Wednesday, August 05, 2009

History Shorts: 1066, Conquest of England

It is widely agreed upon by historians that the year of ten sixty-six and the Norman conquest forever changed the future of England. We can only imagine how England might have developed had King Harold Godwineson survived and defeated the invading Norman army at Hastings. If the Anglo-Saxons had been allowed to develop on their own, what sort of country would England be today? The Normans did more than change the face of England, they brought with them new technology, skills and ideals that had never before been introduced to the Englisc people. They built fortresses out of stone to better suppress the Englisc. Brought warriors with the ability to fight mounted on mighty warhorses, which were able to defeat the elite Saxon warriors known as the Huscarles. They brought forth the feudal system which suppressed every Englisc man, woman and child, while turning the Normans into the ruling class. French became the language of the Nobility and Englisc that of the peasants, widening the gap between the rich and the poor. But not even Duke William of Normandy had wanted to rule England with an iron fist.

It had been William's dream from the first to rule England peacefully, for at an early age he had become fascinated by her rich, fertile soil and her quaint people with their lilting tongue. He had wanted to hunt in their forests, to rule their land as their king, and to learn their ancient language. Almost as if he thought to retire from the warring, grasping Barons of Normandy. It is not known for sure if King Edward the Confessor did indeed promise the throne to Duke William years earlier. However, William's dream was closer to realization as it had never been before when he ransomed an oath from Harold Godwineson upon his capture. Harold swore he would give the throne to William upon King Edward's death. But it all turned to ashes when the Confessor died, and Harold was proclaimed king by the witan—the council of elders—only hours after the Edward's death.  

We can only guess how furious William the Bastard must have been when he heard the news of the death of King Edward and the coronation of the new King of England in the same message. Perhaps he still hoped that some how he would have a chance to rule it's green shores peacefully for he sent several messengers to King Harold, no doubt to remind him of the oaths he had sworn to the duke. All of his wishes to rule England peacefully died when in desperation to raise an army, William offered England as booty to every Baron, knight and mercenary who would fight for his cause. Yet perhaps the most powerful and cunning stroke of all his planning was the messenger sent baring gifts to the Pope, Alexander II, asking him to judge as to who was the true heir and successor to the Englisc throne. It is believed that not a single shred of truth was debated, nor was Harold called upon to send his own representative. For the Pope gave his blessing to William and with it, the duke's greatest tool, the papal banner. To all who set eyes upon it, it clearly stated that the Pope and even “God” was in support of Duke William and his campaign. It is this very tool that is believed to have crushed the fighting spirit of King Harold Godwineson.

King Harold had already displayed his military prowess when he received the message that King Harald Hardrada of Norway, and his own brother Tostig, had landed near the great northern city of York with a host of Vikings determined to take the crown for themselves. Harold luckily had been at the capital at the time and immediately rallied an army and set forth from London to York in a march that took him only five days, covering over two hundred miles to reach his foe at Stamford Bridge—marching day and night without stopping. It was an amazing feet, and when he finally reached Stamford Bridge to meet his enemy, his army had swelled in size for he had recruited every available man from every village the fyrd had passed along the way. The Vikings were so impressed by the Englisc army that it is recorded that it looked like a “plain of ice from the sun glinting off their weapons.” 

Harold was very much the diplomat just as his father had been, and before the battle he offered his brother the Earl Tostig peace and one third of the kingdom if he would surrender now, but to the Vikings he offered only death. Tostig declined and so the fighting began. It was ferocious as it could only be with thousands of men fighting hand-to-hand combat. The Englisc pushed the Norsemen across the bridge and into the river. Seeing that his Vikings were loosing, King Harald became filled with the berserker spirit and enraged, plowed into the ranks of the fyrd, slaughtering Engliscmen left and right, until in the end, he himself was brought low, killed by an arrow in the throat. The fighting stopped then and once again King Harold Godwineson offered peace to Tostig and the remaining Norsemen, but they would not have it. The fighting continued into the evening and in the end the Viking army was annihilated. It was while the Englisc and their King were celebrating their victory at York that they received the message that Duke William and his Norman army had landed at the town of Pevensey.
In another amazing feat, Harold marched his army straight from York to Caldbec Hill near the town of Hastings were the Norman army had marched and conquered. The King's army was now smaller, but there were still many counties who had not been affected by the invading Norsemen nor the Normans and would have been easy to call upon. But something happened to Harold between his victorious battle at Stamford and his total defeat at Hastings. It is not known for sure but it is believed that the Papal banner is what brought the Englisc King so low. Perhaps he felt guilty at having broken an oath to the Duke, no matter that it had been given under duress, for now it appeared that the Pope and even God was against him. 

The Englisc took the defensive position upon the Senlac ridge, effectively cutting off the route to London. It was a good position, but no battle can be won without an offensive attack. And yet none ever came. The English stood defending the ridge against the continuous onslaught of the attacking Normans, but never once did they charge upon the invaders. The fyrd of eight thousand strong began to diminish in size. It is said that lines of the Englisc were so thick and deep that even those who had died by the hail of Norman arrows were held up by their brethren even after death. Their lines were finally broken and scattered by the repeated attacks of the mounted knights. It is not exactly clear how Harold died, for the only records left to us come from the Normans. According to the Bayeux Tapestry, the King was blinded by an arrow in the eye, and then viciously hacked to death by William himself and three other of his closest men. And there at the Battle of Hastings died the last Saxon King of England.

Even after the victory at Hastings and the defeat of Harold, it was still no easy task for William to conquer England for he and his men were waylaid by dysentery. It has been speculated that the Englisc could have many times stopped the invading foreigners, with more battles or guerrilla warfare, for there were many Englisc warriors that had not been killed at either battles and yet it was as if the spirit of the whole people of England had been defeated by the death of their king and the papal banner. After the ravishment and destruction of Romney and Dover, the great cities of Cantabury and Winchester surrendered to the Duke without a fight, as did most of Kent, Sussex, Wessex and East Anglia. London was now all that lay between William and victory. And after effectively cutting it off from the rest of England by a path of devastation that circled the countryside around the great city, it too finally surrendered. Though William was crowned King of England on Christmas day, he had yet to fully conquer the entire country, for the north remained untouched.

 In the end, England became more trouble than it was worth. Though the Duke had conquered it with relative ease, he continually had to contend with the Englisc that rebelled in the north, and even his own barons, angry with his laws, rose up against him time and time again, until he spent as much time in Normandy as he dared. He gave up hope of ever learning the Englisc tongue and could no longer stand spending his time with a people who hated him with a passion. William died in Normandy, begging forgiveness for all the violence and death he had visited upon the Englisc people.
By ten eighty-six, over two hundred thousand Normans, French, and Flemish had settled in England becoming the ruling class, while over three hundred thousand Engliscmen had been killed by their oppressors. The dark age for the Anglo-Saxons had only just begun and would continue for several hundred years more, because of one man's obsession.


~ 1066: The Year of the Conquest - by David Howarth ISBN# 0-14-00-5850-8 
~ William the Conqueror - by David C. Douglas ISBN#0-520-00350-0 
~ William I, the Conqueror - 
~ Harold II - 
~ Edward III, the Confessor - 

History Shorts: 1066, Conquest of England © Ingela F. Hyatt 2003 

Labels: , , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home