William the Conqueror

By Moina Arcee,  Jul 11, 2013 edited August 29 2018


Rollo the Viking

If not for his dream Rollo may never have landed his raven-crested war boats on the white cliffed coasts. His arrival was a nightmare for the mixture of Roman, Germanic, and Gaulic races inhabiting tenth century northwestern France, who believed the Viking invasion was God’s chastisement for their sins.

If this was true then God was quite displeased, for he allowed the Scandinavian menace to loot and pillage their way to Paris, which he then allowed them to sack. But the Vikings didn’t wreck everything, and although they left Paris, they didn’t leave France. To the surprise of all, Rollo’s dream began to become real.

In his dream, “Rollo saw himself transported to a mountain in France, washed in a clear and fragrant fountain, and joined there by thousands of birds of all types who came from every direction to build their nests around the mountain.”

The earliest historian of northern France, one Dudo of Saint Quentin, solved the riddle in Latin verse. Translated, his interpretation of Rollo’s dream goes something like this:

Rollo, you will grasp the mystic meanings of your dream:

You will stand at the lofty peak of the mountain of the church.

The leprosy of your sins will be cleansed in the font of salvation.

Now men in the place of birds, bearing shields for you,

Climbing the mountain of the church,

Will redeem themselves in the fountain…

Freed of sins, they will consecrate the mystic holy rites,

And they will make nest-homes near the heights of the mountain,

And they will erect churches, supported by diverse gifts.

Good duke, pious duke, and patrician most venerable,

All things are at hand for you which in sleep your soul drank in.

 Translation: the mountain was the Christian Church; the fountain symbolized Rollo’s baptism; and the birds represented the different races of men Rollo would rule. To everyone’s surprise Dudo’s verse proved prophetic. Regarded as God’s scourge, the rule of the Vikings, an elite pagan minority in Christian France, was an uneasy one.

Eventually, the conquered Franks realized it was not only possible, but likely, that the Vikings would convert to Christianity. For the new pagan lords had made two mistakes. First, they didn’t destroy all the churches and monasteries. Second, they didn’t bring Viking women with them. Once the Vikings started marrying French women, well, it didn’t require Dudo of Saint Quentin to figure out what faith their fair-haired children would be raised in.

Rollo and his Viking kinsmen converted, were baptized, and spent the rest of their days as Christians. They and their heirs were known as Normannie, the North Men, or Normans. Although Rollo and his kin proved surprisingly prudent administrators, pagan habits die a hard death. It took generations for the Vikings to stop plundering monasteries, and begin patronizing them.

That the change happened at all is noteworthy, and rather ironic: Rollo’s heirs became the guardians of monasteries, protecting them from the raids of French bandits. Equally interesting was the first voyage the Normans made after conquering northwestern France. They pointed the prows of their war boats toward the coast of England, not to sack it, but to re-civilize it along the lines of Norman Christianity.

They were led by Rollo’s heir, William, better known as William the Bastard, the son of Robert (“the Devil”), Duke of Normandy, and Herleva, a tanner’s daughter Robert espied by a fountain in Falaise, the town William was born in nine months later (around 1028). He survived this inauspicious beginning, and several attempted kidnappings, to grow into a pious warrior, a not uncommon combination in those days. He was still a teenager when he defeated his rivals to become Duke of Normandy, which his ancestors had transformed into the most powerful vassal of the French crown. Even at this young age, “the singularity of William’s character was already marked,” according to Hilaire Belloc:

“His long fits of silence, especially after his passions of anger; his brooding, his lonely planning, combined with the vigor of his wrath. He was singular in nothing more than this, that, being such a man, he was even thus, in the strength of his youth, chaste; it was part of the strength of his will. And there went also with that strength of will a comprehension of religion which was at once personal and political…He perceived how the further organization of…the one constructive force in Europe – the Church – should be part of the structure of his State.”

Duke William of Normandy

Believing he had a claim to the English crown, William methodically gathered forces for an invasion. A papal bull excommunicating England’s King Harold as “a profane man and a perjurer” strengthened his cause. The bull’s author, Pope Alexander II, sent William “a hair of the head of St. Peter” and “a banner of the Church of Rome, which had received the Papal benediction.” Then, according to Belloc:

“Upon Saint Michael’s Eve (in 1066), Duke William put all that great host on board, his fifty thousand men and his many knights and his horses and his provisions, and in the afternoon, the tide making outward from the bay, all his hundreds of boats set sail making a cloud together upon the sea, and all that night under the lighter breeze they ran for English land…”

The English were dug in and waiting for William, who was clad in mail and a loose cloak, and rode a Spanish charger. He and his men wore the distinctive Norman helmet with the nosepiece (“nazal”) to protect the features. Pope Alexander’s papal banner was prominently displayed during the Norman’s charges, which were punctuated with their war cry Dex Aie! (“God aid us!”).

William in battle

It was a ferocious battle until an arrow from a Norman longbow pierced the eye of England’s King Harold. This mortal wound ended the famous battle of Hastings. The victorious William marched to London and was crowned King on Christmas Day. So great was the response of the thousands of onlookers, French and English alike, that Norman troops thought a rebellion had begun, and acted accordingly. As a result, “William became William I of England in an almost empty abbey.”


The conquest of England was an extension of Rollo’s dream. A statesman as well as a warrior, William’s administration of England was as prudent and farseeing as Rollo’s administration of Normandy. His conquest of England would prove politically problematic, however. The practical consequences of William being both King of England and Duke of Normandy were that Normandy became a duchy of England, and the ducal family of Normandy became the English royal family. The ensuing tug of war between England and Normandy quickly involved the rest of France as well. A mutual urge to dominate the other was one of many similarities the two lands shared.

Yet what united Normandy and England was greater than what separated them. The likeness extended even to geography. Like England, Normandy has always been a damp land, even without the gray, frothy ocean waves that rhythmically crash, lap, and wash against its chalk-white cliffs. Rivers run through both and empty into the Atlantic, and along the riverbanks are trees that spread out into forests. In Normandy massive yews and oaks are common, many of them over one thousand years of age. Because there are no longer any wolves, deer and stag abound. In both locales, there is enough rain to ensure soggy winters and overcast summers.

Beyond the forests are miles of hedge rowed hills and plains, used mostly for grazing horses, cattle, and sheep. Quiet villages come and go. A native described Normandy as

“a long and undulating countryside cut through by valleys, where the peasants’ homesteads, meadows and apple orchards were surrounded by tall trees whose tufted heads seemed to shine in the sun’s rays…everywhere there were slender streams gliding by the poplars’ feet and under the tenuous veils of the willows, rivulets that glittered in the grass and bathed all the land with a quickening freshness.”

Take away the reference to apple orchards, source of Normandy’s famous apple cider, and this passage also describes rural England. The greatest bond between Normandy and England, however, was the common religion under the Church of Rome. Norman churchmen appointed to the Church in England were gratified to find there a vital devotion to the Real Presence in the Eucharist, and very little heresy. William implemented papal legislation designed to curb simony and clerical immorality, and restored much of the physical property of the Church. According to the historian Oman, it was due to William that “the condition of the Church in the matter of spiritual zeal, of hard work, and of learning, was much improved.” Said an English subject:

“He was a very wise and very rich King, humble towards God’s servants, very hard to those who opposed his will. He kept England in such order that even a weakly man could go everywhere in safety with a bag of gold; but he caused everyone who killed a stag or doe to lose both eyes…However, Almighty God granted him pardon for his sins.”

One of his sins was to marry Matilda, a political marriage that, in William’s eyes anyway, required too much haste to wait for permission from Rome. The problem was that William and Matilda had the same grandfather, so by custom they were too closely related to marry – without a papal dispensation. When William was excommunicated by Archbishop Mauger of Rouen (Normandy’s capitol), he became angry, deposed Mauger, and began “punishing every opponent whom he could reach.” In other words, he began emptying the monasteries. Which was how he met Lanfranc.

Lanfranc was the Prior of the monastery at Bec until William evicted him. Riding slowly away on a lame horse, Lanfranc happened to encounter William on the road. Meeting the smoldering eyes of the Duke of Normandy with his own mild ones, Lanfranc said: “I am obeying your command as quickly as I can, and I will obey it better if you will give me a better horse.” Instead of quickening the pace of horse and rider by walloping both with the flat of his sword, William smiled. He and Lanfranc fell into conversation, at the end of which William commissioned Lanfranc to reconcile him to Rome.


Lanfranc proved equally effective in communicating with Rome. William’s excommunication was lifted, and a belated dispensation was granted to him and Matilda. In return, and as penance, William and Matilda each built a church in Caen, their Norman town of residence. William built the Church of St. Stephen (the Abbaye aux Hommes), Matilda the Church of the Holy Trinity (the Abbaye aux Dames). Their erection brought the number of churches built by William to twenty-three. The quarry used for the construction would later provide rock – the famed “Caen stone” – for the English abbeys of Canterbury and Westminster. Lanfranc became William’s most trusted advisor. The Conqueror appointed him Archbishop of Canterbury in 1070. Pope Alexander II “conferred the pallium on him in person, and confirmed the decision of the Council of Windsor that Canterbury was the primatial see of all England.” It is likely that Lanfranc also received a better horse.

If the Church of St. Stephen is any indication, William’s penance was performed with a firm purpose of amendment. It was a magnificent structure in which resided the very skull of St. Stephen. The church was completed in 1077. One decade later William was buried there after dying in a horse riding accident. Born William the Bastard, he left the world as William the Conqueror.


The chief complaint against him concerns his ruthless severity against his enemies. It would appear William learned this lesson early. Three of his guardians were murdered when he was a boy, and he fought his first battle at the age of eighteen. Violence was the coin of the realm, not just in Normandy but in Europe as a whole. The universality of violence may not exonerate William, but it is a fact. It is also true that his conquest of England rescued that land from even more violent Saxon barbarism. It is not often that an invasion founds an empire, but this is exactly what William’s invasion of England produced. It is the Conqueror’s lasting achievement.

A Saxon chronicler summed up William of Normandy thusly: “He was mild to good men who loved God, and stark beyond all bounds to those who withstood his will.” Less well known is William’s sincere devotion to the Blessed Virgin. He placed his invasion of England under Mary’s protection, and, in 1087, on his deathbed, he commended his soul to the Blessed Virgin, “that by her holy prayers she may reconcile me to her Son, my Lord Jesus Christ.” With these sentiments the soul of the Conqueror departed to meet its Creator. His devotion to the Blessed Virgin was a feature of Norman religious life. A century after William’s death the feast of the Immaculate Conception was established in Normandy. Its spread caused it to become known as “the feast of the Normans.”

Notes and Sources

The verse and quoted sentence are from Dr. Cassandra Potts, Monastic Revival and Regional Identity in Early Normandy, The Boydell Press, 1997, pp. 2-3, 12. Belloc’s description of young William the Bastard is from Hilaire Belloc, William The Conqueror, reprinted in 1992 by Tan Books and Publishers, p. 20.  Belloc’s description of the invasion of Englnad is from his Miniatures of French History, as quoted in Sisley Huddleston, Normandy, Doubleday, Doran & Company, Inc., 1929, p. 196. The details of the Battle of Hastings are from George Musgrave, Ramble Through Normandy, London, David Bogue, Fleet Street, 1855, Chapter XVI, Falaise.

The quotation concerning William’s crowning is from A Pageant of History, Wm. Collins Sons & Co. Ltd., London and Glasgow, 1964 Edition, pp. 34-35. The “long and undulating countryside, etc…” was penned by the noted short-story writer Maupassaant, himself a Norman. It and the quote about the “very wise and rich King” are from Alan Houghton Brodrick, Editor, Normandy, The People’s France, Hodder and Stoughton, Ltd., 1947, p. 125. The opinion of Oman is from The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume XV, p. 643.

William and Matilda had an interesting courtship. When she first heard of Williams’ intentions towards her, she laughed him to scorn, mocking him as a bastard. William responded by finding Matilda in her father’s palace, entering unannounced, and “pushing into the room where she was, throwing her to the ground, knocking her about and making as plain as he could the effect which her comment had had on him. There he left her without more words; and after that she was determined that he should be her husband.” (Belloc, op. Cit., p. 21).

The episode with Lanfranc is from Percy Dearmer, D.D., Highways And Byways In Normandy, Macmillan and Co., Limited, St. Martin’s Street, London, 1924, Chapter 9, Caen. See also Donald Attwater, Editor, A Dictionary of Popes, London, Burns Oates & Washbourne Ltd., 1939, pp. 153-155; and Hayes, Baldwin and Cole, Editors, History of Europe, Macmillan Company, 1949, pp. 190-193.

An alternate version of William, Matilda and Lafranc is offered by the Catholic Encyclopedia:

“Lanfranc (was) a man of such note that William, Duke of Normandy, employed him as one of his counselors. He, however, forfeited the ducal favor about 1052-53, on account of opposing William’s union with Matilda of Flanders, on the ground of their relationship within the prohibited degrees of kindred, and was, in consequence, ordered to leave the duke’s dominions. On his journey to the frontier he happened to meet Duke William, who roughly asked him why his orders were not being obeyed. Lanfranc jestingly replied that he was obeying them as fast as a lame horse would allow him to do so. William appears to have been mollified by the answer, a reconciliation followed, and it would seem that Lanfranc undertook to forward negotiations for securing the needful dispensation from the pope.” Birt, H. (1910). Lanfranc. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.Retrieved July 6, 2013 from New Advent.


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