Vikings settling in northwest France became the “Normans.” In the middle of the 11th Century, the Normans conquered southern Italy and England. William the Conqueror defeated King Harold at the Battle of Hastings and was crowned King on Christmas Day 1066. The Anglo-Saxon residents were treated poorly by the Norman government, especially in land rights, but the Normans also taught the English residents more about how to be productive on the land, and the English economy grew by leaps and bounds. Beautiful stone cathedrals and churches are stunning remnants of the time. (Have you seen “Pillars of the Earth”?)
William I, or William the Conqueror, ruled England from 1066 to 1087. William, the illegitimate son of the Duke of Normandy, spent his first six years with his mother in Falaise and received the duchy of Normandy upon his father’s death in 1035. A council consisting of noblemen and William’s appointed guardians ruled Normandy but ducal authority waned under the Normans’ violent nature and the province was wracked with assassination and revolt for twelve years. In 1047, William reasserted himself in the eastern Norman regions and, with the aid of France’s King Henry I, crushed the rebelling barons. He spent the next several years consolidating his strength on the continent through marriage, diplomacy, war and savage intimidation. By 1066, Normandy was in a position of virtual independence from William’s feudal lord, Henry I of France and the disputed succession in England offered William an opportunity for invasion.
The arrival and conquest of William and the Normans radically altered the course of English history. Rather than attempt a wholesale replacement of Anglo-Saxon law, William fused continental practices with native custom. By disenfranchising Anglo-Saxon landowners, he instituted a brand of feudalism in England that strengthened the monarchy. Villages and manors were given a large degree of autonomy in local affairs in return for military service and monetary payments. The Anglo-Saxon office of sheriff was greatly enhanced: sheriffs arbitrated legal cases in the shire courts on behalf of the king, extracted tax payments and were generally responsible for keeping the peace. “The Domesday Book” was commissioned in 1085 as a survey of land ownership to assess property and establish a tax base. Within the regions covered by the Domesday survey, the dominance of the Norman king and his nobility are revealed: only two Anglo-Saxon barons that held lands before 1066 retained those lands twenty years later. All landowners were summoned to pay homage to William in 1086. William imported an Italian, Lanfranc, to take the position of Archbishop of Canterbury; Lanfranc reorganized the English Church, establishing separate Church courts to deal with infractions of Canon law. Although he began the invasion with papal support, William refused to let the church dictate policy within English and Norman borders.
The first years of William’s reign were spent crushing resistance and securing his borders, which he did with ruthless efficiency. He invaded Scotland in 1072 and concluded a truce with the Scottish king. He marched into Wales in 1081 and created special defensive ‘marcher’ counties along the borders. The last serious rebellion against his rule, the Revolt of the Earls, took place in 1075. In 1086, William ordered a survey to be made of the kingdom. This became known as the Domesday Book and remains one of the oldest valid legal documents in Britain.
With the kingdom increasingly settled, William spent most of his last 15 years in Normandy, leaving the government of England to regents, usually clergymen. He spent the last months of his reign fighting Philip I, King of France. He died on 9 September 1087 from injuries received when he fell from his horse at the Siege of Mantes. He divided his lands between two of his sons, with Robert receiving Normandy and William Rufus, England.
Some great sites with historical content including information on William the Conqueror: