The Confessor’s death brings chaos

5 January 1066

The most tumultuous year in the history of England began with the death of the old regime. On 5 January 1066 Edward the Confessor – a direct descendant of Alfred the Great (died 899), whose family had forged the kingdom of England in the 10th century – died heirless at the age of 62 after a 24-year reign. He was buried the following day in the church of St Peter’s, Westminster, built by his order on the banks of the Thames, and which had been consecrated only the week before.

Edward’s death opened the doors to chaos, with two major claimants vying for the English throne. The first, Harold Godwinson, was Earl of Wessex, brother of Edward’s wife, Edith, and the wealthiest man in England after the king. The other was William, Duke of Normandy, Edward’s cousin through his mother and one of the most formidable warriors in northern Europe. Both sides claimed that the late king had promised them the throne. Both may have been telling the truth – or both may have been lying.

Kings of England could not just promise the crown to whomsoever they pleased. Since the early ninth century, royal power had customarily passed from father first to the elder sons and then to the younger ones. There was one true-born successor to Edward’s title. He was Edgar Ætheling – the grandson of Edward’s half brother, Edmund Ironside. But circumstances were about to conspire against him.

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Harold’s power proves decisive

6 January 1066

Edgar Ætheling was perhaps 14 years old when Edward the Confessor died. Young though this was, some previous kings had been younger. So it may be that the crowning of Earl Harold on 6 January, the day of Edward’s funeral, was nothing less than the successful completion of a coup d’état.

Wealthy, talented and well connected, Harold was perfectly positioned for a leading role in public life, and the death of the childless Edward placed the English nobility in a difficult position

The man who was now king had spent his life in close proximity to the throne. Harold’s father, Godwin, Earl of Wessex, had apparently grown powerful while Cnut of Denmark was king of England (1016–35), acquiring an earldom and many plum (formerly royal) manors. After Edward the Confessor succeeded in 1042, Godwin’s power grew further. As the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reports, Godwin was “exalted so high, even to the point of ruling the king and all England, and his sons were earls and the king’s favourites and his daughter was married to the king”. This, then, was the uniquely glittering family into which Harold was born and which, after Godwin’s death in 1053, he was to lead.

In the early 1060s Harold proved himself an able general, repeatedly defeating the forces of the Welsh king Gruffydd ap Llywelyn until the latter was assassinated and his head sent to Harold. Harold was well travelled, having visited Rome, Flanders, Germany and Normandy where, according to later Norman historians, he is said to have fought valiantly in a campaign against the Bretons and pledged to support William’s claim to the English throne.

Wealthy, talented and well connected, Harold was perfectly positioned for a leading role in public life, and the death of the childless Edward placed the English nobility in a difficult position. Should they accept the claims of a foreign duke, who would certainly bring his own men to England? Look to the boy Edgar? Or crown one of the most powerful men in England – perhaps one of the few who had actually fought a battle (there had been very few engagements involving the English since 1016)? It may have seemed that there was really no choice to be made.

Hardrada unleashes his great Viking army

c10 September 1066

As well as Harold and William, there was a third man contesting the kingdom of England – one famous across Europe for his military prowess. Harald Hardrada, king of Norway, had cut his teeth captaining the Byzantine emperor’s Varangian Guard (a special division of Russians and Vikings) and had amassed huge wealth and a reputation for violence. On returning home he captured and consolidated the Norwegian kingdom, and pursued a claim against Denmark. Harald reasoned that, as the heir to previous Danish kings, he also had a right to the English throne – though Scandinavian claims to England had, for the previous 200 years, been derived more from might than right.

Harald’s fleet of perhaps 300 ships (according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle) sailed first to Shetland and Orkney where they garnered reinforcements before reaching the mouth of the Tyne around 10 September. There he was met by Tostig, Harold Godwinson’s errant younger brother, who joined forces with him. Tostig had been evicted from his earldom of Northumbria the previous year, since when he had been looking for ways to cause trouble. In the summer he had raided the Isle of Wight, Kent and Lincolnshire before being chased into Scotland. Indeed, he may have incited Hardrada to invade England in order to oust his rival sibling. So it was that, as autumn began, at the mouth of the Tyne, the last great Viking assault on England got under way.

First blood to the Vikings

20 September 1066

The forgotten battle of 1066 at Fulford, near York, saw Harald Hardrada’s forces engage and defeat the Anglo-Saxon armies of Mercia and Northumbria. Precious little is known about Fulford and, consequently, its importance has often been downplayed, but it is likely to have played a huge role in the year’s events. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, “Earl Edwin [of Mercia] and Earl Morcar [of Northumbria] assembled from their earldom as large a force as they could muster, and fought against the invaders and caused them heavy casualties and many of the English host were killed, and drowned and put to flight, and the Norwegians remained masters of the field.”

If the Anglo-Saxon levies of the Midlands and the north were routed, it meant that the force subsequently available to King Harold was much smaller than it might otherwise have been. But as Harald Hardrada’s army is unlikely to have escaped unscathed, his ultimate fate may have been determined by the losses he sustained at Fulford.

Hardrada is cut down

25 September 1066

Less than a week after the battle of Fulford, King Harold caught Harald and Tostig off guard at Stamford Bridge, Yorkshire. Later storytellers claimed that before the battle a horseman from Harold approached the Norwegian lines to offer Tostig: “peace and the whole of Northumbria” if he would leave Hardrada and join him. “And what,” Tostig asked, “will he offer King Harald?” “Seven feet of English soil,” came the reply.

The only vaguely detailed account of the fighting we have comes from the legendary Hardrada’s Saga, written in the 13th century, which states that there were three phases to the battle. First, the English cavalry circled the Norwegian spearmen, charging them and being driven off, until Hardrada led his men into the fray, fighting in a rage before he was shot through the windpipe with an arrow, after which Tostig took up the Norwegian royal banner. There was a pause in the fighting as Harold again offered his brother peace – and again it was declined.

Finally, Hardrada’s brother-in-law, Eystein Orre, reinforced the Norwegian army and rallied them – an engagement remembered as ‘Orre’s Storm’ – before they were cut down. By night, “numberless men with them both Norwegians and English” had perished. Harold’s English army had succeeded in ending the career of one of Europe’s most formidable opponents – though perhaps at fatal cost to Harold’s own forces.

Harold marches to his doom

14 October 1066

William of Normandy landed at Pevensey in Sussex on 28 September, just three days after Harold’s victory over Hardrada in the north. William appears to have chosen a base from which he could cause terrible harm to some of Harold’s own estates, thereby luring the king into combat. For his part, Harold seems to have made a terrible error in force-marching his recently bloodied troops south to fight another battle; perhaps, having defeated Hardrada, overconfidence got the better of him.

A number of extraordinary stories surround the battle of Hastings (actually fought at nearby Senlac Hill) in early accounts, most notably that of the duke’s chaplain, William of Poitiers, written around 1077. We’re told that, to counter rumours of his death during the battle, Duke William rode along his frontline with his helmet up to reassure his troops. It’s also been claimed that the Norman forces tricked the English into charging down from their strategic hilltop position by feigning retreat before turning and charging them. Then there’s the belief that Harold was felled by an arrow in his eye.

It would be wonderful to know that such stories were true. But, as Dr George Garnett has pointed out, many of the supposed details of the battle are actually taken from Julius Caesar’s accounts of his campaigns (particularly the invasion of Britain) and Vegetius’s famous ancient manual on warfare, De
Militari. William of Poitiers had dramatised his master’s victory – so much so that we cannot now tell how much is fiction and how much fact.

An earlier – albeit considerably shorter – account, written by William of Jumièges around 1071, is almost entirely different. According to this version of events, Harold rode all night, reaching the battlefield early in the morning. “At first light, having disposed his troops in three lines of battle, [William] advanced undaunted against the terrible enemy. The battle began at the third hour of day, and continued amid a welter of carnage and slaughter until nightfall. Harold himself, fighting amid the front rank of his army, fell covered with deadly wounds. And the English, seeing their king dead, lost confidence in their own safety, and as night was approaching they turned and fled.”

Whatever the precise details, the basic facts remain: Harold was killed and the Normans won. The monks of Waltham, Harold’s family abbey, later said that Harold’s body was so disfigured that his mistress, Edith Swannesha (‘gentle swan’), was asked to identify it by “certain marks, known only to her”. In penance William later built Battle Abbey on Senlac Hill, its high altar supposedly erected on the spot where Harold died.

Desperate English leaders turn to Edgar Ætheling

Late 1066

The man – or, rather, boy – who should have inherited from Edward the Confessor was Edgar Ætheling (‘royal prince’). He was the grandson of Edmund II, known as ‘Ironside’, who had briefly inherited the kingdom from Æthelred the Unready. After Ironside was finally defeated by the Danish king Cnut in 1016, his son Edward Ætheling fled to Hungary in an attempt to evade capture by Cnut’s allies, and Edgar was probably born there. Edward returned to England in 1057 but died almost immediately.

When Edward the Confessor died, Ætheling’s claim to the throne was trumped by Harold’s greater number of supporters, his large swathes of land and his vast wealth. However, in late 1066, with Harold dead, some thought Edgar their best bet.

On an unknown date after Hastings, archbishop Ealdred of York and the citizens of London chose him to be king “as was his proper due by birth”, as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle put it. The earls of Mercia and Northumbria, Edwin and Morcar, “promised that they would fight on his side,” said the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, “but always the more it ought to have been forward the more it got behind”. Without the full support of these key nobles it was only a matter of time before Edgar would have to submit to the Conqueror. He did so at Berkhamsted in December 1066.

William’s triumph is complete

25 December

With all other claimants now truly defeated, William entered London in triumph. He was crowned in Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day – the date, no doubt, chosen to echo the imperial coronation of Charlemagne in Rome in 800. The service emphasised that William was Edward the Confessor’s designated and rightful heir – as was his claim and wish. Legend has it that the day did not run smoothly. During the crowning ceremony the congregation was required to shout their acclamation of the new king – a noise reputedly taken by the Norman guards outside the abbey to indicate foul play within, leading them to burn local houses. William’s reign had started as it would continue – with brutality.

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Alex Burghart is a historian specialising in the Anglo-Saxon period. He previously lectured at King’s College London. BBC Two's series 1066: A Year to Conquer England begins on 28 February 2017


This article was first published in the November 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine