Illumination depicting Duke William II of Normandy stabbing King Harold of England at the Battle of Hastings, ca. 1280 (British Library)
The 1066 invasion and occupation of England by Norman, French, and Breton soldiers led by Duke William II of Normandy (later known as William the Conqueror) changed the course of history. But the Norman Conquest never should have succeeded.
England was ruled by King Harold Godwinson, a powerful warrior with a mighty army who ought to have been able to easily repel William's invading force. Yet William turned out to be one of the luckiest rulers in history. While he waited in vain for the wind to allow his fleet to cross the English Channel, a Scandinavian army, co-led by King Harold's estranged younger brother, landed in northern England in early September 1066. King Harold defeated the Scandinavians handily at the Battle of Stamford Bridge on Sept. 25, but then the winds in the Channel finally shifted, and when William landed in southern England three days later, Harold had to race south to meet him without his full fighting force.
On October 14, the Battle of Hastings became an unlikely triumph for France, and its after-effects echo through the centuries. William of Normandy had needed everything to break his way that day—and amazingly, it did.
Historian Jennifer Paxton sets the scene for the Norman Conquest by examining the bitterly disputed English succession that led to two invasions of England in a single year and the Viking ties that enmeshed England and Normandy in the Scandinavian world. She covers William’s military campaigns, and examines how the initially bitter legacy of the Norman Conquest was transformed, surprisingly quickly, into a new cultural consensus that created the England we know today.
Paxton teaches British and Irish history at The Catholic University of America, where she is a clinical assistant professor in the department of history and director of the university honors program.
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