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1066: The Year of the Three Kings

King Edward the Confessor died in January 1066. As the King of England left no direct heir to inherit the throne, a succession crisis soon followed his demise. The Witan choose Harold Godwinson, the Earl of Wessex, as the successor of Edward. Harold was the most powerful and richest landowner of Anglo-Saxon England, so his election by the nobles of the country was no great surprise. Few in England would have dared to oppose Harold’s bid for the throne. However, other powerful men in Western and Northern Europe were eyeing up the English throne for themselves. William, Duke of Normandy, immediately claimed the throne for himself and denounced Harold Godwinson as nothing more than a usurper.

He based his claim on the promises of the previous king, Edward the Confessor, who supposedly promised the throne for William after his death. William also regarded the ascension of Harold Godwinson as a personal betrayal, as Harold was a man who broke bread with William before and according to William, Harold agreed to support his ambitions in England.

There may be some merit in William’s claims. No doubt there may be an element of propaganda there, but Edward Confessor grew up in Normandy and lived there before he became the King of England. He also invited many Normans to England during his rule, which even led to a conflict between him and Earl Godwin of Wessex, the father of Harold Godwinson.

William was not the only man challenging Harold Godwinson either. The King of Norway, Harald Hardrada, also entered the ring to become the king of England. Harald was probably the most famous and the greatest warrior of the age. During his exile from Norway, he served in the Varangian Guard of the Byzantine emperor and rose to become the captain of the imperial bodyguard. Harald had a core of veteran warriors at his disposal, who served with him for decades already before he launched his invasion of England. Harald was also joined by Harold Godwinson’s banished brother Tostyg. Before his banishment, Tostyg was the Earl of Northumbria, and in terms of wealth and power, was second only to his brother Harold.

Harald Hardrada

The three rulers spent the first half of the year preparing for the inevitable fight. Harald Hardrada was the first to land in England. He is believed to have gathered a fleet of around 300 ships, carrying 15,000 soldiers and non-combatants. He was also joined by Tostyg, who spent the early part of the year raising mercenaries in Frisia, then raiding the southern and eastern shores of England.

Once the two joined forces, they sailed upriver and aimed to take over York. Once the North was secured, the Norwegian king and his ally planned to march south and confront Harold Godwinson himself.

The sudden arrival of the invasion army surprised the local English commanders. The Earls of Mercia and Northumbria met the invaders with a hastily assembled force, but Harald defeated this army at the Battle of Fulford without even deploying his full army.

Harald expected to take York without a fight and agreed to meet the Saxon leaders at a bridge northeast of York( the Stamford Bridge). The bridge was a long walk from the camp of the invaders, so Harald and Tostyg allowed their soldiers to march to the bridge without their armour. A good chunk of the force, perhaps as much as 40%, were left behind to guard the Norwegian fleet.

Had they known how close Harold Godwinson and his army was to them, they would have acted differently no doubt. During the initial days of the Norwegian’s arrival, Harold Godwinson was in the South of England, along the Channel, expecting the potential arrival of William of Normandy. He was even forced to disband a part of his army, as supplies ran out and the levy soldiers who made up most of his force needed to return to their fields.

The Battle of Stamford Bridge

Once Harold Godwinson got received news of the Norwegian invasion, he hastily marched North, collecting soldiers en route and marched over 300 kilometres in just 5 days.

He arrived at York the day before the parlay, so he was able to rest his troops the night. The Saxons marched out of York the next day to face the Norwegians.

Harald and Tostyg arrived at the bridge first and were awaiting the arrival of the Yorkish emissaries when they saw a cloud of smoke in the distance. They knew immediately that an army was arriving, but who was leading this army and what the intentions of its commander were was a mystery to them.

They only realised that it was Harold Godwinson when the King of England rode out to meet them for a parlay where he passed off as his own messenger. He offered Tostyg the Earldom of Northumbria, his previous land if he would betray Harald. Tostyg asked what his ally would get, to which Harold said: 7 feet of English ground or more as he is taller than most men. Tostyg declined the offer and rode away. An impressed Hardrada asked if Tostyg knew who that bold man negotiating with them was, to which Tostyg replied it was Harold Godwinson.

The Norwegians left a vanguard to block the bridge to win time for themselves to deploy properly. They were at a disadvantage, as they were outnumbered and lacked armour. They were also disorganized, but luckily for them, the vanguard held off the Saxons long enough for the Norwegian army to deploy properly. A lone Viking warrior supposedly held the bridge on his own for a long time, killing 40 Saxons who tried to cross before he was killed.

Tostyg advised Hardrada to retreat, as the odds were stacked against them, but the King of Norway declined. Instead, he sent messengers to his camp and called for reinforcement.

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The battle began long before any reinforcement arrived. The Norwegians lined up on a hill and beat back an attack from Saxon cavalry, but then decided to charge the Saxons. The veteran Norwegians smashed into the Saxon army and fought valiantly, but their lack of armour was a huge disadvantage. The Saxon cavalry also flanked them and caused heavy losses. Harald Hardraga fought as a man possessed, but he was shot through the neck and died instantly.

Tostyg retreated to reform a shield wall. He received another offer from his brother to stop the bloodshed, but the offer was refused. The Saxons then attacked again and defeated the Norwegians.

By the time the reinforcements arrived the main army was killed or dispersed. The Norwegians attacked the Saxons, but they were outnumbered and exhausted from their long march. After a brief fight, the Saxons defeated the reinforcements also.

Harold Godwinson then marched to the Norwegian camp, took prisoners and offered to let the remaining men have the chance to return home. They accepted the offer, but it was said that 20 ships were enough to carry back home the survivors.

With one enemy defeated and killed Harold Godwinson now only had to worry about William of Normandy.

William the Conqueror

Battle of Hastings

William landed in Southern England a couple of days after Harold’s victory at Stamford Bridge. He had an army between 7,500-14,000 men at his disposal, though historians are still debating how big the army was.

Harold marched to London, but he left most of his army north, and he was not joined on his journey south by the Earl of Mercia or Northumbria either.

William tried to gain whatever small advantage he could by spreading propaganda that Harold personally beheaded the corpse of his dead brother after the Battle of Stamford Bridge. William also devastated the estates of Harold in Southern England, no doubt hoping he could draw out the English king to face him.

William probably correctly estimated that time was running against him. Harold had a vast pool of manpower to draw on, while his army was limited.

If William tried to bait Harold into facing him it worked. The English King marched against the Duke of Normandy, but he was unable to surprise William the way he surprised Harald Hardrada and Tostyg a few weeks before. Norman scouts caught sight of the marching Saxon army and warned William.

William had his men ready for a night attack, just in case, Harold was attempting it. As the attack did not come, William marched out to meet his enemy. Harold took up a position on a hill that suited his infantry based army( the vegetation also made flank attacks impossible), while William was forced to attack the Saxons from the bottom of the hill.

For most of the first part of the battle, the Saxons had the better of the Normans and repelled William’s attempt to break through the Saxon shield wall. After the Norman left was repelled, despite the orders of Harold Godwinson, the Saxons followed, only to be wiped out on the flat ground by the Norman cavalry.

William observed this and ordered his troops to make faint retreats in the second part of the battle. The tactic worked, as the Saxon militiamen with limited military experience had a hard time knowing what was a real retreat and what was only a faint. The Saxon lines thinned down throughout the afternoon, and an attack by William's archers killed Harold Godwinson too.

The battle lasted into the late afternoon and in the end, the Normans broke through the Saxon line and defeated their enemies.

Despite the death of Harold Godwinson and two of his brothers, William was at first not accepted as the new king of England by the Nobility. The Witan chose Edgar the Atheling, the last male member of the Royal House of Wessex, as the new King, though he was never crowned. William in the end won over enough support to have himself crowned on Christmas 1066. Still, resistance remained fierce, especially in the North and William had to fight for years to consolidate his rule.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Andrew Szekler

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