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The Norman Conquest of 1066

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In 1066, England experienced (some contemporaries might say suffered) one of the few successful invasions in its history. While Duke William of Normandy needed several years and a firm military grip to finally secure his hold on the English nation, his major rivals were eliminated by the end of the Battle of Hastings, one of the most pivotal events in English history.

Edward the Confessor and Claims to the Throne

Edward the Confessor was king of England until 1066, but a set of events during his childless reign had seen the succession disputed by a group of powerful rivals. William, Duke of Normandy, might have been promised the throne in 1051, but he certainly claimed it when Edward died. Harold Godwineson, leader of the most powerful aristocratic family in England and long term hopeful for the throne, was supposed to have had it promised to him while Edward was dying.

The situation was complicated by Harold possibly having sworn an oath to support William, albeit while under duress, and Harold’s exiled brother Tostig, who allied with Harald III Hardrada, King of Norway after persuading him to try for the throne. The result on Edward’s death on Jan 5th 1066 was that Harold was in control of England with the English armies and a largely allied aristocracy, while the other claimants were in their lands and with little direct power in England. Harold was a proven warrior with access to large English lands and wealth, which he could use to sponsor / bribe supporters. The scene was set for a power struggle, but Harold had the advantage.

More on the Background to the Claimants

1066: The Year of Three Battles

Harold was crowned the same day Edward was buried, and probably took care to select the Archbishop of York, Ealdred, to crown him as the Archbishop of Canterbury was a controversial figure. In April Halley’s Comet appeared, but no one is sure how people interpreted it; an omen, yes, but one good or bad?

William, Tostig and Hardrada all began initiatives to claim the throne of England from Harold. Tostig began raids on the coasts of England, before being driven to Scotland for safety. He then combined his forces with Hardrada for an invasion. At the same time William sought support from his own Norman nobles, and possibly the religious and moral support of the Pope, while gathering an army. However, bad winds may have caused a delay in his army sailing. It is equally likely William chose to wait for strategic reasons, until he knew Harold had drained his supplies and the south was open. Harold gathered a large army to see off these enemies, and he kept them in the field for four months. However, with provisions running low he disbanded them in early September. William seems to have marshalled the resources needed for an invasion very effectively, and amidst the skill there was luck: Normandy and surrounding France had reached a point where William could safely leave it without fear of attack.

Tostig and Hardrada now invaded the north of England and Harold marched to face them. Two battles followed. Fulford Gate was fought between the invaders and northern earls Edwin and Morcar, on September 20th, outside York. The bloody, day long battle was won by the invaders. We don’t know why the earls attacked before Harold arrived, which he did four days later. The next day Harold attacked. The Battle of Stamford Bridge occurred on September 25, during which the invading commanders were killed, removing two rivals and demonstrating again that Harold was a successful warrior.

Then William managed to land in the south of England, on September 28 at Pevensey, and he began pillaging the lands – many of which were Harold’s own - to draw Harold into battle. Despite having just fought, Harold marched south, summoned more troops and engaged William immediately, leading to the Battle of Hastings on October 14th 1066. The Anglo-Saxons under Harold included a large number of the English aristocracy, and they assembled on a hilly position. The Normans had to attack uphill, and a battle followed in which the Normans faked withdrawals. At the end, Harold was killed and the Anglo-Saxons defeated. Key members of the English aristocracy were dead, and William’s route to the throne of England was suddenly very open.

More on the Battle of Hastings

King William I

The English refused to surrender en mass, so William then moved to seize key areas of England, marching in a loop around London to frighten it into submission. Westminster, Dover and Canterbury, key areas of royal power, were seized. William acted ruthlessly, burning and seizing, to impress on the locals that there was no other power who could help them. Edgar the Atheling was nominated by Edwin and Morcar as a new Anglo-Saxon king, but they soon realised William had the advantage and submitted. William was thus crowned king in Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day. There were revolts over the next few years, but William crushed them. One, the ‘Harrying of the North’, saw large areas destroyed.

The Normans have been credited with introducing castle building into England, and William and his forces certainly built a large network of them, as they were vital focal points from which the invading force could extend their power and hold onto England. However, it’s no longer believed the Normans were simply replicating the system of castles in Normandy: the castles in England weren’t copies, but a reaction to the unique circumstances facing the occupying force.

Consequences

Historians once attributed many administrative changes to the Normans, but increasing amounts are now believed to be Anglo-Saxon: effective tax and other systems were already in place under the preceding governments. However, the Normans worked on tweaking them, and Latin became the official tongue.

There was a new ruling dynasty established in England, and a large number of changes in the ruling aristocracy, with Normans and other European men given tracts of England to rule both as a reward and to secure control, from which they rewarded their own men. Each held their land in return for military service. Most of the Anglo-Saxon bishops were replaced with Normans, and Lanfranc became Archbishop of Canterbury. In short, the ruling class of England was almost completely replaced by a new one coming from Western Europe. However, this wasn’t what William had wanted, and at first he tried to reconcile the remaining Anglo-Saxon leaders like Morcar until he, like others, rebelled and William changed his approach.

William faced problems and rebellions for the next twenty years, but they were uncoordinated, and he dealt with them all efficiently. The battles of 1066 had removed the chance of a united opposition that could have proved fatal, although had Edgar Atheling been made of better material, things might have been different. The main chance might have been co-ordinating the further Danish invasions – which all fizzled out without much result – with the revolts of the Anglo-Saxon earls, but in the end each was defeated in turn. However, the cost of maintaining this army, as it moved from an occupying force gripping onto England into an established ruling class over the next decades, cost money, much of it was raised from England through taxes, leading to the commission of a land survey known as the Domesday Book.

More on the Consequences

Sources Divided

English sources, often written by men of the church, tended to view the Norman Conquest as a punishment sent by God for a feckless and sinful English nation. These English sources also tend to be pro-Godwine, and the different versions of the Anglo-Saxon chronicle, which each tell us something different, continued to be written in the defeated party’s own language. Norman accounts, unsurprisingly, tend to favour William, and argue God was very much on his side. They also argued the conquest was entirely legitimate. There is also an embroidery of unknown origin - the Bayeux Tapestry - which showed the events of the conquest.
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