This article is an edited transcript of 1066: Battle of Hastings – Marc Morris on Dan Snow’s History Hit, first broadcast 14 October 2016. You can listen to the full episode below or to the full podcast for free on Acast.
With Harold Godwinson’s coronation as King of England in 1066 – a single day after the death of his predecessor, Edward the Confessor – Duke William of Normandy, the future William the Conqueror, went ballistic. Harold Godwinson had no blood link to the crown and, while he did have a marital link, his claim to the throne was weak enough that rivals to the crown emerged.
William’s claim to the English throne rested on Edward the Confessor’s designation – 15 years before, in 1051 – which had promised him the crown.
William had a slightly stronger claim than Harold because he had a weak blood claim – he was a second cousin of Edward the Confessor. But his main claim came through the designation.
The contenders emerge
We only have later sources, around 100 years after the event, that actually describe William’s reaction. He apparently felt that, after 15 years of being promised the English throne, he was suddenly hearing that Harold had claimed what belonged to him.
A couple of years prior, Harold had been in Normandy and had sworn an oath to William that he would uphold the Norman duke’s claim. Thus, William supposedly went into a rage.
Elsewhere in Europe, the Scandinavians were interested in the crown of England. The first time anyone on the British mainland seemingly realised that the Scandinavians were interested, however, is when they arrived in England in September 1066.
Indeed, there’s nothing in the original source material to suggest that an invasion from Scandinavia was expected or feared at the start of 1066.
To the victor the spoils
England was a very rich and prosperous country. In spite of all the invasions it had endured in the 11th century, the reason that the Vikings had been raiding it since the 10th century was precisely because it was a rich, well-governed country that could raise huge taxes.
The English had been raising taxes to pay off the Danes since the late 10th century. It had a very strong government that could raise lots of money with a strong silver coinage.
This was all based on the fact that England specifically (rather than the rest of the British Isles) is an easy country to farm – it is lowland and arable.
Harold fired the starting gun by having himself crowned immediately upon Edward’s death. But prior to that, William was already preparing his invasion force. It was William who actually made the first move.
Indeed, Harold didn’t start preparing his troops until he realised that William was serious about mounting an invasion.
This was a surprise because launching an invasion across the sea hadn’t been tried for a really long time. Although the Normans began their career as Vikings, by 1066 they were not famous for their seafaring activities.
William went into preparation mode. He twisted the arms of his magnates to get them to promise him military service. He ordered ships to be built or borrowed or bought. He wrote to the pope and even sent a messenger to lay out his case and get papal support.
It was only when William was in overdrive on all these fronts, military, political and diplomatic, that Harold realised in the spring of that year that the Norman duke was actually going to put his money where his mouth was.
That was when Harold responded, beginning to raise and call out the English army and the English fleet in early May.
The Scandinavian threat
There are older books by very eminent scholars on the Norman conquest that discuss a threat from Scandinavia mounting throughout the 1050s and into the 1060s. But there doesn’t seem to be any evidence to support such an idea.
Harald Hardrada, the King of Norway, was completely preoccupied with internal warfare in his own country and another war with Denmark until the eve of 1066 itself. He was fighting his own battles in Scandinavia, and he didn’t have time to launch an attack on England.
The key figure was in fact Tostig Godwinson, Harold Godwinson’s troublesome younger brother.
Throughout the 1050s and early 1060s, Harold and Tostig had collaborated very well, including successfully invading Wales together in the 1060s. Tostig had been made Earl of Northumbria in 1055, which wasn’t then the modern county of Northumbria, but a huge swathe of land comprising everything north of the River Humber up as far as the Scottish border.
Tostig contrived very quickly to alienate Northumbrian society, provoking a big rebellion against him in 1064.
Harold and Tostig fell out because Harold refused to back his brother against the Northumbrian rebels, and Tostig was sent into exile. From that point on, the two men were enemies.
It’s not entirely clear what happened with Tostig because we only know the story from much later legends, either 12th-century chronicles or 13th-century Norse sagas. It is clear, however, that Tostig roamed the courts of northern France and Scandinavia, looking for military support to topple Harold.
It doesn’t seem as though Tostig was aiming at the crown himself. He seemed more interested in toppling his brother, while also restoring his own power. So it was a revenger’s tragedy.
He ended up persuading Harald Hardrada to support an invasion, with the ultimate goal of restoring his earldom.
Nobody in England was predicting an attack from Scandinavia, because the region had been on good terms with England since the 1040s. The previous reference to Harald Hardrada in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle prior to 1066 is 1042 or 1043, when he made peace with Edward the Confessor.
The status quo with Scandinavia was peaceful.
Just 50 or 60 miles across the water in Normandy, however, it was no big secret that an invasion was coming. The boatyards of Normandy were humming with activity.
William rounded up a fleet from all the way across the northern coast of France from friendly powers. Harold and everybody in southern England saw that this was where the threat was brewing, and the English king stationed an army on the south coast throughout 1066 in preparation for William’s invasion.