We are used to thinking of William, Duke of Normandy, as the Conqueror of England. But he would not have seen it like that. He believed he had a legitimate claim to the English throne and that he was coming to England as its rightful ruler. He was not the only one. Harald Hardrada, King of Norway, also had a convincing claim. Harold of England, the reigning king, was thus beset by enemies, the Norwegians coming from the north and the Normans (themselves Scandinavian in origin, but settled in Normandy in northwestern France) from the south.
It was difficult to predict who would attack first. In the end it was the Norwegians who landed on the river Humber, gained a tremendous victory over the Mercians, and marched confidently to the city of York. Harold of England was in a difficult position. He could either stay in the south, hoping to defend himself successfully against a Norman invasion that had not yet materialized, or he could head north and attempt to cut off the progress of Harald Hardrada and his ally the Earl Tostig, Harold of England’s own brother. In the end he opted to go north and, early in the morning of 25 September, defeated the Scandinavians at Stamford Bridge, near York. Both Tostig and Hardrada were killed and the victory was decisive.
But meanwhile there was trouble in the south. William of Normandy had set off for England, ignorant of the result of the Battle of Stamford Bridge but spurred on by a favorable wind in the English Channel. He already controlled the sea ports of northeastern France so his passage across the sea was unimpeded. He arrived to find the English unprepared.
Both parties wanted an early battle. William was conscious that he was less secure once he had landed; Harold wanted to surprise the Normans as he had the Scandinavians at Stamford Bridge. But the English king was far too quick for his own soldiers, many of whom arrived in the south exhausted by a rapid journey so soon after a major battle.
William was ready for the fight. He also had excellent cavalrymen at his disposal and Harold’s axe men were no match for these. William’s spearmen and cavalry forces were able to break up the massed ranks of the English axe men and score a decisive victory at the now-famous battle-site near Hastings in southern England. After this, William was secure. He moved at a steady pace through the countryside, finding enough support amongst the English lords to be crowned king at Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day 1066.
After the battle
But the situation was not totally secure. There was a pronounced nervousness about the actions of the Normans in the following decade and one medieval chronicler describes the English lying in wait for groups of Normans, ambushing them, and killing them secretly in woods and lonely places. And there were more organized rebellions in Kent and Exeter, as well as in the north in 1070, when the Northumbrians, in alliance with the Danes and an English claimant to the throne, captured York. William had to respond drastically, burning villages and stretches of land in the north, resulting, if we are to believe the chronicles, in the death of many people and more farm animals. Similar action was taken fifteen years later, when a Danish invasion was threatened.
It was activities such as these as the victory at Hastings that earned William the reputation of an oppressor. The churchmen who wrote the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the year-by-year history of the events of the Saxon and Norman periods, voice some of the frustration of people forced to pay high taxes while trying to eke out a living from the land in the face of a scorched-earth policy.
The short-term effects of the Norman victory were dire for many English people. But what of the more profound results? These are difficult to analyze. One view looks at the Normans as bringing institutions such as feudalism and strong bureaucratic government, social structures represented on the ground by towns and castles, and reform of the monasteries to England.
But it is equally possible to argue that trends such as these were already appearing in Anglo-Saxon England. In many cases it is clear that the Normans took over perfectly adequate Anglo-Saxon institutions and that these were better than anything they might have devised themselves. For example, the taxation and coinage systems were taken over; and the organization of local government, with its counties and smaller hundreds, was maintained. On these terms the Norman conquest remains something of an enigma. What is more, the idea that ‘foreigners’ were ruling England for the first time would not have been widely held in a country that had undergone a series of Scandinavian invasions.