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The Norman Conquest

§1 What was the Norman Conquest? Motivation and Introduction

The Norman Conquest of England was the invasion of England by an army led by the Duke of Normandy, also known as William the Conqueror. It can be split into three main sections:

1. The invasion and subsequent defeat of the Norwegian king Harald Hardrada by Harold Godwinson
2. William the Conqueror landing in southern England, as Harold marched south to meet him in battle
3. The confrontation at the Battle of Hastings, and Godwinson’s death

This article aims to analyse the events which led to the Norman Conquest, the death of Hardrada and Godwinson and the major battles and troubles that ensued.

§2 The 3 Leaders

Harold Godwinson

- Owned the most land in England
- Edward the Confessor’s most powerful noble
- Claimed that Edward named him as his successor - most English sources verify this

William the Conqueror, Duke of Normandy

- An illegitimate son of Robert, Duke of Normandy
- Also a distant cousin of Edward the Confessor
- Claimed that Edward had named him as successor when he visited England in 1052
- Claimed Harold had sworn to support his right to the throne

Harald Hardrada, King of Norway

- Supported by Harold’s brother Tostig
- Tostig argued that the throne should have passed to King Magnus the Good of Norway then Hardrada
Initial king: Harold Godwinson was chosen by the Witan (council of earls and bishops) to become king. He was crowned on 6th January 1066.

§3 Preparation for Invasions by Harold Godwinson

Harold spent the first half of 1066 preparing for a possible invasion by either party, remaining in the south with his army. Some earls were left in the north with their armies to prevent Viking invasions. By the end of the summer, the soldiers wanted to return home to gather their harvests, as there was no sign of invasion.

§4 Preparation for Invasions by William the Conqueror

William convinced his barons that the invasion would benefit them, by promising them more lands in England. Pope Alexander II also gave his support. However, the wind was blowing the wrong way, so during September they waited for the direction to change.

§5 Preparation for Invasions by Harald Hardrada

Hardrada had favourable wind, so his army sailed from Norway. The earls left to guard the north (Edwin of Mercia and Morcar of Northumbria) were defeated, though the earls survived. This was the Battle of Fulford (20 Sept), where Hardrada’s army of 15000 men and Tostig’s forces devastated them, going on to capture York (which surrendered). Hostages were taken and they moved to the village of Stamford Bridge.

§6 Battle of Stamford Bridge

Harold heard of the invasion and decided to march north. He desired to catch Harald by surprise at Stamford Bridge.
What happened?
- Harold had achieved that, as his army had marched 298 kilometers in just 4 days. When they had arrived, Hardrada and his men were not even wearing armour.
- Hardrada led his army to high ground, leaving some men to hold the bridge and delay the English.
- Archers and slingers threw missiles at each other, as Hardrada formed a shield wall.
- The English charged, breaking up the shield wall and killing Harald and Tostig.

§7 The Turning of the Wind

Meanwhile, the wind turned. The Duke of Normandy assembled an invasion fleet and army taken from his lands in Normandy and men from Brittany and Flanders. The forces gathered at Saint-Valery-sur-Somme. These men would have been comprised of cavalrymen, infantrymen and archers. William sailed across the English Channel, landing at Pevensey on the 28th of September. They looted and burned the countryside, gathering food from locals. Harold was still in the north. His army was tired and many had been killed at Stamford Bridge. His brother Gyrth and Leofwine warned him to rest and build up a stronger army to fight the Normans. Against their advice, Godwinson left most of his forces in the north, and marched south. His attempt to surprise the Normans failed - miserably.

§8 The Battle of Hastings

Although the English tried to surprise the Normans, Norman scouts reported their presence and the two armies met outside Hastings on 14 October 1066.

- An English shield wall was formed
- William divided his forces into three parts: the Bretons, Normans and Flemish
- At first the English were successful, dealing heavy casualties
- The foot soldiers and cavalrymen tried to attack, but failed
- However, the English broke ranks, and the Norman cavalry killed them
- The shield wall weakened, and Leofwine and Gyrth were killed
- In the afternoon, the English shield wall was collapsed and the Romans reached Godwinson, killing him

§9 Aftermath

As Harold died, the English army fled. William the Conqueror marched to London, as support was gained and remaining English forces were defeated. He was crowned as King on 25th December 1066.

§10 Direct Results

- English emigration
- Division of England into shires
- New justice system
- Taxation
- Royal monopolisation over coin minting
- Charters created
- Norman immigration and intermarriage

§11 Conclusions

Even though William the Conqueror had defeated the English army and Harold Godwinson and had forced the English nobles into submission, resistance continued well into the beginning of 1071, both in Normandy and England. Though England had been conquered, the Normans would face many problems with running the country. They were outnumbered by the English population, and the Normans expected power and land even though William wanted control over all the land. As a result, the feudal system was created. From these events onwards, the British monarchy flourished, shaped into the way it is today.

§12 Exam-Style Questions

1. What were the arguments for succession to the English throne presented by the three contenders? Briefly explain. [5]
2. Describe the Battle of Hastings. [7]
3. Name 5 direct results of William the Conqueror’s victory over Harold Godwinson and the subsequent coronation and rule. [5]
4. Write an essay concerning the arguments for succession to the English throne. Who do you believe had the most convincing argument, and why? Write 400-600 words.

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written by Christopher Leung.