On October 14, 1066, two determined enemies faced each other over shallow valley. Arrayed on one side was the invading army of William, Duke of Normandy. Looking down upon them from the heights of Senlac Hill were the defenders of England, led by their warrior king, Harold. With the fate of England in the balance, they would contend that day in one of the greatest and most decisive battles in the sanguine history of the British Isles: The Battle of Hastings.
This struggle was the culmination of years of dynastic intrigue concerning the succession to the English throne that followed the death of King Edward the Confessor. This issue was complicated by the events a generation earlier in England’s history, when the Danes under their kings Svein Forkbeard and his son, Canute, wrested England from the hands of the Anglo-Saxon king, Aethelred the “Unready” (though this appellate may be a misconstruction of the Anglo-Saxon word for “Unwise”).
The Danish conqueror, Canute, married Aethelred’s widow Emma; a daughter of the Norman duke, Richard I (“the Fearless”). Her two sons by Aethelred, Alfred and Edward fled the Danes and took refuge in the court of their Norman kinsmen at Rouen.
Emma also had a son by Canute, Harthacanute, who briefly ruled England and Denmark following the deaths of both his father and brother. Upon his deathbed, Harthacanute named his half-brother Edward, still in Normandy, as his heir. (Edward’s elder brother Alfred had been treacherously killed by the Danes some years earlier.)
Edward’s excessive piety earned him the sobriquet, “The Confessor”. Raised in the court of Normandy, Edward favored his Norman kinsmen and friends. He was also naturally suspicious of those English lords who had won favor under Danish rule, particularly the powerful Earl of Wessex, Godwin; who had linked himself to the house of Canute by marriage. Edward the Confessor’s 24 year reign was marked by tension between his English lords and Norman favorites at court. Eventually Godwin forced the Norman faction out of England, becoming the “strong-man” behind the throne in Edward’s later years as king.
When Godwin died, his place beside Edward was taken by his strong son, Harold Godwinson, now Earl of Wessex. Harold used his wealth and position at court to amass a private army of professional Anglo-Danish warriors, called Huscarls (or Housecarls, “Household Warriors”). Canute had first created such a force, and Harold’s force was modeled on this elite body of fighting men. With these he defeated a coalition of rival English lords and the Welsh Prince, Gruffydd ap Llywelyn, from 1055-1057. He then warred successfully in Wales in 1063, killing Gruffydd and bringing peace to the Welsh Marches.
The following year, a momentous event occurred. Harold and his youngest brother, Gyrth, were shipwrecked off the Norman Coast….
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