When William the Conqueror became King of England after emerging victorious at the Battle of Hastings, his reign was far from assured. The Norman invader, who had used military force to assert himself on the throne, faced a difficult challenge to suppress almost two decades of disgruntled rebellions from across England, Scotland and Wales.
As a foreign ruler, William faced resistance from the moment he came to power on 25 December 1066. His response was not to pander to the pressure of the rebels but to consolidate his reign by using military force and introducing his own feudal system that would change the face of English history.
By the time of his death in 1087 England had changed dramatically and William had implemented a new style of rule that was to alter English history irrevocably.
Crushing rebellions by force
In a bid to aid continuity and make allies, the first thing William did to consolidate his power was to allow some earls such as Edwin of Mercia, Morcar of Northumbria and Waltheof of Northampton to keep their lands and their titles. However, those who had fought for Harold against William were stripped of the lands, which were subsequently passed on to Norman earls and barons, something that left a legacy of French aristocracy in England for centuries.
In 1067, once the French noblemen had been installed in positions of power, William returned to France. But while he was away in Normandy uprisings began – the local people in the areas where the French earls and barons had authority rebelled against the new powers. His general response was to use military force to oppress those who opposed his rule. In the years after he was crowned king, William ordered the building of 78 castles, into which he usually inserted a Norman nobleman to oversee the troublesome towns.
In 1068 Edwin and Morcar, the earls he had allowed to keep their lands in the north, led a rebellion against William. His action was once again swift and decisive; he moved an army north and disbanded the rebels, sacking Saxon towns and again establishing his own castles and Norman rulers to tighten his grip on the areas. He repeated this approach in the church, replacing influential leaders from Harold’s reign with his own trusted advisers.
In 1072 William marched to Scotland to reach a settlement with King Malcolm in which Malcolm agreed to recognise William’s authority as king. After 1072 – by which time he had forcibly implemented a core structure of Norman rule across the length and breadth of England, Wales and Scotland – William returned to Normandy where he would spend much of his time over the next 12 years. In his absence, the administration of England was left in the hands of Richard Fitzgilbert and William de Warenne, two of William's most powerful barons.
William returned in 1085 with a large army to defend his kingdom against the Danish King Canute IV. However, Canute’s invasion never took place because he was murdered before leaving Denmark. William was left with a sizeable army that needed paying and feeding.
It was at this stage, in 1086, that William introduced one of the most substantial acts of his reign: the Domesday Book. In order to know who owned what land and how to best levy taxes, William commanded that a full survey of the country be carried out.
Albeit a somewhat hasty study – it was completed over the course of a year – it painted a picture of what life was like in England at the time and measured how much land each person owned and what was on it; it also tracked what damage had been done during the battles of 1066. This new, more formal rule and means of determining tax was not only a way for William to assert his authority but also brought about financial control over the population.
Whereas England had historically acted and thought as individual shires, William’s rule looked to unite them together into one coherent nation. A central decision-making ruler with handpicked, loyal advisers in both the church and key towns brought the kingdom together.
This feudal system of local leaders who were loyal to their king was essential for William to rule over both England and Normandy, often from a great distance. The Norman nobleman placed in each locality would collect the taxes and keep the peace. And while the first stage of William’s consolidation was to use military force to physically suppress rebellions, this lasting system is what truly cemented William’s reign and control over England, Scotland and Wales.
"William the Conqueror and Consolidation of Power 1066-1087". HistoryLearningSite.co.uk. 2014. Web.