Throughout his reign, the childless Edward the Confessor had used the absence of a clear successor to the throne as a bargaining tool. In 1051, after a breach with Godwine, the earl of Wessex and the most powerful man in England, Edward probably designated William, a cousin, as his heir. Upon Godwine’s death in 1053, his son Harold became earl of Wessex, and Harold spent the next decade consolidating his power and winning favour among the nobles and clergy. According to Norman accounts, among them the Bayeux Tapestry, Harold subsequently swore an oath of fealty to William and promised to uphold William’s claim to the English throne. Nevertheless, on his deathbed (January 5, 1066) Edward granted the kingdom to Harold, who, with the backing of the English nobility, was crowned king the next day.
By this time, however, William controlled, directly or by alliance, every harbour from the Schelde to Brest. His father-in-law, Baldwin V of Flanders, was regent of France, and Geoffrey III, the count of Anjou and his only dangerous neighbour, was distracted by rebellion. With a solemn blessing from Pope Alexander II and the emperor’s approval, William prepared to enforce his claim to the English crown. He persuaded the Norman barons to promise support and recruited thousands of volunteers from Brittany, Maine, France, Flanders, Spain, and Italy. The organization of supplies and transport for this miscellaneous host and the imposition of disciplined Norman cohesion upon them were probably William’s supreme military achievements.
Harold mobilized his fleet and army in May, repelled his outlawed brother Tostig’s raids on the south and east coasts, and concentrated his large fleet off Spithead and his militia along the Hampshire, Sussex, and Kentish coasts. Ready to move early in August, William’s transports were kept in port by north winds for eight weeks, first in the Dives estuary until September 12, then at Saint-Valery-sur-Somme. Meanwhile, the English militia, short of supplies after four months’ fruitless waiting, lost morale and were dismissed on September 8. Harold’s ships were brought back to the Thames, with many being lost en route. The English Channel was thus left open, and the best chance of destroying William’s army was lost. About that time Harald III Sigurdson, king of Norway and another claimant of the English crown, allied himself with Tostig and entered the Humber with 300 ships. There he defeated the forces of Edwin, earl of Mercia, and his brother Morcar, earl of Northumbria, in a heavy battle at Gate Fulford, outside York (September 20). This battle not only crippled Harald’s forces, but also left the two earls incapable of raising another army that year. King Harold, hearing of this invasion, left London immediately with his housecarls and such thanes and shire militia as he could muster, and by forced marches surprised the invaders at Stamford Bridge on September 25, utterly destroying them and killing Harald and Tostig.
On September 27 the wind changed, and William crossed to England unopposed, with an army of 4,000 to 7,000 cavalry and infantry, disembarking at Pevensey in Sussex. He quickly moved his forces eastward along the coast to Hastings, fortified his position, and began to explore and ravage the area, determined not to lose touch with his ships until he had defeated Harold’s main army. Harold, at York, learned of William’s landing on or about October 2 and hurried southward, gathering reinforcements as he went. By October 13 Harold was approaching Hastings with about 7,000 men, many of whom were half-armed, untrained peasants. He had mobilized barely half of England’s trained soldiers, yet he advanced against William instead of making William come to meet him in a chosen defensive position. The bold yet ultimately unsuccessful strategy is probably explained by Harold’s eagerness to defend his own men and lands, which William was harrying, and to thrust the Normans back into the sea.
William, warned of Harold’s approach, determined to force battle immediately. At dawn on October 14 William moved toward Harold’s army, which was occupying a ridge 10 miles (16 km) northwest of Hastings. William disposed his army for attack—archers and crossbowmen in the front line, his heavy infantry in the second, his knights in three divisions in the rear, Normans in the centre, Bretons and French on left and right, respectively. Harold’s English army, lacking archers and cavalry, prepared for defense on the protected summit of the ridge. Their position was not wholly favourable; William’s advance was unexpected, and Harold had to fight where he stood or retreat. He placed himself, his housecarls, and his other trained troops around his standard at the summit of the ridge (where the high altar of Battle Abbey was later placed), grouping his other troops along the crest for about 400 yards (365 metres) westward and about 200 yards (about 180 metres) eastward, at which points the slope became steep enough to protect both flanks. The front was too small: some men, finding no fighting room, withdrew; the rest, in too close order, made a perfect target for arrows.
The easy slope allowed William’s knights an open approach, against which Harold relied on the close “shield wall” formation of his trained troops to hurl back and dishearten the enemy. The heavily armoured knight, riding a powerful charger and holding couched a heavy thrusting lance, was still 100 years away. Norman armour was flimsy, the horses light and unprotected, and the knights, using javelins, maces, and swords, had to engage the English infantry hand-to-hand. Harold’s hopes depended on keeping his line unbroken and his casualties light, thus exhausting and demoralizing the Normans.
William’s archers opened at close range, inflicting many casualties but suffering heavily from the English slings and spears. William therefore threw in his cavalry, which was so badly mauled by English infantry wielding two-handed battle-axes that it panicked and fled. William himself checked and turned them, counterattacking a large body of Englishmen who had broken ranks in pursuit. William pressed his cavalry charges throughout the day, interspersing them with flights of arrows, and annihilating considerable numbers of Englishmen whom he drew from their positions by feigning retreat twice. The defense, hard-pressed, depleted, and tiring, was worn down and slowly outnumbered. Harold’s brothers, Gyrth and Leofwine, fell, and, according to the Bayeux Tapestry, Harold himself was killed late in the afternoon when he was struck in the eye by an arrow. The leaderless English fought on until dusk, then broke; a last rally in the gloom caused the Normans further casualties and endangered William himself. As darkness fell, the English scattered, leaving William the winner of one of the most daring gambles in history. After the battle his army moved to isolate London, where William I was crowned king on December 25.
Harold II, also called Harold Godwineson or Harold Godwinson, (born c. 1020—died October 14, 1066, near Hastings, Sussex, England), last Anglo-Saxon king of England. A strong ruler and a skilled general, he held the crown for nine months in 1066 before he was killed at the Battle of Hastings by Norman invaders under William the Conqueror.
Harold’s mother, Gytha, belonged to a powerful Danish noble family with close connections to Canute, the Danish king of England. Harold’s father, Godwine, earl of Wessex and Kent, was an important supporter of the king. Although an ally of the Anglo-Danish line, Godwine accepted the accession as king of a member of the former English royal family, Edward the Confessor (1042–66), following the death of Canute’s successor. Godwine emerged as the dominant figure in the kingdom early in Edward’s reign, more powerful even than the king himself. About 1044, Godwine obtained for Harold the earldom of East Anglia, Essex, Cambridgeshire, and Huntingdonshire, and in 1045 Edward married Edith, Godwine’s daughter and Harold’s sister.
In 1051, however, Godwine refused to obey a royal command to punish the people of a town friendly to him. Both sides rallied their troops, but Godwine’s rebellion collapsed when powerful nobles supported the king. Godwine and his sons were banished for defying royal authority, and Edward sent his wife to a convent and designated William of Normandy as his heir. (Exiled from 1016 to 1041, Edward had found sanctuary in Normandy. In addition, his mother was a Norman, and he had close connections to Norman churchmen.) In 1052 Harold invaded England and forced the king to restore his father and his family to their previous positions.
Godwine’s restoration was short-lived; he died in 1053. Harold, whose older brother Sweyn had died on pilgrimage the previous year, succeeded to his father’s earldoms, becoming (as his father had been) the dominant figure in the kingdom. His hand was further strengthened in the 1050s by the deaths of Leofric, the earl of Mercia, and other rivals, and by 1057 Harold had obtained earldoms for his three brothers, Tostig, Gyrth, and Leofwine. Harold cultivated good relations with the leading clerics of the kingdom, including Stigand, the bishop of Winchester and archbishop of Canterbury, and was an active patron of various religious houses, most notably the college of canons at Waltham.
Harold faced opposition, however, from Aelfgar, the exiled son and heir of Leofric, who raided Mercia with help from a leading Welsh prince. In retaliation, Harold and Tostig subjugated Wales in 1063. Two years later Harold endured another challenge when the Northumbrians revolted against Tostig, their earl. After killing many of Tostig’s supporters, the rebels offered the earldom to Morcar of Mercia, a member of the family of Leofric, and forced Harold to accept him. Tostig, declared an outlaw by the Northumbrians and abandoned by Harold, fled to Flanders. Harold, however, gained some advantage from this situation. Although he had lost the support of Tostig, he strengthened his position with the Mercians and the Welsh by marrying Morcar’s sister, who had previously been married to a Welsh prince.
Having established himself as the preeminent figure in England by the mid-1060s, Harold most likely expected to ascend the throne after the passing of the childless Edward. His designs, however, were complicated by events in 1064. According to contemporary Norman sources, notably the Bayeux Tapestry, Harold was sent by Edward to Normandy to confirm Duke William as the king’s heir. While en route, Harold was shipwrecked and captured by Guy I of Ponthieu, one of William’s vassals. The duke demanded Harold’s release and may have ransomed him. Harold was warmly welcomed by William and joined him on a military campaign in Brittany. According to the Bayeux Tapestry and other Norman accounts, Harold also swore an oath of fealty to William and promised to protect William’s claim to the English throne.
Despite his promise of the throne to William, Edward from his deathbed designated Harold his heir. On January 6, 1066, the day after Edward’s death, Harold was elected by the English nobility and crowned and anointed king at Winchester Abbey by the archbishop of York.
Harold’s reign, however, was destined to be short and troubled. He was immediately threatened by William and Harald III Hardraade, king of Norway, as well as by Tostig. In May, Harold mobilized his fleet and a peasant army of the south to guard the coast against an expected invasion by William. Meanwhile, Harold was forced to repel Tostig’s raids on the southern and eastern coasts. In September Harald and Tostig invaded in the north, defeating an army at Gate Fulford; marching northward, Harold met them at Stamford Bridge, where he won an overwhelming victory on September 25. Harald and Tostig were killed, and the remnants of their armies quickly left England.
Earlier in September, Harold had been forced to disband his southern army because he had run out of supplies and because his troops had to return to the harvest. Thus, William was free to cross the English Channel unopposed. Finally blessed with favourable winds, William sailed from Normandy on the evening of September 27–28, landed without incident at Pevesney, and set up camp at Hastings. Harold, having just defeated Harald and Tostig, marched southward in all haste, reaching London on October 6. There his army, exhausted by the forced marches across England, rested a few days before setting out to Hastings. In the morning of October 14, however, before Harold had prepared his troops for battle, William’s forces attacked. Despite the surprise, the outcome of the battle was far from certain. William’s efforts to shatter Harold’s shield wall (a formation of troops in which soldiers stand shoulder to shoulder with their shields overlapping) failed at first, and William’s horsemen broke ranks and fled in confusion, with Harold’s army in hot pursuit. But William managed to rally his mounted knights, who turned and cut their pursuers to pieces. Later in the battle, William’s knights feigned two retreats, killing those who chased them. The deaths of Harold—killed by an arrow in the eye, according to the Bayeux Tapestry—and other Anglo-Saxon leaders finally won the day for William. His accession to the English throne as King William I ended the Anglo-Saxon phase of English history.
The manner of Harold’s legendary death, in the medieval view, was the proper fate of perjurers. It is unclear whether Harold really died in this way, however; indeed, legends from the 12th century maintain that he was not killed at Hastings. According to one such tale, Harold spent two years recovering from wounds he received at Hastings before going on pilgrimage in France and England. He returned as an old man and lived as a hermit at Dover and Chester, where he revealed his true identity just before dying. Despite his brief reign, Harold was a key figure in English history and a talented leader in peace and war.
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The policies of William the Conqueror, king of England from 1066 until his death in 1087, may be largely responsible for eventually making Britain the most powerful nation in Europe.UPDATED: MAY 21, 2021Photo: Time Life Pictures/Mansell/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images
At the age of eight, William the Conqueror became duke of Normandy and later King of England. Violence plagued his early reign, but with the help of King Henry I of France, William managed to survive the early years. After the Battle of Hastings, in 1066, he was crowned king of England. He never spoke English and was illiterate, but he had more influence on the evolution of the English language then anyone before or since. William ruled England until his death, on September 9, 1087, in Rouen, France.
Born circa 1028 in Falaise, Normandy, France, William the Conqueror was an illegitimate child of Robert I, duke of Normandy, who died in 1035 while returning from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
At only eight years of age, William became the new duke of Normandy. Violence and corruption-plagued his early reign, as the feudal barons fought for control of his fragile dukedom. A few of William's guards died and his teacher was murdered during a period of severe anarchy. With the help of King Henry I of France, William managed to survive the early years.
King Henry I of France knighted William, still in his teens, in 1042. Taking a new stand on political events, William finally gained firm control of his duchy (although his enemies commonly referred to him as "The Bastard" due to his illegitimate birth). By 1064 he had conquered and won two neighboring provinces — Brittany and Maine. In the meantime, the childless king of England — Edward the Confessor, whose mother was a sister of William's grandfather — promised William succession to the English throne.
However, when Edward died in 1066, his brother-in-law and most powerful of the English lords, Harold Godwin, claimed the throne of England for himself (despite an oath he made to William to support his claim). The Witan, a council of English lords that commonly took part in deciding succession, supported Harold. William, angered by the betrayal, decided to invade England and enforce his claim.
William assembled a fleet and an army on the French coast, but due to unrelenting north winds, their advance was delayed for several weeks. In the meantime, the Norwegian army invaded England from the North Sea. Harold, who had been preparing for William's invasion from the south, rapidly moved his army north to defend England from Norway. After defeating the Norwegians, Harold unwisely marched his troops back down to meet William, without a rest.
On October 14, 1066, the two armies met in the famous Battle of Hastings. King Harold and his two brothers were killed in the battle, and since no one of stature remained to raise a new army, William's path to the throne was clear. He was crowned king of England on Christmas Day.
There were several revolts in the next five years, which William used as an excuse to confiscate English land and declare it his personal property. He then distributed the land to his Norman followers, who imposed their unique feudal system. Eventually, Normans replaced the entire Anglo-Saxon aristocracy. William, however, retained most of England's institutions and was intensely interested in learning about his new property. He ordered a detailed census to be made of the population and property of England — which was compiled in The Domesday Book (now an invaluable source of historical information and still in the Public Record Office in London).
William died on September 9, 1087, in Rouen, France.
Although he never spoke English and was illiterate, he had more influence on the evolution of the English language than anyone before or since — adding a slew of French and Latin words to the English dictionary. The introduction of skilled Norman administrators may be largely responsible for eventually making England the most powerful government in Europe.
William the Conqueror had four sons and five daughters, and every monarch of England since has been his direct descendant.
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