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1066 and a Real Game of Thrones

Posted:
5 January 2016
Posted By:
Roy Porter
Categories:
History Uncovered
Reenactment of the Battle of Hastings, 1066

The death of a king 950 years ago today opened the most important year in English history. By the 5 January 1066, it was clear to all those circling him that Edward the Confessor was dying. Roy Porter, Properties Curator for English Heritage in the South East of England, takes a look at the significance of this historic date, 950 years after the Norman Conquest. 

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Frail and feeble, he had shown little appetite on Christmas Day and was not well enough to attend the dedication of his new Westminster Abbey. The Bayeux Tapestry – that exquisite piece of Norman propaganda – shows the haggard king on his deathbed, his body only held up by a servant, his wife at his feet with a cleric by his side and, ready to catch the crown from Edward’s drooping head, his brother-in-law Harold Godwinson.

“I commend this woman and all the kingdom to your protection,” were, according to one source, the childless Edward’s last words to Harold. But was that as a caretaker or as his nominated heir? Certainly Harold wasted no time in taking advantage of the ambiguity – the very next day as Edward was consigned to the ground, Harold was crowned King of England.

The suspiciously hasty coronation revealed the insecurity of his position. There were several competing claimants. Edgar Atheling, the young nephew of Edward and with the strongest hereditary right to the throne, Harold Hardrada of Norway, and across the sea and the greatest threat to Harold’s new reign, one William, Duke of Normandy.

English Heritage Property Curator Roy Porter inspects the roof of the Great Gatehouse at Battle Abbey, East Sussex, which will be opened this year to mark the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings

English Heritage Property Curator Roy Porter inspects the roof of the Great Gatehouse at Battle Abbey, East Sussex, which will be opened this year to mark the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings

Force of arms

According to a later source, William was out hunting close to Rouen when he heard the news of Harold’s accession. Such was his anger that he returned to the city immediately, without speaking to anyone. The Normans claimed Edward had promised William the throne over a decade before and that while a recent guest of the duke, Harold had sworn an oath to support William in his claim.

William would need “to claim his inheritance through force of arms”. The stage was set for a year that would see four claimants to one throne, two invasions, and three battles, the last of which outside Hastings on 14 October between the armies of William and Harold proved decisive.

Illustration showing William the Conqueror standing over the body of King Harold at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 © Walker Art Library / Alamy Stock Photo

Illustration showing William the Conqueror standing over the body of King Harold at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 © Walker Art Library / Alamy Stock Photo

Day of destiny

Every man, woman and child knows the outcome of that battle. Today, 1066 is the most famous date in English history and the story of that arrow in that eye is enshrined in the nation’s consciousness.

We still live with the legacy of that year. In the early 12th century, the battle was described as “a day of destiny for England, a fatal disaster of our dear country.” In light of the profound changes ushered in by William the Conqueror’s victory, it is easy to see why such views prevailed.

The English political elite and major landowners were completely displaced by followers of William, the English language was relegated to secondary status, the country’s subjugation under its new rulers was physically marked by the introduction of castles (many of them in the care of English Heritage today), and the traditional links which bound England to the Scandinavian realm were inevitably eroded in the reigns of kings who held territory in Western Europe.

And yet, Anglo-Saxon England did not die on the Hastings battlefield, but was transformed in the years following. That transformation included the eventual emergence of a new English language with the words we use today, from ‘appetite’ to ‘zany’, reflecting the cultural impact of the Norman Conquest. And much of the pre-Conquest state survived.

1066 can be seen as a point of departure and re-foundation rather than the disaster recognised by contemporary English writers. This is not to be glib: Norman rule could be brutal. But at a time when the peoples of the United Kingdom are again giving active consideration to their relationship with Europe, the 950th anniversary of the Norman Conquest invites us to review the consequences of the date that made history.

Throughout the year, English Heritage will be marking the 950th anniversary of the Norman Conquest at the 1066 battlefield and at Norman castles and abbeys across the country. We will also be tweeting from eight different Twitter channels, each representing different areas of medieval society. Follow, share and take part using the hashtag #battle1066.

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  • About the Author

    Roy Porter
    Roy Porter is Properties Curator for English Heritage in the South East of England, including significant medieval sites such as Battle Abbey and Battlefield, Dover Castle and Pevensey Castle.

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  1. Edward almost certainly intended Edgar Aetheling to succeed. ‘Aetheling’ meant the heir to the throne in the Old English of the Court of the Kings of Wessex, and Edgar was directly descended from Edmund Ironside, through Edward the Exile. When Cnut usurped the English throne, the infant Edward had been banished to Sweden, along with his brother. He was presumed to have been murdered by the Swedish King, but had been taken in secret to Kiev. When he reached adulthood, he was welcomed at the Hungarian Court (his brother had died). There he met Agatha, who was said to be related to the first King of Hungary, Stephen. They had three children. When Cnut died and was succeeded by Edward the Confessor, Edward the Exile made himself known to the new king, who had already made his promise to William. However, as the lost heir, Edward invited him to Court and the Wessex family journeyed to England. Soon after arriving in London, Edward died (somewhat mysteriously – did the Godwins have him poisoned?), and Edgar therefore became the ‘Aetheling’. It would have made sense for Edward to have asked Harold to protect the young prince, not yet fourteen, and the Witangamot of ‘Aeldeormen’ decided that Harold should succeed. When Harold was killed, Edgar was indeed proclaimed king, but could not be crowned before William reached London and claimed the crown for himself. Edgar escaped to Northumbria, from where he gained support from Malcolm Canmore in regaining the throne (Canmore had received support from Wessex in defeating Macbeth, and married Edgar’s sister, Margaret). The English were finally appeased when Henry I married Maud (Matilda), Margaret’s daughter, adding Saxon royal legitimacy to bastard Norman rule! There’s a lot of ‘all that’ to add to 1066!

  2. Good morning from Australia !! We will be visiting Battle and this area in September this year. We have great interest in this event, and wondered if you could suggest any places to visit, or any events we could go to. Thankyou

  3. Hi Jo,
    Thanks for commenting, I hope you’re starting to get excited about your trip. You can visit Battle Abbey which is near Hastings and has a great exhibition and audio tour if your visit doesn’t coincide with any special events. The re-enactment will be in October, so that might be too late for you? Here’s a link to the page you need with information about visiting: http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/1066-battle-of-hastings-abbey-and-battlefield/
    If you’re particularly interested in the Normans and Norman sites, have a look at out 1066 hub which (as well as lots of articles and information) has a map of Norman sites nearby and around the country. That’s here: http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/1066
    One more thing that you might find useful if you’re planning to visit a few English Heritage properties – we do an Overseas Pass (9 or 16 days) and all the details for that are here: http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/overseas-visitors/
    Enjoy!
    Clare