10 surprising facts about William the Conqueror and the Norman conquest

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1) No one at the time called William ‘the Conqueror’

The earliest recorded use of that nickname occurs in the 1120s, and it didn’t really take off until the 13th century. At the time of his death in 1087, William was called ‘the Great’ by his admirers, and ‘the Bastard’ by his detractors; the latter a mocking reference to his illegitimate birth (he was the son of Robert I, Duke of Normandy, and his mistress Herleva).

3) The Norman conquest introduced castles to Britain

Castles were a French invention – the earliest examples were built around the turn of the first millennium along the Loire valley. There were plenty in Normandy before 1066, but only a tiny handful in England, built in the previous generation by French friends of the English king, Edward the Confessor. The Norman conquest changed all that. “They built castles far and wide, oppressing the unhappy people”, wept the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for 1066.

6) The Normans introduced chivalry to Britain

Savage in their warfare, William and the Normans were more civilised in their politics. Before 1066, the English political elite had routinely resorted to murdering their political rivals, as they would do again in the later Middle Ages. But for more than two centuries after the Conquest, chivalry prevailed, and political killing became taboo. “No man dared slay another, no matter what wrong he had done him”, said the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in its summary of the plus points of William’s reign. Waltheof of Northumbria, beheaded in 1076, was the only earl to be executed after the Norman takeover. The next execution of an earl in England occurred in 1306, some 230 years later.

7) William banned the English slave trade

In pre-Conquest England, at least 10 per cent of the population – and perhaps as much as 30 per cent – were slaves. Slaves were treated as human chattels, and could be sold, beaten and branded as their masters saw fit. It was a sin to kill a slave, but not a crime. The Norman Conquest hastened the demise of this system.

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