William I, the Conqueror, was crowned king of England on Christmas Day 1066, ten weeks after defeating Harold Godwinson, earl of Wessex, at the Battle of Hastings. The illegitimate son of Robert, Duke of Normandy, he had succeeded his father when he was only seven. While still in his teens he had to defend his dukedom against both ambitious neighbours and internal challengers. His success in maintaining his position no doubt taught him to manage his men, his government and his resources. But, as with all strong leaders of this time, it was the compelling personality of the man himself - his forcefulness, his energy, and the confidence and determination he displayed at all times - that made him an almost legendary figure.
A strong, charismatic military leader, William inspired his men, never hesitating to lead them into battle. But, despite his successes in the field, he never over-reached himself and resisted the temptation to expand into Wales, Scotland and Ireland in costly and debilitating campaigns.
He stands out as a forceful and able statesman in an age of petty wars, shifting loyalties and weak and confused governments. He quickly analysed those institutions (such as the judicial system) worth keeping in his new kingdom and those where changes were necessary. Order was his watchword: he kept a strong hold over potentially unruly barons, yet retained their loyalty, and taxed his subjects heavily, tying them to the land.
William was a generally religious and practical man who believed that the Anglo-Saxon Church and monastic system required thorough reform. He deposed Stigand, Edward the Confessor's archbishop of Canterbury, in favour of the learned and efficient Lanfranc, who in turn replaced the English abbots and bishops with Normans. Twenty years after the Conquest there was only one English abbot, Wulfstan of Worcester, and many English saints had been removed from the calendar of the Church.
The Normans also found Anglo-Saxon church buildings inadequate and unimpressive. A vast rebuilding programme got under way, and in a single generation a new style of ecclesiastical architecture was imposed throughout the country. The size of the major cathedrals begun after the Conquest surpassed anything already built in Normandy. The money came from the substantial Church lands now held by the new bishops, while lesser nobles often financed the reconstruction of smaller churches, in order to ensure their personal salvation, and to impress one another and the king.
In an age of heavy eating and drinking and lax morality, William is remembered as abstemious and puritanical. Perhaps in reaction to his birth, he was absolutely faithful to his wife Matilda, the daughter of Baldwin V and, by happy coincidence, a descendant of Alfred the Great, ninth century king of the West Saxons.
Medieval Monarchs edited by Elizabeth Hallam. Tiger Books International, 1996 p 10
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