This article was first published in the August 2009 issue of BBC History Magazine
English history might have been very different had Edward the Confessor’s marriage to Edith produced an heir. But as it was the old king died childless in January 1066, leaving his successor to be decided by the sword. Edward’s brother-in-law, Harold Godwineson, wasted no time asserting his right to the throne and had himself crowned on the day of Edward’s burial.
Yet despite Edward apparently nominating Harold on his deathbed, the new king’s position was far from secure. In northern France and Scandinavia rival claimants were preparing to launch their own bids for the kingship.
Although William, Duke of Normandy was more distantly related to Edward than Harold, he asserted that he had earlier been promised the throne by Edward. Not only that but his apologists suggested that Harold had vowed his support on a recent visit to Normandy. Undeterred by Harold’s attempts to consolidate his position, William gathered together his supporters and prepared to invade.
Harold was well aware of the threat from Normandy. In the summer of 1066 he mobilised an army on the south coast awaiting William’s arrival, but the landing that he feared did not materialise. Eventually, with supplies running out, he had to allow the soldiers to return home.
Then his attention was diverted when Harald Hardrada, a fearsome Norwegian warrior-king, landed in the north, seeking to stake his own claim to England. Hardrada forced the surrender of York but was taken by surprise by Harold at Stamford Bridge on 25 September. Here the English recorded a stunning triumph, killing Hardrada and evicting the invaders.
“It was the greatest victory by an English king over Viking opponents in 300 years,” says Professor Nicholas Higham of the University of Manchester. “It was a phenomenal victory.”
Still the job was far from complete because William had finally crossed the Channel and landed in Pevensey on 28 September. The Normans laid waste to some of the locality but sought not to move far inland, waiting instead for a reaction from the English. In confident mood after Stamford Bridge, Harold marched his army quickly down to the south, hoping to destroy the Normans in one decisive clash.
“If you were a betting man I think you would have put your money on Harold to beat William,” Higham contends. “However Harold had the disadvantage of having to fight two battles in a very short period of time, 240 miles apart. He’d lost a lot of men and had the tiring experience of having to shift an army all the way down the A1”.
The meeting of the two armies at Hastings on 14 October is arguably the most famous moment in British history. Battle raged for hours before the more mobile Normans eventually managed to make inroads against the sturdy English shield wall. A crucial moment was the death of Harold. After this the English were overcome and the death of Harold’s two brothers turned the defeat into a catastrophe for England, leaving the country without a strong leader to take on William.
Some English elements attempted to rally around another claimant, Edgar the Aetheling, but he was unable to prevent the Normans crossing the Thames and so, reluctantly, William was accepted as the new ruler.
For the next few years William was regularly engaged in putting down rebellions in various parts of the land. Gradually he was able to impose his own authority and conclude the only successful invasion of England in the past 1,000 years.
The Norman Conquest brought sweeping changes. The Anglo-Saxon aristocracy was replaced by William’s followers, who cemented their positions with castle building. Another visible sign of Norman rule was the creation of numerous new churches that adorned the towns and villages of the land.
On a cultural level England turned away from Scandinavia and established closer ties with western Europe and, on a linguistic level, there was an injection of romance languages into the vernacular, pushing the old English language into retreat.
Where History Happened
1) Stamford Bridge, Near York
Harald Hardrada reached the mouth of the Tyne on 10 September 1066, hoping to regain England for a Scandinavian dynasty. He was accompanied by a fearsome army and bolstered by an alliance with Tostig, Harold’s estranged brother.
The Vikings headed for York but found their way barred by English forces commanded by the Earls Edwin and Morcar who were loyal to Harold. The resultant battle of Fulford on 20 September was a bloody affair that saw the English defeated, opening the way to York.
When informed of the invasion, Harold rapidly assembled an army and headed north from London at breakneck speed hoping to catch Hardrada unawares. He met the Vikings on 25 September a few miles east of York at Stamford Bridge, where Hardrada had arranged to receive English hostages.
With two fairly equally matched armies, it was the element of surprise that proved decisive for the English at the battle. The Norwegians fought fearlessly and it is said that the bridge itself was held by a single Viking axe-man who took on all-comers. He was only despatched when an English soldier floated under the bridge and speared him from below.
Harold’s army swarmed over the bridge and wore down the Norwegians, killing both Hardrada and Tostig in the process. The Vikings fled in disarray, completing a stunning rout.
Today the original bridge does not survive but the current Stamford Bridge occupies the same location and gives present visitors an idea of the battlefield’s location. There is also a memorial to the battle in the village.
2) Pevensey Castle, East Sussex
William made careful preparations for his cross-channel invasion. He gathered together thousands of men, horses and supplies and then waited for the winds that could propel his force towards England.
On 27 September the Normans finally set sail with a great armada from the port of St Valery sur Somme, landing the following day at Pevensey. Immediately they constructed a timber castle here, at the site of an old, undefended Roman fort. From there William’s army could raid the surrounding countryside and await the arrival of King Harold.
In the following century Pevensey was upgraded to an imposing Norman stone castle, while a towered bailey wall was added in the 1250s. The castle was again reinforced to help counter the Spanish Armada and even in the Second World War machine gun posts and pillboxes were added. Today in the custody of English Heritage, Pevensey is one of the finest castles in the region.
Tel: 01323 762604
3) Hastings Castle, East Sussex
Having made landfall at Pevensey, the Normans opted to settle at Hastings – around 12 miles to the east. Here another timber castle was constructed swiftly, possibly having been shipped over from Normandy in prefabricated form. As this was taking place, Harold headed south from Stamford Bridge en route to what he hoped would be a conclusive victory against the Norman invaders.
A few years after William’s triumph, the Conqueror had the castle rebuilt in stone, although the original motte survived and still does today. Since then the castle has suffered a turbulent history. It was destroyed by King John before being refortified by Henry III a few years later in 1225. Then in 1287 the cliffs below crumbled and much of the castle fell into the sea.
Further damage was caused by French raids during the Hundred Years’ War and later by inaccurate German bombing in the 1940s. The evocative ruin that remains is now a popular attraction looked after by the Hastings Corporation.
Tel: 0845 274 1001
4) 1066 Battle of Hastings, Abbey and Battlefield, East Sussex
Buoyed by his success at Stamford Bridge, Harold intended to catch the Normans by surprise. However William knew the English were coming and moved his forces a few miles inland, forcing the English to do battle at Senlac Ridge, a site they had not selected, on 14 October.
The army Harold encountered was a different proposition to the Vikings he had just defeated. William utilised archers and mounted warriors whereas Harold’s men were in the main foot soldiers, who relied on their shield wall to protect them from enemy assaults.
Harold’s infantry defended the crest of the ridge as the Normans repeatedly charged their position.
For several hours William’s men could make little headway and the Normans were close to losing heart. Rumours spread that William had been killed until he raised his helmet to reveal his identity, galvanising his men.
Finally the Norman attacks began to tell and with the shield line weakening, the English became vulnerable. The decisive moment was the death of Harold, killed perhaps by an arrow in the eye. His two brothers also lost their lives, thereby decapitating the English leadership.
To commemorate his triumph William built Battle Abbey, which is now the best indicator of the battle site. Recently English Heritage has opened a multi-million pound visitor centre close by.
Tel: 01424 775705
5) Berkhamsted Castle, Hertfordshire
The Battle of Hastings did not spell the end of opposition to the Normans. Elements of the nobility and religious figures sought to continue the fight, with Edgar the Aetheling, Edward the Confessor’s nearest living relative, as their new figurehead.
William needed to break their resistance. He seized Dover comfortably, but London would be a far trickier proposition.
Firstly the Normans set fire to Southwark in order to frighten the English who were defending London Bridge. Then William’s men wheeled around to Wallingford, where they crossed the Thames hoping to cut the city off.
Edgar was not able to create a strong enough force to stand-up to William and so realising the inevitable, the leading earls and bishops agreed to accept the duke as their new king. They met him at Berkhamsted and offered him the crown.
William’s half-brother Robert was granted the manor and honour of Berkhamsted where he constructed a motte and bailey castle. The castle was rebuilt by Thomas Becket in the
12th century and is today a splendid ruin.
6) Westminster Abbey, London
Westminster Abbey looms large in the story of the Norman Conquest. It was consecrated in Edward the Confessor’s presence in 1065 and he was buried there shortly afterwards. The abbey was also the site of Harold’s coronation. For William the Conqueror it was the natural place for his own crowning, placing him firmly inside the English royal tradition.
The coronation, which took place on Christmas Day 1066, did not go as planned. William had posted guards outside the abbey to keep order but when they heard shouts of acclamation for the new king from the English and Norman notables within they feared a riot was taking place.
In panic they torched the surrounding buildings and as the blaze spread, most of those inside the abbey fled. A contemporary chronicler recorded that “only the bishops and clergy along with the monks stayed, terrified, in front of the altar and only just managed to complete the consecration rite over the king who was trembling violently”.
Westminster Abbey remains one of England’s architectural gems, although the present version dates back to the 13th century. Several monarchs are buried here and it remains the prime location for the crowning of Britain’s kings and queens.
Tel: 020 7654 4900
7) Rougemont Castle, Exeter
William felt sufficiently confident of his conquest to spend March to December 1067 in Normandy but when he returned to England it was clear he still had work to do to subdue the native population.
Harold’s mother, Gytha, was at Exeter and as his sons were recruiting forces in Ireland; the city’s inhabitants shut their gates in defiance of William. The new king was unimpressed and put the city under siege. After 18 days the citizens surrendered.
William was quick to make his mark on Exeter, constructing Rougemont Castle at the highest point of the city. It took its name from the reddish colour of the volcanic rock on which it stood.
The castle changed hands and functions several times over the centuries and is currently part of a redevelopment project to create a ‘Covent Garden’ in the south-west. Guided tours can be arranged by appointment.
Tel: 07968 797135
8) Lincoln Cathedral, Lincoln
Lincoln was an important urban centre in Pre-Norman England so William was keen to impose his presence on it at a time of native revolts. A castle was constructed here in 1068 and although some of it remains it has changed almost beyond recognition from its Norman incarnation.
A greater survivor is Lincoln Cathedral, first begun in 1072 as one of the numerous Norman churches that sprang up around the country. The majority of the cathedral nowadays dates back to the 13th century, however the splendid west front retains much of its original Norman appearance.
Lincoln Cathedral makes for a great visit. Aside from its architectural magnificence it is also home to one of the few extant copies of the Magna Carta.
Tel: 01522 561600
9) Clifford’s Tower, York
English revolts continued against Norman rule in Northumbria. An uprising took place in 1068, compelling William to march north to subdue the revolt. He had to return again the following winter, partly to counter the threat of a Danish army, and decided on this occasion to lay waste to much of the country in an attempt to forestall future rebellions.
This so-called ‘harrying of the north’ was accompanied by much brutality and thousands were killed in the process. “I fell on the English of the northern shires like a ravening lion,” the king is supposed to have said on his deathbed.
William built fortresses to reinforce his authority and defend against further attacks. In England’s second city of York, two castles were built during this period, part of one of them was Clifford’s Tower.
The Norman mound still survives but the stone-keep atop it was constructed in the 13th century. In 1190 the tower achieved infamy as the site where 150 Jews were massacred.
Tel: 01904 646940
Cliffords tower, built by Henry III between 1250-1275, rear view, York, North Yorkshire, United Kingdom, 13th century. (Getty Images)
10) Durham Castle and Cathedral, Durham
One of the bloodiest assaults against Norman rule took place at Durham in 1069. A garrison of 700 men had been sent by William to the town but they were promptly slaughtered by local English. In response the king reacted with strength, sending in the heavy brigade to suppress the revolt and forcing many of the inhabitants to flee.
There were only about three castles in England before the Norman Conquest but by the end of the 11th century the country contained several hundred. In Durham, as elsewhere, William built a fortress to help keep order among a potentially unruly population.
Durham Castle was begun in 1072 and still stands today, albeit following several centuries of modifications. It is part of the University of Durham and can be accessed via guided tours.
Across the green from the castle is the awesome Durham Cathedral. Begun in 1093 it is acclaimed as one of the finest examples of Norman architecture. The cathedral housed the prince-bishops of Durham who, from the late 11th century, were given quasi-royal authority to help keep control over the locality.
Durham Castle tel: 0191 334 3800
Durham Cathedral tel: 0191 386 4266
Words by Rob Attar. Historical advisor: Professor Nicholas Higham, University of Manchester.