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The Guilty Conscience of William the Conqueror of Normandy in 1066

Two Abbeys?

Why did William Duke of Normandy go to such lengths to gain approval from the Pope to invade England and remove Harold Godwinson as the rightful King in 1066? If William had a rightful claim to the English throne then why did he need the Pope’s blessing?

Also, why did William build not one, but two abbeys in Caen? This seems like an overzealous act of piety. To build one church in a town is acceptable, but to build two Abbeys in the same town in 11th Century Normandy needs further investigation.

In 1050, William married a cousin called Matilda. She was the daughter of Count Baldwin V of Flanders, but as she was a blood relative, the Church did not acknowledge this marriage. William knew the consequences of this arrangement but underestimated the Church’s response. As he was a pious man, he could not cope with the mental anguish of being a ‘bastard’ son and his marriage being declared immoral by the Church. One of these actions could be rectified to aid his guilty conscience, so he petitioned the Pope and asked for the marriage to be blessed on the proviso that he built an Abbey for men and one for women in the capital of Normandy, Caen. After lengthy petitioning, the Pope declared their marriage legal in 1059.

In 1067, the majestic Norman Romanesque Abbey aux Hommes was completed in Caen at considerable expense to William. This church would become the burial place of William and still stands today as an imposing central point in Caen. The Abbey aux Dames was completed in 1130 and is where Matilda was buried.

Therefore, William carried out an act against the Church that he knew was wrong at the time and then begged for the Pope’s forgiveness.

One of Caen's cathedrals

Abbey aux Hommes

Abbey aux Hommes

Edward the Confessor

King Edward, known as the Confessor, was 38 when he became the English King in 1042, and had spent 27 years of his life in exile. Most of this exile was at the Court of the Duke of Normandy, as his mother was the eldest daughter of Richard I, Duke of Normandy.

King Edward invited Norman Councillors to the Royal Court at Gloucester to advise him at certain times during his reign, and therefore had an affinity towards Normandy.

In 1051 Edward asked William, Duke of Normandy to be his heir to the throne if he died without producing any children. It could be argued that this discussion was a plausible one, as Edward felt threatened at the time by the Earl of Wessex, Harold’s father. By giving the throne to a Norman would deprive the most powerful man in England the only thing that he could not buy.

King Edward and Harold

Scene from the Bayeux Tapestry

Scene from the Bayeux Tapestry

Harold Godwinson

Not content with a conversation some fifteen years previous, William was then supposed to have received homage by Harold Godwinson in 1063. Harold’s small sailing party had been swept by the English tides to the French coastline and is taken prisoner by Guy Count of Ponthieu. They are then handed over to William and became William’s “guests”. It was during this visit that Harold was apparently to have sworn allegiance to William in the presence of a Holy Relic. This oath was an agreement that William would become the King of England if Edward the Confessor died without an heir. This homage is depicted in the Bayeux tapestry and shows Harold talking to William with the Holy Relics of Bayeux cathedral hidden beneath a cloth. Does this show that William had tricked Harold into an oath that was religiously binding? Swearing an oath in the presence of a Holy Relic in the 11th Century was the equivalent of swearing on the Bible in modern times. Bearing in mind that the Bayeux tapestry was commissioned by the half brother of William, Bishop Odo, it could be argued that the deceitful depiction of this oath was deemed to be less of an issue for the Norman’s because they had the Pope’s blessing for the invasion of England.


Even though William had supposedly received an invitation to become the King of England from Edward, and had an allegiance oath sworn to him by Harold, the most powerful man in England, William still felt it necessary to gain a Papal decree to invade. For a man known for his paranoid control over his Dukedom, this seems over the top to say the least. Did he need this Papal blessing to rally his troops for the invasion? This is unlikely as he ruled with an iron fist and demanded allegiance from his vassals. William was a very religious man, so did he need to fight on the right hand side of God, perhaps, but the argument he placed before the Cardinals in Rome does not add up. William vowed to bring England into line as a Papal fief if he were to become King of England and restore Peter’s Pence. This was a payment to the Church that England had stopped a few years before Edward the Confessor’s death. England had no Vatican representative so William vowed to restore this as King of England. Very pious of him, but he could have achieved this after he had taken the Throne. Why was his argument to the Pope not based on the oath that Harold had sworn on the Holy Relics or the fact that Edward had already promised him the throne? One answer does spring to mind and that is that William felt guilty of his trickery and could not base an invasion on a conversation fifteen years previous. William needed a Papal blessing to aid his conscience and nothing more.


Brian Langston from Languedoc Roussillon on September 19, 2015:

Enjoyed your Hub Paul- and the book looks fascinating too. It seems William tried throughout his life to compensate for his acts of barbarity by great religious gestures such as the 'his n' hers' abbeys at Caen. His deathbed confessions also seemed more about securing his place in heaven than genuine regret. I found your excellent Hub after publishing one today about his agonising death and farcical funeral. Perhaps he did get his just desserts in the end?

Alan R Lancaster from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) on January 12, 2015:

Further to that earth-shattering revelation, I've got another two I didn't have time to add last time (3 years back):

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The Church had it wrong about William and Matilda being closely related. That was put about by his detractors - along with his bastardy - who felt there was a more deserving heir to the duchy. He was a second cousin, once removed of Matilda. As it was the stigma applied to his first-born son Robert, who was also deemed a bastard and had to fight his father for the title of Duke of Normandy, almost killing him at one stage after a battle in Normandy.

The promise by Eadward of William's succession to the throne is a fallacy perpetrated by the then Robert of Jumieges, Archbishop of Canterbury. Cloth-ears that he was, he misheard or misinterpreted a comment made by Eadward about the succession.

Eadward couldn't make that sort of offer, it wasn't his decision. The Witan confirmed or denied the succession, not the king - although he could canvass his supporters to support his nominated successor. Either he was firing blanks or Eadgytha (Edith) was barren OR - and this would have been political dynamite then - he didn't like his in-laws (particularly the strident Earl Godwin and Godwin's favourite son Svein, over whom they fell out after he slew his cousin Earl Beorn, brother of King Svein of Denmark), and took it out on his wife. She was sent to a nunnery at Wilton after Godwin's banishment with the rest of his family, and brought back out again when Godwin made his come-back in 1052.

After Godwin died in 1053 Eadward and Harold cemented their friendship and Godwin's other sons were made earls across southern England as well as Northumbria (Tostig). It is debatable that Eadward made Harold his successor, but Harold was the premier earl and the Witan considered him a better bet than the aetheling Eadgar, who was nominated king by the Witan in late October, 1066 until William forced them to agree to his kingship at Berkhamstead in November after burning his way around London. Eadgar was sidelined again. For an insight into the politics of the time read Gabriel Ronay's 'The Lost King of England' (The Boydell Press, ISBN 0-85115-785-8 - goes back in time to Eadgar's grandfather Eadmund 'Ironside' and Knut/Cnut).

Enjoy the read - it's riveting.

Alan R Lancaster from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) on August 30, 2011:

Another interesting piece from storybailey.

William was admonished by the pontiff Alexander for his treatment of the English. Furthermore William's crisis of conscience was borne out when on his deathbed he revealed himself afraid of his fate. He took a long time to confess his sins, believing that in harrying in northern England he had doomed many to starvation, cannibalism and pestilence. He had condemned many and shorn the English state of over-burdening taxes etc. On his death his corpse was abandoned by the nobles who had witnessed his death. Fearing William Rufus they fled to their properties to safeguard them. William's dead body was stripped of all finery by the servants who left him on the floor of his deathbed-chamber. Corpulent - the reason for his demise when his horse stumbled on the cobbles at Mantes in fear of the flames - his tomb was too narrow for his cadaver and those charged with entombing him pushed him in, so his corpse broke apart... In the French Revolution his tomb was opened, the bones scattered together with those of the other encumbents. Servants of the Abbaye aux Hommes did their best to replace the bones, but no-one was sure. In WWII when Caen was bombed his remains were scattered again. A leg bone was all that anyone knew was his, but then they weren't sure. He certainly paid for his excesses. Harold didn't fare a lot better. His remains were moved three times around the site of the high altar at Waltham abbey church. Edward was happy. No-one's ever moved him

Paul Bailey (author) from Aylesbury, England on August 02, 2011:

Johanna thanks for your comment. My research leads me to believe that the Pope granted a blessing based on William's restoration of Peter's Pence. However, in 1086, William wrote to the Pope that England would not restore Peter's Pence, so he therefore went back on his word!

The Norman propaganda after the Battle of Hastings was quick to renounce Harold's coronation, as it was administered by an Archbishop that had not been appointed by the Pope.

Johanna on August 01, 2011:

I would love to know more about this: personally, I think William acted out of greed. Does the pope ever say why he supported William's claim?

What about the rights of the English people whose Witan had elected Harold rightfully?

Paul Bailey (author) from Aylesbury, England on June 12, 2011:

Thanks for your comment. Whilst I agree that both leaders could take devious action when required, William writes to the Pope in 1086 and states that England owes no allegiance to the Church of Rome! So he goes back on his word and the main reason for fighting under a Papal Banner.

CASE1WORKER from UNITED KINGDOM on June 10, 2011:

There are quite a few theories over this- many say that Harold gave William the English throne because he had been captured by William and it was the only way he could get free- it has to be remembered that both William and Harold were strong leaders and could take devious action when required.

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