History Fact Friday – William the Conqueror and the Normans

His name was Guillaume, and he was destined for greatness. He was a strong, healthy child who became a robust, powerful man. He came from a line of ever more powerful Norman nobles and established a line of even greater nobles who would be engaged in almost never-ending warfare during the Middle Ages. Today, we call him “William the Conqueror” because in 1066, he led an army across the English Channel and after the Battle of Hastings became the king of England.

Where did he come from?

Norman is a portmanteau of North and Man. It denoted the origins of the Normans as Viking raiders in the 9th and 10th centuries. One of their leaders,Hrólfr, became a vassal to the Frankish (French) king Charles III and took the Christian name of Robert. Robert became the count of Normandy. (His descendants later took the title dux or duke.)

William the Conqueror was a direct descendant of Robert. He was also the great nephew of Emma, who had been the queen consort to two kings of England (Æthelred and Cnut the Dane) and the mother of two more (Harthacnut and Edward the Confessor). When Edward the Confessor died, he left no sons. He had named his nephew Edgar as his successor, but the nobility refused to accept him. There were at least three claimants to the throne, but Harold Godwinson claimed that Edward had named him to the throne.

William, who was Edwards first cousin, once removed, was a powerful, young duke in Normandy. He was already ruling Normandy when Edward returned to England in 1041-1042. When Edward died, William claimed that while still in exile, Edward, had named him as his successor. The power vacuum in England was such that William had quite a few supporters there.

After Harold Godwinson was killed at the Battle of Hastings, William became the ruler of England, establishing the House of Normandy which ruled for less than a century before being supplanted by the House of Plantagenet, which was far more French (from the ruling nobles of Anjou) than the Normans were.

What is interesting is that the English, who were themselves descended from Angle stock, had thrown off the rule of the Danes in 1042 only to now accept the rule of a Norman in 1066. (Although their acceptance wasn’t exactly voluntarily.) All three could be considered ‘Northern’ tribes, and they all spoke remarkably similar versions of High German. This three-fold presence of northern ruling classes created a very distinctly Germanic cultural layer (although the Normans themselves spoke an early form of French) that would eventually surface as the primary distinction between the English and the French, and would ultimately lead to the greatest conflict of medieval Europe – the Hundred Years’ War.

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