1066: One Crown, Two Kings, Three Battles

Thanks to school history lessons 1066 is a year that everyone remembers.

But there’s a lot more to 1066 than the Battle of Hastings, it altered the course of English history and there has never been a year like it since.

Here is a taste of the background to the turmoil of 1066.

Edward the Confessor
It all started with the the death of a king; Edward the Confessor, to be precise, on 5 January 1066.

His marriage to Queen Edith had not produced an heir but, whilst on his deathbed, Edward averted a succession crisis by naming Harold Godwinson, Earl Of Wessex, the next king of England. The Witan, the king’s council, unanimously confirmed Edward’s choice. He was, after all, Queen Edith’s brother and the most powerful noble in the country. So, on January 6 1066, Harold Godwinson became King Harold II.

So, at first glance, the crown of England passed without problem from Edward to Harold. What nobody could predict, however, was how dramatically things were about to change.

The Claimants
Harold Godwinson was not the only person with a claim to the English throne in 1066. Succession in Anglo-Saxon England differed from the later practices of heredity and primogeniture; any nobleman of royal blood could stake his claim to the crown. It was then left to the Witan to make a decision. At the time of Edward’s death, there were several men who, whether Harold realised it or not, had as a strong a claim as he did.

The three main contenders were:

  • Harald Hardrada, King of Norway – his claim was based on the alleged promise of the English throne by King Harthacnut (Edward’s predecessor) to King Magnus (Hardrada’s father),
  • Edgar the Aethling- he could trace a direct line from the ninth  century king, Alfred the Great,
  • Duke William of Normandy – his great-aunt Emma had been married to two English kings and was Edward’s mother.

Harald’s claim was certainly tenuous, and the Witan felt very strongly about a foreigner taking the English crown. Edgar, on the other hand, may have been blue-blooded but was still a boy and lacked any support in England. Being a foreigner was one of the barriers for William but being illegitimate and not of royal blood gave him an even weaker claim.

But there was more to William’s claim than his ancestry, firstly, he argued that Edward the Confessor had promised him the throne during his visit to England 1051, and, secondly, he asserted that whilst in Normandy, Harold had, over holy relics, promised to back William’s claim to the throne and help him succeed. In William’s eyes, Harold had broken his promise, proved himself a usurper and left him no choice but to invade England and take the throne by force.

And this is where the story of 1066 really begins.

Kaye Jones
Read more in 1066 In An Hour