Off the top, do let us address the word ‘Viking’. A whole article could, and has been written many times, about the origin of the word Viking; that originally it was ‘vikingr, a noun meaning, in Old Norse, pirate or raider, whereas viking is a verb, meaning to go raiding. I like Judith Jesch’s (Professor of Viking Studies, University of Nottingham) comments: ‘The etymology of víkingr and víking is hotly debated by scholars, but needn’t detain us because etymology only tells us what the word originally meant when coined, and not necessarily how it was used or what it means now.’
Every English schoolchild has had it drilled into his or her head that 1066 A.D. changed the face of England for ever. Why, one then asks? The definitive answer: because William the Conqueror arrived on the shores of southern England and won The Battle of Hastings bringing to an end the rule by Anglo-Saxons and establishing The Feudal System. Well done; 100% achieved on your examination paper.
Oh, if life were only that simple.
Edward the Confessor was the Anglo-Saxon King of England from 1042 to 1046. He was the son of Æthelred the Unready and Emma of Normandy. Emma was Queen of England, Denmark and Norway through her marriages to Æthelred the Unready (1002–1016) and Cnut the Great (1017–1035). Cnut or Canute (as I knew him at school) was also King of England, Denmark and Norway. The Danes had ruled the centre of England in the 9th century, the area being called ‘The Danelaw’.
Edward the Confessor was childless. He died on the 10th of January, 1066, briefly regaining consciousness beforehand and declaring his wife and kingdom to Harold Godwinson’s protection. Harold Godwinson was the son of Godwin, Earl of Essex, the next most powerful man in England after the king. When Earl Godwin died, Harold inherited his father’s title and mantle of power. The Witan (an assembly of the ruling class) pronounced him king the following day in London, January, 1066.
Job done; you might think. You would be wrong.
Harold had a brother; he had a few brothers but we will focus on Tostig Godwinson, third born son of Godwin. Tostig was also a powerful man. He became the Earl of Northumbria in 1065 and proceeded to clean up the lawless and wild North. He eventually went too far and his vicious methods caused Harold to send him into exile. Harold may have also wanted to unify England and his brother was not helping the cause.
Tostig roamed around Europe attempting to raise a fleet and eventually, his brother-in-law, the Count of Flanders, provided him with one. He even approached William of Normandy, or William the Bastard as he was also known.
Tostig made contact with King Harald Hardrada of Norway and persuaded him to join the club.
Now, here is a Viking. Harald Hardrada earned the sobriquet ‘The Last Great Viking Ruler’. In his youth he traveled to Kievan Rus and on to Constantinople. He became a leader within the famed Varangian Guard and earned much fame and many riches in the process. He fought across the east including Jerusalem and is said to have captured over 80 Arab fortresses in present day Iraq. He was only 20-21 years old. He returned to his homeland, and one year later, luck being with him, he became King of Norway.
Are you keeping count?”
Now we move on to the most famous, and shall we say, long-lasting of them all: William of Normandy.
William a Viking, you might ask? This is one of my favourite pieces. We do have to travel a little further back in time.
In the 7th century a Viking called Rollo was involved in many Viking raids, harassing parts of what we now call France. They burned down Rouen and laid siege to Paris. Giving the Vikings money to stay away was proving not to be the answer; they just came back for more. In order to end the constant raids, the French king gave Rollo lands we now call Normandy––land of the Norse or Nord Men–– and an offer of marriage to his daughter. Rollo accepted both. He was the great, great, great grandfather of William of Normandy.
The cast is assembled. Have you kept count? I’ll just add one more complication to this story that I am trying to keep as simple as possible.
William insisted that, as a youth, Edward the Confessor had promised him the throne of England. He was closer to Edward than any of the other contenders, being a cousin of the English King. A strange story emerged that Harold was shipwrecked at some point on the Normandy coast. He was captured and eventually became a guest (read prisoner) of William. William declared that Harold swore an oath to support William’s claim to the throne. He was then released and returned to England.
Never-the-less, as previously stated, Harold became king in January 1066. Just as he was becoming used to the feel of the crown on his head, word came in the autumn of the same year that Tostig and King Hardrada were causing trouble up north. Harold assembled an army, raced up to Yorkshire in a week––an amazing feat––met up with the invading army at Stanford Bridge and defeated them. Both Tostig and Hardrada were killed.
Not having yet wiped the sweat from his brow, Harold received word that William had landed on the pebbly beach of Hastings, south of London, with a large invasion force. He marched his exhausted army south and clashed with the Normans nineteen days later in a field. King Harold died there along with most of his army on October 14th, 1066.
William marched on London with moderate resistance, reaching London in December. He became king in Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day, 1066. He ruled England for 21 years until his death in 1086.
Note: The Bayeux Tapestry, commissioned by William’s brother, Bishop Odo, and embroidered in England by Norman Ladies, now resides in the village of Bayeux, France. It recounts the story of William’s journey to the English Throne. It is said to be the longest and first item of propaganda ever.