William the Conqueror
The name William the Conqueror is familiar around the world. William (1028-87) began life as the bastard son of Duke Robert of Normandy by the daughter of a local tanner, but as the only male offspring of Robert he became Duke himself in 1035 upon his father’s sudden death. He famously became King of England in 1066, defeating his rival claimant to the Englsh throne, Harold Godwineson, after Edward the Confessor had died childless and unhelpfully named both as his heir. There followed a period of brutality in England, as William ruthlessly asserted his rule over his new kingdom.
Worst of this oppression was the Harrying of the North, in which Saxon noblemen rebelled against William and were savagely defeated. William did not stop there: he burned the lands owned by the rebels and indiscriminately slaughtered anyone he encountered. Modern historians have called the Harrying an act of genocide, and even contemporary biographers described it as a ‘stain upon his soul’. The destruction of the countryside was so severe that it caused famine. William also enclosed large parts of the countryside for recreational hunting, passed severe laws against his new subjects, and created an apartheid of Saxon and Norman.
In 1087, William had captured the town of Mantes, near Paris, and was smugly riding through the burning town on his horse. The horse was already straining under the weight of William — described by his contemporary, Orderic Vitalis, as ‘very corpulent’, and whose gut bulged over the top of the saddle — trod on a piece of burning wood. The horse stumbled forward, and William was thrown against the pommel of the saddle. This ruptured his internal organs, and he was carried to the town of Rouen, where he lasted another six long and agonizing weeks before succumbing to his injuries.