Duke William of Normandy, loyal husband-ruthless warrior

by cheri block

There they are: two Norman war horses stepping out of a Norman vessel onto English soil. Soon, with their knights carrying about 25 pounds of armour , they will charge up the hill to battle with King Harold of England. The Duke of Normandy, William I, unlike many commanders who stayed at the rear of the charge,  will lead it.  Duke William was an accomplished horseman.

Perhaps 3000 stallions landed this way (depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry)  in Pevensey, England, in those days a small hamlet with a sandy beach.

The story of the Norman Conquest is fantastic and mind boggling.

What kind of  man could make this type of military move?

The Duke of Normandy was in his late thirties at the time of the Conquest. He’d survived a turbulent childhood, filled with uncertainty. His father Robert, who died on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land when William was only seven years old, left him the duchy. Because of this, many noblemen were out to kill him and secure Normandy–with its rich limestone soil, lush forests, and river outlets and estuaries–for themselves.

William’s mother, a tanner’s daughter, sheltered  and shielded him from attempted poisonings and murder. With protection from key churchmen and barons, William grew into adulthood and began his domination of Normandy and of neighboring places like Flanders, Brittany, and Maine.

From the  primary sources from the times, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the Gesta Gvillelmi by William of Poitiers, The Carmen De Hastingae Proelio by Guy of Amiens, and the Bayeux Tapestry we learn that  Duke William, with his Viking ancestry, would not be denied that which he desired: power, the money to keep the power, and his name. And, depending on which side of the English Channel one lives, he is now known as either William the Bastard or William the Conqueror. Literally, he was both.

And as is often the pattern of sons of successful fathers, he had something to prove. How this need was manifest, we can only speculate. I suggest that he was tender and kind to his wife Matilde and his many children, but ruthless and revengeful when he didn’t get his way. Cutting off enemies’ hands was not a problem for him. He was an observant Catholic and must have needed confession daily. He believed that God was always on his side and having Rome endorse his decision to cross the Channel in 1066 was crucial. For him, the coming of Halley’s Comet in April of 1066 was a good omen.

Duke William proved that in a short nine month period, he could assemble and afford a fighting force of knights and infantry from all over Europe. He acquired or built 800-1000 ships during that time which would carry these 10,000 fighting men across the English Channel. He figured out how to feed that many people and horses while they waited for six weeks for the south wind to blow. He was incredibly patient. He kept morale high. He actually did what he said he would do. He was a logistical genius.

In terms of leadership, he was the man.

We could use William the Conqueror here in the California Legislature; that’s for sure.  🙂


About Cheri

Writer, artist, cable television host, grandmother to four!
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38 Responses to Duke William of Normandy, loyal husband-ruthless warrior

  1. steven block says:

    Quien estaba mas macho?

    ShogunTokugawa (1543-1516) or William the Bastard (1028-1087) ?

    Both were successful warriors, great administrators and got things done. I say Tokugawa for President and the Bastard for VP in 2012.

    • Cheri says:

      Hi Steve,
      I don’t know enough about Shogun Tokugawa to endorse him.
      Certainly the Conqueror would do very well on Fox News and Dancing With the Stars

  2. jenny says:

    Dear Cheri,

    I saw a production of “Measure for Measure” in Moscow that made a huge impression and ties in with this post.

    In this production, the duke and Angelo were played by the same actor. The blocking of the scene is which Angelo proposes to Isabella that he will spare her brother’s life if she sleeps with him is identical to the blocking in the (much later) scene in which the duke offers to marry her–in both, she tries to run away and is subdued by her pursuer.

    My husband saw the same production earlier this year and remarked that the production was about the nature of power–malevolent or benevolent, it takes what it wants.

    Seems to me that this particular casting and staging also says something (as does your post) about the mixed-up combination of forces in all of us, making us bastards and conquerors, all in one breath.

    There’s a thought to kick off the holiday season.

    • Cheri says:

      Welcome home from Moscow and travels in Russia. I so enjoyed your post about the Babushka’s role in old and evidently new Russia.

      Your terms “mixed-up combination of forces in all of us” is true. Freud said it; Jung said it.

      In William’s time there was more bastard-conqueror than gentleman-mediator.

      We do admire people who do what they say. That’s rare today.

      It has to do with belief. Have you ever read American pragmatist Charles Saunders Peirce? He has some relevant statements about our “beliefs” and what they really mean.

      • dafna says:

        i really enjoyed reading this cheri. 🙂 🙂 (funny comment about FOX news and dancing with the stars)

        also got the reference right away to “washing rice” and the “burning sky”. very cool.

        jenny’s home?

        welcome back! i hope you enjoyed your visit and thanks for blogging for us from russia.

        happy hanukah to those amongst us who are lighting candles and eating donuts tonight. 🙂

  3. Cyberquill says:

    … that we should find the first of them nothing better than the principal ruffian of some restless gang, whose savage manners or preeminence in subtlety obtained the title of chief among plunderers …

    Thomas Paine’s characterization of WTC.

    If Arnold the Terminator couldn’t clean up Sacramento, I’m not sure what William the Conqueror could do.

    • Cheri says:

      Well, my Viennese cyber friend,
      I knew you would chime in on behalf of Arnold. I actually LIKE Arnold. He did his best trying to move the legislature into any decision.

      Picture the I.Q. of most members of the American House of Representatives.
      Now, lower it by 10-15 points. There you have it! The California Senate and Assembly.

      I’ve known a number of them. When we lost Willie Brown (who knew how to get something done), we lost much. (and to think I voted for term limits..dumb)

      Nietzsche would have loved WTC

      Wasn’t Thomas Paine a Brit?

  4. Philippe says:

    Your posting enables one to see analogies in very recent history, in even the present.

    Human nature, alas, hasn’t changed a whit since 1066.

    • Cheri says:

      The more I read, the more I believe your conclusion, Philippe.

      It’s funny. I didn’t intend the post to do that. I wanted to update everyone on William the Conqueror, so that when I post the summary of my research paper, people might have a bit of backround (in case they have forgotten their history).

      Then, when I got to the last line, it occurred to me. California needs William the Conqueror.

      Andreas ought to persuade the Economist editors to have a little fun with medieval leaders and their abilities to just make a damn decision and go forth.

  5. I was struck by how small the numbers of his invasion force were by comparison to the numbers involved in, say, the Punic Wars twelve centuries earlier.

    Look forward to the next installment.

    I also seem to recall that the “English” (Anglo-Saxons) were fatally weakened, having just had to repel a simultaneous Danish Viking invasion in the northeast and thus arriving late and bled to Hastings in the south.

  6. Cheri says:

    How many men fought in each of the Punic Wars?

    Yes, the story of Harold Godwinson’s wacked-out brother Tostig and his cheerleading the Norweigian King, Harald Hardrada, to go fight is highly entertaining.

    I had no idea the word “berserk” came from the Vikings. If you were a Viking whose whole life revolved around mayhem, you were considered a berserker. Gives me pause when my 7 year-old-grandson tells his 2 year-old brother to stop going berserk. 😀

    One of the reasons poor King Harold of England lost to Duke William was because King Harold and his troops had just knocked off Tostig and Hardrada 190 miles away in York and had to march down to deal with the Normans.

    • Geraldine says:

      Hi Cheri,
      Great post. I may be wrong but I thought ‘berserk’ referred to fighting barechested. They were considered mad barbarians for doing so.

      • Cheri says:

        Hi Geraldine,
        Before the day gets away from me, let me quote Mr. Howarth in his marvelous book, 1066. You may be correct.

        “The word berserk has survived from the Norseman’s language. A man who went berserk was seized by a battle-madness far beyond courage: he killed and killed, without mercy, reason or fear, and did not stop until there was nobody left to kill, or until he fell dead himself. Such berserkers were the heroes of the Norsemen.” p. 110

        My little grandson (the 2 year old) would fit your definition perfectly.

      • Philippe says:

        @Cheri – Are implying that “berserkers are people who run “amok”?

        I opine, though, that despite the commonly held view that “amok” came from the Malay, future research will show that it came from the Viking.

  7. Cheri says:

    Hi Dafna,

    We light the candles here on the Rancho.
    Happy Hannukah to you and yours.

    Always enjoy your comments. Thank you.

  8. Richard says:

    He’s mostly known as …the Conqueror… and rarely the Bastard on this side of La Manche, too.

    Pevensey’s still small, dominated by a castle.

  9. Richard says:

    Sorry – Pevensey Bay is dominated by a castle.

  10. Richard says:

    I quote in full from “Basic Documents in Medieval History” by Norton Downs (1959) [D. van Nostrand, Library of Congress Catalog Card No.59-9758], not so much because it may be of any use to you in your research as to throw a little light on the Conqueror’s mentality and to see if he would be any use to California:-


    There are two principal sources for the laws of William the Conqueror. The first and largest body consists of the laws of his predecessors that he confirmed. The second is contained in the document below and is his actual enactment. The manuscript from which was written in the reign of his son, Henry I, and seems to be a compilation of some ten laws. The sixth paragraph contains the first mention of trial by battle, which the Normans introduced to England.


    Here is shown that William, king of the English, together with his princes, established after the Conquest of England.
    1. Firstly, above everything, he wishes one God to be worshipped throughout all his kingdom, one faith in Christ always to be kept inviolable, peace and tranquility to be preserved between the English and the Normans.
    2. We ordain furthermore that every free man shall assert by a covenant and an oath that, within and without England, they wish to be loyal to king William, to protect with him his lands and his honor with all faithfulness, and to defend him against his enemies.
    3. I will, moreover, that all the men whom I have brought with me or have come after me, may live in peace and quiet. And if one of them is killed, his murderer’s lord shall capture the slayer within five days if he can; but if not, he shall start to pay me forty-six marks of silver so long as his possessions last. But when they are exhausted, the whole hundred in which the slaying occurred shall pay in common what remains.
    4. And every Frenchman who, in the time of my relative king Edward, partook in England of the customs of the English, shall pay according to the law of the English what they call “scot and lot”. This decree was confirmed in the city of Gloucester.
    5. We forbid also that any live cattle be sold or bought for money except within cities, and before three faithful witnesses; nor even anything old without a surety and warrant. But if anyone does otherwise he shall pay and afterwards pay a fine.
    6. It was also decreed that if a Frenchman accuses an Englishman of perjury or murder, theft, homicide, “ran,” as the English call open pillaging which can not be denied, the Englishman may defend himself as he prefers, either through the ordeal of hot water or through trial by battle. But if the Englishman is infirm, he shall find someone else who will do it for him. If one of them shall be defeated he shall pay him a fine of forty shillings to the king. If an Englishman accuses a Frenchman, and is unwilling to prove his charge by ordeal or trial by battle, I will, nevertheless, that the Frenchman purge himself by a strong oath.
    7. This also I command and will, that all shall have and keep the law of king Edward with regard to their lands and all their possessions, together with those additions which I have established for the benefit of the English people.
    8. Every man who wishes to be considered a freeman shall have a surety, in order that his surety may hold him and hand him over to justice if he gives offence in any way. And if any such one escape, his sureties shall directly see to it that they pay what is charged against him, and clear themselves of any knowledge of any deceit in his escape. The hundred and county court shall be required as our predecessors decreed. And those who ought of right to come, and are willing to come, shall be summoned once; and if a second time they do not wish to come, one ox shall be taken from them and they shall be summoned a third time. And if they do not come the third time, another ox shall be taken. Moreover, if they do not come the fourth time there shall be handed over from the goods of that man who was unwilling to come, the amount of the charge against him, which is called “ceapgeld”, and additionally a fine to the king.
    9. I prohibit any man to sell another outside the country under penalty of a fine paid in full to me.
    10. I also forbid that anyone be killed or hung for any crime, but his eyes shall be torn out and his testicles cut off. And this command shall not be violated under penalty of a fine from me.”

    William for King of California?

    • Cheri says:

      Welcome back, Richard. It’s so great to have your perspective here.

      From #1 to #10, we certainly see the swing in the pendulum, don’t we?
      I’m wondering about the choice between trial by battle or the hot water ordeal.
      Could you explain?

      This list of laws (I’d like to know a bit more about their origins) fits in to the information I have gathered about William the Conqueror.

      I’d like to use Law #1 and Law #10 in my paper but will need the page numbers in the Norton Downs’ book . Can I trouble you for that information?

      Do you live far from Pevensey Bay?

      • Richard says:

        Hi Cheri,
        I never really went away, did I? I’m weak!

        Pevensey’s about 60 miles from Croydon, I suppose, suitable for a day trip to the seaside. Glenys and I once lived near Hastings and her brother retired to Bexhill, so it’s a fairly familiar stomping ground.

        England has had its share of major invasion threats since 1066, hasn’t it? Philip of Spain, Napoleon, Hitler. Its geography, contrary to received opinion, makes it vulnerable. There have been many minor invasions – not least the invasion of 1688, although that was more by invitation.

        It is gratuitous aggression which seems to be part of human nature. We have a choice to follow it or not. Sometimes we are left with no alternative but to resist. Was “the Conquest” a good thing? It is interesting how those two words always seem to imply the Norman Conquest. A pivotal moment in world history and by no means a sure thing. William very nearly lost the battle.

        Those laws are on pages 71/3. Yes, he starts very civilised at 1. and then by 10 the truth outs. I suppose the explanation is that he was a thug, not unusually for the times – but a clever and very energetic one. Remember the laws were for the nobles.

  11. wkkortas says:

    Completely aside from his other strengths and faults, is it possible that every UPS office in the world has William’s portrait on the wall? If they don’t, I think they may want to consider doing so.

  12. “How many men fought in the Punic Wars?”

    There were three Punic Wars, so I don’t know what the total was.

    But the largest sea battle in all of history apparently occurred during the First Punic War, involving more than 150,000 sailors.

    At Cannae, Hannibal killed abouit 70,000 Romans in one day. (Without modern weapons, obviously, so up close). So there were over 100,000 men on that field.

    Large numbers. To feed, move, command….

    • Cheri says:

      Wow. I didn’t know this, Andreas.
      So Hannibal killed in one day, the same number of British boys who died in the first day of the Battle of the Somme.

      Interesting that you would use the words ” to feed, move, command”

      I am wrestling tonight with the logistics involved in the Norman’s feeding of so many horses for 6 weeks while waiting to go to England.

      • Philippe says:

        “…….150,000 sailors……….70,000 Romans in one day……..”

        I suggest that, since these alleged events happened so long ago, these numbers should be regarded skeptically.

        Remember, the further one goes back in history, the less one knows for sure.

      • Man of Roma says:

        We might not know the exact numbers, but historians agree that the punic wars, especially 1 and 2, involved a huge number of people and were called by them the ‘world wars’ of antiquity meaning they were the greatest wars in ancient times. After all the two main powers of the Mediterranean were clashing in an era when that sea was central to human civilization, much more than the Channel was at the time of William. Of course the Channel will become incredibly central later, after the discovery of the New World.

      • It’s actually not always true that “the further one goes back back in history, the less one knows for sure.” We know nothing with precision, of course. But we probably have a much less inaccurate view of certain events in classical antiquity than of event during the Middle Ages, say. It was a more literate (or less illiterate) age, with more scholars and historians per capita.

        Cheri, “to feed move etc”: You could write entire treatises just on logistics. It was not “the boring stuff”, as it were. It determined strategy. For instance, for an army (Hannibal’s) of that size, he HAD to keep them moving, for the simple reason that they could not still because they would eat through whatever fields they were camped in in a matter of days.

        And keep in mind the SANITARY end (as it were) of the feeding challenge. Armies (+ beasts) in motion literally waded through their own refuse, so that disease became a major challenge, often worse than then enemy….

  13. Don says:

    First visit (from link at Sledpress). To add to “berserk”, it is a compression of “bare sark”, referring to the casting off of one’s major piece of clothing while in the battle madness. If the thing was cloak-like and sort of loose, I can see doing so as a practical matter. (I know odd things like that because I wondered why people called my hometown “Berserkeley” and then went off and became an Anglo-Saxon history nut instead of a good high school student.)

    Wonderful thoughts about William. Of course today when leaders get things done the medieval way we call them warlords and worse. Much worse. It is however nice to find someone else who admits to liking Arnold. I too believe he audaciously attempted to solve a problem (the CA Legislature) that cannot be solved. Brown will get somewhere with it, but that’s kind of like leading the donkey where it wants to go.

    • Cheri says:

      Hi Don,
      First of all, welcome to the blog.
      Thank you for such a marvelous comment, full of information I did not know.
      I never connected Berserkeley until you just wrote it. To think I live so close to Berserkeley.

      Jerry Brown is no William the Conqueror, that’s for sure.

  14. Cheri says:

    Hi Richard,

    Oh, may I quote your words verbatim?
    he was a thug, not unusually for the times – but a clever and very energetic one. Remember the laws were for the nobles.

    I promise to include a discursive footnote. How should I characterize you?


    Definitely not weak.

  15. Cheri says:

    Richard: done!
    Philippe: This is exactly what I have found in researching WTC. The reports about number of vessels, number of men, etc. vary greatly, depending on the source.

  16. Richard says:

    Sorry to bombard you with my random thoughts, Cheri, but do you notice there are ten of William’s laws as there are ten commandments and the pattern is vaguely similar to Exodus 20.

    Like so many of his ilk he was dangerously deluded. He saw himself as a latter-day Moses, succeeding in crossing the water where Moses had failed. As the agent of God he was, of course, free to commit all manner of abominations.

    Give me the rational meek any day.

    • Cheri says:

      I like random thoughts (remember, I still teach junior high kids…the Conquerors of Random Thoughts).

      “Give me the rational meek any day.”

      Richard, doesn’t this wind around and back to our discussions about Nietzsche?

      Maybe a combination of Richard the Conqueror and Moses would be the best.

  17. Cheri says:

    I have been reading about the logistics of keeping 10k men and 3k horses for about 6 weeks on the coast of Normandy. Dr. RHC Davis writes in the Anglo-Norman Studies X that he has concerns about the statistics that Dr. Bachrach presented in a paper during the Anglo-Norman Battle Conference of 1985.

    Here is what Dr. Davis writes (which corroborates why Hannibal had to keep moving)

    ” On the assumption that the army would have included 2000-3000 warhorses weighing no less than 1300 lbs each and that each would have received a daily diet of 12lbs of grain (either oats or good barley) and 13 lbs of hay, he (Bachrach) reckoned that the daily requirement would have been 14 tons of both grain and hay for 2000 horses and 20 tons for 3000 horses… Providing for the army the fortnight which it spent at Hastings would have been even more of a problem. The Bayeux Tapestry shows that food for the men was seized locally, but it does not show what was done for the horses…”

    Dr. Davis goes on to challenge the figures. Anyway, it’s all fascinating and something maybe an aspect of history that many do not consider. I know I didn’t until I started wrestling around with this stuff. ( the stats, that is…)

    I was thinking about how much manure 3000 horses would produce. Bachrach wrote about this somewhere but I can’t find it.

  18. Cheri says:

    Just curious why I can’t click on your name and get to your new blog.
    That would be nice.

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