The year was 1066 and the fate of England hung in the balance. On 5 January, the Anglo-Saxon King Edward the Confessor took his last breath. Before passing, the childless Edward made one final move that would forever alter the history of England – He appointed Harold II Godwinson as his heir to the throne. The appointment of Harold to the throne would spark nearly simultaneous foreign invasions of England. Harold’s response was swift and nearly victorious. While his reign was short, his impact on English history would never be forgotten.
The House of Wessex, of which Edward the Confessor belonged, had maintained a firm grip over English affairs following the Anglo-Saxon invasions of the 6th century. With the Roman withdrawal from Britain in 410 CE, the Anglo-Saxons installed themselves onto the English throne. In the latter part of the 8th century, raids from Scandinavia began to occur along the coast of England. Like the Anglo-Saxon invasion centuries earlier, these Scandinavians would eventually gain a foothold in England and contest for the English crown. The Scandinavians would eventually form their own state within England, under the name of the Danelaw.
The Scandinavians in the Danelaw formed “The Great Heathen Army”, which from both a historical and mythical standpoint was led by the sons of the great Viking raider Ragnar Lodbrok. This army posed a great risk to the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Wessex, which was led by King Alfred the Great. As the sole defender against the Viking army, Alfred fought a brutal campaign against the Great Heathen Army, with each side gaining and losing territory throughout the long campaign. The war finally culminated in 878 CE with the Anglo-Saxon victory in the Battle of Edington and resulted in the Treaty of Wedmore, in which the Viking leader Guthrum was baptized into the Christian faith and adopted by Alfred. The Danelaw fell under English jurisdiction and remained an integral and crucial part of English history for centuries to follow.
Like their Viking brethren raiding along English coast, the Vikings that raided along the mainland of Europe established significant footholds. In northern France, in what today is Normandy, the French established a fiefdom to the Norsemen. After raids against the French capital of Paris, the French king Charles the Simple signed the Treat of Saint-Clair-sur-Epte with the Viking leader Rollo (later named Robert I) which gave the region of Normandy to the Vikings in exchange for protection against any future Viking raids. Rollo became the first Duke of Normandy and established a dynasty that would eventually give rise to William the Bastard who would later launch his successful invasion of England in 1066.
Look for more information regarding the history of Harold II Godwinson, William the Bastard and the fate of England in the next issue of Strategy & Tactics #293 with our article “1066: The Year of Three Battles”, and join the conversation on Facebook!