The battle of Hastings took place in the year AD 1066 after a dispute over the succession to the English throne. The Battle of Hastings, both directly and indirectly, ushered in changes in English law, language and culture and laid the groundwork for the beginnings of the English feudal system.
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William, the Duke of Normandy, was the cousin of Edward, the King of England. When Edward died without children in 1066, the throne was given to Harold Godwinson, an English earl. But William claimed that before his death, Edward had promised the throne to him. William therefore planned to assume his role as heir and take up the throne. Meanwhile Harold, a close friend of Edward the Confessor and his wife, thought himself a serious contender for the throne and had no intention of letting William's claim hold any significance. Harold based his claim on the close friendship he had with Edward and his wife. In fact, William enjoyed great support in his quest for the throne not only by the noblemen of Normandy, but also of Brittany and Flanders.
With quick, overwhelming, and decisive military action, William squashed and buried any thought of the throne going to Harold on October 14th, 1066. He landed his 7000 troops and began his southern advance on the beach of Pevensey, doing most of this while Harold was completely unaware. William's army then set up and battled fiercely the next day until Harold and the Saxon army were eventually cut down by Norman swords. In one systematic and devastating act, taking less than 10 hours time and rendering any Saxon retaliation virtually impossible, south and southeastern England were shortly torched and destroyed at William's command. Nothing was left behind but a trail of horse and human corpses. Understandably, the Saxon society did not gain a favorable first impression of William, and their struggles with his leadership continued on for 21 years, despite several futile attempts at rebellion. Nonetheless, by Christmas day 1066 in Westminster England William was crowned King of England. William had accomplished his goal and had proven himself worthy of the English Crown.
The Battle of Hastings earned the title "the battle that changed history" because of the huge impact it had on the people and their culture, the country, and the way they were looked upon by the world. Perhaps one of the hardest for the Saxon people to swallow, was the stripping of rights and privileges. The Saxons organized several rebellions. However, they were all generally poorly coordinated and were easily stamped out. Hence, William the conqueror enjoyed un-interrupted rule for the next 21 years. In addition, with the entrance of William and Norman rule came drastic change in the entire governmental system of law. In the earlier system of law, governmental officials called "Earls" often held equal importance to the king. In addition, the Saxons enjoyed certain freedoms in the years before William. However, William quickly established a principle of law that was quite different from what the people had been used to. Under William's law, the king was the principle authority figure and served as the collective executive, judicial, and legislative branches of the government. This prevented the people from having significant (if any) say in the workings of the government. Hence, William's style of governing did not earn him very many ticker-tape parades.
The second significant change coming as a result of the battle was the new language and culture that was adopted, replacing the previous Anglo-Saxon customs of 300 years. This new rule under William threw out the Anglo Saxon culture and brought a French dialect instead.
The third significant result of the battle of Hastings was the introduction of the feudal system to England. William had earlier developed a centralized feudal state in Normandy. In this system, the king would usually offer to his warriors a plot of land called a fief, in exchange for their loyalty. This loyalty is often what held the kingdom together. In William's case, he took the traditional Anglo-Saxon land and gave it to his Norman followers.
The image is from the Bayeux tapestry, an embroidered work of art made shortly after the Battle of Hastings to commemorate the Norman victory. This particular image is from <http://battle1066.com/bayeux1.htm>. Used by permission.
Edited by: Elliot John Wachter
Researched by: Sara Costa
Written by: Karl W. Ericson
December 11, 1998
Copyright 1996-1999 by David W. Koeller. All rights reserved.