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Sept. 24, 2022

73: The Norman Conquest

73: The Norman Conquest

The Duke of Normandy dreams of a crown. When chaos engulfs England he seizes his chance with blood and iron.


Well, it’s been a while. In fairness, the last episode, this one and the next are about 5x longer than my usual. But a lot has been going on in my life. First, more podcasting stuff. One of my aims is to make this podcast financially viable so that I can keep it going. To that end, I have a special, patrons-only series on the Louvre that I’ve been wrapping up. The series takes the same format as our main narrative, except this chronological story doesn’t follow all of France, but focuses on its greatest monument, and oh boy is the Louvre great. The Louvre began as a magnificent medieval castle and the model for castles across France. Then it became a Renaissance Palace, a center of the Revolutionary government alongside the Tuileries, and the center of European art. While the Louvre is not as old as the Egyptian pyramids or the Colosseum, it has remained a center of French, European and even world art and politics for centuries and it is in my opinion one of the greatest monuments ever constructed. So far the series is up to 10 episodes totaling around 6 hours, so if you want to get access to that, get all episodes a month early, and help keep this show going you can sign up for our Patreon for just $2 a month. I am including a link on our website, and would appreciate it so much.

Aside from podcasting, my new book came out in August. That’s right, some of you may remember that I am also a fiction author, whose first book The Maiden Voyage of New York City, came out two years ago. Well, I have another sci-fi book out that is just as humorous, bizarre and experimental as the first, this one titled The Afghan Wedding, a tale about how a young woman in Dasht-e-Margo, the Desert of Death, in western Afghanistan is suddenly teleported on her wedding night to Antarctica, where she finds herself in the center of a global conspiracy. I am including a link to it on the site; if that sounds like your thing be sure to check it out, as any sales would support both me and the indie publishing house I am a part of.

Otherwise I have just been applying to full-time higher-ed teaching jobs. Unfortunately, the market has been pretty horrible; I thought I had a good CV going in but every professorship or community college instructor position has at least a few dozen applicants. It is what it is. To be honest, I would love to do this podcast and write full-time, if it paid the bills. It is a dream, though if you did want to help the dream, aside from just joining our Patreon, feel free to spread the word about our podcast and tell your friends, family, coworkers, dog, cat, well maybe not cat, cats don’t listen. Because seriously, I would be more than happy telling the incredible history of France and putting out way more episodes and content than I do. Alright, that’s the update; since it’s a Normans at war episode, we’re back to the rock music.



Chapter 1: The Great History of France and England

I do think that the legacy of the Norman conquest is still strong in Britain. Our hereditary monarchy, our established church, our ancient county structures, though hollowed out in many ways, are a direct result of what happened in 1066.

-Paul Kingsnorth


Geography is not destiny. Yet, it remains a crucial component of history. The physical structure of the lands we inhabit facilitate or inhibit patterns of development. Mountains, deserts, oceans and other impediments form natural borders, segregating geographic areas from others. Within passable geographic areas worlds develop as people share cultural, linguistic, political and ethnic ties. Throughout its history, France has primarily been attached to three worlds: the Continent, the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. Here I define the Continental world as the long stretch of land from the western coasts of France into the Benelux countries, Switzerland, Germany, into Austria, Poland and even beyond, all the way to Urals and the Eurasian steppe. The Continental world finds its delineation in the various mountain ranges of the Pyrenees, the Alps and the Carpathians. This vast region of plains, valleys and low hills is easy to walk or ride a horse across. Countless peoples have crossed this open, navigable space for tens if not hundreds of thousands of years. As peoples traversed this landscape they shared ideas, exchanged goods and warred with each other. In the process they created a community with cross-cultural linkages.

It is not surprising that the Continental world has been the most important in the history of France. The Indo-Europeans passed from the east across the Rhine. Then the Celts entered the land and created Gaul. Later on the Franks passed from Germania and remade the land into Francia. By the time Charlemagne became King of the Franks his people finally became powerful enough to reverse the constant trend of eastern migrants conquering westward when he invaded Germania and created his empire. Centuries later, from Louis XIII to Napoleon, France sought to expand its power eastward and dominate the Continental world. The Continental world remained the most important region for France through the Franco-Prussian War and the World Wars as France sought to maintain its power and security in the face of eastern aggression. After 1945 the Western Allies, led by the United States, believed that the only way to ensure lasting European peace was to tie France and Germany’s economies so closely together that they would never go to war. Today we are living at a time where France’s destiny is tied to the Continental world as France and Germany are the cornerstone of the European Union and the 21st century Continental order.

However important the Continental world was to France, the Mediterranean world remained crucial to its development. The very first homo sapiens probably entered Provence through Italy, and developed primitive villages around 30,000 BCE. It was these peoples who made the famous cave paintings at Lascaux and Chauvet. Around 600 BCE Greeks from the city-state of Phocaea founded Masallia, what we today call Marseille, and made their own Greek-speaking empire along the southern coast, bringing with them their culture, their science, art, methods of war, ship-building knowledge and their religion. Around 50 BCE the Mediterranean world became the dominant connection for the land we now call France when Julius Caesar subjugated Gaul and incorporated it into the Roman Empire. The Romans established fortifications all across the Rhine, cutting off Gaul from the Germans as best they could, while dominating the region culturally, architecturally, linguistically, religiously and politically. After the fall of the Roman Empire the Mediterranean world declined in importance; after all only a small crescent in the south connects the large country of France to the Mediterranean. Yet, this region continued to influence France. Most notably, French involvement in the Italian Wars brought the Renaissance north, inaugurating a new age of art and learning. Napoleon’s defeat convinced French leaders that they did not have the strength to dominate Europe, and so they turned southward and in 1830 invaded Algeria. France’s shift from the Continent to the Mediterranean only became more pronounced after the Franco-Prussian War. With the German Empire dominating Europe, politicians in Paris sought to expand France’s empire abroad. In 1881 they conquered Tunisia, and in 1912 established control over Morocco. Many French truly embraced the idea that France spanned the Mediterranean, so much so that one million French citizens established themselves in northern Algeria, which was declared legally a part of France during the Fourth Republic; not a colony, or dependency but just as French as Brittany or Aquitaine. The violent Algerian War evicted France from North Africa and since then France’s attachment to the Mediterranean world has not been nearly as strong.

There remains one final world that France was connected to: the Atlantic World. If you take out a map of France and trace your finger along the southwestern corner, up to Brittany, then eastward through Normandy and all the way up to the northern tip you will find that the Hexagon’s longest border is this 2,600 kilometer-long Atlantic coastline. Despite France’s wide-open embrace of the Atlantic Ocean, its connections to other peoples were limited due to the vast open spaces to the west and the violent, stormy weather in the English Channel. Yet, the people of what we now call France have been intricately connected to those across the treacherous waters. Even before 3,000 BCE copper miners from northern Wales and Cornwall shipped goods south, ending the Neolithic Age in France and beginning its metals revolution. The Gauls considered the inhabitants of Britannia to be their kin, regularly trading with them. When Julius Caesar invaded, northern Gauls allied with southern Britons, prompting Caesar to invade the island. After the Roman conquest Gaul became intricately connected to Britannia; during the Crisis of the Third Century the Roman commander Postumus led Gaul and Britannia to secede, creating a Cross-Channel Empire. The collapse of the Roman world, decline in Britannia’s wealth and the conquest of the land by Franks, who loved horses but were poor sailors, weakened ties to the Atlantic world. Yet, these revived somewhat as Francia became a wealthy and powerful kingdom, then empire. Missionaries crisscrossed the Channel, radically reforming Christianity. In 591 Saint Columbanus landed in Francia and expanded its conception of the Atlantic world to include the far-off and mysterious country of Ireland. Scholars from across the British Isles flocked to the wealthy monasteries and courts of Charlemagne’s Empire, and the Franks heavily influenced those to the north.

For millennia the territory that formed France’s ‘Atlantic World’ was the French coasts, Frisia, that is today Belgium and the Netherlands, and the southern part of modern-day Britain. Connections to Ireland and Scotland were irregular at best. But beginning in the late 8th century the Atlantic World violently expanded. Scandinavians developed longships capable of lengthy voyages. This brought the Vikings into the Atlantic World as raiders attacked virtually every city and town on Europe’s Atlantic-facing coasts while sailing up its rivers to further devastate an unprepared continent. Normandy was born when Viking invaders seized control of northern France. There they created a new people, whose culture, economy, identity and politics remained tied to events in Scandinavia and the British Isles.

A new and unprecedented chapter in France’s history began in 1066 when Duke Guillaume of Normandy set sail for England to claim the throne. The Norman Conquest is rightfully considered one of the most important moments in medieval Western European history, whose aftershocks reverberated for centuries; perhaps to this very day. Guillaume’s victory made him both King of the English and Duke of Normandy, meaning he was both the equal to the King of France and his inferior. This irreconcilable contradiction led to novel political struggles as cross-Channel lords used their power to try to dominate France. First the Normans warred against the French monarchs, then their successors the Angevins created an empire which included most of the British Isles and half of France. In 1214 at the Battle of Bovines King Philippe Auguste smashed the Angevins, and subjugated Normandy, though he did not fully end the cross-Channel polity, as the Kings of England still held territory in France. A little over a century later Charles IV died and his closest male heir King Edward III claimed the French throne, beginning the Hundred Years’ War.

From the fall of the Roman Empire until the Norman Conquest, France’s connection to England was minimal. After 1066 a whole new era began as Guillaume tied these two countries together, inadvertently birthing one of the greatest national rivalries in human history.

To understand how this happened we need to delve into the history of England at the time. In our modern age we often think of England or Britain as one of the most important countries in human history, though for most of its history the British Isles were a peripheral part of Europe. The world was noticeably colder before the modern era, and the Isles were not nearly as hospitable. Before modern boats, airplanes and the Chunnel, transport from the Continent to southern England was infrequent and dangerous. It would be a mean exaggeration to say that Britain was a cold, dark, dreary place, but compared to its southern neighbors it was far less populous and developed. In 1066 the population of France was roughly 7.5 million, with 750,000 living in Normandy alone. Compare this to 1.5 million in England. It’s pretty remarkable that the single duchy of Normandy alone was half the population of the Kingdom of England. In fairness, the population of Scotland was just 300,000, and Wales a mere 150,000.

While the Anglo-Saxons developed their own culture they did look to the Franks for inspiration, especially during the Carolingian Renaissance. Theologians and scholars across the British Isles sailed to the courts of Francia to learn about theology, science, art and architecture, while marveling at the opulence of its great palaces.

Everything changed in 793 when Vikings attacked the island monastery of Lindisfarne off the coast of Northumberland. This atrocity ushered in the Viking Age, devastating the British Isles, which were divided into many small polities. In the 860s raiders primarily from Denmark landed in the east and conquered half of England, establishing a land historians refer to as the ‘Danelaw’ because Danish law was practiced there. Constant attacks by Vikings weakened the once-thriving connections between England and Francia as the Anglo-Saxons fought for their very lives against the sudden northern fury. For almost 90 years leaders of the Angles and Saxon territories fought the Scandinavians. In the process they remade themselves into one united people based around a Christian, Anglo-Saxon identity. In 954 the Danelaw ended when the English defeated Eric Bloodaxe.

Viking attacks in Western Europe lessened due to English success in repulsing them and because Rollo transformed the Vikings under his leadership from raiders to rulers in Normandy by promising the King of France he would block northern marauders from attacking the country. Rivalries between powerful warlords in Denmark threw the Scandinavian world into chaos. Then in the mid-10th century Harald Gormsson, better known as ‘Bluetooth’ united Denmark and claimed the kingship of Norway. In the 960s Bluetooth demonstrated his power abroad when he sent a fleet to aid the Normans against the Franks, humiliating King Lotaire, and reminding him that the Normans had many scary friends. At the end of Bluetooth’s reign in the 980s the Vikings were again raiding England.

By the turn of the millennium the Kingdom of England was in rough shape. Scandinavians frequently attacked from the east, they had many bases set up in the Orkney Islands and Ireland. Moreover, the Northmen viewed the Normans as their cousins and found safe harbor there. In 1,000 the Duke of Normandy Richard II allowed a Viking fleet to pull into port in his territory, after which it sailed north and raided England. In 1002 King Æthelred II tried to place himself between the Normans and the Scandinavians when he married Richard II’s sister Emma. Thinking he had secured Norman neutrality, on 13 November Æthelred II ordered the execution of all Danes within his kingdom, in an event now known as St. Brice’s Day Massacre. Merchants, traders, lords and peasants alike were brutally executed as the desperate king sought to purge his kingdom of foreign threats. Among those killed was Gunhilde, the sister of then-King of Denmark Sweyn Haraldsonn, called ‘Forkbeard.’ The English atrocity outraged Scandinavians and Normans alike and in 1003 Richard II signed a treaty allowing the Danes to use Norman ports to assault England. Æthelred II had made an oopsie. Forkbeard ruthlessly harassed the English coasts. After five years of regular massacres, Æthelred II launched an expedition to Normandy to capture Richard II and force him to bar Danes from his lands, but this ended in disaster.

If there’s one thing that history, and this podcast in particular, teaches it’s that things can always get worse. English weakness meant more raids deeper inland. In 1011 marauders captured the archbishop of Canterbury and tried to ransom him. The archbishop refused to be ransomed and so the Vikings killed him by drunkenly pelting him with ox heads and bones. All this raiding was just the precursor to invasion. In 1013 Forkbeard landed at the important port town of Sandwich and subjugated the country, becoming king on Christmas Day. Æthelred II, his wife Emma and their sons Edward and Alfred fled to Normandy.

Less than a month after becoming king, Forkbeard succumbed to an unknown illness. The earls of England then called upon Æthelred II to return and take the throne, but on the condition that he rule justly and forgive the wrongs committed against him during the war. The exiled monarch agreed to the terms and returned to his kingdom. There he led the English to expunge the Danes, now led by Swein’s son Cnut. The Vikings fled before the superior might of the English, travelling to the port of Sandwich to leave the country. When they arrived Cnut left his English hostages, though only after cutting off their hands, ears and noses.

Despite promising leniency and forgiveness Æthelred II ruled with an iron fist. According to the chronicles he became so brutal that his loyalist Eadric the Grabber would kill people at court! This may be pure fiction or exaggerated anti-Æthelred II propaganda, though I imagine that you have to be pretty evil or a professional wrestler to get the name ‘the Grabber.’ Either that or the lamest superhero ever. When Prince Edmund rebelled many nobles openly supported him. The internal chaos in England opened the door for renewed invasion by Cnut, who claimed he should be King of England because his dad had seized the throne for five weeks making him the heir. That, and he had an army, which is legally a very strong argument. On 23 April 1016 Æthelred II died while defending London alongside his son, who briefly reconciled in the face of the foreign threat. Cnut’s forces were too much for the English, and in October Edmund agreed to cede the east to Cnut. When Edmund died a month later, possibly by assassination, Cnut seized all of England.

Once again, Edward and Alfred fled to Normandy, fearing that Cnut would have them killed to ward off any potential rivals. At this point, Duke Richard II sensed an opportunity to reassert his influence abroad. As a foreigner and usurper, many saw Cnut as illegitimate and he needed allies. Richard II offered his sister Emma, the ex-wife of Æthelred II, to Cnut and in July 1017 the two wed. A year later she gave birth to a son, Harthacnut.

Cnut is a fascinating figure who eventually became king of three realms: England, Denmark and Norway, establishing a personal North Atlantic Empire. What concerns us, is his impact on England. Cnut and his father’s wars for conquest devastated the Anglo-Saxon nobility. Even though most of the 1.5 million English never saw combat, many of the 4 to 5 thousand aristocrats did. Much of this tiny elite was killed in battle. Others saw their estates decline as Cnut bequeathed their land and titles to Scandinavian allies. Over the course of Cnut’s reign most of the ruling class of England were Scandinavians or the mixed children of Scandinavian lords and native women.

Cnut died of an unknown illness on 12 November 1035. Harold Harefoot, Cnut’s eldest son by his first wife Ælfgifu of Northampton, received the English throne, save for Wessex which Emma held for her son Harthacnut as he took the throne of Denmark. Meanwhile a third son, Swein, took the kingdom of Norway. From the outset, Emma set about undermining the new King of England. She sponsored a political tract which claimed that Cnut had disowned the children from his first wife, in favor of Emma. She further spread a rumor that Harold was not even Cnut’s son, but had been swapped at birth with another baby. Despite all her attempts she was losing the shadow war for control of England. Initially, the Thames River served as the boundary between the two states, but Harold’s power spread beyond that boundary, as demonstrated by the many coins in the southwest which bore his image.

With Harthacnut fighting to control Denmark, Emma remembered she had another son. She called upon Edward, who still resided at the Norman court, and told him that if he invaded she would arrange for the nobles of Wessex to support him. In 1036 Edward landed at Southampton with a small Norman army. Edward and his Normans defeated an English force, but they met heavy resistance. Edward became convinced he could not conquer England and so resigned himself to raiding the territory to acquire wealth, fame and power, before returning to Normandy.

As Edward returned to the Continent, Emma’s second son Alfred decided he wanted to parrot his brother’s actions. For two decades the two had lived as exiles at the Norman court, pampered but powerless and without glory. Like his older brother, Alfred decided it was time to win his fortune by an attack on England and landed at Dover. There he met with Godwin the Earl of Wessex. Godwin was probably the second most powerful man in England, behind only the king. He was also a close confident of Emma. Despite his remarkable power, Godwin was not the type of person you want as an ally because he was a lifelong opportunist. He had sided with Cnut and became his right-hand man during his reign. When Cnut died Godwin sided with Emma because he believed that Harthacnut would return and he wanted to be rewarded for his loyalty. As Harthacnut struggled to subjugate the Danes, Godwin became convinced that he would not return and Harold would maintain power over England. When Alfred arrived Godwin feigned allegiance, claiming he and his forces would march on London and seize the throne. Along the way Godwin led the host to Guildford where they feasted and drank as if they had already won the kingdom. That night, as Alfred and his men were deeply intoxicated, Godwin’s forces slaughtered many and captured others they believed they could ransom. They seized Alfred, stabbed out his eyes and sent him to the Ely monastery, though he died a few months later from an infection in his wounds.

With Harthacnut occupied in Denmark, Edward living in exile in Normandy and Alfred dead Harold Harefoot became the undisputed master of England. Emma fled to Bruges where the Count of Flanders, Baldwin V, took her under his protection. Yet, the old former queen was not finished. From Bruges she sent emissaries to Harthacnut, asking him to seize England. By 1040, her youngest son had finally beat the Danes into submission and he sailed west to meet his mother. When he docked in Bruges news arrived that Harold had conveniently died of a mysterious illness. Shortly thereafter, the English nobility sent messengers to Harthacnut asking him to take the throne; no doubt they wanted to submit to him early and prevent him from raising a mercenary army to invade. Cnut’s son sailed to England and took up the crown. While in London he had his half-brother Harold’s body removed from Westminster abbey, beheaded and then thrown into a fen.

If you thought Cnut Jr.’s reign was going to go well after it began with the beheading of a corpse you are mistaken. The king raised taxes two to four times normal rates to pay for a massive fleet. This led the English, who notoriously hate paying taxes, to assault royal tax collectors. The Danes responded by slaughtering innocent villagers, supposedly to enact justice but really as a means to acquire plunder. This government by extortion was enormously unpopular, so much so that in 1041 Harthacnut invited Edward to become his co-king to take some of the heat off of himself. The arrangement did not last long. On 8 June 1042 Harthacnut was at a wedding celebration when he reportedly stood to drink to the bride’s health. As he did he began convulsing and fell to the ground, having probably died of a stroke brought on by excessive alcohol consumption. In the wake of the king’s death, Godwin led the nobles to support Edward’s claim to the throne, thinking that he could use the Normanized man as a puppet. With little other choice, Edward accepted Godwin’s help in exchange for naming his three sons as earls. After two and a half decades in exile and through sheer dumb luck, Edward became King of England.



Chapter 2: The Grey-Haired King


“Then [Guillaume] kept Harold with him for some days and during that time cautiously revealed to him what he had in mind. He said that King Edward, when years before he was detained with him in Normandy, when they were both young had promised him and had pledged his faith that if he, Edward, should ever be king of England, he would make over to Guillaume the right to succeed him on the throne as his heir. Guillaume went on to say, ‘If you on your side undertake to support me in this project and further promise that you will make a stronghold at Dover with a well of water for my use and that you will take my daughter to be your wife, then I will let you have your nephew now at once, and your brother safe and sound when I come to England to be king. And if ever I am with your support established there as king, I promise that everything you ask of me which can be reasonably granted, you shall have.’ Then Harold perceived that here was danger whatever way he turned. He could not see any way of escape without agreeing to all that Guillaume wished. So he agreed. Then Guillaume, to ensure that all should henceforth stand firmly ratified, had relics of saints brought out and made Harold swear over them that he would indeed implement all which they had agreed between them…When all this had been done, Harold took his nephew and returned home. Then, when, on being questioned by the king he told him what had happened and what he had done, the king exclaimed: “Did not I tell you that I knew Guillaume and that your going might bring untold calamity upon this kingdom?”

-Eadmer of Canterbury, History of Recent Events


The thing aristocrats love more than anything else is a weak king. Weak rulers allow the nobility to govern as they please while holding a country together through the power of custom and tradition. To opportunistic nobles Edward seemed the perfect fit for the part. He had spent most of his life in Normandy and had little personal connection to the English nobility from which he could draw power. Godwin believed he could become the true ruler and place loyalists in positions of power.

Unfortunately for Godwin, Edward aspired to rule in his own right. But he was in a bind given that he had spent over two decades in a foreign court. He did not personally know many lords when he arrived, a devastating defect for a ruler at a time when politics was personal. However, he did intimately know many Normans. For the entirety of his reign Edward attempted to grant English titles to Norman lords. If Godwin could command the allegiance of the English, Edward aimed to do the same with the Normans. When a Danish or Anglo-Danish lord died he reached out to one of his friends on the Continent to replace them, effectively replenishing the battered English nobility with Normans, as opposed to Godwin’s design of regenerating the English nobility with, well, English people.

Edward was especially keen on uplifting Normans within the church. These elevations were part of his political project but they were also important for correcting the English church. For centuries Anglo-Saxon Christianity had a dependent role on Francia, later France, with its internationally-renowned schools, abbeys, monasteries and churches. So many great synods convened in France across the ages, dictating important points of theology. Moreover, France was the gateway to the center of Christianity: Rome. In peacetimes the Anglo-Saxon church was usually only a little behind the Continent in adopting monastic reforms, rites and theological ideas. Regular attacks by Viking pagans greatly disrupted the English church. Even after the Scandinavians converted to Christianity, regular warfare still hampered church activities. When Edward arrived in England he saw a church that was noticeably out of line with that on the Continent. Monastic rules were different, priests regularly married, simony, the selling of religious offices, was rampant. Pluralism, when a priest held multiple offices, was also common and a serious problem as even bishops could draw political power and wealth from numerous territories while never adequately serving them. To a man with Norman sensibilities all this smacked of corruption and the dark influence of Odin-worshippers ravaging the land. To correct the wayward English church, Edward ordained as many Norman clergy as he could. These Normans worked to rectify the church while acting as crucial allies to the king. Thus, over the course of Edward’s reign English politics split between two factions: the Edwardian or Norman camp, and the Godwin nativist camp.

Edward understood that even though he wore the crown, Godwin was the most powerful man in the kingdom and it would take years to bring him down. In 1045 Edward very bitterly accepted a marriage agreement to Godwin’s daughter Edith. It was a marriage conducted with clenched teeth. First, Edward hated Godwin with a passion, not just because he was his rival for power, but because Godwin had betrayed, mutilated and ultimately murdered his brother Alfred. Moreover, Edward was not exactly into women, or perhaps anyone at all. He appears to have been far along on the asexual spectrum as he was not known to have a romantic relationship with anyone throughout his entire life. He had no mistresses, nor did he consecrate his marriage. Later on chroniclers claimed that he chose to live a pious, abstinent life, hence his moniker ‘Edward the Confessor,’ though given his lifelong aversion to sex this might not have been a choice.

Edward and Godwin’s personal feud intensified in 1047 when Godwin’s eldest son Swein committed a major crime and cardinal sin when he abducted the abbess of Leominster to force her to marry him so he could seize her valuable estates. King Edward intervened, freed the abbess and banished Swein, who fled to the court of Baldwin V of Flanders. Two years later Swein returned to England seeking a royal pardon, as only the king could forgive such an offense. Unfortunately, on his way to meet Edward, Swein murdered his cousin, who also happened to be the brother of the King of Denmark. Don’t you hate it when that happens? Edward banished Swein a second time. But his banishment barely lasted a year when Godwin forced Edward to grant him a pardon, at which point Swein returned. As historian Marc Morris quips, “The Godwines, it seems, could literally get away with murder.”

If Godwin carried the day on the domestic front, Edward held his ground in foreign affairs. In the mid-1040s the Dane Swein Estrithson called for English aid in his war against Magnus Olafsson for the throne of Denmark. Godwin wanted to send a fleet to help his nephew-in-law, but Edward refused. Instead of helping Godwin’s extended family seize Denmark, Edward raised a fleet and blockaded the County of Flanders upon request of the Holy Roman Emperor. The Holy Roman Emperor was furious that Baldwin V had dared attack his royal palace at Nijmegen, while Edward had his own grievances against the Count. First, Baldwin V had allowed a Viking warband that recently raided the country into Flanders’ ports. Beyond that, Baldwin V was a favorite of his mother Emma, and let’s just say Edward had mommy issues. Emma had always preferred Harthacnut, and even after Edward had ascended the throne she may have even conspired to have Magnus Olafsson conquer England. Oh, the medieval world, where half of all politics was personal grudges and the other half was romantic shenanigans.

Speaking of romantic shenanigans, the powerful Duke Guillaume of Normandy wanted to expand his power and the best way to do that was with a marriage. Guillaume reached out to his regular ally Baldwin V who offered his daughter Mathilde. When this proposal became public Pope Leo IX initially forbade the marriage for entirely political reasons. Popes were then dependent on the Holy Roman Empire, and Leo IX had personally been part of the delegation that led Baldwin V to submit to the Emperor in 1049. The Emperor did not want two powerful polities on his western border linking up and so Leo IX barred the union of Guillaume and Mathilde as a means of staying in the Emperor’s good graces. After years of negotiations, Leo IX relented and in 1051 or 1052 Guillaume and Mathilde wed. Side-note, this wedding was remarkable not just for the Flanders aspect but because Mathilde was the daughter of Adele of France, making her the granddaughter of King Robert II; as such, when the Duke of Normandy had children they would have royal blood and a claim to the throne.

King Edward was not happy about the powerful Norman lord marrying into his enemy’s family. Moreover, it started to look like the entire Continental coast facing England could be hostile. At this point Guillaume held Normandy under his personal control while Brittany was a vassal state. Add Flanders to the mix and Guillaume had direct control, indirect control or at least incredible influence over the entire northwestern coast of Continental Europe. While Edward considered Guillaume an ally he understood that he posed a significant threat to England. More than ever, Edward aimed to elevate Norman lords and bishops both to offset Godwin’s influence and to get into Guillaume’s good graces.

Edward and Godwin butted heads again after the archbishop of Canterbury died. Godwin wanted to replace him with his relative Aethelric, but Edward supported the Norman Robert of Jumièges, who was his most intimate counsellor and then-bishop of London. The English clergy protested but Edward put his foot down and had him confirmed in March 1051.

Shortly after his confirmation, the new archbishop travelled to Normandy. If you believe the Norman sources Robert met with Guillaume to offer him the crown of England on Edward’s behalf. We cannot be sure that this happened, as this was not recorded in English or surviving church records. Yet, what other reason would the new, and unpopular archbishop have to leave his bishopric so early and make a trip to Normandy? More than a few historians are convinced that Robert did try to feel out Guillaume’s willingness to take the throne. First, Edward probably knew at this point he would not have an heir. He was probably asexual or at least some kind of queer and had shown no interest in women. Even if he had, he was married to a Godwin and would not pass on the throne to the house that murdered his brother. Furthermore, the Normans had cared for him and his family for decades, and supported their claims to the English throne. Without the Normans, Edward probably would not have become king. Finally, Guillaume was perhaps the only man who could realistically challenge Godwin. Godwin and his sons ruled four of the six earldoms, making them the most powerful lords in England. Previously, only Scandinavian kings had succeeded in conquering England. Yet, given how powerful the Normans had become, Edward may have believed that if he set the stage for Guillaume’s accession then the Norman Duke just might be able to keep the throne away from the Godwins. Of course, Edward was not going to give him the crown out of the goodness of his heart. Edward recognized that Guillaume controlled hundreds of miles of Continental coast and that the Normans posed a significant threat to his rule. In all likelihood Edward offered Guillaume the crown in exchange for peace and his support. Still, we can only guess as to what Robert and Guillaume discussed. However, if Robert did offer Guillaume the English throne that would have filled Edward with confidence in his ongoing battle with Godwin, which might explain what happened next.

In March 1051 Edward abolished the geld, a tax which was used to pay for a mercenary fleet to defend against naval attacks. Edward’s decision to lay off England’s primary naval defense force might seem like a bad idea for a country that was routinely raided and invaded by Scandinavians, and it was in the long-term. In the short term, ending this tax boosted Edward’s popularity at a time when he was probably anticipating a showdown with Godwin. This showdown began over the appointment of Robert of Jumièges’ replacement. Since Edward elevated Robert to the position of archbishop there was a vacancy in the bishopric of London. Godwin naturally supported his own English candidate who was popular with the local clergy, but Robert refused to confirm him. Moreover, the archbishop of Canterbury accused Godwin of illegally taking lands from the church.

That summer tensions between king and earl reached a fever pitch. Eustace, the count of Boulogne, travelled to London to meet with King Edward to discuss the Norman-Flemish alliance following Guillaume’s marriage to Mathilde, which naturally concerned him since his territory was between Normandy and Flanders. After meeting with the king, Eustace’s entourage travelled to Dover where they planned to sail back to the Continent. While there his men got into a fight with locals and there were deaths on both sides. Eustace and his men fled the town and met with the king, upon which they told him that they had been attacked unjustly. It’s impossible to know if Edward believed the count, but he was not going to let the opportunity go to waste and he ordered Godwin to harangue Dover, which he was loathe to do since it was part of his territory, and he refused.

Now these two men could no longer share the same political space. In September Godwin and his sons raised an army, while Edward and his loyalists did the same. Thousands of men armed themselves with swords, shields, spear and, hauberks. The wealthier mounted war-horses. Each side amassed hosts of fiercesome warriors, none of which had any intention of fighting. Pitched battles were bloody affairs and the English had suffered enough in the two centuries of constant warfare before Edward’s reign. These forces were not actually going to engage each other; the vassals assembled due to their obligations to their lords who summoned them, entirely as a demonstration of their power.

Edward demanded that Godwin stand trial in London, which the earl agreed to, and he led his host towards the capital where they stared down Edward’s host. As they approached, Godwin’s men began abandoning him, while Edward’s remained intact. The Earl of Wessex had lost the battle and begged for the king’s peace, at which point Edward responded that Godwin would have the king’s peace when he delivered his brother Alfred back to him. The king exiled the Godwin family, forcing the patriarch and two of his sons to flee to Flanders while his two other sons Harold and Leofwine escaped to Ireland. The only Godwin left in England was the queen, who Edward dismissed and banished to a nunnery. After almost a decade since his coronation Edward finally became the master of England and had his revenge on his brother’s murderer.

Shortly after expunging the Godwins, Edward welcomed Guillaume to his court where he probably made official his offer to make the Duke of Normandy his heir. We in the present cannot be sure, though there are a number of important clues. First, the sequence of events starting with Archbishop Robert’s visit to Normandy, then the expulsion of the Godwins, followed quickly by Guillaume’s visit all imply that this had been part of Edward’s plan. Furthermore, the Anglo Saxon D Chronicle contains a passage that says that Edward ‘received’ Guillaume and specifically uses the word ‘underfang,’ which in context usually means ‘received as a vassal.’ This begs the question: why would Guillaume swear vassalage to a foreign king? This would be especially problematic given that he owed vassalage to the King of France. The answer is that Guillaume probably swore personal vassalage to Edward during the latter’s lifetime with the understanding that he would inherit the English throne upon the king’s death. Frustratingly, the Anglo-Saxon sources that remain don’t say outright that Edward declared him his heir, though the fact that they imply it is enough to convince some historians. In either case, Guillaume left England thinking that when he returned he would be welcomed as its rightful ruler. If only he knew that history is never so straightforward.

In the summer of 1052 Godwin raised a fleet and sailed to the Isle of Wight off the English coast where he linked up with his sons Harold and Leofwine who brought their own mercenary army from Ireland. How ironic: Edward had dismissed the mercenary fleet protecting England from seaborne invasions so he could lower taxes, making him popular enough to exile Godwin. Now, without that fleet, his enemies simply hoisted their sails and returned. From Wight, the fleet raided the Kentish coast then progressed up the Thames where they met the King’s army at London. Godwin sent messengers demanding that all his lands and titles be returned, which Edward refused. This time, however, Edward’s forces began abandoning him. Given that English writing suddenly takes an anti-Norman stance, it is likely that Edward’s announcement of Guillaume as his heir was unpopular with the English aristocracy who resented the Normans taking positions of power they believed belonged to them. Edward’s forces shrank until Godwin was able to encircle them. Before the king even formally surrendered the Normans in the city fled, including the archbishop who sped to Exeter before hopping on a boat to Normandy.

In one year Godwin had completely reversed his fortunes. From exile to exalted, he was again the master of England. He forced Edward to restore all his lands and titles and take back his queen. Godwin then had Edward place all the blame for the past year’s events on the conniving Frenchmen who had sown discord between the king and his subjects. This may have been the first time English politicians blamed French people for problems they were wholly responsible for, though it would not be the last. Edward had been utterly defeated and he fell into a deep depression, during which he paid far less attention to politics and focused on uplifting the church. One of his most famous acts was refounding Westminser Abbey.

If Edward championed the Normanization of the English nobility, Godwin’s re-ascendance signaled the de-Normanization of the country. The Earl chose Stigand, an Anglo-Dane, to replace the Archbishop of Canterbury. Stigand was everything that his Norman predecessor was not. He was highly corrupt, regularly committing simony and pluralism. While Robert had tried to reform the English church to bring it more in line with the Continent, Stigand led a counter-reformation, dismissing Continental practices in favor of native English ones. Anti-Norman sentiment was at an all-time high, Edward was dejected, his allies had fled to the Continent and the Godwins were stronger than ever. Guillaume’s plan to seize the English throne looked precarious at best.

As bad as things were for Edward, he must have smiled a bit around Easter when his longtime enemy died horrifically. During a feast Godwin appears to have choked on some food long enough to lose oxygen to his brain, leading to a stroke. He continued breathing for another three days before finally passing. Upon his death his son Harold became Earl of Wessex, but since no one could hold two earldoms at once he had to surrender East Anglia to a rival. Meanwhile, Swein was returning from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem when he was murdered. These deaths meant that the Godwin family only held one earldom.

Through no act of his own, aside from the many prayers Edward must have said against his enemies, the king was now the most powerful man in his kingdom yet again. However, even if Edward was stronger than any one noble, he could not overrule all of them. Thus, it appears that Edward abandoned his support for Guillaume as his successor due to widespread anti-Norman feelings among the aristocracy. With Guillaume pushed aside the English looked for a new heir and in 1054 they sent for Edward Ætheling. Edward Ætheling, often called ‘Edward the Exile,’ was the grandson of Æthelred II, and the son of Edmund II. When he was just a few months old Cnut sent Edward to Sweden. As a teenager Edward the Exile travelled to Kievan Rus before eventually settling in Hungary where he married a local woman and had a child, Edgar. Edward the Exile was an odd choice for king as he spoke no English and spent nearly his entire life outside of the country. Then again, Edward spent most of his life abroad, as did the Scandinavian kings who conquered the island. It seems England developed a tradition of having foreigners rule their country. After some cajoling, the Exile finally agreed to voyage to a home he had never known to become its leader. Upon arrival he immediately fell ill and died within days. The Exile left behind his four- or five-year-old son Edgar, who had been born and raised in Hungary and also spoke no English and he became the heir apparent, because not only did the English aristocracy accept foreign rulers but they also liked weak kings they could manipulate.

By 1062 the Godwins’ fortunes reversed again. Through a series of deaths and successions they controlled four earldoms, exercising power over everywhere but Mercia, roughly the middle and northwest. Harold became so powerful that on Christmas Day he launched a surprise attack against Wales, forcing king Gruffudd ap Llywelyn to go into hiding. After ravaging their country the Welsh decided to appease Harold by beheading their own king and sending the grisly trophy to the earl. Satisfied with their sacrifice, Harold placed a puppet king on the Welsh throne. Just as Guillaume had become a duke more powerful than the King of France, Harold Godwinson became an earl greater than the King of the English.

Speaking of the Duke, Guillaume’s position kept improving as his rivals also dropped dead suddenly and unexpectedly. On 4 August 1060 King Henri I died and was succeeded by his 8-year-old son Philippe I. The child was too young to rule, he wasn’t 15 after all, and so a regency council oversaw the kingdom, headed by Baldwin V of Flanders and Anna of Kyiv. While Guillaume had no connection to the eastern-born royal, Baldwin V was his father-in-law and close ally. Then on 14 November Geoffroy II, Count of Anjou, passed away, leaving behind no children at all, despite marrying four separate times. The County of Anjou fell into chaos as the deceased count’s nephews fought for the territory. This gave Guillaume the opportunity to seize Le Mans and other territory in the County of Maine, further expanding his power.

In the summer of 1064 or 1065 Harold Godwinson and a small coterie laden down with treasure sailed southward to meet with the Duke of Normandy. Historians generally believe that Harold wanted to meet Guillaume and negotiate the release of a brother and nephew who had been the Duke’s honored hostages since the 1051-1052 crisis. Given that these negotiations did later take place, this was likely Harold’s original intent. Moreover, it is also likely that Harold wanted to pay off Guillaume in exchange for the Duke giving up his claim to the English throne. By the 1060s the English nobility was openly hostile to foreign domination; if Guillaume understood this then this realization and a significant amount of gold, might convince him to formally abandon whatever dreams he had of becoming king.

Unfortunately for Harold, a storm blew his ship eastward and he landed in the County of Ponthieu, between Normandy and Flanders. Upon arrival the Count seized Harold and held him for ransom. Shortly thereafter, word spread of Harold’s capture and Guillaume ordered the count to free the Englishman, who soon travelled to Normandy. There, Guillaume ambushed him. He reaffirmed his claim to the English throne as his rightful inheritance bequeathed by Edward. Guillaume then made Harold an offer: in exchange for the earl’s support, Guillaume offered him one of his daughters in marriage. Harold was caught flat-footed. No doubt, he viewed Edgar as the undisputed heir apparent. That Guillaume would so forcefully claim the kingship was shocking. What’s worse, Harold knew he could not say ‘no,’ unless he wanted to also become a hostage. With no other choice, Harold swore an oath on holy relics to support Guillaume’s ascent to the English throne.

This is the best guess that some historians have made, and there is not a general consensus. Some historians believe the Norman sources, which claim that King Edward had sent Harold to confirm Guillaume’s ascendency. I, and medievalists who are much more versed in this than I am, consider the Norman sources to be propaganda meant to justify Guillaume’s actions. Instead, we side with the English sources, which claim that Harold only made his oaths under duress and had no intention of offering the Norman his support. We’ll never know exactly what took place, though it is clear that Guillaume had not given up on his dream of becoming a king.

The ambitious northern lord understood that France was too large and too hostile to conquer. On two separate occasions much of the country had united to destroy him just because they feared his power. A move against the French throne would ensure the whole kingdom and many other polities would assemble to crush him. Furthermore, France was not an easily conquerable country as it was pockmarked by castles. England, was a far different matter. At 1.5 million people it had 1/5th the population of France, and only twice that of Normandy. Meanwhile, England had no castles, at least none on par with those on the Continent. Despite all the Scandinavian raids, the English kings refused to allow their lords to build castles. Instead, towns built walls for common protection of all those who lived in the area, unlike castles which were fortresses and residences exclusive to the nobility. England was a large country geographically, and a moderately-populated kingdom, but its lack of fortifications and relatively small nobility convinced Guillaume that he could seize the territory if necessary, though he hoped that the English would kneel to him without a fight.



Chapter 3: An Omen in the Heavens


“Behold the sky flashes…Guillaume, who was a consul, has now become a king; a star trailing blood announced the event.”

-Baudri of Bourgueil, Poem for Adela


“At that time a star appeared in the north-west, its three-forked tail stretched far into the southern sky remaining visible for fifteen days; and it portended, as many said, a change in some kingdom.”

-Guillaume of Jumièges and Orderic Vitalis, Deeds of the Dukes of the Normans


“When Harold, the English king, heard this, he met them with a strong force at Stamford Bridge. A battle began that was more arduous than any that had gone before. They engaged at dawn and after fearful assaults on both sides they continued steadfastly until midday, the English superiority in numbers forcing the Norwegians to give way but not to flee. Driven back beyond the river, the living crossing over the dead, they resisted stoutheatedly. A single Norwegian, worthy of eternal fame, resisted on the bridge, and felling more than forty Englishmen with his rusty axe, he alone held up the entire English army until three o’clock in the afternoon. At length, someone came up in a boat and through the openings of the bridge struck him in the private parts with a spear. So the English crossed, and killed King Harald [of Norway] and Tostig and laid low the whole Norwegian line, either with their arms or by consuming with fire those they intercepted.”

-Henry of Huntingdon, History of the English People


Medieval England was a bucolic place, typified by wide plains, rolling hills, rivers and gentle streams. Its features made it easily traversable, even with poor roads in the less-populated areas. The big exception to this was Northumbria. Northumbria was a large region north of the Humber River and was pockmarked by bogs, fens and thick forests. The area included many ethnic Danes, especially among the ruling class. The Northumbrian nobility acknowledged Edward as their lord, but generally acted as they wished and loathed southern interference.

Upon the death of their Danish earl, Harold appointed his brother Tostig as their new lord. Given all that I just said you can imagine the disaster that would follow. Yet, had Tostig been an attentive, just ruler perhaps he could have satiated the local population. He was neither. Tostig was cruel and disregarded local custom. He raised taxes to pay for a mercenary force to protect himself and his lands, even as he failed to fight raids from Scotland. In either 1063 or 1064 he had two local lords assassinated. By late 1065 the Northumbrians reached their breaking point. The local nobles seized city of York in the south and executed Tostig’s loyalists. They then marched south to force King Edward to dismiss Tostig and appoint another man, Morcar, their new earl. Along the way they met Harold and relayed their grievances. At the risk of sounding biased or harsh, I doubt a Godwinson cared much about the well-being of their subjects. They did have quite a habit of murdering innocents after all. Most likely, Harold was deeply worried about a Norman invasion and wanted to pacify the country so England could present a united resistance when Guillaume attacked. Harold agreed to their demands and Tostig was dismissed.

Tostig did not take the news well. He flew into a rage at his brother’s ‘betrayal’ and even accused him of fomenting rebellion against him. Surely, the Northumbrians did not rise up because he murdered them on a whim; it had to be my scheming brother! With no support in the whole of England Tostig boarded a ship and fled to Flanders where he stayed at the court of Baldwin V, his brother-in-law, and plotted his return.

King Edward viewed the state of his kingdom and grieved. Its true ruler was his primary enemy. There was disquiet in Northumbria. King Malcolm of Scotland launched raids across the northern border. The Welsh were still justifiably angry that Harold had killed their king and launched their own attacks in the west. Then there was the question of succession. If you believe the English sources, Edward was anxious because he knew Guillaume would invade and bring death and destruction to his country. This is in marked contrast to the Norman sources, which held that Edward had sent Harold to Guillaume to ensure the succession and was content knowing that the crown would pass to a just and noble ruler. Pick whichever you prefer, though as a historian I’ve come to doubt 90% of sources that are overly-cheery. On 5 January 1066 Edward passed away after a bout of illness, having lived to his early sixties. The following day his body was interred at Westminster Abbey.

The succession crisis that the English nobility knew would come eventually had arrived. Who would replace Edward? None of the earls wanted Guillaume, who they believed would prioritize Normandy over England. Yet, they knew that he had the power to launch an invasion. Nine years ago they pledged themselves to Edward Ætheling, only for him to die upon stepping foot on English soil. Edward had left behind a Hungarian son Edgar Ætheling, who at that time could not have been older than 13. During peacetime the English aristocracy would have welcomed a weak king who could not interfere in their affairs. During a period of crisis a boy-king with little knowledge of the country was not ideal.

Edward had been seriously ill for so long that many if not all of the major lords were present in London upon his death. There they enacted a plan which they had probably decided upon at a much earlier date: they elected Harold as king and held his coronation on 6 January 1066, immediately after entombing the late king’s body. Given all of the French history we’ve covered it may seem odd, even scandalous, that a blood relative of the former King Edmund would be passed over for someone outside the royal family. However, in Germanic cultures kings were regularly elected by nobles. Germanic culture was not a pure meritocracy and the new leader was usually the son of the old leader, but his authority depended on the consent of the aristocracy. This was the case in the Holy Roman Empire, Scandinavia, Anglo-Saxon culture and early Frankish culture. However, Francia became the exception to the rule due to the incredible power of Clovis I and his descendants who could pass on their titles with little regard to the desires of the aristocracy. Even after the Merovingians fell the Carolingian monarchs became even more dominant over the nobility with the power to treat crown and throne as their personal property. In contrast, the English retained their ancestral Germanic tradition of elected kingship through the centuries. Moreover, frequent Danish conquest meant the kingship passed back and forth between Anglo-Saxons and Scandinavians, weakening any one ruling house’s claim to power. Edgar Ætheling certainly had the best claim to the throne, but ultimate authority rested with the council of nobles known as the witenagemot.

Harold had his own claim: first, he was the brother-in-law to the late king and he promulgated the story that Edward had named him as his successor. The other nobles did not seriously think this happened; Edward’s own personal physician said Harold’s claim was a lie. But Harold had to say the king made him his heir and the nobility had to pretend to believe it. Most of the nobles were Harold’s allies and to bring another powerful magnate to his side he offered his daughter in marriage. In this way Harold Godwinson became King of the English, though not without controversy. Harold knew he had to seize power before Edgar’s allies could unite behind him. His plan succeeded, for even though some preferred Edgar they were not willing to go to war for him. Upon taking the throne Harold immediately set out for York to put down the rebellion.

In Normandy, Guillaume was fully aware that Edward lay on his deathbed. He chose not to sail to England and press his claim because it was winter, when the weather was harshest. Moreover, he fully expected messengers representing the English lords to arrive any day, inviting him to become their king. After all, Edward had named him his successor, and Harold had sworn an oath on relics to support his claim. The Duke of Normandy was hunting around Rouen when news arrived that Harold Godwinson was proclaimed king. The normally-composed Duke flew into a rage and returned to his palace to brood. Guillaume could scarcely believe that Harold would betray his oaths to God and the saints and seize the crown for himself. He sent messengers to England demanding Harold step down and give him the crown, which Harold ignored.

After overcoming himself, Guillaume prepared for war. He sent messengers to Pope Alexander II arguing the crown was his by right. The Pope was probably unmoved by Guillaume’s dubious claims, but he was very concerned about the state of the English church. After the English evicted Robert of Jumièges and the other Normans, Stigand led a counter-reform movement. The new archbishop and his followers rejected the moral standards set by the Catholic Church, enriching themselves, holding multiple offices, selling offices, marrying while in office and otherwise living what the Pope considered corrupt, debauched lives. Alexander II also had personal sympathies with the Normans. Before becoming pope, Alexander II was the personal student of the Italian Lanfranco, who left Italy to become the prior of Bec Abbey and abbot of Saint-Étienne, which Guillaume founded in 1063. Alexander II sent Guillaume’s men back to Normandy with his blessing to invade England, take the crown and drive out the corruption in the church. He even sent a battle standard to the Normans to demonstrate that God was on their side.

The Duke of Normandy then called a secret council to secure the support of his most powerful nobles, those being his half-brothers Robert and Odo, alongside his friends Guillaume fitz Osbern and Roger de Montgomery. The great magnates all agreed to join him in the invasion. Then Guillaume called an assembly of the lesser lords, who were largely unenthusiastic about his plan. The lords argued that their fealty to Guillaume only applied to Normandy, not to overseas territories, though this was not an established rule as Guillaume claimed England was rightfully his territory. The lords also worried about crossing the Channel. The Normans were peerless soldiers on land; water was a different story. Crossing the Channel was perilous and the English were known for their strong naval defenses. Guillaume then unfurled the Pope’s banner, visible proof that the church and God were on his side. Then he appealed to their baser desires and promised the Normans more land and wealth than they ever dreamed possible would be theirs if they joined him on a heroic mission to right the grave wrongs inflicted upon their lord. Probably gold, more than God, drove many of the gathered Norman nobles to support the invasion. In the process they took a large step towards a more centralized form of feudalism as they set a precedent for following their lord to a war of conquest in far-away foreign lands. When Rollo took control of the County of Rouen, the Norman territory was among the freest places in France and Continental Europe, as Rollo ruled with a light hand to attract people to his depopulated lands. Under his great-great-great grandson the Norman duke had more power over his vassals than many of his French contemporaries.

The Normans were not yet ready to go to war. Such a massive invasion required the mass levying of soldiers, arms, armor, camping gear, food, water, horses, food and water for the horses and a large fleet to transport them all. Modern estimates provided by Christopher Daniell’s book From Norman Conquest to Magna Carta: England 1066–1215, claim roughly 14,000 men and 3,000 horses assembled for the invasion. Moreover, Guillaume wanted to keep his army provisioned so that they would not need to spread out and forage for food when they arrived. This would make the army more cohesive, faster and less susceptible to sudden attacks against small bands. More importantly, if the Norman army could feed itself it would not have to ransack English towns and farms for food, which would turn the population against them. The Duke wanted the English to see him as a just, kind and rightful ruler, not some Scandinavian marauder; his army would only take English food as a last resort. At least, that was the initial plan.

Assembling the army was a truly colossal effort. The Normans constructed roughly 1,000 ten-man tents, 420 tons of firewood, 28 tons of unmilled wheat grain, 14,000 gallons of fresh water, around 12,000 horseshoes and 75,000 nails for the shoes which altogether was 8 tons of iron. Perhaps most importantly, the Normans gathered 210 carts of wine, as alcoholic drinks were a good way to store extra calories and keep the troops’ spirits up. It’s been said that amateurs study tactics, armchair generals study strategy, but professionals study logistics: the mundane work of resource management and allocation. But this is the stuff that wins wars; Charlemagne made hie empire because he could assemble and equip more men than anyone else. Centuries later and Guillaume knew that he needed a well-trained, well-equipped professional army if he hoped to conquer a kingdom twice as large as his own duchy.

If you’re wondering what the rest of France was thinking at this point, the short answer is: “bon voyage.” Over the past few decades the Normans had been beating up their neighbors, who were overjoyed that the Northmen were finally going to fight somewhere else. Moreover, Anjou was in chaos and France’s child-king was under a regency led by Guillaume’s father-in-law Baldwin V of Flanders, meaning the two closest powers to Normandy would not be harassing the territory. Furthermore, Guillaume entrusted the duchy to his wife Mathilde who had for years ruled by his side. The duchess proved wise, just and forceful enough to administer Normandy in the times he was on campaign in Brittany or elsewhere, and the Duke was confident she could reign while he was in England.

Across the Channel, Harold pacified Northumbria through a show of force and by appointing the popular Morcar as the new Earl. Then he rode south for London to celebrate Easter, whereupon he learned that the Duke of Normandy was planning an invasion. The calm spring that settled across England could not mask the deep anxiety that seized the country. People across the land knew that peace would not last. As if to remind everyone of coming doom a new light blazed in the night sky. This object, now called Halley’s Comet, was visible every night during the last week of April, four times larger than Venus, a quarter as bright as the moon and trailing crimson. The English interpreted this astronomical event as a terrible omen of violent change to come.

Just after the comet disappeared from view Tostig landed with a fleet of 60 ships on the Isle of Wight. He began raiding the southern coast and attacked Sandwich. Tostig was not trying to take the crown and instead attempted to force his brother to restore him as earl of Northumbria. Harold adamantly refused; his grasp on Northumbria was tenuous and any attempt to force Tostig on the Northumbrians would lead to revolt in the north even as Guillaume prepared an invasion in the south. Harold led a large force to Sandwich, at which point Tostig took hostages and fled north where he raided and killed many innocent peasants in an attempt to provoke the earls Eadwine and Morcar. As he journeyed many of his enslaved sailors deserted him, leaving him with only 12 ships, one-fifth the number when he started. Meanwhile, he succeeded in angering the earls who pursued him. Realizing that everyone from the lowliest peasant to the most powerful lord wanted to kill him, Tostig fled still further north and took refuge with his old friend King Malcolm of Scotland. There Tostig devised a most audacious plan to seize power in England.

While Tostig conspired Harold prepared for war and stationed his main force at Sandwich. There he raised the largest navy in the recorded history of England to that point, perhaps 16,000 men who he spread along the coast to intercept Guillaume’s forces and sink them before they arrived. Harold himself waited on the Isle of Wight, ready to burn his enemy’s fleet before the Normans could place their boots on English soil.

During the first week of August the Normans assembled at Dives-sur-Mer with a fleet of perhaps 700 ships of varying sizes and function. Some were warships, some cargo ships, others dinghies. That summer the thousands of Norman soldiers watched and waited for what would be the most ambitious invasion of England since Julius Caesar’s conquest 1,000 years prior. And there they waited. Word reached Guillaume that Harold was ready for a Norman landing. The Duke believed he could defeat the English on the field but not at sea. Instead, he kept his men on the shore while they waited for Harold’s provisions to run out, at which point he would be forced to disband his fleet. It was a brilliant strategy which was only possible due to Guillaume’s logistical skills and the renowned Norman administration. For the soldiers on the ground, this was a truly boring time as they meandered around their camps waiting for something to happen, perhaps hoping that nothing would. For a month Guillaume kept his men on the coast. Then on 8 September Harold’s forces ran out of provisions and he disbanded the fleet. Unable to effectively monitor England’s long coastline, the King of the English retreated back to London. When he arrived he learned that Tostig had returned, this time with an army of Vikings led by the Norwegian Harald Sigurdsson, ‘The Thunderbolt of the North.’

Harald Sigurdson was by then 50 or 51 years old and was legendary across Europe. At the age of 15 he fought at the Battle of Stiklestad where his brother and claimant to the throne was killed. Afterwards Harald fled east to the court of Yaroslav the Wise, the Grand Prince of Kyiv. There he became a renowned captain in the Kievan army. A few years later he moved to Constantinople where he served the Emperor fighting across the Eastern Mediterranean. He rose up the ranks and attained the title spatharocandidate which was the fourth-highest rank. He also engaged in political intrigue and blinded Emperor Michaíl Kalaphates. In 1045 Harald returned to Norway and brutally crushed his rivals, earning the epithet ‘Hadrada,’ The Hard Ruler. For seven years he warred against Sweyn II for control of Denmark before eventually agreeing to a truce in 1064.

In the summer of 1066 Tostig travelled to Norway where he met Harald near the new city of Oslo and invited him to conquer England. Tostig claimed that the nobility despised Harold, who was a usurper king and would welcome a powerful ruler who could liberate them from his tyranny. The aging Norseman agreed to the proposition; moreover he claimed that ten years prior he and his nephew and co-king Magnus I agreed to recognize each other as heirs. It seems everyone in the north Atlantic suddenly remembered that time a dying king made them the heir to the English throne. As Magnus I’s heir he had a claim to the throne of England through Magnus I’s relations to Harthacnut. This was of course nothing but pretext for Harald to seize power through force. In late summer Harald sailed west to Shetland and the Orkney Islands at the head of a fleet numbering 200 to 300 ships commanded by roughly 8,000 men. Then he sailed south where he met Tostig’s meager force of 24 ships and they raided down the coast as they moved towards York. Given how slow news traveled in medieval times, Harold Godwinson could not have learned about the attacks for at least a week. It’s very possible the Norwegians landed in England the day Harold disbanded his army.

After confirming that his brother had indeed invited a Viking fleet to invade his country, Harold sent messengers across the land calling for help, amassed what forces he could and led a forced march towards York, which he assumed was their goal. Meanwhile the earls Morcar and Eadwine led their forces to York and took refuge behind the city walls Shortly after they arrived the Viking fleet sailed up the river Ouse and landed just ten miles south of the city on 20 September 1066.

When Eadwine and Morcar heard of the enemy landing they marched out from the city to meet them. If you can imagine it, the battlefield looked something like this: the river Ouse flowed south, then looped east; at the loop was where the Vikings were disembarking. From there the Norwegians marched northward to make room for their fellows. To the east were thick marshlands, making movement that way slow. Eadwine and Morcar each led an army with Eadwine in the west by the river and Morcar in the center with the marshes to his east. The English plan was to attack the Vikings as they disembarked, before they could amass their full forces. But the morning’s high tide flooded a stretch of land between the two forces. The English watched and waited as thousands of Vikings assembled on the other side of the water.

By midday the waters receded enough that men could walk across and Morcar led his forces south to attack the Norwegian host while it was still small. The Vikings charged to meet them. The two hosts met in the bog and began a brutal fight. Men hacked, slashed, pushed and grappled. Mud, blood and gore slowed both forces. From his position on higher ground, Harald saw the fighting unfold and he personally led a contingent of his elite soldiers to the west to attack Eadwine. The two forces engaged and the English were repulsed. Eadwine called for a retreat back to York, at which point Harald spun his forces around to attack Morcar’s flank. Outnumbered and out-positioned, the English broke. Those who could flee, did. Those who could not, died.

The victorious Harald marched to York, which surrendered and gave hostages. The city’s people were Anglo-Danish and had no strong loyalty to the south, much less Harold Godwinson with his tenuous claim to power, and accepted Harald as their lord. Not that they had much choice. Harald then marched east across the nearby Stamford Bridge where he called upon all the lords of Yorkshire to come give hostages and pay homage before he marched south to conquer the rest of England.

While Harald Hadrada regrouped, Harold Godwinson and his army arrived. The English had shockingly covered 200 miles in a little more than week as Harold force-marched them to York. When they arrived on the 24 September the King of the English was surprised to find the Norwegians were not in the city but just beyond it. He then turned his forces eastward where he planned to catch his enemies by surprise.

Much of the battle is shrouded in myth and we cannot be sure exactly what happened. Our best guess is that the main Norwegian host was encamped on the eastern side of the River Derwent, while a small watch guarded the narrow Stamford Bridge. The English army came upon the watch who sacrificed their lives to buy the main Viking host time. According to legend, a single berserker warrior armed with a great axe held the bridge through sheer ferocity, until an English soldier climbed down the side of the bridge and speared him in the groin. Either way, the English now controlled the bridge and crossed over to the other side. Because the bridge was so narrow it took time for Harold Godwinson’s forces to cross over and then assemble into a line, which meant that Harald’s forces had time to gather their arms and armor and form their own line.

The two sides faced each other from across the field. The English had the superior numbers, especially since over a thousand Vikings were away guarding the fleet. However, the English were tired from the forced march, whereas the Vikings had just been resting. The King of the English led a charge into the Scandinavians’ shield wall. For hours both sides fought brutally against each other, with the rested and experienced Norwegians holding their ground. But the superior numbers of the English wore them down and the north and south flanks began to consume the Viking army. According to legend, Harald was shot through the throat by an arrow, which sowed chaos through the ranks. Tostig was also killed, depriving the army of their primary leaders. Then, Harald’s son arrived from the south with the force that had been safeguarding the fleet and smashed into the English. His charge was ferocious and effective, but it was far too late to save the collapsing main host. As the battle lines blurred and the field became a random assortment of hacking, stabbing chaos more Vikings fell than English.

As devastating as it was for the English, it was an outright massacre for the Norwegians. The author of the Life of King Edward claims that the battle had, “dyed the ocean waves for miles around with Viking gore.” It also records that it took only 24 ships for the Vikings to return home, meaning around one-in-ten had survived. Thousands of corpses littered the battlefield and their bones could be seen a century later.

Harold Godwinson was victorious. He had delivered the north from an enemy force when even the great earls had failed, thus proving he was a strong and capable king. Yet, there was no time to celebrate victory. With the Scandinavians defeated, Harold raced south to meet a greater invasion force from Normandy.



Chapter 4: The Battle of Hastings

“I address you, O Normans, the bravest of peoples, not because I am uncertain of your prowess, or unsure of victory, which could never, by any chance or impediment escape you. If, on a single occasion, you had been unable to gain victory, you would perhaps need to be exhorted, so that your prowess might shine forth. But what exhortation can your natural and inevitable conduct require? O most valiant of mortals, what could the French king with that whole nation stretching from Lotharingia as far as Spain, accomplish in wars against our ancestor Hastein? Hastein took for himself as much as he wanted of France, and as much as he wanted the king to have, that he allowed him. He held it as long as he pleased, and when he was satisfied, he relinquished it, striving for yet greater things. Did not Rollo my ancestor, the first duke and originator of our race, together with your ancestors, defeat the French king in battle at Paris, in the heartland of his realm? And the only hope of safety for the French king was as a humble petitioner, to offer both his daughter and the land you call Normandy. Did not your fathers capture the French king in Rouen, and hold him until he gave up Normandy to the boy Richard, your duke, with the condition that in every conference between the king of France and the duke of Normandy, the duke would be armed with his sword, while the king would not be allowed to carry a sword nor even a small knife? Your fathers put the great king under compulsion, and established this perpetual decree. Did not the same duke lead your fathers as far as Miramande near the Alps and waging war at will force the duke of the city to release his son-in-law? And lest it should seem enough to have conquered men, he himself overcame the devil in the flesh, wrestling with him and overthrowing him, and binding his hands back, and as victor of angels he left him defeated. But why do I tell stories of what happened long ago? When in my time you fought at Moretmer, did not the French prefer headlong flight to battle, spurs to spears? When Rodolphe the high commander of the French was killed, were you not, in taking possession of fame and spoils, maintaining the force of habit the good that is natural to you? Ah! Let any of the Englishmen wom our Danish and Norwegian ancestors have conquered in a hundred battles, come forth and prove that the nation of Rollo, from his time until now, have ever been routed in the field, and I will withdraw in defeat. Is it not shameful to you that a people accustomed to defeat, a people devoid of military knowledge, a people that does not even possess arrows, should advance as if in battle order against you, O bravest? Are you not ashamed that King Harold, who has broken the oath he made to me in your presence, should have presumed to show you his face? It is amazing to me that you have seen with your own eyes those who by execrable treachery beheaded your kin, together with my kinsman Alfred, and that their impious heads should still stand on their shoulders. Raise your standards, men, and let there be no measure or moderation to your righteous anger. Let the lightning of your glory be seen from the east to the west, let the thunder of your charge be heard, and may you be the avengers of the most noble blood.”

-Duke Guillaume’s speech to the Norman forces before the Battle of Hastings, as recorded by Henry of Huntingdon in the History of the English People


Once news arrived that Harold had disbanded his fleet Guillaume desperately wanted to sail out and fulfill his destiny but storms and unfavorable winds kept his forces stranded at Dives-sur-Mer for weeks. On the 12th or 13th of September the frustrated duke decided to take a chance and ordered his men to sail out, only for winds to blow them off course to Saint Valéry, where probably more than a few died along its notoriously treacherous coastline. Before assembling his army, Guillaume had secured the blessing of the Pope and hoisted his banner. That June he had dedicated the abbey of La Trinité in Caen as a demonstration of his devotion to God, and promised his daughter Cécile as a nun. Around his neck he wore the relics upon which Harold Godwinson had sworn to support his kingship. No minute detail was left unheeded, and the Duke did everything he could to gain divine favor. Yet, the sea remained impassable and his supplies were dwindling. His men were becoming wary, having watched some of their fellows drown in the aborted voyage. Guillaume made a visit to the shrine of Saint Valéry and there vowed to patronize the church if the winds favored him. When this failed he brought the saint’s body out to his encampment so the entire army could adore it.

On 27 of September the winds finally changed course. The Normans immediately boarded and headed into the Channel. Once all the ships were in open waters those in front dropped anchors to allow all the ships to catch up and maintain formation. This was important as the Normans feared that if they were separated an English navy could pick them off. Night fell and each boat lit torches. Hours passed before the hundreds of vessels were together. Around 9 o’ clock Guillaume blew his horn and the fleet sailed out again. Around 9 in the morning on the 28 September the Normans landed at Pevensey Bay.

As the infantry slowly moved from beach to plain, the cavalry went on the offensive and took the town of Hastings twelve miles east. There the Normans repaired the Iron Age hill fort. In true Norman fashion they dug ditches and raised ramparts, making a ‘motte’ or mound. With a defensible base set up they ravaged the countryside for food. Guillaume’s original plan to keep his army sustained had fallen apart due to the months-long wait and his men needed food. Another benefit of raiding the countryside was that it would force Harold Godwinson to face him on grounds of his choosing. At least, that was the original plan. While the Normans waited for an English army to meet him they learned that Harald Hadrada had invaded Northumbria and The King of the English marched out to meet him. As historian Marc Morris quips, “[Guillaume] arrived in England not knowing which Harold he was going to have to fight.” Then Harold beat Harald and word reached the Norman Duke that he would face his intended opponent.

Fresh off his victory at Stamford Bridge, Harold Godwinson disbanded his infantry while he rode south back to London with his cavalry. The king and his mounted entourage rode roughly forty to fifty miles a day and he arrived in London within a week, upon which he learned that the Duke of Normandy had invaded. For the third time the King of the English sent messengers in all directions to raise another army. In the meantime Duke and King sent messengers to each other. Guillaume promised to make Harold Earl of Wessex should he abdicate. Harold told Guillaume to leave his country and that the Normans would only get safe passage back if they paid for all the damages done.

Estimates vary, but perhaps 10,000 soldiers arrived within a week, which Harold judged was enough. As he prepared to leave his mother Gytha and brother Gyrth implored him to wait until more men arrived. Harold imploded at their impudence. He was convinced of his strength after his triumph at Stamford Bridge. Moreover, he had won against the Norwegians because he had moved out rapidly and caught them by surprise, a strategy he aimed to repeat with the Normans. Finally, Guillaume was ravaging Harold’s lands, a provocation he could not abide. If the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles are accurate Harold could have doubled his forces if only he waited longer. Instead, he led the English southward on another forced march. However, the Normans knew the English were coming, which their scouts confirmed.

On 13 October Guillaume ordered his men to prepare for battle. The following morning they went out in search of the English and found them 7 miles to the northwest. It appears that Harold did not send out his own scouts because he did not want to tip the Normans off to his approach. His gamble backfired, and this time it was the English who were caught off-guard. Despite this, the uncomplicated army was able to quickly assemble into their preferred formation of a shield wall.

Much has been written about the two armies and of the battle itself. Norman and Anglo-Saxon sources both claim the other side heavily outnumbered them, though in all likelihood they had similar-sized armies, around 10,000 strong. Moreover, both armies were equipped with quality arms and armor. The Bayeux Tapestry depicts the Normans and English as nearly identical, and the major difference between the two sides is that the English have long hair and mustaches while the Normans have their hair cut short. Wealthy fighters wore chainmail hauberks and metal helmets, while poorer soldiers had leather armor and caps. Both carried spears and swords, though the English Viking swords were primarily for hacking while the French swords were used for stabbing. Some of the English probably still used battle-axes though these were falling out of fashion.

The major difference in the armies was in their composition. First, the English did not have a cavalry force. They used their horses to get to and from places, but once they arrived at a battlefield they dismounted and fought as infantry. This is in striking contrast to the Normans who were famous for their mounted warriors; although we must not overstate their effectiveness. Before stirrups were invented cavalry could not wield lances; if they did, the entire force of a lance-strike would be absorbed in their shoulder and they would be sent flying from their horse. Centuries later when stirrups became wide-spread knights were able to strike someone at full speed with a lance while their whole body absorbed the blow, allowing them to remain on horseback. Pre-stirrup cavalry primarily acted as harassment units who could swing in front of an enemy and hurl javelins at them. Otherwise, when infantry were out of formation cavalry could launch a sudden charge into their ranks, hacking and slashing at their foes.

Another contrast between the two armies was the presence of archers. The Normans had contingents of expert archers, whereas the English did not. At this point in England’s history they were not known for archery. Furthermore, archers tended to live in places with lots of forests, such as the wild north. When the two sides faced each other, the English army was comprised entirely of infantry while the Normans had infantry, cavalry and archers, the latter of which included crossbowmen.

The English formed two lines of infantry with their best men in front and green soldiers in back across a hill with forests on their flanks to the west and east. From there they looked down on the enemy forces to the south. Guillaume split his army up roughly into contingents based on their origins. The Normans themselves took the center, the Bretons the left flank with French allies and Flemish on the right flank, though since Normans made up 4/5ths of the army the flanks probably included some Normans. Guillaume put one group of archers at the front of his left flank and the front of his right flank. Behind this was a line of infantry. The cavalry was stationed in the very back.

From atop the hill Harold unveiled his dragon banner. Opposite him and below, Guillaume’s standard-bearers waved the Norman banner of two golden lions against red alongside the Papal banner showing a golden cross against a white background.

Battle began when the Duke ordered archers to fire upon the English. The archers killed some and wounded others but they were firing uphill into a shield-wall making their efforts far less effective than if they had been on even ground, or better yet high ground. After the initial volleys Guillaume ordered the infantry to charge. The Normans and their allies ran up the hill where they met the English. Both forces were fatigued, the Normans from the immediate run up the hill and the English from the week-long forced march from London. The result was carnage on both sides, but the English held. Whenever the English looked to break through the Norman line Guillaume’s cavalry would race to meet them, disrupting the English and saving their own infantry. But charging up a hill, strewn with corpses and hidden rocks was dangerous. A horse could break its leg or worse, take a tumble, throwing its rider and crashing into those close-by. According to one source, Guillaume was unhorsed twice, though he was uninjured.

After skirmishing for hours the Norman forces retreated. The chronicles claim this was a spontaneous flight as some believed Guillaume was dead, but this was probably a dramatic story. More likely, Guillaume ordered a feigned retreat. The English, thinking they had won the day, chased after their foes, giving up the high ground and entering into a wide battle-plain. The Norman infantry did a sudden turnabout and crashed into the English. Archers fired in arcs, their arrows shooting up and then falling down on English heads. Cavalry maneuvered to the sides and behind the English forces and wreaked havoc on their lines. The result was a slaughter. The English army broke, but for many there was nowhere to run to. Those who tried to run were chased down by cavalry. Many were bleeding, missing limbs, sporting gaping wounds, trudging away even though they could never recover.

According to the chronicles, a Norman cavalry contingent pursued a group of English along a patch of high grass, which concealed a cliff face. Guillaume of Poitiers wrote about the incident, “When thus the Normans saw the English fleeing they pursued them obstinately through the night till Sunday to their own harm. For high grass concealed an ancient rampart and as the Normans fully armed on their horses rode against it, they fell, one on top of the other, thus crushing each other to death…Thus on 14 October Almighty God punished the countless sinners on both sides in diverse ways. For while madness was raging among the Normans God slaughtered many thousands of Englishmen, who long before had unjustly murdered the innocent Alfred and on the previous Saturday without mercy had slain King Harold, Earl Tostig and many others. The following night the same Judge avenged the English and plunged the fierce Normans into the abyss of destruction. For they had been guilty of coveting the goods of other men contrary to precept of the law, and as the Psalmist says: ‘Their feet were swift to shed blood’ and so they encountered grief and wretchedness in their ways.” Afterwards the Normans called that place ‘Malfosse,’ ‘the evil pit.’

The Normans fought without mercy or pity. “Far and wide the earth was covered with the flower of the English nobility and youth, drenched in blood,” so writes Guillaume of Poitiers. All this death was well in accordance with the Duke of Normandy’s wishes. Guillaume wanted to break the spirit of his foes in one battle, rather than fight a long and protracted war for the throne, which he knew he would probably lose, since reinforcements coming from the other side of the Channel could not respond quickly to a crisis in England. Moreover, Guillaume wanted to ensure that no Godwin was left alive. According to the Norman sources, King Harold was killed when an arrow shot him through the eye, piercing through his skull and into his brain. While this is a possibility, it is also quite convenient that Harold was killed by a random arrow from an unknown archer. Had this been the case, then Guillaume could not be blamed for executing the King of the English, a fellow noble and brother in Christ. Even in the midst of pitched battle soldiers can usually tell who the king is, given that he wears the best armor, fights in the center with the elite soldiers and is near the royal banner. Thus, soldiers on the opposing side can recognize their enemy’s leader and more easily take him hostage, in accordance with Christian and noble custom. Of course, in the heat of battle, sometimes even kings are cut down, and perhaps that is what happened to Harold. But the story of a lone arrow seems like a fiction invented by the Normans to absolve their leader of any responsibility in the killing of the King of the English. This becomes especially suspicious because another source claims that Harold was struck many times by swords, cutting off parts of his flesh, then disemboweled and finally beheaded. Harold’s two brothers Leofwine and Gyrth were also killed in the fighting, meaning that both the king and two powerful southern earls had fallen. Between Stamford and Hastings much of the English aristocracy was spent.

After the battle the Normans buried their dead, though they did not do the same for the thousands of English corpses, which they left for the vultures, crows and worms. When news of the battle arrived in London, Harold’s mother Gytha sent riders asking to have the body sent to London for a proper burial. One source claims Guillaume refused on the grounds that the corpse was too badly mangled. If the more cynical interpretation of this event holds, Guillaume probably wanted to hide Harold’s mutilated body because of the outrage it would cause, and had his chroniclers spread the tale that he died cleanly from a shaft from heaven. We do not know what happened to Harold’s body after the battle. One source claims it was given to a church in Waltham for proper burial. Another source claims that Harold was buried along the coast, with a mocking inscription that read: “By the duke’s commands, O Harold, you rest here a king, That you may still be guardian of the shore and sea.” Harold Godwinson died as the last Anglo-Saxon to wear the English crown.





Chapter 5: The Conquest


“To his magnates he taught conduct worthy of him and of his dignity, and as a friend counselled equity. He warned them to be constantly mindful of the eternal King by whose aid they had conquered, and that it was never seemly to overburden the conquered, who were Christians no less than they themselves were, lest those they had justly defeated be goaded into rebellion by their injuries. He added that it was not honourable to act disgracefully when abroad in such a way as to bring dishonour to the land where one was born or brought up. He restrained the knights of middling rank and the common soldiers with appropriate regulations. Women were safe from the violence which passionate men often inflict. Even those offences indulged with the consent of shameless women were forbidden, so as to avoid scandal. He scarcely allowed the soldiers to drink in taverns, since drunkenness leads to quarrels and quarrels to murder. He forbade strife, murder, and every kind of plunder, restraining the people with arms and the arms with laws.”

-Guillaume of Poitiers, Deeds of Duke Guillaume


“[Guillaume] almost annihilated the city of York, that sole remaining shelter for rebellion, destroying its citizens with sword and famine…He destroyed also in a great a severe battle a considerable number of the enemy who had come to the succour of the besieged, though the victory was not bloodless on his side as he lost many of his people. He then ordered both the towns and fields of the whole district to be laid waste, the fruits and grain to be destroyed by fire or by water, more especially on the coast as well…Thus the resources of a province once flourishing and the nurse of tyrants were cut off by fire, slaughter and devastation, the ground for more than thirty miles totally uncultivated and unproductive remains bare even to the present day. Should any stranger now see it, he laments over the once magnificent cities, the towers threatening heaven itself with their loftiness, the fields abundant in pasturage and watered with rivers, and if any ancient inhabitant remains he knows it no longer.”

-William of Malmesbury, Deeds of the Kings of the English



The victorious Duke of Normandy and his men regrouped at the fort they’d made at Hastings. From the top of the motte perhaps he could see the thousands of bodies that littered the not-too-distant battlefield. Surely he saw a host of crows, vultures and other scavenger birds circling above the hillside. But when the Duke gazed out from atop the hill he was not admiring his recent military success. He was anticipating representatives of the surviving English nobility come to submit to him as their rightful king. Guillaume waited a fortnight and no one came.

The English would not give up so easily. London was filled with those soldiers Harold called up but decided not to wait for. There the English nobility, led by Eadwine and Morcar, backed Edgar Ætheling for the throne. They declared the young Hungarian their king, though given the state of the country they decided to postpone the coronation ceremony until after the Normans were defeated.

After two weeks of silence, the Normans reignited their campaign of conquest. First the Normans traveled east to Romney. They razed the village to the ground in revenge for the slaughter of Normans who had been blown off course during the initial landing and were slaughtered at the hands of Romney’s defenders. Guillaume then moved to Dover, whose people saw the massive army and surrendered to avoid the invaders’ wrath. Despite this, the town suffered a devastating fire, which was probably an accident caused by a band of Normans who ignored their leader’s call for civility and looted part of the town.

Guillaume built a fort at Dover, perhaps where today’s castle now stands. The Norman forts were an ominous marker of what was to come. England was largely bereft of fortresses, unlike the Continent. The kings of the English did not trust their nobility with fortifications, and the larger towns and cities built their own walls. The Norman forts were a striking symbol that should the Normans win then aristocrats would have far more power to monitor and dominate the common people.

Guillaume and many of his men suffered dysentery at Dover. Yet, the Norman lord refused to sit idly while his enemies recovered and regrouped. He and his healthy men marched northwestward towards London, leaving behind a small garrison and the sick. As they marched many cities sent out representatives surrendering to the Normans in exchange for leniency. The most important of these was Winchester, site of the royal treasury. The Duke of Normandy accepted their surrender with heavy tribute.

If the towns along the route to the capital surrendered, London remained defiant. As the Normans approached a sortie crossed London Bridge and attacked. The Normans repulsed the English who retreated back to the north side of the Thames, where most of the city lay. As the English fortified the north, the Normans set the houses on the southern bank ablaze. Guillaume knew that London would not fall, at least not without heavy losses, which he could ill afford. It lay across a wide river, his men did not have boats with them to cross it, and even if they did the English had their own boats which they could use to skirmish with them. Instead, Guillaume launched a terror campaign throughout the countryside, mercilessly destroying towns, plundering food storehouses and looting with abandon. This scorched earth strategy was intended to demoralize the English while feeding the Normans’ need for food, plunder and sex as the invaders took whatever they wanted. The strategy was effective and English nobles defected to him, including Stigand, the Archbishop of Canterbury.

After weeks of holing up in the capital the mood of the Londoners was abysmal. The assembled aristocrats did not want to submit to Guillaume but they refused to take to the field. From atop the walls the city’s defenders watched the Normans’ progress as plumes of smoke rose, marking the destruction of one town after another. In the words of John of Worchester, “Duke Guillaume laid waste Sussex, Kent, Hampshire, Middlesex and Hertfordshire and did not cease from burning townships and slaying men until he came to the township called Berkhamsted,” roughly forty kilometers northwest of London. When it became clear none of the English leaders were willing to actually fight against the enemy host the nobility agreed to surrender. A delegation which included the presumptive king Edgar and powerful magnates travelled to Berkhamsted where they paid homage to Guillaume.

From Berkhamsted, Guillaume and his host marched towards London while an advance guard of  500 horsemen rode ahead to secure the city. Along the way a small force of English troops, aghast at their lords’ surrender, attacked. The advance guard slaughtered the defenders. Guillaume and his Normans passed a trail of English corpses as they entered London.

On Christmas Day the greatest of the Norman lords alongside the leading English aristocrats crammed into Westminster Abbey for the new king’s coronation ceremony, which was only large enough for a few hundred. Most of the Norman host camped elsewhere, though Guillaume was sure to keep an honor guard outside the abbey in case of treachery. Ealdred, Archbishop of York oversaw the ceremony and delivered a sermon emphasizing that a king must lead with generosity, mercy and Christian virtue. Afterwards there was the ceremony of oaths as the assembled lords swore to recognize Guillaume as their king. Ealdred asked in English if the English lords would agree to be Guillaume’s vassals, to which they shouted in the affirmative. Next, the Bishop of Coutances asked the same question in French, to a similar shouting reply.

According to the sources, the guard outside heard the back-and-forth shouting and assumed that the English had started attacking the Normans. In response the guard began slaughtering Londoners in the streets as revenge. However, this does not make sense, as why would a guard choose not to guard their lords? They literally had one job and its in the name! More likely what happened is that a band of Normans decided to loot the surrounding neighborhood, got into a fight and a fire broke out. The abbey’s stone walls could not silence the screams from outside, nor could the stained glass hide the light from the blaze engulfing the nearby houses. In the midst of the ceremony English lords began rushing out to help contain the fire, while Norman lords left to join the looting. By its end only Ealdred and a few bishops remained. The archbishop of York placed the crown on Guillaume’s head and bid him sit on the English throne inside the empty church, while his capital burned around him. After one major battle and two months of pillaging, Guillaume was now King of the English.

After his coronation ceremony Guillaume made a quick getaway to Barking just east of his flaming capital. There he waited for his men to construct a fort in the heart of London from which he could securely control the city. This wooden fort eventually developed into a castle which became known as White Tower, today the heart of a larger castle known as the Tower of London. In the next few days the king issued a flurry of edicts to pacify the English. He promised to respect local laws, customs and property. He passed decrees outlawing looting by his men and assigned judges to oversee their offenses. Guillaume accepted the submissions of Eadwine and Morcar, alongside other lords who came late to support him. Those lords who still refused to acknowledge him, he ordered their lands confiscated and redistributed to his loyalists.

Of highest concern to the king at this time was paying back those who had supported him on such an undertaking. There was plenty of land to go around after the thinning of the English nobility at Stamford Bridge and Hastings; moreover, many nobles fled, some to Scotland, Wales, Ireland; some to Flanders and still others went further abroad to Scandinavia. Guillaume doled out lands, titles and wealth to his vassals in accordance with their power. The greatest concessions he reserved for himself as he gained the initial crownlands and expanded them.

Aside from land, Guillaume needed cash and he raised heavy taxes on the English to pay off his soldiers. This hit churches and monasteries particularly hard; ironically, those who surrendered early to avoid being ransacked by the invading force now had their wealth seized by official decree. Many of the plundered riches from English churches were sent to Norman churches as thanks for their supplications to God for victory. The King of the English sent stores of gold and silver to the Pope alongside Harold’s dragon banner as repayment for the Pope’s cross banner.

After establishing his reign, Guillaume marched southeast, demonstrating his strength everywhere he went while depositing contingents to establish forts to secure the area. The King brought with him Edgar, Stigand, Eadwine and Morcar, among other lords, who he treated as ‘honored guests,’ though it was apparent they were his hostages. His final stop was Pevensey where he debarked for Normandy. When he arrived in Normandy he led what was almost a Roman triumph, such was the celebration. During this time the archbishop of Rouen passed away. Everyone recognized Lanfranco as the favorite to succeed him, given his role in securing the pope’s blessing for the Norman invasion. Yet, the aging abbot declined the offer; Guillaume and Lanfranco had probably already agreed that he would replace Stigand as the Archbishop of Canterbury, though this did not occur until 1070.

Beneath the veneer of glory and conquest there was an ill-disguised unquiet about the destructive actions of the Normans. Guillaume’s forces slaughtered thousands of English nobles great and small at Hastings. They ravaged the countryside, even looting and burning cities that surrendered to them, such as Dover and London. In response, the Pope demanded that the Normans who participated in the bloody campaign perform penance for their slaughter of their fellow Christians. This was a remarkable act; the last time the papacy demanded soldiers perform penance was after the Battle of Soissons in 923, a devastating fight wherein the Frankish lords overthrew King Charles le Simple and thousands died on each side. Thus, Guillaume and his vassals founded monasteries and churches to make up for their wanton killing.

The Norman Conquest was not yet complete. For years rebellions broke out across England, though these never linked up with each other. These were all local responses to individual persons aimed at addressing specific grievances. There was no countrywide anti-Norman movement and no army willing to meet Guillaume’s combined Norman and English forces. Not that everyone knew that at the time. In 1067 the English nobles of Kent decided to revolt against the Normans while their usurper-king was away. Thinking that the English alone could not succeed, they sent messengers to Eustace, Count of Boulogne. Eustace had joined in the conquest but he was unhappy with the small amounts of land he had received, something which the English were well aware of. Eustace agreed to their plot and sailed to Dover by night so he could attack the city by surprise at dawn. When the invaders arrived his allies were not all there. Moreover, the defenders at Dover saw the enemy gathering, marched out and attacked them. The invaders broke and many were pushed off the cliffs in their scramble to safety. This one defeat made Eustace turn-tail and sail back across the Channel. Pretty pathetic, travelling all the way across the Channel just to get your butt kicked. The King of the English and Duke of Normandy treated Eustace with leniency, believing him too important to disown, but this rebellion made Guillaume realize that England was not wholly subdued, particularly on the Welsh border in the west and in the north which was far more independent and subject to raids from Scotland. In the last weeks of 1067 Guillaume learned of a conspiracy by the Godwins to slaughter the garrisoned Normans and return to power. The new king sailed back to England on 7 December, spending Christmas in London.

In early 1068 Guillaume learned that the plotters were stationed in the rich southwestern city of Exeter. Guillaume gathered an army which for the first time included English soldiers and marched southwestward. As he approached he sent out messengers demanding the nobles swear oaths to him. The nobles replied that they would pay tribute but would not swear allegiance. Guillaume refused their terms. When he arrived at the city emissaries approached, agreeing to his demands. But this was just a tactic to stall for time as the city refused to open its gates, at which point the Normans settled in for a siege. Guillaume tried to terrify the enemy force by publicly blinding one of their men. In response, one of Exeter’s defenders turned his back on the besiegers, dropped his pants, mooned the king and farted. Despite this very English form of defiance, Gytha Godwin recognized the hopelessness of the situation. She snuck out of the city and fled to Flanders. After eighteen days Exeter surrendered. Guillaume showed surprising leniency. Historian George Burton Adams writes, “He overlooked their evil conduct, ordered no confiscations, and even stationed guards in the gates to keep out the soldiers who would have helped themselves to the property of the citizens with some violence. But as usual he selected a site for a castle within the walls, and left a force of chosen knights under faithful command, to complete the fortification and to form the garrison.” He then travelled around Cornwall subduing the region through a show of force. Afterwards, the king returned to London and sent for his wife Mathilde. Upon arrival she was crowned Queen of the English in Westminster. That summer she bore her fourth son, Henri.

During this time the Normans realized that rebellion was stirring in the west and north, with lords in those regions fearing that the Normans would dispossess them as they did in the south. Eadwine and Morcar had even raised an army to challenge Guillaume, with Edgar Ætheling among them for symbolic support. In response Guillaume marched northward with an army. As he did every town paid homage to him and he faced no resistance. When the Anglo-Norman force approached the north Eadwine and Morcar lost their courage and sued for pardon while Edgar fled to Scotland. The king then moved to York, which also surrendered and provided hostages. Dignitaries from the north came to York to demonstrate their loyalty and Guillaume went no further. The king was generous to his vassals, forgiving them for their folly, though he did leave behind guards all along his route with instructions to build fortifications to deter future misadventures.

Meanwhile, Harold’s sons were plotting their revenge in Ireland. Knowing full well how their father had raised an army on the Green Isle and returned to England victorious over King Edward, the brothers aimed for a repeat of the Godwin family return to glory. They raised a fleet and raided up the Bristol Channel until they reached the city of Bristol itself. The defenders of the city held off the Godwins, as did their next target, the city of Somerset. The sons of Harold Godwinson left with empty hands.

The 1068 campaign was a nearly bloodless one. Rebels either surrendered without a fight or did so shortly after some light skirmishing. In fact, most of the bloodshed had not involved Normans, but English fighting against the Scandinavian-Irish mercenary army raised by the Godwins. The King of the English dealt with the rebels lightly, allowing them to retain their lands and titles, for the most part. At this time, five of the earls were still English, and the northern lords in particular were mostly undisturbed. But even though there were few real battles there was frequent low-level fighting. Many English nobles had been dispossessed for fighting at Hastings for Harold, or through the subsequent high taxes. This resulted in regular fighting between Normans and English. Hostility and a lack of pay meant many Normans deserted their posts, even at the garrisons of important holdings like Winchester and Hastings, as they believed England was not worth the trouble. Their lord knew he had to pay his soldiers better if he wanted to maintain his hold on the country and so he raised taxes on the English. This created a self-perpetuating cycle of violence as the bereaved English fought against the Normans, the Normans retaliated, and their king would dole out lands and wealth to Norman lords and soldiers if they maintained order. When Guillaume entered England he was content to allow most of the English lords to retain their land and titles so long as they were loyal to him. Despite his initial aims, the Norman aristocracy gradually replaced the English through this system of taxation, rebellion and retribution.

The cycle of violence reached its height in early 1069 in the north. Guillaume had appointed the Flemish lord Robert de Comines as Earl of Northumbria. Robert knew that the north was wild and rebellious; after all, the last earl was part of a rebellion, the earl before him had been stabbed to death, and the one before that beheaded. With a small army of 500-900 mercenaries, Robert brutally suppressed the north with a terror campaign. In January 1069 they ravaged Durham. Outraged, local lords supported by Edgar Ætheling raised an army and retook the city. They then followed the Norman host to York were they slaughtered them, their leader and the Norman garrison. Guillaume was utterly furious and in early 1069 marched with an army to York, which he ransacked as a warning to the rest of the north. Then he travelled to Winchester to celebrate Easter.

While the Duke was enjoying his festivities, Gytha Godwin travelled to Denmark to convince the Danish King Swein II to invade, telling him that the Norman leader was so unpopular that the English would rally to his cause. At this time Swein II also claimed that he was Edward the Confessor’s rightful heir, because wasn’t everyone? In late August or early September he sailed with a fleet to the northeastern coast, ransacking towns. As the Danes approached York, the castle’s defenders decided to burn the houses just beyond the walls to prevent the Northmen from using them to scale the fort, but the blaze got out of control and the whole city burned down. The Danes came upon the wreckage and besieged the castle, killing the Norman guard. Meanwhile rebellions broke out in other areas as defiant English took advantage of the chaos.

Guillaume raised an army and raced north to meet the largest threat. By this point Swein II seems to have realized that England would not rally to his cause. Most of the populace appeared indifferent to the Normans; after all, England had been the victim of numerous foreign invasions, usually from the Danes themselves. Those that opposed the Normans were a small minority of nobles, while other nobles even now supported the Normans out of fear and because they wanted to be rewarded for their loyalty. As Guillaume approached the two camps exchanged messages. The King of the English agreed to pay the King of the Danes to leave, which he did. With the foreign threat eliminated, Guillaume turned upon his people. He split his army and “commanded that all crops and herds, chattels and food of every kind should be brought together and burned to ashes with consuming fire, so that the whole region north of the Humber might be stripped of all sustenance…As a consequence, so serious a scarcity was felt in England, and so terrible a famine fell upon the humble and defenceless people, that more than 100,000 Christian folk of both sexes, young and old alike, perished of hunger.”

“The Harrying of the North,” was one of the most brutal episodes in northern England’s history. Historian George Burton Adams writes that the Normans and their English allies marched, “through the country to the north of York, drawing a broad band of desolation between that city and Durham. Fugitives he sought out and put to the sword, but even so he was not satisfied. Innocent and guilty were involved in indiscriminate slaughter. Houses were destroyed, flocks and herds exterminated. Supplies of food and farm implements were heaped together and burned. With deliberate purpose, cruelly carried out, it was made impossible for men to live through a thousand square miles. Years afterwards the country was still a desert; it was generations before it had fully recovered.”

The induced famine forced the people of the north to eat dogs, rats, even turn to cannibalism. If the figure of 100,000 deaths is accurate, then that would be roughly 1 out of every 5 Northumbrians killed, or around 4-5% of the entire country of England. Not even Guillaume’s own chroniclers could defend such brutality. Orderic Vitalis writes, “My narrative has frequently had occasion to praise Guillaume, but for this act which condemned the innocent and guilty alike to die by slow starvation I cannot commend him. For when I think of the helpless children, young men in the prime of life, and hoary greybeards perishing alike of hunger, I am so moved to pity that I would rather lament the grief and sufferings of the wretched people than make a vain attempt to flatter the perpetrator of such infamy. Moreover, I declare that assuredly such brutal slaughter cannot remain unpunished. For the almighty Judge watches over high and low alike; he will weigh the deeds of all in an even balance, and as a just avenger will punish wrongdoing, as the eternal law makes clear to all men.”

It was not just the chroniclers who were morally repulsed by the wholesale slaughter of women, children, the infirm and the elderly. Many Normans asked to be dismissed; others simply abandoned the campaign. For the better part of a century France had led an international peace movement within Christendom known as the ‘Peace of God,’ which sought to limit, if not end, violence between Christians. While this was mainly in the south, support from the Kings of France spread its message across the kingdom. A related movement, known as the Truce of God, emerged in Caen, which was less restrictive but still sought to curtail violent excesses between Christians. How ironic then, that the duchy of Normandy, whose people were engaged in such idealistic attempts at brotherhood and humanity, could engage in the outright killing of countless innocent civilians? Many Normans could not countenance what was done and deserted, refused orders or later repented their actions.

Guillaume’s campaign had its intended effect, and Northumbria did not engage in any large-scale rebellion as its people were too busy struggling to subsist. After ravaging the north, Guillaume celebrated Christmas amidst the rubble of York. There he commemorated the birth of the Prince of Peace in the charred remains of the cathedral. As he did he wore the crown and royal attire to remind the northerners who was king.

For the rest of his reign, Guillaume faced no serious threats to his power. The Normans held castles all across the country. The English nobility was after 1070 much reduced, while a whole generation of Norman lords established themselves on the island. Moreover, Guillaume spread out English baronial landholdings, preventing them from coordinating large-scale resistance. The native aristocracy recognized that there was no real hope of expelling their overlords; the English had tried to rebel, they had appealed for aid from Wales, Scotland and Denmark and all attempts only resulted in further taxes and subjugation. The last major plot by the English was the Revolt of the Earls in 1075, and even this was dealt with fairly easily. The Normans had won.



Chapter 6: Normanization


“Leofric, abbot of Peterborough, was at that campaign and fell ill there and came home and died soon after, on the eve of all Saints. God have mercy on his soul. In his day there was every happiness and every good at Peterborough, and he was beloved by everyone, so that the king gave St Peter to him and the abbacy of Burton and that of Coventry which Earl leofric, who was his uncle, had built, and that of Crowland and that of Thorney. And he did much for the benefit of the monastery of Peterborough with gold and silver and vestments and land, more indeed than any before or after him. And the golden city became a wretched city…[After the Normans arrived] all confusions and evils came upon the monastery. May God take pity on it.”

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, version E


More than the Channel separated England and Normandy. The two polities enjoyed wildly different cultures and states. By the 11th century Normandy was one of the most advanced feudal states, that was better organized than virtually anywhere else in Europe. While medieval record-keeping does not hold a candle to the modern census, the Normans collected far more data on their subjects than anywhere else. When Guillaume ordered the creation of the Domesday Book in 1086 to catalog all property down to the last calf owned by his vassals he was not pioneering something new. The Normans irregularly collected information on their subjects primarily for purposes of taxation, but also to measure the power of those living within their borders.

In addition to Norman control of information, the dukes also controlled their populations far more tightly than the English. As noted before, the Normans built forts all across their territory to defend their properties. This had not occurred in England, and it is why when an English noble was defeated in battle they fled abroad, whereas Normans hid behind their walls. The Normans established castles everywhere they went, much to the anger of the English who were used to living relatively free compared to their Continental counterparts. What’s worse, castles were often made through conscripted peasant labor. For the lowliest of society these fortifications were symbols of clear oppression. Perhaps it did not help that Norman architecture was very barebones, unlike the more beautiful medieval constructions of the late medieval and Renaissance period.

Which brings us to another change: architecture. The first Norman buildings in England were the motte-and-bailey forts, followed by castles. These castles were square-shaped buildings with towers at their corners. Their simple design meant they could be easily built. Moreover, in an era before effective siege equipment the box-design sufficed; it was only with the popularization of the trebuchet that medieval planners created curving walls to better absorb the blows. Perhaps the Normans’ greatest contribution to English architecture related to religious sites. When Guillaume sponsored churches and monasteries in England he made them in the Frankish Romanesque style. However, tastes were already shifting, and it was not long before the so-called Gothic Cathedrals developed. When these began appearing in northern France they will quickly find counterparts across the Channel.

One of the great changes that took place was the consolidation of land in the hands of a small number of noble families. Historian Christopher Daniell writes that, “By the time of Domesday Book in 1086 the dispossession of the Anglo-Saxon nobles was practically complete…Around 5,000 pre-Conquest estates were concentrated into the hands of less than 200 major lay tenants-in-chief, who between them controlled 54 per cent of England in 1086. The twenty richest lords and twelve richest prelates held some 40 per cent of land as expressed in value.” Some individual lords had absurd amounts of land, as was the case with Guillaume’s half-brother, Robert, who acquired 797 manors. However, Guillaume made sure to spread out these properties, as allowing any one person to control a giant swath of uninterrupted territory would give them enormous regional power.

After the Conquest, French replaced English as the language at court. For three centuries this remained until Henry IV became the first king to speak English as his native language when he ascended in 1399. England was widely different than the Continent in that the English both spoke and wrote in the same language, whereas mainland Europeans spoke their native languages but wrote in Latin. The Normans brought this practice to England as they founded schools and inaugurated a great expansion in learning. However, this change only impacted a small minority of the country; the overwhelming majority of the population spoke an older version of English.

Perhaps the most contentious change since the conquest was the Norman reformation of the English church. One of the reasons that the pope supported Guillaume was to bring English Christianity in line with the Continental Catholic Church. The English church was far more…relaxed than the doctrinaire Continental church. Priests regularly married, as did some bishops. Simony was common, as was pluralism. Moreover, the national church was breaking apart as local churches imposed their own rules and even developed some of their own theological ideas, which was always dangerous. Without a powerful national church the secular witenagemot, composed of the great English lords, imposed their orders upon the church. Moreover, churches did not have their own independent judicial powers, as was the case on the Continent.

With legates from the Pope overseeing his reforms, Guillaume began radically altering the English church. His first order of business was to replace English priests with Norman ones. Ostensibly, and perhaps truly, this was done because the Normans were close to the papacy theologically and could be trusted to enshrine orthodox ideas. In practice, this had the effect of further strengthening the Norman conquerors as they took over the church as well. Guillaume allowed the papal legates to take charge of depositions, the most famous of which was of course Stigand, the wayward archbishop of Canterbury. He was deposed and imprisoned in Spring 1070, and in August Lanfranco took his place. The Normanization of the church was rapid and complete. By 1071 only 3 of the 15 bishops of England were English. Among monasteries the de-Anglicization was even more pronounced; in October 1066 all but one of the abbots were English. As Daniell notes, “By 1087 all the heads of the thirty most important religious houses were either trained or born abroad.”

As Guillaume and the papal emissaries deposed and anointed priests they set about establishing the hierarchy of the church. Shortly after becoming archbishop Lanfranco asserted his supremacy, demanding that the Archbishop of York acknowledge him as his superior. After two years of councils, talks with the pope, and quite a few forged documents, Lanfranco won the day and the Archbishop of Canterbury became the supreme religious authority in the English church, a tradition which holds to this day.

If Guillaume respected English law in most cases, he trampled over it when it came to issues regarding religion. He reconfigured English society so that the church held similar powers and responsibilities in England as on the Continent. By royal decree he separated secular and religious courts, giving priests incredible powers. However, he also required churches raise soldiers in times of war.

The Norman priests respected many local religious practices. The various English saints and their cults were generally respected. However, the Normans imposed their own, Latin liturgy, which at times met with vehement opposition. The most famous case was at Glastonbury where in 1083 the Norman abbot demanded the monks replace their traditional chanting with papally-approved chants. The abbot became so enraged at the rebellious monks that he ordered soldiers enter the monastery, whereupon they, “broke into the choir and threw missiles towards the altar where the monks were, and some of the knights went to the upper storey and shot arrows down towards the shrine so that many arrows stuck in the cross that stood above the altar: and the wretched monks were lying round the altar, and some crept under it, and cried to God zealously, asking for His mercy when they could get no mercy from men.” Then the soldiers, “killed some of the monks and wounded many there in the church, so that the blood came from the altar on to the steps and from the steps on to the floor. Three were killed there and eighteen wounded.”

Lanfranco himself had rebellious clergy under his command. At one point the aged archbishop asked a rebellious monk, “Would you kill your abbot?” to which he replied, “Certainly would if I could,” a retort which got him tied naked to the abbey door, whipped and exiled. Worth it?

Despite all these colorful stories of resistance and rebellion the Normans triumphed. That is not to say that the English adopted their customs wholesale; when they were not outright rebelling they could negotiate or subtly protest the demands of their superiors. But in politics, religion, schools, the justice system, all the superiors were Normans or put in power by the Norman lords. Ever since the fall of the Western Roman Empire England had a unique culture and political structure. It remained unique even after the Norman Conquest but after 1066 English society resembled that of Europe more than it had in perhaps six hundred years.





“May the end be good when God wills!”

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, version D


Despite being King of the English, Guillaume spent most of his time after 1072 in Normandy. England had been mostly pacified, while France remained contentious as ever. Moreover, King Philippe I proved to be a far more capable enemy than his father. In 1076 Philippe I gave Guillaume his first defeat in pitched battle at Dol. The following year, Guillaume’s firstborn son Robert demanded he be given more power, but his father refused, leading the young man to rebel. Robert raided the Vexin so horrendously that Philippe I and Guillaume put aside their differences and the two kings drove Robert into exile. Mathilde could not bear the separation from her firstborn and negotiated his return in 1080.

Robert was not the only family member Guillaume had problems with. His half-brother Bishop Odo of Bayeux caused a scandal in 1076 when he was found guilty of defrauding the English crown. Then in 1082 Odo apparently plotted to launch a military campaign into Italy to make himself pope during the early stages of the Investiture Controversy. Lanfranco opposed Odo’s reckless, criminal actions and he counselled Guillaume that since Odo was not just a holy man but a secular lord, Guillaume had power over him. During a gathering of his intimate council the King of the English ordered the guards arrest Odo, but all refused to touch the holy man. Guillaume then seized his half-brother claiming that he was arresting the Earl of Kent, not the Bishop of Bayeux. For the next five years Odo was imprisoned in Normandy.

In 1083, a year after imprisoning his half-brother, his beloved wife Mathilde died at the age of 52, having been his companion and co-ruler.

In 1087 the aged king and duke was on campaign in the French Vexin, which the Normans had long-desired, but which Philippe I had seized years earlier. Guillaume resorted to his old strategy of terror and he razed the city of Mantes to the ground. While there he fell ill and was taken back to Rouen where he lay dying.

It is common for the living to claim to speak for the dead; Guillaume himself based his claim to the English throne on the wishes of the deceased King Edward. As such, we have to take any deathbed confession with the skepticism it deserves. According to the sources, Guillaume ordered that his brother Odo finally be freed, which he was. He also bemoaned that Robert would replace him as Duke of Normandy, given that he did not deserve it. Meanwhile he wished for his son Guillaume to become King of England. To his third surviving son Henri he only gave a large amount of money and prophesied that he would one day inherit everything. Finally, he repented of his atrocities in England, saying,


“I treated the native inhabitants of the kingdom with unreasonable severity, cruelly oppressed high and low, unjustly disinherited many, and caused the death of thousands by starvation and war, especially in Yorkshire . . . I descended on the English of the north like a raging lion, and ordered that their homes and crops and furnishings should be burnt at once and their great flocks and herds of cattle and sheep slaughtered everywhere . . . alas! [I] was the cruel murderer of many thousands, both young and old of this fair people.


It is doubtful he said any of these things, though we cannot be sure. On 9 September 1087 Guillaume passed away at the age of 59. He was both Duke of Normandy and King of the English. Afterwards he was buried at the church of Saint-Étienne in Caen. For 19 years England and Normandy were ruled separately, until in 1106 Henri I, the King of England, successfully invaded Normandy, reuniting the two polities as part of a personal union.

The Norman Conquest was a major event in Western Europe at the time. In retrospect, the invasion had an enormous impact on human history. First, it dramatically altered the character of England, bringing its religion, elite society, education, politics and architecture closer to Continental Europe. The Conquest also created a personal, Cross-Channel polity that posed remarkable challenges for France. As Duke, Guillaume and his successors were vassals of the King of France. As King of the English, or King of England, as his successors called themselves, they were equals to the King of France. This contradiction led to centuries’-long conflict between the Normans and the French monarchy. As the House of Anjou intermarried with the Normans they created the Angevin Empire, which at its height was a massive territory that encompassed England and half of France. Even after King Philippe II conquered Normandy, the English still claimed lands on the Continent. This eventually led to the Hundred Years’ War, a history-defining moment for France, England and Western Europe. It is not an exaggeration to say that the rivalry of France and England, one of the greatest in human history, began with the Norman Conquest, as this event tied the destiny of England with the Continent and connected France far more to the Atlantic World than it had ever been.


I hope you enjoyed this riveting story. This episode had a lot of guest contributors who lent their talents. They were the hosts of The Siècle, a podcast about France between 1815 to 1914 that is, between the post-Napoleon Restoration up until World War 1. The History of Westeros Podcast, just in time for the new show The House of the Dragon and they recently had an interview with George R.R. Martin so if you are a fan check them out. The History of Saqartvelo Georgia, a podcast about a very historic and important country that does not get enough attention. The Russian Empire History Podcast, talk about relevant. La Fayette We Are Here! Podcast, who delivered Guillaume’s speech and is a great podcast on French history. Warlords of History Podcast, telling the stories of the world’s great conquerors. Grey History, a podcast on the French Revolution and its ambiguities. Body Count Podcast, a show where people die and we have a good laugh about it, and I say we because I was part of two episodes on Nancy Wake. And Pontifacts, a slightly blasphemous show ranking the popes from Peter to Francis. I am including links to all these shows so please check them out and support the history podcast family. If you want to support us please visit our website and either make a one-time donation or consider becoming a patron and get access to general episodes a month early and exclusive special episodes.



George Burton Adams, The History of England 1066-1216, 2012.

Jim Bradbury, The Battle of Hastings: The Fall of the Anglo-Saxons and the Rise of the Normans, 2021.

Christopher Daniell, From Norman Conquest to Magna Carta: England 1066–1215, 2013

Elisabeth van Houts, The Normans in Europe, 2000. [Compilation of sources]

Marc Morris, The Norman Conquest: The Battle of Hastings and the Fall of Anglo-Saxon England, 2012.