TYPICALLY, a list of English monarchs will start at 1066, with William I – the Conqueror. It is an odd choice, because a unified English monarchy had existed for more than a century, and the family trees of those prior rulers can be traced even further back. The first Rex Anglorum, or King of the English, was Æthelstan, who took that title in 927. His descendants reigned until the early months of 1066 – with a brief interlude of Danish rule – but they have been largely forgotten by popular history. It is indicative of the Franco-chauvanism that colours the early-Medieval history of England, during which our kings spoke French rather than English, and whose reigns and families are based on interactions with our southern neighbour, rather than our Germanic past.
Today marks the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings, which is rightly remembered as a foundational moment for the English nation. It is an easy, understandable bookmark between eras of English history. It is true that, over the next two decades, the country underwent fundamental changes, including the wholesale replacement of the Anglo-Saxon aristocracy, the ravaging of the North of England as part of a campaign of vengeance, and the substitution of English with Norman French as the language of government.
Not only did it undo hundreds of years of Anglo-Saxon rule, but this break in history excised that older era from the modern imagination. Survey the British public and many will have heard of William the Conqueror, but far fewer would be able to tell you of Alfred the Great, of Æthelred the Unready, or Edmund Ironside. This cultural memory was extinguished as the result of a lie.
‘Earl William [came] from beyond the sea with a large retinue of Frenchmen; and the king entertained him and as many of his companions as were convenient to him.’
William, called the Bastard until that year, based his tenuous claim to the throne on a promise allegedly given to him by Edward the Confessor on a visit to England in 1054. Given the circumstances of this visit, it is unlikely to have happened, but the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that ‘Earl William [came] from beyond the sea with a large retinue of Frenchmen; and the king entertained him and as many of his companions as were convenient to him.’
Whether or not this visit occurred, and whether or not any promise was made, William continued to court a claim to the English throne, and sought assurances from various English nobles, including Harold Godwinson himself. The Bayeux Tapestry (pictured above), the chief propaganda piece for the Norman invaders, depicts Harold, at that point a virtual hostage of Duke William, swearing upon holy relics to support William’s claim to the throne in 1064. Yet no English source records the trip.
At the time, however, it was clear to the English that Harold Godwinson was the legitimate claimant to the throne, ‘even as the king had granted it to him, and men also had chosen him thereto.’ It was the English tradition that the Witenagemot, the council of elders, elected the monarch, rather than succession according to a hereditary system, and Harold, as the most powerful earl in England, had as strong a claim as anyone. The contemporary Life of King Edward reports that, on his deathbed, Edward ‘stretching forth his hand to his governor, her [his wife, Edith’s] brother, Harold, he said, “I commend this woman and all the kingdom to your protection.”‘ Harold, already a proven commander and effective ruler in his role as Earl of Wessex, was both the legitimate monarch, and the ideal choice, particularly at a time in which a Norman invasion was seen as an imminent threat.
Anglo-Saxon England whimpered out of existence over the following decades, during which the Normans established total control.
As a result, the claim that William was promised the throne by both Edward and Harold is difficult to justify. Nevertheless, he launched an invasion in 1066, and won a resounding victory against the English. Several short-lived rebellions in the succeeding decades, including an aborted attempt in the immediate aftermath of the Battle of Hastings to install King Edward’s grandnephew on the throne, in a piteous final gambit for the once-mighty House of Wessex. Although Hastings put an sudden end to King Harold, Anglo-Saxon England whimpered out of existence over the following decades, during which the Normans established total control.
Post-conquest England is a completely different beast to the land that gave us Beowulf, Alfred the Great, and the Venerable Bede. The Battle of Hastings represents a break in this tradition, consigning it to the past, and reorientating England away from Scandinavia and towards France. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, perhaps the final bastion of Old English tradition, continued until 1154.
Thanks to a century of French influence, the language and culture of England had already changed fundamentally. The Chronicle spoke disparagingly of William the Conqueror. It tells of a king ‘so very rigid’ who ‘extorted from his subjects many marks of gold, and many hundred pounds of silver; which he took of his people, for little need, by right and by unright. He was fallen into covetousness, and greediness he loved withal.’ Ultimately, he was a foreign king ruling over a foreign land, who was never accepted by the English, but whose legacy defines them.