02 September 2013

The End of an Era: How the Battle of Hastings Changed England

By Lisa J. Yarde

In the early hours of the morning on Saturday, October 14 in 1066, English warriors and their king Harold Godwinson might not have imagined how the outcome of one battle would affect history. They were fighting for their survival and that of their families. Surely, they intended to deal with their Norman foes under Duke William as decisively as the rout of the Norwegians under Harald Hardrada and King Harold's own traitorous brother Tostig, just 19 days earlier at the Battle of Stamford Bridge. One day at a site now occupied by Battle Abbey changed almost everything. In the aftermath, the English language altered, riddled with French influences instead of just Germanic. The political landscape became more centralized and Norman nobles replaced the aristocracy as landholders. At Hastings, the two opposing sides had similar goals in the eradication of the other, but also held common ties. Harold Godwinson was an Anglo-Danish king, and William’s ancestors were Scandinavia raiders who had invaded northern France and carved out a fiefdom in Normandy.  

For six centuries before the Battle of Hastings, the Anglo-Saxon people had dominated England and imposed their Germanic way of life on the Britons who survived the decline of Roman rule. The people we think of as Anglo-Saxons were an amalgamation of Angles from the Jutland Peninsula, which is part of Germany and Denmark, and the Saxons of modern-day northwest Germany. From the mid-fifth century, their settlements dotted the eastern and southern coastline. They founded various kingdoms, some of which would survive as the English counties of today, including Sussex, Essex, and Wessex. Smaller consolidated regions, such as the union of Bernicia and Deira, emerged stronger as the kingdom of Northumbria. Others rose in prominence and wealth, like Mercia under the reign of Offa in the eighth century. Both Northumbria and Mercia swiftly declined by the ninth century and came under central administration from the surviving kingdom of Wessex.

Anglo-Saxon society emerged with distinct duties and rights. A slave or theow labored for his lord, but had opportunities to earn money and could legally buy his own freedom. In the early years many slaves came from Wales; another term for slave, wealh, evolved into ‘Welsh’ meaning ‘foreigner’ in the Anglo-Saxon language. In the Anglo-Saxon epic of Beowulf, the wife of King Hrothgar of the Danes bears the name Wealhtheow. When average citizens, the ceorls, were not working the fields or bound by a trade, they gave service as part of the fyrd, local levies. Some obtained a portion of land from their lords, which the ceorls’ families worked for themselves. Noblemen called gesiths up through the seventh century merged with thegns by the ninth century. Under tenth-century Danish influence, their number included professional warriors or huscarls. The noblemen were the military companions and commanders of the king or their lord. Ealdormen or eorls after the tenth-century gained their appointments from the king, charged by him with the administration of large territories. The regions often derived from the old kingdoms, such as the earldoms of Northumbria and Mercia. Ealdormen had a duty to call up the fyrd in the king’s name for the various wars often embroiling England. Upper class Anglo-Saxon warriors took their horses into battle, but fought on foot.

Each of the classes had an assigned wergild, the value of their lives should any undue harm befall them. Anyone who caused injury or death to a slave or freeman had to pay the wergild, as recompense for having deprived the lord or the victim’s family. A nobleman’s wergild was six times that of a freeman. Payment staved off blood feuds, for no one exacted vengeance quite like Anglo-Saxons left without compensation for their losses. Retribution flowed from public affronts to honor and murder, as generations sought to avenge personal slights. A prime example is the slaughter of Earl Uhtred the Bold of Northumbria and his men in 1016, after which Uthtred’s son Ealdred killed his father’s murderer Thurband. The death of Ealdred occurred at the hands of Thurband’s son Carl. This particular blood feud lasted three generations, almost sixty years until Waltheof, Ealdred’s grandson, killed most of Carl’s sons and grandsons. The concept of loyalty until death was also entrenched in Anglo-Saxon society. A deserter who left his lord became nithing. Anyone could kill him without having to pay wergild.

Marriage became a contractual arrangement between the bridegroom and the bride’s family, but with some deference to the woman in allowing her to choose or reject a suitor. Prospective husbands offered a bride price to the family, but as part of the marriage settlement, brides also received the morgengifu or morning-gift after the consummation of the union. In the form of land or money, the morning-gift became the personal property of wives until their deaths, reverting to their families if they died without children. In various period, Anglo-Saxon kings offered protections to widows against forced remarriage or veiling in nunneries. Women endured the dominion of their husbands, but held property rights. They existed as separate legal entities from their spouses. Their wergild did not change based on marriage. If a pregnant woman suffered harm, her wergild and that of her unborn child (about half the father’s value) ensured appropriate recompense. Under Alfred the Great of Wessex, the wergild paid to a lord for the rape of a slave was five shillings, a rate that doubled if the victim was a free woman under his dominion. Life for women and men revolved around the hall, a hub of all social activity where slaves and servants toiled at feasts, women brewed and baked, and men feasted while listening to poems about epic battles.   

Perhaps the greatest threat the Anglo-Saxons faced in the six hundred years before Hastings came from the Norwegian and Danish Vikings. On June 8, 793, Norsemen attacked an abbey on the island of Lindisfarne and ushered in the so-called Viking Age. More Scandinavians arrived in the next century, intent on settling England rather than just raiding. Alfred the Great’s wars with Guthrum the Dane drew to a stalemate and led to the creation of the Danelaw, with its capital at York. Scandinavians influenced the culture of England, including the language. In 991 after an English defeat at the Battle of Maldon, King Aethelred the Unready paid Danegeld, tribute intended to halt the raiders. After a temporary respite, Cnut invaded Wessex in 1015, joined by the faithless Ealdorman Eadric Streona of Mercia. After a siege of London, Cnut claimed all the land north of the Thames River by treaty in October 1016, while King Aethelred’s eventual successor Edmund II held the remainder until his death six weeks later.

When Cnut married Edmund’s stepmother Emma in 1017, the act ushered in Norman influence at court, which would affect events leading up to the Battle of Hastings. Emma was the daughter of Duke Richard I of Normandy, Duke William’s great-grandfather. Emma’s children with King Aethelred included Edward the Confessor, who spent years of exile in his mother’s birthplace. In 1043, he returned as England’s monarch, joined by several Norman nobles and clergymen, including Ralph of Mantes, the Earl of Hereford, and Abbot Robert of Jumieges who would become the archbishop of Canterbury. King Edward married Edith, sister of Harold Godwinson, but they had no children. Edward’s indecision regarding a successor endangered England’s future. The Normans based their invasion of England on the idea that King Edward and later Harold Godwinson had promised Duke William the kingdom, while ignoring the claims of Edward’s nephew by the half blood, Edgar, son of Edmund II. Upon Edward’s death, Harold Godwinson took the throne with the agreement of the witan, the king’s council. Harold’s reign lasted only 10 contentious months and ended at the Battle of Hastings. With papal support of his plans, William landed on the southern coast of the country. His mounted knights ravaged the land and its people before they faced off on horseback against Harold and a battle weary force, which had rushed south from Stamford Bridge. The majority of Harold’s nobles and huscarls died with their ruler, often considered as the last Anglo-Saxon king.

Afterward, the Normans swept away aside the institutions of England as they had effectively destroyed its defenders. They replaced at least 90% of the English aristocracy as William dispensed English lands to his loyal followers. Rebellion ensued, for which William’s men meted out terrible punishments including the harrying of the North. An analysis of entries in the Domesday Book reveals many northern villages as “laid waste” to describe the devastation. By this time, Normans held eleven of the fifteen bishoprics in the country. Castles dotted the landscape, physical symbols of Norman authority, and the Normans rebuilt almost every major Anglo-Saxon cathedral or abbey in stone. Huge tracts of territory became royal forests. William and most of his eventual successors were often absent from England, more concerned with their interests in Normandy and France. Norman French replaced the vernacular language at court and in poetic verse, Latin became the official language of government administration and the curia regis took the place of the witan, bound to the king by defined feudal rules where they held tenancies from him. 

Villeins, the lowest class of freemen, became tenants tied to the land who had no redress against their lords. Perhaps the greatest alteration for the average Englishman lay in whether the name and language of his lord as well as the designation of his location had changed. An earlier ancestor in Anglo-Saxon times might have regarded the effects of the conquest as a minimal impact on the drudgery of  daily existence. Anglo-Saxon society was no more egalitarian than the Normans who claimed England in 1066, especially for the poor.   

Lisa J. Yarde writes fiction inspired by the medieval period. She is the author of historical novels set in medieval England and Normandy, The Burning Candle, based on the life of Isabel de Vermandois, and On Falcon's Wings, chronicling the star-crossed romance between Norman and Saxon lovers. Lisa has also written three novels in a six-part series set in Moorish Spain, Sultana,  Sultana’s Legacy and Sultana: Two Sisters, where rivalries and ambitions threaten the fragile bonds between members of a powerful family.