Why is it that the English language is a hybrid of French, Latin, Germanic, and other languages? Why is it that, throughout history, the English and the French warred with each other so much? Why is it that Robin Hood stole from the rich and gave to the poor? All these questions have to do with English culture, but they also have one more thing in common: They are the result of the year 1066, the year of the “Norman Conquest of England,” as it is called by historians. The Middle Ages were a time of learning, worshiping, and kingdom-building. Around the 9th and 10th centuries, European powers as we know them today slowly began to emerge, often in small, unorganized towns and villages, becoming stronger as their ambitious rulers expanded their territories and claimed new land through wars. Before the 11th century, England and France were hardly recognizable. It was only until the Norman Conquest of England that not only the English, but the French too, managed to become independent powers with their own customs and traditions. Students hardly hear about what happened in 1066; and those who do, probably have a cursory understanding of it. However, the events that transpired in that momentous year had tremendous effects on Britain, on France, and on history. Today’s blog will explore the historical circumstances that produced the Conquest, the Conquest itself, and its aftermath.
Before jumping straight into the Norman Conquest, it is important that we first look at the state of the world at the time, around the fall of the Roman Empire to the blooming of the Middle Ages. What was England, and how did it come to be? An isolated island with nice, fertile land, England was originally inhabited by the Britons, who were also known as the Celts, who were attacked and defeated early in the 1st century A.D. by the Roman Empire. The Romans had an extensive empire, and they were constantly on the lookout for new land to conquer; England was just off the coast of France, which had been previously occupied by the Gauls, another sect of the Celts, on whom Cæsar famously waged war. After several expeditions, England was conquered, named “Britannia,” and settled. At its heart was the city of Londinium, later to become London, the capital of England. All was fine at this point—that is, until the 476 A.D., when a series of barbarian attacks carried out by various Germanic tribes in Europe brought down the glorious Roman civilization, putting an end to its over-a-millennium-old history, decentralizing Europe, resulting in the fragmentation of the Empire into different kingdoms, each of which was ruled by a German tribe, such as the Franks in France. A group of these German tribes—the Angles, Saxons, and, less importantly, Jutes—came to Britannia to create their own kingdom. Between 400 and 600 A.D., the Angles and Saxons, or collectively Anglo-Saxons, colonized the island. Westerners referred to it as Angeland. As you might guess, this is from where we get the name England. The realms of Angleland were named after the Saxons. From them, we get Sussex, Wessex, and Essex, thought to be a combination of Saxon and the cardinal direction from which it was derived; in other words, Sussex is thought to be South-Saxon, and Wessex West-Saxon, and likewise for Essex. Over the course of the next few centuries, these realms were formed and molded into independent kingdoms. While such ones as Sussex, Essex, and Kent existed, they did not play so big a role; instead, the four most important kingdoms at the time, which shaped much of politics, were Northumbria, Wessex, East Anglia, and Mercia.
Given this general background, we can now look at the more immediate events leading up to the Conquest. Edward “the Confessor” (1003-66) was the King of England before the Conquest. Raised in Normandy as a child, taught to speak French, he came to the crown more loyal to the place of his rearing than his birthplace; upon ascending to the throne, Edward favored the Normans over the English. He imposed Norman traditions on the English; he appointed to the most important and prestigious religious and political positions the Norman nobles; he favored his Norman subjects more than his English ones; and he opted to build with the Norman style, constructing the illustrious Westminster Abbey in 1055, with its many vaulted arches and spires. Of course, none of the English liked this, and they despised their King. Despite being English in blood and in name, he was truly a Norman at the core. This man was not fit to be King of England; no, he was a foreigner with a crown, in the eyes of the Anglo-Saxons. This led to bitterness among the nobles. One such man was Godwin, the Earl of Wessex, the most powerful man in all of England, even more powerful than the King himself, for he was a crafty leader and had strong allies. His daughter married King Edward; his son married into the Kingdom of Flanders; and his nephew happened to be the King of Denmark. As such, Godwin was not a man to be trifled with. Principled, prideful, and conscientious, he opposed Edward’s Norman reforms, and actively protested them. With his power, he was able to alter the political climate of England, as if it were a game of chess, carefully navigating his pieces around, influencing the nobles, casting doubt on the King’s decisions, acting as an advisor to the King while trying to dissuade him from causing any more damage. One day, however, a scuffle went down between an Englishman under Godwin’s rule and a Norman who was a friend of King Edward. Godwin was forced into a tough position, pressured by the King to carry out a fitting punishment on his subject for starting the brawl and killing the Norman. This Godwin refused to do; no longer would he put the Normans before the English, his countrymen, his brothers, so he was exiled, along with his son, Harold Godwinson, who shared in his father’s resentment. The King dealt with the problem himself, to the gain of his Noble friends, which angered the English nobility. Now, at this point, the Normans having gained more land and money, the English nobles sent for Godwin, promising their armies and their allegiances to him, asking that he come back, depose the falsely English King, and restore the greatness of England. So, raising an army, Godwin and his son returned to England while under exile, joined now by the armies of the nobles, so that they had a substantial force, with which they ravaged much of Northern Europe, tearing apart villages, soundly defeating the King’s forces. Edward conceded his loss and gave Godwin back his earldom over Wessex. Shortly after that, though, Godwin died. His son, Harold, became Earl of Wessex, and his other son, Tostig Godwinson, became Earl of Northumbria. Such were the immediate circumstances of England prior to the Norman Conquest.
Now we must ask: Who were the Normans, and what business had they invading England? The Normans were a collective of different Germanic tribes who lived in the Nordic Countries, or Scandinavia, which consists of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark. These days, we would refer to them informally and loosely as “Vikings”—indeed, those rugged, violent, barbaric seafarers and warriors who raided the coasts in their small, maneuverable ships. Now, it would be naïve to say the Normans were French, because that is not the case: The Normans were not French, but, we have said, Nordic. How is it, then, that Normandy, land of the Normans, was located in France, and why is it we associate the Normans with France? Simply, the Normans, being Vikings, raided the French coast, and to stop these raids, the Franks gave them land to keep, land that would end up becoming Normandy, located in Northern France, right below England. Not only did the Normans own land in France, but they adopted the French language. For this reason, also, we associate the two—the two cultures, though separate, were practically indivisible, to the extent that the Normans borrowed their culture from the French—”cultural appropriation.” Another wrong assumption is that the Normans and English were total opposites, like the Minoans and Mycenæans of Ancient Greece, the Normans being warlike and uncivil, the English peaceful and civil. In fact, Normandy and England were very similar in terms of their cultures; it was only until the introduction of Christianity to England that the two drifted in separate directions. But our cultural stereotypes are not wholly wrong, either, as the Normans and Vikings were notorious for their raids on England from the mid to late 800’s, or the 9th century, their victims usually rich Christian monasteries. The main star of Normandy to whom we must give our attention is a man named William, Duke of Normandy. Born the illegitimate son of Robert I of Normandy, William was given the epithet “the Bastard.” Robert left the throne abruptly, leaving his son to lead the kingdom at a very young age—seven—when he was thought unfit by most; as a result, the Normans did not initially like William, calling him by his then-known title William “the Bastard.” Like many other successful rulers, such as Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, William earned his right to keep the crown. He proved to be strong, firm, and inflexible. His iron will impressed the people, and he came to be respected by them. William, Duke of Normandy, emerged triumphant amidst the chaos that was Normandy, and with this newly earned respect and power, he would do great things. Yet another misconception is that, because England and France had so many feuds, they must have hated each other from the beginning. Rather, Normandy and England had always been on good terms, notwithstanding the raids from the North. Their leaders often intermarried, and both countries had safe-havens for each other. As fate would have it, these good ties, blessings, we say, might actually have been curses in disguise—it was their good relationship which would fate them to one of the greatest Conquests in European history.
In 1066, Edward died. Having had no children, Edward nominated Harold (surprisingly, considering Harold fought against him). On January 6, the Witenagemot, or Witan, an early assembly that functioned like Parliament, elected Harold King of England. William heard of this and was outraged, because he had been betrayed. In 1051, William said, Edward himself promised William the latter would get the throne after him. To add onto that, William was Edward’s first cousin, once removed, whereas Harold was not related to Edward whatsoever. To William, it was clear he was the rightful King. Secondly, two years earlier, in 1064, Harold’s ship was wrecked in Normandy, and he, seeking safety in the duchy, went to William, to whom he swore his allegiance, saying he would serve under him. Even though Harold confirmed this story, neither Edward’s nor Harold’s word was valid, the Witan declared, since they had not been present when it was made; seeing as there were no other witnesses, neither really happened, so Harold was the King, not William. Determined to get the crown, William knew he had to take it by force. He did so with the support of the Pope.
During Edward’s reign, there was a Norman archbishop who was absent, so Godwin, using Edward as a puppet, installed an Englishman, Stigand, as the new archbishop; however, Leo IX stated that this was not allowed, considering the Norman archbishop could not be replaced if he was not dead. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Godwin did not heed this, but still got Stigand into power. In response, Pope Leo IX excommunicated Harold. The next Pope, Alexander II, under the supervision of Hildebrand, later Gregory VII, gave William his blessing. An old time friend of William, Lanfranc, joined William’s side, calling for a holy war on the Harold, the excommunicated English King—in effect, calling a crusade. If things were not intense enough, however, a third variable came into play: Harold’s brother Tostig.
After Tostig became Earl of Northumbria, his kingdom revolted in 1065, and Tostig was exiled. Like William, when Tostig heard the news of his brother’s coronation, he grew jealous and sought out a way of getting back into power. Exiled in Norway, he befriended the Norwegian King Harald Hardrada, with the help of whose Viking army he would invade English. In return for his help, Hardrada, Tostig promised, would be crowned King of England.
Accordingly, Harold was put in a precarious position, a true dilemma: To the north was Harald Hardrada and Tostig Godwinson, and to the south was William of Normandy. Although both poses a great danger, William the stronger of the two. Because of bad winds, William was delayed; so the Vikings led their attack first, landing at York in September, where the first battle was fought, the Battle of Fulford. On September 20, Tostig and Hardrada defeated the English, killing the Earls of Northumbria and Mercia. As promised, Hardrada was crowned King of England. Three days later, the message of the Viking attack reached King Harold, who, hearing the news, surprised by this attack, and not expecting William any time soon, decided to take back his land from the invaders. He and his army covered 200 miles in under a week. Reaching Stamford on September 25, the Royal Army, numbering around 10,000, faced off against the Norwegian interlopers, around 5,000 of them. Harold commenced the attack, but he was quickly rebuffed when his brother and the Norwegian King launched a counter-attack, although it was no use; for during the battle, Harald Hardrada took an arrow to the throat, killing him, leaving Tostig isolated, Tostig, who refused to back down, who would not compromise with his brother, ultimately ending in his death. Viking reinforcement arrived, but it was too late. By the time the battle ended, with the Anglo-Saxons victorious, only 24 of the 300 Viking ships that had come returned to Norway (so only 8% survived, while 92% were slaughtered!). This victory was not to last long, however, for a storm was brewing in the south, literally and proverbially.
Harold, when he left the south in order to attack the Vikings, decided William was not going to attack, so he pulled all of his troops out, leaving the coast entirely unprotected. Furthermore, the harvest season was going on, so much of the English army left to tend to their farms. This was a poor decision on Harold’s part, although it is hard to blame him, in truth, because what else could he have done? There was an immediate threat in the north, as opposed to a possibly imminent, albeit more dangerous, one in the south. Forced to act quickly, he went for the immediate threat, not counting on the latter. Unfortunately for him, as soon as he left, the weather in Normandy turned good, allowing William and his army to sail to England without obstacles. Departing on September 28, with either 700 or 1,400 ships—as with most historical events, the details are shoddy and conflicting—and on them 7-15,000 men and 2,000 horses, William, Duke of Normandy, left his homeland to conquer what he thought was his, rightfully, and with the assent of the papacy. He landed in Pevensey Bay, located in East Sussex, almost directly opposite of York, where Hardrada and Tostig landed. Now, Harold had even more reason to be alarmed: His enemy, whom he did not expect to come, had come, and with a sizeable, prepared army, in contrast to his worn-out, mostly untrained militia, which was composed, for the most part, of farmers; and his enemy had come at a terrible time, when large parts of his force had left for harvest, and after having defeated the Vikings, resulting in a large loss of Anglo-Saxon soldiers.
At first, Harold was reluctant to face off against William, understandably: He had not the forces to fight him. But William did not come to England for nothing; he was not going to sit around and wait for Harold to build up his forces again, so William, fortifying himself near London, had his men construct little castles, from which they could get food and other supplies, while they anticipated Harold’s next move. When it dawned on William that Harold would do no such thing, he decided that he needed to lure the King of England to him. The Duke of Normandy wanted to get it over with and become King himself, which is why he intentionally stayed close to the coast, such that, when he won, he could go back to Normandy. Hence, he would not take the battle to Harold, but what have Harold bring the battle to him. To gain the King’s attention, he and his army went around Southern England, pillaging villages, setting fire to them, wreaking havoc wherever and to whomever. Harold could not handle the stress, and so his forces marched in two days, from October 11 to 13, toward London, than which they would go no farther, to their advantage. Setting themselves up on Senlac Hill, the English forces, tired, anxious, jittery, jaded, awaited their foreign invaders. The next day, October 14, 1066, would become famous in history—the Battle of Hastings.
Arriving with around 7-15,000 men, the Normans would be going against the English, of whom there were 9,000, who were up on the hill, which was 50 feet high, giving them the height advantage over the Normans, who would have to travel across wet swamp marshes and around ravines to reach them. Looking at the English army, it was made up of the Royal Army and the Fyrd, which was the local militia, recruited from the nearby counties, similar to the Minutemen of the American Revolutionary War, all of whom had no experience in battle. In contrast to the Fyrd, the Royal Army stuck around the King and was highly trained, equipped with chainmail armor and double-handed axes that were capable of decapitating horses with a single blow. The Fyrd wielded spears and swords, but they were most apt with shields, which would come in handy. Across from them, the Norman army was more diverse and—clearly—superior. In the front were the archers, and behind them the infantry, behind which were the cavalry, and among them William himself, on his own horse. In addition to his Norman troops, William had on his side the Flemish and the Bretons, another branch of the Celtics. Harold, too, would be in the front lines of his own infantry. Both commanders were skilled and excellent fighters, each of whom had fought and won numerous conflicts. The battle is reminiscent of the American Revolution, but in reverse: The highly trained Norman army versus the rag-tag, weakened Anglo-Saxon army—the victor was apparent before the battle began.
For further reading: The Story of Civilization Vol. 4 by Will Durant (1950)
The Development of Modern English 2nd ed. by Robert Stuartson (1964)
Commanders: History’s Greatest Military Leaders by R.G. Grant (2010)
The Encyclopedia of World History 6th ed. by Peter N. Stearns (2001)
History of the English People Vol. 1 by John Richard Green (1882)
100 Battles That Shaped the World by Parragon (2012)
History of England Vol. 1 by Lord Macaulay (1967)
History of England 4th ed. by W.E. Lunt (1957)
The Battle 100 by Michael Lee Lanning (2009)
Scaling the Centuries by Edwin J. Urch (1939)
Battle: A Visual Journey by R.G. Grant (2005)