1066 is one of the most well-known dates in British history. There was a time when every school child knew about the Battle of Hastings in that year, where Duke William of Normandy defeated King Harold II of England, ushering in the end of the Anglo-Saxon period. But beyond those bare facts, how many of us could now explain how the ruler of a small but powerful region in northern France came to be crowned King of England on Christmas Day?
At the beginning of that cataclysmic year, England had been ruled by Edward the Confessor, one of the few Saxon kings (along with Alfred, Harold and, perhaps Aethelraed ‘The Unready’) that most people have heard of. By the standards of the time, his was a long reign (twenty-four years in all) and, despite being married to Edith of Wessex for most of that time, he was to die childless. We don’t know why that was; though it was said that Edith claimed he never ‘lay with her’, it may just have been a simple matter of biology. Though if Edward was distrustful of the growing influence of the Godwine family (Edith was Earl Godwine’s daughter), perhaps it was a deliberate decision if he did not relish the prospect of a Godwine on the throne – more of which later.
With no obvious heir to follow him, it is no surprise that several candidates emerged, for England was a prize amongst European nations: one of the wealthiest and most stable kingdoms of its day. It is worth noting, also, that succession during the Anglo-Saxon period was not a straightforward case of eldest son succeeds father. Fans of the TV series The Last Kingdom may recall how Alfred succeeded to the throne even though his predecessor and brother – Aethelred – had a son who was of eligible age. It was the job of the Witan (the council of leading nobles) to elect the next monarch and though their first choice would normally be the eldest son, it was not always a certainty. What could be relied upon though was that they would select a scion of the royal house; someone who went by the title of Aetheling (literally: belonging to a noble family).
When it became obvious by the mid-1050s that Edward was unlikely to produce any direct heirs, envoys were dispatched to Hungary. To understand why, we must go back to the time of Edward the Confessor’s father: Aethelraed Unraed (‘the ill-advised’). When he died in 1016, his kingdom fell to the Dane, Knut but not before his son, Edmund ‘Ironsides’, had led a short-lived campaign of resistance until he died (probably of wounds received in battle) later that same year.
Knut managed to capture Edmund’s two young sons only to dispatch them to Sweden to be murdered. The Swedish king, however, declined to do Knut’s dirty work, sending the boys on to Hungary instead. One died along the way, but the other – Edward (known as the Exile) – grew to manhood, married a Hungarian princess, and had children of his own.
So it was that Edward the Exile returned to our shores in the spring of 1057, probably speaking little or no English, but presumably someone’s choice to succeed The Confessor. Their plans were thwarted, however, when The Exile died within days of his arrival. No source provides us with a cause of death, but foul play cannot be ruled out. He left a son, Edgar, who would have been no more than five years old.
And then there is William the Bastard; how does he fit into all this? In 1051, King Edward apparently announced that he wished the throne to pass to his cousin, Duke William of Normandy. I say ‘apparently’ because no English source mentions this, and many historians believe it was made up after the fact by Norman chroniclers who were keen to justify the invasion. What is not in doubt, however, is that King Edward’s mother was the sister of Duke Richard II of Normandy and it was to Normandy that she had fled with her young sons (Edward and Alfred) in the aftermath of Knut’s conquest in 1016. The two boys grew to manhood in the ducal court, where they would have rubbed shoulders with the likes of William on an almost daily basis.
So, on January 5th, 1066, as Edward the Confessor lay dying, the stage was set and the players were waiting in the wings to begin that year’s drama; a year that would see three battles fought and thousands of English, Danes and Normans slaughtered, all for the prize of the English Crown.
Whatever King Edward’s wishes might have been – and it is impossible to know for certain from this distance – it was Harold, son of Earl Godwine, who made the first move by taking the throne that same day. What is surprising is that he was not a member of the royal house of Wessex; he had no claim other than the fact that his sister was the king’s wife. But he was in the right place at the right time. Being in his forties, a proven war-leader, and the richest, most powerful man alive in England at the time, he was the natural choice for the Witan, given the storm clouds that were gathering, and so they rushed to acclaim him king. What alternative did they have? An unproven fourteen-year-old boy (Edgar) or a foreign overlord from whom no one knew what to expect.
To add grist to the mill, Harold was crowned the very next day; a time-scale unheard of in those times, perhaps revealing that he suspected that not everyone would accept his accession. Trouble was brewing and its name was William.
Author’s note: should you ever be asked in a pub quiz how many kings England had in 1066, you would be within your rights to say four. After King Harold was slain, the Witan acclaimed Edgar as the new king. Under Saxon law, acclamation was sufficient to confer kingship. It was the Normans who introduced the concept of coronation being the commencement of a reign. Be prepared for an argument though.