The origin of the dynastic struggle that led to the Battle of Hastings lays in the Danish conquest of Anglo Saxon England. In 1013, King Sweyn Forkbeard of Denmark invaded England, forcing the Anglo Saxon King Ethelred II “the unready” to flee to Normandy, across the English Channel. King Ethelred had married Emma, the sister of Duke Richard II of Normandy, just over ten years previously.
In 1016, Ethelred died and King Canute of Denmark and England married Emma in order to unite the Danish and English royal families. One of their sons, Edward, became King Edward the Confessor in 1042, thus reestablishing Anglo Saxon rule in England. Edward the Confessor was known for both his piety and for his admiration of French (i.e. Norman) culture, having been raised in Normandy. He died in 1066 without an heir of his own and there began the problem of who would be King of England after him.
There were a number of claimants to the throne of England. One was Earl Harold Godwinson, the son of King Edward’s father in law. Another was Duke William of Normandy, related to King Edward through his mother. A third was King Harald of Norway.
Duke William the Bastard
The Duke of Normandy at the time was William, known at the time as “the bastard” as he was the natural son of the previous duke and a tanner’s daughter. Partly because of his ill favored birth, he was an especially ruthless and brutal ruler in an age famous for ruthless and brutal rulers. Not only did he have to put down rebellions fomented by various Norman barons, but incursions from neighbors, such as France. He finally consolidated his rule in Normandy by 1047. . In 1053 he married his cousin, Matilda of Flanders, against the wishes of the Pope. The Ducal couple was obliged to found to abbeys in the town of Caen as penance.
Normandy was an area of northern France which had been granted to a group of invading Vikings over a century and a half ago by the King of France. The Vikings led by Rolf the Ganger, so called because of his long legs, converted to Christianity and swore homage to the King of France, providing a buffer against other Vikings. By 1066, the Normans had adopted French culture and language.
William claimed that King Edward the Confessor had named him as heir to the throne of England during a visit in 1052. Most historians agree that this story was either a lie or was not made very seriously by the celibate King Edward.
Earl Harold Godwinson
Harold Godwinson was the son of Earl Godwin of Wessex and was a focus of opposition to Norman influence in England under King Edward. He was a formidable warrior, having led campaigns in Wales. He succeeded to the Earldom of Wessex upon the death of his father in 1053, also holding the Earldoms of East Anglia and Hereford. Next to King Edward he was the mightiest noble in the Kingdom.
In 1064, Earl Harold found himself shipwrecked in Normandy and the somewhat unwilling guest of Duke William. William forced Harold to swear allegiance to him and to support his own claim to the English throne. The almost certain fact that the oath was obtained under duress caused Harold to break it upon the death of King Edward.
When King Edward died, Harold claimed that he had promised Harold the Kingship of England on his deathbed. The Witenagemot, an assembly of England’s leading nobles and churchmen, proclaimed Harold King of England and he was duly coroneted the next day.
King Harald of Norway
King Harald of Norway spent much of his early life in exile, serving in the Varangian Guard of the Byzantine Empire. His mettle as a warrior and a leader was such that he soon became commander of the Guard and won great victories in Sicily, North Africa, and Syria.
Having won great wealth as the result of his service in the Varangian Guard, Harald returned to Norway in 1045 with many of his fellow guardsmen and forced the then King Magnus to share rulership with him. Magnus died the following year under mysterious circumstances and Harald, known as Hardrada or “hard ruler”, became sole ruler of Norway.
When King Edward the Confessor died in 1066, Harald too claimed the throne of England, through his family ties with King Canute. He had the support of King Harold’s estranged brother, Tostig.
The Battle of Stanford Bridge
King Harald landed in Yorkshire to the north of England with an army and, along with forces led by Tostig, defeated Earl Edwin of Mercia and Earl Morcar of Northumbria at the Battle of Fulford near York on September 20th. Five days later, King Harold arrived with the main English Army and engaged the Norwegians at Stanford Bridge.
After a savage battle, the English took the bridge from a Norwegian advanced guard and then attacked the main Norwegian host. In the ensuring fight, both King Harald and Tostig were slain. The surviving Norwegians, under Harald’s son Olaf, were allowed to depart with pledges not to attack England again.
The defeat of King Harald and his Norwegians only dealt with one threat to King Harold. William was landing in southern England with a mighty army. So, accompanied by his picked warriors, the Housecarls, King Harold marched two hundred and forty miles south to engage the Normans, picking up feudal levies from the southern English shires on the way.
The Battle of Hastings
Having been held back by contrary winds for some weeks, Duke William finally was able to cross the English Channel with his army and land on September 28th. William’s army consisted of his vassals from Normandy, Brittany, and Flanders, as well as freebooters and mercenaries from as far away as Italy. It was divided up into cavalry, infantry, and archers.
King Harold deployed his army, entirely of infantry armed with swords, spears, and axes, on Senlac Hill near the town of Hastings. They formed a formidable shield wall, with the Housecarls in the middle.
On October 14th, Duke William’s army approached the Saxon position in three divisions or “battles”, with the Normans in the center, the Bretons on the left, and the Flemish on the right. The archers provided a screen in the front.
The archers began the action with a barrage of arrows, most of which impacted harmlessly on the English shields. This was followed up by an infantry and cavalry assault which also failed to dislodge the English, resulting in heavy casualties.
The Breton force on the left broke and started to run. The English right, seeing this, broke formation and went in pursuit down the hills. Thus exposed, the English were cut down by a Norman cavalry charge.
Thus began a series of attacks, feigned retreats, and rallies as the English were enticed out of their position to be cut down. The ranks of the Housecarls were thinned from repeated Norman attacks and were replaced with lesser quality feudal levies. Finally, Duke William ordered his archers forward again and this time had them fire their arrows at a high angle. The result was devastating as the rear ranks of the English were cut down.
It was at this point that, according the tradition, King Harold was shot through the eye and killed. Other traditions have been being slain in hand to hand combat. Whatever happened, upon the death of the King, the English lost heart. The Normans attacked again, rolling up the left and right English flanks and putting the enemy to flight. Harold’s personal guard fought to the last man to defend the body of their king. By nightfall, though, it was all over.
After refitting and resting his army, which had been depleted by combat and by dysentery, William advanced on London. England’s capital fell without a fight and Duke William was crowned King of England at Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day.
The Norman Conquest of England had just begun, though. While Southern England submitted fairly quickly, the north of England seethed with rebellion for several years. King William, now known as “the conqueror”, harried the north with great savagery, finally subduing the entire country with a combination of war, terror, and diplomacy.
The Norman Conquest of England transformed that island from a northern kingdom, oriented toward Scandinavia, to an Anglo-Norman Kingdom, oriented toward continental Europe. The Normans were great builders of castles and cathedrals, many of which still exist in the present day. At first England was a land with a French speaking Norman ruling class and an English speaking Saxon underclass. Intermarriage between Norman and Saxon started to blur the differences between the two peoples so, as the centuries passed, the two cultures began to merge. By the 14th Century the two were not even distinguishable. Even the nobility of that time spoke a form of English that had acquired a lot of French words, though it retained the Germanic sentence structure.
The Norman Conquest set the stage for England becoming a world power, whose rulers held vast lands in Europe. Eventually, the Kings of England lost their continental holdings to the French. That was only a temporary setback, though. With the discovery of the Americas and the Age of Exploration, the England that was born on October 14th, 1066, spread its power and influence across the globe. That legacy persists to this day.