When Edward the Confessor died in 1066, he left a disputed succession. The throne was seized by his leading aristocrat, Harold Godwinson, who was rapidly crowned.
Almost immediately, Harold faced two invasions - one from the king of Norway, Harald Hardrada, who was supported by Harold Godwinson's brother Tostig, and the other from William, Duke of Normandy.
Harold defeated the Norwegian invasion at the Battle of Stamford Bridge in September 1066, but he was defeated and killed shortly afterwards at the Battle of Hastings, on 14 October in the same year.
The victorious William, now known as 'the Conqueror', brought a new aristocracy to England from Normandy and some other areas of France. He also strengthened aristocratic lordship and moved towards reform of the church.
At the same time, William was careful to preserve the powerful administrative machinery that had distinguished the regime of the late Anglo-Saxon kings.
At William's death, his lands were divided, with his eldest son Robert taking control of Normandy, and his second son, William Rufus, becoming king of England.
Rufus successfully dealt with rebellions and with the threat of his elder brother (he defeated Robert during an invasion of Normandy), and maintained the powerful kingship of his father.
Following the death of Archbishop Lanfranc of Canterbury, good relations between king and church broke down, and the new archbishop, Anselm, became involved in quarrels with both Rufus and his successor Henry I.
Rufus died in a hunting accident in the New Forest in 1100, and his younger brother, Henry, swiftly and successfully moved to seize the throne.
He further strengthened the ties of the Norman regime with the Anglo-Saxon past by marrying Edith (also known as Matilda), the great grand-daughter of Edmund Ironside, King of England.
In 1106, Henry succeeded in wresting control of Normandy from his brother, Robert, whom he thereafter kept imprisoned. While there continued to be conflict in Normandy, England experienced a lengthy peace during Henry's reign.
At the same time, royal government continued to develop, notably in the field of royal financial accounting with the emergence of the 'exchequer'.
Henry's only legitimate son drowned in a shipwreck in 1120, and when the king died in 1135 the succession was again uncertain. Henry's nephew, Stephen, count of Boulogne, seized the crown.
Matilda, Henry's daughter, challenged Stephen's position. She and her husband Geoffrey, Count of Anjou, enjoyed quite rapid success in Normandy, but in England an extended civil war developed. The powerful royal government that had characterised earlier Norman kingship broke down.
In 1153 it was agreed that Stephen should enjoy the throne for the rest of his life, but that he should be succeeded by Matilda's son, Henry of Anjou.
The settlement might not have meant to have been observed, but Stephen died late in 1154, and Henry was crowned king. He thus added England to his extensive continental lands, which included Normandy, Anjou, and his wife Eleanor's inheritance of Aquitaine.
The Normans also expanded into Scotland and Wales, although in a very different way from the conquest of England.
Scottish kings from the time of Malcolm Canmore (1058 - 1093) looked to introduce Norman personnel and practices into their realm, perhaps out of respect for a perceived cultural superiority, but certainly in order to strengthen their own political position.
Particularly under David I (1124 - 1153), major land grants were made to Frenchmen - for example the grant of Annandale to Robert Bruce, ancestor of the later Scottish king of that name.
The kings and churchmen also brought the Scottish church more closely into line with that of Christendom further south. Malcolm and his wife Margaret founded the Benedictine monastery of Dunfermline, while David I introduced new monastic orders such the Cistercians and Premonstratensians.
There were significant periods of antagonism between Scottish and English kings, but also periods of peace such as in the time of David I of Scotland and Henry I of England.
Norman expansion into Wales took a different form still. Whereas in England the invasion was led by the duke, and in Scotland Normans were invited in by kings of the native line, in Wales, aggressive Norman expansion was led largely by the aristocracy.
Incursions took place all along the Anglo-Welsh border, but most notably in the north, from the earldom of Chester, and in the south. In the latter region emerged the Marcher lordships such as those of Pembroke and Ceredigion.
The English kings did participate in the process, and Henry I in particular was active in Wales. However, with the accession of Stephen in England there was a major reassertion of independent Welsh power.
The Domesday Book, c.1086 ©
The economy of England had been expanding for at least a century before the Norman conquest, and was characterised by growing markets and sprawling towns.
By the 12th century, one of the ways in which English writers disparaged other peoples, notably the Welsh and Irish, was to depict their economies as primitive, as lacking markets, exchange and towns.
At the same time, kings and lords outside England deliberately sought to stimulate the wealth of their countries, as can be most clearly seen by the introduction of coinage and the establishment of boroughs by David I of Scotland and his successors.
Within such an economy, there was clearly room for men to rise by increasing their wealth. At the same time, it remained a notably hierarchic society, and the process of conquest itself strengthened the role of lordship.
The Domesday Book, the product of William I's great survey of his realm in 1086, shows that the 11 leading members of the aristocracy held about a quarter of the realm. Another quarter was in the hands of fewer than 200 other aristocrats.
These nobles had received their lands by royal grant, and in turn gave some of their lands to their own followers. This form of landholding is often regarded as a key element of a 'feudal' system - a form of social organisation once routinely held to have been introduced by the Normans in 1066.
In recent years there has been considerable debate about the problems arising from the use of the term 'feudal', a debate wittily foreseen by the great Victorian historian, FW Maitland, who said: 'Feudalism is a useful word, and will cover a multitude of ignorances.'
Nevertheless, whatever the wider problems of writing about 'feudalism', the process of Norman conquest and settlement did tie a variety of types of lordship closely together - regarding protection, service, and jurisdiction - and linked them to the bond of land tenure, the holding of what men at the time referred to as a 'feudum' or 'fief'.
The strength of lordship could result in royal weakness and the break-up of large scale political control. This happened in England during the civil war of the reign of Stephen, 1135 - 1154.
Yet it would be wrong to see aristocracy and king, lordship and kingship as necessarily opposed. Kings and lords often regarded one another as natural companions, engaged in a mutually beneficial relationship.
In addition, in England both kings and aristocrats continued to operate in political and judicial arenas other than those defined by lordship. Most notable amongst these were the counties or shires that the Normans inherited from the Anglo-Saxons.
A thousand castles
The Norman-era Clifford's Tower, York Castle, York ©
The Normans had an enormous influence on architectural development in Britain. There had been large-scale fortified settlements, known as burghs, and also fortified houses in Anglo-Saxon England, but the castle was a Norman import.
Numbers are uncertain, but it seems plausible that about 1,000 castles had been built by the reign of Henry I, about four decades after the Norman conquest.
Some were towers on mounds surrounded by larger enclosures, often referred to as 'motte and bailey castles'. Others were immense, most notably the huge palace-castles William I built at Colchester and London.
These were the largest secular buildings in stone since the time of the Romans, over six centuries earlier. They were a celebration of William's triumph, but also a sign of his need to overawe the conquered.
Churches were also built in great numbers, and in great variety, although usually in the Romanesque style with its characteristic round-topped arches.
The vast cathedrals of the late 11th and early 12th centuries, colossal in scale by European standards, emphasised the power of the Normans as well as their reform of the church in the conquered realm.
Buildings such as Durham cathedral suggest the strength and vibrancy of the builders' culture in rather the same way as the early sky-scrapers of New York.
The Normans also continued the great building of parish churches, which had begun in England in the late Anglo-Saxon period. Such churches appeared too in the rest of the British Isles, and can still be seen, for example at Leuchars in Fife.
A lord might display his wealth, power and devotion through a combination of castle and church in close proximity, again as still spectacularly visible at Durham.
Particularly striking are regional groups of great churches, a characteristic too of 11th-century Normandy. One of the most telling examples is the group of border abbeys in southern Scotland - David I's foundation of Jedburgh, still impressive and crowning its hill; the Premonstratensian house of Dryburgh; the Cistercian house at Melrose; and most spectacular of all in the splendour which even the limited remains indicate, another royal foundation at Kelso.
Find out more
Battle of Hastings 1066 by MK Lawson (Tempus, 2003)
England under the Norman and Angevin Kings, 1075 - 1225 by Robert Bartlett (Oxford University Press, 2000)
William the Conqueror by David Bates (Tempus, 2004)
The Political Development of the British Isles, 1100 - 1400 by Robin Frame (Oxford University Press, 1990)
Anglo-Norman England, 1066 - 1166 by Marjorie Chibnall (Blackwell, 1987)
Colonial England, 1066 - 1215 by JC Holt (Hambledon, 1997)
Kingship and Unity: Scotland 1000 - 1306 by GWS Barrow (Edinburgh University Press, 1981)
The Age of Conquest: Wales 1063 - 1415 by RR Davies (Oxford University Press, 1991)
Domination and Conquest: The Experience of Ireland, Scotland and Wales, 1100 - 1300 by RR Davies (Cambridge University Press, 1990)
In 1065 Edward the Confessor became very ill. Harold of Wessex claimed that Edward promised him the throne just before he died on 5th January, 1066. The next day there was a meeting of the Witan to decide who would become the next king of England. The Witan was made up of a group of about sixty lords and bishops and they considered the merits of four main candidates: Harold, William of Normandy, Edgar Etheling and Harald Hardrada. On 6th January 1066, the Witan decided that Harold was to be the next king of England. (1)
King Harold was fully aware that both King Hardrada of Norway and William of Normandy might try to take the throne from him. Harold believed that the Normans posed the main danger and he positioned his troops on the south coast of England. His soldiers were made up of housecarls and the fyrd. Housecarls were well-trained, full-time soldiers who were paid for their services. The fyrd were working men who were called up to fight for the king in times of danger.
Harold waited all summer but the Normans did not arrive. Never before had any of Harold's fyrd been away from their homes for so long. But the men's supplies had run out and they could not be kept away from their homes any longer. Members of the fyrd were also keen to harvest their own fields and so in September Harold sent them home. Harold also sent his navy back to London. (2)
William of Normandy
William's attack on England had been delayed. To make sure he had enough soldiers to defeat Harold, he asked the men of Poitou, Burgundy, Brittany and Flanders to help. William also arranged for soldiers from Germany, Denmark and Italy to join his army. In exchange for their services, William promised them a share of the land and wealth of England. William also had talks with Pope Alexander II in his campaign to gain the throne of England. These negotiations took all summer. William also had to arrange the building of the ships to take his large army to England. About 700 ships were ready to sail in August but William had to wait a further month for a change in the direction of the wind. (3)
In early September Harold heard that King Hardrada of Norway had invaded northern England. The messenger told Harold that Hardrada had come to conquer all of England. It is said that Harold replied: "I will give him just six feet of English soil; or, since they say he is a tall man, I will give him seven feet." With Hardrada was Harold's brother, Tostig, and 300 ships. Harold and what was left of his army headed north. Hardrada and his men entered the Humber and on 20th September defeated Morcar's army at Gate Fulford. Four days later the invaders took York. On the way Harold heard that the earls of Mercia and Northumbria had been defeated and were considering changing sides.
The English army marched 190 miles from London to York in just four days. On 24th September Harold's army arrived at Tadcaster. The following day he took Tostig and Hardrada by surprise at a place called Stamford Bridge. It was a hot day and the Norwegians had taken off their byrnies (leather jerkins with sewn-on metal rings). Harold and his English troops devastated the Norwegians. Both Hardrada and Tostig were killed. The Norwegian losses were considerable. Of the 300 ships that arrived, less than 25 returned to Norway. (4)
While celebrating his victory at a banquet in York, Harold heard that William of Normandy had landed at Pevensey Bay on 28th September. Harold's brother, Gyrth, offered to lead the army against William, pointing out that as king he should not risk the chance of being killed. "I have taken no oath and owe nothing to Count William". (5)
David Armine Howarth, the author of 1066: the Year of the Conquest (1981) argues that the suggestion was that while Gyrth did battle with William, "Harold should empty the whole of the countryside behind him, block the roads, burn the villages and destroy the food. So, even if Gyrth was beaten, William's army would starve in the wasted countryside as winter closed in and would be forced either to move upon London, where the rest of the English forces would be waiting, or return to their ships." (6)
Harold rejected the advice and immediately assembled the housecarls who had survived the fighting against Hardrada and marched south. Harold travelled at such a pace that many of his troops failed to keep up with him. When Harold arrived in London he waited for the local fyrd to assemble and for the troops of the earls of Mercia and Northumbria to arrive from the north. After five days they had not arrived and so Harold decided to head for the south coast without his northern troops. (7)
Battle of Hastings
Harold of Wessex realised he was unable to take William by surprise. He therefore decided to position himself at Senlac Hill near Hastings. Harold selected a spot that was protected on each flank by marshy land. At his rear was a forest. The English housecarls provided a shield wall at the front of Harold's army. They carried large battle-axes and were considered to be the toughest fighters in Europe. The fyrd were placed behind the housecarls. The leaders of the fyrd, the thanes, had swords and javelins but the rest of the men were inexperienced fighters and carried weapons such as iron-studded clubs, scythes, reaping hooks and hay forks.
William of Malmesbury reported: "The courageous leaders mutually prepared for battle, each according to his national custom. The English, as we have heard, passed the night without sleep in drinking and singing, and, in the morning, proceeded without delay towards the enemy; all were on foot, armed with battle-axes... The king himself on foot stood with his brother, near the standard, in order that, while all shared equal danger none might think of retreating... On the other side, the Normans passed the whole night in confessing their sins, and received the Sacrament in the morning. The infantry with bows and arrows, formed the vanguard, while the cavalry, divided into wings, were held back." (8)
There are no accurate figures of the number of soldiers who took part at the Battle of Hastings. Historians have estimated that William had about 5,000 infantry and 3,000 knights while Harold had about 2,000 housecarls and 5,000 members of the fyrd. (9) The Norman historian, William of Poitiers, claims that Harold held the advantage: "The English were greatly helped by the advantage of the high ground... also by their great number, and further, by their weapons which could easily find a way through shields and other defences." (10)
At 9.00 a.m. the Battle of Hastings formally opened with the playing of trumpets. Norman archers then walked up the hill and when they were about a 100 yards away from Harold's army they fired their first batch of arrows. Using their shields, the house-carls were able to block most of this attack. Volley followed volley but the shield wall remained unbroken. At around 10.30 hours, William ordered his archers to retreat.
The Norman army led by William now marched forward in three main groups. On the left were the Breton auxiliaries. On the right were a more miscellaneous body that included men from Poitou, Burgundy, Brittany and Flanders. In the centre was the main Norman contingent "with Duke William himself, relics round his neck, and the papal banner above his head". (11)
The English held firm and eventually the Normans were forced to retreat. Members of the fyrd on the right broke ranks and chased after them. A rumour went round that William was amongst the Norman casualties. Afraid of what this story would do to Norman morale, William pushed back his helmet and rode amongst his troops, shouting that he was still alive. He then ordered his cavalry to attack the English who had left their positions on Senlac Hill. English losses were heavy and very few managed to return to the line. (12)
At about 12.00 p.m. there was a break in the fighting for an hour. This gave both sides a chance to remove the dead and wounded from the battlefield. William, who had originally planned to use his cavalry when the English retreated, decided to change his tactics. At about one in the afternoon he ordered his archers forward. This time he told them to fire higher in the air. The change of direction of the arrows caught the English by surprise. The arrow attack was immediately followed by a cavalry charge. Casualties on both sides were heavy. Those killed included Harold's two brothers, Gyrth and Leofwin. However, the English line held and the Normans were eventually forced to retreat. The fyrd, this time on the left side, chased the Normans down the hill. William ordered his knights to turn and attack the men who had left the line. Once again the English suffered heavy casualties.
William of Normandy ordered his troops to take another rest. The Normans had lost a quarter of their cavalry. Many horses had been killed and the ones left alive were exhausted. William decided that the knights should dismount and attack on foot. This time all the Normans went into battle together. The archers fired their arrows and at the same time the knights and infantry charged up the hill.
It was now 4.00 p.m. Heavy English casualties from previous attacks meant that the front line was shorter. The Normans could now attack from the side. The few housecarls that were left were forced to form a small circle round the English standard. The Normans attacked again and this time they broke through the shield wall and Harold and most of his housecarls were killed. With their king dead, the fyrd saw no reason to stay and fight, and retreated to the woods behind. The Normans chased the fyrd into the woods but suffered further casualties themselves when they were ambushed by the English.
According to William of Poitiers: "Victory won, the duke returned to the field of battle. He was met with a scene of carnage which he could not regard without pity in spite of the wickedness of the victims. Far and wide the ground was covered with the flower of English nobility and youth. Harold's two brothers were found lying beside him." The next day Harold's mother, Gytha, sent a message to William offering him the weight of the king's body in gold if he would allow her to bury it. He refused, declaring that Harold should be buried on the shore of the land which he sought to guard. (13)
Battle of Hastings Map
Outline of the Battle of Hastings