William the Conqueror’s ship list

In the so-called Battle manuscript in Oxford there is a document, a few pages in length, that was written down between 1130 and 1160. It is very likely that this is a copy of a list that was written in the monastery at Fécamp in Normandy shortly after the Norman Conquest of England in 1066. It summarises some agreements that were made between Duke William of Normandy and a number of his mightiest vassals before the invasion of England and explains who were to supply the necessary ships.

Altogether 14 vassals are listed and they are to turn up with a total of 776 vessels. We are not told much about the ships in question and it is unlikely that they were all longships. The army took many horses and much armour with them, including a whole timber fortress as a do-it-yourself kit. It is therefore reasonable to assume that at least some of the ships were cargo-ships for carrying supplies and weapons.

The ship list helps to gain an insight into the organisation of maritime power at the end of the Viking Age. Among the 14 vassals there was one who was only expected to provide one ship – otherwise they supplied 60 ships on an average. All the vassals had rights in harbour-towns, either along the coast of Normandy or on the rivers, and we must assume that it was these harbours in particular that were expected to provide the ships. This means, in fact, that the vassals whose harbours lay along the coast supplied more ships than those whose harbours lay along the rivers inland.

At the end of the document it is noted that William had 1,000 ships at his disposal for the invasion, apart from those that each of the vassals might have been willing to supply in addition to the number mentioned in the list. The vassals were rewarded for their participation in the invasion by being granted fiefs in the conquered areas so there had been a clear incentive for the vassals to contribute more ships to the expedition if they were able – the 776 ships in the list were, so to speak, the minimum contribution that William had ensured that the vassals would put at his disposal. There is, however, no explanation for the difference between the 776 pre-agreed ships and the 1,000 ships that William is claimed to have had at his disposal, apart from the voluntary contributions, and it has been discussed in the literature whether there is an error in the manuscript. This is not necessarily the case, however – it is more likely that the difference represents William’s own contribution. He also had a large number of harbours that he could command to place ships at his disposition and it would be strange if he had not drawn on this resource for his great project.

The clear role played by the harbour-towns in connection with William’s preparations for the invasion also throw an indirect light on the basis for the establishment of fleets of longships in Scandinavia in the Late Viking Age. The urbanisation that took place at the end of the tenth century and in the eleventh century had also made it possible to canalise much of the produce of society into the building and manning of great longships that kings and jarls could afford to expend on the battle for power at home and abroad.

Danish text: Jan Bill

Translation: Gillian Fellows-Jensen

The historical sources