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Guillaume the Conqueror (Ethelred the Pious)

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Ethelred the Pious

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Duke Guillaume (William) began life as "the Bastard" and ended it as "the Conqueror". Duke of Normandy from the age of eight, he waged a seemingly endless war in the late eleventh century to secure his inheritence and his conquests.

Early years

Guillaume was born in 1028, illegitimate son of Robert I of Normandy and his concubine, a commoner named Herleva. In 1035 Guillaume succeeded to the ducal throne of Normandy at the age of eight. Strong guardians from Normandy and Brittany helped guard his position during his minority, and even after coming of age he dealt with a series of rebellions of his barons. By 1050 he was a seasoned fighter.

Guillaume's marriage to Matilda of Flanders in 1052 gave him an important ally. Between 1054 and 1060 he successfully defended Normandy against attacks from Anjou and the French king.

Guillaume had no relation to the rulers of England. His grandfather's sister Emma had married a German prince rather than an English royal, England still being a pagan country.


Guillaume first looked outward in 1063 when he conquered the county of Maine from Anjou. The next year he sponsored a rebellion against his neighbor and relative, Duke Conan II of Brittany. Conan put down the rebellion successfully but was assassinated, possibly by Guillaume's agents, in 1066.

Conan's heir was his sister Hawise, but Guillaume claimed to be the legitimate ruler based on tenuous dynastic connections. No longer content to fight by proxy, Guillaume launched a massive invasion of Brittany by both land and sea. By the end of the year, Norman armies controlled the entire duchy, and the French king and clergy confirmed Guillaume as the new ruler by right of conquest.

Reforms and challenges

Guillaume's early, dangerous years had given him a great distaste for instability. He therefore made a great effort to set up orderly, centralized rule in Brittany. He deprived Brittany's Celtic aristocracy of nearly all of their ancient lands, dividing them up among his Norman magnates. He ordered a meticulous survey of all the lands in Brittany, paving the way for an efficient medieval administration. He sponsored many building projects, most famously the Tour de Rennes in the Breton capital, for centuries a notorious prison for enemies of the state.

However, Guillaume's old enemies, the French King and the Duke of Anjou, continued to press from all sides, allied with Flanders' new Count, Robert. Guillaume's lands shrank somewhat by the time of his death in 1087, but he was still France's most powerful magnate, possessing feudal wealth greater than the king himself. Guillaume's solid base in France allowed him to hold on to Maine without releasing it as an appenage.

Robert, Guillaume's eldest son, inherited the entire united Duchy of Normandy and Brittany upon his father's death. The younger sons, Guillaume le Roux (Rufus) and Henri, received monetary inheritances.

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