At the Battle of Hastings on October 14, 1066, King Harold II of England was defeated by the invading Norman forces of William the Conqueror. By the end of the bloody, all-day battle, Harold was dead and his forces were destroyed. Harold was the last Anglo-Saxon king of England, and the battle changed the course of history and established the French-speaking Normans as the new rulers of England, which in turn brought about a significant cultural, economic and military transformation, and helped to create the modern English language.
William the Conqueror
William the Conqueror was the son of Robert I, duke of Normandy in northern France, and his mistress Herleva (also called Arlette), a tanner’s daughter from Falaise. The duke, who had no other sons, designated William his heir, and with his death in 1035 William became duke of Normandy.
William was of Viking origin. He spoke a dialect of French and grew up in Normandy, a fiefdom loyal to the French kingdom, but he and other Normans descended from Scandinavian invaders. One of William’s relatives, Rollo, pillaged northern France with Viking raiders in the late ninth and early 10th centuries, eventually accepting his own territory (Normandy, named for the Norsemen who controlled it) in exchange for peace.
King Harold II
Just over two weeks before the Battle of Hastings in October 1066, William had invaded England, claiming his right to the English throne. In 1051, William is believed to have visited England and met with his cousin Edward the Confessor, the childless English king. According to Norman historians, Edward promised to make William his heir.
On his deathbed, however, Edward granted the kingdom to Harold Godwinson, head of the leading noble family in England and more powerful than the king himself. In January 1066, King Edward died, and Harold Godwinson was proclaimed King Harold II. William immediately disputed his claim.
October 14, 1066
On September 28, 1066, William landed in England at Pevensey, on Britain’s southeast coast, with thousands of foot soldiers, horses and cavalrymen. Seizing Pevensey, he then marched to Hastings, where he paused to organize his forces and, according to some accounts, built a fortress or castle.
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On October 13, Harold arrived near Hastings with his army. The next day, October 14, William led his forces out to battle before Harold’s troops had a chance to organize.
The one-day Battle of Hastings ended in a decisive victory against Harold’s men. Harold was killed—shot in the eye with an arrow, according to legend—his brothers Leofwine and Gyrth were also killed, and his English forces were scattered.
Legacy of the Battle of Hastings
After his victory at the Battle of Hastings, William marched on London and received the city’s submission. On Christmas Day of 1066, he was crowned the first Norman king of England in Westminster Abbey, and the Anglo-Saxon phase of English history came to an end.
Illiterate like most nobles of his time, William spoke no English when he ascended the throne and failed to master it. Thanks to the Norman invasion, French was spoken in England’s courts for centuries and completely transformed the English language, infusing it with new words and giving birth to modern English.
William I proved an effective king of England, and the Domesday Book, a great census of the lands and people of England, was among his notable achievements. Upon the death of William I in 1087, his son, William Rufus, became William II, the second Norman king of England.
The story of the Battle of Hastings and the Norman Conquest of England is told through the Bayeux Tapestry, a 230-foot-long masterpiece of medieval artistry. Probably commissioned by Bishop Odo, William the Conqueror’s half-brother, the tapestry consists of 58 detailed panels of woolen yarn embroidered on linen.
The Bayeux Tapestry was made in England sometime in the 11th century, making it a fairly contemporary record of the Battle of Hastings and other events of the Norman Conquest. Today it hangs in the Bayeux Tapestry Museum in Bayeux, France.