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Saxon England: What if History?

Updated on January 19, 2018
ata1515 profile image

ata1515 is a student of history, focusing on the modern, medieval, and ancient histories of Europe.

The Bayeux Tapestry showing king Harold II, third from the left grasping an arrow in his eye.
The Bayeux Tapestry showing king Harold II, third from the left grasping an arrow in his eye.

Hastings, The Battle That Changed England

The year is 1066, and Harold Godwinson has been crowned king Harold II of England. As news of Harold's ascension to the throne spreads across Europe his contemporaries plot to prevent him from wielding the powers of the crown.

Upon the death of Edward the Confessor there was no definite heir to the English crown and so several people claimed to be the rightful heir. Harold Godwinson the Earl of Sussex, Duke William of Normandy, and Harold Hardrada the King of Norway, all made serious attempts to take the crown of England at this time.

Harold Hardrada invaded England from the North Sea and landed near York. Harold Godwinson had managed to force the Witenagemot, the Saxon royal council, to crown him king, so he rallied an army in lower England and marched north from London to meet the Norwegians. At the Battle of Stamsford Bridge he crushed the Norwegian army and shattered Harold Hardrada's hope for the crown. Meanwhile Duke William of Normandy gathered an army from his French holdings and crossed the English Channel.

King Harold II marched hard from York to Hastings and met the Norman challenger in battle. On the field of Hastings King Harold II was cut down by Duke William's personal knights and the Saxon army was routed from the field. King Harold was the last Saxon king of England, but what if William had failed in his charge?

English foot soldiers and Norman Knights
English foot soldiers and Norman Knights
Battle Abbey, a monument to Harold II
Battle Abbey, a monument to Harold II | Source
An English Huscarl fighting with a Danish battleaxe
An English Huscarl fighting with a Danish battleaxe

How Hastings Could Have Been

The Battle of Hastings was a battle between the new Norman way of fighting with mixed forces against the old Saxon way of fighting entirely on foot. Some scholars see the Norman method as being far more advanced than the Saxon method, but this is an exaggeration. Norman knights were not as heavily armed or armored as later medieval knights, and the shock value they presented against a solid infantry force was not enough to carry a battle.

The English army formed up on top of a ridge on Senlac Hill and the Norman army was forced to attack them uphill. William's army was composed of primarily infantry, with a large contingent of archers and knights for support. The English army was all foot soldiers fighting with the common folk wielding sword or spear and shield, and the royal Huscarls wielding a Danish Battleaxe.

William first had his archers fire upon the English army in an attempt to break their ranks, but the English formed a shield wall and the volley was ineffective. William then had his infantry attack, but this attack also faltered as fighting uphill was a difficult and demoralizing. Faced with defeat William was forced to personally lead his knights in a last ditch attack. Having sworn oathes to defend their king, many men would have rallied to their lords banner when he attacked. In medieval warfare communication was carried across the battlefield through standards, and the Normans would have seen theirs pushing the center and turned to aid it.

At this point Duke William found King Harold II and cut him down. This is where Hastings could have been an entirely different battle. Harold II would have been fighting alongside his personal bodyguard, the Huscarls. Huscarls were a throwback to Danish rule over England and they were professional soldiers picked for their size and capability. A Huscarl was capable of cleaving clean through a man and horse with one blow from his Danish Battleaxe. Had William made one misstep, if a single man had been looking a different way, or if someone had thrown themselves in front of their lord, Harold could have lived and William died on the field of Hastings. If William fell the Norman army would have been shattered and the English would have routed them.

What would this mean for England?

If Harold Godwinson retained the crown of England we would have an entirely different world. Not only is the event extremely old so the changes would affect everything that has happened since, but it radically altered the world view of the British Isles and the Continental Europeans.

Before the Battle of Hastings the British Isles were a far off land. They warred with the Danes, the Norwegians and each other, but were otherwise unconnected to the rest of the European world. The Norman conquest changed everything by bringing the English into France and French matters. If Harold had won the Battle of Hastings England would never have become engaged in French matters, and would probably have had a much better relationship with the French.

Duke William came with the blessing of the Pope and his rule helped to anchor England into the Catholic Church. If Harold had won we would have seen an easier separation from the Catholic Church, similar to the Scandinavians. This would have meant less persecution in England, and less destruction of the Church in England.

England may never have conquered Ireland. It is unlikely that King Harold would have been able to quickly dominate the English system of rule to be able to take advantage of Ireland's weakness during the early Medieval period, and this would have led to the development of three equally matched states, Ireland, Scotland and England, whose main focus would have been territorial control of the minor British islands rather than domination of each other or survival.

Alternate history can be a fun past-time, but it is also educational. Looking into history and seeing all the what-if moments, and how a single action could have changed the entire world helps to understand how much fate or chance has in making the world we live in.


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    • alancaster149 profile image

      Alan R Lancaster 

      5 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

      Hello ata1515. Interesting article. What were your sources?

      The battle lasted all day, Saturday 14th October, beginning at 'terce' (the nearby church rang 9 o'clock prayers), when William ordered Alan Fergant's Bretons forward up the hill... William was unhorsed twice in the course of the fighting on the flank of Caldbec Hill opposite his 'base' on Telham Hill. The second time was when half-brother Odo rallied the men who were ready to flee, and William raised his helm to show his face (possibly only raised the nose-piece, but that wouldn't have shown his whole face). A brief truce was agreed early in the afternoon to tend the wounded, water the Normans' horses and both sides to feed themselves. This was after Harold's younger brother Earl Leofwin had been killed. Shortly after re-commencement of the battle his other younger brother Earl Gyrth was killed, possibly by a crossbow bolt.

      With the feints that drew out the inexperienced South Saxon fyrdmen, William gradually gained ground on the hill. Harold's huscarls kept their line, and guarded their king until the Normans gained the hilltop around the time darkness drew on. One story has it Harold had been blind-sided by an arrow wound to the face. With the wound dressings on one side of his head, Harold was beset by three mounted knights, one being Edward's brother-in-law Eustace of Boulogne (he was in disgrace for denying William one of his remounts and needed to get back in his good books), Hugh of Pointhieu (son of Guy, who imprisoned Harold and his followers after his shipwreck) and Walter Giffard, who was sent home in disgrace after hacking off Harold's manhood. William himself didn't see Harold's body until after it was all over. Norman accounts differ, including the 'Carmen'. Accounts agree that it was Eadgytha 'Svanneshals' (Swan-neck) his common-law wife who identified him by a mark only she seemed to have been familiar with.

      Harold's huscarls would have died with, rather than outlive him in disgrace. That was the same code Harald Sigurdsson's ('Hardradi's') 'hersir' lived by. The origins of the huscarlar/housecarls lay with Knud Sveinssen (reigned 1016-35), who introduced them early in his reign. Many of Harold Godwinson's huscarls would have been with him as Earl of Wessex, being of Anglo-Danish , Danish and English descent. Harold himself was of Saxon-Danish descent, as grandson of Thegn Wulfnoth of Hastings, and son of the Danish Gytha Thorkelsdatter - sister of Knud's senior Jarl, Ulf Thorkelssen, and sister-in-law to Knud.

      A few good references work for this era are '1066 - The Battles of York, Stamford Bridge & Hastings' by Peter Marren (Battleground Britain 1066, ISBN 0-85052-453-0), 'The Battle of Hastings' by Jim Bradbury, (Sutton Publ., ISBN 0-7509-3794-7) and 'The Enigma of Hastings' by Edwin Tetlow (Peter Owen Publ., ISBN 0-7206-0003-0).

      The name of the hill given by Norman chroniclers was 'Sanguelac', (Lake of Blood), subsequently 'Senlac'. Colour maps are available in Peter Marren's book, as well as in Christopher Gravett's 'Hastings 1066 - The Fall of Saxon England', (publ. Osprey ISBN 1-84176-133-8).

      The ethnic make-up of England in 1066 was largely Aengle/Anglian (around 5/8), Anglo-Danish and Anglo-Norse from the home counties /midlands northward - which is where you get 'English' - Saxons in the south and south-west, Anglo-Danes and Anglo-Saxons in the east. The state took the name of the majority: Aengla-land; although the ruling regime was Wessex, they ruled by consent outside their home area. Mercia, and especially Northumbria were hard for the Saxons to control, and only grudgingly paid their taxes to Winchester.

      The reinforcements halted in London under the northern earls, and together with the Middlesex fyrd defeated William at London Bridge a couple of weeks later.

      Enjoy the read.

    • ata1515 profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Buffalo, New York.

      Hello Klidstone!

      Thanks for the information on Nova Scotia. My family also came from Scotland, but rather than stay in Canada they moved down to New York.

    • klidstone1970 profile image

      இڿڰۣ-- кιмвєяℓєу 

      8 years ago from Niagara Region, Canada

      The province of Nova Scotia in Canada means "New Scotland" in Latin and the Scots did indeed emigrate in mass numbers, being attracted to the idea of being landowners and the hope of better opportunities, as well as the fact that the land was reminiscent of what they left behind . Gaelic song and folklore, and the tartan itself is still retained and celebrated. My ancestors were one of the ones who took this opportunity for a better life and many of my McDonald relatives still live in Nova Scotia. It is a beautiful place to visit.

    • Mazzy Bolero profile image

      Mazzy Bolero 

      8 years ago from the U.K.

      Thanks for explaining, ata! I didn't know the history, I just noticed all the Scottish accents:)

    • ata1515 profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Buffalo, New York.


      Scotland had several colonies and lots of immigration to Canada for many of the same reasons that the Irish emigrated throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. I think the Union would have happened with or without the failure of the Panama colony simply because the government became so intertwined with the personal union of the crowns.

      Thanks for coming by and commenting Harald!

    • UnnamedHarald profile image

      David Hunt 

      8 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      We're so used to hearing how William bested Harold in 1066, many don't realize what a close run thing the battle was. As you say, the Normans were on the verge of giving up. Interesting article.

    • Mazzy Bolero profile image

      Mazzy Bolero 

      8 years ago from the U.K.

      Scotland did try to establish a colony in America at one point but it tragically failed. The financial fall-out resulted in their entering into a union with England. I wonder whether that union would have ever happened otherwise? I've been to Canada and there seem to be a lot of Scottish people there - I think unofficially it's a Scottish colony :)

    • ata1515 profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Buffalo, New York.

      Hey JKenny, thanks for stopping by! Maybe instead of the northern USA and Canada being solely English it would have had actual Scottish and Irish colonies established bringing Gaelic and Celtic culture to the New World . It would certainly have been an interesting world.

      Mazzy, thanks for the comment. We probably would have seen an England far more oriented towards the northern cities without the Harrowing of the North and I imagine that Spain and France would have had a much stronger hold on the world than they actually did.

    • JKenny profile image

      James Kenny 

      8 years ago from Birmingham, England

      That's a good point Mazzy, maybe if Harold had won, then there would be no such thing as the USA. Instead you'd have one or more countries covering North America, full of people speaking either French or Spanish as a first language.

    • Mazzy Bolero profile image

      Mazzy Bolero 

      8 years ago from the U.K.

      This is a very interesting hub, ata1515. Would England still have developed into an expansive country to rival Spain, colonizing North America? Or would the US be a French or Spanish-speaking country now? York would no doubt still be the capital of England and the civilization of Northumbria, which the Normans ruthlessly destroyed, would still be the most advanced. If the theory of parallel universes is correct, there's one somewhere where Harold won.

    • JKenny profile image

      James Kenny 

      8 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Interesting hub! You've got me thinking, and I think that if England had remained predominantly Saxon, and like you say, we would have continued fighting among ourselves and our northern neighbours. The UK would probably have never formed and maybe the likes of England, Scotland, Ireland and perhaps even Wales would have forged their own empires from the 16th century onwards. But then again, none of the Scandinavian nations forged an empire, so perhaps a victory for Harold at Hastings would have spared the world a British Empire.


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