The Norman Conquest: The Battle Of Hastings

In 1066 William the Conqueror defeated the English king Harold II at the Battle of Hastings, changing the language and the political structure of England.

The Battle of Hastings, the key event in the Norman Conquest of England, took place on Oct. 14, 1066, between the forces of King Harold II (Harold the Saxon) of England and William, Duke of Normandy (after this battle known as William the Conqueror).

King Edward the Confessor had named William, who was his cousin, as heir to the English throne. During a visit to the Norman court in 1064, Harold, the powerful Earl of Wessex, had promised to support William's claim as Edward's successor, even swearing an oath of fealty to William. But as King Edward lay dying (Jan. 5, 1066), he named Harold as his heir, perhaps under pressure. The next day Harold was crowned king, suggesting that he realized his claim to the throne was questionable and that he needed to move quickly to consolidate his position.

Aware that William was mustering troops to assert his own claim to the throne of England, Harold kept his militia on alert all summer, but as supplies dwindled he had no choice but to dismiss them in early September. At about that time King Harold III of Norway attempted an invasion of England, and Harold of England had to move the remainder of his troops to Yorkshire to counter that threat. Then, hearing that William had landed at Sussex with several thousand troops, Harold had to turn and, in a forced march, rush back toward Hastings in the south to face this new and even more formidable threat. Harold's army was of approximately the same size as William's (somewhere between 4,000 and 7,000 troops), but comprised largely of untrained and poorly armed peasants.

Harold, who had neither archers nor cavalry, positioned his troops on a ridge about ten miles (6 km) northwest of Hastings. Because his troops were too closely packed together, they made easy targets for William's highly skilled archers. But as casualties began to thin the ranks of his bowmen, William pulled them back and sent in his cavalry, who also suffered numerous casualties in their first assault against the well-defended English position. But by alternating cavalry charges and archery attacks throughout the day, William eventually wore down the English army. With two feigned retreats late in the day, he lured them away from their protected position, then turned and routed them. During the fighting that day, both of King Harold's brothers were killed, and Harold himself died that afternoon, killed by a stray arrow.

By nightfall what was left of the English forces had scattered in defeat. William hurried toward London to isolate the city. The nobles in the surrounding area made no effort to resist, and at Westminster on Christmas Day, 1066, he was crowned King William I of England.

For some time after assuming the crown, William had to put down occasional revolts. The most serious occurred in Northumberland. After defeating the rebels there, he devastated the countryside to discourage further rebellions. A large number of castles were built all over England to serve as military bases for the occupying Normans, to help keep the country subdued.

At the time of the Norman Conquest, England actually had a far more advanced political system than her conquerors. The English system of local and central government was well developed and highly organized. After the conquest, English common law continued to be administered in the English court system, but the Norman invaders also imposed on England a system of military feudalism. The English aristocracy was almost completely replaced by a Norman aristocracy, who held their fiefs by rendering knight service to the king. Normans replaced the upper levels of the clergy and administrative officers, as well.

In addition to drastically changing the social and political structure of England, the Norman Conquest also had an enormous impact on the English language. The English vernacular was completely replaced""first by Latin, then by Norman French""as the language of literature, law, and official documentation. The impact of this change is still evident in the large portion of the English vocabulary (approximately 60%) that is of either Latin or French origin.

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