Will: The Will of William the Conqueror

I hesitated about whether to refer to William, 4th Duke of Normandy as “William ‘the Conqueror'” or as “William ‘the Bastard'”.  The term “Bastard” would probably make this blog slightly more popular.  But, since my focus is on the Will to Power, no one person’s epithet says “Will to Power” quite as clearly as the one attached to the name “William ‘the Conqueror’.”

William was a descendant of Rollo and Poppa, just like Black Will de Braose.   Let’s first establish that William was willful, was strong-willed.

In January, 1066, the King of England (Edward the Confessor) died without an heir.  We can view his childlessness as people did in that time, dereliction of duty.  As a King, one of his primary duties was to produce an heir.  Did he not want to/did not will it?  Or did he will it but find it impossible to do?

The traditional view on Edward is that his will directed him toward one object:  The Divine.  He had little interest in the material world, he was focused intensely on the Ideal and the Divine.  He took a vow of celibacy before he married and before he was required to become King.  Let’s also remember that it took another person (a wife) to produce this heir, so it was complicated.  Maybe she didn’t want to, and he wasn’t willful enough to, um, press the issue.  (Good for him)  At any rate, the story is that Edward took a vow of celibacy early on in life and that was the reason he failed to produce an heir.

His own father, Aethelred the Unready (better translated as ‘Unread’ or ‘Uncounseled’ or ‘Ill-Advised’) was interested in material power in the traditional sense:  he organized murders, wars and raids.  He produced several boys, several of whom were the warlike Kingly types expected of him.  He  was married to the sister of the powerful Duke of Normandy.  He hadn’t intended for Edward the Confessor to be King, he had older boys.  Edward’s older brother, Edmund Ironsides, had served briefly as King of England, too busy valiantly leading war crews against the encroaching Danes to find time to marry and produce an heir.   Another son, older than Edward, had been banished (to Hungry) from the Kingdom of England, as he was considered too big a threat to his father’s and brother’s power.   It’s possible that Aethelred actually felt he had enough warlike sons that Edward could follow his own volition and the religious life, which is what Edward did.

Aethelred the Uncounseled

Perhaps Edward realized at some point that William would make a good king and he didn’t need to try and make a king himself.  Bringing a boy up to be a King was tricky business.  Edward’s own father had not succeeded in imparting the warlike, dangerous mien thought needed to exercise a King’s will to all of his own sons.  The “vow of chastity” business is problematic.  It was a form of asceticism, of course, but if a man doesn’t have a very strong sex drive (or doesn’t prefer women), it isn’t much of a sacrifice.  We can’t read King Edward’s mind from this distance, but one wonders.  It’s also possible that Edward knew the English tradition (like the Saxon tradition) of electing Kings out of a possible group of barons and noble contenders would prevail whether or not he broke his vow.

Aethelred, in fact, had had a hard enough time ruling over England and needed help – from the very powerful, willful King of Denmark.  He needed the King of Denmark to calm or at least try to temper the constant raids from Scandinavian Vikings.  The English were not thrilled about being ruled by a puppet of Denmark, but such was the case by the time of Aethelred and Edward.  England needed whatever help it could get  if it wanted to stay out of the clutches of the Viking rulers.  One could say that the English had no will to be completely plundered by raiders, which was a constant possibility and reality.  Like most people, they wanted to hold on to their own stuff – and it took a good leader, with an army, to do that.  Edmund Ironsides was such a leader, but he died (perhaps of battle related injures) soon into his reign.

It’s unclear whether Edward the Confessor named William, the Bastard (he really was known by that name during his time) his successor as King of England.  That was what the Normans said he had done.  In that case, all should have gone well, except that Harold Godwinson, Edward’s brother-in-law (his wife’s brother) decided to usurp the throne.

Edward never liked the Godwins and some people say that’s why he refused to have sex with Edith Godwin, his wife.  She was 20 when they married in 1045, he was 42.  He eventually had a huge falling out with her family, most of her brothers fled England and he sent her to a nunnery in 1051.  Some historians say the excuse was that she had failed to produce an heir, but if he had taken a vow of celibacy, it’s hard to buy both viewpoints at the same time – unless Edward actually had the will to believe contradictory things about his own lack of fertility and found it easy to blame a woman in a sexless marriage for not having children.  People can believe all kinds of things, but if Edward were really so split in his view on things, no wonder he was not a strong King.  It’s more likely he just didn’t want her family around, as it seems clear he really didn’t like the Godwins.

Edith’s brother, Harold, was born on English soil, son of the Saxon Earl of Wessex, while William was of course Norman-French.  Up until that time, the English had followed no strict rules of succession, like Salic law, instead convening a kind of counsel to choose the next King.  The current King’s sons were always in the running and strong contenders, as it simplified things to use heredity.  But, the counsel could choose someone else (as it had done in the past) if it chose.  So, if Edward threw his weight (perhaps meagre) behind William, that would not necessarily have been enough to win over all of his subjects to the view that William should reign.  This business of being born on English soil was very important to them.

Harold and William had a history together.  Harold had been knighted by William during Harold’s sojourn in Brittany and Normandy in 1063.  It is not clear what Harold was doing in Brittany or Normandy, one legend has it that he was supposed to be telling William that Edward wanted him to be King.  At any rate, during the knighting ceremony, the Bayeux tapestry shows Harold pledging fealty to William in all his endeavors, which would of course include a claim to being King of England.

My own view is that is likely that Edward the Confessor didn’t have the power to actually name William the new King, probably knew that, and didn’t make much effort to solve the problem before he died.  He could have done much more.  He could have written a proclamation.  He could have had William crowned King of England while he lived, he could have done lots of things to make William King of England, but he did not.  If he wanted to obtain the power to name his heir, he exhibited little will in exerting himself toward that goal.

So, when Edward died, the crown was up for grabs.  The King of Denmark was eyeing it, Harold happened to be nearer and arranged his own coronation, probably at Westminster (where Edward had just been buried).  The fact that Harold was present at the funeral and could arrange a ceremony of coronation shows how social structure and will come together:  it’s one thing to want a crown, it’s another to actually have physical access to a particular crown and the usual crowning place.  No one really knew whom Edward had chosen (if anyone) as his successor.  Neither Harold nor William waited for any council to convene.  Events took on their own moment, spurred on by the wills of these two men:  Harold and William.

Harold had the home court advantage and William instantly began organizing a vast army.

King Harold as depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry

Organizing vast armies took a lot of time and energy.  William’s degree of energy is phenomenal, and I am taking it to be a sign of an incredibly strong will to conquer England.  He had to personally plan and devise a way to move men and material across the English channel from Normandy.  It’s true of course that Normandy is a perfect place to launch an attack into England, so geography assisted William’s desires.  Would he have been so insistent on being King of England if he had been in Milan?  I doubt it.  William saw the great opportunity in front of him, though and acted very swiftly.  He hired virtually every carpenter on the entire continental Atlantic coast, mostly Flemings, and began constructing as many ships as possible.  He also paid for and directed the construction of portable forts to take to England.

He sent scouts to scout possible landing places and seek out the position of Harold’s gradually accumulating forces.  He forestalled most of Harold’s efforts to figure out what he was up to, while constantly spying on Harold.  He acquired hundreds of horses (if not thousands), many of them from amongst the best horse stock on the continent – from the Grentmesnil family, who specialized in warhorses and other horse specialties.  Harold had no access to Grentmesnil horses – and the Grentmesnils themselves joined William’s expedition.

Practically everyone of note in Normandy joined William’s expedition, convinced he would succeed and that they would be rewarded with large tracts of land in England (they were right).  It’s not clear that everyone knew there would be no turning back once they landed in England; William would build earthwork walls, walling in the ships, to make sure no one deserted the expedition.  He kept less than the number of ships needed to evacuate all the troops, sending the other ships back to Normandy to bring more men and supplies.  Even if he had not done the earthworks, which was a brilliant idea, most of the men had had quite enough of the sea after rocking about – with their horses and their armor and whatever else they wished to take with them beside them in these fairly small wooden boats – for the time it took to cross the channel.

This is a good example of communal will.  Those men had to want to come down to the beach, live in tents, practice warcraft, and wait for the ships to be built and the winds to be right.  More and more men came.  William had quite a bit of money, he borrowed more, but many of the men were not paid – they were there because they wanted a chance at grabbing English land and believed William was the right person to get them what they wanted.  The Earl of Meulan supplied in money what the Grentmesnils supplied in horses.  Other nobles did the same.  William of course also hired plenty of mercenaries.

But minor nobility from all over the Atlantic seaboard decided, on their own, to join their will to his.  The Scots ancestors of the de Braose family were among these people.  Good estimates of the size of William’s army place it at 3000 men – a huge number to transport at sea in small, rocking boats.  Thanks to the efforts of William’s wife, Mathilda, who may well be one of Europe’s earliest cartoonists, we have a visual record of these efforts.  It looks like two or three horses could ride per boat, and if no horses, then several men.  It’s very probable that Matilda watched the preparations and that her pictures are fairly accurate – no one knows for sure.  One historians estimates around 700 boats (one writer who saw the event counted 697) and William may have sent the boats with the carpenters and the wooden forts ahead, along with war materials such as lances and armor.

Men and horses in rocking boats

When William gave the command, some 3000 men boarded those boats and set sail under his command.  The people they were fighting against had stone castles, local serfs, local food and war materials.  William had only what he brought with him.

It was September  – only 9 months after Edward’s death – when William set sail.  Under the circumstances, just sending messages to the various places from which mercenaries were gathered would have taken incredible speed and effort.  Everyone riding by horseback to Bayeux must have taken much effort.  Training everyone to work in consort, stacking provisions, giving orders to load boats, dealing with the various languages spoken by his men:  all of that had to come from William’s command.

William was, personally, a very imposing man.  His inner mental strength was ably symbolized or embodied by his actual physical presence.  He is described by one of his own contemporaries as a large man, and so muscular and strong that he was the only person who could draw his bow.  No one was surprised by the fact that only he could draw that bow:  he was strong and he looked strong.  Would men have followed a weaker man into battle in the same way?

He had a receding hairline (lots of testosterone?), a big belly (which disturbed his regal handsomeness, apparently), and was never sick except for his last illness.  He was able to bend and shoot his bow while his horse was at full gallop.  When Mathilda depicted him in her tapestries, incidentally, she does not show the big belly.

It is sometimes said that the entire fleet was assembled in a month (doubtful) and that it was only the lack of proper winds that kept the fleet from sailing earlier (doubtful).  But, while Harold fumed and worried and waited, a psychological war of attrition was already taking place.  More and more men and material came to William, until he was ready, while Harold had immediately fortified the coast and taken all his ships to London (leaving the Channel unguarded).  Harold was afraid of a sea battle, and he was afraid of Norman piracy against individual ships.

While William had vast supplies still streaming in from Normandy, Brittany and Maine, Harold had to keep taxing his vassals to maintain his fortifications along the coast and soon Harold was running out of supplies.  William knew of this demoralization.  Harold apparently decided William wasn’t coming to England, and since he didn’t have spies in Normandy (and William did have people going back and forth), Harold concluded (wrongly) that William had given up.  It was only 8 months after Edward’s death, but Harold gave up and disbanded most of his army on September 8, as most of them were villeins (farmers who had to be soldiers as part of their vassalage) so that his army could go home to conduct the harvest.

William had spent his money hiring full time soldiers and accumulating noble, not vassal, knights.  He tried to sail on September 12, which is when the winds did actually thwart him.  On September 27, William’s fleet finally landed in England – probably not at Pevensey, as usually claimed, but at a marshy cove nearby, which was entirely unguarded, and which gave William secrecy – and a place to dam up the cove so that his own men could not turn back, even if they wanted to.

William had one of his port-a-forts erected on the isthmus of Hastings, which was mostly marshlands, to protect his flank from any sudden incursion from Harold’s ships (he needn’t have worried).  He wasn’t taking chances, he was thinking ahead, he was very focused on winning.  If the port-a-forts were not sent ahead, but arrived with the rest of the fleet, that must have been an incredible undertaking at the time of landing:  carpenters and fort materials pulled into play, horses to be fed and saddled and convoyed  (it’s said they had to be led rather than ridden through the cliffs and marshes near Hastings, they would have sunk into the mud had they been ridden), men to feed and tactics to implement.

Harold had had the bad luck of falling into a clash of wills with his own brother, Tostig, whom he had been fighting in the north of England.  It doesn’t seem as if this was a deliberate ploy by Tostig to aid William.  Harold had to rush his army from the north of England to Hastings upon world of the Norman landing.  It took him only 5 days – very fast.

William is credited with being the first general to assemble “combined forces,” meaning he had a variety of troops:  archers, lancers on horseback, foot soldiers.  The English army was almost entirely foot soldiers.  They had never seen an army like the one William brought to them.

Harold’s army was exhausted while William’s army was still ecstatic over their successful crossing and their own organization.  They could see that they could readily plunder the local countryside for supplies if need be.  William had given some thought about how to ramp his men’s spirits up even further – he had an entertainer launch the first salvo in the war, his jongleur, Taillefer – a jester.  Taillefer came prepared to entertain.  On the morning of the Battle of Hastings, he rode out to the ridge chosen as the point of command, and while juggling a sword, sang the Song of Roland.  He then attacked and killed an English soldier with the sword, and was instantly killed himself.  The troops roared into action.

At first, the battle didn’t go as William planned.  The English formed “shield walls,” in which the sturdiest and tallest of the vassals held up shields, while the archers shot arrows from inside the shield wall.  It was hard for the Normans to cut through the shield walls or aim down into the area where the English archers were hidden.  Even the well-trained horses shied away from the shield walls, the shield-bearers also possessing pointy lances and swords.

In the fierce fighting, William had three horses killed underneath him.  Naturally, he did not retreat or give up.  At one point, his troops saw him go down and thought he had been killed and they started a retreat – which actually provided the break that William needed to win.  When the English thought the Normans were at least retreating, they broke their shield wall formation and took pursuit.  William then led a cavalry charge into the midst of them, and now it was the English who ran away – but without their protective formation, the foot soldiers were easy prey for William’s horse mounted knights, and as William originally planned, it was his battle from then on.

Harold’s household knights were the last to give up.  William let the lesser foot soldiers flee the field without much pursuit, focusing on bringing down the King.  All the household knights were killed, and so was Harold.

The Norman invasion of England was essentially accomplished, after about 9 months of preparation, in one day.  There was little other serious fighting in this invasion (perhaps I’ll get a chance to talk about how some of the English defenders ambushed some of William’s men later that day or about how the English barons refused to come and swear fealty to William, so that William did have to eventually march on London), but essentially, the King was dead – and William was the new King, as he had claimed to be, all along.

William had sent some ships back to Normandy for reinforcements and more supplies, he was not at all underplanning this event.  Londoners made a half-hearted attempt to crown another King born on English soil – Edgar the Atheling was elected by the traditional counsel.  Only 15, he didn’t last long in the face of William’s army, and Londoners agreed to renounce him as King and to do homage to William in order to spare London further death and plunder.

King Harold became the last English king to die on a battlefield until Richard III, and the Norman conquest marked the last time England was conquered by a power from off the Isle.

William was crowned King of England, on Christmas Day, 1066, at Westminster.  I like to think that, to William, one calendar year was about enough time to conquer England – an amazing act of bravado, derring-do – and incredible planning.  He never wavered in his goal of conquering England, not once, in that entire span of time.  He was ready when the opportunity afforded by Edward’s death occurred, he speedily amassed people who would submit to his will, and he rewarded them as planned.  One of his first acts as King was to bring his Queen, Mathilda, over to England, where she would give birth to the first of William’s sons to be born on English soil – so that Henry I, William’s son, would fit the notion of being English-born – and would eventually rule after William.

It looks like William left nothing out of his plan, enacted by himself, with a bounty of structural components on his side, but after his own desire as the root of the plan.  He changed history.  And that, I believe, is what Nietzsche meant by possessing the “Will to Power.”

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