In 1066 there was a perilous vacancy on the English throne. Edward the Confessor died without issue and without an unambiguous provision for the succession. Three claimants emerged with enough support to press their claims; only one remained alive at the end of the day on October 14, 1066.
It is generally understood that the Battle of Hastings signaled the conquest of Saxon England by invaders from Normandy; many are even aware that the Vikings were somehow involved in this conflict. In order to understand the situation that created this crisis, however, it is important to realize that England was effectively a Scandinavian country at that time. The English themselves were descended from Germanic tribes that had colonized England about 500 years previously from their continental homes in northern Germany and mainland Denmark. They did not mingle much with the Romanized Celtic populations that preceded them.
The Danish invasion in the 9th century brought England into the arena of Scandinavian politics. A large swath of northeast England was populated by Danes, and this area became the Danelaw. English policy vacillated between acceptance of this state of affairs and conflict with the foreign enclave. When Aethelred “the Unready” actually tried to destroy the Danelaw by killing all Danes in England, he only succeeded in bringing about an overwhelming Danish response. When Aethelred died, he was not succeeded by an English heir; rather, England was ruled directly by the Danish king, Cnut, and then by his sons.
The English royal family was only permitted to restore itself to the throne in 1042. Edward returned from exile in Normandy – itself a Scandinavian enclave in northern France – to assume the throne of a country that now had a heavily Danish component to its character. This was especially true of its nobility, which in many cases had intermarried with the Danes. An important example of this is Earl Godwin, who had made an impression on King Cnut and subsequently married into the Danish royal family. Four of Godwin’s six sons have Danish names, most importantly his second son, Harold.
Godwin imposed upon King Edward to marry his daughter Edith; the King and Queen never produced any children, however, and so Godwin failed to merge his family into the royal line. At the same time, that same failure to produce an heir opened up the succession when Edward died just days into the year 1066. Technically, the nearest relative was a nephew named Edgar, but he was too young to take over under the circumstances. It seemed clear that the throne would pass out of the family.
Edward himself had seemed to prefer the Duke of Normandy as his successor. He had, after all, grown up in Normandy, and in many ways he had always felt out of place upon his return to England. Certainly, he had been known to express a desire, at least provisionally, to see Duke William succeed him. The exact degree of this preference is not known; factional partisans have made competing claims about Edward’s final intentions before he died. The Normans, however, saw the offer of the throne as being final and legally binding, and they were more than capable of fighting for it.
Nor was Godwin’s brood idle. One son, Harold, remained at court as a leading noble and strong man, while another, Tostig, crossed the channel and got involved in piracy. Tostig complicated his brother’s life greatly, both when he first began to stir up trouble, and later in 1066. Harold was a great man at court when Tostig rose up against the king and was expelled; Harold consequently lost face. Like many scions of great families, however, Harold was determined to remain close to the machinery of power.
Shortly before Edward died, either in 1064 or 1065, Harold crossed the Channel to spend some time with William. Some speculate that he was sent by the king to confirm William’s place as the heir apparent; others suggest that Harold merely saw William as the likely successor and sought to reinforce his own position in the court. Either way, two important events followed from this visit: Harold swore an oath to support William’s succession, and he also had the occasion to watch William on a military campaign. Unfortunately for Harold, he came away from the campaign with some wrong ideas, mistaking William’s caution for a kind of weakness.
Edward died on January 5. Some sources have claimed that Edward offered the throne to Harold on his deathbed, but no assertion can now be proven. What is known is that a council of leading nobles made such an offer to Harold, and Harold accepted. Harold knew that war with Normandy was probable, if not inevitable, but evidently thought that such a war could be won. Unfortunately, the southern threat was not the only one; Harald Hardrada, son of Magnus of Norway, pressed the otherwise abandoned Scandinavian claim to England. Faced with the prospect of a two-front war, Harold prepared for the only sensible course: to muster his forces and try to beat his opponents in sequence.
As early as May, the first skirmishes occurred off the southern coast. Ironically, the attacker was Harold’s brother Tostig, raiding the coast with some 60 vessels. When English forces began to deploy to the south, Tostig carried the fighting northward along the eastern coast until he suffered serious reverses off the coasts of Northumbria and Lindsey. Judging from the sources of his reinforcements up to this point (the Norwegian-controlled Orkney Islands), there are reasons to believe that Tostig had already been plotting with Harald Hardrada; after losing most of his ships, Tostig then joined forces with the Norwegian.
The bulk of English forces remained in the south after Tostig left the area. Perhaps Harold thought that a Norman attack would come sooner, or that it would pose the greater danger when it did come. He may have suspected that William was behind Tostig’s earlier raiding; at any rate, William was patiently assembling his invasion fleet by early August. Harold’s ships actively patrolled the Channel, looking for any sign of William’s invasion, but eventually supplies ran out at the beginning of September. At about the same time, Harald Hardrada set out with his forces, made rendezvous with Tostig, and invaded the north of England. Harald Hardrada’s forces fought the northern defenders at Gate Fulford on September 20. Both sides took significant damage, but Harald Hardrada remained on the offensive, while the northern Earls were unable to muster further resistance. The Norwegians took York and prepared to proceed south.
King Harold reactivated his army and marched north with all possible speed when he heard of the fighting. He arrived in time to reclaim York while the Norwegians were still in the area, gathering hostages. On September 25, he caught the Norwegians unprepared at Stamford Bridge. The battle was fierce but small; the Norwegians had already suffered significant losses, and the English were only such forces as could be mustered quickly. It proved a clear victory for King Harold, if a bitter one: not only was Harald Hardrada killed, but so was the king’s brother, Tostig. The northern threat was decisively repulsed.
Only days later, on the 28th or 29th of September, Norman forces made landfall in the south. They moved cautiously, focusing their attention on keeping the body of troops together and maintaining a defensive posture. First they reinforced the ruins of a Roman fort for defense, and then they moved closer to the town of Hastings, building a palisade motte-and-bailey castle for defense. William considered this a good place to wait, because the geography limited the avenues of potential attack. His lines of supply and communication would be less vulnerable in this area. The time for aggressiveness would come when the English army had assembled in the area; then he would attack on open ground, enjoying the full benefit of his heavy cavalry. For the time being, William remained near his stronghold and began to ravage the countryside, simultaneously providing forage for his troops and a provocation for Harold.
Harold, meanwhile, learned of the Norman landing about October 1, while he was still in the north. Once again it fell to Harold to rapidly shift his forces to the other side of the country. Again it took him five days to reach London, and there he began to amass the forces he’d need to fight William. Harold decided to sacrifice quantity for speed. After waiting about five or six days, Harold set out with such forces as he had been able to gather.
It is generally thought that Harold had hoped to catch William unawares, as he had done with Harald Hardrada. In the event, however, William was ready, and on the morning of October 14, he managed to seize the initiative. The battle was joined, and even though Harold almost managed to break the Norman army, it was William who would prove victorious.
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