Panel from the Bayeux Tapestry depicting the death of King Harold at the Battle of Hastings
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 the for the wind to allow his fleet to cross the English Channel, a Scandinavian army, co-led by 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 on southern England three days later, Harold had to race to meet him without his full fighting force.
On October 14, the Battle of Hastings became the 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 Williams’ 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 is a clinical associate professor in the department of history and director of the university honors program at Catholic University of America.
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