William the King

William the King

After Hastings, William made slow, S-shaped progress through Kent, Surrey, Hampshire and across the Thames at Wallingford to Berkhamstead north of London.

As he was approaching London, near St. Alban`s, the shrine of the protomartyr of Britain, he found the road blocked, according to Matthew of Paris, “by masses of great trees that had been felled and drawn across the road. The Abbot of St. Albans was sent for to explain these demonstrations, who, in answer to the king`s questions, frankly and fearlessly said, `I have done the duty appertaining to my birth [he was of royal blood] and calling; and if others of my rank and profession had performed the like, as they well could and ought, it had not been in thy power to penetrate into the land so far.` Not long after, that same Frederic was at the head of a confederacy, determined, if possible, to compel William to reign like a Saxon prince, that is, according to the ancient laws and customs, or to place… Edgar Atheling in his room. William submitted for a time, and, in a great council at Berkhampstead, swore, upon all the relics of the church of St. Albans, that he would keep the laws in question, the oath being administered by Abbot Frederic. In the end, however, the Conqueror grew too strong to be coerced by any measures, however, nationally excellent or desirable, and he does not seem to have cared much about oath breaking, unless it was he who had enacted the oath – the unhappy Harold, for instance, found that no light matter – and so William became more oppressive than ever. St. Albans, as might have been anticipated, suffered especially from his vengeance, he seized all its lands that lay between Barnet and Londonstone, and was with difficulty prevented from utterly ruining the monastery. As it was, the blow was enough for Frederic, who died of grief in the monastery of Ely, whither he had been compelled to flee.” (165)


In November the Conqueror stayed in Canterbury, from which Archbishop Stigand had fled in order to join the national resistance in London. One night, St. Dunstan was seen leaving the church by some of the brethren. When they tried to detain him he said: “I cannot remain here on account of the filth of your evil ways and crimes in the church.” (166) The first church of the kingdom did not long survive St. Dunstan`s departure. On 6th December, 1067, it was burned to the ground…


William continued his march, systematically devastating the land as he passed through it. Early in December he was in Southwark, burnt it, and drove off Prince Edgar`s troops at London Bridge.


Important defections from the English side began to take place. The first was Edith. King Edward`s widow and King Harold`s sister, who gave him the city key of Winchester. Then Archbishop Stigand submitted to him at Wallingford. And at Berkhamstead, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, “he was met by Bishop Aldred [of York], Prince Edgar, Earl Godwin, Earl Morcar, and all the best men from London, who submitted out of necessity.”


Finally, on Christmas Day – how fateful has that day been, both for good and ill, in English history! – he was crowned King by Archbishop Aldred;”  and William gave a pledge on the Gospels, and swore an oath besides, before Aldred would place the crown on his head, that he would govern this nation according to the best practice of his predecessors if they would be loyal to him.” (167) (William actually placed the crown on his head, as Aldred was wavering in doing this)


The Londoners also suffered from their new master. During William`s coronation service, Archbishop Aldred first asked the English in English if it was their will that William be made king. They assented. Then Geoffrey, bishop of Coutances, addressed the Normans in French with the same question. When they, too, assented, those who were standing guard outside the Abbey became alarmed because of the shouting, and started to set fire to the city.


Professor Allen Brown writes: “Orderic Vitalis, in a vivid passage, describes how panic spread within the church as men and women of all degrees pressed to the doors in flight, and only a few were left to complete the coronation of King William, who, he says, was `violently trembling`. For William this must indeed have been the one terrifying moment of his life… He believed implicitly in his right to England, and God had seemed to favour that right and to deliver His judgement on the field of Hastings. And now, at the supreme moment of anointing and sanctification at his coronation, when the Grace of God should come upon him and make him king and priest, there came a great noise, and the windows of the abbey church lit up with fire, and people fled all about him. It must have seemed to him then that in spite of all previous signs and portents he was wrong, unworthy, that his God had turned against him and rejected both him and his cause, and it is no wonder that he trembled until the awful moment had passed and the world came right again.” (168)


After the festivities, the Conqueror imposed “a very heavy tax” on the people. Then, after giving instructions for the building of castles all over the land, he returned to Normandy taking all the chief men of England with him as hostages.




In December, 1067, he returned to England, and quickly put down rebellions in Kent (? The men of Kent met him to do battle if he would not let them carry on with their own laws within Kent, William submitted to this and saved him the devastation of battle) and Hertfordshire. Then a more serious rebellion broke out in Exeter. Thither he marched with a combined army of Normans and Englishmen, and after a siege of eighteen days the city surrendered; which was followed by submission of the Celts of Cornwall, and the cities of Gloucester and Bristol. Meanwhile, in the North resistance was gathering around Earl Morcar, who had been allowed to return from Normandy; and there was a threat of intervention by King Malcolm of Scotland, and King Swein of Denmark. After spending Pascha at Winchester, William marched swiftly north and built castles in Warwick and York, where he received the submission of the local magnates and secured a truce with the Scottish king. Then he turned southward to secure the submission of Lincoln, Huntingdon and Cambridge.


But on 28th January, 1069, the Normans whom William had appointed earl of Northumbria north of the Tees was attacked in the streets of Durham and burnt to death in the house of Bishop Ethelwine. This was followed by an uprising in York, and Prince Edgar prepared to move from Scotland. William, however, moved more swiftly, dispersing the besiegers of York castle, taking vengeance on the rebels and appointing Gospatric as earl.


In early summer, 1069, he returned to Normandy; but almost immediately a Danish fleet of about two hundred and forty ships sailed into the Humber. Combining with Edgar, Gospatric and Waltheof, they destroyed the Norman garrison at York, and then encamped on the southern shore of the Humber, fortifying the Isle of Axholme. This was the signal for other uprisings in Dorset and under Edric the Wild in the Welsh Borders.


The great French historian Thierry writes of this northern campaign: “The conquering army, whose divisions covered a space of a hundred miles, traversed this territory… in all directions, and the traces of their passage through it was deeply imprinted. The old historians relate that, from the Humber to the Tyne, not a piece of cultivated and, not a single inhabited village remained. The monasteries which had escaped the ravages of the Danish pagans, that of St. Peter near Wear, and that of Whitby inhabited by women, were profaned and burnt. To the south of the Humber, according to the early narrators, the ravage was no less dreadful. They say, in their passionate language, that between York and the eastern sea, every living creature was put to death, from man to beast, excepting only those who took refuge in the church of St. John the archbishop [of York, +721], at Beverley. This John was a saint of the English race; and, on the approach of the conquerors, a great number of men and women flocked, with all they had most valuable, round the church dedicated to their blessed countryman, in order that, remembering in heaven that he was a Saxon, he might protect them and their property from the fury of the foreigner. The Norman camp was then seven miles/11.2km from Beverley. It was rumoured that the church of St. John was the refuge of the rich and depository of the riches of the country. Some adventurous scouts, who by the contemporary history are denominated knights, set out under the command of one Toustain, in order to be the first to seize the prize. They entered Beverley without resistance; marched to the church-yard, where the terrified crowd were assembled; and passed its barriers, giving themselves not more concern about the Saxon saint than about the Saxons who invoked him. Toustain, the chief of the band, casting his eye over the groups of English, observed an old man richly clad, with gold bracelets in the fashion of his nation. He galloped towards him with his sword drawn, and the terrified old man fled to the church: Toustain pursued him; but he had scarcely passed the gates, when, his horse`s feet slipped on the pavement, he was thrown off and stunned by the fall. At the sight of their captain half dead, the rest of the Normans turned round; and their imaginations being excited, hastened full of dread to relate this terrible example of the power of John of Beverley. When the army passed through, no one dared again to tempt the vengeance of the blessed saint; and… the territory of his church alone remained covered with habitations and produce, in the midst of the devastated country…

“… Famine, like a faithful companion of the conquest, followed their footsteps. From the year 1067, it had been desolating some provinces, which alone had then been conquered; but in 1069 it extended itself through the whole of England and appeared in all its horror in the newly conquered territories. The inhabitants of the provinces of York and the country to the north, after feeding on the horses which the Norman army abandoned on the roads, devoured human flesh. More then a hundred thousand people, of all ages, died of want in these countries.” (169)

In the wake of the secular armies came the ecclesiastical. Thus new monasteries were founded by the Conqueror and peopled with Norman monks. Or the monks of the old monasteries were simply slaughtered to make way for the new. For example, at Stone near Stafford on the Trent, as Thierry writes, “there was a small oratory, where two nuns and a priest passed their days in praying in honour of a Saxon saint called Wolfed. (170) All three were killed by one Enisant, a soldier of the conquering army, `which Enisant,` says the legend, `killed the priest and the two nuns, that his sister whom he had brought with him might have a church.`” (171)

Professor Douglas writes: “An eleventh-century campaign was inevitably brutal, but the methods here displayed were widely regarded as exceptional and beyond excuse, even by those who were otherwise fervent admirers of the Norman king… `I am more disposed to pity the sorrows and sufferings of the wretched people than to undertake the hopeless task of screening one who was guilty of such wholesale massacre by lying flatteries. I assert moreover that such barbarous homicide should not pass unpunished.` Such was the view of a monk in Normandy. A writer from northern England supplies more precise details of the horrible incidents of the destruction, and recalls the rotting and putrefying corpses which littered the highways of the afflicted province. Pestilence inevitably ensued, and an annalist of Evesham tells how refugees in the last state of destitution poured into the little town. Nor is it possible to dismiss these accounts as rhetorical exaggeration, for twenty years later Domesday Book shows the persisting effects of the terrible visitation, and there is evidence that these endured until the reign of Stephen…” (172)


Archbishop Aldred of York died, broken-hearted, on 11th September, 1069, in the burnt-out shell of his metropolitan see – but not before he had gone to William and publically cursed him for breaking his coronation oath…


Bishop Wulfstan of Worcester meekly accepted the Conqueror`s rule; and he was now sent to pacify Chester, being the only bishop to whom the people of that north-western province, the last to be conquered by the Normans, would be likely to listen. His surrender, more than any other, signified the end of the English resistance. For while bands of fugitives continued to struggle in different parts of the country, particularly in the Fens under the famous Hereward the Wake, Wulfstan was the last Englishman of nation-wide renown around whom a national resistance could have formed.


Before leaving events in the north, we should not forget to mention the influence of the greatest saint of the north, St. Cuthbert (+687). After the violent death of William`s appointee, Robert Comin, in Durham, another expedition was sent by William to restore order. But St. Cuthbert`s power, which had terrified unholy kings in the past, had not abandoned his people.


For the expedition, writes C.J. Stranks, “was turned back by a thick mist, sent for the protection of his people by St. Cuthbert, when the army reached Northallerton. Then the king himself came. The frightened monks [led by Bishop Ethelwine of Durham] decided to take refuge at Lindisfarne and, of course, to take the body of their saint with them. When they reached the shore opposite to the island night had fallen and there was a storm raging. It looked as if their way was blocked, for the sea covered the causeway. They were tired and frightened and at their wits end, when miraculously, as it seemed to them, the sea withdrew and the path to the island lay open…


“Their stay was not long, for they were back in Durham by the beginning of Lent, 1070. Two years later William the Conqueror himself felt the saint`s power. He was staying in Durham for a little while on his way home from Scotland in order to begin building the castle there. Perhaps he had heard of the flight to Lindisfarne, for he thought it necessary to take an oath of the monks that St. Cuthbert`s body was really at Durham. But he was still not convinced, and ordered that the tomb should be opened on All Saints` Day, threatening that if the body was not there he would execute all the officers of the monastery. The day arrived. Mass was begun, when suddenly the king was seized by a violent fever. It was obvious that the saint was angry at his temerity. William left the church, mounted his horse and never looked back until he had crossed the Tees and was safely out of the Patrimony of St. Cuthbert…” (173)


Meanwhile, Bishop Ethelwine decided to flee Norman England. He tried to set sail for Cologne, but adverse winds drove his ship to Scotland, where he spent the winter. In 1070, however, he headed for Ely, where the English were to make their last stand…




In 1070 the last remnants of the English resistance, led by the Earls Edwin, Morcar and Siward and Bishop Ethelwine of Durham, sought refuge in the island monastery of Ely in East Anglia. There, under the leadership of Hereward the Wake, they made frequent sallies against William`s men. When William heard of this, he invested the island and started to build a causeway towards it. However, Hereward`s men put up a strong resistance, and the “most Christian” King William then resorted to a most famous tactic – he called in a witch, put her onto a tower over the fens and ordered her to cast spells on the English, but this, too, failed to work – the English launched a successful counter-attack, and the witch fell from her tower and broke her neck. Finally, it was through the abbot and monks (with the connivance of Earl Morcar) that William conquered the stronghold; for, considering it “their sacred duty,” as the `Book of Ely` put it, “to maintain their magnificent temple of God and St. Etheldreda”, they came to terms with William, and in exchange for promises that their lands would be restored and confirmed, they guided the Normans secretly into the rebel stronghold. (174)


Hereward and his men made their escape; but others were not so fortunate. As Kightly writes, many must have wondered whether surrender had been such a good idea after all. `The king caused all the defenders to be brought before him, first the leaders and then anyone else of rank or fame. Some he sent to perpetual imprisonment` – among them the deluded Morcar, Siward and Bishop Ethlewine – `others he condemned to lose their eyes, their hands or their feet` – William rarely hanged men, preferring to give them time for repentance – `while most of the lesser folk he released unpunished.` Then, to ensure that Ely would not trouble him again, he ordered that a castle be built in the monastic precinct (where the mound still stands)… (175)


“Next, going to the abbey, `he stood as far as possible from the tomb of the holy Etheldreda, and threw a gold piece to her altar: he dared not go any closer, because he feared the judgement of God on the wrong he was doing to her shrine.` And well he might, for though the monks kept their estates and their English abbot, King William soon found an excuse to levy an immense fine on them, so that they were forced to sell almost all the adornments of their church: when their payment proved a few coins short, he increased his demands still further, and they lost the few treasures that remained. `But even after all this,` mourns the `Ely Book,` no one believed that they would be left in peace` – and nor were they.” (176)


After further adventures, Hereward was eventually reconciled with William. However, another English leader, Earl Waltheof, was not so fortunate. He had joined a conspiracy of Normans and Saxons which was defeated in battle, and was  executed at Winchester on 31st May, 1076, just as he finished praying; ”… and lead us not into temptation.” “And then, goes the story, in the hearing of all, the head in a clear voice, finished the prayer, `But deliver us from evil. Amen.`” (177) He was buried at Crowland, and according to Abbot Wulketyl of Crowland many miracles took place at his tomb, including the rejoining of his head to his body. (178) However, veneration of him as a saint was not permitted by the Norman authorities:Abbot Wulketyl was tried for idolatry (!) before a council in London, defrocked, and banished to Glastonbury… (179)