The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: Assessment of William I
If anyone would know what manner of man King William was, the glory that
he obtained, and of how many lands he as lord, then will we describe him as we have known
him, we who had looked upon him and who once lived at his court. This King William...was a
very wise and great man, and more honored and more powerful than any of his predecessors.
He was mild to those good men who loved God, but severe beyond measure to those who
withstood his will. He founded a noble monastery [Battle Abbey] on the spot where God
permitted him to conquer England., and he established monks in it, and he made it very
rich. In his days the great monastery at Canterbury was built, and many others also
throughout England; moreover, this land was filled with monks who lived after the ule of
St. Benedict; and such was the state of religion in his days that all who would, might
observe that which was prescribed by their respective orders.
King William was also held in much reverence. He wore his crown three
times every year when he was in England: at Easter he wore it at Winchester, at Pentecost
at Westminster, and at Christmas at Gloucester. And at these times all the men of England
were with him, archbishops, bishops, abbots and earls, thanes and knights. So also was he
a very stern and wrathful man, so that none durst do anything against his will, and he
kept in prison those earls who acted against his pleasure. He removed bishops from their
sees and abbots from their offices, and he imprisoned thanes, and at length he spared not
his own [half-]brother Odo. This Odo was a very powerful bishop in Normandy. His see was
that of Bayeux, and he was foremost to serve the king. He had an earldom in England, and
when William was in Normandy he [Odo] was the first man in this country, and him did
William cast into prison.
Amongst other things, the good order that William established is not to be
forgotten. It was such that any man...might travel over the kingdom with a bosom full of
gold unmolested; and no man durst kill another, however great the injury he might have
received from him. He reigned over England, and being sharp-sighted to his own interest,
he surveyed the kingdom so thoroughly that there was not a single hide of land throughtout
the whole of which he knew not the possessor, and how much it was worth, and this he
afterward entered in his register. The land of the Britons [Wales] was under his sway, and
he built castles therein; moreover he had full dominion over the Isle of Man; Scotland was
also subject to him...; the land of Normandy was his by inheritance, and he possessed the
earldom of Maine, and had he lived two years longer, he would have subdued Ireland by his
prowess, and that without a battle.
Truely there was much trouble in these times, and very great distress. He
caused castles to be built and oppressed the poor. The king was also of great sterness,
and he took from his subjects many marks of gold, and many hundred pounds of silver, and
this, either with or without right, and with little need. He was given to avarice and
greedily loved gain. He made large forests for the deer, and enacted laws therewith, so
that whoever killed a hart or a hind should be blinded. As he forbade killing the deer, so
also the boars; and he loved the tall stags as if he were their father. He also commanded
concerning the hares, that they should go free. The rich complained and the poor murmured,
but he was so sturdy that he took no notice of them; they must will all that the king
willed, if they would live, or keep their lands,...or be maintained in their rights. Alas
that any man should so exalt himself.... We have written concerning him these things, both
good and bad, that virtuous men may follow after the good, and wholly avoid the evil, and
may go in the way that leadeth to the kingdom of heaven.
from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, sub anno 1086, as it appears in F. A. Ogg, A
Source Book of Medieval History (New York, 1907)
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Paul Halsall, July 1998