The year was 1066 and it will be a date remembered in history for all time. Edward the Confessor's death in January of that year, at the age of sixty-two, set into motion a series of disastrous events that would change the history of England forever.
There was no doubt that Edward was anxious about a successor. His wife Edith had not born any children due to his vow of celibacy taken earlier on in their marriage. Add that to the fact that there would seem an ambiguous sexual orientation and you have brewing family squabbles ready to erupt. This left Edmund Ironside’s son and Edward’s nephew with the best, perhaps only, claim to the throne. Edward the Exile offered the last chance of an undisputed succession within the Saxon royal house and he was alive and well in Hungary.
Edward promptly declared his nephew to be the heir to the throne when he died. Preparations were made and invitations were sent out and in no time, Edward the Exile was on his way back to England. Following him days later would be his two daughters and his son.
The journey took many months but as soon as he arrived, he headed straight to see his uncle the king. However, on his arrival, the Godwin boys blocked him from seeing his uncle with no explanation and two days later, he was dead.
The exact cause of Edward’s death is uncertain, but we all know there is a strong possibility that he was murdered. By who is not known, but he obviously had some powerful enemies. What is known is that it was a period in time when Harold Godwinson’s power was increasing and the old king, then politically weak, was unable to make an effective stand against the steady advance of the powerful and ambitious Godwin boys.
Meanwhile Edgar, Edward the Exile’s son, had arrived along with his two sisters, Christina and Margaret. Edgar the Outlaw, as he was called, was brought to the English court and given the title ‘Atheling’, meaning throne-worthy, which may have meant that Edward was considering him as his new heir. When they heard the news, Harold and the Godwin boys must have been furious.
At the tender age of fifteen, Edward the Outlaw had no chance whatsoever against the powerful Harold Godwinson after his great uncle's death so Harold simply stepped in and took over. But from across the channel, there was another contender to the throne. William Duke of Normandy was watching with his full attention focused on the English drama that was unfolding.
William’s claim to the English throne was tenuous at the best. He was the only son of Robert I, Duke of Normandy, illegitimate by the way, and also the grandnephew of the English Queen, Emma of Normandy, wife of King Ethelred and then of King Canute. He could even trace his ancestry back to Rollo the Viking and Rollo was no shrinking violet when it came to fighting. But as impressive as his CV was, there wasn’t much in the way of bloodline and he certainly didn’t have it in the bag.
Harold must have seen the writing on wall because even as he was seeing how well the crown fit on his head, he was giving orders for his troops to assemble on the Isle of Wight in readiness for William Duke of Normandy’s reaction. And he was right to feel nervous because when William heard the news in Normandy, he was apoplectic. William argued that not only did he have the full support of Emperor Henry and papal approval but Edward had promised him the throne when he had visited him in London fourteen years ago in 1051. He also claimed that Harold had sworn to uphold his claim to the throne in 1064 and therefore, it was Harold Godwinson who was a usurper.
William instantly went into overdrive and began making plans for an invasion. During normal times in the past, he had shown a certain degree of patience but this was not normal times and he was running out of patience. There was a war council to organise and an army to put together, so with promise of English lands and titles for anyone who supported him, his fleet of mercenaries swiftly grew to well over 700 warships. Brittany and Flanders from his wife’s family also joined the fight together with smaller numbers from other parts of France as well as Norman colonies in southern Italy and before too long, it had become a truly sizeable force to be reckoned with. It was just a matter of time before he left his wife Matilda of Flanders at home with six children under the age of twelve, and took off with his army to conquer England.
What delayed William’s crossing to England by eight months was not just bad winds and weather, it was the time it had taken to build his ships. That delay gave Harold the much-needed time to assemble his own troops.
But it was a Catch 22 situation for Harold. While giving him more time to be ready for the invasion on the south coast, his large army was slowly diminishing from dwindling supplies and falling morale. And then, with the harvest season upon them, Harold made a big mistake. He disbanded his army on 8th September and consolidated his ships in London, leaving the English Channel unguarded.
What followed for Harold was an unfortunate set of circumstances. While William was sharpening his battle-axe in Normandy, the Viking King Harald Harada III of Norway was heading out of Norway with a fleet of 300 ships ready to invade Yorkshire in the north. Combined with reinforcements picked up in Orkney, the Norwegian army most likely numbered between 7,000 and 9,000 men. And with him was Harold’s younger brother Tosig. Having been ousted from his position as Earl of Northumbria and exiled in 1065, Tostig had mounted a series of abortive attacks on England in the spring of 1066 so Harald's invitation to join him was very welcomed.
When Harold heard the news that Tosig and Harald Harada had landed in Yorkshire and defeated the English earls of Mercia and Northumbria near York, shock waves rippled through him. Harold had been fully prepared for William’s invasion in Sussex so his brother’s invasion in the north meant Harold had to quickly assemble his army together and make a gruelling 398 kms march north from London to Yorkshire, travelling day and night for 4 days, to caught the Norwegians and his brother by surprise. Having learned that the Northumbrians had been ordered to send the additional hostages and supplies to the Norwegians at Stamford Bridge, Harold hurried on through York to attack them at this rendezvous on 25 September.
It was only when the English army came into view that the invaders became aware of Harold's army. Harold's army poured across the bridge, forming a line just short of the Norse army, locked shields and charged. The battle went far beyond the bridge itself, and although it raged for hours, the Norse army's decision to leave their armour behind left them at a distinct disadvantage. Eventually, the Norse army began to fragment and fracture, allowing the English troops to force their way in and break up the Scandinavians' shield wall. Completely outflanked, and with Hardrada killed with an arrow to his windpipe and Tostig slain, the Norwegian army disintegrated and was virtually annihilated.
While the battle raged at Stamford Bridge, the weather had changed in William’s favour and he finally set sail from Normandy for England. Not understanding why, but to his delighted surprise, he landed unobstructed in Sussex. Not waiting for any change in his good fortune, he immediately moved on to Hastings, a few miles to the east, where he built a prefabricated wooden castle as a base of operations. He settled in and commenced to destroy the hinterland while he waited for Harold to arrive, not knowing that Harold was battling it out in York.
At the moment of Harold’s victory in York, news reached him that “William the Bastard” had landed in Sussex. This unwelcome news meant that Harold had to turn around and march his tired army back the 388 kms for another four days to meet William’s fresh army in the south.
By then, many of Harold’s exhausted soldiers would have guessed that few of them would ever see their families again.