A Challenge to the Throne (History in a Nutshell No.12)

Updated on July 16, 2019
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History is one of S.P. Austen's favourite topics and he is fascinated how it has shaped us all.

Edward the Confessor still reigned in England, and had exiled the thorns in his flesh as he saw them, in the persons of Earl Godwin and his sons Sweyne and Harold. But in the year 1052 Godwin returned with his son Harold in a fleet that anchored off the coast of the Isle of Wight. From there, they landed near Hastings and rallied the people of Sussex, Kent, Surrey and Essex against King Edward.

Principally, Godwin and Harold demanded that they have their earldoms restored to them, and they sailed up the Thames to London to make these demands of Edward. Godwin and Harold commanded such a force that Edward was unwilling to go to war and many in England did not desire civil war. So, the result was that King Edward returned the earldoms that the Godwins had previously commanded.

The Normans who formed much of Edward's court had been hated by most of the English peoples, and these Normans were now banished from the country, being declared outlaws by a council of the Witan, the king's advisors and counsellors. Many Normans barely escaped from the country with their lives.

However, Earl Godwin did not live long to enjoy his restoration as earl, and he died in the year 1053. Godwin's death meant that Harold succeeded to all his father's territories, making him a very powerful man in the realm of England.

Harold's Oath to William

However, King Edward, ageing fast and childless, did not trust that Harold would make a good successor to the kingdom, although he did not doubt his skill and courage as a warrior. Harold was not of the direct line of the Royal House, whereas William, Duke of Normandy was a cousin of King Edward, as Edward's mother and William's father had been brother and sister. Edward therefore willed that William should succeed him as king of England upon his death.

Moreover, Harold actually visited William in Normandy, and was entertained there by the duke. William, it seems used Harold's influence with King Edward to make gains for himself, and even promised Harold his daughter Adela in marriage. In return, Harold offered William Dover Castle, one of Harold's own fortresses, and considered to be a key castle of the realm. Harold swore an oath to William, and became basically a vassal of the duke. William was preparing himself for the kingship of England.

Coronation of king Harold from The Bayeux Tapestry.
Coronation of king Harold from The Bayeux Tapestry. | Source

The Death of King Edward

King Edward died on January 5th 1066. Before he passed from this world, there was a confrontation between him and Harold, whilst Edward lay in bed dying. Harold had entered with his entourage and demanded to know whom Edward decreed should be king after him, and indicated that it should be himself, Harold, who should bear the crown, not William.

In the end, Edward was so wearied and ready to die that he said he no longer cared who ruled the kingdom and that they should name their own choice. However, he added that no good would come of Harold taking the crown of England and that it would invite the sword and destruction. A prophecy that would soon come to pass.

The death of Edward the Confessor saw the last of the Anglo-Saxon kings of England. A new era was about to begin.

Duke William's Outrage

No sooner had Edward died, than Harold assumed the kingship of England. Indeed, there seemed no other more powerful in all the land, even if Harold had his detractors. The Witan or Council that had surrounded King Edward likely did not want Duke William to take the crown either. Rather Harold than a Norman king, seemed to be the order of the day.

When this news reached William in Normandy, he was enraged. He sent word immediately to Harold demanding that he give up the claim to the throne, but Harold responded that he did not hold the necessary power to offer the kingdom to William and that it was the choice of the Witan that he be elected king. Harold even added that it would no longer be expedient for him to marry William's daughter Adela.

The response only inflamed William's anger further, adding insult to injury. William felt that Harold had broken his oath of fealty to him, and such allegiances were deeply intrenched in his culture. William was a Norman, that is, of Scandinavian descent, i.e., the Normans were men of the North, or Northmen, descendants of Rollo the Viking, whose armies had settled in Northern France (Normandy) 150 years or so before William was born. As a Norman, he could not let this insult pass.

Harold's Enemies

Preparations were soon underway in Normandy for the invasion of England. However, Harold not only had William as an enemy, he also had an enemy in his half-brother, Tostig and Harold Hardrada of Norway who laid a claim on the throne. These two set sail for the north-east coast of England with a large fleet full of warriors late in the summer of the year 1066.

The news reached King Harold that the Norwegians had landed in the North and had destroyed the local militia and had encamped at Stamford Bridge near to the city of York, itself an old Viking settlement originally named Jorvik.

The Battle of Stamford Bridge. Oil on canvas 1870: Nordnorsk Kunstmuseum.
The Battle of Stamford Bridge. Oil on canvas 1870: Nordnorsk Kunstmuseum. | Source

The Victory of Stamford Bridge

Harold led his army up the old Roman Road to York, gathering more troops as he went. So rapid was the movement in the five days of forced marching, that Harold's army reached York taking the Norwegians by surprise at Stamford Bridge. Harold defeated both Tostig and Harold Hardrada, both of these leaders being killed in the battle, and leaving few survivors to tell the tale. It was a resounding victory for King Harold, and the English must have felt invincible and unstoppable.

But Harold, knowing that Duke William was even now preparing to embark for the English Channel to invade the country, had no time to recoup and refresh his weary warriors; instead, the exhausted soldiers marched southwards once more, heading for London, their force greatly depleted from the battle of Stamford Bridge.

It took them 7 days in all to cover the 200 miles of hard marching to reach London. The troops covered roughly thirty miles a day of fast marching, having just fought a terrible battle, no doubt many of them wounded, and with weapons, equipment and baggage to carry, some of it perhaps loaded on horses and wagons. It was quite a feat of endurance, courage and commitment to king and country.

As soon as they arrived in London, Harold gathered as much in new forces as he was able to, to face Duke William's fresh invasion force which was heading for Pevensey on the coast of Sussex.

The Norman Fleet

Duke William's enormous fleet sailed for England, and landed at Pevensey on the Sussex coast on 29 September 1066. A comet (in later centuries dubbed Halley's Comet) was at this time seen in the sky and was even depicted in the famous Bayeux Tapestry. It was considered to be an ill omen for Britain.

William's forces were of mixed European stock, with mounted Norman knights, Bretons and mercenaries and other adventurers, keen for the spoils of conquest. They landed on the beaches unopposed, as Harold and his army were still marching south to meet the invaders.

Norman Landing.  Engraving 1885: Artist Unknown.
Norman Landing. Engraving 1885: Artist Unknown. | Source

Some sources have put the combined Norman fleet at some 3,000 ships, others less. But certainly the bulk of these vessels would have been warships, with large, square sails, of the old Norse type. These ships were transports for the mounted knights, archers, axemen, spearmen and a multitude of other militia and mercenary troops. Other ships would have carried the trained warhorses that the Norman knights used in battle, and other smaller ships would be more like merchant ships carrying baggage and various equipment.

When William and his forces landed at Pevensey, they immediately entrenched and made a stockade against possible attack. But the great battle with Harold's valiant army was yet to come; it would not be upon the beaches of England, but further inland, near Hastings, on Senlac Hill. The destiny of England was about to be transformed forever.

Historical Sources:

Book: History of the Anglo-Saxons by Sir Francis Palgrave

Recording: This Sceptred Isle by Christopher Lee for the BBC Radio Collection

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    © 2019 S P Austen

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