In today’s Snapshot of History we explore a momentous year in English history: 1066. This was the year of wannabe kings and some pretty big battles!
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In today’s Snapshot of History we’re diving into a momentous year in English history – 1066.
It was a year of wannabe kings and some pretty big battles.
Most people know about the Battle of Hastings and the consequent Norman Conquest of 1066, but what was the catalyst for it?
Our story begins on the 5th January 1066 when the King of England, Edward the Confessor, died. He had ruled a relatively peaceful and prosperous kingdom but had no children. Edward did not make it clear who he wanted his heir to be and this led to a succession crisis.
There were four main contenders for the throne: William Duke of Normandy, Harold Godwinson Earl of Wessex, Harald Hardrada King of Norway and Edgar Ætheling.
But there could only be one winner.
Before his death Edward the Confessor had given Edgar the title Ætheling which meant “throne worthy” but supposedly on his deathbed he bequeathed the country to Harold Godwinson his brother-in-law and the most powerful man in the kingdom. We’re not sure when Edgar was born but we know it was likely to be in the 1050s so he was still very young in 1066. Without powerful relatives to fight his corner he was not really seen as a significant contender for the throne. After the Norman Conquest he would be a rebel against William the Conqueror, but by 1075 he had submitted to Norman rule.
Harold Godwinson, who Edward supposedly named his successor, was an incredibly powerful man and in Edward’s later years was seen by some as the power behind the throne. Harold didn’t hang about and was crowned King on the 6th January, the same day as Edward’s funeral. He was a “tenacious and highly organised” man and could have been an incredibly good king given the chance. He knew he was going to have a fight on his hands with enemies at all sides. He focused on England’s defences and made a politically sound second marriage to Edith of Mercia, to make allies of the northern earls. Upon hearing that Edward died and Harold had been crowned, William Duke of Normandy was understandably furious, as he believed Edward had made him his heir. He said that Harold had paid fealty to him during a visit to Normandy two years prior. This 1064 meeting between William and Harold was to be later recorded in the beautiful Bayeux tapestry.
In April 1066, Halley’s Comet (a periodic comet seen roughly every 75 years or so) was spotted, which many regarded as a terrible omen. It certainly turned out to be the case for Harold. William was building a fleet in Normandy with plans to invade England and take what he believed to be rightfully his. His wife, the impressive Matilda of Flanders, arranged for a spectacular longship to be built for her husband’s fleet named the Mora. William was so delighted with this gift that he actually made it his flagship.
In the north the fierce King of Norway, Harald Hardrada, like fellow Vikings Sweyn Forkbeard and Cnut before him, planned to invade and take the English throne. This wasn’t completely random as he did have an alleged claim through an old agreement made between King Harthacnut of England and King Magnus of Norway (the kingly predecessors of Edward the Confessor and Harald respectively). He was supported in his efforts by Harold Godwinson’s disenfranchised brother Tostig Godwinson.
With two fearsome rulers on the war parth, Harold Godwinson had quite a task on his hands.
In September the game of thrones finally began.
Hardrada and Tostig invaded the North East of England with about 300 ships. Hardrada’s forces raided the coast and defeated the English at the Battle of Fulford, taking the city of York. This battle is often overshadowed, but it was a great first victory for Harald Hardrada and Tostig Godwinson in their respective quests. Harald’s for the throne and Tostig’s for the position of earl of Northumbria which he had lost.
Harold Godwinson was in the south of the country awaiting the anticipated Norman invasion. With the Northern earls failing to stop Hardrada and Tostig, he had no choice but to travel to the North and deal with it himself. Within just a few days Harold had got his troops to walk 185 miles to Tadcaster which was near York. Hardrada’s troops had no idea that Harold Godwinson had travelled to the North. They were completely unprepared for what was about to happen. Hardrada, Tostig and some of their force were at Stamford Bridge awaiting supplies from York, whilst a larger contingent were still with the boats. Harold Godwinson and his army attacked Hardrada and his men taking them by surprise. Although Hardrada recovered quickly it wasn’t enough and he was killed in the fighting. After Hardrada’s death in the fighting Harold offered Tostig amnesty but this was rejected. The fighting carried on and Tostig ultimately met the same fate as his ally Hardrada. The Battle of Stamford Bridge was a great victory for Harold and quelled the threat in the North. He allowed Hardrada’s son to return to Norway with his remaining forces.
Whilst all this was going on, William Duke of Normandy was taking advantage of events in the North and landed his forces at Pevensey. Harold Godwinson now had to contend with further fighting in the south with his exhausted troops. As William had the channel between him and his lands, it was imperative to win a decisive battle quickly. So it worked in his favour that Harold rushed his troops back to the south of England. He wanted to take William by surprise, but William’s scouts put paid to this scheme. The battle commenced on the 14th October at Senlac Hill and raged for 6 hours before a Norman victory was secured with the death of Harold. Prior to the fighting William spoke to his forces, “I have no doubt of the victory; we are come for glory; the victory is in our hands, and we may make sure of obtaining it if we so please”. The face of England changed forever with this battle. The land had been won by conquest by William Duke of Normandy, now William I of England, or as he’s more commonly known, William the Conqueror. This wasn’t without some resistance though, as the Witan did proclaim Edgar Ætheling king but their force was not enough to counter William’s.
The battles of Fulford, Stamford Bridge and Hastings took place over a short period of time, from the 20th September to 14th October. Before the outcomes were secured it was anyone’s guess who would rise victorious from the ashes to become King of England. Ultimately though, through a mixture of talent and luck, it was William. He was crowned on the 25th December 1066, and so began the Norman Dynasty.
Thanks for watching! I hope you enjoyed today’s video and as always I look forward to hearing your thoughts & comments.
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Oxford DNB Edgar Ætheling by Nicholas Hooper
Oxford DNB Harold II [Harold Godwineson] by Robin Fleming
Oxford DNB Tostig, earl of Northumbria by William M. Aird
Oxford DNB Harald Hardrada by Claus Krag
England’s Queens: From Boudica to Elizabeth of York by Elizabeth Norton
Kings & Queens: The Story of Britain’s Monarchs from Pre-Roman Times to Today by Richard Cavendish and Pip Leahy
Rex Factor Podcast S3.18 Matilda of Flanders
Queens of the Conquest by Alison Weir
Halley’s Comet: Facts About the Most Famous Comet by Elizabeth Howell
BBC History: Norman Britain Timeline
Wikipedia: Magnus the Good, Harthacnut, Harald Hardrada
Battlefields of Britain: Battle of Fulford 1066
Battlefields of Britain: Battle of Stamford Bridge 1066
Battlefield of Britain: Battle of Hastings 1066
All images in the Public Domain except image of Harald Hardrada in stained glass courtesy of Colin Smith under the CC BY-SA 2.0 Licence.
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