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The Norman Conquest of England

Contemporary history tends to be written to support a particular viewpoint. And that is true until the twentieth century. That means it is impossible to say who Edward the Confessor truly intended to have the throne on his death.

Edward had no children, though there was one royal prince, Edgar – a descendant of Ethelred the Unready – who might be seen as the next in line. He was six at the time of Edward's death and never had any military backing. He went into exile after the Norman conquest.

Anglo Saxon sources say that Edward entrusted the kingdom to Harold Godwinson, the most powerful Earl in England. Godwin's family had been a thorn in Edward's side throughout his reign, and the entire family had been banished from England in 1051. They returned to England the following year, and their titles were restored.

Edward, the Confessor, withdrew from active politics around 1057, devoting himself to hunting and prayer. From that time, Harold Godwinson effectively controlled the administration of England, and it may be that Edward was powerless to refuse Harold the throne.

However, Edward's 25-year exile in Normandy had greatly influenced him, and several Norman aristocrats had been given positions of power in England, including the Archbishopric of Canterbury, the most powerful religious post in the country.

After their Conquest of England, the Normans were keen to promote the legitimacy of their rule, and many stories emerge of Edward promising the throne of England to Duke William of Normandy. Indeed, Harold is also supposed to have confirmed William as rightful King during his time in Normandy in 1064.

Whatever the truth of the matter, Harold Godwinson was crowned King of England in January 1066, and Duke William of Normandy immediately began preparing an invasion fleet.

Harold reigned for less than a year. The King of Norway also claimed the English Throne and landed a force of around 9,000 men in the north of England. They briefly occupied the City of York.

Harold traveled from London to York, a distance of 185 miles in only 4 days, with an army of over 10,000 men and 2,000 cavalries. The speed of their advance took the Norwegians by surprise.

The Battle of Stamford Bridge took place on 25th September 1066. The Norwegians formed a shield wall, which the English charged. The battle raged for several hours, but the Norwegians were eventually outflanked, and their army was destroyed.

Three days later, Harold received word that William, Duke of Normandy, had landed on the south coast of England. Harold gathered his army and marched them over 200 miles to face the new invasion.

Harold's army was depleted by the battle against the Norwegian invaders. Estimates vary, but it is thought the two armies were roughly equally matched in numbers – around 10000 each. William's army was fresher and contained more cavalry.

The Battle of Hastings took place on 14th October 1066 and lasted nine hours. Harold gathered his force in a strong defensive position at the top of a steep slope. For many hours William's attacks were repulsed. For reasons that are unclear, the Normans then began to retreat, and the English broke ranks to pursue them. But William steadied his men and began a counterattack. The English fought on but, later in the afternoon, King Harold was killed, possibly by an arrow in the eye. A few of the most loyal English troops fought on to the end, but most fled the field. William was victorious.

The English fought hard, but William won through superior tactics and fresher troops. Perhaps 2000 Normans and 4000 English died at the Battle of Hastings.

Needing to consolidate his victory, William sent a force to secure the Royal Treasury at Winchester while he marched on London and fought a number of smaller engagements until he was able to subdue the city. He was crowned King of England on 25th December 1066 at Westminster Abbey.

Still, England was not securely Norman, and there were several English revolts over the next 10 years. William employed scorched earth tactics to destroy an uprising in the north of England in 1070, which lead to widespread starvation. This has been called the Harrying of the North, and up to 100,000 people died or migrated to other parts.

William also experienced problems in Normandy in the late 1070s. This further encouraged trouble in England. King Malcolm of the Scots invaded northern England in 1079 but was repulsed in 1080.

William the Conqueror left England in 1086 to campaign against the French king. He died in France in 1087.

England was conquered and completely controlled by the Normans, but William's descendants would not have it easy, as we shall see.

Thank you for listening to this lesson. In our next lesson, we review the reign of the successors of William the conqueror.

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Written by

Ross Maynard