.  As a result, William’s army fought under a papal banner as well as that of Duke William.  William descended up the shores of southern England just after Harold Godwinson had defeated the Norwegian invaders in the north of England.  William’s army defeated and killed Harold Godwinson at Hastings in 1066.

William’s victory began the Norman conquest of Anglo-Saxon England.  It took another twenty years before William had an unchallenged grip on the monarchy.  The English were not easily subdued in spite of the death of their own king at Hastings.  William’s followers[4] replaced most to the old aristocracy (called “thegns”).  William distributed revenue-producing lands seized from the English aristocrats to these followers.  However, he extracted a price: his version of feudalism gave the kings of England a tight grip on his vassals.  His unusually centralized form of government made both England and Normandy the best-governed territories in Europe.

Then his power as King of England increased his power as Duke of Normandy.  Later his successors would increase their power within France to the point where they could try to seize the crown of France as William had seized the crown of England.

William the Conqueror’s victories in England ended what is called the Anglo-Saxon period of English history.  It opened the period called Anglo-Norman.  It also began the long process by which England rose from a soggy little place of no consequence on the edge of Europe to be one of the five “Great Powers” that guided the destiny of Europe—and then of the world—from the 18th Century to the 20th Century.

[1] See https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-10-17/almost-half-of-u-s-births-happen-outside-marriage-signaling-cultural-shift

[2] See the classic book by David C. Douglas, William the Conqueror: The Norman Impact Upon England (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1964).

[3] Admittedly, he also plundered other such institutions, but this appears to have happened when those institutions supported one of his rivals.  As a result, church leaders were prone to give him the benefit of the doubt.

[4] He had recruited additional warriors from all over northwestern Europe to bulk-up his own Norman forces.

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