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The Norman Conquest

1066 saw the final, decisive action between three competing groups for the control of the kingdom of England. The power struggle had begun with the battles between the Danes and King Alfred of Wessex in the mid 9th century. In 1066 the issue would again be decided on the battlefield. Was the kingdom to be ruled by an Englishman, by a Viking king from Scandinavia, or by the Normans, or Ďnorthmení, Vikings who had long since seized control of the Duchy of Normandy in what is now north western France?

While Edward the Confessor (1042-1066) was king, the Godwin family was the most powerful of the English nobility. Harold Godwinson was Earl of Wessex; Tostig, his brother, was earl of Northumberland; their brothers Gyrth and Leofwine held other earldoms. However in 1065 Northumbria rose up against Tostig and replaced him with Morcar. This was part of a struggle for power within the kingdom but also perhaps a reflection of strains which still existed between the regions of England, which had only been welded into a single kingdom in 925. Tostig was exiled. Harold was perhaps pleased to see Tostig removed, for he probably saw his brother as an ambitious and powerful rival for the throne.

When, on 5th January 1066, Edward the Confessor died, Harold Godwinson, with the support of much of the nobility, was elected king. Though apparently nominated by Edward before his death, Haroldís right to the throne was to be challenged by two of the great war leaders of the period. Harold Hardrada, King of Norway, was to renew the Scandinavian claim to the English throne, which they had held as recently as 1042. The other was William of Normandy, who claimed that Edward had previously promised him the throne and that in 1064 Harold had, apparently under duress, sworn an oath of allegiance to William. However tenuous their claims, England was a great prize and they were both willing and able to muster substantial military forces to challenge Harold in the field.

Tostig courted both contenders, as well as the king of Denmark, but it was finally with Harold Hardrada that he secured an alliance for an invasion. Harold was aware of both threats. In the north, Hardrada and Tostig would attempt to secure the city of York, the old Viking capital of the North, as a base for conquest of the kingdom. In the south William of Normandy would try to establish a bridgehead for a campaign to seize London. In the north Harold had no choice but to leave the initial defence to the earls Morcar and Edwin. His own attention was concentrated on meeting the even greater threat from Normandy. Thus in the south he raised the fyrd, the local militia, and together with his navy and the professional soldiers of his household, the housecarls, he awaited Williamís invasion.

The two contenders built up their invasion forces, each perhaps awaiting the otherís attack on England, so that they could gain the advantage of an unopposed landing. Meanwhile the first strike came from Tostig. With a small force he harried the south coast, while Harold was still mustering his forces. He then moved on to Lincolnshire, where he was defeated by Morcar and Edwin. With his original force of 60 ships now reduced to just 20, he fled north to Scotland to rendezvous with Hardradaís fleet.

Harold, having stood in readiness for Williamís invasion for much of the summer and early autumn, was finally forced to stand down the militia and to order the fleet back in to port for re-supply. It is said that unfavourable winds delayed Williamís invasion, but in reality it seems as likely that he was waiting to take advantage of Hardradaís expected invasion in the north. Finally in early September the massive Norwegian fleet, together with Tostigís rebel forces, landed in Yorkshire. Harold was now forced to march north to assist Morcar and Edwin in what would otherwise surely be a very uneven struggle. The south coast was left largely unprotected and of this William would soon take full advantage.

The scene was now set for one of the most dramatic months in English history. In three great battles in little over three weeks, the last great Viking invasion of England would be defeated and the last Anglo-Saxon king killed on the battlefield, resulting in the subjugation of the whole kingdom for centuries to come.

FURTHER READING

There are numerous books on the Norman Conquest. We have singled out just two:

  • Carpenter. The Struggle for Mastery: Britain 1066-1284, London, Allen Lane, 2003, 61-105. An important new review, which places the events of 1066 in a much wider context. It includes a useful bibliography covering the main contemporary accounts and modern studies.
  • McLynn. 1066 : The Year of the Three Battles, London, Pimlico, 1999. A more detailed and readable account, though far less authoritative, concentrating on the year 1066, the conflict and its background, and the main protagonists.

 

   
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