1066, the year of four Kings

When Edward the Confessor died, the nation of England was thrust into turmoil.  Double promises of succession and foreign upstarts laying claim to the throne that now had no head to sit on.  Each claim had its own merits and down falls but would lead to two battles that would shape the future of England forever.  England would have four Kings within the year 1066, and each of them with a story to tell.

The first of these Kings, Edward the Confessor did not last very long.  He died at Westminster Palace on 4th or 5th of January leaving empty the throne with no children to sit on it. The Normans claimed that in 1064 Edward is meant to have sent his actual successor Harold to see William, Duke of Normandy to confirm to William that he would follow him onto the throne.   This is evidenced in the account of William of Poitiers just after the Battle of Hastings.  William states that an envoy was sent by Harold to William stating that on his deathbed Edward had promised him the throne and that he would become the next King of England.  William never disputed this claim but always believed that the previous promise overruled the later one.  Some say that Edward actually entrusted the Kingdom to Harold before he died.

Edward the Confessor, opening scene of the Bayeux Tapestry

The Witenagemot or Witan convened the next day and declared Harold as the successor to Edward and he was crowned most probably at Westminster Abbey on the 6th January 1066. On hearing of this William began plans for the invasion of England with a mass fleet being built of 700 hundred ships.  A standoff then took place for the next seven months with unfavourable winds not allowing William to sail and Harold with the English army encamped on the Isle of Wight.  Provisions were nearing empty and Harold disbanded the army and set off back to London.  On the 8th of September the same day as Harold left the Isle of Wight, another claimant to the throne landed at the foot of the Tyne.

Harald Hardrada was the King of Norway and stuck his claim from Cnut.  He was joined by Harold’s brother and the ex Earl of Nothumbria Tostig.  It is stated that Edwards’s predecessor Harthacnut as the King of England, had stated that the crown would pass down the House of Denmark line instead of moving back to the House of Wessex.  Magnus I of Norway didn’t follow this through but with persuasion from Tostig the fallen brother Harald believed he had a claim to stake.  Harald invaded England with about 300 ships and 15,000 men.  The major and decisive battle took place at Stamford Bridge on the 25th September 1066.

After Harald had landed at the Tyne Harold raced north making the journey from London to Yorkshire in three days.  With the speed at which Harold was traveling the invading Norwegian army was taken by surprise not knowing about the oncoming army came into view.  It is said that with the surprise the Viking army were ill equipped and there armour had been left aboard their ships.  The battle raged on the Viking side of the river once the Anglo-Saxon had removed the danger on the bridge.   Sheild walls were formed and the fighting became close quarter.  With the Norwegians having no armour they were at a disadvantage and their army began to fragment.  The Anglo-Saxon then drove home this advantage and went on to win the battle.  Harald was killed during the battle and Harold accepted the truce of his sons Olaf and Paul Thorfinnsson, Earl of Orkneyto which they pledged never to attack England again.  The battle is quite often stated as being the end of the era of Viking raiding in the British Isles, although there were a further two campaigns in the next couple of decades, notably those of King Sweyn Estrithson of Denmark in 1069-70 and King Magnus Barefoot of Norway in 1098 and 1102.

Battle of Stamford Bridge.
From 13th century Anglo-Norman manuscript.

Harold was not allowed to rest on his victory for long.  Three days after the battle on the 28th September 1066 William landed on the south coast of England.  Harold and his battle weary army had to turn round and race back the road they had come to fight, to try and repulse the second invasion of the year.  The tale of the crown in 1066 had taken another twist.

The Battle of Hastings took place on the 14th October 1066.  The Anglo-Saxon spirit was broken during the battle when Harold was shot through the eye with an arrow.  This scene has been made famous by the Bayeux Tapestry.  After numerous attacks and counter attacks the causalities caused by William’s army led to the Saxon shield wall being filled with untrained and poorly weaponed troops.  Small chinks were being made into the shield wall when William and a group of knights made a breakthrough this is where the attack against Harold himself is believed to come from.  To many of the Anglo Saxon nobles had died Hastings to rally the remaining of the troops around and it looked like William would become the next King of England.

Edgar the Atheling was the great grandson of Aethelred the Unready.  Aged only 15 at the time of the Battle of Hastings this did not stop the Witan meeting the day after the battle in London and proclaiming him King.  Edgar although was never actually officially crowned.  England had now its third King of the year.  As William then closed in on London in December Edgar’s supporters began to slowly dwindle   In December of 1066 the remaining members of the Witan took Edgar out to William submitting to him at Berkhamsted quietly forgetting about the previous proclamation of Edgar as King.

Harold Rex Interfectus Est: “King Harold is killed”. Scene from the Bayeux Tapestry depicting the Battle of Hastings. Harold grasps the arrow lodged in his eye.

William the Conqueror sent troops into London to begin to construct a castle.  He was crowned England’s fourth King of the year on Christmas Day at Westminster Abbey 1066.  His Kingship would be littered with revolts as he slowly put down the different rebellions of the Anglo Saxons, but his tenure would be the beginning of the House of Normandy that would revolutionise England.  The death of the House of Wessex would end two hundred and fifty year history of the House of Wessex as it grew from the southern parts of England into uniting the whole nation as one.

1066 was defiantly not a quiet year in the making on England and would be one that every inhabitant of England would go on not to forget.

English coin of William the Conqueror


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