Friday, July 14, 2006

Good evening, this is Michael Anthony and you’re listening to British History 101. This episode begins our three part series on the Battle of Hastings, fought between the Saxon king of England and Norman invaders in 1066. I thought it would be appropriate to set the background of the conflict up before the battle proper, so this evening’s episode will consist of profiles of who I consider to be the four main players involved: Edward the Confessor, Harold Godwinson, Harald Hardrada, and William of Normandy. These were the figures who played out the real-life drama that is now commonly known as the Norman Conquest, and the last three were men bent on attaining and keeping the English crown. Please forgive my pronunciation of names and places should I get them wrong – I’m used to reading this material, where pronunciation doesn’t matter, rather than speaking it out loud.
We begin our profiles with that of Edward the Confessor, King of England from 1042 until 1066. Edward was the third such named king and the last ruler of the House of Wessex. His father was Ethelred II, and significantly, his mother was Emma of Normandy. This is an important fact because, in 1013, Emma took her two sons Edward and Alfred to Normandy, fleeing the Danish invaders of England. There the boys remained for 25 years – while they were most impressionable, we must understand. In 1036, Alfred and Edward returned to England, intent on deposing their stepbrother Harold Harefoot. However, their attempt failed, and only Edward escaped back to Normandy with his life – Alfred was blinded and then killed. Edward was, however, able to return six years later by invitation of the new King of England – Edward’s half brother Harthacanute. In fact, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells us that Edward was sworn in as king alongside Harthacanute himself. Edward was a hit with the people, and when Harthacanute died in 1042, “before Harthacanute was buried, all the people chose Edward as king in London,” claims the Chronicle. As Harthacanute had no children, his half-brother ascended the throne, becoming Edward III.
During his reign, Edward showed the most sympathy and favoritism to the Norman leaders within the country – understandable, when we recall his 25 years spent in Normandy. However, there was a large opposition movement to this favoritism, and none was more unhappy about it than Godwin, Earl of Wessex – Edward’s father in law, after his daughter Edith married Edward in 1045, and arguably the second most powerful man in England. Their dispute reached its high point when Edward rejected Godwin’s candidate for Archbishop of Canterbury, instead appointing the Norman bishop of London to the post. The disagreement turned from argument to a much more hostile situation when Godwin refused to punish townspeople rioting against Eustace, one of the king’s kinsman, in Dover. As a result, Godwin and his family were exiled in September of 1051. Edith, Godwin’s daughter and the Queen consort, was sent away to a nunnery in Wherwell. Godwin returned in 1052, but this time with a small army of his own. With this new backing, Godwin forced Edward to return his titles and lands to him, and also send away his Norman advisors. The reinstated Earl of Wessex died the next year, and his son Harold inherited his power and position, which he wielded as the new second most powerful man in England until he claimed the throne upon Edward’s death as his brother-in-law in 1066.
This brings us to the next man in our story. Harold Godwinson, Second Earl of Wessex, is also known as King Harold II. He was the last Anglo-Saxon King of England, reigning for less than a year from 5 January to 14 October 1066. His father was, of course Godwin, the First Earl of Wessex, and his mother was Gytha Thorkelsdottir. He had a brother named Tostig (later his enemy) and a sister named Edith who we know married King Edward III. Because of his sister’s marriage to the king, Harold became the Earl of East Anglia in 1045. Harold followed his father into exile in 1051, returning a year later, and then assumed his father’s titles in 1053 after Godwin died. Five years later, he took the title Earl of Hereford, and followed his father’s footsteps by becoming the leader of the opposition to growing Norman influence in England. One of the most significant events in Harold’s life happened 2 years prior to the Battle of Hastings. In 1064, Harold was shipwrecked at Ponthieu, captured, and turned over to the Duke of Normandy, William. William let Harold go only after he pledged his support to William’s claim to the English throne upon Edward’s death – the Duke of Normandy insisted Edward (who was childless) had promised him the crown. The Normans would later say that Harold’s ascension to the throne made him guilty of perjury to his oath; supporters of Harold would claim that the oath was made under duress. Either way, when Edward died in January of 1066, Harold said that Edward had promised him the crowd on his deathbed, saying, “I commend my wife and all my kingdom to your care.” As the only eyewitness was Harold’s sister, the validity of this claim is dubious; nonetheless, Harold was crowned King of England the following day. He held the throne until that fateful October day less than a year later.
The Norseman who claimed the English throne was Harald Hardrada, whose surname roughly translates to “stern council” or “hard ruler”. Harald was the youngest of King Olaf II of Norway’s half brothers. When Harald was 15 in the year 1030, Olaf was killed defending his crown against Canute the Great at the Battle of Stiklestead. Harald participated in the battle, but managed to escape with his life. With Olaf dead, Canute became king, and Harald went into exile. During the 15 years he spent away from his homeland, Harald served military time in the land of the Rus and the Byzantine Empire, gathering a small army of men and making a large fortune along the way as a result of his victories. When he finally did return to Norway in 1045, the reigning king Magnus I, one of Olaf’s sons and Harald’s nephew who had taken over the throne in 1035, agreed to joint rule over the country – the force backing Harald was far too much for Magnus to challenge. Coincidentally, Magnus died about a year later, under less than perfectly explained circumstances. When Harold Godwinson ascended to the throne of England, Hardrada invoked an agreement supposedly made between Magnus and Harthacanute of England in 1038, when Harthacanute was king. The agreement stated that should either monarch died without heir, the survivor would inherit his kingdom, making that survivor King of England and Norway. Upon Harthacanute’s death, we know his half-brother Edward took the English crown, but neither Magnus nor Harald Hardrada attempted to depose him. Only when Harold Godwinson took the crown did Hardrada decide to claim what he believed to be rightfully his and invade England.
The last man we will examine is William of Normandy, who also carries the names William the Conqueror, William the Bastard, and William I of England. He was born illegitimately in Normandy to Robert the Magnificent and a woman named Herleva in 1027 or 1028. When he was only 7 years old, he succeeded the Duchy of Normandy, and at only 15 he was knighted by King Henry I of France. By the age of 19, he was successfully dealing with rebels and invaders of Normandy, and in 1047 he defeated the rebel Norman barons at Caen with the help of King Henry. By all this, we can see that William was a Norman powerhouse, and he fully intended to exert his influence in 1066 when Edward died. William claimed that Edward had promised him the throne on a visit in 1052, and that Harold had sworn his support on saint’s bones when he was shipwrecked in 1064. With this evidence backing him, William obtained the support of Pope Alexander II, assembled a force of 600 ships and 7,000 men, and set sail across the English Channel, determined to take the crown he thought belonged to him.
With that, we must end this episode of British History 101, and think about these men in preparation for part 2 of our Hastings series, when we cover the Battle itself. I know that the family connections, titles, and dates associated with this event can all be a bit confusing, as it was for me when I first learned this in school, so I’d encourage you to check out my blog at for a transcript of this and every other episode. Send suggestions, questions, comments, rants, and raves to Our music tonight is "Scortese: Autumn – The Marvel" by "Da Camera," available on Magnatune is an independent online record label that equally shares all revenue from album sales with their hand-selected artists while allowing them to retain full rights to their works. Visit for great music at low prices and support the many wonderful artists hosted there. Until next time, my best to you all, and thanks for listening. If you liked what you heard in this episode, please subscribe to British History 101 and catch each episode fresh every week. Again, thanks for listening, and have a great night.

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