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  • Writer's pictureChristopher Riley

1066: From Confessor to Conqueror

Updated: Aug 10, 2020

We all know how the story of 1066 ends, with King Harold Dead and William Duke of Normandy, on the throne of England but, how did we get there? And what did it all mean? 1066 was a year of three kings and two invasions, forever changing the Kingdom of England, or did it?

A scene depicting Edward the Confessor, king of England from the The Bayeux Tapestry commissioned shortly after the conquest in the 1070's SOURCE: Encyclopaedia Britannica

Edward of Wessex or, Edward the Confessor as he was later known, was Crowned King of England in 1042, following 26 years of Danish rule after the invasion and usurpation of the throne by the Danish prince, Cnut in 1016. Cnut ruled until his death in 1035, and was a good King who made sure that the rights and laws of the English that he now ruled were respected. Cnut married Emma of Normandy, the widow of the previous king, Æthelred the Unready, adding much needed legitimacy to his rule. Upon his death, the exiled Princes of Wessex, Edward, and his brother Alfred attempted to reclaim the throne with Alfred landing in the South. Unfortunately for Alfred, he was cut off by the Earl of Wessex, a man named Godwine, who was a Saxon that had risen to the high rank during the reign of Cnut. Wether it was Godwine himself or on his orders, Alfred and his retainers were blinded and maimed with Alfred later dying of his wounds leaving Edward as heir to the Wessex dynasty. Cnut's son from a previous marriage, Harold Harefoot was able to seize the crown and would rule until his death, in 1040 where his half brother, Harthacnut, son of both Cnut and Emma, would seize the vacant throne. Harthacnut was supported by Earl Godwine who continued to acquire land and wealth through his support and influence at court. Harthacnut ruled until his death in 1042, possibly after too much ale leaving the door well and truly open for Edward to return from France, bringing with him several Norman nobles that were sure to ruffle a few feathers.

With Edward now King of England, the next job was to secure him a wife. Godwine was able to get the king to marry his daughter Edith in 1045, giving him even more influence over the King. Godwine would leverage this power to virtually control the Kingdom for the next decade. Exiled by the King in 1051, Godwine and his daughter were sent away from court but were quickly back due to the fact that the foreign nobles that Edward had brought with him were unpopular. In 1053 the most powerful man in England died. No, not the king, but Godwine. Having already ensured that many of the Norman nobles were sent back to the North of France, Godwine’s death resulted in a power vacuum leaving the door open for his son Harold to step into the role of ‘man who isn’t king but acts like it anyway’. Harold Godwinson, now Earl of Wessex and most powerful landowner in the Kingdom, spent the next 11 years acting as the sword of Edward the confessor, subduing the troublesome Welsh and Northumbrians bringing strength and unity to England.

With Godwinson doing the dirty work, Edward could focus his time on building churches and legal reform whilst not spending a whole lot of alone time with his wife. Edward is famous for his piety and lack of children, with his celibacy causing arguably the most important succession crisis in English history, but the Kingdom of England did not suffer under his reign as there was relative peace and prosperity under the King and his henchman, Godwinson.

In Englands brief history as a kingdom, the line of succession has for the most part been relatively straight forward. Yes, there were Danish and Norwegian invasions, blinded heirs and murdered sons but, there was always at least one successor ready to inherit their fathers throne. Once Edward the Confessor decided he wasn’t to have kids, the question of who would be the next king arose and had Edward already promised it to someone? Upon the Confessor's death on 5th January 1066, the most likely candidate, due to his proximity to the late King, was Harold Godwinson. Harold was also considered the favourite by the Witan (early privy council designed to help rulers make decisions) and before Edward's Body was cold, Harold was crowned King Harold II of England, the first English king crowned in Westminster Abbey, the church built by Edward the Confessor shortly before his death. England may have rejoiced at Harold being crowned but it certainly managed to upset a certain Norman named William.

Coronation of Harold II by Unknown Artist SOURCE: Published Domain

As a young Prince, Edward spent his time in Norman castles, learning French and meeting a certain bastard named William. William the Bastard was born in 1028 to the unmarried Duke Robert I of Normandy and his mistress Herleva. William’s father died during a pilgrimage to the holy land in 1035 leaving a 7 year old Bastard to inherit the Duchy. Spending the next decade, dodging kidnappers and would be murders, desperate to claim the Duchy, William of Normandy quickly became one of the more feared men in Christendom with a reputation for violence.

Rumours started to spread that Edward promised the throne to his distant cousin William sometime in 1051. Making an apparent trip to Normandy, The king made William his sole heir, even though Harold was the favourite back in England, William was a cousin of Edward’s through his mother Emma being William’s great-aunt, a sketchy claim at best. It is also said, and documented in the now famous Bayeux Tapestry, that Harold Godwinson also made a trip to Normandy in 1064. It is claimed that Godwinson was taken prisoner by one of Williams enemies and then ransomed back to William. In repayment, Godwinson swore on holy relics that he too recognised William as heir to the throne of England. Upon hearing that Harold had been crowned, William was reportedly enraged as he believed that Harold had broken a sacred oath and quickly began planning for an invasion but, he wasn't the only one hoping to take advantage of the situation.

A scene showing Harold Godwinson apparently swearing allegiance on covered holy relics from the The Bayeux Tapestry SOURCE: BBC History

Harald Hardrada, King of Norway, was the son of Magnus who had tried to claim the throne after Harthacnut died in 1042. Now his son was ready to take what he believed, was rightfully his. So the stage was set for not one but two pivotal battles. Anglo-Norman-Scandinavian history was about to be written and the outcome change the face of Europe for generations.

King Harold likely knew that William would come after him and his throne, and thus started his preparations early in spring of 1066. Gathering a large force on the south coast of England, Harold was ready to see off the Norman pretender as he claimed to have had no knowledge of any oaths or holy relics only that he, Harold, had been promised the throne by Edward on his death bed. Before Harold and his army could get stuck into the Normans, reports of a massive Viking army in York forced Harold's hand. Choosing to address the more pressing issue, he marched his 15,000 strong army the 180 miles, to Stamford Bridge, just outside of the city of York, where he would meet Harald Hardrada and his Viking horde.

On the morning on 25th September, Harold was able to catch the Danes well and truly napping, springing a surprise attack on the Danes at the bottom of a hill, catching them, some literally, with there pants down. The Viking army was spread out over the two sides of a river and were unprepared for an attack. Many of the soldiers didn’t have their armour and were cut down without ever standing a chance. Legend states that a single Viking soldier managed to hold the bridge spanning the river for so long, he was able to kill over 40 Englishmen before one of Harold’s men sailed down the river and stabbed the Danish chap right between the legs. Either way the battle was a massive win for Harold. Not only did he kill the vast majority of the near 12,000 vikings that came but also, killed Hardrada and his own brother, Tostig who had defected to the viking side. the victory at Stamford Bridge is somewhat dwarfed by a battle that took place just a few short weeks later but, Harold once again, as he had done in Wales, showed his abilities as a battlefield commander, skills he would rely on later.

Like Harold, William had spent the summer preparing a massive army and fleet to carry him to victory against the Saxon pretender. William was able to secure Papal blessing in the form of an ordained banner that he would have carried into battle, giving his army a well needed heavenly boost, something that people in the 11th century took very seriously. After some poor weather, William and his 1000 ships were able to set sail from Normandy, landing at Pevensey on 28th September, with Harold still recovering from his battle in the north. Upon landing it is reported that William fell face first into the sand, a bad omen to some but, ever the propagandist, William was able to spin it as he was 'grabbing England with both hands.' Upon hearing that William had landed in the south and was making his way towards London, Harold and his remaining men marched as quick as possible to meet them. After just a few days hard march, Harold arrived at the small town of Battle in Sussex, ready to meet the Normans in open combat.

The now world famous Battle of Hastings, and its outcome, took place 14th October 1066. Harold started the day with the advantage. Positioning himself on a gently slopping hill overlooking the Norman position, setting up his shield wall full of battle hardened Huscarls, axe wielding body guards of the king, at the top of the hill that was flanked by woods. As the battle began, the Norman knights tried multiple attempts to smash through the English lines but, they continued to hold and the battle began to turn in Harold's favour. Rumours began to spread that William had been killed and with the cavalry charges failing to make any meaningful impact, the sound for a retreat was called. Without being prompted, the centre lines of the English followed the Normans down the hill thinking the day was their's but, William in fact was not dead and was very much ready to take the battle to the English. Legend has William taking of his helmet showing his men that he was ok and ready to go, turning his knights around and smashed into the disordered English, effectively ending the battle.

Harold continued to fight on with his few remaining body guards, eventually being cut down or, shot in the eye with an arrow, depending on which Bayeux Tapestry figure you think he is, ending the hopes of an Anglo-Saxon future for England. After the battle, William quickly set about securing the south of England, entering the city of London after stiff resistance to secure his crown.

Scene 57: the death of King Harold at the Battle of Hastings SOURCE:Wikimedia Commons

By Christmas Day 1066, William's conquest was somewhat complete. Crowned King William I of England marked a turning point in Anglo-French history, forever tying the two kingdoms together. William spent the best part of two decades crushing resistance in the north of England, known as the 'Harrying of the North' in which thousands were killed or starved in the name of Norman dominance. The language of court changed instantly, from old-English to Norman French and virtually all Anglo-Saxon land was turned over to William's Norman entourage, with the later Domesday Book (1086) putting into (French) writing all land owned both pre and post conquest. With all this being said, life for the regular Englishman or women didn't alter too much. French didn't replace the language on the street and land owners simply changed from Saxon Earls to Norman Lords, with very little day to day changes. Words such as Mutton, Beef (French for sheep and cow respectively) and cul-de sac did enter the English vocabulary but 'English' has always been a mongrel language, made up of all sorts of post roman languages, so this was nothing new.

The Bayeux Tapestry is a great source but also great propaganda, putting the Norman invasion in some what Biblical terms, with the beautiful art work depicting great scenes of death and destruction, with Halley’s comet being shown over England before the Battle, said to have predicted the end of the Wessex Dynasty, the glorious victory of William and the betrayal of Harold as he swears on the holy relics and for some reason, 93 penises. England was changed by William and his invasion but, like the Danish invasion of 1016, the English carried on being a multicultural lot, made up of all different types of people from all over western Europe. The Norman conquest added castles and changed the language of the rich but, fields were still plowed and taxes were still collected, rather than say 'England was forever changed, we should say 'England was forever added too'.

I hope you enjoyed this and would love to hear what you think, please leave me a comment and follow me on Instagram @chrisriley_ for more medieval history!

As always, thanks for Reading.

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