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Show No Mercy (William the Conqueror, 1/3)

Updated: May 11

How the Normans led by William the Conqueror became the most fearsome warriors of their age.


William the Conqueror, painted by an Unknown Artist 500 years after his death. (No known portraits from his time exist.)

We come from the land of the ice and snow

From the midnight sun where the hot springs flow

How soft your fields so green

Can whisper tales of gore

Of how we calmed the tides of war

We are your overlords

 

-       Led Zeppelin, “Immigrant Song”



Land of the Northmen


In the late 9th Century thirty thousand Vikings descended upon France, causing a French chronicler to write, “the rage of the Northmen was let loose upon the land.” These northern barbarians, wearing wolf skins and blaring Lur horns, soon rowed with gritted teeth up the Seine River towards Paris.

 

Just think of it!  You’re a French peasant walking along the Seine to collect water and you see four hundred long ships shaped like dragons coming your way.  Each ship, with shields mounted along the hull and torches lit, is packed full of one hundred burly killers. It’s the equivalent of the Hell Angels on 30,000 motorcycles burning down the 405 freeway, ready to rape, pillage, and burn Beverly Hills to the ground.

 

Leading this Viking gang of thousands was a gigantic, bearded Chieftain named Rollo, who according to historian Dan Jones, “was one of the most violent men of his exceptionally bloody times.”  Not good if you’re sipping wine on the north bank with your girlfriend in Paris.  


Rollo, depicted by Clive Standen in "Vikings" (History Channel)

 

Getting reports of the approaching Vikings, the French King, “Charles the Fat,” decided it was better to bribe Rollo than fight him head on.  After paying him off, Charles encouraged Rollo to plunder his now rebellious vassal to the south in Burgundy.  Collecting the gold and turning his army to Dijon, Rollo did what Vikings do best – he robbed monasteries, murdered monks, and almost certainly got shit-faced drunk.  But I guess raging like Hells Angels across Burgundy wasn’t nearly as much fun as a night in Paris.  So in 911AD, Rollo went all-in and attacked the famed city. 

 

By this time, Charles the Fat had died (I’m guessing from high cholesterol), and “Charles the Simple” now sat on the French throne.  Nicknamed “the simple” for his no-nonsense style and candor, Charles somehow fought Rollo’s Vikings to a stalemate. Contemplating his next move, Charles knew bribing the Northmen with gold was never a permanent solution because like stray cats, they’d always come back for more.  So to keep these unneutered strays out of Paris once and for all, Charles found a permanent solution, one that would forever change history. He gave them land.

 

In exchange for peace and to buffer his enemies in Flanders and Brittany, the French king offered Rollo and his heathen army lands west of Paris, surrounding the city of Rouen and along the English Channel.  From thereafter, that plot of land became known as Normandy, translated as “Land of the Northmen.”

 

For the next two hundred years, Scandinavians flocked to Normandy's mild climate, bolstering their population, and above all, their martial power.  By the 11th Century, Normans were recognized as the fiercest warriors in Western Europe.  Within a tight 33-year span (1066 to 1099), Norman warriors sacked Jerusalem, conquered Sicily and Antioch (Syria), and continually crushed Muslim and Byzantine armies that threatened the Italian peninsula.  Yet, these victories paled in comparison to the greatest of all feathers in the Norman cap – conquering England.

 

The man who led the great Norman army across the Channel and into the heart of England was the great, great, great-grandson of Rollo and proved himself just as brutal as his Viking ancestor.  His name was William. History remembers him as William the Conqueror.  

 

The Bastard Duke

 

In 1027, William’s father -- nicknamed Robert the Devil – was Duke of Normandy and fresh off his excommunication from the Church.  Riding with his knights towards a favorite castle, the adulterous Robert spotted the daughter of a local tanner – i.e. a guy who skins animals for a living. 

 

Nine months after she returned “the Devil’s” gimlet eye, William was born.  For the Anglo-Saxons in England forty years later, this baby would prove to be the antichrist.

 

Eight years after William’s birth, Robert died, but not before he named William his heir.  From that point until he consolidated power a decade later, William’s life was in constant peril.

 

To use the parlance of the time, William was “a bastard.”  Due to his illegitimate birth and young age, ambitious uncles and older half-brothers emerged like hungry wolves, doing all they could to kill the boy duke and seize Normandy for themselves.

 

As the armed wolfpacks prowled Normandy looking for William, he lived his life on the run, protected by a small retinue of loyal knights and self-interested older nobles who hitched their wagon to William’s star.  Besides Norman usurpers, Dukes in Brittany, Flanders, and Dijon all wanted William dead. If that weren’t enough, minor nobles throughout Normandy (i.e. every lord with a fort or castle) began ignoring the young Duke’s authority and actively working against him with neighboring Dukes.   

 

In the years that followed, three of William’s bodyguards would die protecting him, including one who bled to death in William’s bedchamber after fighting off a midnight assassin.

 

Coming of age in this dog-eat-dog world, William saw predators everywhere.  Like all prey, he learned to keep his head on a swivel and live life on the edge. But unlike most prey, William understood that to survive and thrive, he must become a predator himself. But not just any predator, he must become the apex predator of Normandy. He must kill or be killed.

 

Despite all the danger, William’s childhood was a gift.  The flames of adversity, according to Winston Churchill, “sank deep into William’s nature [and] embittered and hardened him.”  The stain of bastardy and attempted assassinations upon his life, historian Lars Brownworth writes, forged “a formidable personality… [and] reserves of strength” within young William. 

 

By the time he turned 15 and stepped into manhood, William was ready to play the dangerous game – and to win. The hunted had become the hunter.


Norman Knights on Campaign

 Show No Mercy

 

With a giant chip on his shoulder, William got to work fast. He dismissed the older nobles around him who sought to use him and surrounded himself with new advisors -- mainly young and talented upstarts who’d stay loyal to him for the rest of his life, men whose descendants would become the cream of English nobility.

 

The dismissed nobles were not happy, however, and they vowed to kill William and the “new men” who supported him.  As the assassination attempts continued, William not only stayed alive, he began winning victories against his enemies. With each victory, more young nobles flocked to his army.  By the time he turned 20, William had destroyed his internal enemies, defended his borders, and established supreme power as the Duke of Normandy.  He did it by possessing the one quality all great conquers must have: he showed no mercy. 

 

In his book, Crown and Country, famed English historian David Starkey begins his chapter on the Normans with this passage:

 

“William the Conquer is perhaps the greatest man to have sat on the throne of England; he is certainly one of the most unpleasant. He was covetous, cruel, puritanical, invincibly convinced of his own righteousness and always ready to use terror as a weapon of first, rather than last resort.”

 

William understood the power of fear, and that fear drove men’s actions. As a result, he’d use terror to protect himself and expand his kingdom. Because let’s face it, if you’re willing to go all the way like William without any sort of moral restraint, terrorism works.

 

On one occasion when William and his army approached the castle of a disloyal lord, the defiant lord and his knights taunted William by laying animal pelts outside the walls, reminding the king of his illegitimate birth.  When William eventually seized the castle, he cut off the hands and feet of every person inside the walls.   

 

On another occasion, after his famous victory against the English at Hastings in 1066, William and his knights, to paraphrase H.L. Mencken, hoisted the black flag, spit on their hands, and started slitting throats.  They laid waste to northern England, destroying farms, killing livestock, and torching villages.  They blinded prisoners with their daggers and cut off limbs with their swords.  Their brutality became so extreme, David Starkey writes, that “he shocked an unshockable age.”  A contemporary chronicler at the time wrote, there were “no bounds to William’s fury… [and] barbarous homicide.”   

 

William pulled no punches. Successful conquers never do.

 

To Conquer

 

While praising a stone-cold killer like William is never fashionable, I think the statute of limitations for outrage on his deeds has run its course.  After all, his statue still stands in France, and the current heir to the English throne (who also shares his DNA) is named after him.  And keep in mind that no one rose to power in medieval Europe because they were great debaters.  Without the killer instinct, your days could be numbered as a ruler.  Yet, because of his violent childhood and willingness to kill, William thrived in this crucible of fear, blades, and death. For that feat alone, I begrudgingly nod my cap to this world-class son of a bitch.

 

William matters to me because he defied the odds.  He trusted himself, fired mediocre nobles, escaped the assassin’s blade, and through his merits went from being “William the Bastard” to “William the Conqueror.”

 

Yet, these days, the word “conquer” has become a pejorative.  I disagree.

 

When I was 15 years old with my testosterone in after-burner, I pinned a poster of an English Knight on the wall beside my home weight set.  In between sets of squats and shoulder press, I’d stare at the poster.  I’d imagine myself an English knight, carrying a heavy lance, charging ahead atop a 2,000-pound warhorse. I’d see myself in the mud of a pitched battle, heaving my sword and vanquishing my enemies. 


As the weights got heavier, my face turned redder and my roars grew louder -- I was in full battle!  As one set led to the next, I’d look up to the knight on my wall.  Like him, I’d show no mercy.  Rep after rep, I pounded the iron into submission. I’d gasp for air, sometimes even vomit after a final set. But nothing would get in my way. I was hell-bent to go, go, go for my dreams -- to conquer.


A Healthy Reminder in my Home Gym

Stay tuned for Part 2

 

Speaking of jacking steel, in my final part on William and the Normans, I’m diving into how these barbarians trained for war, and how that physical training combined with their “no mercy” ethos, helped them win the most famous medieval battle of them all: The Battle of Hastings.

 

Till then barbarians, stay feral and never tame your conquering heart.

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