14 October 2016
Your guide to the major players and events of the Norman Conquest
The death of the elderly English king, Edward the Confessor, on 5 January 1066 set in motion a chain of events that would lead, ten months later, to the Battle of Hastings – one of the most memorable battles in English history.
But what was the Battle of Hastings? Who was fighting and why? According to research carried out by English Heritage, those aged under 35 know more about the fictional characters vying to claim the ‘Iron Throne’ in Game of Thrones than they do about those fighting to secure the real English throne in 1066.
So, to help you separate fact from fiction, here’s a rough guide to the major players and events of the Norman Conquest.
When was the battle?
The Battle of Hastings was fought on 14 October 1066 between the Norman army of Duke William of Normandy and an English army under King Harold. It lasted all day, and was exceptionally bloody even by medieval standards. When Harold was eventually killed and the English fled, the way was open for William to assume the throne of England. He was crowned King of England in Westminster Abbey on Christmas day 1066.
Who was involved?
- Edward the Confessor: King of England at the start of 1066, pious King Edward had ruled since 1042, dying peacefully on 5 January.
- William, Duke of Normandy: A formidable military leader in Normandy, William (who would become known as William the Conqueror) believed himself the rightful English ruler, allegedly promised to him by Edward.
- Harold Godwinson: The most powerful Earl in Saxon England, Harold was Edward’s right hand man and an established leader of men in the kingdom
- Harald Hardrada: King of Norway, Harald is often known as the last great Viking king, a war leader and a man who saw an opportunity to regain the former Viking kingdom of England.
- Edgar the Aetheling: Young and politically inexperienced, grand-nephew Edgar was nonetheless Edward’s closest living relative
Harold Godwinson and William of Normandy were not the only contenders for the English throne in 1066. Harold’s banished brother Tostig invaded England with King Harald Hardrada of Norway and his Norwegian army in the autumn, causing Harold’s Saxon forces to rush north to defeat them. After the Battle of Hastings, the remaining Saxon nobles actually elected a new king, Edgar the Aetheling, grandnephew of Edward the Confessor – but he was never crowned and they eventually surrendered to William.
What other important battles took place in 1066?
Tostig and Hardrada landed in England with a large invasion force, and defeated the northern and midland English Earls on the 20 September at Fulford near York. King Harold rushed north with his army and caught them by surprise at Stamford Bridge, East Yorkshire, on 25 September. Both Tostig and Hardrada were killed, and only a small number escaped.
What happened during the Battle of Hastings?
Taillefer (William’s minstrel) killed the first Saxon of the battle. The Carmen de Hastingae Proelio ('Song of the Battle of Hastings' ) says that a Saxon soldier broke ranks, and Taillefer killed him, while later sources say that Taillefer charged into the enemy shield-wall, where he killed several Saxons before he was overwhelmed.
The Saxon and Norman armies were fairly evenly matched, which is why the battle lasted most of the day – unusually long for a medieval battle. The Saxons fought on high ground using a traditional shield wall – a solid defensive wall of shields – which the Normans were unable to break through. The Normans gained some advantage when they feigned retreat, leading to some Saxons to break rank and following them down the hill, allowing other Norman soldiers to isolate them and attack.
How was King Harold killed?
Harold’s death is described in different ways by different sources. The most famous, as seen in the Bayeux Tapestry, is the image of the king left stricken by an anonymous arrow falling from the heavens, which shows William in a better light than another suggestion, that Harold was hacked to pieces by Norman troops.
Where is King Harold buried?
Early sources record that William denied Harold’s mother his body, though she offered its weight in gold, and it was buried anonymously on the coast. This is contradicted by later sources, which say that Harold’s mutilated body was identified by his mistress and buried at Waltham Abbey, Essex, which he had re-founded.
Parts of the abbey remains are in English Heritage care, and you can still see his alleged grave there, but the exact location of Harold’s body is disputed to this day.
What is Battle Abbey?
After the Battle of Hastings, William built Battle Abbey on the site of the battle to mark his great victory and atone for the bloodshed.
Visitors to Battle Abbey can see a stone marker showing where Harold fell during the battle. William insisted that the high altar of the abbey church should mark the place where Harold fell.
As part of English Heritage’s re-presentation of the site, visitors can, for the first time, climb 66 steps to the top of the Abbey’s Great Gatehouse and stand on its roof, getting a whole new, 360-degree perspective on the surrounding landscape where fierce fighting raged on 14 October 1066. And for the first time, visitors can also access – through the original 13th century doorway – the abbey’s huge dormitory where the Benedictine monks once slept.
What legacies did the Norman Conquest leave?
The overthrow of the Saxon kingdom of England by William the Conqueror and his Norman knights was to transform the country they had conquered, from how it was organised and governed to its language and customs – and perhaps most visibly today, its architecture.
The English we speak today is the product of a lot of intermingling with French words. Poor, letter, age, and pork are all words with Norman-French origins, to name just a few. 950 years later, the English language reflects the result of the Battle of Hastings in 1066.
The physical legacy of the Normans can still be seen across England too – particularly in the stone castles and abbeys built in the decades following the conquest.
Visit the English Heritage 1066 and the Norman Conquest website for much more about the Battle of Hastings, 1066 events and Norman places to visit.
Pictured: Norman and Saxon forces clash at the annual Battle of Hastings re-enactment in East Sussex and the Great Gatehouse at Battle Abbey, East Sussex, which is the focal point of the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings in 2016.