Who was to blame for the fall of the Anglo-Saxon empire in 1066?
End of an era
When William Duke of Normandy was crowned King of England on Christmas Day 1066, the Anglo-Saxon dynasty came to an end. Defeat at the Battle of Hastings on 14th October 1066 effectively ended the military struggle against the Normans and once William’s coronation took place on Christmas Day 1066, the political struggle also ended. Although there were a number of rebellions in the following years, the Anglo-Saxon’s had been conquered.
So where did it all go wrong?
In 1042 when Edward the Confessor became King of England he had only recently returned from living in Normandy. He was a very pious man and liked nothing more than to hunt with falcons and attend church services. However, he became a weak king and relied heavily on his Norman advisors. This infuriated the Anglo-Saxon Earls who after a considerable campaign persuaded Edward to send the Norman advisors back to Normandy. The Earls were also concerned about the succession to the Throne and encouraged Edward to take a wife. He eventually married the sister of Harold Godwinson (later King Harold), but the marriage was a sham. Edward took a vow of chastity and would therefore not provide an heir. This proved to be the most contentious issue of his reign.
Claimants to the throne
There were many claimants to the Throne: William Duke of Normandy was a cousin of Edward and claimed that he had been promised the throne if Edward did not produce an heir; the Viking King Harald Hardrada also claimed he had a right to the throne; Edgar the Aethling at fifteen years old, the grandson of Edmund Ironside, a previous King of England, also had a claim to the throne; and then there was the most powerful man in England, the Earl of Wessex, Harold Godwinson. The Witan council eventually appointed him King on Edward’s death. This appointment was to trigger a catalogue of events, which culminated in the Battle of Hastings.
Before the Saxons and Normans met on Senlac Ridge, King Harold had been advised to wait for reinforcements from the North before challenging Duke William in battle. The Saxon army marched for nine days after their successful victory over the Viking army of Harold Hardrada at Stamford Bridge near York and was tired but triumphant. However, Harold was outraged at the rampaging and pillaging of the Norman army in his own Earldom on the English south coast and wanted rid of the Normans from English soil. He left word in London for the Northern forces to join him without delay, but we now know they were never to arrive. This impatience was Harold’s first fatal mistake. The next took place during the Battle of Hastings. Harold had positioned his army at the top of Senlac Ridge and formed a defensive shield wall. This tactic was effective for a considerable amount of time. Harold believed that the Norman’s would eventually tire of attacking up a steep hill and when the reinforcements arrived, drive the Normans back into the sea. In the middle of the battle, Harold had an opportunity to force home his advantage and win the day. On a number of occasions, the Norman left flank retreated and allowed the shield wall to move forward. However, Harold kept the wall static and lost his opportunity. If Harold had advanced the shield wall as one and forced the Norman’s back down the hill, whilst the left flank was in retreat and disarray, the outcome of the battle may have been different.
Battle of Stamford Bridge
On September 24th 1066, the Anglo-Saxons achieved their last battle victory at Stamford Bridge. The Viking invaders led by Harold Hardrada had a few days earlier defeated the Northern Saxon army at Gate Fulford near York. The Northern Saxon army was lead by the Earls of Mercia and Northumbria, Morkere and Edwin.
Although these Earls were brothers-in-law to Harold, they both harboured a desire for independent kingdoms. After King Harold had led the Saxon army North to defeat the Viking invaders at Stamford Bridge, they heard news of the Norman invasion by Duke William in the South. Without delay, Harold lead the majority of the Saxon army South in the belief that he would recruit on his journey and that Morkere and Edwin would recruit in the North and then join Harold to defeat the Normans. However, the Northern Earls had other ideas. Although they marched South at a much slower pace than Harold had required, they were too late to join battle at Hastings. After the Battle of Hastings, Edwin and Morkere pledged their allegiance to the only remaining Saxon heir to the throne, Edgar the Aethling. However, instead of using their forces to encounter Duke William, they yet again betrayed their Anglo-Saxon Kingdom in the hope that they would bargain for an independent state. The Northern army marched back home and waited for the Normans to come to them. In 1070, the Normans came in force and wreaked havoc that would leave famine and desolation in that part of the country that would last for over a decade. The ‘Harrowing of the North’ was a sorry tale and instigated by the Northern Earls betrayal of King Harold.
In summary, the Anglo-Saxon empire fell for a number of reasons; King Edward had no desire for an heir and preferred Falcons to children; King Harold was too impatient and lost the Battle of Hastings; and the Northern Earls were too selfish to fight for the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom and were only concerned about a Northern state.
If there were one choice to be made for the main protagonist for the fall of the Anglo-Saxon empire I would have to choose an ineffectual King that put his personal pleasure before his kingly duties. King Edward, guilty as charged!