Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Viking Invasion of Britain, Part II

Cnut, Viking king of England
After King Edmund's death, Wessex chose Cnut to be their king and England was once again ruled by a single monarch (although technically a Viking).

England prospered under Cnut. He gave England an important new legal code as he reinstated many of the ancient English customs and reinforced the position of the Church. Although Cnut helped the Vikings further assimilate into the culture of England, his focus was often called away to rule his immense Nordic empire overseas. Cnut's English advisers, the Godwins, ruled in his absence. The Godwin family began a rise to power that eventually would lead to the throne.

Cnut's death was a turning point in British history. For the last 200 years the dominant force in Europe was Scandinavian but for the next century its history would be shaped by the descendants of the Vikings, the Normans, who settled in northern France. Thirty-one years after Cnut's death the Normans would conquer England with Duke William (William the Conqueror) at the helm.

Edward the Confessor, Norman king of England
Cnut's favorite son Harthacnut succeeded. He soon died which ended the short line of Viking kings. Godwin quickly became the mentor of Ethelred's younger son, Edward, with hopes of an English king regaining the throne.

Godwin promised that if Edward placed himself entirely in his hands he would have a successfully functional kingdom. What Godwin didn't have control over was that this new king was raised a Norman. Edward had a passion for everything Norman and their language and customs were what he was used to and preferred. As soon as he came to the throne he surrounded himself with Norman advisers. As a celebration of his culture, Edward began to build a great church in the Norman style which would become Westminster Abbey.

Known as Edward the Confessor because he was said to go to confession at least once a day, Edward spent monies raised on relics. He did not spend to maintain England's navy, the largest component of England's security.

The English (rallied by Godwin) and the Normans soon began to clash. The Normans hated the free and frank ways of the English and objected to the Godwin family who appeared to place themselves on the same level as the king. There was a Norman belief that the Anglo-Saxons were born slaves.

Ill feelings were reciprocated. The Godwins hated the arrival of more foreigners in court and their influence over the king. Godwin tried to retaliate by raising an army but Edward's forces were too great and Godwin backed off, only to be exiled. Edward was now free to make his own decisions about the future of the English throne.

William the Conqueror
The leader of Normandy, William the Conqueror, who was also Edward's cousin, started creating a stir with the aid of the Godwins. William planned to rule England according to the customs of the old English kings. Godwin reemerged with an even stronger anti-Norman campaign and an enormous navy at his back. He surrounded the king's ships and dictated terms to Edward, whose only enthusiasm now was for building Westminster Abbey. Godwin was voted to be restored to his previous position of Earl and many Normans were expelled from England. The Godwins were now in complete control of the country.

Godwin's rule was short-lived as he passed away soon after his return from exile. His son, Harold Godwin, was elected and went through unopposed. Edward died and was buried in the crypt of Westminster Abbey. Shortly after, Harold was crowned king which further substantiated the family's immense influence.

Within the year William the Conqueror was crowned king also, as he was convinced that he was the rightful heir to Edward as his cousin. According to the Norman version of events, Harold sent a message to William on behalf of the English government declaring that William be ready to receive the crown of England as soon as Edward died. William sent threats to Harold that he would come and claim his inheritance but Harold refused to take notice.

A lack of countrywide support for Harold began and William found his opportunity to make a move when the replacement of the Archbishop of Canterbury happened without approval from Rome. William now said his invasion had a higher moral purpose. He announced that he planned to remove the illegal archbishop and replace him with the approved papal candidate. The Archbishop had refused to send the Church collection money, so the pope was happy to provide backing for the expedition and he spurred William's men on. 

William obtained the support of the other most important international figure in western Christendom, the Emperor Henry IV. With both the emperor and pope on his side, William's soldiers were united by a sense of  the rightness of their task.

William of Normandy was a strategic thinker and had perfected new method of warfare. His men fought on horseback and at short intervals threw up primitive castles made out of earthworks to hold the surrounding countryside. His great reputation attracted landless Norman knights of Viking origin in large numbers. They flocked to a man who promised them English land and wives in exchange for their help in conquering England. 

Apart from the Normandy threat, Harold faced further trouble by his own brother. Tostig Godwin was at the head of a menacing Norwegian fleet and waiting for the perfect time to have his share of England. Harold frantically started rebuilding the neglected English navy and kept the kingdom's militia on standby. 

In 1066 William and his soldiers sailed from France to the south coast of England. They found remains of a Roman fort along the coast and quickly made it a defensive castle to protect themselves. Harold was not waiting for William on the coast as his attention was turned to the north of England, where Tostig and his ally, the king of Norway, were invading.

Harold defeated Tostig at the Battle of Stamford Bridge near York which left his men exhausted and wounded from battle. Regardless, Harold began to march south immediately as it would take him at least ten days to reach the south coast to meet William.

The Battle of Hastings
The Battle of Hastings was to be a very uneven contest of highly trained Norman knights against a tired and disorganized English force. The English army was desperate for recruits and many of them were peasants called straight from the fields. Untrained in warfare but forced by the institution of the fyrd to do service, the peasants stood little change against warriors on horses who were trained to attack.

Although their lack of numbers and experience, Harold's army had set up an advantageous position. Positioned on a hill, the advantage seemed to be with the Saxons because the steepness of the ground made frontal attack by the invaders very difficult. Harold particularly warned his men to resist the temptation to pursue the enemy, for then they would be lost.

Normans used the Arab stirrup, a fighting tactic which freed a rider's arms to fight while the lower part of the body was secured to their horse. After a nearly six hour battle, William realized that his troops would never get near the top of the hill. He ordered his archers to fire their arrows straight into the air over their heads. One of those arrows entered Harold's brain through the eye and killed him. William was soon the victor at the Battle of Hastings.

King William I
William did not secure England easily after the battle, as people were vying for power within. Edwin and Morcar were developing in the north and Edward the Confessor's great-nephew, Edgar the Atheling, was guarding London. William secured the country around Dover and Canterbury but could not break through the guarded city of London. He decided that the best way of taking London was to ride west and lay waste to the countryside which Londoners depended on for food. Wealthy London magnates who had earlier declared the youthful Edgar the Atheling king, now accompanied Edwin and Morcar to meet William. They offered him the crown and King William of England was crowned in Westminster Abbey.

William was anointed king and took the oath of the Anglo-Saxon kings to rule his people justly. William built the White Tower to awe the inhabitants of London which today is part of the complex known as the Tower of London. The tower was just one of the series of castles erected all over England to prevent rebellions. William dictated and there was to be no more asking for the approval of the witan. The role of the new curia regis (the court of the king) was to implement, not to advise. 

As soon as the native English landowners began to rebel against harsh treatment by the Normans, William destroyed the old English ruling class and replaced them with a Norman military aristocracy. The Saxons became an underclass and french became the language of the aristocracy. Foreigners now ruled the land and the time of the Anglo-Saxons and Vikings was over.

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