The destination for history

William the Conqueror: Crowned at Christmas


At least four times in the past thousand years three monarchs have ruled during a single year: Edward the Confessor, Harold and William I (Duke of Normandy) in 1066; Edward IV, Edward V and Richard III in 1483; Edward VI, Lady Jane Grey and Mary I in 1553; and of course George V, Edward VIII and George VI in 1936. Four coronations have taken place at Christmastime: Harold I, William I, Stephen and the Scottish coronation of Charles II. Here, Simon Schama, captures the nervous William of Normandy as he was crowned in Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day 1066 when the ceremony ended in panic.

William knew that no conquest worth its name would be secure without the occupation of London, but instead of tackling the city directly he sent his army around it in a green-belt excursion, perhaps with the aim of starving it into surrender if need be. By the time he crossed the Thames at Wallingford, however, Archbishops Stigand and Aeldred, and Edgar the Atheling were ready to kneel in submission. The last of the Saxon line was now William’s hostage, and there was no one left from the old witan who could possibly lead any kind of concerted resistanceOn Christmas Day 1066, Westminster Abbey saw its third royal ceremony within a year: the coronation of King William I. [The other two were the burial of Edward the Confessor and the coronation of King Harold.] There was an effort to make this a hybrid of Saxon and Norman rites. Read in English by Aeldred of York and in French by Geoffrey, Bishop of Coutances, the rite of Dunstan, which had been created for King Edgar’s coronation at Bath in 973, was enacted but with the addition of a rite used by the kings of France – the anointing with the sacred oil, the chrism. Perhaps this finally made William the Bastard a legitimate king.

It was almost a year since Edward the Confessor had made his deathbed prophecy, and perhaps some of those who had been in attendance in Westminster thought that the many thousands of English dead were atonement enough and that the tree of England might now repair itself and grow green again. But the demons had not quite departed. On his coronation day William had prudently posted knights outside the abbey to deal with anyone who was not demonstrating unconfined joy at the great event. When the guards heard the shouts of acclaim from within, the vivats, they concluded that some sort of assault was under way, for which the standard response was to set fire to every building in sight. The historian Orderic Vitalis wrote:

‘ the fire spread rapidly through the houses the people who had been rejoicing in the church were thrown into confusion, and a crowd of men and women of every rank and status, compelled by this disaster rushed out of the church. Only the bishops and clergy along with the monks stayed, terrified, in front of the altar and only just managed to complete the consecration rite over the king who was trembling violently. Nearly everyone else ran towards the raging fire, some to fight bravely against the force of the flames, but more hoping to grab loot for themselves amid such great confusion. The English, believing there was a plot behind something so completely unlooked for, were extremely angry and afterwards held the Normans in suspicion, judging them treacherous.’

After this fiasco, it was not surprising that William was not prepared to take the formal acts of homage offered at his coronation at face value. The fort that would become the Tower of London – a stone castle of unprecedented strength – began to be constructed right after Christmas.

The debacle of his coronation was the only time anyone would get a glimpse of William ‘pale and trembling’. More often he appeared as the god-like victor: tall – 5 feet 10 inches – red-haired and potent. Around Easter 1067 he felt confident enough to return to Normandy for a triumphal progress through the towns and churches of the duchy. It was an elaborately planned spectacle, with the king departing from Pevensey where he had first set foot on English soil and taking with him, as if the captives of a Roman triumph, a few tame specimens of the Saxon elite: Edgar the Atheling, and the earls Edwin and Morcar.

Extracted from A Right Royal Christmas: An Anthology compiled by Hugh Douglas

You might also be interested in:


Sign up for our newsletter

show more books