5 – The Battle of Hastings

We’ve seen the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Wessex, Essex, East Anglia, Mercia and Northumbria come together as one nation – England.

The same people have been fighting off Viking invasions for a few centuries and finally succumbed to the invasions with Cnut the Great finally winning the English throne through conquest, bringing England, Norway and Denmark together in the North Sea Empire.

When Cnut’s son, Harthacnut, died in 1042, English rule was restored after 26 years of Viking rule when Edward the Confessor reclaimed the throne.

When Edward died in January 1066, his brother-in-law – Harold Godwinson – succeeded to the throne. But his rule would last just nine months when William the Conqueror invaded England!

Background to the Battle of Hastings
Around 1051, sources claim that Edward has promised the throne of England to William after he had exiled the Godwin family from England due to their relationship souring.

When Godwin returned with to England with forces in 1052, a settlement was reached between Edward and Godwin and the family was restored to their lands.

However, on Edward’s deathbed, Edward had set Harold Godwinson as his heir, which caused an issue as William had been promised the throne on Edward’s death some 15 years before.

Harold Hadrada of Norway also had a claim to the English throne in that as the uncle of Magnus I of Norway, had made a pact with Harthacnut that if either died without heirs, the other would succeed to the throne.

Lead up to the Battle of Hastings
Harold Hadrada and Tostig Godwinson invaded Northumbria in September 1066 and defeated the local forces of Morcar and Edwin at the Battle of Fulford near York.

Modern day site of the Battle of Stamford Bridge in East Riding of Yorkshire

When King Harold learned of the invasion, he marched north, killing Tostig and Harald Hadrada at the Battle of Stamford Bridge on 25 September 1066.

Williams forces set sail from Normandy two days later, landing at Prevensey Bay on 28 September 1066. William then moved to Hastings, a few miles east where he built a castle as a base of operations.

William used this opportunity to ravage the interior, waiting for Harold’s return from the north but never venturing far from the coast and his communication line with Normandy.

Harold marched half his army south, stopping in London for about a week. Harold had wanted to surprise the Norman invaders, but William’s scouts reported the arrival of Harold’s army.

The Battle of Hastings
William moved his forces from his castle, about 9.7 km’s towards Harold’s army, taking a defensive position on Senlac Hill (present-day Battle, East Sussex).

The battle began around 9am on 14 October 1066 – an infamous day in history – and would last the entire day.

Both forces were about equal in numbers, however, William had cavalry and infantry, along with many archers. Harold on the other hand, had just infantry and very few archers.

The Battle of Hastings was fought in 1066 at this location. The Saxon position was on top of the hill in which the Abbey later stood, and the Norman position was approximately where the photographer is standing

The English had formed a shield wall along the ridge and were, at first, very effective, repelling Williams army with heavy casualties. Some of William’s Breton troops panicked and fled. Some of the English forces pursued the fleeing Bretons until they themselves were attacked and killed by Norman cavalry.

With the Bretons fleeing, rumours abounded that William had been slayed, but the Norman Duke rallied his troops, feigning two retreats to draw the English out of rank and file.

This worked and the Norman cavalry had a field day of slaying the English. It appears, from varying sources, that the decisive point in the battle was the death of King Harold in the afternoon.

One source claims that Harold had been killed by the Duke himself while others claim that Harold took an arrow to the eye. Harold’s body was identified a day after the battle, either through his armour or marks on his body.

The English dead, which included some of Harold’s brothers were left on the field of battle. It is said that Harold’s mother offered William his body weight in gold for the return of his body, but William refused.

It is said that William ordered that Harold’s body be thrown into the sea but whether this happened is unclear. It is also said that Waltham Abbey, which Harold founded, claimed to have secretly buried his body there.

William was hoping that his victory at Hastings would lead to the English surrendering but this did not happen.

English clergy and Magnates offered Edgar the Etheling as King, although with only lukewarm support. After a short while, William secured Dover, parts of Kent, Canterbury and also the royal treasury at Winchester. This secured his rear end (no, not his arse!) as well as a possible retreat to Normandy if needed.

William then marched to Southwark, across the Thames from London in late November 1066. He then led his forces south and west of London burning everything along the way.

He finally crossed the Thames at Wallingford in early December forcing the remaining Dukes to surrender.

William was then crowned King of England at Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day in 1066.

William faced many revolts in the years following his conquest. Edgar the Etheling along with other Dukes raised revolts all over the country. Edgar even joined forces with King Sweyn of Denmark in 1069, attacking York, Exeter and Shrewsbury.

The remains of Baile Hill, the second motte-and-bailey castle built by William in York

But William responded swiftly. Buying off the Danes and marching his forces through the countryside and to the River Tees, ravaging the countryside as he went. Edgar, having no real local support, fled to Scotland where he married the sister of King Malcolm III.

William’s conquering around the country during the revolts, led the Norman King to build many castles, including Warwick, York, Nottingham, Lincoln, Huntingdon, Cambridge, Chester and Stafford Castles.

William finally quashed the revolts by April 1070 and ceremoniously for Easter at Winchester.

The White Tower in London, begun by William

As part of his efforts to control England, William ordered many castles, keeps and mottes to be built, as stated above. One of these was the Tower of London – the White Tower – in which the Normans could retreat on threat of invasions or rebellions.

William also had many of the earls replaced with Normans, some of them from his Norman conquest, but others from humble continental backgrounds.

Norwich Castle. The keep dates to after the Revolt of the Earls, but the castle mound is earlier.

Death and Succession
William left England at the end of 1086, and after arriving back on the continent, married his daughter Constance to Duke Alan of Brittany, furthering his policy of seeking allies against French Kings.

William’s son, Robert, whom he had a falling out with, was still allied with the French king, was stirring up trouble, leading to William marching an expedition against him in March 1087.

While capturing Mantes, William either fell ill or was injured by the pommel of his saddle. He was taken to the priory of Saint Gervase at Rouen where he died on 9 September 1087.

William’s grave before the high-alter in the Abbaye-aux-Hommes, Caen.

William’s third son, also William, would succeed his father on the English throne, becoming known as William II, ruling from 1087 until his death in 1100.

William’s conquest of England left a profound impact, including changes to the Church, aristocracy, culture and language.

William’s succession to the throne would also bring ties with France closer, revealing itself later in English invasions of France, claims to the French throne as well as setting French as the primary royal language in England for the next few hundred years.

Family Ties to the Vikings
As stated in our very first chapter, the current Queen Elizabeth II can trace her family roots all the back to the Vikings. As “Queen Lizzy” is a direct descendant of William the Conqueror, she can trace her roots all the way back to Rollo.

Dukes of Normandy. William’s family tree

Author: Brendon

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