War and Conflict

The Middle Ages

What was the Norman Conquest?

The Norman Conquest is the brief but critical period in British history that began when the French duke William of Normandy (c. 1028–1087) sailed across the English Channel in 1066 and invaded England. This was upon the death of what would turn out to be England’s last Anglo-Saxon king, Edward the Confessor (c. 1003–1066). While William became known as William the Conqueror (and he did conduct a brutal conquest of Anglo-Saxon England), he might have had reason to believe he could claim the English throne upon King Edward’s death: The named successor, Harold (c. 1022–1066), of the powerful Wessex family, had two years earlier become shipwrecked off the coast of France, where he reportedly took an oath that he would, upon King Edward’s death, support William of Normandy (who was King Edward’s distant cousin) as heir.

Hearing of Edward’s death, William and his army set sail for England, where Harold had already assumed the throne as King Harold II. But Harold had previously quarreled with his brother Tostig, and the noble Wessex family was divided and engaged in a power struggle. Tostig was joined in his fight by the Norwegians who, at the same time that William was landing on England’s southern coast, invaded from the north. Thus, William and his troops entered England without opposition (since Harold was focusing his efforts elsewhere). Though the king defeated the Norwegians and Tostig (who was slain in battle), he would not emerge the victor in his subsequent battle with William: On October 14 the two met in battle at Hastings, near the entrance to the Strait of Dover. Though he fought valiantly, Harold was killed.

William was crowned at Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day 1066. Within a few years, by 1070, he had killed many Anglo-Saxon nobles and the rest he deprived of their land. In the 21 years of his reign, William imposed Norman aristocracy on England, required that French be spoken at court, and drew England closer to Europe. He ruled until his death in 1087, after which the Norman nobility mixed with what was left of the Anglo-Saxons. It is this intermingling that produced the English language—from the German tongue of the Anglo-Saxons combined with the Norman French. William’s descendants (albeit distantly so) have ruled England ever since his takeover in 1066.


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