Nine Hundred and fifty years ago today

William the Conqueror
Nine Hundred and fifty years ago today
A.T. LeMay
14 October 2016

Most people in the English speaking world, don’t even know William the Conqueror’s real name. It doesn’t even appear on the English Version of his Wikipedia page. However a quick click on the “Languages” index on the left side of the Wikipedia page and a click on “Français” will take you to the French version of William the Conqueror. Where you will find his name was really Guillaume Ier le Conquérant.

Guillaume is pronounced Gee-yum. It was the name the famous Duke of Normandy used his whole life. The French still know him mainly by this name.

To me this is one of the interesting facts about language learning. Suddenly I find that there is a whole new world out there that most of us never knew existed. I watched a documentary on the History Channel a few months ago about the Life of William the Conqueror. The documentary was made in France but had been re-narrated in English. However the actors recreating the life of William still spoke French.

Not once did the narrator mention that William’s real name was Guillaume. Not once! However the French actors used the name all the time. The first time I saw the film I didn’t notice that they were saying ‘Gee-yum’ and not William. It was only after I mentioned the film to my French friends, who didn’t recognize the name William the Conqueror that my eyes and ears began to open to a different version of history.

How could they not know who William the Conqueror was? I spoke to other French friends many of them didn’t recognize the name William the Conqueror, William of Normandy or even William the Bastard (as he was born out of wedlock). The answer I was finally always the same,

“I think we call him by a different name.”

That name being of course Guillaume Ier le Conquérant.


It was nine hundred and fifty years ago today, on 14 October 1066, that Guillaume the Duke of Normandy won the battle of Hastings and became King of England.

Guillaume was from a Norman family that had settled in France over one hundred years before. His ancestors were vikings either from Norway or Denmark. No one is sure.

Vikings in France

The fortified Island of Paris is attacked by Vikings in 845 A.D..
The fortified Island of Paris is attacked by Vikings in 845 A.D..

In 845 A.D. Paris was but one small island located in the middle of the Seine. Still known as “L’ Île de la Cité” (The Isle of the City”) today it is roughly 4000 feet (1219.2 meters) long and 1000 feet (304.8 meters) wide at its widest point. The island is where the famous cathedral of Notre-Dame is now located. (Historical note: Notre-Dame was built about 100 after the battle of Hastings around 1160 AD.)

Vikings sailed up the Seine and sacked and occupied Paris during Easter of 845, led by a Viking chief named Ragnar.

At this time the Vikings were sailing and attacking cities all over Europe. Including England, Ireland and Scotland and as far away as Russia. Viking expeditions even entered into the then unknown New World as vikings attempted to colonize parts of what is today modern Canada.

The western part of Russia was founded by Vikings. Another name for Viking was “Rus”.

The name Rus itself comes from the Rus people, a group of Swedish Vikings who founded the state of Rus. Russia means ‘land of the Vikings’.

Rollo the first Duke of Normandy

Rollo and the King of FranceRollo and the King of France

Rollo (c. 846 – c. 930) was a Viking who became the first Duke of Normandy in France.

Rollo was a Viking warrior who sailed from the north. However it is not clear exactly which Scandinavian country Rollo came from.

There were two ways of dealing with Vikings in in the early 900’s either fight them or pay them to leave. The problem with fighting Vikings is that they were highly mobile. They could move a large army quickly via their Viking long boats. These ships often carried horse. So that a large group of horse mounted warriors could suddenly appear almost any place that there was a river deep enough for their ships to pass through.

Paying them of could be expensive. Once the Vikings were paid to leave they often returned the next year for more money.

King Charles the Simple* of West Francia came up with a third solution. King Charles granted Rollo the title of Duke lands between the mouth of the Seine and what is now the city of Rouen.

*The name “Simple” may have been a mis-translation for “straight forward”.

Kissing the Kings foot – Myth or reality?

Rollo kisses the King's foot.
Rollo kisses the King’s foot.

To seal the deal King Charles told Rollo to kiss his foot. Rather than bending over to kiss the royal foot Rollo grabbed Charles’s leg and brought his foot to his mouth, causing the King to flip over backwards. This story is from sources long after King Charles death. So it may not be true.


Richard Le Bon

Richard Le Bon (the Good)
Richard Le Bon (the Good)

Skipping over a few generations of Dukes were arrive at Guillaume’s grandfather who was known as Duke Richard Le Bon. Richard Le Bon was the great grandson of Rollo. By this time the Normans had adopted many of the ways of the Franks. They spoke French and most likely Latin.

Richard II   known as Richard Le Bon (23 August 963 – 28 August 1026).  Richard was Duke of Normandy 996–1026. When Richard Le Bon died his oldest son Richard III became Duke.

Emma of Normandy Queen of England.
Emma of Normandy Queen of England.


Emma of Normandy Queen of England.

Now this is the important part that most historians leave out for some reason.

Duke Richard Le Bon had a sister named Emma of Normandy. She became queen of England when her husband Æthelred II became King. (This is where Guillaume’s claim to the English throne comes from. Emma was Guillaume’s great aunt.)

This was not an easy time to be King. England was still quite a small country and was under constant attack by vikings.

Æthelred the Unready Fight or Flight.
Æthelred the Unready Fight or Flight.

Æthelred II (c. 968 – 23 April 1016) was King of the English twice From 978 to 1013
From 1014 to 1016.

There was a small interruption in his first reign when he was dethroned by a viking King named Sweyn Forkbeard of Denmark. Sweyn Forkbeard died in 1014 and Æthelred again became King of England.


Richard Trois
(997 – 6 August 1027)

Richard III (known as Richard Trois.)
Richard III (known as Richard Trois.)

Richard Trois (Trois is French for three) was the eldest son of Richard Le Bon who died in 1026.

Richard Trois was only Duke for less than a year when he died suddenly. Some people believe that Richard poisoned his younger brother Robert. Robert became Duke after Richard Trois died.

Robert the Magnificent

Robert the Magnificent, or was he the Devil?
Robert the Magnificent, or was he the Devil?The father of Guillaume was Duke Robert. He is sometimes called Robert the Magnificent.

(22 June 1000 – 1–3 July 1035)

Robert was the Duke of Normandy from 1027 until his death.

Duke Robert is called Robert le Diable (Robert the Devil) in some versions of his story. This may be a named given to Robert by his political enemies. After Robert’s brother died there were a number of noble men that wanted to be Duke of Normandy. These nobles spread rumors that Robert had sold his soul to the Devil and that Robert had killed his brother.

Robert le Diable may have been a different person altogether. It’s hard to tell if Robert killed his brother or not. Robert did travel to the holy land later in his life. His political enemies spread rumors that this to atone for his sin of killing his brother. (politics has changed very little in 950 years.)

After the death of Richard Trois there was a civil war and Duke Richard had to fight to keep his Duchy. Richard was attacked on all sides by armies, assassins and even by the church that refused to recognize his marriage.

Herleva, de Fulbert
mother of Guillaume
(c. 1003 – c. 1050)

Herleva mother of Guillaume.
Herleva mother of Guillaume.

Guillaume’s mother was named Herleva. She was the daughter of a tanner named Fulbert from the village of Falaise in Normandy.

The story goes that Duke Robert saw Herleva from his tower of his home the Château de Falaise and fell in love with her.

Château de Falaise home of the Duke of Normandy.
Château de Falaise home of the Duke of Normandy.

He invited her to come to the back door of his castle and be his mistress. She refused and said that she would only come through the front door riding on a horse. Robert sent her a white horse and she rode in the front gate of his castle.

Guillaume was born in the first year of Roberts reign as Duke of Normandy, in 1028.

The church refused to marry Robert and Herleva because she was not a noble. This was when there was still a civil war being fought over Robert’s right to be Duke. The church was the center of politics and all the powerful families had family members in the church. There was a tradition in the Dukes of Normandy that the youngest child was always sent to the church to become a Bishop. This gave the Norman Dukes some say in the affairs of the church.


Robert travels to Jerusalem.
Robert travels to Jerusalem.

Duke Robert left on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in 1035 when Guillaume was seven years old. Robert named Guillaume as the Duke while he was gone. Robert left a number of his trusted advisers to look after Guillaume while he was away.




(To be continued)