Sunday, April 3, 2016

The Establishment of William the Conqueror as King

by Emily Murdoch

It is very rare that we ever get to celebrate the millennial anniversary of anything. After all, anything before 950 is generally considered to be the ‘Dark Ages’, a horrible misnomer that most historians hate but do not seem to be able to dismiss. That is what makes the 950 year anniversary of the Norman Conquest of England so fascinating – because this is probably the longest anniversary of anything that most people have ever commemorated.

And yet, so little is really known about that fateful year, the year known as the year of the three Kings. Most would not even be able to name all those who fought to claim that sparkling crown of the English, a nation that could really only be described as in its infant stages, and yet had somehow managed to impress itself so weightily on politics hundreds of miles north and thousands of miles east.

The English had barely established themselves as a people when the Normans invaded along the south coast that fateful autumn of 1066, and they had already been battered and bruised by the constant civil war and fighting that had continued from the moment that King Edward the Confessor, beloved by his people but completely without biological heirs, died on Christmas Day. It did not take long for his brother-in-law Harold, one of his wife Edith’s many brothers, to claim the throne for himself.

Whether or not you believe Harold Godwineson to have been the legitimate heir to the throne does not really matter. In Harold’s mind, it seems, it did not really matter if anyone believed he was the legitimate heir to the throne. It was not until three to four hundred years later that the right of succession through the patriarchal line was the accepted method of passing on kingship. For the inhabitants of the world in 1066, the primary method of accession was not birth, but battle.

Harold was a tried and tested warrior, one who many feared and many respected. His familial ties to Edward the Confessor were but footnotes in his claim of conquest, and he probably believed, for a short time, that he had been successful.

It did not last long. When a crown could pass to any man, as long as he was strong enough to reach out and take it, there were plenty of others that believed it was their right to rule England. William the Conqueror, or Duke William of Normandy as he was known then, is usually the one that most people recall – and yet there were two others that often slip through the gaps of history, all of them with their own claims, partly familial, partly fantastical.

Harald Hardraada was the King of Norway and by 1066 already had a history of claiming other people’s thrones. Denmark was his first country of choice, but when that failed and the English throne became, in his eyes, vacant, he decided to act. He was helped by the betrayal of Tostig, Harold Godwineson’s brother, who sent a personal invitation to Harald Hardraada to take the English throne. Whether Tostig believed that he would then gain the chance to rule in his stead when he returned to his throne in Norway is unclear.

Edgar Æthling had only lived in England for the last nine years when Edward the Confessor died in 1066, but his claim was better than most. The last male heir of an ancient English line of kings, his grandfather had been King Edmund II of England. Edgar’s father Edward had considered England too dangerous and so had fled to the continent, where he married and had three children. The trouble was, Edgar was probably only around sixteen years of age, with his father deceased, and absolutely no battle experience whatsoever.

So how does Duke William of Normandy fit into this? Well, his aunt Emma was Edward the Confessor’s mother, and so they had a strong family tie that was compounded by Edward’s obsession with Norman architecture and culture. It was argued by William – both before and after his invasion of English shores – that Edward had promised him the English throne many years before he died, and that any promises that he made thereafter were null and void by his first promise.

It is hard to imagine, for many of us living in a country that is torn apart by civil war, each family torn apart by different loyalties, each city forced to take a stand, choosing their champion, each day another day that could bring war and death for those you loved. The battles – both large and small – raged for the full year, until finally William became the Conqueror.

But real life is never as tidy as history makes it out to be. It is not possible for one man, no matter how large his army, to saunter into a new land and expect loyalty, admiration, and trust from each and every one of his subjects. William the Conqueror may have become King of England in 1066, but he spent the next twenty one years trying to keep it, battling foes both inside and outside his new kingdom. He had the problem of language, of different politics, and of different justice systems. He had the problem of ruling two lands separated by the sea, and the distrust of all who did not speak Norman French. Perhaps greatest of all, he had the problem of creating a new ruling class, a new nobility that blended the best of both cultures.

William the Conqueror’s solution was one that would shock most of us, and that was enforced marriage between his trusted Norman noblemen and warriors and widowed or orphaned Anglo-Saxon women. This generation would change the way the world was seen, understood, and even written, as the Anglo-Normans became the English.


Emily Murdoch is a medieval historian and writer. Her medieval series Conquered Hearts follows Avis, an Anglo-Saxon woman orphaned by the Conquest who is forced to marry a Norman man – and both had to decide on their loyalties when William the Conqueror decides to punish his people’s disobedience with the Harrying of the North.

Throughout her career so far she has examined a codex and transcribed medieval sermons at the Bodleian Library in Oxford, designed part of an exhibition for the Yorkshire Museum, worked as a researcher for a BBC documentary presented by Ian Hislop, and worked at Polesden Lacey with the National Trust. She has a degree in History and English, and a Masters in Medieval Studies, both from the University of York. You can follow her on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram, and read her blog here.


  1. Engaging post, Emily. I didn't know about the lesser two challengers for the throne. Thanks!

    1. Thank you! As Sir Winston Churchill said, history is written by the victors - I often love to go through major changes in ruling families and work out who could have been on the throne!

  2. Excellent post

    ....and that was enforced marriage between his trusted Norman noblemen and warriors and widowed or orphaned Anglo-Saxon women.

    Alexander did something like that too I believe. Was it about the "spoils" of war or checking the production of a fully Anglo-Saxon population, jump starting assimilation? Or all three .It shows a thoroughness of purpose for sure....a Christianized version of the ancient habit of turning into slaves the women of a conquered people

    1. Anne, you are so right - there were many factors that drove William the Conqueror to 'encourage' intermarriage. The inheritance of any Anglo-Saxon lands that had only daughters remaining in the family was another one, as was the enforced transition from the Anglo-Saxon to Norman French. It left a generation of children that often had to pick which parent they felt they took after.

  3. Good reminder of the anniversary {even here in Wales). Remember Harald Hardraada from when I studied History, and always found his claim and actions interesting. Just need to learn more, I suspect.

    1. Hey Roland, I totally agree - in some ways, Harald is the most exciting player in this act of England. He became known as the last Viking King, almost united Scandinavia as one country, fought as a mercenary in the Byzantium Empire, enjoyed (rather too much) a bigamous marriage, and wrote heraldic poetry.


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