This year was 950th anniversary of Battle of Hastings. Ugh! Reading Brits! They refer to places like East Anglica which you can’t find on a current map. It’s Suffolk—one of 7 tribes of Angles and Saxons in the 500s-800s. Then they wax on about 15 different people that caused the invasion. After some digging, here’s my simple-American understanding.
One of the troubles of Medieval monarchs is that they often didn’t live long enough or have fertility enough to sire heirs. Somebody was always dying of gangrene from a blister or a cut. Vikings, about 1000AD began trading instead of raiding and became rich and powerful. They forced their way into northeastern England—York and Northumbria along the N. Sea. Aethelred the Unready was the Anglo-Saxon British king when Sweyn Forkbeard and his son Canute conquered the kingdom. But Forkbeard died a year later and young Canute fled temporarily. Aethelred had 4 sons and he sent 2 to Hungary for safety and the other two to Normandy since that is where his wife was from. That’s how Normandy gets into the act. Canute returned to seize the throne in 1016 and ruled for 20 years. He was also king of Denmark, Sweden, and Norway and commanded lucrative trade in the N. Sea and Baltic. When he died in 1035 he had two sons, Harthacnut and Harefoot, who disputed and ruled in succession--both dead by 1042. Harefoot evidently could run fast but not fast enough.
Opportunistically, Aethelred’s 2 Norman sons returned to England before a Danish successor could be named. The Anglo-Saxon English didn’t like either the Danes or the Normans. Normans were once Vikings too, but quickly adapted to being French. Alfred was assassinated. Edward locked down the kingdom, but there was a dangerous rival nobleman, Godwine who had sons and ambition. Eventually, Edward and Godwine worked out a deal whereby Edith, Godwine’s daughter married Ed. But they didn’t mate and she remained childless. Maybe she was sterile or maybe he didn’t pick up his laundry and had to sleep on the couch. The official story was that religious Edward had taken a vow of celibacy. Normans were close to the church; English Saxons weren’t. Thus Edward the Confessor became a national hero for being peaceful and supporting churches and buildings and roads. Godwine died. Then on his death bed, Edward reportedly gave the throne to Harold Godwineson as the only guy who could unite the English.
Things got hairy. There were many claimants to the throne. Harold Hadrada, king of Norway claimed it for being a decendant of Canute and invaded Northumbria with thousands of men. Harold held them off and killed Hadrada at the battle of Stamford Bridge. No sooner was the battle was over and William Duke of Normandy, bastard son of a cousin, bulldog of a fighter, invaded southern England as a claimant. Harold fast-marched his men from northern England to the southern shore, just in time to fight a battle with William. The battle didn’t really take place at Hastings but at a town named Battle nearby. (which explains why we call such fights “battles”) Normans knights charged repeatedly but the English held the high ground. But the Normans had 6 foot longbows which could rain long-range terror on the English and they won the day.
We think Willie was intent on winning allies among the Anglo-Saxon English, but he was ruthless, my-way-or-the-highway guy. As he seized vast lands to give his 7000 followers, smaller rebellions cropped up for another ten years. Coercion, resistance, oppression followed and 1.5 million Anglo-Saxons were reduced to serfdom while 7000 Normans took control. French became the language of the court. And instead of England becoming a Viking territory, it became linked to more-sophisticated France and Continental Europe. Normans built wooden forts all over England to secure themselves and these turned into castles—something new for England. Willie had a massive survey done to figure out the maximum taxes he could charge (Domeday Book). He ruled autocratically, grew fat as Buddha. At the funeral when they tried to wedge his body in a too-small crypt in the church floor, his body ruptured and caused a horrid scene.
The original English Anglo-Saxon language is still pretty much preserved on the Frisian Islands offshore of Netherlands and Germany and in Angleland, at the German-Danish border. I’m no linguist, but English people who visit there say it catches you off guard-- a Germanic language that you can almost understand. French altered our English into Middle English of the 1200s-1400s. All in all, the conquest resulted in good. England became a trading country. Laws were codified. When a Norman king, John, got ruthless, the other nobles made him sign Magna Carta [freedom of church, jury trial, equal protection under law]. John died right after he got the Pope to nullify Magna Carta, and his ten-yr. old son, Henry, was crowned. In this power vacuum, the nobles insisted on re-instating the Magna Carta. Thus among so many faux contracts that medieval nobles made, this one stuck, the first constitution in Europe.