English: Harold Godwinson falls at Hastings. Harold was struck in the eye with an arrow (left), slain by a mounted Norman knight (right) or both. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
You know that I like to commemorate events in history, and October is a rich month for that. I’ve often said that American history is a niece of British, especially English history. This month is a prime example of why. The other day was the 948th anniversary of the battle of Hastings. The Norman Conquest is one of the pivots of our (and perhaps world) history. Don’t think so? Let’s look at it, but first a short history of it.
In January St. Edward the Confessor, the last King of England of the House of Wessex, which we spoke of yesterday with regard to Alfred the Great, died, and eventually was borne in state to the new Westminster Abbey (which he built) where he was buried. Incidentally his feast day is 13 October.
The succession was a disputed one, it settled out as having three claimants, Harold Godwinson, The nobles of the realm offered him the crown, although he had a pretty weak claim to it, being the brother-in-law of King Cnut
Amongst the other claimants, King Swegn Estrithson, of Denmark and Edgar Aetheling (Atheling actually means throneworthy) and he was of the House of Wessex, the Grandson of Edmund Ironside, he was also a minor. Neither of these seem to have been considered at all.
But there was also King Harold Hardrada of Norway acting on behalf of Tostig, Earl of Northumbria, and King Harold’s brother. Tostig has always seemed to me to be a very troublesome younger brother, and it looks like Harold thought so too. But this was a serious claim.
Then there was William, Duke of Normandy, whose claim was based on a promise made ears before by Edward, and backed by the Pope.
And so, Harold was crowned at Westminster by Archbishop Stigand of Canterbury and Archbishop Ealdred of York. I also note that Halley’s comet was visiting that year, all seemed to think it a bad omen for Harold and a good one for William.
To contest this matter, William had to convince his nobles to help, and not demand, which he did, and got the support of the Pope as well. William was a planner and took his time with his preparations, which worked to his benefit.
And so, in May, Tostig made his first, abortive try to invade England, which caused Harold to call out the Fyrd, which was peasants who were required to serve at his pleasure, and he kept them out, waiting for William.
Meanwhile, William was preparing including calling his magnates to help him dedicate his wife Mathilda’s new abbey of St Etienne, in Caen, on 18 June 1066, and get his people to support him.
On 20 September Tostig and Harold sailed up the Ouse river and fought Earls Edwin and Morcar at Fulford outside York. The Earls were defeated and badly and took no further part. Following this Harold came up with a scratch force consisting mostly of his own Housecarls and thegns, He then marched 180 miles in four days calling out shire levies as he went. He offered Tostig his earldom back if he would change sides, and when he didn’t the forces met at Stamford Bridge on 25 September.
Both Hardrada and Tosig were killed in the battle beneath the Raven banner but, it was a hard battle and the King’s force were beat up and tired.
At this point William landed probably at Pevensey from his 700 ships. And then he proceeded to burn and pillage to force Harold to come south and fight him. Which worked, Harold raced his forces back south down the Roman road called Ermine Street and on 14 October they met in battle, at where else, the place now called Battle. It’s an interesting battle, and the linked article gives a reasonable description but the short form is: William won and Harold died. You may have heard of Battle Abbey, it marks the site.
And so for the last time (so far) in history was England conquered by an outside force.
BBC – History – British History in depth: 1066.
But why does this matter? Well, England at the time was in no way a democracy but it wasn’t exactly feudal either. It was sort of an amalgam of the old northern European tribal structure with the feudal sytem. You’ll recall from Beowulf that certain men were considered eligible for the throne of the Geats, and Atheling is an obvious link to the concept. In addition the first charter of the rights of freeman had been issued by King Alfred the Great. In this we can see the first dim outlines of our freedom.
This was shattered by the Conquest, because Normandy had become almost completely feudal, and those Normans replaced almost completely the native Anglo/ Saxon/ Danish nobility. And so the language of the ruling class became French, which it would be for centuries. That echoes down to us, we raise cows but eat beef is one famous example. Another is contained in Kiplings poem which Jess wrote about, called ‘The Wrath of the Awakened Saxon”.
And never doubt that attitude has come down to us all, it’s part of the common heritage of the English speaking peoples, British, American, Canadian, Australian and all the rest. That’s our heritage, that and the rule of law, better expressed as “the rule through and under the law” which signifies that our governments, however constituted, are as subject to the law as we are. There is no more ‘Presentment of Englishry’ which deprived the English of their civil rights in there own land.
This is the heritage that gave us Henry II’s charter, ans Magna Charta, the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution.
Nearly a thousand years ago that heritage was nearly killed, and tyrants have been (and still are) trying to kill it, and sometime we gain but sometimes we lose, but
The Dream of Freemen still lives within us