- In 1066, a new kind of monarchy started in England.
- William, the Duke of Normandy, conquered England and changed its history forever.
- For many years, England’s whole way of living was different than what it had been before.
Some historians believe that England was living in a reasonable time before the Norman Conquest of 1066. William the Conqueror took over, and it became terrible. Historians thought this view to be popular during the 19th century.
How England came to be
Back in the tenth century, all the leaders of Wessex led other Anglo-Saxon kings in wars. They ended Viking rule in the north and east.
This led to one big country called England. In 954 AD, England was a powerful and unified country because the last Viking leader was defeated.
English kings had firm control over the land. The land was divided into shires. In each shire, there was a fort that protected the people living nearby.
The Anglo-Saxon system of burhs was weaker in the northeast, where Viking influences lived on. But in most of the country, there was a strong network of these towns. Markets grew, and trade prospered. The kings also helped commerce by setting up coins for trading.
Kings of England were the country’s supreme rulers. They had to raise taxes, build roads and bridges for trade with other nations to happen easily.
They could promulgate new laws, which would be enforced by local courts or shire courts under their supervision, but if there wasn’t justice served, then it was up to them personally to see what happened.
Englishmen weren’t happy unless someone did something about injustice! These men also owned more land than anyone else.
Under Anglo-Saxon law, every person had a value that depended on their social group. This was called a ‘wergild.’ If someone killed another person, they would not be put to death if they could pay the correct ‘wergild’ in money. Values were expressed in shillings (one shilling was worth about one cow).
Then the Vikings came back to England, and they beat the English. From 1014-1042, the kings of England were Danish. But they kept the system of shires and royal mints. England was one of the wealthiest and most efficient countries in Europe in the 11th century.
The line of Danish kings who ruled England after 1014 died out in 1042. Edward the Confessor took the throne. He was descended from Anglo-Saxon kings who had been defeated by Vikings.
Edward the Confessor
Edward never expected to become king. He lived in his mother’s homeland for 25 years before he became king. This land was the Duchy of Normandy in France.
When he became king in England, he stopped having to govern as much. Edward let his friends from Normandy do it for him.
Edward the Confessor brought priests from Normandy to England when he was crowned king. One of these, Robert of Jumièges, became Archbishop of Canterbury and he set about improving the Church. Many English priests fought against him because they did not want change.
In 1051, the Earl of Wessex was not happy with Edward’s friends. He also learned that Edward had promised to let William Duke of Normandy take the English crown when he died.
In 1052, Edward lost this power struggle. He was compelled to dismiss Robert and appoint Stigand as the Archbishop of Canterbury.
The Kingdom of France
To say there was a country called France in the eleventh century is not true. There was a man who ruled over the lands that were not called France until much later.
In France, when the king needed it, counts or dukes would use their armies. This gave them the independence to rule their land like they were the king.
People who lived in these counties or duchies were called “vassals.” Vassals were people who had promised to be loyal to the King.
The King made these men Counts or Dukes. They would have sworn loyalty, among other things, to fight for the king when he needed them.
Normandy in France
Normandy was one of the strongest French lands. Normandy used to be a Viking colony, and its name means “Land of the Northmen.”
The Vikings sailed down rivers and went deep into France. The French armies could not drive them away.
Rollo the Walker, the first leader of the Normans in this new French community, was a Viking from Normandy. Rollo was a giant of a man. He couldn’t be carried on horseback, so he walked everywhere.
Rollo took the land, and he became a vassal of the King of the Franks. He and his descendants doubled their territory by conquering other people and by making marriage alliances.
The first Vikings in Normandy were pagans. This means they believed in different gods. But when he became a vassal of the King of the Franks, Rollo converted to Christianity.
This was a significant political move. The dukes of Normandy stopped putting pagan ideas in front of them, and they started to build the strength and quality of the Roman Catholic Church in their land.
Normandy was building new monasteries and churches. The pope admired them for their devotion and teaching.
When William was just eight years old, his father died. He became the new Duke of Normandy, and he did not know how to rule.
Norman knights attacked and took power for themselves. They built castles and challenged authority. They made the duchy like other regions of France.
Important people in Normandy were killed in wars, or they were murdered. William wanted to know who he could trust after the new guardians took their places. They could have been the murderers.
William got older and took a more active role in trying to restore order. In 1047, he tried to stop another rebellion from happening.
He negotiated with the king of The Franks. William helped the king beat rebels. William became an excellent tactician and a soldier who was not afraid to fight.
Marriage and Power
William was a strong leader. He could be very tough to his enemies who had lost in war. From that point on, he grew in experience and power.
The prince defeated enemies in battle, and, like Rollo before him, he made an ambitious but effective marriage alliance. He married Mathilde of Flanders in 1050. Flanders was a powerful country back then.
William and Mathilde knew that it was against church rules to marry because they were distant cousins. But they both wanted to get married. So they decided to thank the Pope by building a new abbey.
Edward the Confessor’s last words
Edward the Confessor was dying. He had no children, so people did not know who would become the ruler of England. The events in 1066 were shaped by what Edward said before he died.
Supposedly, the following people were by his death bed: his servant, Robert, his wife, Queen Edith, Archbishop Stigand, and Earl Harold. Edward then went on to praise Edith. He then talked directly to Harold and might have said, “‘I commend this woman and all the kingdom to your protection.”
It is not clear from the writing if Edward meant for Harold to be King or just guard. Historians are not even sure if he said it in the first place. Even if Edward woke up just before the end, he probably wasn’t able to think clearly enough to make a will.
The New English King
In England, people did not automatically get the throne when a king died. It was given to someone who was not the closest relative. The new King of England would be chosen from people who had a direct bloodline from the previous king, an alliance to him when he was still alive, and the leading nobles by their side.
Earl Harold Godwinson did not waste time after Edward died. He persuaded the nobles that Edward had given him the throne, and they agreed to make him King.
The new king of England was crowned just hours after King Edward died. But William, Duke of Normandy, was mad. He was not happy that he did not get the crown. So he planned an invasion of England.
An Old and Forgotten Promise
A Norman version of this part of history said that King Edward, whose mother was William’s great aunt, promised him the throne in 1051. Later on, Edward sent Harold to Normandy with orders to swear William’s right to the English throne. Harold had to swear he would support it while he was in Normandy.
It is hard to believe that the king, who was old and powerless, could have commanded Earl Harold to do something that other people did not want or agree with.
William sent men to Rome to talk with the Pope. They told him about Edward’s promises and how Harold broke his word. They said that Archbishop Stigand had crowned Harold, even though he knew that Stigand was a bad person in the Church.
The Pope gave his support. He sent it to Normandy with a banner that announced it. William used the support and won over people who guessed that they could not succeed.
William was building ships and moving food to the coast in the spring. In the summer, he had soldiers, archers, knights, and horses. They all came together at a camp in Dives-sur-Mer by early August.
A long-haired star appeared in the night sky. This happened in 1066. We know now that this was a comet that appears every 76 years. But at the time, people thought it was an omen of bad things to come, and it happened soon after.
William’s army was on the coast for about six weeks before they finally sailed to England. The delay was difficult to handle. There were 2,000-3,000 knights with their horses. They came from many different counties in France.
The Battle of Hastings
King Harold had a problem with his brother. King Harold’s brother Tostig joined forces with another king, Harold Hardrada from Norway, and they landed in Yorkshire. King Harold marched his army from London to the north to stop them.
After a long march from London, Harold’s army was tired and exhausted. But after a blood-stained battle on September 25th, he won a decisive victory by capturing the bridge at Stamford. The king of Norway and Tostig were both killed on that day as well.
Harold’s Saxon army was very sick and tired. William’s Norman troops were healthy and rested when they met in Hastings on October 14th. They began fighting.
William prayed to win. Legend says that he also was wearing around his neck the relics Harold gave him to help him become king. The king’s army was arranged at the foot of the hill. There were archers, infantry, and heavy cavalry.
At the top of the hill, King Harold had about 7,000 men. There were some professional warriors and some people from the shires. None of them was on horseback.
At first, the Saxons had better armor. But after a while, the Normans would find ways to get through it. King Harold was killed when he got an arrow in his eye. Then all of his loyal guards died too.
No one knows what happened to Harold’s remains, but many years later, William built an Abbey. The Pope ordered it to be built where Harold died. He hoped God would forgive the bloodshed in that place.
William of Normandy won the Battle of Hastings. But it would take a few weeks to get Londoners to give up the keys to their city. They did this by fighting in the Battle of Southwark, where they blocked Norman troops from crossing London Bridge.
The early years of William’s English rule were a little insecure. He built castles across England to show everyone he was in charge. He also responded to rebellions by destroying the region of Yorkshire.
In 1072, the Normans controlled the Church and the State. The Domesday Book records how much land was owned by people in England.
Norman people were also great builders, and their architecture showed it. Earlier buildings had been made of wood, but the French people who came built giant stone castles and churches that showed they could control the land.