On 14 October 1066 Duke William of Normandy defeated King Harold II at the Battle of Hastings.
It remains one of the most famous events in English history. The Norman victory had a lasting political impact on England and coincided with cultural changes across Europe. This British Museum exhibition tells the story of the Norman Conquest through objects in UK museums.
1066 started with the death of Edward ‘the Confessor’, England's long serving king.
Following Edward's death on 5 January 1066, the Anglo-Saxon nobility chose Earl Harold of Wessex (a member of the powerful Godwin family) to be king. However, a history of division and dispute within the royal family and hostile rivalry among the Anglo-Saxon nobility meant that the decision was not accepted by all, especially other claimants to the throne overseas.
This gold finger-ring would have been owned by someone of status, like those who signed charters. It is set with a central sapphire and red glass. Originally it was thought that it was made in the late 10th or 11th centuries, but some experts have suggested a much earlier date of manufacture.
Edward had grown up in Normandy, the home of his mother, Queen Emma.
He fled to Normandy following the death of his father, King Æthelred II, and his half-brother, King Edmund ‘Ironside’. During both reigns there had been numerous Danish attacks culminating in the division of the kingdom between the Danes (in the north) and the English (in the south). Upon Edmund's death in November, Cnut (the Danish king) succeeded to the whole kingdom. Emma (Æthelred's wife) returned to England to marry Cnut, but Edward stayed in Normandy, probably expecting to live out his life in exile. This seemed even more likely when Emma and Cnut had children, of whom Harthacnut became king in 1040.
This unusual dress accessory, known as a hooked-tag, is made from a silver penny of King Cnut, like those in the Lenborough Hoard: the coin itself was struck in Derby. It seems to have been an 11th century fashion to make jewellery, mostly brooches, from coinage. This object was reported Treasure through the Portable Antiquities Scheme.
In 1041 Edward’s fortunes changed dramatically.
King Harthacnut invited his half-brother Edward to return to England as his heir. The following year Harthacnut died and Edward became king. 'As he [Harthacnut] stood at his drink he suddenly fell to the ground with a horrible convulsion’, then died... The whole nation then received Edward as king, as was his right by birth’. Edward finally succeeded to his father’s kingdom and was crowned king. Like Anglo-Saxon kings before him, Edward's coronation took place at Winchester Cathedral. 'Before he [King Harthacnut] was buried, all the people chose Edward for king at London: may he hold the throne while God grant it to him!' (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle C: 1042).
Although this object is likened to the Lewis chess-knights it may have actually been fixed to a larger object. Both the Lewis chessmen and this knight reflect the style of arms and armour used in the 11th century, though probably date to the 12th century. The Carlton-in-Lindrick knight was found by a metal-detectorist in 2004 and recorded by the Portable Antiquities Scheme.
became king, the most powerful man in England was Earl Godwin of Wessex.
Godwin had come to prominence under Danish rule of England and was mistrusted by the king, not least because it was widely believed that he was responsible for the murder of Edward’s younger brother, Alfred, in 1036. Nevertheless, Edward married Godwin’s daughter, Edith.This further strengthened the power and authority of the Godwin family, who could now expect Edward and Edith to have a son who would one day succeed to the throne.
In 1051 Edward’s
relationship with Earl Godwin broke down.
Godwin and his family were forced to flee abroad and Queen Edith was sent to a nunnery. Edward used this opportunity to appoint Normans and other foreigners to high office, to the fury of the Anglo-Saxon nobles. It is also recorded that Edward welcomed Duke William of Normandy to his court: ‘Then soon came Duke William from beyond the sea with a great retinue of Frenchmen, and the king [Edward] received him and as many of his companions as it pleased him’ (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle D: 1051).
The following Easter Earl Godwin was taken ill during a royal feast at Winchester and died.
Godwin was succeeded as Earl of Wessex by his second son, Harold, who enjoyed better relations with the king, serving Edward as a loyal servant and brave warrior.
This early 12th century tympanum, originally from a doorway, was found during excavations at St Mary's Priory, Thetford. The original site of the priory was moved from the south side of the town to the north where there was more space. In 1114, the monks moved into the new buildings, of which this sculpture was a part. The sculpture depicts a lion in a classic Romanesque style with the animal's mane ending in little curls. Similar lions appear on the Bayeux Tapestry.
Edward had no children and it was unclear who would succeed him.
By 1054 it was learnt that Edward Ætheling, son of King Edmund 'Ironside' (Edward’s half-brother), was living at the Hungarian royal court. It was agreed that he would return to England and in 1057 the young prince stepped upon English soil for the first time in 40 years
– only to die two days later without meeting the King! With him was his infant son, Edgar, whom Edward welcomed as his own, therefore securing the English succession, or so it seemed...
During the 1060s the Godwin family extended their power throughout England. The rise of the Godwin family was largely at the expense of other noble families. Their prominence was also achieved due to the success of Earl Harold and his brother Earl Tostig in dealing with the Welsh who threatened the stability of the English kingdom in the west. This map shows the English earldoms upon the death of Edward the Confessor. All of the southern part of England was held by members of Earl Harold's family, including his brothers Gyrth and Leofwine.
This is an x-ray of an early medieval sword from Llanmaes, Vale of Glamorgan, which was found by a metal-detectorist in 2002. Swords like this were used by warriors at the time of Earl Harold's wars against the Welsh.
1064 Harold crossed the English Channel to France.
Harold arrived (by accident) in the lands of Count Guy of Ponthieu, a vassal of William Duke of Normandy. The reason for his trip is unclear. It is possible that Harold hoped to secure the release of hostages held in Normandy, including relatives given to William by King Edward in 1051. Harold was handed over to William and joined him on campaign in Brittany against the rebel duke Conan II. Before returning to England, Harold swore an oath of allegiance to William on holy relics. Harold apparently promised to support William’s claim to the English throne. Contemporary sources disagree about whether Harold made the oath willingly, but for William it was binding. When King Edward died, any claims William (and Prince Edgar) had to the kingdom of England were ignored by the Anglo-Saxon nobles. On 6 January 1066 – the same day that Edward was buried – Harold was crowned king, in the new abbey at Westminster.
Harold’s coronation was not received well abroad, and his right to rule
In Norway, King Harald Hardrada decided to act on long standing Scandinavian claims over the northern part of England. It was a venture supported by Harold’s brother Tostig, who had been Earl of Northumbria, but was forced into exile in 1065 following rebellion against his rule. Tostig blamed Harold for this insurrection.
This object is a Romanesque fitting in the form of a crouching lion. It may have mounted a shrine or casket. Caskets were often present at important religious and secular events, such as when Harold swore a sacred oath before Duke William.
1066 King Harald Hardrada landed in Yorkshire.
The Norwegians defeated an Anglo-Saxon army at Fulford Gate, just south of York, before capturing the city itself. They then moved east to Stamford Bridge where they set up camp. On 25 September King Harold surprised and routed their army resulting in the deaths of many. ‘There [at Stamford Bridge] was slain Harald [Hardrada] and Earl Tostig, and the remaining Norwegians were put to flight, while the English fiercely assailed their rear until some of them reached their ships: some were drowned, others burnt to death, and thus perished in various ways so that there were few survivors’ (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle D: 1066).
Meanwhile William Duke of Normandy had been preparing his own invasion force.
William travelled throughout Normandy seeking support from the nobility, some of whom warned him of the dangers of moving an army by sea. He also sought the blessing of Pope Alexander III for his plans to conquer England. The chronicler William of Poitiers said ‘It would be tedious to tell in detail how by his (Duke William’s) prudent acts ships were made, arms and troops, provisions and other equipment assembled for war, and how the enthusiasm of the whole of Normandy was directed towards this enterprise'. On the night of the 27/28 September William’s army left St Valéry and crossed the English Channel to Pevensey. Here his army built fortifications and ravaged the countryside for provisions. These actions forced Harold to move south to protect his family lands in Sussex.
Harold knew William was planning to invade the south coast of England but not exactly when.
Harold disbanded his naval fleet off the Isle of Wight in early September 1066 as provisions were running low and it seemed unlikely that William would invade in autumn. When William landed Harold had to march his battled-hardened, but weary, army south from York, enlisting fresh troops as he travelled south.
Discovered in Battle, East Sussex, on the site of the Battle of Hastings, this axe is thought to be the only survival of the weaponry used by King Harold’s army that day.
On 14 October
1066 the Norman and Anglo-Saxon armies met north of Hastings at a place now
Harold’s men, mostly on foot, took up defensive positions on the higher ground while the Normans, with Bretons and mercenaries, occupied the land below. For much of the day fighting was fierce, but deadlocked, as Norman cavalry and archers failed to break the Anglo-Saxon shield-wall. Eventually English positions loosened, as they moved to pick off retreating Normans, exposing King Harold to a violent attack during which he died together with many of Anglo-Saxon England’s elite.
Very few 11th century helmets survive, so the Washingborough Helmet, found in the River Witham, is nationally important. These conical helmets (though often shown with nasal guards) are depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry and also on some contemporary coins.
Day 1066 William Duke of Normandy, was crowned King of England at Westminster.
With Wiliam's coronation in Westminster Abbey, Norman rule of England began. 'At the prompting of the devil, who hates everything good, a sudden disaster and portent of future catastrophes occurred. For when Archbishop Ealdred asked the English, and Geoffrey bishop of Coutances asked the Normans, if they would accept William as their king, all of them gladly shouted out with once voice if not in one language that they would. The armed guard outside, hearing the tumult of the joyful crowd in the church and the harsh accents of a foreign tongue, imagined that some treachery was afoot, and rashly set fire to some of the buildings. The fire spread rapidly from house to house; the crowd who had been rejoicing in the church took fright and throngs of men and women of every rank and condition rushed out of the church in frantic haste. Only the bishops and a few clergy and monks remained, terrified, in the sanctuary, and with difficulty completed the consecration of the king who was trembling from head to foot’ (Orderic Vitalis).
Jeremy Ashbee & Phil Harper (English Heritage)
David Forsyth (National Museum of Scotland)
Sam Glasswell (Bassetlaw Museum)
Edward Impey & Chris Streek (Royal Armouries)
Ellie Jones & Ann Barwood (Exeter Cathedral Library)
Deb Klemperer (Potteries Museum & Art Gallery)
Antony Lee (The Collection, Lincoln)
Sylvette Lemagnen & Brigitte Lecourt (Bayeux Tapestry Museum)
Natalie McCaul (Yorkshire Museum, York)
Tim Pestell (Norwich Castle Museum)
Helen Rees (Hampshire Cultural Trust, Winchester)
Mark Redknap (National Museums Wales)
Emma Reeve (Colchester & Ipswich Museums)
Brett Thorn (Buckinghamshire County Museum)
Trevor Wayne (Battle Museum)
Grant Young & Suzanne Paul (Cambridge University Library)
Exhibition curated by Michael Lewis
Thanks also to Jane Findlay, Katharine Hoare, Emilia McKenzie and Natalie Tacq (British Museum)