Norman Conquest 1066
The Norman conquest of 1066 ended Anglo-Saxon rule of England and installed a new king. The stage was set for the invasion when King Edward the Confessor died on January 5, 1066. He did not have any children so he had no heirs to take his place on the English throne.
Edward the Confessor
Edward was the son of Aethelred the Unready, the king of England, and Emma of Normandy. Emma’s father was Richard I, the Duke of Normandy.
In 1013, the Vikings invaded England and took control of the English throne. Aethelred and his family fled to Normandy but returned a year later, after the death of the Norse king Sweyn. Sweyn’s men swore allegiance to Sweyn’s son Cnut but English nobles made a deal to support Aethelred in his bid to become king again. The fight between Cnut and Aethelred continued until Aethelred died in 1016. Once Aethelred died, the Danes once again gained the throne.
Edward and his family once again left and spent the next thirty years in Normandy protected by Richard II, Duke of Normandy, who was Emma’s brother. After Aethelred’s death, Emma married Cnut and became queen of England. She had a son with Cnut by the name of Harthacnut. Harthacnut became king when his father died and in 1042, Edward became the king of England when Harthacnut died.
Three Potential Kings
Edward died on January 5, 1066 and since he had no heirs, three potential kings battled for the throne. The three men were Harold Godwinson, Harald Hardrada, and William of Normandy.
William of Normandy
William was the illegitimate son of Robert, Duke Richard II of Normandy’s son. Richard II was the person who protected Edward while he was hiding in Normandy. William came to power in Normandy after his father, Robert, died. Through a number of battles, William came to be the dominant force in Normandy.
In 1051, William travelled to England and visited Edward. Although there is a fair amount of doubt about the claim, William claimed that during this visit, Edward had made William his heir. William had to return to Normandy shortly after this visit to deal with some rivals who had teamed up to fight against William’s increasingly powerful position. William was able to hold off this group and was even able to make his position stronger.
Harold Godwinson came from a rich and powerful family. He had a brother named Tostig whom Harold had helped to become the earl of Northumbria. Harold went to Normandy in 1064 (no one really knows why he decided to do this) and while there, he was captured by Count Guy of Ponthieu and handed over to William of Normandy. While in William’s custody, Harold swore an oath of fealty to William although there is a lot of confusion around this oath. People are not sure where the oath took place, when it took place or even why it took place.
Harold still hoped to gain the English crown and in 1065, he betrayed his brother Tostig in order to gain support for this goal. Tostig ruled Northumbria and as a result of his harsh rule, the people rebelled. Tostig asked his brother and Edward for help but none came. In fact, Harold reached out to Leofric, who had been the Earl of Mercer until his grandson took over the title. Leofric’s family was just as powerful as Harold’s family. Leofric had two grandsons: Edwin and Morcar. Edwin was the grandson who had taken over the title Earl of Mercia from his grandfather but the second grandson, Morcar, did not have any titles. Harold agreed to support Morcar against his brother in Northumbria in return for Leofric’s support for Harold becoming king when Edward eventually died.
Harald Hardrada was the king of Norway. Hardrada was a co-ruler of Norway and he shared power with his nephew Mangus until Mangus died in 1047. Hardrada claimed the English throne on the basis of an agreement that was made between Mangus and the then English king, Harthacnut. Neither Mangus nor Harthacnut had an heir so they agreed that when one of them died, that person’s kingdom would go to the other person. When Harthacnut died, Mangus was too busy fighting over Denmark to assert his claim to the English throne. Hardrada claimed that since he was Mangus’s heir, he was the rightful king of England.
The day after the death of Edward the Confessor, Harold Godwinson was elected the new king. On his deathbed, Edward had actually named Harold his heir, but both Harald Hardrada and William of Normandy refused to recognize Harold as the new king.
Tostig, the brother that Harold had betrayed, reached out to Hardrada and offered his support for Hardrada’s invasion. Hardrada and Tostig landed more than 10,000 men in the north of England on September 20, 1066.
Upon hearing of the invasion, Harold gathered what forces he could and began marching towards Tostig and Hardrada. Harold continued to gather men as he marched and within four days, his forces travelled almost three hundred kilometers.
Harold tried to get Tostig to abandon Hardrada by offering the return of the earldom that Harold had helped Tostig lose in the first place. Tostig refused the offer. The battle took place at Stamford Bridge on September 25, 1066. Hardrada’s forces held the bridge but eventually Harold’s forces were able to overwhelm Hardrada’s forces once they took the bridge. Both Hardrada and Tostig were killed and Harold won the battle, but his army was tired, wounded and a long way from where William of Normandy was about to attack.
William had built an invasion fleet quickly but had to wait for favourable winds before he could sail to England. On September 27, 1066, the winds allowed William to sail across the channel. William’s fleet landed in England on September 28 and his troops quickly fortified their position and raided the countryside.
Battle of Hastings
Harold, upon hearing of William’s landing, gathered his forces and began the long march south. It took Harold two weeks for his forces to reach the area around Hastings and by this time they were exhausted.
On October 14, 1066, Harold positioned his men at the top of a hill (which became known as Battle Hill) and formed a shield wall. His forces were much too tired and Harold needed to take a defensive position.
In the morning of the 14th, William’s forces charged up the hill attempting to engage Harold’s forces but they were repeatedly thrown back. After two hours of fighting, a rumor circulated that William had been killed. Some of the Norman soldiers began to flee until William removed his helmet and shouted that he was alive.
How the actual battle was won is still open for debate. One theory is that the Normans tricked the Saxons into believing they were retreating. When the inexperienced Saxons, believing the Normans had been routed, chased after the Normans, William’s forces turned and attacked. The Saxons had given up the advantage of the hilltop and William’s professional (and well-rested) army quickly routed the Saxons.
The other theory is that William had gained territory on the west side of the hill which allowed him to attack on two fronts. William then used his archers and cavalry to break down the Saxon shield wall and win the battle.
During the battle, Harold was killed. Although no one is completely sure how he was killed, there is evidence from the Bayeux tapestry that he may have been shot with an arrow through the eye.
Now that all of the other rivals for the English throne were dead, William set about securing the throne. He captured London in November of 1066 and he continued to fight any forces that were against him. By December, the English nobles began to submit to William’s rule and on December 25, 1066, William was crowned the new king of England.
The Harrying of the North
Between the years 1069 to 1070, William brutally put down any remaining dissent to his rule in northern England. The biggest rebellion was led by Edgar the Atheling, who was related to Edward the Confessor. In an effort to subdue the rebellion, William destroyed villages and crops and sent his troops out in small bands to loot and pillage. As a result a large number of people starved to death and there were even reports of people resorting to cannibalism (eating people).
Once William had subdued the population, he replaced all the Anglo-Saxon leaders with Norman leaders which helped secure his rule. William no longer faced any serious threat to his hold on the throne and he was even able to head back to France to fight against a rebellion by his son in Normandy. William died in Normandy in 1087.