The Norman Conquest

William the Conqueror's victory at the Battle of Hastings was one of the true watersheds in English history. Immortalised in the Bayeux Tapestry, the Norman triumph signalled the beginning of a new era for England and its people. What were the factors that shaped this decisive encounter?

Bayeaux tapestry

Naming the Heir

Kings have many duties. One of the most pressing is making sure that the succession is secure. Confusion over who should inherit the throne after the death of a monarch always spells trouble. Edward the Confessor (so-called because of his supposedly pious nature) came to the English throne in 1042 but had produced no natural heirs when he died early in 1066.

So Edward (pictured, above left) named England's most powerful noble, Harold Godwinson, Earl of Wessex, as his successor. Harold was an obvious choice. Bold, tenacious and a natural leader, he had the drive and ambition to be King of England. Besides, Harold's father, Godwine, had been the real power behind the throne during much of Edward's reign. But, across the Channel, trouble was brewing. William, Duke of Normandy, was claiming that, in 1051, Edward had promised the crown to him. The stage was set for an epic showdown.

English Aspirations

William of Normandy (pictured, left) was an ambitious duke who had long had his eye on the Kingdom of England. In 1066, the English economy was booming and it would have seemed a very tempting prize. Harold's succession particularly angered William, who claimed that, a few years earlier, Harold had actually promised to support the Duke's claim to the English throne.

William began to organise an invasion force. The challenge of assembling an army capable of crossing the Channel and defeating a powerful enemy should not be under-estimated. In total, there were around 14,000 men, of which some 8,000 would have been front line soldiers. In addition, William's potent cavalry needed 3,000 horses. To feed men and beasts for just a month required 4,000 tons of grain, straw and hay. To transport this army across the sea, William's men had to requisition or build around 2,000 boats.

Danger in the North

Harold was expecting William to attack in southern England and raised an army to meet him. But, in September 1066, another threat to England emerged. Harold's disaffected brother, Tostig, had allied himself with the Norwegian King, Harald Hardrada. A force of at least 12,000 Vikings entered the Humber estuary and took York on September 24.

By this time, Harold was already on the move. He had marched his men around 200 miles in a matter of days to confront Harald north-east of York, at the Battle of Stamford Bridge on September 25. The Vikings were ill-prepared for the encounter and Harold's men crushed them, killing Harald and Tostig. This was the last major Viking battle on English soil. It was a great, epoch-ending victory. But there was no time to celebrate. On September 28, William and his army landed at Pevensey Bay on the English south coast.

Joining Battle

William immediately began to ravage the area around his beachhead, aiming to lure Harold into an early battle while the King's men were still tired from their efforts at Stamford Bridge. The ploy worked. Determined not to be seen as a King who abandoned his people to ill-treatment, Harold dashed south, recruiting as best he could along the way. Late on October 13, Harold and his weary men arrived near Hastings.

The following day, the two armies battled from dawn until dusk – an extraordinarily long engagement by the standards of the time. The English took up a defensive position on a rise now known as Battle Hill. At first, the English shield-wall held out against Norman cavalry charges. Traditional accounts declare that the turning point came when William's men feigned a retreat, drawing less-disciplined English troops after them, weakening Harold's position. Some historians now suggest the English defeat was a more gradual process. But, by nightfall, Harold was dead and the English army was cut to pieces.

An Arrow in the Eye?

For centuries, English schoolchildren have been taught that Harold died after being shot in the eye by an arrow. Some historians now dispute this account, suggesting instead that other sources indicate that Harold was killed by four knights hand-picked by William. They argue that the figure depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry (pictured, left) with an arrow in the eye is one of Harold's bodyguards. Under this interpretation, Harold is seen being killed under the Latin legend "interfectus est" (was killed).

However Harold died, his death marked the end of Anglo-Saxon England. For Harold had insisted that England's foremost nobles accompany him to Hastings. They perished alongside their king, leaving no one prominent enough to lead a nationwide campaign against William.