The death of the childless King Edward the Confessor in January 1066 began a complicated dispute over the succession to the English throne. Harold Godwinson, a powerful Anglo-Saxon nobleman, successor to Cnut the Great and Edward’s brother-in-law, was chosen to succeed Edward in the absence of a viable successor amongst Edward’s broader bloodline. However, the question of the succession was by no means resolved. The Duke of Normandy, William the Conqueror, claimed that Edward, who had regarded William as his friend and protector during his long exile in France, had pledged the throne to him. Moreover, William also asserted that Harold had promised to support his claim whilst being held captive in Normandy in 1064. Harold had sworn an oath to fealty to William during his captivity, though it is possible this was motivated by his own survival and the need to escape the dangerous position in which he found himself.
Contenders for the Throne
In 1065, when Harold was still manoeuvring to gain the succession, he had alienated his brother Tostig, the Earl of Northumbria. The people of Northumbria had rebelled against Tostig’s harsh rule. Instead of coming to his brother’s aid, Harold lent his support to his great rival, Edwin Leofric the Earl of Mercia, encouraging him to move against Tostig in Northumbria in return for backing Harold’s bid for the throne. King Edward confiscated Tostig’s lands and he was exiled to Flanders. But not for long…
In May 1066, following his brother’s succession to the throne, Tostig conducted a series of unsuccessful raids along the coast using forces mustered in exile. After subsequently fleeing to Scotland, he travelled to Norway and persuaded the king, Harald Hardrada, to launch his own bid for the throne. Harald Hardrada was the foremost warrior of his age, king of Norway, veteran of the Kievan Rus and ex-commander of the Byzantine Varangian Guard. Harold, who had been expecting William the Conqueror’s imminent invasion in the south, rushed north upon Harald and Tostig’s landing, defeating them decisively at the Battle of Stamford Bridge on 25 September. Both Harald Hardrada and Tostig were slain. William the Conqueror’s invasion in the south would follow just three days later.
The Normans Intervene
Harold’s annihilation of Hardrada’s army at Stamford Bridge was a pyrrhic victory. His depleted army had force-marched north 300 miles (480 km) to stop Hardrada, now they had to force-march south to face William of Normandy. William had established a beachhead at Pevensey on 28 September with some 10,000 troops and cavalry. Near Hastings, the Saxons formed a defensive wall on Senlac Hill. Scouts informed William of their presence and he marched towards Hastings to confront them. The battle, on 14 October, was one of attrition not manoeuvre. Repeated Norman cavalry charges alternated with volleys of arrows. Feinted Norman retreats enticed the Saxon defenders to break ranks in pursuit, creating gaps in the Saxon ranks. Late in the day, Harold fell, and Saxon resistance crumbled. Normandy, not Norway, had seized the English throne.
The Norman Conquest was no fait accompli after victory at the Battle of Hastings. The Saxons elected a new king, Edgar the Aetheling, and regional rebellions sprung up around the country, abetted or exploited at various stages by the Danes, Scots and Welsh. William the Conqueror returned to Normandy in early 1067, after forcing the submission of Edgar and his earls, and his coronation at Westminster Abbey. At Dover, Kentish rebels were joined by an alienated Norman count, Eustace of Boulogne, in laying siege to the castle. In Mercia, a local noble, Eadric the Wild, attacked Hereford with Welsh allies. Forced to return, William crushed a West Country rebellion at Exeter, but as soon as he withdrew, Harold’s sons, now based in Ireland, began raiding the Bristol Channel. In August 1069, King Sweyn II of Denmark sailed the Humber with a large fleet and joined the northern rebels, attacking York and burning its minster. William was forced to march north to subdue the new rebellion in Northumbria.
The Harrying of the North
Edgar’s land campaign was a disaster, and he returned to Scotland. William negotiated with the Danes, agreeing to make a payment to them in order to secure their return home. With Edgar in Scotland, the Anglo-Saxon rebel Hereward the Wake sacked Peterborough with Danish aid, then was besieged in Ely by William, who built a pontoon over the marshes to take the stronghold. William Fitzosbern, the Conqueror’s right-hand man began to subdue the Welsh borders, building a string of castles. The Conqueror devastated the north of England in 1070, known as the ‘harrying of the north’. His soldiers devastated the land, destroying crops and driving the rebels into hiding. Massive destruction of property and displacement of people dissipated William’s opposition. In 1072 William, alarmed by the marriage of King Malcolm of Scotland to Edgar’s sister and the dynastic alliance it had created, invaded Scotland, forcing Edgar’s expulsion. Edgar became reconciled with William and returned to England having given up any claim to the English throne, but left again in a huff over his land allotment from the Domesday Book (1086). The Norman Conquest of England was now secure.
William the Conqueror commissioned the Domesday Book after his conquest. Its survey, completed in 1086, gave an overview of population and a breakdown of which lands were leased to whom as tenants under the new feudal system. It also contained information about what taxable sources of income each area supported, although large areas were missed out. This information was important for the new Norman crown because of the extent to which the existing Anglo-Saxon/Danish-derived social hierarchy of England had been removed and replaced with Normans. William installed his own supporters as land-owning nobility and enforced a feudal hierarchy under which all land was owned by the king and leased to nobility, successively down to the peasant classes. The information in the census shows how the population was evenly and sparsely spread over the country as people inhabited small villages and farms from which they could work the land.