The Norman Conquest is considered an epochal moment in English history – with good reason. Until the conquest England was firmly a part of the Scandinavian cultural sphere – four English Kings in the eleventh century had been Danish. The Normans may have started out as Viking marauders but by 1066 had been absorbed into French culture. The Conquest reoriented English politics to the south and permanently dragged English interests into continental Europe.
That William the Bastard would have been the man to do this was inconceivable at his birth. The bastard of Robert Duke of Normandy and his mistress (a tanner’s daughter), he unexpectedly became Duke of Normandy as a child when his father departed on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem never to return. William was tempered by a tumultuous childhood where he fought off attempts to depose him. In the 1050s he emerged as the most powerful feudal lord in Northern France even defeating his liege King Henri I, who had helped (probably to his regret) William hold on to his duchy in his childhood.
His eyes turned to England. His cousin Edward the Confessor was childless. Even though William had no genealogical claim to England, he cherished hopes that Edward would name him his heir. In Edward’s last years the only other male from the royal house was his great nephew Edgar, still a child. The likely successor was the most powerful man in the Kingdom – Earl Harold Godwinson.
In 1064 Harold was shipwrecked off the French coast and detained by William. He was freed after William tricked him to swear on holy relics to support William’s succession to the English throne. Complicating matters in 1066 was the impending invasion of Harald Hardrada of Norway – what would be the last Viking invasion of England.
With two invasions likely the English magnates supported Harold for the crown over the young Edgar. William’s invasion was delayed by weather, but Hardrada was the first to invade landing in the North. He defeated the Northern Earls at the Battle of Fulford (the last time a Scandinavian army defeated the English) and captured York. But the newly crowned Harold II moved north faster than expected. Taken by surprise, Hardrada was defeated and killed at the Battle of Stamford Bridge.
Harold II did not have time to savor his victory for news reached him of William’s arrival on the southern coast of England. Historians can disagree on whether Harold should have waited to gather his forces instead of rushing down with his exhausted to troops to attack the Normans head on. But march down he did. The Battle of Hastings was a disaster for the English. Harold and his brothers were killed and the English fyrd was shattered.
Yet the English did not submit immediately. The young Edgar Aethling was proclaimed King with the support of the Northern Earls. He would never be crowned. The Northern fyrd had not recovered from Fulford. As William captured Winchester (and the royal treasury) and marched on London, Edgar’s support crumbled. Stigand Archbishop of Canterbury was the first to submit. He was soon followed by the young Edgar and the Northern Earls Edwin and Morcar.
The coronation did not run smoothly. As Archbishop Ealdred of York asked the crowd whether they accepted William as King, the assembled Normans and Saxons shouted their approval in both languages. The troops William had posted outside the church fearing an assassination attempt set fire to the houses around Westminster Abbey. Chaos ensued in the abbey and riots broke out outside. The clergy completed the coronation in the smoke and confusion, but the chaos did not endear William to his subjects.
William the Bastard was now King of England – a conquest that marked him in history as William the Conqueror.
The effects of the conquest have been debated. The Anglo-Saxon elite were the biggest losers. Many (including Edgar Aethling) went abroad and served as mercenaries – notably in the Byzantine Empire. Many of the instruments of government were unchanged given the greater sophistication and centralization of England over Normandy. William and his heirs would rule one of the most efficient and prosperous realms in Europe, which financed their ambitions in France. The French monarchy resented that its overmighty vassal was even mightier and for the next 150 years pursued a policy to break the power of the Anglo-Norman monarchy – a task finally accomplished in the early 13th century.