This Week in History: The Normans defeat the Anglo-Saxons in the Battle of Hastings in 1066
1066, or MLXVI, was a pivotal year in the history of England. To some, the year marked the end of the Dark Ages and the beginning of the late Middle Ages (though few knew it at the time). To all, it marked the end of the rule of the Germanic Anglo-Saxons (who gave us England), and the beginning of the rule of the more complicated lineage of the Normans (who gave us Normandy).
How did all this happen in just one year, 1066? First, on January 5, England’s King Edward the Confessor died without an heir. This left the English throne up for grabs between his cousin, William of Normandy, and his brother-in-law, the Saxon Earl of Wessex, Harold Godwineson. Second, on October 14, after Harold became king, an angry William crossed the English Channel to express his displeasure at the Battle of Hastings. The rest is history.
The Saxon-Norman rivalry began well before Harold and William met at Hastings. Edward (he became “the Confessor” long after his death) was the son of England’s King Ethelred II and Emma, the daughter of the Duke of Normandy. After Ethelred’s death in 1016, the Danes took control of England, and Edward’s family was forced into exile in Normandy. Edward lived in Normandy until 1041, when he returned to England. After he took the throne in 1042, Edward relied on his trusted Norman advisors. Godwine, the powerful Earl of Wessex, didn’t appreciate the Norman influence, and tried to dominate Edward’s reign. Edward married Godwine’s daughter Edith in 1045, but it didn’t stop the bad blood. Edward and Godwine feuded up until Godwine’s death in 1053. However, Harold, Godwine’s son and Edward’s brother-in-law, did much for King Edward. In particular, he dealt with the Welsh and Northumbrians, securing England’s western and northern borders. After Edward’s death in January 1066, Harold—claiming to be Edward’s named successor—became king of England.
Across the English Channel, however, William, the Duke of Normandy, was stewing. He claimed that Edward, his cousin, had already promised him the English throne. As William enlisted knights from Normandy and northern France, Harold prepared to defend England’s southern coast against an attack. But, to complicate things for Harold, the king of Norway suddenly invaded northern England. Harold shifted his troops north, where they defeated the invading Norwegians near York.
During Harold’s absence from the southern coast of England, William landed his army without opposition. Harold hastened south with his weary forces and gathered such militiamen as he could along the way. He met William’s invading troops at the hill of Senlac, near the town of Hastings. The details of the daylong battle are unclear. But historians think Harold’s men held the top of the hill. Then the Normans pretended to retreat in disorder, causing the English militia on the flanks to rush down the hill in pursuit. The Norman knights split the English formation, cutting the separate elements of the enemy army to pieces. Harold was killed, probably by a Norman arrow. You can read all about it—actually, you can see all about it in the Bayeux Tapestry.
On Christmas Day, 1066, William was crowned king of England. Not everyone in England thought William so kingly, however. It took him five more years to complete his conquest of England. After that, William—now “the Conqueror”—ruled England, somewhat peacefully, until his death on Sept. 9, 1087.