Everything you wanted to know about the 1066 Norman invasion and the battle of Hastings – but were afraid to ask

Why did William the Conqueror win the battle of Hastings? Why is the battle called that, when it was fought somewhere else? And how did Harold II really die? In a recent podcast interview with Marc Morris, we went back to basics on the Norman conquest…

A depiction of the Norman army, from the Bayeux Tapestry

What are the most common questions about the Norman conquest? We sat down with leading medieval historian Marc Morris, who has written books on the Norman conquest and William I, to find out more about this pivotal event and its impact on Britain. Tackling questions submitted by our readers, and the top queries posed to the internet, Marc explored everything you ever wanted to know about the 1066 Norman invasion and the famed battle of Hastings…

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Q: Who won the battle of Hastings and why?

A: This is an easy question, because we’re still fairly confident about the answer. We’re still reasonably satisfied that the battle of Hastings in 1066 was won by William, Duke of Normandy – later known as the Conqueror.

Why did he win? The contemporary answer would have been because God favoured him; when you went to battle in the Middle Ages, you were putting your dispute to the judgement of God. Men don’t decide battles; God decides the outcome. So God decided, according to contemporary minds, that William’s claim to the throne of England was the greater one.

In terms of how we would analyse it now, one reason is superior generalship; William held his battle line together while Harold’s line started to break up. One of the principal reasons, of course, is luck. What ultimately decides the battle is that William survived, and Harold died on the battlefield – and with lots of projectile missiles flying around, that could have gone either way. It’s a combination of good generalship, luck and having God decide that your claim is superior.

Q: Who were the Normans and where did they come from? And are Normans and Vikings the same?

The term ‘Norman’ has the same root as the word ‘Norseman’ or ‘Northman’. So, in a sense, they were Vikings. Normandy is the area of Neustria in Francia, the part of Francia which was settled by invaders from Scandinavia from the late ninth/early tenth centuries. But like questions about the Vikings in England, who similarly settled in north-eastern and eastern parts of England, the question boils down to how many came and what impact did they have on the indigenous peoples? Clearly, when the ‘Normans’ arrived in Normandy, they didn’t eradicate or expel all the native population; they settled and married into that population. We can’t recover the numbers of people that did that, there simply isn’t the data.

Yes, the Normans­ – particularly the elite of Normandy – did glory, to some extent, in their Viking past. But they also very quickly took on Frankish and Christian traits. For example, the first ruler (and later duke) of the Normans is Rolf or Rollo, who has a good traditional Scandinavian Viking name. But he calls his son William, William calls his son Richard, Richard calls his son Richard, etc. William, Richard, Robert; these are all Frankish and Christian names.They adopt Christianity and begin founding monasteries by the end of the 10th century.They also start building castles and fighting on horseback, they’re adapting to all these Frankish customs. They are ancestrally Viking, but they are quite different, especially by the time we get to 1066.

Other writers in Francia would denigrate them by saying, ‘Normans, they’re just little better than scrubbed-up Vikings’; there was still a sense among rival Frankish principalities that these were the descendants of barbarians. But the Normans themselves considered themselves very cutting-edge and sophisticated, because they’d taken on all this Frankish culture in the meantime. So,there’s quite a difference between Normans and Norsemen by the time you get to 1066.

A 19th century statue of the first ruler (and later duke) of the Normans, Rollo
A 19th century statue of the first ruler (and later duke) of the Normans, Rollo, in Rouen, France. (Image by Alamy)

 

Q: Why did the Normans invade England? Had Edward the Confessor made a commitment to William, or was William merely being opportunistic when deciding to invade?

The short answer is that, in 1066, the succession of England was disputed. King Edward the Confessor, although he reigned for more than 24 years, famously didn’t produce any children, any sons, so he had a succession problem. This is how he seemed to want to solve it – and I say ‘seemed’ because none of the evidence for this is completely incontrovertible. In 1051, he falls out with his very powerful father-in-law and brothers-in-law, the Godwinsons (or Earl Godwin and his sons, if you prefer) and expels them. Edward was married to Godwin’s daughter, Edith, and the Godwin plan had assumed that Edith would produce children with Edward and there would be lots of little Godwins running around. By a process of marrying into the ancient royal family of Wessex, England, that would have solved the succession. But Edward doesn’t have anything to do with that. Historians will say that perhaps they were just, as a couple, infertile. But a tract commissioned by Edith herself (The Life of King Edward) said that they hadn’t produced any children because Edward hadn’t slept with her.

King Edward the Confessor
From the Bayeux Tapestry. King Edward the Confessor (depicted, right), reigned for more than 24 years but famously didn’t produce any children. (Image by Alamy)

Edward’s preferred solution in 1051 was to invite William [of Normandy] to come to England.The evidence for the visit is very solid, because it’s mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Although no English sources directly discuss Edward having promised the throne to William, there is a version of the Chronicle – the ‘D version’ – that says William came to England in the winter of 1051/2 and talked with Edward about the things they needed to talk about. And Edward received him as a vassal and then he went home again.

There’s definitely contact in that crucial period where the Godwins are expelled, so to answer the question, I think the Norman and the English sources together – and the behaviour of Edward and the Godwins – strongly suggests that Edward did make a promise of the throne to William in 1051/2.

Q: If there had been a promise, why did the king’s council ratify Harold Godwinson’s succession when Edward died?

A: When the Godwins came back in 1052, there was a Godwin revanche [revenge] and they reduced Edward to a rubber stamp at that point – for the last 14 years of his reign, he was little more than a cypher for the Godwins. I think that explains why the Witan – the king’s council – decided to go a different way in 1066, because the Godwins’ power after 1052 had grown inexorably.

The Norman and the English sources – and the behaviour of Edward and the Godwins – strongly suggest that Edward did make a promise of the throne to William in 1051/2

When Earl Godwin died in 1053, the Godwins had one earldom, the earldom of Wessex, which Harold inherited. But by the end of the 1060s, they have four earldoms: all four Godwin brothers (who aren’t either dead or in prison) have an earldom each, and they have this vast, powerful or controlling affinity of friends and supporters. The Archbishop of Canterbury is a supporter; the Archbishop of York by 1060 is a Godwinson man. Who is going to say ‘no’ to the Godwins, when Edward finally shuffles off in 1066, and suggest that the throne goes to a Norman duke? The crown is something the Godwins have been tilting at for 10, 15 years or more, 20 years perhaps. I think that’s why the people around the king in 1066 are not interested in honouring some promise that Edward made when he was free of Godwin control; they’re interested in having the man they want to rule the kingdom.

 

Q: Why is the battle fought by William and Harold called the ‘battle of Hastings’?

A: Well, it’s straightforward. William lands at Pevensey [on the south-east coast of England] on the 27 or 28 September 1066. He only spends a day or so there; he moves immediately east to Hastings where he makes his camp. This is where the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle locates the Normans, at Hastings.

When Harold [Godwinson] marches down to confront him, Harold’s plan, it seems, is to attack the Normans’ camp, to catch them unawares as he had caught other invaders. (The Norwegian king, Harald Hardrada, had been caught off guard by Harold at the battle of Stamford Bridge in September 1066).

But in the case of William, the Norman duke discovers that Harold is on the march and leaves his camp early in the morning of 14 October 1066 and intercepts Harold as he’s approaching – so they ended up fighting at some previously nondescript spot. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle simply says they met at ‘the site of the old apple tree’. But ever since the battle was fought there, of course, it’s been known as Battle, ‘bellum’ in Latin. So,the site of the modern town of Battle is where the battle was fought.

Part of the ruins of the historic Battle Abbey
Part of the ruins of the historic Battle Abbey in East Sussex. Tradition holds that the abbey was built by William the Conqueror to mark the site of the battle. (Image by Getty/RF Getty Images)

Q: Why did Harold Godwinson choose to make a stand so soon after the battle of Stamford Bridge?

A: I don’t know if he had any choice. Harold was in a very difficult position in 1066. He knows about the looming Norman invasion because William makes no secret of it from the start of 1066: by February/March, William has obtained permission from the Pope and is assembling an armada of ships and recruiting men throughout the summer. All this is happening in plain sight on the other side of the channel.

What doesn’t seem to cross Harold’s radar at all is the fact that the Norwegians are planning to do the same. And the Norwegians, being more of a seaborne power in any case, seem to assemble very quickly. Harold has all his manpower, all his ships, concentrated on the south coast. He dismisses them in early September 1066 because, as the Chronicle says, he couldn’t hold them together anymore. And then, within days of having dismissed this huge force, he’s told that the Norwegians have invaded and are menacing York. He has to rush up to Yorkshire to confront them and, as is well known, does spectacularly well. Harold surprises them, and the king of Norway, Harald Hardrada, who was one of the most fearsome warriors of his age, is killed by Harold’s forces. Tostig Godwinson, Harold’s younger brother, falls in the course of the battle.

But within a few days of the battle of Stamford Bridge on 25 September 1066, he learns that the Normans have landed. So however long that news takes to travel from Sussex to Yorkshire, which is about 300 miles – say, three or four days with a swiftest running horse – he realises he has to go down south and do exactly the same again.

Why did he do that? Why didn’t he send someone else? The answer is that you just can’t do that if you’re a king in the Middle Ages. The whole point of Harold as a strong candidate for the kingship in January 1066 is that he’s not a 12-year-old boy with a stronger blood claim; he’s a man in his forties with proven experience, not only in government but in warfare. He’s the man who conquered Wales, so he’s seen to be a strong pair of hands. You can’t send someone else to fight the Normans.

Kings who do that, it tends to affect their reputation very badly. Fifty years before 1066, there was the death of Æthelred the Unready, a king who shirked battle; 150 years after 1066 you have King John who is adept at running away when danger rears its ugly head. You have to lead from the front. It’s inconceivable that Harold would have sent his brothers, Leofwine or Gyrth, to fight the battle. He had to engage William personally, and that’s why the timing and the pace of events is dictated by William’s landing.

Q: How long did the battle of Hastings last?

Specifically, in terms of hours, we don’t know. But one of the chroniclers writes that it’s from the third hour of the day. It’s not from sunrise, we know it’s not because the Normans have to reach the battlefield. They have to march six and a half miles from Hastings to Battle. That’s going to take them two or three hours. So, it can’t start much before nine o’clock in the morning if they leave at sunrise in October.

But we are told by contemporary chroniclers, both William of Poitiers and the ‘Song of the Battle of Hastings’ (the Carmen), that the battle goes on until day was turning into night. We know dusk to be about four or five o’clock in October, so it goes on for eight or nine hours.

Of course, once Harold died,someone didn’t just blow a whistle and they all exchanged shirts and shook hands. The battle continued. It became a rout which we’re told lasted through the night. If you liked, you could say it lasted 24 hours. But if the battle is seen to have been decided when Harold died, then – to pinch a phrase from Monty Python – it was over by about teatime.

Q: How did King Harold die?  

A: The very short answer is we don’t know, or we don’t know for certain.

Then there’s a much longer more complicated answer, which we’ll try and make as short as possible. It’s well known that Harold died with an arrow in the eye, because that’s how he’s depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry. But then once you start to unpick that – as people have been doing for at least 60–70 years now – you can ask whether he is actually the figure under the word ‘Harold’, which seems to show a figure with an arrow in his eye. Or is he another figure a few feet further along the tapestry who is being run down by a Norman on horseback?

Figure thought to be King Harold with an arrow in his eye, from the Bayeux Tapestry
From the Bayeux Tapestry. It’s uncertain whether Harold Godwinson is actually the figure under the word ‘Harold’, which seems to show a figure with an arrow in his eye, says Marc Morris. (Image by Alamy)

If you accept that he is likely to be the figure under the word ‘Harold’, then there’s people who will say: ‘Hang on, is that really an arrow in his eye’? Because if you look at the stitching, or the holes on the back of the tapestry, it seems it might be a spear that has been reinterpreted as an arrow by 19th-century restorers. So, you can lodge all these caveats for the Bayeux Tapestry’s representation.

What sort of undermines my faith in the tapestry is that essentially it is an artistic source that borrows heavily from other artistic sources. We’re as convinced as we can be that it was made in Canterbury, because at least a dozen of the scenes are borrowed from illustrated manuscripts that were held in either Christchurch or St Augustine’s, Canterbury.

With the death of Harold, the scenes surrounding it look very similar to a story in the Apocrypha of the Bible, of the death of King Zedekiah. He’s a king who rebels against his overlord, and his punishment is to have his eyes put out – he’s blinded. If, as seems likely, the tapestry artists were using an example of an illustrated example of the death of King Zedekiah, then it may just be that Harold getting his eye put out was borrowed from this artistic source.

The Bayeux Tapestry is an artistic source that borrows heavily from other artistic sources

The real stumbling block is that no other contemporary source mentions an arrow in the eye. Later sources do: 12th-century historian Henry of Huntingdon talks about him getting an arrow in the eye or an arrow in the face. It becomes the standard description, but there aren’t any contemporary sources that tell us how he died.

William of Poitiers, who provides a very detailed account of the battle, just says ‘the report Harold is dead flew around the battlefield’ but doesn’t go to any detail. The source that William of Poitiers uses is one I mentioned earlier; the Carmen, which we now think is made before the spring of 1068, so it’s the most contemporary source of all. The song talks about Harold getting killed by a Norman death squad; half a dozen or so men, led by William, approach Harold and single him out and hack him down.

Here, you’re weighing an embroidery against a poem. There’s a lot of artistic licence there. There were tens of thousands of arrows loosed that day, so maybe he got an arrow in the eye. But our most closely contemporary narrative source says that he was done in by a dedicated death squad. And the only other thing I could think to strengthen that as a more likely scenario is that William of Poitiers, who is William the Conqueror’s own chaplain, doesn’t repeat that story.

We know that Poitiers had a copy of the Carmen in front of him, because he parrots the bits he likes, and directly challenges other bits that he doesn’t like – he says,‘some people will tell you this, but this wasn’t true’. When he gets to the death of Harold, rather than refuting [the killing by a death squad], he just skips over it. You could see that as a silent endorsement of the fact that the Carmen‘s story was accurate; that William of Poitiers didn’t want to go into any of those details, because it made William less than chivalrous.

Q: If you have to explain the impact of the Norman Conquest in one word, what would it be?

A: Unrivalled. There is no more important event and consequently no more important book for you to download for £1.99 than The Norman Conquest!

If you’d like to know even more about the Normans – including the brutality of William the Conqueror; what happened to the Anglo-Saxon aristocracy after the battle; and the history behind Norman haircuts – you can listen to the full podcast discussion with Marc Morris here.

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Marc Morris is a historian who specialises in the Middle Ages. His publications include William I: England’s Conqueror (Penguin Books, 2016); King John: Treachery, Tyranny and the Road to Magna Carta (Penguin Books, 2016) and The Norman Conquest (Windmill Books, 2013). You can follow him on Twitter @Longshanks1307.