FROM 1050 ONWARDS William pursued a policy of centralization and expansion, at once bending the local Norman lords to his will and rolling back the frontiers of Norman power and influence. Following his successful strategy of state-building through intermarriage, he had now formed around him a nucleus of powerful Norman nobles, whose interests were also his interests: not just William Fitzosbern, Roger of Montgomery and his half-brothers Odo of Bayeux and Robert of Mortain, but also Roger of Beaumont, Hugh de Grandmesnil, and the other Williams, Vernon, Crispin and Warenne. William dealt with these men in the same way Napoleon, eight centuries later, would deal with his marshals: he made their wealth and success depend on a never-ending series of foreign wars. Using these men as lieutenants, William struck out at all cross-border interests that stood in his way: the powerful Bellême sept, the clan of William de Moulins-la-Manche and the Giroie family.1
Even if he had not been a belligerent expansionist, geopolitics would have pushed him towards conflict with his neighbours, for, at the precise time he elected to extend his sway beyond his southern boundaries, the Count of Anjou was pushing north into the very same regions. Having come to the limit of Anjou’s southward push to the Loire, Geoffrey Martel, Count of Anjou, a warlord second in military power among Francophones only to the king of France himself, set his eyes on Touraine, Maine and even Normandy itself.2 In 1049 William campaigned with the French king against Martel and took part in the expedition which captured the castle of Mouliherne near Angers later that year, leaving Roger of Montgomery a free hand to intervene in the country of the Bellêmes. William here once again showed his gambler’s mentality, for he was striking out south in two different directions while Normandy itself was far from pacified.
In 1051 William was obliged to concentrate all his efforts in the Bellême border country, for Geoffrey Martel, having resisted the siege of his castle at Mouliherne, counterattacked by capturing Tours and seizing the town of Alençon in the country of the Bellêmes. William reasoned that the Bellêmes owed him fealty for Alençon; actually, in a complex skein typical of early medieval Europe their feudal obligations bound them three ways: to the king of France for the town of Bellême, to the Count of Maine for the castle of Domfront and to the Duke of Normandy for Alençon – which was why the Bellême family were past masters at playing off one overlord against another.3 William consulted Roger of Montgomery, the specialist in the Bellêmes. He reported a clan riven with factionalism and private jealousies and also something more personal: Roger had fallen in love with Mabel, daughter of the Bellême patriarch, and wanted her for his wife.
With the explicit sanction of the French king, William took his army south to Maine. Geoffrey of Martel declined to meet him in open battle, but he and the Bellêmes heavily fortified the castle of Domfront and defied William to take it, hoping that a long siege would exhaust the Normans’ supplies and matériel.4 Displaying his customary military ingenuity, William settled down as if for a long investment of the fortress, then suddenly made a lightning dash to catch Alençon unprepared. He nearly managed to gallop his force straight through the gates of the town, but in the nick of time the burghers closed them against the invader. Confident that William could not besiege two places at once, the citizens of Alençon made the grave error of taunting William about his bastardy; it was said that they stood on the walls and cried: ‘Hides! Hides for the tanner!’5
William, as always both lucky and ingenious, found a way to have the town betrayed to him. Brooding on the insult to him and his mother, in vengeful mood he paraded thirty-two of the leading citizens of Alençon to the bridge they had recently defended and, in full view of the rest of the citizens, cut off their hands and feet. Overcome by terror, the garrison that had retreated into the citadel at Alençon surrendered at once. Hearing of this atrocity, the men of Domfront, too, ran up the white flag, having first secured a solemn promise that they would not meet the same mutilated fate as their opposite numbers in Alençon. Between Domfront and Alençon there was just one other important castle, that of La Ferté-Mace; William made over the lord of this fastness by giving him in marriage a daughter of Herluin and Herlève.6
The 25-year-old duke’s campaign had been a brilliant success at every level. Geoffrey Martel’s prestige was severely dented, Roger of Montgomery won his bride, and the Maine frontier was made secure. The Bellême family passed within William’s sphere of influence and became his vassals, partly through the loss of their strongholds and partly because of the alliance between the Montgomerys and the Bellêmes; Mabel of Bellême became both a staunch advocate of Norman expansionism and a personal favourite of William’s.7 Any fear that William Fitzosbern might still be harbouring thoughts of revenge against Roger of Montgomery for the murder of his father, Osbern the Steward, could be safely laid to rest, since William’s two lieutenant-generals had co-operated brilliantly during the campaign.
The one cloud on the horizon was the alienation of the king of France. Too late Henry realized that he had probably backed the wrong horse and that Normandy was becoming an over-powerful military nation. With an abrupt switch of alliances he made common cause with Geoffrey Martel against the ‘upstart’ Duke of Normandy and sought an appropriate excuse to intervene in the duchy.8 The pretext came in 1053 with the last, and most serious, internal revolt against William’s authority. Suddenly the pretender William of Arques, who, with his brother Mauger, Archbishop of Rouen, was the most powerful man in Upper Normandy, renounced his vassalage and raised the standard of revolt. This brought to a head William’s worst suspicions of disloyalty in Rouen; he had never liked the town and was trying to build up Caen as a counterweight. And he was well aware of the threat posed by William of Arques, who not only had a better claim to the duchy in terms of legitimate descent but was also aping William’s ingenious system of building up a power base through intermarriage.9 Now the duke had a fight for his life on his hands, and if Henry of France and Geoffrey Martel co-ordinated intelligently with the rebels he was surely done for.
At first things went badly for William. Sensing trouble ahead in Arques, he had already sent a detachment down to garrison the citadel, yet now the news came in that the troops had gone over to the pretender. But Henry of France wasted too much time building up a coalition that would be invincible. He enlisted the aid of William of Arques’s brother-in-law, Count Enguerrand II of Ponthieu and his brother Walerand, known firebrands; Enguerrand, indeed, had been excommunicated for incest by Leo IX at the council of Rheims in October 1049.10 Henry’s strategy was to invade Normandy with two armies, of which one, under Enguerrand, would advance into eastern Normandy through Neuchâtel-en-Bray while the other, commanded by the French king in person, would strike out for Rouen via Evrecin. With Geoffrey Martel coming in from the south and the Normans meanwhile preoccupied with the investment of the castle at Arques, the result, presumably, would be a military walkover.
And so it would have been if the ramshackle allies had co-ordinated their efforts successfully. But while Henry took an unconscionable time getting his ponderous military machine into full swing, William made another of his lightning strikes, hoping to force the fortress of Arques to capitulate before French forces crossed the frontier. On the way he met a despondent group of knights from Rouen, who advised their lord that the revolt was too widespread to contain. Talking them out of their despondency, the duke restored morale with a coup de main that nearly resulted in the capture of the fortress in a single afternoon. Baulked of his prey, William supervised the close blockade of Arques by his army, entrusting it to Walter of Giffard before hastening east for the next phase of the war.11
William had failed in his primary objective but by the autumn of 1053 he had a powerful force interposed between the stronghold and the invading armies. Next the allies committed the egregious error of invading separately. In October Enguerrand made his move but on 25 October was ambushed at St-Aubin-sur-Scie. The resulting battle has sometimes been described as a skirmish, but the invaders took heavy casualties, including (among the dead) Enguerrand himself. Among the many prisoners was Hugh Bardulf, lord of Nogent and Pithiviers.12 Henry was forced to postpone his invasion and could only fume impotently as William compassed the fall of Arques. The defenders, enfeebled by hunger, agreed to surrender on the sole condition that the horrors of Alençon would not be repeated; when the gates opened, gaunt and starving knights on spavined and cadaverous nags limped forth, making a pitiful sight.
Once again a pretender had been defeated and once again a luckless claimant went into exile; this time it was Eustace of Boulogne who provided sanctuary.13 Archbishop Mauger, already under a cloud for opposing William’s marriage to Matilda, was deposed from the see of Rouen, replaced by the biddable Manilius, and exiled to Guernsey, where he drowned in a boating accident soon after.14 Faced by the most dangerous threat to his hegemony so far, William had come through, aided by luck, the incompetence of his enemies and the soundness of his judgement: a key element in the contest for supremacy in Upper Normandy was that the local warlord Richard of Auffay thought his future looked brighter with the duke than with his namesake, the keeper of Arques.15
But Henry of France was determined to avenge the insult to his prestige from this contumacious Norman vassal. Now, too, jealousy and alarm were increasing among other Gallic princes, such as William of Aquitaine and Theobald of Blois. Finally, in February 1054, Henry and Geoffrey Martel, aided by Theobald and Guy of Ponthieu, finished concerting their joint venture and launched a two-pronged invasion of Normandy. To deal with this unprecedented threat, William called out the entire levy of Normandy, forming it into two armies that were to stand on the defensive until further notice. Meanwhile the two wings of the French army advanced slowly into the duchy, one progressing methodically along both banks of the Seine, the other aiming at Rouen and the original enclave granted to Rollo.16
The right wing of the allied army entered Normandy near Aumale, plundering, looting and ravishing as it went. The French soldiers reached the town of Mortemer and began what contemporary chroniclers called an orgy of rape and atrocity.17 The Norman army which had been dogging this host made a forced march by night and came upon the carousing and raping French just as dawn was breaking. After blocking all exits from Mortemer, the Normans employed their favourite ruse of setting fire to houses to start a general inferno. As the French poured out of the town to escape the fumes and the flames, they found every exit blocked by the grim-faced Normans. Bloody hand-to-hand combat ensued and went on from daybreak until about 3 p.m. The slaughter was terrific, with most of the French being cut down in the blocked lanes leading from the town or, in the case of those who broke through the dragnet, in the nearby woods.18
When the Normans finally sheathed their swords after a frenzy of butchery the only Frenchmen left alive were those thought worth ransoming – who included Odo, King Henry’s brother, and Guy, the new Count of Ponthieu who was taken prisoner and kept in a dungeon at Bayeux for two years. Enguerrand II’s brother Walerand was among the fallen.19 Evincing a flair for theatre, the victorious William sent a courier to the other side of the Seine, where King Henry was still toiling along with the main army. The herald arrived at the French camp at midnight and, in a histrionic manner, boomed out the news to the king. The French were at first demoralized, then the feeling turned to outright panic; Henry turned his army around and retreated pell-mell; William, well satisfied, did not bother to pursue them. The Norman duke proved beyond any doubt on this February day that he was a gifted captain. He had employed Fabian tactics, allowed the French to ravage his lands and to become overconfident, and contented himself with the thought that patience would bring him ultimate victory. Most of all, he proved that he knew how to win wars without fighting to the death. As the historian Edward Freeman, certainly no great admirer of the duke, wrote: ‘One army was cut to pieces with hardly the loss of a Norman life. The other was hurried out of the land without so much as striking a blow.’20
Henry was forced to conclude a humiliating peace, simply to redeem the French nobles still rotting in Norman prisons. He agreed not to interfere in future Norman expansion at the expense of the Count of Anjou and to regularize any such conquests along feudal lines as the nominal overlord. Henry was prepared to agree to this, as he was piqued at the nonappearance in the field of Geoffrey of Anjou. To rub salt in the wound, William seized and fortified the disputed fortress of Ambrières, thinking this at least might goad Geoffrey of Martel into fighting, but still the Angevin was not tempted. For once the panegyrists who spoke of the ‘terror of his name’ had a point in their eulogies of William, for as soon as the duke departed Geoffrey Martel did appear, together with William of Aquitaine, to lay siege to the fortress, but as soon as William sped back they in turn decamped. To ram home his triumph, William imprisoned Geoffrey of Mayenne, hitherto an Angevin ally, and refused to release him until he had acknowledged the duke as his lord.21
From 1055 to 1057 there was peace in Normandy, with neither foreign wars nor domestic revolts. But Henry I had not forgotten Mortemer and plotted his revenge together with the equally humiliated Geoffrey Martel, who was still managing, just, to hold his own in Maine against Norman encroachment. The two rulers met early in 1057 to concert a new invasion, the first time at Tours on 19 January, the second at Angers on 1 March.22 Once again the strategy was for a two-pronged incursion, with particular emphasis on the duchy west of the Seine. Alerted by his spies, William tried to ensure that the French would not benefit this time from the support of Norman quislings: to this end he exiled all unreliable grandees, including a namesake who married a daughter of the Count of Soissons and on the death of his father-in-law became count himself.23
In August 1057 Henry I’s army crossed the frontier into Normandy, aiming to bisect it and reach the sea at Dives, laying waste the land as he went. Once again William employed Fabian tactics, allowing the French to penetrate his land unopposed, but planning to smite them on the return journey when they would be laden with spoils. However, the extent of French devastation forced him to make his move earlier than intended; Henry’s army reached the river Dive, ravaged the Bessin area and sacked Caen; their next move would be to cross the Dive and carry fire and sword even deeper into the duchy. Once again displaying a mastery of timing, William marched from Falaise to intercept the enemy to the north-east of Caen and take them unawares.24
Henry had planned to get his entire army across the river at low tide, but the bridge collapsed halfway through the passage of the troops, leaving the van in an exposed position on the far side of a rising river, with the rearguard, baggage and booty vulnerable on the other bank.25 When the Normans came swooping in on the rear, there was general panic and a massacre ensued: those who were not put to the sword or captured perished in the engorged river, being swept away and drowned in the swollen flood. From the far bank Henry surveyed the destruction helplessly, as impotent as Xerxes at Salamis; his shaken courtiers advised him that the only sensible course was to get out of Normandy as soon as possible.26 A chastened French king shook off the dust of the duchy, determined never to cross the frontier again. As a final humiliation, William agreed to peace terms only on condition that the much-disputed border fortress of Tillières was restored to him. This was conceded, but no formal peace was concluded until Henry’s death in 1060, as William claimed the fortress of Driment near Dreux on French territory; Henry found this unacceptable, and so desultory warfare continued.27
By 1058 Duke William of Normandy was the most redoubtable warlord in all France. Always fortune’s darling, he achieved virtually complete hegemony in the French-speaking world after 1060 when all his most formidable rivals died. On 4 August Henry I expired at Dreux, leaving his eight-year-old son Philip, the fruit of his second marriage (to Anne, daughter of Yaroslav of Kiev), as king in name only pending his majority, until which time he was the ward of Baldwin V, Count of Flanders, both William’s ally and his father-in-law.28 On 14 November Geoffrey Martel died, immediately plunging Anjou into a civil war between the brothers and rival claimants Geoffrey le Barbu and Fulk le Rechin – a fratricidal conflict which William could easily manipulate for his own ends. The only remote challenger to Normandy as chief military nation within the confines of modern France was Aquitaine, but William of Aquitaine would never have acted alone against his namesake in the north and was in any case preoccupied with the wars in Spain.29
It is probable that after 1060 William was already projecting ahead to a possible invasion of England, the most promising domain for his aggressive expansionism. But as a final touchstone to his hegemony in France he needed to conquer Maine on his southern flank. He therefore made careful preparations for a conclusive campaign, again displaying his political subtlety by recalling many leading Norman nobles from exile – notably Rodulf of Tosny, Hugh de Grandmesnil and Arnold, son of William Giroie – and allying himself with Thibaud, Count of Blois.30 In 1063, after concerting measures with a pretender to the county of Maine, Herbert Bacco, he launched the invasion, quickly overrunning Maine, laying waste the countryside but avoiding a direct attack on Le Mans, possibly because he was already thinking ahead to an invasion of England and wished to avoid unnecessary casualties.31
Le Mans was formerly the very symbol of Geoffrey Martel’s dominance in the province. William wore its defenders down by a policy of attrition and scorched earth, promising the burghers of the city that his reign would be mild and benign if they surrendered but harsh otherwise. Le Mans surrendered meekly, giving William success without hard fighting. Geoffrey of Mayenne, the ruler of Maine and frustrated defender of Le Mans, left the city before it was handed over and consistently refused to do homage to William.32 This seemed to enrage William, so he proceeded to invest the castle and town of Mayenne, which had not been on his original list of objectives. Having taken the citadels of Alençon, Domfront and Arques, William was confident he could add Mayenne to his list of successful sieges, but soon discovered that this fortress was a tough nut, seemingly impregnable to catapults, battering rams and normal siege engines. The latent pyromania in William’s soul took over: he ordered his men to set fire to Mayenne by shooting flaming arrows over the walls; when the defenders left the walls to put out the inferno that was consuming their wooden houses, the Normans swarmed over and began putting their victims to the sword. Once again Geoffrey of Mayenne evaded capture, having ensured that the citadel would hold out long enough for him to make good his escape.33
By the close of 1063 William was the dominant power in modern France: all conceivable rivals, whether in Angevin France, Flanders, Maine or Anjou, had been defeated, humbled or neutralized. Less than fifteen years earlier, the continued existence of the duchy of Normandy itself had been in doubt. William’s achievement was spectacular and deserves further analysis. There are many interconnected factors involved: William’s ingenious use of kinship, castle-building and extension of ducal authority to produce a highly centralized nation; the manipulation of the Church both in Normandy and abroad for his own purposes; and, most of all, the establishment of a formidable army composed of his own household troops and those of cousins and close allies.
The four most powerful men in the duchy, after William, were his half-brothers Odo of Bayeux and Robert Mortain, together with Roger of Montgomery and William Fitzosbern, who by this time had married Aeliz, daughter of Roger de Tosny.34 Beyond this inner circle were the overlapping groups formed by intermarriage, all bound to William’s court by ties of blood and self-interest – a Mafia-like extended family in pursuit of maximum profit and loot. The same names in this kinship network recur in the sources with predictable regularity: Ralph Taison, Walter Giffard, Manilius of Rouen, Hugh of Lisieux, Geoffrey of Coutances, John of Avranches, Ivo of Sees, Robert, Count of Eu, Richard, Count of Evreux, Roger of Beaumont; as has been well said: ‘Almost all could call one another cousin. . . . they were more than an aristocracy; first and foremost they were a family.’35
In return for their local rights and privileges, these men had ceded to William the prerogatives of ducal power held by Richard II but since lost during the chaos of the 1030s and 1040s. William had now regained ducal control over castle-building, the right to nominate to vicecomital and household offices, to deal with crime and dispense punishment (including the sentence of exile and the confiscation of lands), to seize the younger sons of the leading families and hold them as hostages to guarantee the good behaviour of their kinfolk, to issue charters and control the coinage. Put simply, William now enjoyed a monopoly of violence and command of the economy. This was a process which began immediately after Val-ès-Dunes in 1047 with the introduction of the Truce of God and the destruction of all ‘illegal’ castles.
The suppression of the two risings by pretenders, that of Guy of Burgundy in 1047 and William of Arques five years later, inculcated the lesson that the vicomtes were not independent agents but the servants of the duke, holding office at his pleasure and removable if they incurred his displeasure. All Norman counts and viscounts had to realize that they had an appointed place in the ducal hierarchy, and had only been given their positions because they were members of a favoured kinship group. The vicomteswere responsible for the collection of ducal revenues – receipts from broad demesnes, tolls, internal customs, feudal dues, profits from the administration of justice and direct taxation – and the discharge of ducal payments; the collection of taxes was farmed out to them, but a handful of picked administrators at William’s court checked that a proper accounting of the monies was rendered. The efficient collection of taxes explains economic growth in Normandy under William, the development of a money economy, and ultimately the surplus with which to build abbeys and monasteries and hire mercenaries in 1066.36 The most important duty of the vicomtes was to provide military service to the duke when called on and on this strict understanding they were allowed to build castles; William’s trusted inner circle of magnates, in turn, oversaw the castellans to make sure none of them toyed with ideas of independent power.37
By 1060 a pro-William aristocracy occupied all the key positions, both secular and ecclesiastical, in Normandy. William made the four great ducal offices – steward, constable, chamberlain and butler – permanent and appointed his most trusted counts to these posts. Below them were the vicomtes, next came the fighting men, and then the artisans (tanners, blacksmiths, etc.) essential for oiling the wheels of the Norman military machine. At the bottom of the pyramid were the agricultural serfs, toiling to provide the surplus with which William’s aggressive wars of expansion could be financed.38 In the towns, of which Rouen and Bayeux were the only ones of importance, and in the spinning mills slavery was still employed, and the market at Rouen did a flourishing trade in slaves from Ireland.39
It is well known that the monastic movement made great strides during William’s reign, that the Church in Normandy was considered a bastion of the faith, and that the duke’s ecclesiastical appointments were shrewd.40 Without falling into the trap of promoting incompetent cousins to high office, William made sure that all the Norman bishoprics went to favoured kin. If Manilius was his best episcopal appointment, he did even better when it came to selecting abbots, for here he managed to inveigle the two theological luminaries Anselm and Lanfranc.41 Dismissed from Bee for opposing the controversial ducal marriage to Matilda, Lanfranc displayed remarkable moral courage, and even the physical variety, given that William was such a dangerous man to cross; on his way to exile he chanced upon the duke on the road, sought a reconciliation and talked his way back into favour. The new entente was most fruitful: in 1059 Lanfranc went to Rome with arguments that persuaded Pope Nicholas to rescind the earlier papal interdict; four years later Lanfranc became prior of the newly built St Stephen’s Abbey in Caen.42
In supporting the monastic movement, William was carrying on and reinforcing the tradition of the earlier dukes: as with so many other facets of life, he was not different in kind from them but simply excelled them in all areas. There were sound financial, political, ideological and cultural reasons for the support of monasteries. The Normans, conscious of their Viking past, always liked to present themselves as devout Christians, thus consolidating cultural integration, for it was after all their Viking forebears who had destroyed the early monasteries in the first place. William, a master of political camouflage, liked to conflate the Norse culture of the past with the culture of the Frankish present to present an image of fearsome but god-fearing and pious warriors, crusadersavant la lettre. Additionally, the monastic movement could be manipulated for the purposes of the state, provided it was tightly controlled. A student of Norman monasticism has established that the Norman dukes, jealous of the potential independent power of monastic orders, endowed abbeys exclusively in Upper Normandy, which was firmly in their power; in Lower Normandy, where their influence was weakest, they liked to bind their military vassals to them with lands.43
William’s genuine solicitude for the Church is partly explained by the fact that he was, unlike Harald Hardrada in Norway, a true believer in Jesus Christ and in Heaven and Hell, and partly because it was a quirk of William’s psychology that he always needed to occupy the moral high ground: he believed in the use of main force but he liked it to be camouflaged and obfuscated by his putative role as the fighter for justice, the devout Christian, the wronged man, the bringer of peace, or whatever other ideological persona suited him at the time. Although he was a generous lay patron of the Church in Normandy, it was always on the basis that his supreme authority should be unquestioned.44 He had a cynical attitude to the Church temporal and, as he showed later, would not hesitate to steal ecclesiastical property if it suited his book. And when Lanfranc crossed him he laid waste the consecrated grounds of the abbey at Bee just to show who was top dog. For all that, as his biographers have pointed out, he would have been shocked at Henry II’s murder of Thomas Becket and incredulous at Henry VIII of England’s wholesale expropriation of church property.45
William’s attitude to the Church was never put to a serious test, since, in yet another of those wellnigh incredible slices of luck he always enjoyed, the previous enmity of papacy and empire to his duchy came to a sudden end. In 1053, while William was battling with Henry I of France and William of Arques in northern France, in southern Italy his Norman confrères under Robert Guiscard signally defeated a papal army at Civitate. This was a calamity for the policy of the German emperor in Italy, for the pope it had virtually imposed on the college of cardinals was now a prisoner of the Normans at Benevento. In 1054 Leo IX died, but not before uttering a solemn curse on all Normans from his deathbed.46
Two years later the emperor Henry III died, leaving the throne to a mere boy (the future Henry IV). After no less than three phantom popes had flitted across the scene in five years (including the deposed Benedict in 1058),47 the conclave of cardinals decided to reverse their pro-imperial policy and elected the pro-Norman Nicholas II. At his very first synod in April 1059 Nicholas decreed that the emperor would no longer have the power to appoint popes and placed papal elections in the hands of the cardinal archbishops.48In August 1059 Nicholas II enfeoffed the great Norman captains Robert Guiscard and Richard of Capua in the lands they had seized in southern Italy, thus cementing an alliance between the papacy and the Normans against the German empire. This was the context in which Lanfranc approached the pope to lift the canonical ban on William’s marriage to Matilda; it is hardly surprising that the petition was successful.49
William’s great success in centralizing Normandy, and achieving in his duchy a personal power close to the absolutism of monarchs of a much later era, is all the more impressive since it ran against the main currents of the age. In general the eleventh century was an epoch of fragmenting, centrifugal power, both cause and consequence of the extreme violence of the era. Much of Europe at the time was characterized by what has been called ‘feudal anarchy’ – a situation where a new class of private lords based on castles became more powerful at the expense of those who previously acted as agents for the central government. Once private justice dispensed crime and punishment, the unbridled violence of the Hobbesian stateless ‘natural man’ took over, with its concomitant of the war of all against all. By contrast, in Normandy central authority not only constrained local aristrocrats but dragooned them more tightly even than under Carolingian France, hitherto regarded as the very model of centripetal political control.50
The extent and meaning of eleventh-century violence is much disputed by scholars, as is just about every facet of Norman society under Duke William. Was Normandy by 1060 a completely Gallicized society or did a Norse residue still remain? Did William represent a completely new bearing in Norman policy or had it always been a rapacious and expansionist state, and was it just that William was the most able practitioner of primitive ‘imperialism’? Was William’s rise to supreme power simply a lucky accident or were there dynamic social forces that he energized, possibly a ‘new class’? Most of all, was Normandy before 1066 a feudal society, with settled military and economic rights and duties?
There are two views on the Viking legacy in Normandy. One is that the warlike qualities of the Norsemen took the form of Norman expansionism throughout Europe and, consequently, that we should perceive Duke William’s exploits as part of a common ‘Norman achievement’, manifesting itself not just in the wars of conquest in northern Europe but also in the spectacular gains in Sicily and southern Italy by Robert Guiscard and other notable captains, culminating in the ‘imperialism’ of the First Crusade.51 The other view is that the Normans were not especially gifted in warfare from 911 onwards and that the so-called ‘Norman achievement’ is simply a reading back into history of the exploits of two distinct warriors, William of Normandy and Robert Guiscard, who both happened to be Normans. But it is true that William maintained contacts with his confrères in the Mediterranean, that he learned military skills and techniques from them, and that, learning from them the importance of Byzantium, he sent many young Normans there to acquire useful knowledge and technology; a notable envoy to Constantinople was Ivo of Bellême, Bishop of Sees.52
As to whether there was continuity or discontinuity between the post-1050 Normandy and the situation under the five earlier dukes, once again the experts are divided. The old view of Normandy before 1066, popular in the 1940s and 1950s, was that, as part of the Europe-wide phenomenon of extreme violence, disorder and militarization, a new military aristocracy arose in the eleventh century and cut a swathe through the old oligarchy; this new class of knights was allegedly the basis on which William built his power.53Much scholarly ink has been spilled over the meaning of the Latin word miles: does it mean a ‘knight’ in the sense familiar from the high Middle Ages or does it simply denote a mounted soldier? The most persuasive view is that there was no ‘new class’, even though some formerly obscure families did start to climb the greasy pole to positions of high influence: often mentioned are the Montforts, Beaumonts, Bernons and Tosnys. The notion of ‘knighthood’ is an anachronistic displacement from the period after 1066, sothere was no ‘rise of the knights’ but simply an aristocracy perceiving itself in a new, highly martial, way; the military culture and ethos may have changed but the class composition of the ruling élite remained the same.54
Similar considerations apply to the vexed question of feudalism. It is often said that Normandy was a feudal state and introduced the ‘feudal system’ to England in 1066. However, there was not, contrary to the myth, any fully articulated ‘system’ that the Normans took to England in 1066, and medieval feudalism is a much later development. The best scholarship envisages Normandy as much more inchoate than this; at best we can talk of ‘pre-feudalism’ or ‘proto-feudalism’.55 William drew service from his vassals not by a fixed system of military duties but through the fearsome charisma of his personality; in many ways he was more like a Latin American caudillo of the nineteenth century than a feudal lord properly so-called. Under feudalism the individual fief was held not absolutely but contingently, depending on a set of well-defined obligations. William’s system of government was nothing like so clear-cut, being essentially a loose collection of duties based on a purely personal dependence. As a distinguished historian of the period has written: ‘Norman society in 1066. . . . was one in which the holder of a dependent tenure was not a prestigious figure in a reasonably articulate hierarchy, but usually a simple soldier whose main responsibility was to fight. . . . pre-1066 Norman feudalism was probably not much more than a loose association in fidelity.’56
In a sense, this makes William’s creation of an efficient Norman military machine all the more impressive. When he called out the armed levies of his counts and barons, they responded to the call not out of a tightly feudal system of fixed military quotas and fixed periods of service but in response to kinship ties or a personal relationship with Duke William.57 Naturally, those beneath him in the hierarchy feared that if they did not heed his appeal their lands would be taken from them, but this is still a long way from an ineluctable nexus binding liege-lords to vassals, even though historians of an earlier era were adamant that pre-1066 Normandy was feudal and therefore there ‘must have been’ fixed quotas.58 It was only after 1066, when William faced problems of an entirely different dimension, that quotas of military contingents and terms of service became paramount. Before this date in Normandy there was only a tangle of inchoate feudal customs, some established from below and the result of custom rather than imposed from above and the result of law.59
What William lost in terms of predictability through not presiding over a feudal system he gained in flexibility. Whereas in Anglo-Saxon England the military levy called out in times of national emergency was required to serve for forty days and not a day longer, in Normandy William could keep his troops in the field as long as he needed them.60 Naturally, this informal arrangement was always likely to break down if a warleader sustained serious military reverses, but by 1066 William was in the very rare position of never having lost a battle he had fought nor failed to take a citadel or castle he had besieged. Once again we see the personalist nature of William’s hegemony in Normandy: his power was not a product of feudalism but depended on older, Norse, values and moral imperatives, where men followed a warchief as long as he could inspire or constrain them, as long as he won victories and distributed the spoils.
By 1060 the Normans had the reputation for being the finest cavalrymen in Europe. Each lord and sub-lord in Normandy had his own band of highly skilled horsemen who fought in groups or conrois which often combined and executed complex manoeuvres together. It is difficult to overestimate how hard the Norman warrior class worked to hone their martial skills, sustaining themselves through hours of backbreaking practice each day by the thought that they were Europe’s élite warrior caste. Apart from their general prowess in arms, the Norman cavalry had the edge over their opponents in two main areas: their horses were bigger and stronger, and they had developed special battle lances that made their mounted charges almost irresistible.61
The Normans were noted for their selective breeding of warhorses. Here we see clearly the interaction of social and military factors, for the warrior élite had perforce to be also a socio-economic élite as selective breeding was expensive (to say nothing of the specialist training of cavalrymen) and as such required the generation of a considerable economic surplus. The famous destrier or battle-steed on which the Norman knights went into battle stood about fourteen hands high, as against the normal ten hands of the indigenous horse of north-western Europe. Although the great nobles of Normandy had their own stud farms, in the area of selective breeding they were eclipsed by the monasteries, who made this aspect of animal eugenics their speciality, demonstrating once again the value of William’s encouragement of the monastic movement. Normandy needed to be rich in the supply of chargers, for each Norman knight rode to battle with three mounts beside his destrier: one to ride to the battlefield, so as to keep the destrierfresh for the actual combat, another for his squire and a third for his baggage and impedimenta, for it was the custom for knights to change into their armour only when they had reached the battleground.62
It is interesting to observe Viking Normandy and Scandinavian Britain heading in different military directions in the first half of the eleventh century. Before Duke Willliam’s reign cavalry had been far more important in England than in Normandy, but under King Cnut resources were switched to the navy, with the construction of a powerful fleet and the neglect of warhorses; some speculate that English studs had been disrupted during the protracted wars of Ethelred’s reign (978–1016). At all events, by the time of Val-ès-Dunes, Normandy had already overtaken England in the provision of a cavalry arm.
However, it should be made clear that the Anglo-Saxon élite in England chose to neglect cavalry as a matter of policy; there is no question of the Normans’ opening up a technological and military gap over England, an idea which is refuted straight away by the virtual identity of the arms, armour and equipment in both societies; in particular, missile technology was at the same level and one should beware of the seductive legend that the Normans had a superiority in archery or the technology of the bow.63 Both Normans and Saxons wore the hauberk or long coat of mail, with a coif of mail around the head, similar in appearance to the Balaclava helmet. Except for a handful of the most powerful counts, ordinary knights appear to have fought with their legs unprotected, mobility of the lower limbs being assured by criss-cross bindings. Mail as a form of armour gave some protection against most weapons, though not against a direct sword slash, a blow from a two-handed axe or a quarrel shot at close range from a crossbow.
The equipment of warriors was completed by helmets in the shape of conical domes, with a metal bar over the nose called a nasel and a neck-guard at the back; these helmets were made of curved plates, fitted inside a circular headband. The most spectacular item in the knight’s equipage was the kite-shaped shield, which was standard issue for cavalrymen as, unlike the circular shield often preferred by infantrymen, it fitted neatly into the space between the rider and his mount without touching the animal. These shields were made of wood, covered in leather, with a reinforcing strip of metal around the rim, and with a central dome-shaped boss. Although it is commonly believed that the Normans used exclusively kite-shaped shields and the Saxons wielded circular ones, the truth is that both sides used both kinds.64
The one really interesting Norman military innovation was the couched lance, which was just coming into fashion around the time of William’s later wars in France. Although the Normans continued to use spears for stabbing, thrusting and throwing, they had begun to experiment with the use of lances as a weapon of last resort, in case their initial attack with swords failed to make the required impact. Between 9 and 11 feet long, made from ash or applewood, such lances could be used either with an overarm thrust, as in the Ancient World, or underarm, in a couched position. Couching the lance concentrated the weight and velocity of horse and horseman at a target to achieve maximum momentum, and long stirrups and deep saddles gave the rider a firm seat and optimum purchase. Clearly there was a danger that it might be difficult or impossible to withdraw the lance from a transfixed foe, so they were fitted with cross-pieces to prevent too deep penetration into the flesh.65
The couched lance, familiar from medieval jousts, was normally used against enemy cavalry, and was one of the factors giving rise to the legend of the invincibility of the Norman knight. The use of heavily mounted cavalry in crushing charges with the couched lance astonished the Byzantines, against whom the Normans of southern Italy and Sicily increasingly warred in the late eleventh century, and the noted emperor’s daughter and historian Anna Comnena asserted that such a charge could shatter the walls of Jericho.66Although cavalry were usually employed as shock troops against other cavalry, it did not escape the notice of William and other Norman captains that the charge with the couched lance could also be used against infantry defending high ground.67
By 1063, then, Duke William could bask in the achievement of a centralized political system, with every facet rigidly in his control, and a highly efficient war machine. Out of a likely population for Normandy of one million souls, William could in a grave emergency put about 30,000 soldiers in the field. The thirty-six-year-old duke was feared as peerless warrior, able strategist and supremely ruthless politician. All sources agree that he was a cold, grim and overweeningly ambitious man, who could be extremely harsh and cruel and brooked no opposition to his personal will; he was violent but scheming, deadly as a snake when he struck but prepared to be as patient as Job to achieve his eventual ends.
There are no reliable portraits of William, but the sources concur that he was a heavily-built, thickset man with a tendency to run to fat, and that this corpulence manifested itself increasingly from middle age. Impeccable scholarship has established that he was 5 feet 10 inches in height – very tall for those times – and had a harsh guttural voice. All eyewitnesses and contemporary chroniclers speak of his indomitable willpower, his physical strength and stamina, his ruthlessness and his dogged determination to see through to the end any project he put in hand.68
His frugality in eating and drinking has been much commented on, so that the incipient obesity must not have been due to overindulgence but have had a genetic cause. He was apparently very close to being teetotal and deplored drunkenness in the same obsessive way that, nine hundred years later, Hitler would deplore smoking. Overindulgence in wine was a very serious offence at William’s court – a fact all the more remarkable when one considers the general propensity to imbibe in the eleventh century. Nor, unlike most of the autocrats of his time, was he a womanizer; he remained devoted to his wife Matilda and could even be considered uxorious.69
Matilda, apparently a woman tiny enough to be classified as a dwarf by modern standards, was a strong personality in her own right, who on at least one occasion publicly opposed her husband’s will. Her small stature notwithstanding, she was remarkably fertile as a childbearer and presented William with four sons and six daughters. Little is known about the girls except their names – Cecily, Constance, Matilda, Adela, Adelaide and Agatha – but, of the four sons, three were destined to play a major role in history. The second son, Richard, was shortlived and died in his early twenties but the eldest son, Robert (born in 1051), took his rightful place as the seventh Duke of Normandy in 1087. The other two boys attained an even higher niche in history, for the third son, William (born about 1060 and later nicknamed Rufus), was king of England from 1087 to 1100, while the fourth, Henry, became the first English king of that name and reigned until 1135.70
Although is has been suggested that William had a grim line in gallows humour, most observers found him overbearing and terrifying; the only person known to have elicited a more gracious amd affable side to his personality was St Anselm, in the period after 1078, when he was Abbot of Bec.71 And if he was free from the usual rulers’ ‘sins’ oflechery and gluttony, he did possess one of the seven deadly sins in full measure: avarice. Even allowing for the fact that he often had to raise substantial revenues to pay mercenaries, William’s tax-gathering methods were cruel and inhuman, and his personal rapacity notorious. His love of gold and silver became infamous in later years and in the last two years of his life is twice emphasized by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as an egregious shortcoming.72
Avarice aside, the one clear distinguishing mark of William was his cruelty. The atrocities at Alençon in 1051 would be matched by similar horrors at Mantes in 1087, while if the devastation of northern England in 1069–70, in the euphemistically named ‘harrying of the North’, was not a war crime, then that term has no meaning. William’s troops often looted, raped and pillaged their way through towns with his consent; there was no question of ‘licentious soldiery’ being out of control, for every man in his army had a mortal terror of him and would never disobey an express order from him not to sack a town. The only thing that can be said in extenuation of William was that he was sparing of the death penalty for aristocrats guilty of rebellion or other high political crimes. But against this in turn can be set the duke’s liking for mutilation and for confining people for a lifetime in the most noisome dungeons; many were the prisoners ‘found dead’ in their cells.73
There is also strong circumstantial evidence that William favoured the old Norman ‘remedy’ of poisoning dangerous rivals or those who, inconveniently, had a superior claim to some territory he coveted. The eleventh century was an era rich in suspicious deaths – in England during the duke’s rise to power alone those of Harthacnut, Edward the Atheling and Lord Godwin can be so classified – but Normandy had more than its fair share.74 Alan III, Count of Brittany, was poisoned in 1040 by agents directed by powerful figures at the Norman court, and his son Conan also died of poison, so very conveniently for William, in 1066. Walter, Count of the Vexin, a nephew of Edward the Confessor, together with his wife Biota, died of poison just after being William’s guests at Falaise. Walter’s ‘crime’ was to have been a pretender to the land of Maine when William lusted after it in 1063.75
The death of another claimant to the same land was even more mysterious and even more convenient. Herbert Bacco, deadly rival of Geoffrey of Mayenne, made a deal with William to support the duke in the conquest of Maine on condition he was then allowed to hold the county as a fief of Normandy; he also pledged that if he died childless, the sovereignty over the territory would pass entirely to William. Immediately after the conquest of Maine in 1063 Herbert died mysteriously, childless.76 William’s apologists have tried to defend him against the charge of poisoning, but the stories persist. Because of the lack of modern forensic evidence, each one can be dismantled in a way favourable to William, but there are just too many of them for this method to be ultimately convincing. The most sober conclusion is the one Kant came to about ghosts: that while one can be sceptical about each individual instance, the sum total presents a body of evidence difficult to ignore.
The harsh, cold cruelty of William can be explained, though not justified, by his troubled childhood. Even if some of the more far-fetched stories about the deadly peril in which the young duke stood can be discounted, there can be no doubt that the iron entered into his soul at this time, and that he became convinced that power was the be-all and end-all in this world; such a perception is the norm for all who have suffered disturbed childhoods, as thousands of case studies demonstrate. It may be that in some obscure, possibly unconscious sense William blamed his father for his predicament and that is why he always favoured his maternal over his paternal kin.77 It was noteworthy that Herlève’s family controlled the strongholds of Bayeux, Thury-Harcourt, La Ferte-Mace, Mortain and Avranches, while his paternal connections were driven into revolt as pretenders. Even though common sense suggests that William could never have favoured his father’s family as he favoured his half-siblings, the sons of Herlève, since these had no claim through the legitimate dynasty of Normandy, nevertheless there is room to wonder whether there may not have been a psychological ‘superplus’ at work here, in that he unconsciously associated paternal kin with the principles of abandonment, betrayal and chaos.
The juvenile sensation of being an Ishmael, with every man’s hand turned against him, may also account for a self-justifying, almost paranoid streak in William. It was not enough for him that he could prevail because he had the power; he had also to be seen to be always in the right. The obsession with himself as an injured party, which at another level he must have known was absurd, accounts for the Byzantine machiavellianism with Herbert Bacco before the invasion of Maine. It was important for William not just to defeat Geoffrey of Mayenne in battle but to be able to claim that his invasion of Maine was in pursuit of a rightful claim to the county, which he had inherited as a result of his deal with Herbert. The mixture of high talent as a warrior and serpentine deviousness as a politician was a hard one for any opponent to deal with, as other great European generals were about to learn to their cost.