The English king William I (1027/1028-1087), called the Conqueror, subjugated England in 1066 and turned this Saxon-Scandinavian country into one with a French-speaking aristocracy and with social and political arrangements strongly influenced by those of northern France.
William I was the illegitimate son of Robert I the Devil, Duke of Normandy, and Arletta, a tanner's daughter. Before going on pilgrimage in 1034, Robert obtained recognition of William as his successor, but a period of anarchy followed Robert's death in 1035. As he grew up, Duke William gradually established his authority; his victory over a rival at Val-e's-Dunes in 1047 made him master of Normandy. One chronicle relates that in 1051 or 1052 he visited his childless cousin king Edward the Confessor of England, who may have promised him the succession to the English throne.
About 1053 William married a distant relative, Matilda, daughter of Baldwin V, Count of Flanders. She bore him four sons and four daughters, including Robert, Duke of Normandy; King William II; King Henry I; and Adela, Countess of Blois, mother of King Stephen.
William's military ability, ruthlessness, and political skill enabled him to raise the authority of the Duke of Normandy to an entirely new level and at the same time to maintain practical independence of his overlord, the king of France. William completed the conquest of Maine in 1063, and the next year he was recognized as overlord of Brittany.
In the same year, according to Norman sources, Harold, Earl of Wessex, son of Godwin, chief of the Anglo-Saxon nobility, fell into William's hands and was forced to swear to support William's claim to the English throne. Harold was nonetheless crowned king following the death of Edward on Jan. 6, 1066. William secured for his claim the sanction of the Pope, who was interested in correcting abuses in the English Church; at the same time, he ordered transports to be built and collected an army of adventurers from Normandy and neighboring provinces. William was also in touch with Harold's exiled brother, who with the king of Norway attacked the north of England. Harold defeated these enemies at Stamford Bridge on Sept. 25, 1066, but his absence allowed William to land unopposed in the south three days later. Harold attempted to bar William's advance, but he was defeated and killed in the Battle of Hastings on Oct. 14, 1066. After a brief campaign William was admitted to London and crowned king on Christmas Day.
In the next four years William and his Norman followers secured their position; after the last serious rising, in Yorkshire in 1069, he "fell upon the English of the North like a raging lion," destroying houses, crops, and livestock so that the area was depopulated and impoverished for many decades. William took over the old royal estates and a large part of the land confiscated from Saxon rebels. He kept for himself nearly a quarter of the income from land in the kingdom. About two-fifths he granted to his more important followers, to be held in return for the service of a fixed number of knights. This feudal method of landholding was common in northern France, but it was rare if not unknown in England before the Conquest.
Claiming to be King Edward's rightful heir, William maintained the general validity of Anglo-Saxon law and issued little legislation; the so-called Laws of William (Leis Willelme) were not compiled until the 12th century. William also took over the existing machinery of government, which was in many ways more advanced than that of France. Local government was placed firmly under his control; earl and sheriff were his officers, removable at his will. He made use of an established land tax and a general obligation to military service.
William also controlled the Church. In 1070 he appointed Lanfranc, abbot of St. Stephen's Abbey at Caen, as archbishop of Canterbury. Lanfranc became William's trusted adviser and agent. The higher English clergy, bishops, and abbots were almost entirely replaced by foreigners. In a series of councils Lanfranc promulgated decrees intended to bring the English Church into line with developments abroad and to reform abuses. Though encouraging reforms, William insisted on his right to control the Church and its relations with the papacy. He controlled the elections of prelates; he would allow no pope to be recognized and no papal letter to be received without his permission; and he would not let bishops issue decrees or excommunicate his officials or tenants-in-chief without his order. About 1076 William rejected the demand of Pope Gregory VII that he should do fealty to the Roman Church for England, and the matter was dropped.
At Christmas, 1085, William ordered a great survey of England to be carried out, primarily in order to record liability to the land tax, or "geld." The results were summarized in the two great volumes known as the Domesday Book. Six months later, at a great gathering in Salisbury, William demanded oaths of fealty from all the great landowners, whether or not they were tenants-in-chief of the Crown. In this as in the Domesday survey, he was asserting rights as king over subjects, not simply as feudal lord over vassals.
Throughout his life William was involved in almost ceaseless campaigning: against rebels in Normandy and England, enemies in France, and the Welsh and the Scots. The Scottish king was forced to do homage to William in 1072. William died in Rouen, France, on Sept. 9, 1087. He was respected for his political judgment, his interest in Church reform, the regularity of his private life, and his efforts to maintain order. But above all he was feared; the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says that "he was a very stern and harsh man, so that no one dared do anything contrary to his will."
The standard biography of William I is David C. Douglas, William the Conqueror (1964). R. Allen Brown, The Normans and the Norman Conquest (1970), treats the invasion in detail, while F. M. Stenton, ed., The Bayeux Tapestry (1947; 2d ed. 1965), offers a vivid contemporary record from the Norman viewpoint. The best general history of the period is Stenton's Anglo-Saxon England (1943; 3d ed. 1971), which concludes with the death of William.