Up to 1066 – The Early Life of the Conqueror

In c.1028 a key player in one of the biggest historical upheavals in English history was born to an unmarried French woman. Herleva was a member of the ducal household of Normandy in the lower ranks of society, potentially the daughter of a tanner, but had been a short-standing mistress to the Robert I who was the debated successor to the Dukedom. Circumstances within Normandy meant that the authority of the noblemen were in flux due to wars with the church. There was also intense rivalry from their neighbours in Brittany who was hoping to expand into Norman land. With the death of Robert I in 1035 and no legitimate heirs to follow, the ducal crown was left to his eldest illegitimate son, the boy who would become the infamous Conqueror of England. Illegitimate succession was not unusual in Normandy, as the custom of male primogeniture that the church would eventually advocate by the twelfth-century, was not common law amongst the people on the continent. It is therefore unclear whether a legitimate son would supplant the eight year old child if one had occurred from a proposed marriage of Robert with a daughter of Cnut of England.

There is no full record of the Dukes childhood which means that his education and upbringing can only be guessed at. He was born in the centuries following the Carolingian Renaissance suggesting the upsurge in classical writing and texts meant he was given an education befitting his status as a high-profile Duke. Whether a legitimate son was expected hung the balance of the importance of the education of an illegitimate child. Since none occurred with no obvious inclination to marry by Robert I it could be guessed that William of Normandy was raised as an heir should. This would include academia such as mathematics and literacy but also chivalric education such as jousting, hunting, hawking, dancing and music were necessary to produce an influential and vibrant courtly lifestyle. Due to being known for administrative and diplomatic skills in later life, it is clear that the young Duke was given a first-hand account on how to keep people on his side. In his minority this was not successful since his supporters were often turn-coats. But in later life with the solidification of his rule in England, skills at appeasement were necessary. His training in government would have been similar to previous Dukes of Normandy with the primary base being within the ducal household itself. As a king of England he was celebrated to be pious which was emulated with his personal relations with the ecclesiastical courts in Normandy, but this was often eclipsed with the reports of greed and cruelty that may have been effects from his childhood in his need to maintain control of his lands, but that is clearly a personal psychological analysis that can never be confirmed.

William had a large amount of support during his minority including his maternal family and much of the Norman nobleman. His right to inherit was contested by several high-ranking men from all corners but he achieved the support of Henry I whose was the King of France and an archbishop. This support solidified his right during his minority but the death of the Archbishop in 1037 meant the help of the church was lost, and Normandy descended into chaos. The troubles lasted for ten years with each man fighting to have control of the young Dukes court and government. Custody of the Duke was fought over brutally with many losing their lives in suspicious circumstances meaning William of Normandy spent periods in hiding with his maternal family as protection. One of the main issues for strife was that, like many kingdoms in the period, internal feuds and wars were fought between nobleman to the detriment of the lower ranking people trapped within the system of feudalism. However most of the viscounts and ecclesiastical courts in Normandy supported the young Duke meaning his minority ended with the ducal crown in his keeping. Successive civil wars, rebellions and uprisings meant that the Dukes education consisted of surviving and learning from a young age to fight. This could be presumed to be why his invasion of England would eventually be a success. By the age of twenty-two William of Normandy was besieging castles with relative ease from Burgundy, Anjou and Maine in order to consolidate power and create a power base at Rouen. Up until the year of 1066 when England fell to the bastard of Normandy peace was never settled, even a marriage to Matilda, the daughter of the Count of Flanders, failed to ensure that William left Normandy in a settled state. The marriage was a success with the arrival of four sons and several daughters but naturally in the most typical medieval sense, the descendants of these children caused the chaos that ensued in England and the continent for several centuries after the infamous year of 1066.

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