1066 is considered one of those dates in Medieval England which is difficult to forget. At the start of 1066, England was ruled by Edward the Confessor. By the end of the year, a Norman – William the Conqueror – was king after defeating Edward’s successor, Harold, at the Battle of Hastings. With three kings in one year, a legendary battle in October and a Norman in charge of England, it is little wonder that people rarely forget the year 1066. Many historians view 1066 as the start of Medieval England.
At the start of 1066, England was lead by King Edward who was respected and loved by his people. Such was his saint-like lifestyle, that he was known as Edward the Confessor. Edward was a very religious man and he ordered the building of the first Westminster Abbey. However, when he died in January 1066, he left no heir to the throne. His nearest surviving blood relative was Edgar – but he was only a child and no-one would respect him. Edgar had also spent a lot of time in Hungary – so few people knew him in England. This was a time when powerful men who were victorious in battle were respected; so a child like Edgar had little chance to impress those who held power in England.
The most powerful nobleman was Harold Godwinson and he was Earl of Wessex. He was not a blood relative of the king but he was heavily supported by other noblemen in the Witan (a council of England’s most powerful nobles). He had been the leader of Edward the Confessor’s army and he was experienced in government. It was said (by Harold) that Edward named Harold as his successor on his deathbed and that the most important noblemen in the country had agreed to his choice when they met as the King’s Council – the Witan.
William claimed that he was the rightful heir to the throne of England despite the fact that he was not English. He visited England in 1051 and claimed that Edward promised the throne to him when he died. There is no proof of this promise being made.
Also in 1064, Harold was shipwrecked off of the coast of Normandy and held captive by Count Guy de Ponthieu. William paid for Harold’s release and he was held in the court of William in Normandy. By any standards, Harold was a prize catch for William.
Harold was faced with two choices: he could spend the rest of his life in Norman captivity or he could return to England and lead the life of a nobleman. To return to England he had to promise to support William’s claim to be the next king of England after Edward’s death. The Bayeaux Tapestry clearly shows Harold swearing a sacred oath on the bones of a saint. For this reason, William was confident that Harold would keep his promise on the death of Edward.
However, despite the Bayeaux Tapestry, there is no proof that Harold actually did make this promise. A man called William of Poitiers, claimed that he witnessed the promise being made. But he was a close colleague of William who was given work in William’s court. Monks in England at the time wrote the “Anglo-Saxon Chronicles” – a history of England at the time. Nothing about a promise is mentioned in this.
On January 7th 1066, just two days after Edward’s death, Harold was crowned king by Archbishop Stigant. This was the time when a comet was seen over England – now known as Halley’s Comet – and many believed that it was a sign of bad luck for England. When William heard of what Harold had done, it is said that he flew into a terrible rage of anger. Harold defended what he had done by claiming that William had forced him to make the promise and therefore it was done by blackmail and was not valid. William promised to take what he believed was his – the throne of England – by force.
The matter was further complicated by Harold Hardrada who was king of Norway and Denmark. He believed that he was the rightful heir to the English throne because the Danes had conquered England in the past. His claim was weak but he was supported by Harold’s brother, Tostig, who had fled England in 1065 because of a rebellion in northern England against his rule there.
Of the three who claimed to be the rightful heir to Edward, only one was English. Who had the best claim?
Harold was a powerful English nobleman who was experienced in government and in leading an army. His sister, Edith, had been married to Edward the Confessor and Harold had the support of the Witan – the group of England’s leading noblemen.
William was from north France but had known Edward in their younger days. His claim lay in his belief that Edward had promised him the throne in 1051 and that he had received the support of Harold for this in 1064. With no blood ties to the English throne, William placed his claim firmly on promises made which he felt gave him the legal right to be the next king of England.
Harold Hadrada was related to Cnut who had been king of England from 1016 to 1039 and therefore he believed that this weak link entitled him to the crown.
Regardless of who claimed what, William decided that he would have to fight for what he regarded as his – the throne of England. He ordered his knights to gather at Saint Valery on the Norman coast in preparation for a sea crossing.
Throughout July and August, Harold had expected William to attempt an invasion and Harold put his troops near to the Isle of Wight – where he felt William would land. However, some of Harold’s army got tired of waiting and because they could not be fed, they went home. It was also the harvest season and many of Harold’s men had farming commitments. At the start of September, Harold received news that Tostig and Harold Hadrada had landed with an army in the north of England. He marched north with his army to fight Hadrada.
The English army met the Norwegian army at the Battle of Stamford Bridge on September 25th. The battle was bloody and violent. The River Derwent, which flows near to the field where the battle was fought, was said to have turned red with the amount of blood that went into it. The mouth of the river as it enters the North Sea was said to have been blood red. Hadrada needed 300 ships to bring his army over to the north of England. Only 30 ships were needed to take the surviving Norwegians back. Harold had a major victory and Tostig, his untrustworthy brother, was killed along with Harold Hadrada. Just two days later, on September 27th, Harold heard the news that William had landed at Pevensey Bay in Sussex.
The Battle of Hastings was less than one month away.