The Viking Descendants in Normandy Who Eyed England as a Prize
Edmund Ironside’s assassination left the path open for the Danish King Canute to become king of England and inaugurate a short lived Scandinavian dynasty. Canute ruled until his death in 1035. He was then followed on the throne of England by his sons Harold Harefoot (reigned 1035 – 1040), and Harthacanut (reigned 1040 – 1042). Harthacanut’s death in 1042 triggered a succession crisis. A struggle for the English throne pitted King Magnus the Good of Norway, and Edward the Confessor, Edmund Ironside’s half-brother. A wily Anglo-Saxon, Godwin, Earl of Wessex, intervened, played kingmaker, secured the throne for Edward the Confessor, and became the power behind the throne.
Edward had grown up an exile in the court of the Dukes of Normandy, and was half Norman himself. His mother was the daughter of a Duke of Normandy. The Normans were descendants of Vikings who had invaded France, and were eventually given what is now Normandy by the French crown. William thus had strong Norman ties and attachments. They caused serious problems down the road, and brought the Anglo-Saxon era to an end. Trouble began in 1051, when Edward’s reliance on Norman advisors led to a quarrel with Godwin, Earl of Wessex. Godwin was banished and stripped of his lands, but he returned with an army and forced Edward to restore him to power.
After Godwin’s death in 1053, he was succeeded by his son Harold Godwinson as England’s most powerful figure. When Edward the Confessor died childless in 1066, Harold was crowned as king of England. The new king’s title was disputed by his younger brother, Tostig, and by Duke William of Normandy. The latter was related to Edward the Confessor on his mother’s side, and claimed that he had been promised the English throne upon Edward’s death. King Harold gathered his forces in readiness for a seaborne invasion from Normandy by Duke William.
Contrary winds kept the Normans on the other side of the English Channel. It was Harold’s brother, Tostig, who struck first. Allied with the Norwegian King Harald Hardrada, Tostig landed with a largely Scandinavian army near York, in the north of England. It was to be the last Viking invasion of England. Harold, who had had been encamped in the south of England on guard against an invasion from Normandy, led a forced march north to York, and surprised his brother and the Norwegian king by his unexpected arrival.
In a hard fought battle at Stamford Bridge on September 25th, 1066, Harold won a decisive victory. Most of the invaders, including Tostig and Harald Hardrada, were slain. Of the 300 ships that had landed the invading army, only 24 were needed to carry the survivors back to Norway. However, King Harold did not get to savor his victory at Stamford for long. Two days later, the Channel winds finally changed, and Duke William finally crossed and landed his army in southern England. Harold assembled his weary troops, and hurried back to meet him.
Harold led his men on another forced march back to the south of England. He gathered reinforcements along the way as he rushed to meet the new invasion. He approached Duke Williams at Hastings with about 7000 men – only half of England’s trained soldiers. Harold was advised to wait for reinforcements, but chose instead to offer battle immediately, in order to stop Williams from devastating the countryside. Thus, the Anglo-Saxons met the Norman invaders at the Battle of Hastings on October 14th, 1066.
The Viking Descendants Who Finally Conquered England for Good
The Anglo-Saxons assembled atop a protected ridge, where they formed a shield wall. King Harold occupied the center of the line. However, their tactics and military doctrine, derived from their own Germanic tribal history and reinforced by generations of warfare against the Vikings who fought in similar fashion, were outdated. The Anglo-Saxons were an entirely infantry army, without archers and cavalry. Duke Williams had both, and that doomed the Anglo-Saxons. The battle begam with mounted charges by Norman knights, which were beaten back by the Anglo-Saxon shield wall.
However, a pair of feigned retreats drew sizeable numbers of Harold’s men from their battle lines into disastrous pursuits, in which the pursuers were surrounded and destroyed. That thinned the Anglo-Saxon lines, and by late afternoon, Harold was hard pressed, when a random arrow struck him in the eye, killing him. The leaderless Anglo-Saxons fought until dusk, then broke and scattered. The victorious William secured the countryside, then advanced upon and seized London. Now known as William the Conqueror, he was crowned as King William I on December 25th, 1066, bringing the Anglo-Saxon era to an end. The new king established the Norman Dynasty, and inaugurated a new era that reoriented England from the Scandinavian world to that of Continental Europe.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading