Twinned together for eternity and spoken of as a pairing more than any other two monarchs in English history, King Harold II of England and Duke William of Normandy did battle at a location we now call Senlac Hill or Senlac Ridge on Saturday 14th October 1066. Today marks the battle's 950th anniversary and a re-enactment of England's most famous battle is being held around Battle Abbey in Sussex to commemorate an event which changed the course of the country's history perhaps more than any other particular moment in time. By dusk on that day Harold lay dead and William held the victory, going on to forge a new England. It was the culmination of a long journey for both men.
The English Crown had been passed around like a hot potato for much of the previous 50+ years. After eleven years of Danish raids and vast payments of Danegeld to appease the Viking raiders King AEthelread the Unready ('Unread' meaning poor counsel) fled to Normandy with his sons Edward (the Confessor) and Alfred in 1013 and King Sweyn Forkbeard of Denmark became King of England. Sweyn's reign lasted only five weeks as he died in Gainsborough in February 1014 and AEthelread returned from Normandy to reclaim the Crown.
By 1016 Sweyn's son Canute (Cnut) returned after being driven out by the English in 1014 and became joint king, sharing the title with AEthelred's son Edmund Ironside for seven months, before Edmund died on November 30th 1016. Canute, famed in legend for attempting to hold back the sea waves on the coast (in fact declaring his piety and demonstrating to his people he was not God but a mere mortal) reigned until his death in 1035. A succession dispute arose yet again. Canute's son with Aelfgifu of Northampton, Harold Harefoot, reigned from 1035 to 1040 and on his death his half-brother Harthacnut, King of Denmark and son of Emma of Normandy, held the crown from 1040 to 1042.
When Harthacnut died the Danish rule over England died with him and England turned to AEthelred's son Edward (the Confessor), whose mother was also Emma of Normandy, who returned from exile to hold the crown until January 1066. Edward's reign was plagued with question marks over his successor. He had married Edith in 1045, daughter of Godwin the Earl of Wessex, yet he remained celibate, due to his piety, and thus childless. Godwin, the most powerful earl in England, became Edward's viceroy and held designs that his kin should succeed Edward. The friction caused by this relationship led to a crisis that put the country on the verge of civil war in 1051 to 1052.
In September of 1051 Edward was visited by his brother in law, Count Eustace II of Boulogne, who was married to Edward's sister Godgifu. It was probably at this meeting that Edward pledged the succession of England to Duke William of Normandy (who some say visited Edward the following year), with Eustace acting as William's emissary. Eustace was later to become one of William's leading commanders at the Battle of Hastings and on his return to Boulogne he and his retinue of knights planned to over-night in Dover before taking ship to the continent the next morning. However, fighting broke out between Eustace's knights and the men of Dover and a mighty battle ensued throughout the town.
The Anglo Saxon Chronicle for 1051 records the event in some detail:
When he (Eustace) was some miles from the sea, behind Dover, he put on his byrnie, and so did his companions; they fared to Dover. When they arrived they meant to lodge where it pleased them. One of his men came wishing to lodge at a householder's without his consent, wounded the householder, and the householder killed him. Eustace got on his horse, and his companions on theirs, went to the householder and killed him on his own hearth, then went up to the town and killed, inside and out, more than twenty men. The townsmen killed nineteen on the other side, and wounded they knew not how many. Eustace escaped with a few men, went back to the king, and told him a part of what had happened.
King Edward then ordered Godwin to descend on Dover and punish the occupants. Godwin refused, being unwilling to attack his own people and blaming Eustace for the trouble. Godwin and Edward had already been at loggerheads over Edward's appointment of Frenchmen into high positions within England, such as that of Robert of Jumieges as Archbishop of Canterbury. Already accused of killing Edward's brother Alfred in 1035 to rule him out as successor to Canute, Robert of Jumieges now accused Godwin of plotting to kill Edward.
The whole episode led to a division in the people of the country. Earl Siward of Northumbria and Earl Leofric of Mercia, the other two great earls of the kingdom after Godwin, joined forces in support of Edward. Godwin's Wessex troops stationed themselves south of the Thames and Edward's troops, supported by the earls, were facing them on the north bank of the Thames. When Edward ordered his side to fight against Godwin they then refused to budge and likewise Godwin's men refused to attack the Englishmen facing them. It is the first sign in English history of the people over-ruling their king or government for the betterment of the state. Englishman refused to fight Englishman, 'democracy' had prevailed. Godwin and his sons, including the future king, Harold, were exiled, but it was short-lived.
Although disputed in some circles, it is at this point that we are informed by the Anglo Saxon Chronicle that Duke William visited Edward in England and Edward promised him the English crown after his death. William's claim came through kinship to Edward, being his first cousin once removed.
The Anglo Saxon Chronicle for 1052 informs:
Then soon Earl William came from beyond the sea with a great troop of French men and the king received him and as many of his companions as suited him and let him go again.
If this event occurred Godwin would have only been too aware. He was exiled in Flanders residing close to Count Baldwin V the father of William's wife Matilda. William's actions would likely have been common knowledge at the Count's court and perhaps this is what precipitated Godwin's speedy return to England. Later that same year, 1052, he returned with a large force of men and no Englishmen came against them. The issue of succession quickly turned to the claimants of the Anglo-Saxon bloodline and Edward the Exile, who had been living in Hungary since the death of his father King Edmund Ironside in 1016, returned to England at the behest of Edward and was pronounced AEthling, meaning 'throneworthy', in August 1057.
By now Godwin was dead, having fallen ill at a banquet with Edward in April of 1053, quite possibly poisoned, and Harold had become Edward's viceroy. Within two days of Edward the Exile's return he was dead, most likely murdered on behalf of Harold and those who wished to see him ascend to the English throne. Nine years before the Battle of Hastings Harold and Duke William of Normandy were set on their path of conflict, but before that the pair were to meet in person.
In 1064, according to William of Poitiers and as depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry (above), King Edward sent Earl Harold to Normandy to meet Duke William to reassure him that he would become King of England upon Edward's passing. Harold and his retinue landed at Ponthieu and were taken hostage by Guy of Ponthieu before being delivered to William for a ransom. William played the diplomatic host at Rouen and Harold was treated to great hospitality. William then invited Harold on a campaign with him into Brittany against Duke Conan where Harold is said to have acquitted himself admirably as a soldier
It is then stated that Harold made an oath to William at Bonneville, some say this was opportunism on William's part, others a formality given Earl Harold's position in England and the nature of his diplomatic visit - most agree this event took place and it is embroidered on the Bayeux Tapestry. It was possibly this oath that gave William a psychological advantage over Harold at Hastings for in an age where people believed everything that happens, happens by God's will, William gained the backing of the Pope for his invasion and in effect, to the English, when William is purported to have been flying the papal banner at Hastings, this meant to them that they were not just facing a foreign foe but much more fearsome was that they were about to fight against their God, and William was determined that they as a people would pay for their sins.
Image: Harold visits William in Normandy and pledges an oath of fealty.