Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has an M.A in instructional education.
The term Dark Ages is usually used to define Europe after the 5th century fall of the Roman Empire.
Due to the upheaval of the era, historical records are scarce. However, there are several people from this era who have made their mark on the history books. Today we'll be discussing one of the most famous: William the Conqueror. In order to understand his importance, let's take a look at the topsy-turvy political structure of the Dark Ages.
The political structure of the Dark Ages is known as manorialism. Within this system, the wealthy, usually called lords, owned land known as a manor. The peasant class worked on these manors and in turn were given food, shelter, and protection. Since wars were usually waging, outside trading opportunities were very scarce. To provide for themselves, manors were self-sustaining, producing what was needed for survival.
William, Duke of Normandy
This is the Europe in which William the Conqueror came on the scene and made his mark. Born in Normandy, of modern-day France, William became Duke of Normandy at a very early age. As duke, he set his sights on a unified Normandy under his power, and accomplished this great task by about 1060 CE. Now remember, he did this during the Dark Ages, so obviously this guy had some smarts and some military might. With all this going for him, he set his sights beyond Normandy. This leads us to his dealings with England.
When Edward the Confessor, king of England, died in the year 1066, he left no heir to take the throne. However, William of Normandy was a relative of Edward, and you better believe he was more than willing to wear England's crown. Unfortunately for William, there were several other English noblemen who felt they deserved the crown, the most popular and powerful of whom was Harold Godwinson. Making matters worse, the King of Norway - not Normandy but NORWAY - also threw his hat in the running!
Battle of Hastings
When the people of England chose Harold Godwinson as their king, the King of Norway invaded England. Seeing this, William the Conqueror devised a plan that gave history one of its most famous battles - the Battle of Hastings. Realizing the new King Harold of England had his hands full trying to ward off the King of Norway, William crossed the English Channel and made camp near the city of Hastings.
Harold was able to fight off the King of Norway, but tired and worn, he then had to face William. William, on the other hand, was fresh and ready for battle. He had had time to set up archers and a well-oiled cavalry of armed knights. When they finally met, Harold's tired foot soldiers were no match for William's fighting arsenal. Poor King Harold II was killed in battle, and William conquered Harold's remaining forces at the Battle of Hastings. He was crowned King of England on December 25th, 1066.
Tapestry and Domesday Book
Perhaps in one of the most famous pieces of art from the era, the Battle of Hastings was captured by William's wife, and her royal ladies, in what has come to be known as the Bayeux Tapestry. In this famous work, they wove dozens of scenes depicting William's victory at the Battle of Hastings. Taking a decade to complete, the artful tapestry became a massive (and by massive I mean approximately 20 inches high and about 230-some feet long) narrative of the famous battle. These women gave all of history an artful record of one of the most famous men and battles of European History.
Unfortunately for William and England, his rule didn't knit together as nicely as the tapestry. He spent the beginning of his English reign trying to suppress revolts. The revolts were so numerous he ordered what has come to be known as the Harrying of the North, in which he ordered the burning of farms, killing of livestock, and murder of many across the English countryside. It's estimated this action saw the deaths of over 100,000 people.
Adding to this atrocity, William also ordered a census of sorts that included all of England. This census recorded all the landholding of England: who owned what land, what they owned on the land, what livestock lived on the land, and even the equipment owned was recorded. All of this was then compiled in what is known as the Domesday Book.
Ironically, the man who gained so much in war actually lost his life on the battlefield. William the Conqueror died in 1087 while waging war in Northern France. With this, his eldest son became Duke of Normandy, and his second son, also William, became king of England.
After the 5th century fall of the Roman Empire, Europe descended into chaos. Facing Germanic invasions from the north, local lords warring for power, and even kings trying but failing to establish strong empires, the cultural and political lights went out, and Europe entered the Dark Ages.
During this time, Europeans turned to manorialism for some semblance of order and structure. Within this system, wealthy lords owned manors, and the peasant class worked these manors in turn for food, shelter, and protection.
Amidst this chaos, William the Conqueror became Duke of Normandy, then he set his sights on the English crown. After defeating King Harold of England at the Battle of Hastings, an event which is recorded in the uber-famous Bayeux Tapestry, William ruthlessly subdued England in the horrible Harrying of the North. Not content with merely subduing the lands, William also conducted a large census, recorded for history in the famous Domesday Book.
With all this in mind, it's pretty easy to see why he's been given the title William the Conqueror.
You could have the knowledge required to do the following after finishing the video lesson:
- Indicate what manorialism refers to
- Relate aspects of the political chaos that brought William the Conqueror to power
- Recognize the artistry of the Bayeux Tapestry while discussing its characteristics
- Explain the significance of the 'Domesday Book'
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