Why Did the Battle of Hastings Result in Such Significant Changes for English Society?

History Hit Podcast with Marc Morris

Middle Ages Norman Conquest
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This article is an edited transcript of 1066: Battle of Hastings with Marc Morris, available on History Hit TV.

The Battle of Hastings was fought on 14 October 1066 between the Norman-French army of William, the Duke of Normandy, and an English army under the Anglo-Saxon King Harold Godwinson, beginning the Norman conquest of England. It took place approximately 7 miles (11 kilometres) northwest of Hastings, close to the present-day town of Battle, East Sussex, and was a decisive Norman victory.Listen Now

The first reason why the Norman invasion resulted in such significant changes for English society was because it succeeded. That reason isn’t axiomatic. Harold could have made any invasion far more difficult for William, because all he had to do was not die; he could have just retreated.

It wouldn’t have been great for his self-image, but he could have easily sounded the retreat at the Battle of Hastings, disappeared into the woods, and regrouped a week later. Harold was a popular ruler, and he could probably have coped with a small blow to his reputation. But what absolutely signalled the end for Harold’s reign, of course, was his death.

The death of Harold

On what finally caused Harold’s death, the answer is: we don’t know. We can’t possibly know.

All you can say is that, in recent years, the arrow story – that Harold died after getting an arrow lodged in his eye – has been more or less totally discredited.

It’s not to say it couldn’t have happened because there were tens of thousands of arrows being loosed that day by the Normans.

The portion of the Bayeux Tapestry that depicts Harold (second from left) with an arrow lodged in his eye.

It is fairly probable that Harold might have been injured by an arrow, but the only contemporary source that shows him with an arrow in the eye is the Bayeux Tapestry, which is compromised for any number of reasons – either because it was heavily restored in the 19th century or because it is an artistic source that copies other artistic sources.

It is too technical an argument to go into here, but it looks like the death scene for Harold from the Bayeux Tapestry is one of those occasions where the artist is borrowing from another artistic source – in this case, a biblical story.

The destruction of the aristocracy

It boils down to the fact that not only does Harold get killed at Hastings, but his brothers and many other elite Englishmen – who constituted a core of English aristocrats – also die.

In the years that followed, in spite of William’s professed intention to have an Anglo-Norman society, the English continued to rebel to try and undo the conquest.

These English rebellions generated more and more Norman repression, culminating famously with a series of campaigns by William known as the “Harrying of the North”.

But as devastating as all this was to the general populace, the Norman conquest was particularly devastating to the Anglo-Saxon elite.

Medieval historian Marc Morris answers the key questions about 1066.Watch Now

If you look at the Domesday Book, famously compiled the year before William died in 1086, and take the top 500 people in 1086, only 13 of the names are English.

Even if you take the top 7,000 or 8,000, only about 10 per cent of them are English.

The English elite, and I’m using the elite in a very broad sense here, since I’m talking about 8,000 or 9,000 people, have been largely replaced.

They have been replaced to the point where, nine times out of 10, the lord in every single English village or manor is a continental newcomer speaking a different language, and with different ideas in his head about society, the way that society should be regulated, about warfare, and about castles.

Different ideas

Castles are introduced as a result of the Norman Conquest. England had about six castles prior to 1066, but by the time William died it has several hundred.

The Normans also had different ideas about architecture.

They ripped down most of the Anglo-Saxon abbeys and cathedrals and replaced them with huge, new Romanesque models. They even had different attitudes towards human life.

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The Normans were absolutely brutal in their warfare, and they rejoiced in their reputation as masters of war. But at the same time, they couldn’t abide slavery.

Within a generation or two of the conquest, the 15 to 20 per cent of English society who had been kept as slaves were liberated.

On all kinds of levels, as a result of the replacement, complete replacement or almost complete replacement of one elite by another, England was changed forever. In fact, it may have been the biggest change that England has ever experienced.

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History Hit Podcast with Marc Morris