The Norman Invasion: An Epic 11th Century Battle for the English Throne
When Edward the Confessor died childless, the stage was set for the Norman invasion of England in the 11th century. Although the king was succeeded by his brother-in-law, Harold Godwinson, the succession was challenged by Edward’s cousin once removed, William II, the Duke of Normandy. As a result, William invaded England, conquered it from Harold, and became William I of England. The Norman conquest of England had a significant impact on the history of the country.
On January 5, 1066, Edward the Confessor, who is usually considered to be the last English king of the House of Wessex, died in London. As the king had been childless, he was succeeded by his brother-in-law and Earl of Wessex, Harold Godwinson . The succession was soon disputed, and there were two claimants to the throne, the King of Norway, Harald Hardrada, and the Duke of Normandy, William II. The former based his claim on his relation to Harthacnut, an English king of the House of Denmark, who, like Edward, died childless. Harald invaded England in 1066, but was defeated at the Battle of Stamford Bridge, and he lost his life whilst fighting the English.
Harold meeting Edward shortly before his death, depicted in scene 25 of the Bayeux Tapestry. ( Public Domain )
William the Conqueror has a Claim the Throne
As for William, his claim to the English throne was based on the fact that he was Edward’s cousin once removed. Edward’s mother, Emma of Normandy, was the sister of Richard II, the Duke of Normandy. Richard, in turn, was William’s grandfather. The Norman claim was further strengthened by the cordial relations between Edward and William. In 1016, Edward’s father, Aethelred, died. His successor, Edmund Ironside (Edward’s brother) died later that year as well. As a result, the Danes returned to power in England, and Edward lived in exile in Normandy until 1041. Edward would have met William during this time, and his long stay in Normandy would have made him sympathetic towards them.
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In 1042, William returned to England as king. It is likely that William provided support to Edward when he returned to England and expected to be rewarded for this. As Edward aged and no heir was produced, William began to develop designs on the English throne. The king himself encouraged William’s ambitions. The latter may have visited England during the exile of Godwin, the powerful Earl of Wessex, and Edward’s father-in-law, in 1051, and was promised the throne by the king.
Portrait of William the Conqueror by an unknown artist, circa 1620. ( Public Domain )
Moreover, according to the Normans, Harold Godwinson, the brother-in-law of Edward, was sent by the king to Normandy in 1064/5 to confirm Edward’s recognition of William as his heir. The account goes on to say that during the journey, Harold was captured by one of the duke’s vassals, but was ransomed by William himself. The duke then took Harold with him on his campaign in Brittany, and the Englishman swore an oath in which he renewed Edward’s bequest of the throne to William, and promised to support it. It is unclear if this actually happened, as the English sources do not make any mention of this.
Normans at the Battle of Hastings
From his deathbed, Edward named his brother-in-law, Harold Godwinson, as his heir. Harold was crowned the day after Edward’s death. Harold’s acceptance of the English throne was perceived as a breach of the oath by William, and the Normans prepared to invade England. On September 27, 1066, William crossed the Channel, and landed in in Pevensey on the next day. On October 14, 1066, the Battle of Hastings was fought, just a couple of weeks after Harold’s victory over Harald Hardrada at the Battle of Stamford Bridge. This time, however, the English were defeated, and their king was killed in battle, by an arrow in the eye, according to the Bayeux Tapestry . The death of Harold marked the end of the Anglo-Saxon rule in England, and the start of Norman England, a period that lasted till 1154.
Bayeux Tapestry Scene 57: Harold's death. Legend above: Harold rex interfectus est, "King Harold is killed." ( Public Domain )
Significance of the Norman Conquest
The Norman conquest of England affected the country significantly in a number of ways. For instance, the Latin-based Anglo-Norman language became the language of the ruling class. It retained its status as a prestige language for nearly three centuries, long after the end of the Norman period. This had a huge impact on the modern English language, and the origin of many English words today may be traced back to this period.
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Another impact of the Norman conquest of England is seen in the relations between the Anglo-Normans and the French. For example, whilst the King of England was a peer of the French king, he was also one of his vassals. This paradox persisted under the Plantagenets, the successors of William’s dynasty. In 1204, the King of England’s holdings in France, with the exception of Gascony, were seized by the French king. This led to the Hundred Years’ War during the 14th and 15th centuries, in which the Plantagenets attempted to regain their lands in France.
Norman expeditionary ship depicted in the chronicle ‘Le Canarien’ (1490). ( Public Domain )
Top image: Cavalry attack on the Bayeux tapestry. This tapestry depicts the Normans preparing for and invading England. Source: Steven Zucker/ CC BY NC SA 2.0
By Wu Mingren
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