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Part V - Medieval Britain

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Part V - Medieval Britain

Page 1 of 14

Norman England
Hardacnut was the last Danish king of England. He died in convulsions at a wedding feast. Edward the Atheling, who succeeded him, was the legitimate heir of Alfred the Great. Known as Edward the Confessor, he was perhaps one of the most misunderstood monarchs in the history of England. Though he took adequate steps to provide for a smooth succession to the throne, events that followed his death have spoiled his reputation as a wise, effective ruler. The circumstances that eventually led to the arrival of William the Norman had been set in place long before 1066.

Ever since Edward's father had married Emma of Normandy in 1002, England had been wide open to Norman influences. Edward's cousin was the father of Duke William. The young Edward himself had been brought up in Normandy. A popular choice as king, he collaborated with the leading earls of the country to dispossess his mother Emma of her wealth at Winchester. A motive was provided by her support of the King of Norway's claim to the English throne, a threat renewed when Harold Hardrada, uncle of Magnus became king of Norway in 1048. But there were more pressing problems for Edward at home.

Godwin of Wessex was the most powerful man in England after the King, whom he supported in the raid on the treasures at Winchester, but who tried his utmost to run the country as family fiefdom. He plotted to have Edward marry his daughter Edith, a union to which the king consented to keep Godwin happy and allied in the face of continued Scandinavian threats. Edward was double Edith's age; the marriage did not produce an heir, for the saintly king had earlier taken a vow of chastity (a hunting accident had left him impotent in any case). Edward wanted his Norman relatives to gain the throne of England. The handing over of power to William became his obsession. But there were other claimants from the house of Earl Godwin that contested the king's wishes.

From 1046 to 1051, Edward was engaged in a power struggle with the Godwins. He was forced to take action. First, he exiled Swein, the ruthless treacherous eldest son who had abducted an abbotress among his other nefarious deeds. He next exiled Godwin and all his sons, two of whom joined their father and Swein in Bruges and two of whom went to join the Vikings in Dublin. Thus temporarily freed from Godwin influence, in the pinnacle of his power, Edward was left alone to appoint Norman bishops to many vacant English Sees. Then Godwin returned.

Civil War was averted only because the King restored Godwin and his sons to their earldoms. Edward was also humiliated by having to purge his Norman bishops. He then was forced to appoint Stigand, Godwin's nominee to Canterbury in place of Robert of Jumieges. Edward shied away from provoking an all-out war with his hated enemy Godwin. He was spared a decision by the death of Godwin on Easter Monday 1053 and the succession of Harold Godwinson as Earl of Wessex. The enmity between the Crown and the House of Godwin continued unabated, especially over the appointing of bishops and the leadership of the armies raised to fight Gruffudd of Wales who had been successful in winning back many border areas previously lost to the English. Harold himself raised an army to punish Gruffudd. But the main problem remained, that of succession. Matters were not helped by the suspicious death of Edward the Atheling, younger son of Edmund Ironside, who had been smuggled out of England as a babe to escape Cnut, and who had returned in 1057. Only the king and the late Athelings' two children remained of the ancient house of Cerdic of Wessex. By his defeat of Gruffudd in Wales, Harold then made himself the premier military leader in England. In 1064, he visited Normandy.

The Bayeux Tapestry, woven after 1066, depicts the events leading up to the Norman invasion of that year as well as the great culminating battle. It shows Harold receiving instructions from King Edward, embarking for Normandy, aiding William in an expedition, saving trapped knights in a river crossing and being knighted by the Norman Duke, to whom he swears an oath of loyalty. Next is shown the death and burial of Edward, the coronation of Harold, the appearance of a comet and the invasion and culminating battle.

It is highly probable that Edward did send Harold to Normandy with the formal promise that the kingdom would pass to William upon Edward's death. Harold would thus act as regent until the Norman leader could arrive to claim his throne. However, before the death of Edward, who had done everything in his power to hold the ambitions of the Godwins in check and to ensure the peaceful transition of power to William, he could not have foreseen the wave of nationalist feeling which greeted Harold's bid for the crown.

The saintly king had completely overlooked English resentment at the ever-growing Norman influences in their island nation. The "Chronicle" went so far as to justify Harold's seizure of power by stating that Edward had entrusted the kingdom to him. On January 6, 1066, the funeral of Edward and the coronation of Harold, henceforth held in contempt by the Normans as an untrustworthy bond-breaker, took place at the newly consecrated Abbey at Westminster.

William of Normandy must have been furious. His people called themselves Franks or Frenchmen. They had come to France centuries before as Viking invaders when their brothers were busy ravaging the coast of England. In many ways, their new homeland was similar to the English Dane-Law, an area also settled by invaders from the North. It had been recognized in 911 at a treaty between Charles, the Simple and Rollo, the Norwegian. Rollo had then converted to Christianity and ruled his territory as a Duke, a subordinate of the French king. In 1002, as we have seen, Emma, sister of Richard Duke of Normandy and a descendant of Rollo, became the second wife of English King Ethelred.

The Norman invasion of England was unlike that involving massive immigrations of people seeking new lands in which to settle and farm as marked by the Anglo-Saxon and Danish invasions. This new phenomenon was practically an overnight affair. William's victories were swift, sudden and self-contained. No new wave of people came to occupy the land, only a small, ruling aristocracy.

It is tempting to surmise the path England would have taken had William's invading force been beaten off. King Harold had taken concrete steps to enforce his rule throughout the country. According to the account of Florence of Worcester, Harold immediately began to abolish unjust laws and make good ones, to patronize churches and monasteries, pay reverence to religious men, to show himself as pious and humble, to treat wrong doers with great severity, to imprison all thieves and to labour for the protection of his people. In order to do all this, however, he first had to reconcile the houses of Godwin of Wessex and Leofric of Mercia.

After dealing with the perfidy of his exiled brother Tostig, who had raised an army to plunder England's coast line Harold then had to deal with far more serious threats. Harold Hardrada, King of Norway, was raising a massive invasion fleet and William of Normandy, was also busy raising his own army of invasion. Hardrada, wishing to surpass even Cnut as the great ruler of a Scandinavian Empire, had failed to conquer Denmark; he mistakenly thought England would be an easier target. He crossed the North Sea to make his landing near York. King Harold then showed his military prowess by marching his army northwards and completely destroying the over-confident forces of Hardrada and Tostig at Stamford Bridge.

There was no rest for the victors. Three days later, William of Normandy, with his huge host of fighting men, landed unopposed in the south, at Pevensey. Harold had to march southwards with his tired, weakened army and did not wait for reinforcements before he awaited the charge of William's mounted knights at Hastings. The resulting Norman triumph depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry shows Harold's death from an arrow, his bodyguard cut down and Duke William triumphant.

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