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On December 31, 1065, Edward the Confessor, old and childless, was near death. His most powerful subject, Harold earl of Wessex, an experienced war leader and heir to the richest noble dynasty in the country, was in control of England and by this time seemed, at least to his own large faction, to be Edward's logical successor.
Others had claims: Harold Hardrada, king of Norway, and William duke of Normandy, who at one point had been Edward's designated successor. Besides these two potential foes, Harold had his own brother Tostig to worry about. After he'd lost his position as earl of Northumbria, Tostig had sailed off to find allies so that he could return to power in England.
On January 5, 1066, Edward the Confessor died at Westminster. The word went out that in his last moments Edward chose the great earl as his successor. The very next day Harold was crowned king of England.
No one within the kingdom made any moves against him, but there was soon trouble from the outside. In May, not long after the portentous appearance of Halley's comet, Tostig Godwineson attacked the isle of Wight and raided along the south coast of England until he heard that his brother, King Harold, was coming. Then Tostig sailed north to the Humber, where he and his followers started harrying the countryside. Earls Edwin and Morcar repulsed him with some loss. Tostig was forced to flee.
His brother Harold, however, had no time to relax. He had heard that William of Normandy was preparing an army and fleet to cross the Channel, and was in the midst of marshaling what the chronicle called "greater naval and land hosts than any king in this country had ever gathered before."
William was the ruler of a very bellicose province of France. During the first half of the eleventh century, Normandy produced a large number of adventurous knights looking for a way to carve out a living with their swords. This was an era when armored warfare on horseback was being refined and perfected in France; it was also an era when the use of castles in seizing and holding onto territory was becoming a key part of warfare. The Normans seem to have been early masters of both types of tactics.
Between 1026 and 1060, Normandy had gone through a period of great disorder. The new aristocracy that emerged was tough, ruthless, and treacherous -- in other words, skilled in both warfare and politics. William himself epitomized this warlike group. He had become duke at the age of 7, saddled with the taint of illegitimacy and especially low birth. His mother had been the daughter of a tanner. When he reached adulthood, however, he soon showed an ability not just to survive but to conquer. He was a determined warrior, a skillful manipulator of alliances, and was ruthless to those who opposed him but merciful and even gracious to those who submitted promptly. By 1060, William had used those traits to put himself at the head of his ambitious aristocracy and had increased his influence in all the countries that bordered on Normandy.
When his cousin Edward the Confessor died, he had the wealth and reputation to mount a sizable expedition to claim the throne that had been promised him.
At the same time, William pursued a diplomatic offensive against Harold. Using the pretext of Edward's designation and Harold's broken oath to support him, William got recognition of his claim from the imperial court in Germany. Also, the anomalous position of Stigand as archbishop of Canterbury helped William gain the support of the Roman church. The papacy was in the midst of an offensive against lay control of church offices, and William could portray the English church as a corrupt institution needing reform. William, obtained, on the basis of his reputation as a church reformer in Normandy, a papal banner sanctioning his expedition.
Harold of England waited for this rather formidable opponent all summer long. But William did not come. Perhaps Harold had mustered his troops too soon. Perhaps William feared the great fleet Harold was supposed to have, and was looking for an opportunity. In any case, by the beginning of September, Harold's supplies and the military obligations of the fyrd had been used up. He was forced to dismiss them.
Almost as soon as the fyrd had gone home, a new crisis erupted for Harold of England. Harald Hardrada, king of Norway, had landed in Northumbria with something like 300 ships. He was accompanied by Tostig. Harald's army had been attacked by the Northumbrian fyrd under Edwin and Morcar at Fulford on the 20th of September, and Harald had won. He and Tostig then entered York, where a substantial party welcomed him with open arms, and asked him to lead them to conquer England.
Harold of England reacted quickly to news of the Norwegian landing. With his household forces, a rather substantial body, he marched from the south of England to the outskirts of York in six days, where he joined with Edwin and Morcar and the remnants of the northern army. On the seventh day, which was the 25th of September, he caught Hardrada's army at a place called Stamford Bridge. By nightfall on the 25th, Harold of England had won. Both Harald Hardrada and Tostig were killed, and the Norwegian threat was over.
But then King Harold heard that William had landed in Sussex and was devastating the countryside. Harald was was forced to turn around his weary household troops and rush as quickly as possible back south.
By the sixth of October he was in London, where he paused to gather reinforcements -- he had moved so fast that he had been able only to bring as many troops as he could find horses for -- no doubt a tough force but a very small one. Harold was dependent on these and whatever troops he could gather in the south. There is no doubt that if he had paused, he could have gathered a larger army. But after after five days, he moved south from London, to take on William with what was on hand then.
Was he trying to stop the devastation? Was he uncertain about his domestic support? Or was he determined to bring a quick end to the uncertainty about who ruled England? Another possibility exists: Harold wanted to surprise William and take him off guard, as he had Harald Hardrada. Perhaps he tried to cut the Normans off from their ships. But his troops were too tired to manage this.
Harold was forced to stop, on the night of October 13th, near the modern town of Battle (near Hastings). William heard of his arrival and moved up quickly himself. The two armies met at 9 AM on the morning of October 14th, and it may be that Harold was the one surprised -- so says the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. According to version D, William approached before Harold's army was drawn up in battle array.
Although Harold had come to attack, he was well placed to defend himself. He was on the summit of a hill, blocking the road to London, and with his flanks covered by steep slopes. Contrary to common knowledge, the use of cavalry was not unknown in England at the time, but Harold dismounted his crack troops to provide stiffening for the fyrd troops who had been so hastily called up. William had the unenviable task of breaking through this shield wall that lay between him and England. William's main advantage was the higher quality of his troops, who were professionals. His well trained cavalry and archers turned out to be crucial.
According to the accounts we have, one tactic that worked very well for the Normans was a feigned flight of the horsemen that lured the English out of their formation, only to be ridden down by the tough Norman cavalry. Also the Norman archers, shooting high in the air, took casualties, including Harold himself who may have been killed by an arrow in the eye, and the English army broke. One group rallied and held up the Normans for a while, but in the end the Norman victory was complete.
Complete? Not quite. William had disposed of his most dangerous rival for the crown of England. but he only held a small corner of Sussex. Edwin and Morcar, the earls of two great regions, were still alive. The city of London, a strategic town with a very independent populace, was untaken. There was also another candidate for the kingship: Edgar Atheling, the grandson of Edmund Ironside, the great- grandson of Aethelred the Unready.
Thus when William waited at Hastings for the English to surrender, no one came. Prince Edgar, Edwin and Morcar, and Archbishop Ealdred of York assembled in London and planned resistance. No concrete plan resulted from those consultations. William rested his army and when he lost his patience, he began to ravage the territory around London.
By the middle of December, he had broken the morale of Edgar's party. Edgar, Edwin and Morcar came out to Berkhamstead to surrender to William, and his entry into London was arranged. There, or rather at Westminster, which was then outside of London instead of right downtown, on Christmas Day, William the Conqueror was crowned King of England by the archbishop of York. He was proclaimed both in French and English. The shouts of the English were loud, to signify acceptance, no doubt, but they alarmed the Norman troops outside. They thought a riot was starting, and began setting fire to the neighborhood. This is a good dramatic time to leave the story.
I want to emphasize that this was far from the end of the Norman Conquest. The Norman Conquest was a process, not a battle, and it lasted not one day or one year, but nearly twenty years, the rest of the lifetime of William I.
The Norman Conquest had many consequences for England. One of the greatest here: William's victory -- victories -- succeeded in detaching England from Scandinavia and attaching it to France. For over 250 years, England's most significant political and cultural interactions had been with Norway and Denmark and other lands settled from those countries. There were a couple of Danish expeditions early in William's reign, but after his death no Scandinavian ever tried to take England again.
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