When William the Conqueror came over from Normandy in 1066 and defeated the English forces, it came as a great surprise to many, especially his adversary, Harold Godwinson, whose father had sought the appointment of Edward the Confessor as king. However, the greater shock came after the battle when William launched a campaign to wipe out the Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Danish culture that had been established in England and replace it with that of the Normans.
The lead-up to this battle, which took place in Hastings, began years before, after the death of King Canute in 1035. Canute came to England as a conqueror but embraced the Anglo-Saxon culture and way of life. His death marked the beginning of the end of the Anglo-Saxon empire. The hopes of the people lay in Canute’s three sons, but they proved to be ignorant and boorish. Many eyes turned toward the sons of the dead king’s widow, Emma, and the previous king, Ethelred. The two princes descended from the line of Alfred the Great. The elder son, Alfred (named for his famous ancestor), possessed many fine qualities. He was brave, charismatic, and well liked. Edward, on the other hand was monkish, pious, and had no aptitude for administrative duties. And, because of his family’s exile in Normandy, he had been raised as a Norman.
At this time, another man began his rise to power. He was Godwin, earl of Wessex and leader of the Danish party. He wanted total control over the English people and he wanted it under the Anglo-Danish system. When it came to pursuing these goals, his treachery knew no bounds. When the exiled prince Alfred came to England under the guise of visiting his newly widowed mother, Godwin had him arrested. Then he had Alfred’s attendants slaughtered and the prince blinded. It is certain that the prince’s brother, Edward, would not have forgotten the incident, and it is even possible that he could have been planning his revenge from the moment he found out about it.
Although Canute’s sons succeeded him, their reign was short-lived. They died within six years, and once again England had no king. In this vacancy of power, Godwin stepped up to the plate. He had great political influence, but he lacked the support of many of the Saxons. So, he came up with what he thought would be the perfect solution. He decided that the best way to unite the Saxons and Danes, and consolidate his power, would be to make Edward king. A monarch from the line of Alfred the Great would rally the people, but Godwin would be pulling the strings. He believed Edward would be easily manipulated, and through Edward he could spread his sphere of influence.
When Edward appointed his Norman friends to high positions, Godwin allowed it only to a point. To prove his allegiances lay with the English and not the Normans, Edward begrudgingly married Godwin’s beautiful daughter Edith. It is likely this was what Godwin had in mind all along. With his daughter as queen, his descendants would inherit the kingdom. The bitterness of his brother’s plight must have raced through his mind when Edward decided to defy his overbearing father-in-law. He would destroy any chance Godwin had at being the sire of kings. He refused to consummate his marriage to Edith. Edward lived a pious, monkish life, which earned him the name “The Confessor.” His favor increased in the court, especially among the Normans. He gained allies and in 1051 was able to oppose Godwin and send him and his family into exile. He also dismissed his own queen.
During the time of the Godwins’ exile, it is believed that William, duke of Normandy, paid Edward a visit. It was during this visit that Edward supposedly offered the succession to William. Considering Edward’s history with Godwin it seems more than possible. When word got out about the crown being offered to a Norman, Edward lost favor with the English lords. Godwin managed to win back some of the support he had lost and even mustered troops in Flanders. He then strong-armed the king into letting him return. The king took Godwin and his sons back and gave them their old rank and titles. It didn’t take long for Godwin to exercise his authority. Upon his return, many of the Normans lost their titles and land. When Godwin finally died in 1051, those dispossessed lords nourished hopes of regaining their former status. These hopes never saw fruition.
Godwin’s eldest son, Harold, stepped forward to fill in the gap. Like his father before him, Harold ruled England from behind the scenes. Harold held his authority with virtually no opposition, despite the unrest that plagued the court between the Normans, Saxons, and Danes. The only direct resistance came from his own brother, Tostig, who quickly won favor with the king. Tostig befriended many of the Norman lords, which endeared him to Edward. He received the earldom of Northumbria, which invoked the jealousy of Harold. The two brothers were at odds, which may have been the king’s intention all along. Perhaps Edward had been far underestimated by the Godwinsons. Whatever his intention, Edward managed to drive a wedge between Harold and Tostig.
Although Harold’s relationship with his brother had been severed, Harold would find new friendship in an unlikely source. In 1064, Harold’s ship ran aground off the French coast. The count of Ponthieu took Harold prisoner and held him for ransom. William sent a request to the count asking for the release of the English king’s thane. Harold soon found himself in the court of Duke William. The two had a genuine liking for each other and quickly became friends. Through this friendship, certain alliances formed. According to the chronicle depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry, William proposed that Harold support his claim as the heir to the English throne. In exchange, Harold would be made earl of Wessex and be given William’s daughter in marriage. According to tradition, Harold took an oath of fealty to William and promised not to make any attempt to claim the crown. The oath was taken on an altar that hid the bones of St. Edmund within it. Oaths taken on sacred relics were considered unbreakable, no matter what the circumstance.
Toward the end of Edward’s reign, the country began a downward spiral as the different factions fought among themselves. The Anglo-Danish council, who believed they spoke for the entire populace, weakened the power of the monarchy without strengthening their own administrative body. Local chieftains began intriguing and pursuing their own interests, and feuds broke out all over the country. In this chaos and uncertainty, Edward took to his deathbed. With his last breath, he allegedly named Harold as his successor, despite having already promised it to William, the duke of Normandy. Conveniently, Archbishop Stigand, a staunch supporter of Earl Godwin, had been present to confirm the announcement. Edward the Confessor died in January 1066. (The Church later canonized him and he became England’s foremost saint until replaced by St. George.) Disregarding the oath he took at William’s court and the fact that he had no hereditary claim, Harold took over as king. Things quickly got complicated. Much of England accepted Harold as their king, but the royal houses of Europe and the Church in Rome did not. In William’s eyes, it became his duty to overthrow the usurper. So, he crossed the Channel and with a little help from Harold defeated the Saxons.