The Guilty Conscience of William the Conqueror

by Paul Bailey

After completing my novel 1066: Apocalyptic Visions I had always wondered why William Duke of Normandy had to go to such lengths to gain approval from the Pope to invade England and remove Harold Godwinson as the rightful King. If William had a rightful claim to the English throne then why did he need the Pope’s blessing?
Also, why did William build not one, but two abbeys in Caen? This seems like an over zealous act of piety. To build one church in a town is acceptable, but to build two Abbeys in the same town in 11th Century Normandy needs further investigation.

In 1050, William married his cousin called Matilda. She was the daughter of Count Baldwin V of Flanders, but as she was a blood relative, the Church did not acknowledge this marriage. William knew the consequences of this arrangement but underestimated the Church’s response. As he was a pious man, he could not cope with the mental anguish of being a ‘bastard’ son and his marriage being declared immoral by the Church. One of these actions could be rectified to aid his guilty conscience, so he petitioned the Pope and asked for the marriage to be blessed on the proviso that he built an Abbey for men and one for women in the capital of Normandy, Caen. After lengthy petitioning, the Pope declared their marriage legal in 1059.


In 1067, the majestic Norman Romanesque Abbey aux Hommes was completed in Caen at considerable expense to William. This church would become the burial church of William and still stands as an imposing central point in Caen today. The Abbey aux Dames was completed in 1130 and is where Matilda was buried.
Therefore, William carried out an act against the Church that he knew was wrong at the time and then begged for the Pope’s forgiveness. Read on as there is a common theme developing here.

King Edward, known as the Confessor, was 38 when he became the English King in 1042, and had spent 27 years of his life in exile. Most of this exile was at the Court of the Duke of Normandy, as his mother was the eldest daughter of Richard I, Duke of Normandy.
King Edward invited Norman Councillors to the Royal Court at Gloucester to advise him at certain times during his reign, and therefore had an affinity towards Normandy.
In 1051 Edward asked William, Duke of Normandy to be his heir to the throne if he died without producing any children. It could be argued that this discussion was a plausible one, as Edward felt threatened at the time by the Earl of Wessex, Harold’s father. By giving the throne to a Norman would deprive the most powerful man in England the only thing that he could not buy.

Not content with a conversation some fifteen years previous, William was then supposed to have received homage by Harold Godwinson in 1063. Harold’s small sailing party had been swept by the English tides to the French coastline and is taken prisoner by Guy Count of Ponthieu. They are then handed over to William and became William’s “guests”. It was during this visit that Harold was apparently to have sworn allegiance to William in the presence of a Holy Relic. This oath was an agreement that William would become the King of England if Edward the Confessor died without an heir. This homage is depicted in the Bayeux tapestry and shows Harold talking to William with the Holy Relics of Bayeux cathedral hidden beneath a cloth. Does this show that William had tricked Harold into an oath that was religiously binding?  Swearing an oath in the presence of a Holy Relic in the 11th Century was the equivalent of swearing on the Bible in modern times. Bearing in mind that the Bayeux tapestry was commissioned by the half brother of William, Bishop Odo, it could be argued that the deceitful depiction of this oath was deemed to be less of an issue for the Norman’s because they had the Pope’s blessing for the invasion of England.

Even though William had supposedly received an invitation to become the King of England from Edward, and had an allegiance oath sworn to him by Harold, the most powerful man in England, William still felt it necessary to gain a Papal decree to invade. For a man known for his paranoid control over his Dukedom, this seems over the top to say the least. Did he need this Papal blessing to rally his troops for the invasion? I would say not as he ruled with an iron fist and demanded allegiance from his vassals. William was a very religious man, so did he need to fight on the right hand side of God? Perhaps, but the argument he placed before the Cardinals in Rome does not add up. William vowed to bring England into line as a Papal fief if he were to become King of England and restore Peter’s Pence. This was a payment to the Church that England had stopped a few years before Edward the Confessor’s death. England had no Vatican representative so William vowed to restore this as King of England. Very pious of him, but he could have achieved this after he had taken the Throne. Why was his argument to the Pope not based on the oath that Harold had sworn on the Holy Relics or the fact that Edward had already promised him the throne? One answer does spring to mind and that is that William felt guilty of his trickery and could not base an invasion on a conversation fifteen years previous. William needed a Papal blessing to aid his conscience and nothing more.

In 1828, American Senator William L Macey declared 'to the victor belong the spoils’ when referring to the Presidential Election of Andrew Jackson. After the Battle of Hastings and the creation of the Bayeux Tapestry, William could have altered this saying and changed it to a Norman verse, ‘to the victor belongs the propaganda’.



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3 comments:

  1. After further research I have discovered that William wrote to the Pope in 1086 and declared that England owes no allegiance to the Church of Rome. Did that man have no shame?!!!

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  2. Glad to have found your blog Helen. Very interesting.

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  3. William, presumably after wrangling with the Pope in 1080 about the amount of Peter's Pence he stated that he didn't owe the Vatican, (as well as not owing the Pope any troops to serve as God's 'crusaders', which some sources say was part of the 'deal' of 1066) later that same year ordered all churches in England to be plundered of their wealth!

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