A History Of Britain - Conquest!

| 26 February 2001

Treachery, perjury, brutalism and murder: as a new millennia dawned in Britain,crisis upon crisis brought disaster to the Wessex dynasty.

Treachery, perjury, brutalism and murder: as a new millennia dawned in Britain, crisis upon crisis brought disaster to the Wessex dynasty.

In the second programme of his BBC series, SimonSchama unravelled bitter struggles of succession and defeat for the oldorder.

They were struggles that ultimately lead to a complete cultural and constitutionalrevolution in Britain.

By following this short trail you can visit key sites, examine relics in museums and get a flavour of the turbulent years that followed the arrival of the Normans in Britain.

Schama asserts that William, Duke of Normandy, believed he had been named by Edward the Confessor as his rightful heir. It was, according to Schama, animplausible offer - William was no more than a second cousin - once removed.

However, there were others who coveted the throne. Harold Godswineson, son of Edward's arch enemy Earl Godwine, had successfully fought a series of epic battles on his King's behalf, rehabilitating the name of Godwine.

Now Harold began to entertain ambitions of power.

When a simple Channel sea journey went wrong, Harold was captured by the Frenchman, Guy of Ponthieu and swiftly handed over to William.

According to the Bayeaux Tapestry, the epic graphic chronicle of the times, Harold pledged loyalty to William. This scene, above, from the Victorian replica held at Reading Museum, shows Harold pledging allegiance to William. Norman histories also assert Harold promised to advance the claim of William to the throne, in return for his freedom.

Upon the death of Edward, Harold was crowned hurriedly at Westminster Abbey on the same day the old King was buried. In this image, right, from the Tapestry, Harold, the newly crowned King, sits on his throne and a comet appears in the sky - is it an ill omen?

On hearing of the accession of Harold while he was hunting, William was enraged and sent an angry protest to the court of Harold. Harold countered that he had been appointed by the witan, the court of elders, Lords and clerics.

It wasn't enough for William, who readied up to 400 ships, 6000 horses and tens of thousands of men - and prepared a vast invasion plan.

Sailing on 27 September the Norman fleet made landfall at Pevensey. Harold'sfleet was wrong footed. While he was in the North, fighting Hardrada, they were anchored off the Isle of Wight. William and his forces had a vital few days to establish a bridgehead before confronting Harold's men.

At Dover William built his first castle: there was a clear strategic need toestablish a more substantial bridgehead.

Visit Dover Castle, above, and see improvements made by subsequentKings, Commanders and Generals to this strategically vital site.

Harold marched his army with great speed south after brutally defeating a Norsearmy led by Hardrada at Stamford Bridge, near York. His sense of knightly honour had been impugned by a further accusation of perjury by William, and so he pushed his exhausted men on down to Hastings - and the decisive battle.

By the time his army had marched 250 miles south towards Hastings in 13 days,they were exhausted. The two armies met at Senlac Ridge, on the road fromHastings to London.

The site of the battle, an ancient monument, is now administered by EnglishHeritage. Visitors can walk the fields where, a thousand years ago, the Anglo-Saxon dynasty finally met its match.

Harold's forces, fighting with double handed axe and sword largely on foot, held the higher ground of the ridge. William's army, though fighting uphill towards the English, made up for their tactical disadvantage by using mounted soldiers as well as men on foot.

The French wore down the English with repeated skirmishes all day long. When the Normans appeared to be retreating in disarray, Harold's men plunged down the battlefield to complete the victory.

It was a trick: the cunning Normans had laid a trap. The broken ranks of the Anglo-Saxons were subjected to a charge by the French horsemen, and a devastating volleys of arrows. William's men gained the upper hand and soon the battle was won with Harold famously felled by an arrow in an eye.

William returned to the site in 1070. All opposition to his rule had been ruthlessly crushed and to commemorate the decisive action four years earlier he founded Battle Abbey which can be visited today.

After the Battle, William marched his depleted forces north to London, wherevisitors to the Tower of London can see the original redoubt built by William around 1080 - the White Tower.

This model of the White Tower soon after building can be seen in the Museum of London.

Once he was in control of Harold's Kingdom, William set out to survey theinfrastructure and lands he had conquered. The resultant information waspublished in 1086 in the Domesday Book.

In fact there are two books: visitors to the National Archives at Kew, South West London can seefacsimiles of both Great Domesday and Little Domesday.

Domesday wasn't a census - it was a record of landowners and their holdings, and for centuries it became the principal legal proof of title to land.

Domesday didn't cover the whole of Britain - in fact it didn't survey London, Winchester, Northumberland, Durham, many parts of the North West or Wales.

Norman influence was felt throughout the kingdom, in many aspects of life, from architecture to language, from military tactics to coinage. Here is a Norman penny from the collection of the Museum of London where many more artefacts from the era can be seen.

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