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Alternate Histories: What If Harold II Had Won Hastings?

Updated on August 28, 2017

What if is likely the greatest rhetorical question there is. The two-word musing spans thoughts and feelings that range from: "what if I did X instead?" To such history altering ponderings such as: "what if the Nazis had won World War II?" The very biggest changes in history prompt these thoughts to arise, if Henry VIII had not severed ties with Rome, for example, would the world be as advanced as it is today, without the ability of enlightenment ideas to flourish? If Constantine had not adopted Christianity as the Roman Empire's official faith in the 4th century, how would the standing of the main global religions stand in modern times? Would a Dark Ages in Europe have occurred? Would the Islamisation of Europe spread further than the Iberian Peninsula without the Catholic buffer? The benefit of hindsight produces reflection on some great alternatives for how the world might have panned out and the course of significant events make for interesting speculation. One of the biggest incidents that changed the face of Europe was the Norman Conquest, a real life Game of Thrones that culminated in the infamous Battle of Hastings in 1066, a skirmish that altered European history permanently. William the Conqueror became King of England, and his Norman dynasty placed England on Europe's stage. Although William, the bastard Duke of Normandy very nearly lost, what if he had?

For a couple of centuries prior to 1066, England and its constituent Seven Kingdoms before its unification endured constant Viking invasion. Alfred the Great defeated the Viking chief Guthrum at the Battle of Ethandune (Edington in Wiltshire), even so, Viking pillaging continued beyond their agreed Danelaw territory in England. Alfred's descendants eventually drove the Norsemen entirely from their English regions with Alfred's grandson Eadred becoming the first West Saxon (Wessex) King to ride into York, once Jorvik, the centre of Norse power in England. Although Wessex maintained an annual compensation to try and maintain some level of peace with any Danes in the country, a stipend known as "The Danegeld." By the time Athelred II (The Unready) ruled England, the Viking threat forced him to pay out extortionate fees to keep Norse bloodthirstiness in check - up to £24,000 annually, vast sums in the early 11th century. Large payouts soon regressed into Viking hunger for conquest, with Sweyn Forkbeard usurping Athelred II in 1013, though he died five weeks later. Aethelred's son, Edmund seized the throne, crowned Edmund II "Ironside." Ironside's reign lasted just two years when he fell in battle to Sweyn's son, the infamous Canute the Great at Ashingdon in Essex in 1016. Canute ruled Scandinavia and England for almost 20 years, but his sons Harold I and Harthacanute lacked the ruling grit of their father. So when Harthacanute died in 1042 at a wedding feast, either from poison or epilepsy, both probable causes paved the way for Edward the Confessor to reinstall the Saxon Wessex line to the English throne.

Meanwhile, Nordic plundering extended far beyond England and blighted much of Europe, stretching even to the Middle-East and selling of English captives into slavery in China. Erik the Red formed a settlement on Greenland and likely landed in America almost half a millennium before Christopher Columbus. However, closer to England, Danes harried France as much as the islands to its west, raiding the Seine Valley as early as the 840s. After the legendary Charlemagne's death, his Frankish Empire began to disintegrate, and the Vikings exploited this power vacuum, eventually allowing Norwegian leader Hrólfr Ragnvaldsson - better known as Rollo, or Robert - to become first Duke of Normandy. Not before Rollo had lain siege to Paris, permitting the treaty to come about through means of force only abated when Rollo entered the vassalage of Frankish King Charles the Simple. Rollo's great-great-great grandson, William II Duke of Normandy was the bastard son of Duke Robert and his mistress Herleva, and despite the challenges his legitimacy presented him, William managed to secure and expand his duchy. As the first cousin to king Edward the Confessor, William had a strong claim to the throne of England and allegedly had the blessing of the king to succeed him.

Upon Edward's death in early 1066, William seemed to expect that the throne of England should have passed to him, as Edward's father, Athelred the Unready married Emma, sister of Richard II, Duke of Normandy. Edward spent much of his exile in Normandy also and filled the English court with many Norman bishops and lords, which riled the powerful Godwin, Earl of Wessex. His son Harold as England's richest and most powerful noble and the king's brother-in-law seized the throne and when news reached William in Normandy, he prepared for an invasion, building a fleet, though initially lacked support from the Church. It took several months for William to ready his attack, and Harold began to be beset on all sides by contenders to the throne, especially when the king's brother Tostig sided with the Norwegian King Harald Hardrada. Harold II moved north, and with the aid of earls and brothers, Edwin and Morcar defeated Tostig and Harald at Stamford Bridge.

While in Yorkshire, William's army landed on the south coast of England. Harold moved with as much speed as he could muster, meeting William seven miles northwest of Hastings on October 14th, 1066. The battle lasted long into the day, and many theories pan out as to how Harold lost, one of them being that a feigned retreat by the Normans tricked the English army, bolstered by many commoners at the time. The Norman ruse weakened the lines of English defence and eventually led to Harold's death, legendarily depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry by the king taking an arrow in the eye - as well as the tapestry recording Halley's Comet. For William however, the struggle wasn't over, the Witan (or ruling council of nobles in England) declared Edward the Confessor's nephew, Edgar Atheling, as King, who walled himself up in London. However, the young prince fled before the victorious Norman force and William was coronated on Christmas Day in 1066, ruling England for 21 years. His reign was troubled by rebellion in the north of England, led by Hereward the Wake and Edgar Atheling bothered the Norman dynasty after William's death, from his sanctuary in Scotland. Although his establishment of Feudal power in England made it a recognised force in Europe and his commissioning of the Domesday Book that catalogued all land, property and livestock throughout the country.

History maintains that the Norman Conquest made England into the country that it is today, a world power and former seat of an empire which the sun never set on it was so large. No foreign power ever successfully invaded England again after William the Conqueror, although Harold II nearly pulled off an incredible feat, repelling invaders from both ends of his country. What if he had? One thing is sure; the English language would be different without the French influences that altered the Saxon Old English and Danish influences in the north. By 1100, when William's youngest son, Henry I, became king after fleeing the New Forest and crowning himself following his brother's mysterious hunting death, the Normans made inroads in south Wales. When Henry I defeated William I's eldest brother, Robert Duke of Normandy, Henry imprisoned Robert in Cardiff Castle for 34 years until his death - the second longest royal incarceration in British Royal History, after Eleanor of Brittany, Richard I and John's niece, jailed for 39 years. So theoretically, Harold may have decided to consolidate his power base on the British Isles archipelago, marrying into the lines of Welsh Princes and Scottish Kings, eventually casting out west to Ireland. William may have attempted an invasion again, but in this scenario of Harold's victory - giving Harold extra time to prepare - the momentum would have subsided from the Normans. Harold's victory would have turned England into a seemingly impregnable fortress off the coast of Europe, William made it so, however.


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