How Did William the Conqueror Become King of England?

History Hit

2 mins

14 May 2019

Immortalised in the Bayeux tapestry, 14 October 1066 is a date that decided the course of English history.  Norman invader William the Conqueror defeated his Saxon opponent King Harold II at Hastings.

This ushered in a new age for England, with many noble lines now mixing French and English blood. This blurred identity shaped the tumultuous relationship between England and France for the coming centuries.

The succession crisis

Edward the Confessor was said to have healing hands.

5 January 1066. Edward the Confessor died, leaving no clear heir. The claimants to the throne were: Harold Godwinson, the most powerful of the English nobles; Harald Hardrada, king of Norway; and William, Duke of Normandy.

Hardrada was supported by Tostig, Harold Godwinson’s brother, and claimed the throne due to an agreement made between his Norwegian predecessor and Edward the Confessor’s predecessor.

William was Edward’s second cousin, and had reportedly been promised the throne by Edward. This promise was actually delivered by Harold Godwinson who had pledged his support to William.

Yet on his deathbed, Edward had named Harold as his heir, and it was Harold who was crowned (though some claim by the uncanonically elected Archbishop of Canterbury).

It was a mess, on an almost Game of Thrones scale. Part of the reason for the reason for the messiness is that we are uncertain how much of this is actually true.

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All we have to rely on are the written sources, yet these are largely written by people from the courts of the contenders. They likely  had an agenda to legitimise their respective heir.

What we do know is that Harold was crowned King Harold II of England. Hardrada invaded with the support of Tostig, and both were defeated at the Battle of Stamford Bridge by Harold. William then landed on English shores and preparations were made for battle at Hastings.

The Battle of Hastings

Again there are many contradicting primary sources describing the battle. No version is without some dispute. It is impossible to construct a modern narrative without some disagreement, though many have given it a good try.

It is likely that the English forces consisted mainly of infantry and were situated at the top of a hill. The Norman forces were more balanced, with a fair number of cavalry and archers.

Odo (William’s half brother and the Bishop of Bayeux) rallying Norman troops

After a gruelling day of fighting, Harold and his bodyguard were cut down almost to a man, along with many of the nobles of England – thus almost ending English resistance to William’s army at a stroke.

Harold himself famously took an arrow to the eye, though whether this actually happened is unknown. William mopped up the final English resistance and was crowned in Westminster Abbey on 25 December 1066.

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The battle deserves its fame, as the Norman conquest of England truly did shape both England’s internal affairs, and its tumultuous relationship with the continent for centuries thereafter.