Edward the Confessor ruled England at the beginning of 1066. Once 1066 was coming to an end, William the Conqueror came to the throne after Edward’s successor Harold was defeated at the Battle of Hastings.
Unsurprisingly, 1066 is not a year to forget easily, considering it contained three kings, one important battle and a Norman leading the country. A lot of historians acknowledge 1066 as Medieval England’s official starting date.
King Edward initially lead England at the beginning of 1066 - he was very respected and liked by his nation. His infamous nickname, Edward the Confessor was given through his saintly lifestyle - he was very religious and commanded the building of Westminster Abbey. He did not leave behind any heir upon his death in January 1066, so this meant his closest living blood relative was Edgar. However Edgar was just a child so this meant nobody would show him any respect. Edgar also spent much time in Hungary, meaning he was not as well known in England. A child such as Edgar did not have high hopes of impressing powerful people in England when the era was impressed by men who had many battle victories.
Harold Godwinson, the Earl of Wessex was the most powerful nobleman - he wasn’t the king’s blood relative but still received a lot of support from other Witan members (a council of the most powerful English noblemen). He used to be the army leader of Edward the Confessor and had experience in government. When he paid a visit to England in 1051, Harold reportedly said Edward assigned him as successor whilst on his deathbed, and the Witan agreed to this choice when meeting as the King’s Council. William still stood firm in the fact he was the true heir to England’s throne - although he was not even English.
Harold became shipwrecked in 1064 off the Normandy coast where Count Guy de Ponthieu held him captive. Harold’s release was paid for by William who held him in the court of Normandy.
Harold had a choice - to carry on with the remainder of his life being held captive by the Normans, or go back as a nobleman to England. Before returning he needed to promise he would support William’s claim as the next heir to the English throne after Edward died. The Bayeux Tapestry shows a clear picture of Harold swearing a sacred oath on a saint’s bones. William felt confident that because of this, Harold would not fail to keep this promise once Edward passed away.
But despite the evidence of the Bayeux Tapestry, no firm proof exists which states Harold did promise this. William of Poitiers said he saw the promise being made, but he was one of William’s close colleagues and was given work in his court. English monks wrote the ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicles’ during that time which gave a history of England previously - though it has no mention of the promise.
Two days after Edward died on 7 January 1066, Archbishop Stigand crowned Harold king. The fact that Halley’s Comet was seen over England meant many people believed it was a sign of bad luck for the country. William is supposed to have become very angry when he found out what Harold had done. Harold’s defense was that William had made him promise, indicating he was blackmailed into it. William stated he would gain the English throne by force.
The king of Norway and Denmark, Harald Hardrada, made the issue even more complicated because of his belief that he was England’s rightful heir simply because the Danish had conquered England previously. This was obviously not a very strong claim but Tostig, Harold’s brother supported it due to a rebellion against his rule in the north of England.
Out of the three candidates who declared themselves as Edward’s rightful heir, only one of them was actually English - but the question is whose claim was the best?
Harold was an English nobleman with a lot of power, experience in government and being the leader of an army. His sister Edith had been the wife of Edward the Confessor and the Witan (England’s lead noblemen) gave Harold their full support.
William was from northern France but knew Edward when they were young - his claim focused on the fact that he believed Edward had promised him the throne and he had been given Harold’s support in 1064. Since William had no blood ties to England’s throne, he positioned his claim on promises which he felt gave him the legal right to become the next king of England.
Harald Hardrada was a relative of Cnut - the king of England between 1016 to 1039 and because of this basis he felt it was his entitlement to the crown.
Despite the different claims, William came to a decision that he would fight for what he viewed as rightfully his (the English throne). He commanded his knights to join together at Saint Valery on the Norman coast to prepare for a sea crossing.
Harold had thought William would attempt to invade during July and August, and Harold put his troops close to the Isle of Wight since he expected William to land there. Yet some of Harold’s army became impatient at having to wait and since they were not able to be fed, they ended up going home. Additionally it was the harvest season, meaning many of Harold’s men had farming commitments. Harold received news in September that Tostig and Harald Hardrada landed in the north of England accompanied by an army, so Harold set off there with his own army to fight Hardrada.
England’s army met with Norway’s army on 25 September at the Battle of Stamford Bridge. The River Derwent, flowing close by the battlefield, was said to turn red with the vast amount of blood pouring into it. Hardrada required 300 ships in order to bring his army across to northern England, and only 30 were needed to return the Norwegian survivors. Harold experienced a significant victory and his brother Tostig was killed as well as Harald Hardrada. Two days later, Harold received news that William landed at Pevensey Bay in Sussex - the Battle of Hastings was approaching at under four weeks away.
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