WILLIAM THE CONQUEROR
Though not yet King, Harold of England ruled the country well. He was short in height but immensely strong. As a leader, he commanded loyalty from his men.
In 1065 while sailing in the channel he had the misfortune of being caught in a storm and was shipwrecked off the coast of France. Captured there, he was handed over to his rival, Duke William of Normandy, who lavished him with hospitality but would not let him go home. Desperate to get away, he fell into the trap of taking an oath of support for William’s claim to the English crown.
Back in England, the king was dying and Harold was voted King of England. He immediately faced two threats to the crown, one from the King of Norway supported by Harold’s renegade brother, and another from his recent host in France, William of Normandy.
In two fateful weeks in 1066 he would fight both. He defeated the Norwegians, then marched 250 miles only to lose his kingdom to William in what came to be known as the “Battle of Hastings.”
“William the Conqueror,” as he was called, had taken seven months to prepare his invasion force, using 600 transport ships to carry some 7000 men (including 3000 cavalry) across the channel. William landed
unopposed and like a good leader turned unexpected happenings to his favor. When he stumbled on landing, he leapt up with his hands full of soil and shouted, “See I already have England in my hands.” He set up fortifications near Hastings. On the ridge above them Harold’s weary infantry equipped with their terrible two-handed battleaxes awaited the Normans’ attack. When it came at daybreak, it was repulsed with such vigor that rumors spread that William had been killed. Removing his helmet he rode among his ranks to show he was alive. By the time the battle ended three of his horses had been killed under him.
The battle raged all day until William ordered a cavalry charge, with his archers at the back, firing a deadly rain of arrows over their heads. One of the arrows struck Harold in the eye and the tide turned against the English. As the light faded the last of Harold’s army grouped around their slain leader swinging their axes in stubborn defiance to the end.
By luck and daring, William the Conqueror had won a kingdom and England would be changed forever.
Now King of England, William consolidated his position by creating a “feudal” system (from the Latin word feudum, meaning land granted in return for military service). He seized the land of all who had fought against him, and gave it to about 200 Norman earls and barons (a reason why today, many of the British aristocracy have French or French hyphenated names). Called tenants-in-chief they owed one hundred percent allegiance to the King and each undertook to supply him with twenty knights (about 4000 knights in total) to control the countryside.
Massive stone churches and castles were built in the Norman style and French replaced the vernacular (Anglo Saxon). Today the language we speak is laced with French words (see “The French” Notes and Anecdotes).
The control, which William was able to exert over Britain, is exemplified in the “Domesday Book” which catalogued the ownership and value of almost every acre of land. County by county, it lists all the land held by each of the King’s tenants-in-chief, with a full description of who lived there, how much of it was meadow, pasture, woodlands and fishponds, etc. Now kept in the Record Office in London, the Domesday Book was used to assess taxation for hundreds of years. It is still occasionally used today as a source of evidence in law suits about ownership of land.
William died in 1087, twenty-one years after the Battle of Hastings. The Anglo Saxon Chronicle in that year declared, “he was a stern and violent man, so no one dared do anything contrary to his will… Amongst other things the good security he made in this country is not to be forgotten.”
William left Normandy and the English crown to his sons, and for the next five hundred years his descendants would rule Britain.
Leaders of Britain between William and our next story — Henry VIII
Among the rulers who came from this Norman legacy were Henry II, famous for having the head of the church, Thomas Beckett, beheaded in Canterbury Cathedral, Richard the Lion Heart, who lead thousands in a crusade to recapture Jerusalem from the Muslims, as well as John, whose greed and cruelty forced him to compromise his power by having to sign the famous “Great Charter” in a field called Runnymeade. This Magna Carta promised that the King would rule according to the laws and customs of the realm, thus assuring common citizens their rights. It became the law of England in 1225.
Other kings were Edward I who battled the Scots particularly William Wallace (Brave heart) and Robert Bruce who reclaimed Scotland from the British. Henry V, one of the best loved kings in history, only lived for 33 years but his ringing words inspired one of the greatest English victories in France, the triumph of English longbow archers over French cavalry at Agincourt in 1415. His baby son became Henry VI of England and France and it was against him that a French country girl named Joan of Arc and claiming to have heard heavenly voices, gained the confidence of the Royal House in that part of France not controlled by the English. Clad in armor, she regained the town of Orleans. Although later captured by French supporters of the English and burned at the stake, her memory inspired the French to reclaim all of France (except Calais) and end the hundred years of war in 1453.
But with the Hundred-years War against France finally over, England was to go through civil strife when two branches of the same family fought over the throne.
The supporters of King Henry VI, known as the “Lancastrians” wore red roses while followers of the King’s cousin, the “Yorkists,” wore white roses as their badge. This complicated “War of the Roses” seemed to be over when the Yorkists won and Edward IV became king. Edward died 12 years later leaving his two small sons fatherless. Since the oldest son was only thirteen and technically now King Edward V, the two boys were put in the care of their uncle Richard of Gloucester. He placed them in the Tower of London “for safety.” They were never seen again! Richard then claimed the throne for himself, but rumors that he had killed the two boys persisted. Twenty years later Sir James Tyrrel confessed that he and two servants had been ordered to kill the boys. The story was confirmed after a further 200 years when two small skeletons were found in the Tower.
Richard III ruled by removing any potential threat by execution or imprisonment. Called “Crook Back” by his enemies he was confronted with a new challenge when one of the Lancastrians living abroad in safety, Henry Tudor, claimed the throne.
From Welsh stock Henry returned to Britain and at Bosworth Field in Leicestershire defeated Richard III, whose crown was recovered from beneath a bush and put on Henry VII’s head. It was at this battle that Richard III thrown from his horse was said to have cried out “A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse.”
The Tudor dynasty would rule England from 1485 to 1603. Henry VII married the tall blue-eyed sister of the two boys who had disappeared and they would produce one of England’s most colorful monarchs — Henry VIII.
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