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Road Trip Through History: In Caen with William of Normandy, who was not yet William the Conqueror

There are two things you can’t avoid if you go to Normandy: D-Day and William the Conqueror (aka William the Bastard and William of Normandy). In fact, the two of them are woven together in the sentiment engraved in Latin on a British D-Day monument: “We who were conquered by William have liberated the homeland of the Conqueror.”

William the ConquerorWhen you visit the site of the Battle of Hastings in England, you hear the story of the Norman Conquest as a foreign invasion by a man with a sketchy claim on the English crown. In Normandy, especially in Caen, William is an embattled Hometown Hero, whose story begins long before his decision to go to England to defend his right to the English crown.* We spent our second day in Normandy in Caen, touring two sites that relate to William’s story as the Duke of Normandy: his castle in Caen and one of the abbeys that he built there.

The two sites are very different. The castle is a ruin, which only became available for excavation as a result of bombing in 1944. The abbey is a splendid example of Romanesque architecture on the cusp of the Gothic–what our guide called Anglo-Norman architecture. Together, they were the landmarks of William’s life pre-1066.

William was originally known as William the Bastard. He was the illegitimate son of Robert I of Normandy and a woman named Herleva.*** Being a bastard might not have mattered if his father had lived until William was old enough to defend his right to the duchy of Normandy. But he didn’t. Robert died while returning from pilgrimage to Jerusalem when William was only seven (or possibly eight). He had named William, who was his only son, as his heir before he left, but the nobles of Normandy were unwilling to accept a duke who was both a minor and a bastard.**** The duchy was torn by open warfare as the barons of Normandy struggled for power. William spent the next ten years running and hiding from assassination attempts. (Including attempts by his paternal relatives, who were rival claimants to the title.)

In 1042, the fifteen-year-old William was knighted and began to play a personal role in the defense of his duchy. He successfully seized power in 1047 at the battle of Val-és-Dunes with the help of King Henry of France. With his victory at Val-és-Dunes, William the Bastard became William of Normandy. William established Caen as his capital, building a city and a castle where only a few villages had existed before.

Being recognized as the Duke of Normandy did not end William’s problems. He faced a series of baronial rebellions, mostly led by his relatives, until 1055. He also involved himself in the broader issues of Europe, which centered on Church reform, and the wars related thereto.*****

It must have felt like déjà vu all over again when Harold Godwinson was crowned as king of England–a position that William believed he had been promised by King Edward the Confessor. William had fought to hold the title of Duke of Normandy. Now he was prepared to fight to be king of England.

“But what about the castle and the abbey?” you ask. Here are a few odd bits that caught my attention:

• William’s castle was one of the largest fortresses in medieval Europe: a twelve-acre complex surrounded by a dry moat.
• Both the castle and the abbey were built from Caen limestone, which is remarkable for its color and purity. The stone is so unusual that the Normans and their successors exported it to England, where it was used to build the Tower of London and other iconic English structures. Shipping big stone blocks in small wooden ships is not an obvious choice as far as I am concerned.
• William was responsible for the construction of two abbeys in Caen as a result of his marriage to Matilda of Flanders, the daughter of one of his political allies in the seemingly unending conflicts of medieval Europe. The marriage made political sense, but William and Matilda were too closely related to marry according to the rules of the Church. (A not uncommon problem in a world in which marriageable daughters were political poker chips.) The couple married anyway, on the theory that it was easier to ask for penance than to wait for permission. The pope required them to build two abbeys, one for women and one for men, as penance.  Presumably everyone was happy.
• As a result of the Battle of Hastings, William became the King of England as well as the Duke of Normandy. Today, Queen Elizabeth II of England still holds the Channel islands as the Duke of Normandy. This was a jaw-dropper as far as I was concerned.

* If you want a thoughtful discussion of the relative rights of the three claimants** to the English throne after the death of Edward the Confessor, I strongly recommend David Howarth’s 1066: The Year of the Conquest.
**Yep, three. Harald III of Norway also claimed a right to the prize. One reason William won at Hastings was that Harold and his men had just defeated Harald and then made a quick march toward William and the Normans.
***A relationship known at the time as a”Danish marriage.”  Normandy at the time was still ruled by Viking law–Normandy  being the country of the Norsemen.  Viking law allowed for more than one marriage.  Church law did not and considered the children of “Danish marriages” to be illegitimate.

****Having a minor as a ruler was a dangerous thing for both the young ruler and the kingdom in eras when the primary duty of a ruler was military leader. In fact, for much of medieval Europe, succession to the throne after a death of a king was not a simple case of primogeniture. Often the most successful claimant to a kingdom was the family member who wielded the bloodiest sword.
*****A complicated story for another day.

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