William II Duke of Normandy didn’t read self-help books. He never spent an afternoon taking personality tests to find out if he was an ‘ENFP’ (enthusiastic, creative) or ENTA (commander…) nor did he worry over much about his personal brand.
Because William knew exactly who he was, knew exactly what he wanted and he had a pretty good idea how he was going to get it (definitely an ENTA-A).
A new king for England
When Edward King of England died on 5 January 1066 Harold Godwinson took the throne. News of his elevation quickly reached Normandy where William, who had been one of many promised the throne by the old king, is reported to have been so furious he sulked in his room for hours.
A delegation was soon sent to England to register his disquiet and his own claim. They were ignored.
So William II Duke of Normandy started making some complex plans. Plans that included a marvel of medieval marketing and PR, although William knew it as ‘getting his own way’.
He quietly secured permission from Count Baldwin, Regent of France for French knights to enlist in his service. He negotiated neutrality with all those on Normandy’s borders and his representatives scoured Flanders, France, Brittany, Poitou, Aquitaine, and Burgundy for recruits to join the Norman army.
Put a Pope in your pocket
A delegation led by the Bishop of Lisieux travelled to Italy to convince Pope Alexander II of Williams’s rightful place as King England. Their arguments were fashioned by William’s ecclesiastical advisor Lanfranc ‘a man skilled in human and divine law’ who used Canon law to show Harold was a perjurer and tyrant who should be excommunicated.
Promises were made and William received a Papal Bull that condemned Harold Godwinson and supported his own claims.
Around Easter on 24 April 1066, Haley’s Comet appeared in the night sky.
The comet was clearly visible for 7 nights. In England Harold was not perturbed; the Witan (king’s council made up of earls, archbishops, thanes and other dignitaries) supported his regency, thousands of troops and hundreds of ships were ready to defend his island.
He was unaware that Norman vessels were effectively patrolling the seas around English ports to ensure the minimum of news about Williams shenanigans got through.
Gentlemen, I have a plan
In Normandy, William summoned his leading nobles to Lillebonne to announce his wish to fight for his rightful place as King of England. He would make it clear those who supported him would be well rewarded.
William needed every persuasive tactic learnt in his 38 years as, although within Normandy the nobles had pledged fielty, he could not force them to do anything outside of his lands. They would also be a much more effective fighting force if they believed in his cause…
First he met with eight of his richest and greatest supporters and set out his case against Harold and his belief in his own rightful place as king of England. They agreed to follow him. They also advised he consult all of his vassals.
The vassals were practical and less easy to convince. They complained that Harold’s fleet and army were too big to take on. William responded angrily saying his own army would grow and that ‘wars are won not by numbers but by courage’. He emphasises Harold’s grasp on the throne was unlawful ‘we shall fight to gain what we received as a gift’.
William finally won them over with a little help from a Norman Machiavelli called William fitz Osbern.
Medieval man management
William encouraged the unhappy vassals to discuss their concerns in a room away from him, with William fitz Osbern. Here they felt able to make their complaints and fears loudly known; enemy numbers were vast, the Norman fleet could never compete with that of the English on water etc etc. They talked until exhausted then went back to William with fitz Osbern as their spokesperson.
Fiendish fitz Osbern!
To their alarm, in front of William, his nobles and advisors, fitz Osbern launched into a speech that not only spoke of their loyalty and love for the Duke but promised in their name to supply ships and men. William’s closest allies quickly shouted their support; half brother Bishop Odo promised 100 ships, another half brother Count of Mortain, 120. The great houses of Montgomery and of Eu offered 60 and so it went on. The more hesitant nobles could not appear disloyal. William had his fleet and the strong bones of a fine army.
The Ships List
There is, tucked away in an ancient English college, a rare and precious medieval manuscript known as ‘The Ships List of William the Conqueror’. This parchment, dated between 1130-60, is a copy of an older manuscript from the monastery at Fécamp that recorded, just as the name suggests, the number of ships William’s eminent vassals promised to supply for the invasion.
This is a tiny bit of it, details on how to see more at the end.
Here are the key bits:
|Vassal||Ships||Knights||Ports under their control (probably where they had the ships built)|
|Robert count of Mortain||120||Sea, Honfleur|
|Odo Bishop of Bayeux||100||Sea, Port en Bessin|
|William count of Evreux||80||Itton, Evreux|
|William fitz Osbern||60||Eure, Pacy and Ivry|
|Roger of Montgommery||60||Dives, extensive property in the Orne|
|Roger of Beaumont||60||Risle, Beamont le Roger, Pont Audemer|
|Robert count of Eu||60||Sea, Le Treport|
|Hugh of Avranches||60||Sea, Avranches|
|Hugh of Montfort||50||60|
|Gerold the Steward||40||Epte, Neufmarche, Honfleur, Gonville|
|Fulk d’Aunou||40||Risle, Foulbec|
|Walter Giffard||30||100||Scie, Longueville|
|Nicholas Abbot of St Ouen||15||100||Seine, Rouen|
|Femigius of Fecamp||1||20||Sea, St Valery-en-Caux|
Of course many ports were controlled by William (Dieppe, Etretat, Bruneval, Dives/Carbourg, Caen/Quistreham, Barfleur, Cherbourg and Portbail. River Seine; Vernon, Le Goulet, Les Damps, Elbeuf, Rouen) and records suggest that before storms and conflict ships numbered up to 1000.
Dragon ships and basic boats
We know from the Bayeux Tapestry that some of the promised ships were ornate Norse style ‘Dragon Ships’ but many would have been extremely basic, designed to carry an army of 7000 men, up to 4 horses for each Knight, endless chainmail , acres of shields, tons of weaponry. With them would be a second army of cooks, blacksmiths, farriers, priests and provisions.
The fleet would also carry timber cut and ready to build into a complete fortress.
William’s own vessel, the flagship ‘Mora’ was the fastest ship in the fleet. Built in Barfleur and a gift from his queen Matilda of Flanders. Medieval historian Oderic described it as having ‘for its figurehead the image of a child, gilt, pointing with its right hand towards England, and having in its mouth a trumpet of ivory’. Bright coloured sails were topped with the Papal banner. A lantern in her mast and a horn would help the fleet follow her across the sea to England. Her pilot was Stephen, son of Airard. He would stay with the Mora for the rest of William’s life.
By 12 August 1066 the fleet was ready.
Impatient to invade!
William held regular meetings with his most powerful supporters to discuss plans and maintain their loyalty.
Beyond the Ship’s List there are few details about preparations during this time. We assume William oversaw the procurement of provisions from the vast fields around Caen and the orchards of the Pays’d’Auge. But as William of Poitiers, contemporary biographer of Duke William says ‘it would take too long to set out in detail how the duke carefully organised the building of ships and their fitting with arms and men, provisions and all other necessities, and how the enthusiasm of all Normandy was kindled’. All thoughts were on the task ahead.
Back in Blighty
Harold, not completely unaware and never foolish, had now strengthened his fleet in the channel and kept a significant fighting force ready on the south coast. Minor sea battles were constant that summer but somehow the new fleet gathering at Dives remained secret from Harold.
Historians cannot agree on what happened next. The usual story is that the weather stopped the crossing for some weeks. But some suggest William, well aware of the waiting forces, simply waited. Waited until the first weeks of autumn when no sensible fleet would sail. Indeed by September the coast was clearing as England’s fleet began to head home for the winter.
Lowering of morale
When William’s forces did set sail a sudden and terrible storm forced them up the coast to St Valery, not to England. Ships were lost and the dead concealed to be buried at night rather than unsettle the army. The army set up camp and William increased rations to hide a worrying shortage of supplies as more days passed.
But the storms and rain continued and his army were losing faith. Delays, constant cold and the rain began to be seen as God’s work, a way to tell them William’s claims were false. The weather didn’t improve until 27 September.
Wily William watches a weathercock
Warned in advance of a likely change in the weather by local fishermen, William kept a watchful eye on the St Valery church weathercock and planned an audacious piece of PR. As the weathercock began to twitch he ordered the bones of St Valery be taken from the church and walked through the streets so the army could pray for benevolent winds to take them to England.
As his soldiers prayed the rain suddenly stopped. The wind changed direction and as the sky brightening thousands of superstitious soldiers rushed for their boats. God was on their side. William’s fleet caught the evening tide.
The rest is history.
To have a look at The Ships List of William the Conqueror see ‘A social history of England 900-1200’ Julia Crick, Elisabeth van Houts, Cambridge Press. Or talk to the Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford.
More on William the Conqueror:
- The very private castle of William the Conqueror, at Bonneville-sur-Touques
- Hartlette, or was that Harlot? Of Falaise
- The ghosts of Normandy past, in Sussex England