1066 A Brief History?

... from four different perspectives


Let's Hear It For Harold
by Helen Hollick

1066, the most famous date in English history. The Battle of Hastings. To be precise, the 14th of October, 1066, the day when William, Duke of Normandy, led his conquering army against King Harold II of England.

Today, 950 years later, one could be forgiven for thinking that modern governments had invented spin doctoring, but media manipulation is nothing new. By 1077, Duke William's half-brother, Bishop Odo of Bayeux, had commissioned an embroidery - now called the Bayeux Tapestry - to depict the victorious events; William of Poitiers and William of Jumièges had both written a detailed version of the Conquest. William himself had ordered the building of a splendid abbey on the battle site, the altar being placed at the spot where Harold fell. Supposedly killed by an arrow in the eye.

However, the Norman versions are heavily biased, their explicit purpose: to prove to a Papal inquiry, concerned at the level of brutality and aggression meted on the English, that William's conquest had been justified.

Within twenty years of the Conquest, after the North of England had been savagely razed and the Domesday Book compiled, King Harold II's reign of nine months and nine days was completely undermined. Despite legitimate crowning and anointing in the newly built Westminster Abbey, he was systematically downgraded to his pre-1066 title of Earl, and discredited. William's media managers had to justify political murder.

Strip away the Norman gilding, and what do you get? Twisted truths and blatant lies. Start with the fact that William had no right whatsoever to claim the English throne.

He was the result of Duke Robert of Normandy's liaison with Herleve, the daughter of a tanner. No-one in Normandy expected Robert to die before he took a legal wife and had a legitimate heir. In fairness to William, he did suffer a traumatic childhood. The Norman nobles were not happy bunnies, they did not want an eight-year-old by-blow as their next Duke. As a child, William had to flee for his life more than once; saw his trusted servant murdered before his eyes.

William's claim, in 1066, was that his great-aunt, Emma, had been Queen of England - the only woman to have been queen to two different kings. Æthelred, better known as the Unready, and Cnut - that's the p..c. spelling of Canute - the king famous for attempting to hold back the tide. Her first born son was Edward, later canonised and called the Confessor. Blame the Conquest on him. He was sent into exile when, with Æthelred dead and England falling to the conquest of the Dane, Cnut, Emma decided to remain queen by marrying him. For more than thirty years Edward languished in Normandy. He was in his early teens when he left, a man approaching middle years when he came back, recalled to be crowned King of England. He was a man indoctrinated with the Norman way of life, and probably, would have preferred to take Holy Orders. He may have declared a vow of chastity, or he may have been gay. There are indications to infer he was. Prime among them, his wife, Edith, bore him no children. In this period of history barrenness was always the woman's fault. Edith was never blamed. Edward even took her back as wife after a nasty incident when her father was accused of turning traitor and forced into exile. Edith was sent to a nunnery, always a woman's fate, but after a year, with Godwine forgiven and re-instated as Earl, she too was recalled.

Oh, and by the way, the Normans were not French, although William's great-grandfather had embraced Christianity and the French, civilised, way of life. The Normans were re-located North Men. They were Vikings.

According to William's biographers, King Edward had appointed him his heir, and despite swearing an oath to support his claim, Harold had seized the throne in indecent haste, and had himself crowned on the same day as the old king's funeral, January 6th 1066. Outraged, William immediately ordered an invasion of England, and while Halley's Comet blazed in the sky, a fleet was assembled. In September, he crossed the English Channel without mishap. In the meantime, Harold's brother, Tostig had invaded Yorkshire vwith the Norwegian King, Harald Hardrada. Moving swiftly, Harold marched to Stamford Bridge near York and won a victory, but when he heard of William's landing, he had to return, hot-foot, south.

Medieval spin doctors would have us believe that Harold was a poor commander who fought with a tired and depleted army against the elite supremacy of Norman cavalry. Victorious, William marched on London and on Christmas Day was the first king to be crowned in all splendour in Westminster Abbey. (History has disregarded Harold's legitimate crowning ever since.)

So how had Harold become King? His father, Godwine, was the most powerful man beneath Edward. He had risen  under Emma and Cnut. Five of his six sons became earls and his daughter, Edith was Edward's childless queen. When Godwine died Harold stepped into his shoes as Earl of Wessex. Harold proved, several times, that he was an able and capable soldier. He conquered Wales, not Edward I in the thirteenth century. Harold became King of England because he was the most suitable man for the job. Edward could not have appointed William as heir, things did not work like that in Anglo-Saxon England. When a successor had to be found, the most suitable man was chosen by the Council, the Witan. William might have been considered, but against Harold? No contest.

The coronation took place on the day of the funeral because everyone of importance had been summoned to the Christmas Court. By early January they needed to return home, and England could not be left vulnerable until the next calling of Council at Easter. There was nothing untoward about accomplishing such important issues on the same day.

But what of the claim that Harold had pledged an oath to aid William? In 1064 Harold went to Normandy, his voyage duly recorded on the Bayeux Tapestry. Norman sources declare he went to offer William the crown; more likely he was hoping to achieve the release of his brother Wulfnoth and nephew Hakon, held hostage by William since that temporary disgrace of Earl Godwine back in 1052. (I'll not go into detail, suffice to say the exile was caused by some Normans stirring trouble in Dover. Godwine refused to take their side, hence his falling out with the King. For some reason, when the Normans went home they took the two boys with them.) Harold did return to England with Hakon, but Wulfnoth never saw his freedom again.

While William's guest, Harold went on campaign with the Duke, earning himself honours by rescuing two men from drowning near Mont St. Michel (again depicted in the tapestry). Riding with William, Harold would have discovered what sort of man he was. Dedicated to his cause. Single-minded. Ruthless. At the siege of Alencon, William had men skinned alive for daring to taunt him about the nature of his mother's background. William was was quite capable of slaughtering innocent women and children.

At William's Court, Harold was forced to swear, on holy relics, an oath to agree to support the Duke's claim to the English throne. Did he have any choice? What would have been the consequences for him  and his men if he had refused? William, as his own vassals knew and Harold had discovered, was not a man you said non to. If you knew you would be locked away for the rest of your life and your men butchered, wouldn't you have risked perjury?

For a Saxon nobleman it was a matter of honour to protect those you command. To place his men in danger by refusing, Harold would have brought a greater dishonour on himself..

As for Harold's command at Hastings - he showed aptitude and courage, dignity and ability. Norman propaganda states that he fought with tired men, with only half the fyrd - the army - and without the support of the North. Tosh! 

In mid-September, Harold had marched from London to York in five days to confront his jealous, traitorous brother, Tostig, who had allied with Harald Hardrada of Norway. The southern fyrd, on alert all summer, had been stood down (possibly because the Norman fleet had been defeated by the English fleet at sea). He took only his housecarls - his permanent army, north, gathering the men of the Midlands to him as he marched. Undoubtedly, the housecarls were mounted for no infantry could cover that distance so quickly. Already the fyrds of the north had fought and lost a great battle at Gate Fulford, outside York. Under Harold, they fought again - this time to win - at Stamford Bridge. And again, very possibly on horseback.

It was not that the nobility and the men of the Northern Fyrd did not want to support Harold at Hastings; they could not, for their numbers were savagely depleted, many of the survivors wounded and exhausted after fighting two battles. It would have been impossible for them to have marched south when news came that William had landed. The northern earls did, in fact, follow Harold as soon as they could but, of course, by then it was too late.

The battle that took place seven miles inland from Hastings is almost unique for this period. Fighting was usually over within the hour, two at most. This battle lasted all day. The English, for the most part, stood firm along the ridge that straddled the road out into the Weald, stood shield locked against shield, William's men toiling again and again up that hill. This was deliberate strategy on Harold's part. He and his men had marched to York and back, fought a battle in between. Doesn't it make good sense to make the opponent do all the hard work? Yes, perhaps Harold should have waited before committing his men to fight, but he had no choice in the decision: once out into the Weald it would have been difficult to stop William. Within the Hastings peninsula, he and the extensive, deliberate, damage he was doing to people and property were firmly contained. Harold had to keep him there, therefore Harold had to fight.

He stood his men, firm, along the ridge, forming the shield wall. Side by side (to coin an over-used  phrase, "shoulder to shoulder") Shouting their contempt, clashing spear and axe against their shields, hurling abuse down that steep, grass hill that so rapidly became a morass of mud and blood: 

"Ut! Ut! Ut! - Out! Out! Out!" 

 Only once did Harold's men let him down. The right flank broke - assuming William's men were beaten they tore down the hill after them, Being cavalry, the Normans were able to re-group. The result was outright slaughter, every Saxon was killed.Three times William was unhorsed. Three times the Normans retreated; only the fear of William's wrath held them together, although the Norman writers naturally portrayed their blind panic as strategic withdrawal.

And so to Harold's death. The Bayeux Tapestry depicts a man wounded by an arrow in his eye, and another being felled by a sword, the words 'Here Harold is killed' above both. Which one is Harold? Well, it is not the one with the arrow. Arrows travel in a trajectory. They go up, form an arc, come down. Can you honestly believe that there stood Harold, an experienced soldier, looking upward as arrows came over? 

King Harold II of England died at the hands of four of William's ignoble noblemen. They dismembered and decapitated him.

The truth of Hastings? Our last English king died slowly and bloodily. He was savagely hacked to pieces on the battlefield that later became known as Hastings' Göd cyning -  Harold was a good king. He gave his life defending England from foreign invasion, and has paid the penalty of deliberately twisted truth ever since.

King Harold II depicted on the facade of
Waltham Abbey - originally built by
 Harold when he was Earl of Essex
(photo www.avalongraphics.org )
On the other hand....  Let's Hear it for Harald Hardrada..
by Joanna Courtney

Harald Hardrada didn’t really have a concrete claim to the English throne at all, but as a Viking king, and a warrior through and through, he wasn’t overly bothered with the niceties of a legal claim, being more than happy to take the throne by the usual Viking method – with the sword.
That said, however, Harald was a modern-day Viking. He was not one of the original pagan invaders that we think of when we imagine the ravening hoards piling into Lindisfarne. Harald was a Christian, a sophisticated man of the world, and had been King of Norway for nearly twenty years when he made his claim on England. He had personally led a movement to improve both the law courts and the economy of Norway and, although he still intended to take England in battle, he did appreciate the need for a little justification.
So where did he find it? Well, it went back to Harthacnut who had become King of England following the death of his father, the infamous King Cnut. Cnut, incidentally, was a Dane who had taken first Norway and then England (by the sword) and proclaimed himself ‘Emperor of the North’. It’s a pretty cool title and I think it’s fair to say that Harald Hardrada probably had his eye on it for himself. He had spent years fighting the Danes – it was his favourite summer sport –and I doubt he had given up aspirations in that direction when he set his three-hundred ships in the direction of England in 1066. Indeed, taking England would have been a big step on his way to also taking Denmark.
What’s more King Cnut had been a popular and strong king. England, it must be remembered, was very much a part of Northern Europe before 1066. It would be naïve to say that it was the Normans who connected us more closely to continental Europe, as many trading links had already been forged with France and Germany  – and even down into Byzantium, but nonetheless, before 1066 our cultural heritage was intimately tied up with Scandinavia. Anglo-Saxons, after all, were originally Angles and Saxons – tribes from Denmark – and your archetypal Englishman was tall and blond like his Scandinavian neighbours.
The indigenous British Celts had long since either intermarried with the English, or remained independent on the edges of England – Scotland, Wales, Ireland and Cornwall - and by the eleventh century we were very much a country that looked across the North Sea, not the Narrow Sea (now the English Channel) for our key links. The English language at that time was far more like Norse than anything we would recognise as English today and, indeed, it is likely that Cnut and Hardrada (had he made it as king), would have been able to more or less make themselves understood in their native tongue, especially in the north and east, which had traditionally been affiliated to Norway and Denmark.
East Anglia was still known as the ‘Danelaw’ before 1066, from the agreement with King Alfred the Great in 878 that had seen it ruled over by the Danish warlord, Guthrum. Northumbria, too, was filled with nobles of Scandinavian birth, as their names – Uhtred, Siward, Erik, Tostig, Copsig - testify. Even Gytha, the mother of Harold of Wessex who is often held up in this period as being in every possible way ‘English’, was Danish, and Harold’s father, Earl Godwin, had risen to power as King Cnut’s right-hand man. If England was to have a foreign king in 1066, they were far more used to, and far more culturally ready to have one from Scandinavia than from France.
But what of Harald’s claim? When Cnut died in 1035 Harthacnut succeeded him in Denmark, and Magnus, the son of the deposed King Olaf, succeeded him in Norway. There was inevitable fighting between them to try and nick each other’s country, but by 1039 they made a peace treaty in which they agreed to make each other their heirs in the event of them dying without sons of their own.
This must have seem highly unlikely at the time, as both were young men but in fact Harthacnut died in 1042, without an heir, and Magnus inherited Denmark (though he had subsequently lost it to Svein Estrithson, the very noble he’d assigned as his regent). By 1042, however, Harthacnut had also become King of England – through his father Cnut, and through his mother Emma (who was also Edward the Confessor’s mother) and Magnus should, according to the treaty, have inherited England too. Sadly for him, Edward, Harthacnut’s half brother – and the indomitable Queen Emma – were on the scene in Westminster and grabbed the throne before Magnus could so much as launch a ship.
Magnus was then rather caught up in the return to Norway of his uncle, a certain Harald Hardrada, so did not pursue the claim, and then he himself died, also without a male heir, in 1047. On his death, the claim theoretically passed to Harald so there, if the lawyers of the day required, was his nominal right to England. Tenuous, yes, but still there.
So would Harald have been a good king? His nickname, Hardrada, means ‘Hard Ruler’, or ‘Ruthless’, suggesting maybe he would have been every bit as harsh as William eventually proved to be, but that was a name he had gained in his youth, way back in the 1030s. He was just fifteen when, fighting his first major battle for his half-brother, King Olaf, against Cnut, his side were harshly defeated, apparently during an eclipse that turned the battlefield at Stikelstad dark at a key moment (leading to suspicions of witchcraft from the much-feared Cnut). Harald, badly wounded, hid under a bush to avoid slaughter and was eventually rescued by comrades and nursed back to health in a peasant farmer’s household until he was well enough to flee over the sea into Russia.
He landed up in the court of Grand Prince Yaroslav of Kiev and from there preceded to make both his name, and a vast fortune, as a ‘Varangian’ – a Viking mercenary, first for Yaroslav himself and later for the Byzantine emperor. He became a famed and highly decorated war-leader and we can assume that Magnus was quaking in his boots when Harald finally, in 1045, decided he had enough treasure to challenge for the Norwegian throne.
He sailed with his new wife, Elizaveta, eldest daughter of Yaroslav, and by all accounts his true love (there is evidence of love poetry he wrote to her), and, after some skirmishing, Magnus conceded defeat and made a peace treaty with his uncle, in which they would jointly rule Norway. This cannot have been a comfortable situation and it is hard to believe that Magnus’ death the following summer, apparently of ship-fever when on the usual Dane-bashing summer mission, was a natural one. Nonetheless, no one challenged Hardrada and he became sole king of Norway – a title he was to hold with honour and great success all the way to 1066.
Personally, I think Harald would have been a good King of England. Not better than English Harold, perhaps – although his experience as a ruler was far greater – but definitely better than William. Fifty years earlier, Cnut had slid onto the English throne with barely a ripple and had ruled very well for twenty years before his early death. Harald was already fifty and a wise and far steadier man than in his warrior youth, and he had two grown sons who could stand as regent in both Norway and England, ensuring stability.
Many English nobles still had Scandinavian blood, so would most likely have accepted his rule, meaning none of the rebellions that led to the endless bloodshed of 1067-70 under William. What’s more, his wife, Elizaveta, had brothers and sisters in the royal houses of France, Hungary, Poland, Germany, Russia and Byzantium meaning that England would have been closely connected with not just Scandinavia but continental Europe too. Having Hardrada as king would not have limited our prospects as an international power.
Harald Hardrada came very close to being our king in 1066. He decimated English forces at Fulford on September 20th and took York easily. He was, it must be remembered, a renowned warrior and a far more feared force than the little Norman duke, and the North – always resistant to control from Wessex (does anything change?) – might well have backed him.

He failed in the end, almost unbelievably, because of a lack of discipline in his own ranks or rather, perhaps, because of complacency. For on September 25th he took only half his troops with him to Stamford Bridge to meet the cowed Northern lords and accept treasure and hostages. What’s more, it being a hot day, those troops had discarded their armour and were sat around at ease when Harold of Wessex – King Harold II of England – surprised everyone by somehow making it up there all the way from London with troops, and springing a surprise attack.
It was an act of extreme bravery and heroism on the part of the English and it paid off. Harold defeated Harald and must have sat in York at the end of the bitter battle of Stamford Bridge feeling hugely proud of himself for killing the most feared man in Christendom. The Norman bastard, William, should have been easy meat after that.
But of course he wasn’t…


but there again... Let's Hear It For Edgar...
by G.K. Holloway
How many people have heard of Edgar Atheling? Not many, is my guess. How many people have heard of the Battle of London Bridge? Even fewer, I’d say. So, who was Edgar and why was he proclaimed king? We have to go back quite a way to discover how this young man fits into the story of 1066. I would just mention here that the people at this time seemed to be singularly unadventurous when naming their children – so pay attention as there is more than one Edgar, Edward and Edmund.
Edgar was born in Hungary, the son of Edward the Exile, who in turn was the son of the legendary King Edmund Ironside. Why was Edgar born in Hungary? Because in 1016 King Cnut led a Viking army in to England and defeated Edmund Ironside in battle. After his coronation, Cnut ordered Edmund’s sons, Edward and Edmund to be taken to Sweden where they were to be killed. Instead, the two baby boys were smuggled to Hungary for safe keeping in the court of King Stephen I. Even here they were not safe; Cnut’s assassins arrived and the two athelings fled the country to find protection at the court of Yaroslav the Wise, Grand Prince of Kiev. Eventually, the boys made their way back to Hungary. Edmund died around 1054 while Edward had three children with his wife, Agatha. The family would have remained in Hungary but, in 1057, the childless King of England, Edward the Confessor, called his nephew, Edward the Exile, back to England to be his successor. Edgar the Atheling was then about five or six years old when he arrived in England. It would be a dramatic time for all of them. Edward Exile had been in England for only two days before he died. How he met his death is uncertain but no one was ever charged with his murder.
Edgar grew up with his sisters, Margaret and Christine in King Edward’s court. At the time of the king’s death, Edgar would have been fifteen or sixteen, too young and inexperienced to defend his kingdom. Harold Godwinson, Earl of Wessex was crowned instead. But Harold only ruled for nine months and nine days until he met his historic end at Hastings. This time the Witan proclaimed Edgar king but England was in chaos. The Normans were sweeping across south east England and no one could stop them. The survivors of the English army, exhausted from the battles at Stamford Bridge (a win) and at Hastings (a defeat) were in no fit state to hold back the invaders. A few young earls were all that remained of the aristocracy and two of them had been involved in the disastrous Battle of Fulford Gate. Edgar and his tiny army did actually manage to defend London Bridge. When losses proved unacceptable, William called off the attack. He then burned down Southwark before heading up stream to cross the Thames at Wallingford. Once he was on the north bank, the demoralized earls and churchmen soon deserted Edgar and surrendered. Finding himself without support, Edgar surrendered too. William held his coronation on Christmas Day 1066 and allowed Edgar to keep the title Earl of Oxford, which had been bestowed on him by King Harold. But the Normans treated the vanquished so badly they rebelled time and again. Often as not Edgar would be their leader. But after battling hard to eject to Normans from his country, in 1072 Edgar, his sisters and their mother, Agatha, made their way to live at the court of King Malcolm of Scotland. Here he stayed until William invaded and banished him. Returning from exile to England after a few years, in 1085 he left once more, this time for Sicily, where he hoped to start a new life. The venture was a failure and within two years Edgar was back in England.
When William the Conqueror died, Edgar sided with his son Robert Curthose, Duke of Normandy, against another of William’s sons, William Rufus, King of England. Again Edgar was on the losing side. William Rufus defeated Robert in 1091 and yet again, Edgar sought refuge in Scotland before travelling on to Normandy.
In 1097 one of Edgar’s nephews, also called Edgar, became King of Scotland, while Edgar himself joined the First Crusade. After his adventure he returned to Europe only to find himself involved in another feud between two of the Conqueror’s sons. This time the conflict was between Robert Curthose and his younger brother, King Henry I of England. As ever, Edgar was on the wrong side. In 1106 Henry defeated Robert and had him thrown in Cardiff prison where, after thirty years of incarceration, he died of starvation.
King Henry pardoned Edgar for his part in Robert’s rebellion and he lived peacefully in England until 1120. William Adeling, the son of his niece, Edith and heir to the English crown, died at sea in the same year. A tired and broken man, Edgar went to live in Scotland until he died at the age of seventy five. Where he is buried, no one knows.
Edgar’s life seems a tragedy. The proclaimed King of England for just twenty-seven days, Edgar was robbed of his future by a power hungry tyrant. He spent most of the rest of his life fighting to regain his inheritance or trying to make a new start in another land. Losing one battle after another, nothing seemed to work out for him. How many times must he have asked himself the question, What could have been?



or... Let's Hear It For William...
by Joanna Courtney

Not many people are prepared to stand up for Duke William of Normandy – William the Conqueror. This is odd, really, as let’s face it, he won and normally we all love a winner. But with William, somehow, it’s different.

I was amongst the William-haters myself for a long time, right up until I started working on the third novel in my Queens of the Conquest series and had to consider the events leading up to 1066 from the Norman point of view. That’s when I started seeing where William was coming from and even, dare I say it, falling a little bit in love with him… (loud ‘hrmph’ from Helen who can’t stand William!)

Of the three main contenders for the throne of England in 1066 William is generally considered to be the least likeable, the least exciting and certainly the least sexy. Normans have a largely well deserved reputation for being dour, disciplined and harsh. However, in reality all important men in this warlike society would have had to be at least the latter two and William has much to recommend him in comparison to either Harold Godw3inson or Harald Hardrada.

For a start, William seems to have been both devoted and faithful to his wife, Matilda of Flanders. Compared to the Harolds, who both had a ‘Roman’ and a ‘Handfast’ wife, and indeed to most leaders of a time in which having a mistress was almost as common as having a horse, this makes him unusual.

William seems to have been a man who prized loyalty above all things. Brought up in fear for his life from the age of seven when he inherited his rebellious dukedom from his father, he cherished those he could trust and rewarded them well for it. He promoted a group of men almost as young as himself for their service and reliability and kept them with him throughout his reign, making them key lords in England as soon as he could. Plus, although he punished rebels harshly, this was mainly by exile rather than death, and he was well known to pardon those who proved themselves keen to make amends. He was, in short, a lord worth serving well.

He was a highly skilled warrior, something he shared with both Harolds. His horsemanship seems to have been second to none and he was said to be able to fire a bow further than any man, demonstrating huge strength. He was also tactically very clever. He put down numerous rebellions within Normandy as a young man, successfully repelled two invasions by France/Anjou, and conquered neighbouring Maine before he invaded England. When Harold Godwinson mysteriously travelled to Normandy in 1064, William took him on campaign to Brittany and the two men seem, at least superficially, to have got on well. Had Harold chosen to back William things could have been very different for England in the years after 1066 – but that, clearly, didn’t happen.

William was also a man who valued promises. This must have gone alongside his inherent fidelity and prizing of loyalty but it was also the most naïve part of his character. In 1051 it is possible that King Edward of England – William’s cousin – brought him to Westminster for Christ’s Mass and, in some way promised him the inheritance of the throne if he did not produce an heir of his own.

To put this promise in context, it was made when the previously powerful Earl Godwin of Wessex and his entire family had been exiled, largely due to the machinations of the Norman Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Champart, who was working hard to promote William’s interests. When, the following year, the Godwins fought their way back into power, everyone conveniently forgot the promise – everyone except William. He refused to see it as part of the endless political game-playing that ruled (and rules) European politics and hung steadfastly onto it all the way into 1066, fifteen years later. Indeed, when Harold visited William in 1064 and was ‘forced’ to swear an oath of allegiance to him it was almost certainly centred upon this shadowy promise. William, like an elephant, never forgot!

He was also a very devout man. He ruled over a period in Norman history famed for the building of abbeys and churches and he and Matilda commissioned several of their own, including the stunning abbeys of St Etienne and La Trinite that still stand in Caen today. William seems to have strongly believed in the authority of the pope and although he defied an edict banning him from marrying Matilda (an edict made for political rather than doctrinal reasons) back in 1051, he worked tirelessly to have that reversed and was delighted when, in 1059, it finally was.

One of William’s first actions when he heard that Harold had claimed the English throne was to send a deputation to the Pope to ask for a ruling that he was the rightful heir – a deputation that was successful. The Pope ruled in William’s favour and sent an edict proclaiming Harold as an oath-breaker which was nailed on virtually every church door in northern France, greatly strengthening William’s claim – and the number of his recruits. The Pope also sent a holy banner under which William marched into war. We can be as sceptical as we like nowadays about the reasons for this (this was a Pope who was favouring Normans in Italy), but at the time it would have been a strong and powerful vindication of William’s invasion ‘mission’ for those flocking to join him and, indeed, for William himself.

There is no doubt in my mind that William genuinely believed that he was the rightful King of England in 1066 and that this was backed up by the promise of 1051, Harold’s oath of 1064 and the Pope’s own blessing. He did not invade, as Hardrada did, under a trumped-up and barely cared-about claim, but to defend what he strongly felt was his God-given inheritance.

There is also no doubt that initially William did not intend any ravaging or destruction of English lands or peoples. When he conquered Maine in 1062 he retreated back to Normandy and left his new people to rule themselves in peace for as long as they acknowledged him as their overlord – and this seems to have been the blueprint he intended for England. Had Harold supported William, William would almost certainly have appointed him as regent. Although he was very ready after Hastings to hand over the lands surrendered by those dead in battle to his own lords, he kept a number of key English lords, including Edwin and Morcar, in place – until they rebelled.

William was a man who had grown up fighting endless rebellions and challenges to his right to rule. He must have been utterly fed up of it. I suspect he hoped that being a king instead of a mere duke – and a king of a land long shaped by intricate and clever administrative and fiscal policies – would be an easier role. He must have expected some rebellion but the sheer scale and endless nature of the English refusal to accept him would have hurt.

As a man who prized loyalty this would have been a lot to take – too much. The Harrying of the North came after a run of rebellions and was the act of a man who had just had enough. He needed to stamp his authority on his new subjects and he did so in the most brutal way possible. England still struggles to forgive him for it but, in William’s defence, they (we) may have slightly asked for it.

I  think that I remain, deep in my heart, a Harold-supporter, but exploring the run-up to 1066 from the Norman side has helped me to see how truly William felt he should be King of England and how keen he was to rule well. It is history’s tragedy that it didn’t quite work out that way but Norman influence brought a lot of strong things to England, things – like castles –  that we tend to think of, perhaps ironically, as archetypally English.

William may often be the ‘baddie’ of the 1066 story but he was not a ‘bad man’, he was merely typical of a leader and warlord of his time. The year 1066 is a fascinating one when considered from his perspective. I urge you to try it.

Probably the most famous English castle built by William the Conqueror
The White Tower - more commonly known as the Tower of London
* * * 
So what are your views?
Who would you shout for and why?

leave your comments below, we would love to hear them!

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