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Monday, October 13, 2014

October 14 - William's Norman Army Wins Battle of Hastings, 1066

Harold II is said to have been killed, in this panel from the
Bayeux Tapestry, by William the Conqueror. But was he?
This day in 1066 William the Conqueror defeated the English at the Battle of Hastings. He had set off for England from Bayeux, so that's where a tapestry was made celebrating his victory. It's now a major tourist attraction in Normandy. (I visited the week of the 70th anniversary of D-Day with Alice Tepper Marlin and the Rex Hendersons from Australia.)

It looks a lot like a comic strip, maybe the oldest surviving one, and surely the longest one on public display.

One scene of the Bayeux Tapestry shows the death of King Harold II of England (Harold Rex Interfectus Est - King Harold Is Killed.). Some new scholarship suggests that this might not have happened then, and that Harold lived on, perhaps "on condition of anonymity" or in what we might today call a Witness Protection Program.

What interests me especially is how the history of Britain depends so much on what happened militarily after the 10th century, and how the split between northern and southern Britain has such deep roots. During the 10th century, the individual kingdoms within southern England - south iof the Trent is the usual dividing line - unified under the rule of Wessex into the Kingdom of England, which opposed the Danelaw, the Viking kingdoms established from the century before in northeastern England.
  • Ethelred II had a very long reign (978-1016, 38 years), but  he is called "Ethelred the Unready" because he was defeated in  by Danish King Sweyn, who invaded in 1013. However, Sweyn died a year later and Ethelred II climbed back onto the throne for two more years.
  • In 1015, Sweyn's son King Canute launched a new invasion. Ethelred's successor, Edmund Ironside, said "Hey, wait a minute, why don't we just divide the place up?" Smart move. 
  • That's what they did, Canute in the north and Edmund in the south. However, Edmund died in 1016, so England was reunited under Danish rule for the next 26 years.
  • However, in 1042 Harthacanute, son of Canute and Ethelred II's widow Emma of Normandy, died without an heir. 
  • So he was succeeded by his half-brother, Ethelred II's son, Edward the Confessor. He is considered the last of the Wessex kings, since his successor was in office only a few months. He had few rivals for the throne, so the Wessex Kingdom of England was free of foreign domination for 24 years, though not without challenge. Edward's Norman sympathies annoyed Godwin of Wessex, whose daughter Edith Edward married in 1045.  In 1050-52, Godwin assembled an army against Edward and Edward banished him. He may initially have named William, Duke of Normandy as his heir. Increased Norman influence brought Godwin back. Edward named Harold to lead the army as the king's deputy and probably named him heir on his deathbed. Edward died in 1066 and was buried in the Westminster Abbey that he built in the Norman style. 
In September 1066, William of Normandy left France with 600 ships and possibly as many as 10,000 men. They landed at Pevensey, in Sussex, and marched along the coast to Hastings. Harold II was pinned down in the north fighting off his brother and an army of Vikings. When he heard of William's invasion, he hurried his army south to a ridge about 10 miles northeast of Hastings. William sent his army to attack Harold, with archers in front, then infantrymen, and knights in the rear.

The Normans suffered early casualties, and twice pretended to retreat, luring out English troops from their defenses. Harold II was reported as being killed, which so demoralized the English army that they dispersed. The Norman victors moved on to London, where William I was crowned king on Christmas Day. William went to Berkhamsted Castle to accept the allegiance of the Saxon nobles.

Other stories about France: The Matisse Chapel (Vence)