Thursday, 10 October 2013

The Kingship of England and the Conquest

William the Bastard, Duke of Normandy, made himself king of England in 1066 by Conquest, but the veracity of his claim was weak, so he got his propaganda machine to work for him to make his right to the English throne unquestionably legitimate. Several chronicles were produced all written by Normans, all designed to glorify William's conquest of England. Chroniclers such as William of Poitiers, who was Duke William's personal chaplain, were engaged to draft a history of how king William had achieved the Conquest, and to justify his right to the throne. All these accounts were were panegyric in nature. All re-arranged the chronology to suit king William's case; all introduced false events, half-truths or re-interpreted existing stories and facts in favour of William's right to be king. And, of course, it is in this kind of manner that history is written by victors to suit their own purposes.

William changed the rules by which kings were made in England. Clearly he had become overall ruler by military conquest, and after he had won the Battle of Hastings there was really no one in the land who had the organised armed strength to challenge him. There were potential overseas threats, and other claimants [Edgar the Aetheling] and William's actual claim was weak, so he engaged the best legal minds in Normandy to construct a history which would clearly define his right as the indisputable successor,  the one true heir, to king Edward the Confessor, a history that would cast Harold as an illegitimate usurper.

Anglo-Saxon kings prior to the Conquest had been chosen and made by an elective system. They had been created king by a system of recognition by the leading families and nobles of the kingdom at a special convocation of the Witan, at which the king was elected by the great men of the kingdom in session in the kingdom's grand council  This recognition had often, as it had done in Edward the Confessor’s own case, always taken place a year or more before the coronation ceremony. The candidate became king from the moment of his recognition by the Witan, which involved a system of mutual exchange of oaths between the new king and his nobles. It was stated in documents of the time that it was the Witan which had the exclusive right to choose the king from amongst the members of the extended royal family. Royal succession in this way usually followed a system of primogeniture. The candidate for kingship was always generally selected from a particular family, such as the Cerdrics of Wessex. A particular family's hereditary right to furnish kings was based on their being able to prove their descent from the ancient gods of the folk, proof  being provided by a set of royal genealogies, an age-old system derived from pagan Germanic times. Consecration of the chosen king by the Church at a coronation ceremony sometime afterwards was seen as adding extra sanctity to the royal title and person who was chosen, but the ceremony did not make the king. However, those chroniclers who were monks writing about these times generally did not ascribe the title of King to anyone unless they had undergone a formal coronation ceremony, 

William of Poitiers wrote how Edward the Confessor had decided that he wanted the young duke of Normandy, the grandson of his mother’s brother, the Norman duke Richard II, to succeed him as his heir. William of Poitiers goes on to say that Edward had therefore allegedly summoned an assembly of the English nobility, demanding from each that they each take an oath accepting Duke William as king following his death. The truth, it seems, is that Edward didn't really have any legal right to name his successor in this way and that the power to name the successor was entirely vested in the Witan. Edward could recommend someone, but it was the Witan which made the final decision. Duke William was not present in England when this meeting and its oaths-taking were supposed to have taken place: however, the story goes on to say that Edward's intent and will was supposedly communicated to him in Normandy by Robert of Jumièges, a former Norman abbot whom Edward had lately made Archbishop of Canterbury. From this supposed latter event we can supposedly infer that this alleged event of the oath-taking had taken place sometime in 1051, the year when Robert of Jumièges had been assigned to the See of Canterbury. William of Poitiers mentions this episode many times in his chronicle, but does not refer to Harold as being one of the oath-takers at the named event. But the story goes on to say that at some time later in 1064 or 1065, Harold, who had since become earl of Wessex in succession to his father, was sent by king Edward over to Normandy to reaffirm Edward's desire that William should be his successor directly and personally to William. It was at this time Harold is supposed to have sworn an oath of fidelity to William as his true vassal on a holy relic. William of Poitiers stresses that Edward had ordered Harold to do this in order that should make his affirmation by oath in person to the Duke just as Harold's father and others had done so in William’s absence back in 1051. But all these events were recorded by the Norman chroniclers, and the whole story seems to have all the distinguishing features of fabulation. But this blog is not really about this particular period of history and will not discuss the full details of the way this story has been fabricated.

It was William the Conqueror's contention that Harold Godwinson had been crowned king of England by an uncanonically appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, Stigand, and hence his coronation ceremony was consequently invalid. And that he had been improperly selected and elected in the first place. Hence Harold had had no right to the English throne. On the other hand William claimed that Edward the Confessor had personally nominated that he should be his successor, in front of witnesses as stated above. And that Harold had personally sworn fealty to him on holy relics that he would be his vassal. But on the death of Edward the Witan had chosen Harold to be king; Harold was a member of a hugely powerful Godwinson in England with connections to the rulers of Denmark, and Harold had been formally crowned king of England the day after Edward's death.

At about the same Pope Alexander II had also given his consent for William to cross over the sea and invade  England to take up his inheritance, and to restore order to the church there. During 1066 he had given the members of William's delegation, which had gone to Rome to plead William's case for the campaign, a papal ring, the banner of St. Peter, and a papal edict, which was to be handed over to the English clergy after he had won, declaring that William had been given the pope's personal blessing for his bid for the throne of England. This invasion was therefore to be considered a just war. This was almost like the pope giving a licence to the invading forces to plunder the towns and villages of England without them committing a sin when doing so, though when it was all over members of the invading force were expected to do penance for their sins.

So in October 1066 William invaded England in pursuit of his claim. The invasion was successful. Harold was killed at the Battle of Hastings, and William had militarily secured by December that year the entire south-east corner of England. The opposition had been defeated, and the Aetheling and the Witan forced to submit to William. He had grabbed Harold's treasury at Winchester. Nothing could stop him from formally being crowned king. He chose the act of coronation as the method by which he would confirm his new position, as it was confirmed by God and not by man, adding significant strength to his right to be king. 

William was crowned in Westminster Abbey on Christmas day 1066.  Ealdred, the Archbishop of York officiated as Archbishop Stigand's excommunication had meant that he could only assist. The ceremony was attended by both the French-speaking Normans and English-speaking Saxons. As those assembled shouted their consent in both languages; the Norman soldiers on guard outside the Abbey thought the noise inside was an attempt to murder William, and they set fire to the houses surrounding the Abbey. Smoke soon filled the church building causing those gathered inside to flee, and riots broke out outside. In the meantime inside the Abbey, William and the bishops continued with the ceremony despite the chaos. 

Whether there was any question William had any real right to be king was now irrelevant, and there was no one left in the land to gainsay it. He was now king and he was going to impose his rule on the kingdom.

The claim to continuity with Edward the Confessor’s England was intrinsic to the justification of William’s conquest, and therefore to its legal and tenurial consequences. This legal fiction was reinforced many times over in the very many land grants and legal charters by the use of the formulaic words tempore rex Edwardi, or TRE [as in the time of king Edward]  the phrase that is found and repeated in the Domesday Book itself.


Charles McLean Andrews (1903). A History of England. Allyn and Bacon. p. 40.

Edward Augustus Freeman (1873). The History of the Norman Conquest of England: The reign of William the Conqueror. 1873. Macmillan and Company.
v. 1. The preliminary history to the election of Eadward the Confessor.--v. 2. The reign of Eadward the Confessor.--v. 3. The reign of Harold and the interregnum.--v. 4. The reign of William the Conqueror.--v. 5. The effects of the Norman conquest.--v. 6. Index volume

Coronation and Propaganda: Some Implications of the Norman Claim to the Throne of England in 1066
by George Garnett
Transactions of the Royal Historical Society
Fifth Series, Vol. 36, (1986), pp. 91-116

George Garnett (2007). Conquered England: Kingship, Succession, and Tenure 1066-1166. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-820793-1.  [Amazon reference]

George Garnett (2009). The Norman Conquest: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-160438-6.

C. Petit-Dutaillis (2013). The Feudal Monarchy in France and England. Taylor & Francis. ISBN 978-1-136-20357-2.

Giles (1845) Scriptores rerum gestarum Willelmi Conquestoris, p.77

William of Poitiers. [ed. R. H. C. Davis and Majorie Chibnall (1998)]  The Gesta Guillelmi of William of Poitiers. Clarendon Press. ISBN 978-0-19-820553-1. [Amazon reference]

Jon E. Lewis (1 March 2012). "Orderic Vitalis: Coronation of William the Conqueror 1066". London: the Autobiography. Constable & Robinson Ltd. pp. 1325–. ISBN 978-1-78033-750-0.

Frank Barlow (1984). Edward the Confessor. University of California Press. ISBN 978-0-520-05319-9.

Frank Barlow (2002). The Godwins: The Rise and Fall of a Noble Dynasty. Longman Publishing Group. ISBN 978-0-582-42381-7.

David Charles Douglas (1964). William the Conqueror: The Norman Impact Upon England. University of California Press. pp. 5–.

The Ecclesiastical History of Orderic Vitalis: Volume II: Books III & IV: v. 2
[Amazon reference]

Judith A. Green (2002). The Aristocracy of Norman England. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-52465-0.

Elizabeth Van Houts (2000). The Normans in Europe. Manchester University Press. ISBN 978-0-7190-4751-0.
Elizabeth Van Houts (2000). The Normans in Europe. Manchester University Press. pp. 74–. ISBN 978-0-7190-4751-0.

"Frederic Cheung: Conquest, Legitimation, and Consolidation in Norman England". The Legitimation of New Orders: Case Studies in World History. Chinese University Press. 2007. pp. 179–. ISBN 978-962-996-239-5.

Emily Albu (2001). The Normans in Their Histories: Propaganda, Myth and Subversion. Boydell & Brewer. pp. 1–. ISBN 978-0-85115-656-9.

Laws of WiIliam the Conqueror in French and Latin

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