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Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Two Sides to Every Story: William the Bastard v. William the Conqueror

William the Bastard v. William the Conqueror

Every time I have ever heard about William, Duke of Normandy and the Norman Conquest of England in 1066 I have heard the name William the Conqueror. Never had I imagined that there was another name that was applied to this man – that of William the Bastard. I thought it would be interesting to look at the development of these names and their usage in literature.

William the Bastard
William was the illegitimate son of Robert, Duke of Normandy (the brother of Queen Emma) and a woman named Herleva. He was created as heir to his father’s title because Robert did not have another male heir. After his father’s death, the newly named William, Duke or Normandy faced the constant cry of William the Bastard by those who tried to provoke and belittle him. William claimed he was to be the next king of England because Edward had no children and he was the nephew of Queen Emma. Problem is, England at the time did not follow the rules of primogeniture, but the vote of the Witenagemot, and therefore was not proclaimed as their king. He would have to fight and win the Battle of Hastings to wear that crown.

In I Am The Chosen King by Helen Hollick, William is frequently referred to as The Bastard. I have a theory (not wholly supported) that those who are writing literature from a pro Saxon viewpoint might be more likely to refer to William as The Bastard because of him taking over the throne of England. He also wasn’t a very nice guy, so I could see the name sticking for other reasons too.

William the Conqueror
William fought the Battle of Hastings in his effort to become the King of England. He almost lost this fight to Harold Godwinson, but in the end he came out the victor. From this point forward, William would be known to the future generations as William the Conqueror. As usual, history is written by the victors and that is why most all of us grow up knowing that he defeated England in the Norman Conquest and brought England into the light of day. It is no doubt that he came out on top in this battle, but to glorify at the defeat of a king who was rightly appointed by the people? I think that in literature this name is used for a couple of reasons; first, as I stated above, it is what most people know him as, and second, many works were being written from a pro Norman viewpoint.

Obviously both of these names were used in describing the man and both are fitting names. Is one more right than the other? I don’t think so. Does the usage of one name over the other in literature suggest a leaning of the author? I think it is certainly possible. What are your thoughts on this?

Copyright © 2011 by The Maiden’s Court


  1. This is very interesting! I had no idea he was known as William the Bastard. Thank you for making such a great post - I learned something new!

  2. I think names and perceptions are important and tell us something about both the person being referred to and the person referring to them. We all have opinions, and that's ok. I know from reading author interviews on blogs that Helen Hollick is pro Saxon. Which is fine by me, but I would like to know that before reading a book that may or may not have a bias. I enjoyed her Forever Queen. Helen and history were both kinder to Cnut that Ethelred.
    P.S. Wonderful post! I loved it.

  3. Irena - I didn't know about that moniker either until I was reading I Am the Chosen King.

    Allison - I couldn't agree more - they certainly tell us about the subject and the writer. I think it is important to know up front if a book leans a certain way - that way as a reader you can make your own decisions about what is being told to you. Maybe it isn't exactly as it is portrayed. It certainly seems that history bashes Aethelred a lot.

    Thanks for the kind words ladies.

  4. This is such a great post! I really need to read Helen's latest novel. I think your idea that Pro-Saxon take on history vs. Pro-Norman historians might be the key to the difference in the names and the perceptions of William.

  5. The Bastard King by Jean Plaidy was my intro to him, so I am used to the nickname. I really enjoyed reading about him and his family. I really need to buy some Helen Hollick books!

  6. Great post. I've read instances of William being referred to as The Bastard before, and it was never used in a matter of fact manner. Rather, authors seem to use it to illustrate that certain characters have a strong dislike/hate for William.

    I definitely agree with your theory about the words or names used by authors reflecting the author's own bias towards events or historical figures. There are lots of examples of historical fiction in which it is readily apparent which side an author falls on, even if the authors themselves doesn't come out and explicitly state their opinions.

  7. I completely agree, it just depends on what side you are. I believe that you are onto something. Like you said, both names are fitting. The Bastard, because lets face it...he was a legitimate bastard. He was born between two different people. He was also The Conquerer, because he fought for and won a crown.

    Great post!


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