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William the Conqueror

Julian Humphrys looks at how the illegitimate son of a tanner’s daughter defied the odds to become a leading contender for the crown of England
HUMBLE BEGINNINGS How did William rise from being an illegitimate son to one of the most prominent figures in English history?


This often-reproduced painting of William was created towards the end of Elizabeth I’s reign. You can see it today in the National Portrait Gallery.

Legend has it that Duke Robert I of Normandy was gazing out from the ramparts of his castle at Falaise when he spotted a mesmerisingly beautiful girl washing clothes in a nearby stream. As the most powerful man in Normandy, Robert was used to getting what he wanted – and he wanted the girl. She was Herleva, the daughter of a local tanner, and in 1027 she presented Duke Robert with a bastard son, who was christened William. Although Robert didn’t go so far as to actually marry her, he did show great favour to Herleva and her family. In the end she married one of Robert’s knights, Herlun de Conteville, and bore him two sons – Robert, who would become Count of Mortain, and Odo, who would be appointed Bishop of Bayeux. But William, her first-born, would rise even higher.


As far as Duke Robert was concerned, William’s illegitimacy counted for little. Before embarking on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in 1035, he named the boy as his heir and ensured that he was fully accepted as such by his barons. It should be said that bastardy didn’t carry the same stigma that it would in later years, and although William would always be notoriously touchy about the circumstances of his birth, this had more to do with his mother’s humble origins. After making doubly sure of William’s status by securing his formal recognition as heir by the King of France, Robert set off on his pilgrimage... And then died on the way home.

The elderly Archbishop of Rouen had been appointed as William’s guardian, but when he also died in 1037, Normandy descended into anarchy as rival barons fought to gain control of the young duke. “Plots were hatched and rebellions, and all the duchy was ablaze with fire”, wrote one chronicler. Robert had also arranged for a number of leading nobles to protect his young successor, but it soon became clear that they were unable to protect themselves, let alone William. Alan of Brittany died at a siege in 1040, his replacement Gilbert of Brionne was murdered while he was out riding and in 1041 William’s tutor, Turold, met a similar fate. According to the chronicler Orderic Vitalis, William himself later recalled, “Many times, for fear of my kinsmen, I was smuggled secretly out of the castle by night by my Uncle Walter [a brother of his mother] and taken to the cottages and hiding places of the poor, to save me from discovery by traitors who sought my death”. His steward Osbern took to sleeping in William’s room to protect him – a precaution that eventually cost him his life. One morning William awoke in Vaudreuil castle to find Osbern lying dead in a pool of blood – his throat had been cut during the night. It was a brutal, dangerous childhood and it undoubtedly shaped the character of the adult duke. Despite the odds stacked against him, William somehow emerged unscathed from the long years of bloodshed and in 1042 he was declared to be of age. Helped by young men like William Fitz Osbern, the son of his murdered steward, he began to assert his authority. But he wasn’t out of the woods yet.

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The November 2016 issue of History Revealed.