Alternate history: what if William the Conqueror had lost at Hastings?

There would be no Domesday Book or Bayeux Tapestry, but what else? Jonny Wilkes talks to historian Marc Morris about an England in which 1066 was not one of its most famous years

The battle of Hastings was fought on 14 October 1066. Had Harold survived it, William might have found his position untenable because of straightforward logistics, says historian Marc Morris

Each month BBC History Revealed asks a historical expert for their take on what might have happened if a key moment in the past had turned out differently. This time, Jonny Wilkes talks to Marc Morris about what England might have been like had Harold Godwinson triumped over William of Normandy at the battle of Hastings…

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So much hinged on the battle of Hastings on 14 October 1066. Victory for William, duke of Normandy, ushered in the Norman Conquest and huge political, administrative, cultural, religious and social changes. It established a new royal dynasty and aristocracy. It signalled the end of the Viking Age. It restructured both government and church. It saw England bind itself more closely to Europe. It led to the Bayeux Tapestry and Domesday Book, and made 1066 the most famous date in English history.

All of that may never have happened, though, had Harold Godwinson, crowned in January 1066, bested William. Instead, Harold would have been the king who fought off two invasions in his first year. Harold had crushed the King of Norway, Harald Hardrada, at the battle of Stamford Bridge, in September 1066. “Had he gone on to defeat the Norman invasion, too, his reputation as a great warrior would have been truly legendary,” says Marc Morris, historian and author of The Norman Conquest and William I: England’s Conqueror. “He would be remembered as one of the greatest of English warrior kings, up there with Æthelstan and Henry V.”

There were three pivotal moments that could have swung things for Harold. The first was that while, in May, he had been ready for William, stationing his army and fleet along the south coast, the invasion was delayed until late September. Had William sailed when intended, Harold would have been waiting, according to Morris. “The ease with which William landed at Pevensey and established his base camp at Hastings would have been denied to him. With an English fleet to oppose them, his ships might not have even made it to shore.”

At the same time, Harold was contending with Harald Hardrada, along with his own brother Tostig, in the north. The king of Norway first defeated the English led by Earls Edwin and Morcar at the battle of Fulford on 20 September, before Harold himself met his forces at Stamford Bridge. This is the second moment, for if the northern earls had emerged victorious at Fulford, Harold would have halted his advance and headed back south to prepare for the Norman invasion. This would have given him more time and many more experienced fighters.

The final moment, of course, was Hastings itself, which could well have gone Harold’s way. His shield wall held the higher ground on Senlac Hill and withstood the Norman infantry, cavalry and archers for the whole day. William’s men even began to flee when they thought he had been killed, causing him to take off his helmet, show his face and rally his attack. “The fact that the battle went on from around 9am to sunset indicates that the two sides were quite evenly matched,” says Morris.

“The thing is, Harold didn’t really need a decisive victory, or necessarily even to kill William. Had darkness descended with no outright winner, William would have been in a difficult position with nowhere to retreat except his camp. All Harold had to do was not die, keep William penned in, and wait for him to get into logistical difficulties,” claims Morris. “Had he been more cautious, Harold might easily have lived out the day and continued to wear his crown for many years to come.”

In context: why did the battle of Hastings happen?

When Edward the Confessor died without a child in early 1066, the most powerful noble in the country, Harold Godwinson, was crowned, having said the dying king of England had granted him the throne on his deathbed. But William, duke of Normandy and distant relative of Edward’s, declared that

he had been made the heir in 1051, and started planning an invasion to assert his claim.

William landed his Norman force in September and made camp near Hastings, just as Harold was quashing another invasion by Harald Hardrada, king of Norway, and was forced to race south. On 14 October, William defeated Harold at the battle of Hastings and the Norman Conquest began.

It would bring about monumental changes: replacing the aristocracy with Normans and the language with French; restructuring land ownership, the church and feudalism; introducing Romanesque architecture, chivalry and castles; and advancing England as an international power.

By ending two invasions from Norway and Normandy within a matter of weeks, Harold would have been “virtually unassailable”, says Morris. “God would have been demonstrably on his side.” He wouldn’t have had to secure his throne: he was already crowned, as Harold II, and had dealt with opposition in England the previous year. He would also have been in a strong position dynastically as he had two sons by his first marriage nearing adulthood, and his new queen was pregnant. There would be good reason to believe his line would carry on after him.

As for William, his death would have caused a “great deal of turbulence” regarding the duchy of Normandy, says Morris. “His eldest son, Robert, was no more than 15 – possibly old enough to take personal charge without a regency, but lacking experience to govern.”

William had struggled for decades to consolidate his rule and any future duke would have faced the same aggression, potentially damaging Normandy’s influence in the long term.

“Here’s the rub: I don’t think England would be greatly different today had Hastings gone the other way,” says Morris. “If you look at what the Conquest changed in the short to medium term – the introduction of castles, Romanesque architecture, chivalry and the abolition of slavery, which was still widely practised in England – all those changes would have happened eventually. The Conquest simply meant they happened very quickly and aggressively.”

That is not to say there wouldn’t have been any lasting impact. There would be no Bayeux Tapestry, no Domesday Book and no sudden shift in English history. Would that mean the names of the kings that came before 1066 would be better known today? Perhaps. “The major change was language,” concludes Morris. “The wholesale replacement of an English ruling elite with a new aristocracy drawn from northern France meant that for the next 200 years or so, French was the language of power.”

“French loanwords entered the English language, and it evolved in ways that would otherwise not have been the case. The variety, complexity and illogicality of modern English is a direct and lasting result of the Norman victory at Hastings.”

Illustration of Alexander the Great marching to war (Illustration by Sue Gent_
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This content first appeared in the April 2021 issue of BBC History Revealed