William the Conqueror and the 1066 Normandy Trail

  • 01 of 04

    Join us on the Trail of William and the Norman Conquest

    Building ships under the orders of Duke William, from the Bayeux Tapestry, before 1082
    French School / Getty Images

    In October 1066 William sailed from Normandy to fight for England at the Battle of Hastings 

    2016 was the 950th anniversary of that great battle that revolutionized English society and laid the foundations for the country we know today. Take a look at Normandy in the middle ages and the rise of William the Conqueror with tips for planning a trip to modern Normandy.

    Also, learn about the English side of the story and the Battle of Hastings.

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  • 02 of 04

    Normandy in the Middle Ages

    Viking boat in transit towards Normandy, watercolor, 19th century
    De Agostini / G. Dagli Orti / Getty Images

    Normandy saw its fair share of ancient peoples settling in its lush green pastures and rich forests, from Neolithic times to bronze-age Celts then on to the Romans. The Roman Emperor Diocletian created the province of Normandy in the 3rd century, and the boundaries correspond pretty closely to today’s Normandy. At one time the Roman ruler Constantius took over both Britain and Gaul, and the two countries were linked together for the first, but not the last, time.

    Normandy Grows in Importance

    When the Romans left in the 4th century A.D., much of France and Britain succumbed to tribal warfare, a state which lasted two centuries until the emergence of the great Charlemagne (c.742-814) who achieved the astonishing feat of uniting much of Western Europe, converting his people to Christianity and changing the cultural and intellectual map of Europe forever with the Carolingian Renaissance.

    In the 9th century, Normandy became part of the Kingdom of the West Franks, ruled by Frankish Kings to 987. It then passed to the Capetians with Hugh Capet. Already Duke of the Ile de France, the region around Paris, he became King of what was then known as France.

    So What About the Vikings?

    Like so many places, the history of Normandy is a tangled web. It may have been nominally under the King of France, but it was attacked from all side, most notably by the fearsome, dreaded waves of Danish invaders.

    The Vikings came late to France; England was their initial target and the nearest. The first waves of Vikings pillaged, but they were quickly followed by farmers and traders and soon they were interwoven into the fabric of England.

    By 845 the Vikings had reached Paris on their lightning raids. A few years later they settled and by 911 the Viking ‘Jarl’ or leader, Rollo, (Rollon in French) was Count of Rouen and so powerful that he forced a settlement with the French King Charles the Simple, taking part of Normandy. It wasn’t all bad for the French; the Vikings protected the area up to and around Paris which was so vulnerable along the river Seine.

    Intermarriage between the leading families led to a confusing mix of loyalties and betrayals, claims, and counterclaims. The relevant upshot of a lot of to-ing and ​fro-ing was that Richard I, Rollo’s great grandson, took the title of Duke of Normandy.

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  • 03 of 04

    Follow the Warlike Trail of William's Early Life

    France, Normandy, Falaise, William the Conqueror's Castle
    Alex Havret / Getty Images

    William was born at the castle of Falaise in 1027/28 (records were minimal and have been lost) to Duke Robert of Normandy (known as Robert the Devil and Duke Richard II’s eldest son) and his mistress Herleva. She went on to marry Herluin de Conteville and bear him two sons, Odo who became Bishop of Bayeux and Robert, Count of Mortain.

    Duke Robert died in 1035 or 6 and William took the title at the tender age of 7 or 8.

    William’s Tough Early Years

    The young William’s position was pretty uncertain but not dire due to support from King Henry I of France who realized the strategic importance of Normandy. Nonetheless, it was a pretty lawless time: nobles fought for Church lands and estates and Alan III of Brittany looked lustfully at his rich neighbor. From the age of 8, William relied on faithful followers and guardians who had an unfortunate habit of dying or being swiftly dispatched by their enemies; one of them reportedly being killed in William’s bedchamber.

    Even his own castles were unsafe. At the age of 18, he had to deal with another rebellion led by his cousin Guy of Burgundy. While staying at Valognes in the Cotentin Peninsula his court jester overheard a plot to kill William. The young duke fled on horseback at night to the castle of Hubert de Ries who sent him to Falaise with his 3 sons acting as bodyguards. They fled through fields, one of which was later named ​la sente au Bâtard (the Bastard’s Path) across the river Gronde.

    Follow William's Flight: There’s a tourist trail following William’s flight through the villages of Asnelles and Ryes near Arromanches-les-Bains, better known for its World  War II D-Day Landings.

    1047: William Comes Right

    In early 1047 it was time to deal with the rebels and William and Henry challenged his enemies, defeating them at the Battle of Val-ès-Dunes near Caen. “Fortunate battle where, in one day, crumbled so many castles ” crowed one historian as William’s enemies went down like ninepins. It was a turning point for the young Duke who issued the Truce of God throughout his duchy which restricted warfare and violence to certain days of the year. In the strange but powerful medieval code, this was obeyed.

    Follow the Battle of Val-ès-Dunes: The Tourist Office of Val-ès-Dunes has produced a tourist trail map which you can follow, helped by panels at the relevant battle sites.

    1051: William Triumphs

    During the early 1050s, William had his work cut out for him all over Normandy. When Hugh, the ruler of Maine, died in 1051, the neighboring Count of Anjou, Geoffrey Martel, moved in. He attacked the southwestern corners around Alençon and Domfront on the border of Normandy and Maine but was defeated by William and Henry.

    Domfront was, like much of the region, owned by William of Bellême but to the victor go the spoils. Only the ruins of Bellême's castle remain and these are the keep and chapel which were part of the rebuilding by William the Conqueror's third son, Henri 1st Beauclerc, lord of Domfront from 1092, then King of England (1100) and Duke of Normandy (1106).

    Domfront was an important crossroads, controlling the route from Caen to Maine and Anjou north to south, and from Alençon to Le-Mont-St-Michel going east-west. ​Domfront is a pretty town, well worth a visit.

    1051 to 53: William Loses a Valuable Ally

    By now Henry was deeply suspicious of William’s growing strength and power, so in the way of medieval self-interested warfare, King Henry changed sides, supporting William, Count of Arques, whose lands ran just south of Dieppe.

    In 1053 William of Arques challenged the young Duke who successfully besieged his castle and sent him packing.  By the end of 1053, William was battling the King, his own nobles and the new Archbishop of Rouen, Mauger.

    1054: Another Victory, then...

    The showdown came in February 1054. William faced Henry at Evreux, just south of Rouen at the eastern border of Normandy. William’s second army which included supporters like Robert, Count of Eu, Walter Giffard, Roger of Mortemer and William de Warenne, faced the other invading force under Odo, King Henry’s brother. According to the chronicler, William of Jumièges, the French were so busy raping and pillaging that they were caught completely unprepared. The ensuing Battle of Mortemer was a victory for William and his men while most of the French nobility were killed.

    There was a little respite; Henry and Geoffrey held off invading again until 1057 when they were once again trounced by William at the Battle of Varaville, just west of Cabourg.

    It wasn’t until 1060 and the death of both Henry and Geoffrey that William could feel moderately secure.

    The Shift of Power to England

    Edward the Confessor of England had declared William as heir to the English throne as early as 1051, according to William. In January 1066 Edward died and Harold Godwinson was crowned King. William began his invasion preparations.

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  • 04 of 04

    Plan a Visit to Modern Normandy

    Memorial Museum of the Battle of Normandy
    Dave G. Houser / Getty Images

    Normandy today covers pretty much the same area as during the Middle Ages. It’s a beautiful region with a long coastline of vast sandy beaches and the delightful Cotentin Peninsula jutting out into the English Channel. It includes the major sites of the Normandy D-Day Landing Beaches, the seaside resorts of Fecamp, Honfleur, and Deauville and Mont-St-Michel and its monastery.

    Rouen is the capital and was a large, rich city at the time of William. It held the Exchequer of Normandy and was the capital for the various Anglo-Norman dynasties which ruled both France and England from the 1th to the 15th centuries. Check out the top sights and attractions in Rouen.