The Norman Conquest and
Dynasty of William the Conqueror
The Norman Conquest of Anglo-Saxon England (1066)
Duke William of Normandy’s claim on England’s crown was based, in part, on the fact that he was distantly related to Edward the Confessor, the Saxon King of England. However, his more legitimate claim also was based on an event that occurred in 1054 when Harold of Wessex was shipwrecked on the shore of Normandy. Harold was rescued, and then imprisoned by his host, Duke William of Normandy. To secure his release, Harold was required to swear an oath that, after sickly King Edward the Confessor died, Harold would support William’s claim for the crown of England. Harold did not intend to honor this pledge, but, to his consternation, he learned that he had been tricked into making his oath on a chest that secretly concealed the bones of a saint. By all medieval rules of jurisprudence, the saint’s bones made the oath irrevocably binding! When Harold returned to England, he protested that his oath had been obtained by trickery—the work of the Devil himself—therefore his oath was void. That is the way things rested until Edward the Confessor died on January 5, 1066.
Harold Earl of Wessex was the paramount Saxon warrior of his age. Even though he lacked royal ancestry, the Witan (the Saxon ruling body) chose him to be king in hope that he would be able to forestall invasions from Norway and Normandy. Both countries hoped to take command of England, since no royal Saxon-Wessex heir was on hand who had credible military leadership ability to defend the Saxon homeland.
Harald Hardrada of Norway struck first with an invasion fleet on North Sea coast of Northumbria. Harold II of Wessex raced north to counter Hardrada’s attack. In the Battle of Stamford Bridge near York (September 25 1066), Harold II defeated and killed Harald Hardrada.
Only three days later, on September 28, Duke William of Normandy, landed on the Channel Coast of East Sussex near Hastings. William’s miniscule invading army consisted of fewer than three thousand Norman knights. Harold hurried south from Northumbria with his battle fatigued Saxon troops. On October 14, 1066, a battle was joined at Hastings. It lasted the full day. At sundown, a count of the dead included Harold II of Wessex. With the Saxon leader slain, the much smaller band of Norman knights quickly defeated the homeland Saxon militia. Duke William and his Norman knights won the day, and, thereby, ended the Saxon period in English history.
Harold’s common law wife, Aldgyth Swanneshals (Edith Swan-neck; life dates uncertain, with whom he had four sons and two daughters) was with him as an attendant and observer at the Battle of Hastings. She identified his body among the fallen, and testified that Harold was, indeed, dead. A stone memorial near Battle Abbey, Hastings, marks the place Harold is believed to have fallen. After the battle, Harold’s body was moved to Waltham Abbey, Essex, for burial.