Throughout human history, conflicts have been fought for land, resources, plunder, religion and for power. It is an unfortunate reality that war has often been the greatest driver of history and decisions made and actions taken in the midst of conflict all too often shape the course of the future. The purpose of this series is to shine a spotlight not on certain conflicts that have determined the course of history, but on specific instances where the outcome of a single battle has defined the future not just for those directly involved, but for greater mankind.
This article covers one of the seminal moments in English, and more broadly European, history, in which the last of the Anglo-Saxon kings, who had fought for so long and so hard for the survival of their kingdom, faced its greatest threat; the Normans, invaders from across the English Channel, and their leader, the Duke William, later to be known as the Conqueror.
The year was 1066 and it was the Battle of Hastings.
It is worth prefacing this article with a note regarding the sources that recorded these events. Historical accounts are always biased depending on the prejudices of the author. However, those sources that cover the Battle of Hastings are unusually so. There are the Norman sources that were typically sycophantic in their depiction of William of Normandy, while the English sources, such as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, are typically written by Englishmen that viewed the Norman invasion as a kind of national tragedy. This is reflected in their writing.
Perhaps the most famous source about Hastings is undoubtedly the Bayeux Tapestry, a massive piece of embroidered cloth that is nearly 70 metres in length. It was probably commissioned by Bishop Odo, William’s half-brother, in the 1070s.
More time is spent in this piece talking about the various sources than is perhaps the case in other articles. This is simply due to the fact that there is such a distinct divide between the two ‘camps’ and also that fact that almost every source leaves something to be desired in terms of reliability.
Anyway, with that out of the way, let us get stuck in.
Anglo-Saxon England was among the wealthiest kingdoms in 11th century Europe, owed in large part to its unusually efficient (for the period) taxation system. It had been ruled by the dynasty known as the House of Wessex, who were the descendants of Alfred the Great, King of Wessex.
Edward the Confessor had been King of England since 1042. His reign had been stable and relatively peaceful. However, he had no male children, or even children of either gender. He was essentially a King without an heir and that single fact had many an eye turned towards England as Edward grew older (he was about 40 when he was crowned).
One such individual was William, Duke of Normandy. He would later be known as William the Conqueror but to his contemporaries, he was more commonly known as William the Bastard. He was the illegitimate son of Duke Robert of Normandy.
Robert died while on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 1035 and he was succeeded by William, then only seven or eight years old. Chaos reigned in Normandy until 1047 as various magnates sought to exploit William’s minority for their own ends. It wasn’t until William, by then a grown man began to exert his own influence that he stabilised the Duchy. He quickly became a respected military leader as he campaigned against Normandy’s encroaching neighbours, including his one-time ally the French King.
France at this time was not the unified kingdom it would later become. Indeed, the monarch was titled King of the Franks (rather than of France) during this period and his authority extended only so far as he was able to enforce it. Many of the territories of what would become France, such as Normandy, Brittany and Anjou, were nominally subjects of the French King but in reality functioned as autonomous principalities.
The sole reason William ever turned his eye towards England (given he already had enough enemies on the Continent) dates to 1051.
In that year, it seems that Edward offered to make William of Normandy his successor. William was the grandson of Edward’s maternal uncle, the Duke Richard II of Normandy. The offer does make some sense given Edward spent most of his life in Normandy, in exile while the Danish King Cnut the Great ruled England, before returning to claim the throne. Edward grew up alongside Robert (William’s father) and the two were said to be as close as brothers.
This offer in 1051 formed the basis of William’s claim to the throne fifteen years later. However, it is important to note that, at the time Edward made the offer, he was in an unusually (for him) strong position. The most powerful magnate in England, Earl Godwin of Wessex, had been exiled and was unable to oppose the move, which he would most certainly have otherwise done. Naming William as his heir was, to Edward, especially attractive because it allowed him to spite Godwin through his daughter, Edward’s wife Edith. As soon as Godwin was exiled, Edward banished his wife to a convent.
Unfortunately for Edward, Godwin returned the next year with an army. He reclaimed his lands and privileges and returned Edith to the royal bedchamber. Thus Edward was forced to find another successor since, with Godwin back in power, there was no way William would be accepted as king.
Two years later, Godwin was dead. However, the death of his most hated magnate brought no solace for Edward. Godwin was succeeded as Earl of Wessex by his son Harold, who was everything his father had been and more. Harold consolidated his family’s grip on power in England, with his Earldom encompassing roughly the southern third of England.
As fate would have it, Edward would be presented with a surprising alternative to William when, in 1056, he discovered that Edward the Exile, the son of King Edmund Ironside, was alive and living in Hungary. Here was a candidate that was, thanks to his ancestry, an answer to Edward’s succession problems. The King went to considerable expense to have Edward the Exile, along with his family (including his five-year-old son Edgar Ætheling) brought back to England. The family arrived in 1057, but the King’s hopes for a smooth succession were shattered when Edward the Exile died within days of stepping foot on English soil.
Despite this setback, Edward still had the Exile’s young son Edgar. If Edward lived long enough, an older Edgar might prove a viable heir. In this context, it seems unlikely that Edward would still have considered William as his best choice as heir.
Now we come to one of the most controversial moments in English history.
In the summer of 1064 or 1065, Harold Godwinson was either shipwrecked or forced to take shelter on the coast of Ponthieu. There he was taken captive by Count Guy of Ponthieu and later released into the custody of Duke William of Normandy.
While in William’s court, Harold appears to have sworn an oath to uphold William’s claim to the throne of England.
Sources from both camps acknowledge that Harold did swear such an oath. Where they differ is the reason why. Unsurprisingly, Norman sources make much of this event, asserting that this was the purpose of Harold’s expedition all along, that he had been sent by King Edward to Normandy to confirm William as his heir. Indeed, Harold taking the oath is among the first scenes of the Bayeux Tapestry.
Contemporary English sources are notably silent on the subject of Harold’s expedition, with none of them making any reference to the incident at all. Of course, it was in their interest not to do so, since acknowledging that Harold swore to support William’s claim would be admitting that Harold was a usurper.
However, later English sources had no such qualms about the subject. Some claimed that Harold had never intended to go to the Continent and had simply been blown off course while another asserted that he had made the expedition on his own initiative with the intention of negotiating the release of two of his relatives who were held hostage by William. The latter, written by the Canterbury monk Eadmer in the early twelfth century, is more credible due to the fact that both Norman and English sources record the presence of these two hostages in William’s court. Both English explanations effectively assert that Harold, keenly aware of the danger in which he found himself, swore the oath under duress, believing that he would not escape alive without doing so. In the minds of the English, any oath sworn under such conditions was void.
It is exceptionally difficult to determine which, Eadmer or the Norman sources, is the more reliable. Both are just as partisan as the other. However, when placed into the wider context of the period, Eadmer’s account emerges as the more credible. By 1064, the Godwinsons were by far the most powerful family in England and the authority of King Edward had withered away to almost nothing. How then could Edward have commanded Harold, the greatest Godwinson of all, to do something as severely detrimental to his own interests as confirming a foreign magnate, William, as the next King of England?
In any case, William clearly believed that not only had Harold acknowledged him as the rightful heir but also that Harold would actively support his claim.
All of this manoeuvring finally came to a head on January 5 1066, when, after a long decline in his health, Edward the Confessor died.
The next day, Harold Godwinson was crowned King of England.
Norman sources have always pointed to the suddenness of the coronation as an indication that Harold usurped the throne and, despite various excuses offered by some English sources, it is damning.
In Anglo-Saxon tradition, the actual coronation held less significance than in other European courts. English Kings were chosen by the Witan, an assembly of leading magnates that symbolically represented the will of the people. Thus, because there was little risk of usurpation, there was less reason to rush the coronation. Previous monarchs had often waited months before they were enthroned. Edward himself had had to wait almost a year.
In contrast, Harold managed, by virtue of convincing many of the magnates on the Witan that he was the right choice, to have himself crowned the day after his predecessor’s death and on the same day as his funeral.
According to legend, a messenger broke the news to William while he was on a hunting expedition. The Duke immediately returned to his castle, locking himself in his quarters without uttering a single word, such was his anger.
For William, this was a deliberate, personal betrayal. Harold had given his oath and, instead of honouring his vow, the man had not only reneged on his promise but had had himself crowned as well. Now there was only one route left for William if he wanted to claim what he saw as his by right. He would have to take the throne of England by force of arms.
Launching an invasion across the English Channel was no small thing. By choosing to go down the path of direct confrontation William risked everything on the campaign’s success. Given the magnitude of the investment the invasion demanded, in terms of money, manpower and reputation, if it should fail William would lose more than just an army. Wolves surrounded Normandy. The French King was always looking for an opportunity to bring his renegade Norman subjects into line. The Count of Anjou had invaded Normandy once (defeated by William) and would have welcomed a second go. Even within Normandy itself, William was by no means beloved by all his nobles. The first years of his rule as Duke were characterized by rebellion as ambitious magnates sought to take advantage of his youth. If this invasion ended in defeat, William’s position would likely have been fatally weakened.
Perhaps knowing that he risked all on this venture, William sought to gain any advantage he could. Almost as soon as he decided on invasion, the Duke sent emissaries to Rome, where they put his case before Pope Alexander II. Though no records of this embassy have survived, there is no doubt Edward’s promise in 1051 and Harold’s broken oath were the core elements of his case. These arguments, in addition to the promise of reforming the English Church (either offered by William or demanded by Alexander), evidently convinced the Pope of the worthiness of the Duke’s cause, as he sent the emissaries back to Normandy with a Papal banner to carry into battle.
Then preparations began in earnest. Over the course of several months, William gathered a host of impressive size. The Duke’s Norman vassals provided much of its fighting strength. These troops were the famous Norman knights.
Clad in long iron mail shirts known as hauberks, they were armed with sword and lance and rode powerful warhorses. These knights were probably the finest heavy cavalry in Europe during this period.
It is known for certain that Norman magnates agreed to furnish William with a certain number of knights each due to the fact that a record of this commitment has survived. It is the first known incidence of such an agreement being written down.
In addition to his Norman contingent, the remainder of William’s army was comprised of mercenaries drawn from all over Western Europe. There is still considerable debate about the size of William’s army, due to the lack of reliable sources. One Norman scholar listed the army as numbering over 50,000 while others had it as large as 150,000. These figures can be dismissed without hesitation. Victorian historians posited that William commanded between 7000 and 9000 men and this conclusion is still accepted as the most credible.
Of course, such an army needed an equally impressive fleet to transport it across the Channel. Between January and August of 1066, William appears to have assembled an armada numbering around 700 ships, the vessels either constructed from scratch, bought or requisitioned from major shipping centres such as Flanders. It is extremely difficult to determine the character of the ships that comprised this fleet, but it is likely that it included vessels varying from longships of Nordic tradition to bulky merchant ships retrofitted for transporting horses to small boats carrying supplies. William likely mustered every vessel he could get his hands on. The result was a miscellaneous fleet that was nonetheless an armada the likes of which had not been seen in the north for centuries.
All of this activity had not gone unnoticed. Indeed it likely that Harold became aware of William’s preparations almost as soon as they began and just like his opponent, Harold began readying to muster a large army of his own.
The core of every Anglo-Saxon army was the housecarls. These were the household troops of the English nobility, professional warriors dedicated to the service of their liege-lord. They were armoured in hauberks and iron helmets. They bore large round shields and were armed with swords, spears and, most famously, the long two-handed weapons known as Dane axes. They travelled on horseback (a practice instituted in order to form a ‘rapid-response’ force against Viking raiders generations earlier) but, in contrast to their Norman counterparts, dismounted to fight on foot.
This was the great Germanic-Scandinavian infantry tradition. Likely as a result of the cultural maritime traditions of Northern Europe (traditions in seamanship and horsemanship aren’t particularly compatible), most of the peoples of Scandinavian and northern Germanic stock, including the Saxons, Angles, Danes and Norwegians, fought on foot, typically deploying in a formation known as the ‘shield wall’. This was a tactic that has been used, with some variation, by many ancient cultures, including the Greeks and Romans. In the case of the Anglo-Saxon shield wall, the front rank of the army interlocked their large round shields, forming a literal wall of shields. From the protection of this barrier, the warriors could strike with sword, spear, axe or seax (a long dagger ideal for thrusting in the tight confines of a shield wall)
One of the reasons the tactic was so widespread was its durability. A solid, disciplined shield wall was nigh on impossible to break via a frontal attack. The only known means of doing so, short of sheer attrition, was through the use of the formation known as the ‘boar snout’, which was essentially a reinforced wedge formation.
While the housecarls formed the core of the army, most of its bulk was provided by a group known as the fyrd. This was a kind of tribal levy whereby every five hides of land (a hide was roughly equivalent to 120 acres) was obligated to provide a freeman, fully equipped with arms and armour, for military service in times of war. Some of these men would no doubt have been experienced (especially in periods where the fyrd was called out regularly) but many others would have little or no military experience and only basic training. On the whole, however, the fyrd was a competent force, if less reliable and less effective than the housecarls.
In May, Harold issued a royal call to arms in anticipation of William’s invasion. He gathered an army at least as large as the Duke’s in southern England and was then faced with the problem of where to base it. It was obvious that an invasion was coming, but Harold had no idea where William would actually land. It is for this reason that Harold took the unusual step of dividing his army into several detachments positioned along the southern coast of England, no doubt with a plan in place for reassembling it. Harold established his headquarters on the Isle of Wight.
All that was left to do was watch and wait.
By the start of August, William was ready to set sail. Both his army and his fleet had fully gathered, the men eager to get underway. There was just one problem. The armada was entirely reliant on favourable winds in order to cross the Channel and, for the month of August, no such winds eventuated. Indeed, the August weather was decidedly hostile.
So it was a stalemate. William could not set sail and Harold could not leave his southern coast unguarded.
That all changed when, on September 8, Harold gave the order to disband his army. He had kept the royal army together for the entire summer and probably hoped that whatever was keeping William from leaving Normandy would continue to do so until it was too late in the season for an invasion.
By some stroke of cosmic irony, within days of sending the fyrd back to their farms, a large invasion force landed in England.
Only it wasn’t in the south and it wasn’t William.
After an abortive attempt to reclaim his lands earlier in the year, the exiled Tostig Godwinson, Harold’s own brother, was back for a second try and, as one modern historian put it, this time he brought some Vikings.
Of course, in this case, ‘some’ meant 300 ships and over 7000 warriors. After the death of Edward the Confessor, William of Normandy wasn’t the only foreign warlord with his eyes set on the English throne. Harald Hadrada (roughly translated as ‘Hard Ruler) was King of Norway. Harald was a fearsome figure, renowned for his exploits as a mercenary during his 15 years in exile before he claimed the Norwegian throne. As King, he dreamed of following in the footsteps of the Danish King Cnut the Great, who had united Denmark, England and Norway under his rule earlier in the century. For Harald, the death of Edward the Confessor without a clear male heir presented an unmissable opportunity. Encouraged by Tostig, who no doubt would have assured him of the ease with which he could achieve his ambition, Harald gathered a large army and set sail, landing in Northumbria in early September.
And on September 12, William’s fleet set sail from Normandy, likely in direct response to the news that Harold had disbanded his army. For the Duke, it was an opportunity that was worth risking the unfavourable weather.
Fortunately for Harold, storms sank several Norman ships and forced the fleet to take shelter at Saint-Valery-sur-Somme. There, wisely, they waited for the winds to change.
On September 20, Harald Hadrada and Tostig defeated the Earls of Mercia and Northumbria, the brothers Edwin and Morcar, at the Battle of Fulford. The next day, Harold finally learned of the northern threat and immediately marched north, assembling an army as he went. In one of the great forced marches in history, Harold and his army were able to cover the 185 miles from London to York in only four days.
The speed of Harold’s march allowed him to catch the Norwegians completely by surprise. As far as they knew, there was no English army in all of northern England. When Harold caught up with the invaders on September 25, they were taking their leisure on either side of a small river. Few of them were wearing even the most basic armour.
So when an English army appeared as if from thin air, the end result of the engagement appeared all but certain.
Only a few details are known about the Battle of Stamford Bridge. What is known is that the English ambushed the invaders, who attempted to flee across the river. According to legend, a single mail-clad giant occupied the narrow wooden bridge and held the entire English army at bay. The Norse warrior slew 40 Englishmen who challenged him before an enterprising warrior purportedly floated down the river in a barrel and, at the opportune moment, thrust his spear up between the planks of the bridge and into the giant’s unprotected groin.
The delay had allowed the Norwegians to form a shield wall on the east side of the river. The English poured across the bridge and, forming a shield wall of their own, engaged the invaders.
It appears that, after several hours of intense combat, holes began to appear in the Norwegian shield wall. When both Harald Hadrada and Tostig were slain, the shield wall collapsed and the battle became a rout. So thorough was Harold’s victory that, when he allowed the surviving Norwegians to return home, there were only enough men to crew 24 out of the original 300 longships.
Two days later, William at long last set sail from Normandy.
On September 28, the Norman invaders landed unopposed at Pevensey, in Sussex. William quickly set up base in Hastings, where he ordered the construction of a wooden castle.
Within a day of landing, William unleashed his army on the countryside. While his troops had been forbidden from looting the Norman countryside while they were encamped, in England there were no such restrictions.
It is not known for sure when Harold became aware of William’s landfall, but, realistically, he could not have known before October 1. Upon hearing the news, he rushed back southwards only days after defeating the Norwegians. He arrived in London around October 5. He remained there for several days, gathering his forces.
Meanwhile, William did not advance further inland. The Duke was in hostile territory. If he advanced inland he risked being cut off from his base and supplies as well as his only escape route. He knew his best bet was to make Harold come to him, to defeat (and ideally kill) the English King in open battle.
Contrary to what many may think, pitched battles were relatively rare in early medieval warfare. For most commanders, there was simply too much risk involved in a single direct confrontation. Most of William’s prior experience involved sieges. He had fought in only one pitched battle (a victory) before the invasion. For the first time in his military career, William actively sought a decisive engagement.
It was for this reason that he had loosed his troops on the countryside. By ravaging Sussex (part of Harold’s own territory of Wessex), he hoped to draw Harold out of London, to bait him into risking open battle.
On October 11, Harold set out from London with his army. The exact size of this force is unknown. For obvious reasons, Norman sources tend to exaggerate the size of the English host, just as English sources did for William’s army. However, modern historians tend to accept a later account that put Harold’s army at roughly the same size and William’s (7000-9000 men). Interestingly, both English and Norman sources agree that Harold left London too soon, that he departed before he had gathered his full strength.
Hoping to replicate his success against the Norwegians, Harold marched quickly towards Hastings. However, William’s scouts informed him of the approaching army and, on October 13, he turned the tables on Harold by marching to meet him. Though he was unable to ambush Harold, William nonetheless took the English King by surprise.
On the early morning of October 14, both armies moved into position.
The English army occupied the top of a hill, with a steep slope descending down to the Norman host. They formed a single, long shield wall that was packed as many as seven or eight men deep. As the housecarls were more reliable than the fyrd, they formed the first two ranks. Harold himself took up position in the front rank.
Meanwhile, William arranged his forces into three groups (known as ‘battles’). On the left were the Bretons, along with the contingents from Anjou, Poitou and Maine. In the centre were the Normans under William himself. On the right were the Frenchmen along with troops from Flanders and Boulogne. Each battle was deployed in the same manner, with archers in front and infantry behind with the cavalry in reserve.
The battle began with the Norman archers loosing their arrows directly uphill at the Englishmen. This proved ineffective, as the arrows either struck the large shields or flew harmlessly overhead.
With the failure of his archers, William ordered his infantry to advance up the hill. As they approached, the English showered them with a barrage of spears, axes and even stones. Eventually, the Norman infantry crashed into the English shield wall and the fighting began in earnest.
At some point, the Norman cavalry moved up to support the infantry, but, due to the gradient of the slope, they were unable to mount an effective mass charge. They were forced to engage the shield wall at close quarters, which exposed their vulnerable warhorses to English spears, swords and, most lethal of all, the housecarls’ Dane axes. According to legend, one Dane axe-wielding housecarl decapitated a horse with a single stroke.
The fierce fighting continued for hours, with the Normans unable to breach the English shield wall. At some point in the early afternoon, the Bretons on the left flank of the Norman army began to break. Perhaps believing a rumour that William was dead, they began falling back in ones and twos. Soon the entire left flank was in retreat. Seeing their enemies fleeing down the hill proved too much for some of the English warriors, who surged down the slope in pursuit.
Faced with disaster, William hastily rallied his troops and turned on the pursuers. At the foot of the hill, the Norman knights were able to utilize their strength in the mass charge and crush the exposed Englishmen. For the first time, the English shield wall was weakened.
Sensing an opportunity, William initiated what is known as ‘feigned flight’, whereby the attackers pretend to flee in an attempt to draw the defenders out of their strong position. The ‘fleeing’ troops would then suddenly regroup and turn on the enemy. The Normans are believed to have used this tactic twice with success. Each time a group of Englishmen was tempted to break the line, the shield wall was weakened.
However, this weakening was not fatal. Even after hours and hours of intense fighting, the shield wall remained intact. It looked as if the English might hold out until nightfall. If they did, the Normans would be forced to retreat and, trapped against the coast with dwindling supplies, they would eventually be forced to set sail in defeat.
However, every source that gives an account of the Battle of Hastings agrees that the turning point was the death of Harold Godwinson.
At some point in the afternoon, the Norman archers had resumed shooting at the English position. One 12th century source suggests that they began shooting in a high arch so that their arrows landed behind the protection of the shield wall but there is no mention of this in contemporary sources.
There is considerable debate about how exactly Harold was killed.
Famously, it is often believed that he was killed when an arrow struck him in the eye. This story had emerged by 1080 but not all sources agree. Not helping this confusion is the fact that the Bayeux Tapestry depicts two English figures, one struck by an arrow and the other by a sword, beneath the words ‘King Harold was killed.’
It is not clear which is supposed to be Harold. Furthermore, this scene is the subject of debate in and of itself, with some suspecting that the arrow was a later addition dating to when the Tapestry was being restored in the 19th century.
In any case, Harold did die, whether it was by an arrow in the eye or by a sword or axe or spear. Rumour of his death spread quickly throughout the army and it triggered a catastrophic collapse in morale.
Almost immediately, members of the fyrd began to flee the battle. The already weakened shield wall began to crack. The Normans, sensing victory, renewed their assault and the shield wall buckled under the pressure. A rout ensued with the fyrd fleeing for their lives. Only the housecarls remained. They had given their oaths to Harold and they refused to abandon him, even in death.
Some of the most vicious fighting of the day ensued as Harold’s loyal warriors defended his body and the Normans fought to claim the corpse of the usurper. Eventually, the housecarls were destroyed, slain to a man.
After an entire day of fighting, the Battle of Hastings was over.
Modern historians estimate that English losses likely numbered around 4000, with the Normans suffering about 2000 dead. For this period, this is a substantial loss of men on both sides. The Normans buried their dead in a mass grave. They left the English bodies on the battlefield to rot. Some were later removed by relatives.
Harold’s body was apparently so thoroughly hacked and disfigured that it was unrecognisable the next day. Supposedly, it was only identified later when his paramour Edith Swan-Neck recognised certain marks on his body. It is not known what William did with the body of his opponent. According to one story, it was buried mockingly on a coastal cliff, so that he could ‘watch the sea’ for all eternity.
The Battle of Hastings was not the end of the war for William. He still had to actually claim the throne, which he now expected would be offered to him by the Witan.
Instead, on October 15, the Witan proclaimed the thirteen-year-old Edgar Ætheling as King, with the support of the brothers Edwin and Morcar, Stigand (Archbishop of Canterbury) and Ealdred (Archbishop of York).
William now marched on London. He defeated one English force but was repulsed upon attempting to storm London Bridge, forcing him to take a more circuitous route up the Thames valley. He crossed the river at Wallingford, where he received the submission of Stigand.
Approaching London from the North-west, William fought several minor engagements against English forces that had gathered in London. Having failed to halt William’s advance, Edwin, Morcar, Ealdred and other English leaders surrendered to William at Berkhamstead in Hertfordshire.
On December 25, William of Normandy was crowned King of England by Archbishop Ealdred of York. Among the English magnates that paid homage to William was Edgar Ætheling, who by virtue of William’s mercy lived to the age of 75.
However, this was not the end of William’s English campaigns. His coronation was followed by three years of rebellion after rebellion, each crushed in turn by the new King. These uprisings culminated in the notorious event known as the Harrying of the North, in which William ravaged and depopulated the countryside of northern England so thoroughly that huge tracts of arable land were listed in the Domesday Book (a census commissioned several years later) as being uninhabited.
The final rebellion, famously led by the legendary figure Hereward the Wake (a possible early inspiration for Robin Hood), was put down in late 1070.
How it shaped history
The Norman Conquest changed the course of English history.
William’s descendants would, through the male and later female lines, continue to rule England for more than 400 years until the death of Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485.
William retained the general structure of the kingdom, which was organised into shires, hundreds and hides. However, he and his compatriots, having essentially replaced the old Anglo-Saxon aristocracy across the board, introduced the strict brand of feudalism for which the Normans were famous. Over the generations the traditional Earls were augmented with Barons, Counts and, later, Dukes.
The very landscape of the country was altered. The Normans had always been keen hunters and Normandy was littered with ‘forests’, woodland areas that were preserved precisely for the purpose of being used as hunting grounds (this was the original sense of the word ‘forest). William imported this practice to England. Huge tracts of land were set aside as Royal Forests, some of which still survive today.
In addition, the first English castles began appearing within a year of William’s coronation as he sought to secure his new domain in the face of rebellion. Initially, these were constructed using timber and earthen mounds. Later, once peace had been restored, some Norman nobles began the process of building in stone. Construction on the Tower of London is believed to have begun around 1078.
Religious reform began almost immediately. The new Norman Archbishop of Canterbury quickly outlawed the Anglo-Saxon tradition of worshipping obscure, local saints, which could differ from village to village. The associated feast days were also abolished. All of this brought the English Church more in line with its Continental counterparts. Given the new religious leaders could not speak or write English and the commoners could not speak or write French, a compromise was reached. Latin became the official language of the English Church and would remain so for several centuries. Religious architecture also saw dramatic change as the new Church leaders imported the latest innovations and trends from the Continent.
The England that emerged several decades after the Conquest was a hybrid; the newer Norman influence grafted on to the ancient Anglo-Saxon tradition.
However, arguably the greatest legacy of the Norman Conquest lay not in any cultural influence the Normans exerted on England, but in the very fact that Normandy had been brought into the English fold. With the King of England, for the very first time, holding lands on both sides of the English Channel, the kingdom became irrevocably entangled in the dynastic politics of the Continent.
For the French Kings, territories such as Normandy might have been largely autonomous, but they were still technically French. Suddenly, however, a Duchy that had been notionally part of France was now held by the Kingdom of England. This would quickly become intolerable. For the English monarchs, Normandy became inextricably linked with England. They saw the Duchy as their birthright.
Before 1066 England and France had never gone to war. Indeed, in the 139 years since its unification England had never fought outside of the British Isles. Between 1066 and 1485, England and France went to war on nine occasions, spending no less than 97 years in a state of conflict. Almost every Anglo-French war in the medieval period was fought over English territories in France. On two occasions France conquered Normandy. Twice an English King would reclaim it.
These conflicts culminated in the Hundred Years’ War (actually three linked but separate wars fought between 1337 and 1453). By the end of the third phase of conflict, the only remaining part of French territory in English hands was the port of Calais (finally captured by the French in 1558). These devastating wars would trigger the centralisation of power and the early development of national identities in both kingdoms. In short, as a result of their struggles, both England and France began the process of transforming from a feudal kingdom to something approaching a modern state.
Of course, the dynastic rivalry between England and France would endure for centuries after the last of William’s royal descendants was killed. While not always on opposite sides of a conflict, the two kingdoms would nonetheless shape Europe and the world as they fought for dominance.
In all of these ways, the Battle of Hastings shaped history.
Hi there! If you enjoyed this article, please consider supporting Real History by pledging just $1 per month here. With your greatly appreciated support, Real History can continue to produce content that is accurate, research and, above all, readable. Thanks!
- Morris, Marc. The Norman Conquest. Windmill, 2013.
- Bennet, Matthew. Campaigns of the Norman Conquest. Essential Histories. Osprey, 2001.
- Rex, Peter. Harold II: the Doomed Saxon King. Tempus, 2005.
- Bates, David. William the Conqueror. Tempus, 2001.