This Day in History
On September 28, 1066, claiming his right to the English throne, William, Duke of Normandy, invaded England at Pevensey on Britain’s southeast coast. His subsequent defeat of King Harold II at the Battle of Hastings marked the beginning of a new era in British history.
William was the illegitimate son of Robert I, Duke of Normandy, by his concubine Arlette, a tanner’s daughter from the town of Falaise. The Duke, who had no other sons, designated William his heir, and with his death in 1035 William became Duke of Normandy at age seven.
Rebellions were epidemic during the early years of his reign, and on several occasions, the young duke narrowly escaped death. Many of his advisers did not. By the time he was 20, William had become an able ruler and was backed by King Henry I of France. Henry later turned against him, but William survived the opposition and in 1063 expanded the borders of his duchy into the region of Maine.
In 1051, William is believed to have visited England and met with his cousin Edward the Confessor, the childless English king. According to Norman historians, Edward promised to make William his heir. On his deathbed, however, Edward granted the kingdom to Harold Godwinson, head of the leading noble family in England and more powerful than the king himself.
In January 1066, King Edward died, and Harold Godwinson was proclaimed King Harold II. William immediately disputed his claim. Pope Alexander II recognized William’s claim, issued a Papal Bull to that effect, and gave William his (Gonfalon – right) flag to carry into battle. In effect, it threatened ex-communication to all who fought against him.
In addition, King Harald III Hardraade of Norway had designs on England, as did Tostig, brother of Harold. King Harold rallied his forces for an expected invasion by William, but Tostig launched a series of raids instead, forcing the king to leave the English Channel unprotected. In September, Tostig joined forces with King Harald III and invaded England from Scotland. On September 25, Harold met them at Stamford Bridge and defeated and killed them both. Three days later, William landed in England at Pevensey.
With approximately 7,000 troops and cavalry, William seized Pevensey and marched to Hastings, where he paused to organize his forces. On October 13, Harold arrived near Hastings with his army, and the next day William led his forces out to give battle. At the end of a bloody, all-day battle, King Harold II was killed—shot in the eye with an arrow, according to legend—and his forces were defeated.
William then marched on London and received the city’s submission. On Christmas Day, 1066, William the Conqueror was crowned the first Norman king of England, in Westminster Abbey, and the Anglo-Saxon phase of English history came to an end. French became the language of the king’s court and gradually blended with the Anglo-Saxon tongue to give birth to modern English. William I proved an effective king of England, and the “Domesday Book,” a great census of the lands and people of England, was among his notable achievements. Upon the death of William I in 1087, his son, William Rufus, became William II, the second Norman king of England.
Didn’t the Normans pretend a rout? Sneaky, those Frenchies. Winning via trickery!
One of the many calvary tactics the Norman used was the Charge, fake a retreat, whip around and wipe out any who moved out of formation. At Hastings, it was the militia, called the Fyrd, who jumped after the Normans, while the ‘professional’ soldiers and Harold’s Huscarls stayed in place.
Then again, supposedly, Harold Godwinson (hwack, sptooie) supposedly swore to William, Duke of Normandy, that he (Harold) would support William’s claim to the throne. Over saints’ bones. And Harold was a Godwinson, which, well, were the Anglo-Saxon Kennedys.
The Huscarls were very good heavy infantry. If Harold had cavalry that were of the same cavalry who could have raided William’s rear, it would have caused him to hold his cavalry back. Many things could have changed the outcome of the battle.
The claim to the throne that Edward the Confessor said William had was one of blood. A Norman princess was married to a king of England, before the Norse-controlled Anglo-Saxons forced out the queen and replaced her with an Anglo-Saxon princess. The ex-queen fled to Normandy, and there were ties to the Duke of Normandy. Thus William had ‘blood ties’ to the throne of England.
As stated above, supposedly Harold swore to support William’s claim to the throne. But Harold’s father, Godwin, a feckless jerk of immense self-importance (kind of a Joe Kennedy person) controlled the rest of the Anglo-Saxon leaders and got Harold the throne over Edward’s wishes.
Poor Edward. What a… loser. He was useless as a king, allowing lesser people to push him over. Kind of the Joe Biden of English Royalty. Dumb puppet king.
And Harold, well, he won at Stamford Bridge by faking a peace treaty and attacking the Norse when they were expecting to parlay. As Chuck on “Last Man Standing” would say, “Not Cool.”
William’s death was due to racking and rupturing himself on the front of his saddle due to his horse stepping in a pothole while he was putting down a local insurrection.
William’s bride, Matilda of Flanders, gave him 10 children who survived to adulthood. And she was 4’2″ while William was between 5’8″ (what modern forensic archeologists say) to 6’4ish (according to accounts of the time. Since he was said to tower over the average well-fed aristocrat, I’d say he was taller than 5’8 which was average for well-fed aristocrats.) And the two were not a marriage of convenience, they actually reportedly were sickenly in love with each other.
i always celebrate Invasion Day and Hastings Day. But then again, I’m weird.
Rock on, Beans.
That period of history has always been very interesting to me as well.
Well, at least now I understand it a little better.
Beans is an excellent source of information on this period. He knows his stuff.
Thank you. I am really surprised nobody’s ever done a good historical mini-series on 1066 just by itself. So many interesting backstories and shenanigans and dirty-handed deals and chaos and love and humor and death and, oh, it was the very definition of ‘Exciting Times.’
Like, Edward had banished the Godwin clan, even Harold, from court early in the 1060’s for just being complete festering a-holes. But by late 1065 the Godwin clan was back in power and waiting for Edward to kick the bucket.
I’d love to be a billionaire so I could fund a good production, with correct armor and clothing and hairstyles and saddles and the whole bit. Show it all. Do it right. Do it so right even the authenticity Nazis shut the hell up. (ANs are the ones, in the reenactment world, who don’t allow a piece of uniform or equipment that was issued one month after a chosen battle date being reenacted to be on the field. Seriously. Buttons. Style of collar tabs. Rifle slings. Mess kits. Socks… friggin SOCKS. Freaks…)
The consolidation of England under one ruler really dates to William. Edward, and previous kings, were ‘elected’ by the nobility and served somewhat at their (the nobles) will. England, pre-Conquest, was a tad bit rough, full of outlaws and squabbling nobles (who did outlawish stuff.) After William took over, it was said that even the worst Anglo-Saxon noble said it was safe to walk from one side of the kingdom to the other and not have to fear being robbed, especially being robbed by other nobles.
It would have lasted a longer time if Richard hadn’t been such a dick and screwed up everything (that would be Richard the Lionhearted, who only saw England as a cash cow for his ventures in France and the Middle East.) John Lackland gets a lot of shit for trying to keep and finance the kingdom after Richard stole all the money.
It was an interesting time. And William was really a force of nature. On the run at the age of 16, anyone who sided with him getting killed right and left, he assembled an army that smashed the warring Normans, cementing his right to the Dukedom. And then the French king turned on him and he smashed the Frogs hard. All before 20 years old.
Really the whole story of Normandy and the Normans is straight out of bad fiction. A tall Norse guy, so tall his nickname was ‘Granger’ or walker because his feet dragged when he rode Norse horses, gets invited by the French king to, instead of invading (which Rollo had already done) and sacking Paris again, instead to become a great vassal of France and, oh, here’s the land that will become Normandy and it’s yours (all you have to do is subdue the rascally and insubordinate locals of said area, who really hate the French King.) And, you have to kiss my foot. Which Rollo/Rolf did by supposedly picking Charles the Simple up by his foot and kissing it, rather than bending over like he was supposed to. All happened in 911. By 915, Normandy was shipping huge amounts of food and stuff to the French King, as a good subject should.
The first real renaissance after the ‘dark ages’ in Europe was the Norman Renaissance, as Norman clergy really brought out the Romanesque style of architecture. And Norman clergy and academics really brought out a less dark and harsh version of Christianity.
Then there’s the Norman takeover of Sicily and Mid-Italy, the formation of the Kingdom of Antioch and of Jerusalem, the only reason the 1st Crusade succeeded was due to Normans and on and on and on.
Fascinating people. Fascinating times.
The Normans were remarkable, charged about all over the place…
They established a lasting legacy – Viking stock, as is the case with most in the British Isles.
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