King Harold Godwinson, The Last Anglo-Saxon King of England; The Battle of Hastings and Norman Conquest

English Language Study for Russian Orthodox Learners

King Harold Godwinson, The Last Anglo-Saxon King of England
The Battle of Hastings and the Norman Conquest

I

Harold Godwinson was crowned king of England on January 6, 1066, soon after the passing of King Edward the Confessor.  Although his reign was very brief, Harold started to fulfil the vows he made to the English people on the day of his coronation: he issued new laws that protected citizens from injustice, patronized churches and monasteries, and strengthened defences along the shore line.  It is possible that King  Harold did even more, but many documents of that time were destroyed by the Normans after the conquest.

In Harold Godwinson, England gained a truly noble ruler:  he was an honest man, a patriot, and a pious, forgiving Christian.  Much of his life was spent on the battlefield.  As a soldier, Harold fought for his country, but if there was an opportunity for a peaceful solution, he always favoured it over war.  He was merciful to defeated enemies.  In one battle, Harold was wounded and became partially paralysed.  He prayed for a long time, and the affliction left him.  In order to express gratitude to God for his miraculous recovery, Harold built the stone church of the Holy Cross in the town of Waltham.*  The church, thanks to his efforts, obtained many holy relics and was beautifully decorated inside.  It was the place where Harold stopped to pray on his way to the Battle of Hastings.

The honourable king had many enemies; among them was William, Duke of Normandy.  William was a cousin of King Edward and believed that, as Edward’s only living relative, he was heir to the English throne.  According to Anglo-Saxon tradition, however, the crown of England was not inherited, but given to the most worthy man.  The king was elected by a council called the Witan, which consisted of bishops and aldermen.

The decision of the Witan did not mean anything to William.  Infuriated by the news of Harold’s coronation, the Duke of Normandy gathered a large army to fight the Anglo-Saxons.

King Harold knew about the danger and was prepared for the Norman invasion.  But, as William’s fleet was moving towards the island, England suddenly was attacked in the north by the King of Norway.  Harold first had to fight the Norwegians.  Having won a hard battle, the exhausted army of Anglo-Saxons marched for seven days to the south – to meet William.

II

The Battle of Hastings took place on October 14, 1066.   The Norman force consisted of over 5,000 infantrymen and archers, and 3,000 cavalrymen.  The English had about the same number, but only 2,500 of them were trained, full-time soldiers.  Harold counted on the help of two powerful earls who had large armies.  But, at the last moment, they betrayed the king and decided not to join in combat.  Harold had lost many archers in the previous battle.  Traditionally, the Anglo-Saxons fought on foot without cavalry – horses were used only to carry provision and weapons.

The English took a position on a hill and formed a shield-wall.  The soldiers stood so closely shoulder-to-shoulder that, if one was killed, he could not fall, and the line remained unbroken.  The Anglo-Saxons were thus able to block the fierce attack of the archers.  Then the Norman infantry charged up the hill, but was forced to retreat.

For many hours the English held firm, not allowing the Normans to advance.  And then, they made the mistake of pursuing the enemy.  That broke their ranks and separated the army.  William sent his cavalry on the men who had left the line, and the Anglo-Saxons suffered great losses.

At about one in the afternoon, the Duke again sent forward his archers, this time ordering them to fire high in the air.  The surprise arrow attack was followed immediately by a cavalry charge.  The losses in both armies were heavy.  Among the dead were two of Harold’s brothers, his nephew and his uncle, an abbot.

The Anglo-Saxon’s line was shorter now, which gave the Normans an opportunity to attack from the side.  King Harold received a horrible arrow wound in the eye.  One of the Duke’s knights broke through the line of Harold’s men who stood by their king.  The Norman trampled the noble king to the ground and killed him.

Although the soldiers continued to fight bravely by the body of their leader, the war was lost – and so was the England they knew.

III

On the morning after the battle, Harold’s mother, Gytha, asked William to allow her to give her son a Christian burial.  William refused, saying that Harold should stay on the land for which he fought so hard.

The enemy did not show respect to King Harold after his death.  His body was mutilated with such atrocity that only his wife was able to recognize the remains.  Monks secretly buried them in the church of the Holy Cross, which the king had founded.

Of the countless number of Anglo-Saxons who perished at Hastings – peasants, earls and professional soldiers – we know almost no names:  no one was left on the English side to record the history.  Many brethren gave their lives for their country; the bodies of young fallen men often revealed monk’s clothing under the armour.  William the Conqueror did not forgive the holy brothers for supporting Harold.  The monasteries that sent their men to Hastings were destroyed, and the older monks remaining there were punished.

The Norman conquest brought a profound change to England that affected all  aspects of life – religion, culture, administration, law, education and language.  The Anglo-Saxons lost control over their church:  English bishops were replaced by Normans.  An Englishman was not allowed to hold the position of an abbot, or the job of a government official or sheriff; almost all the English nobility was eliminated.  As soon as William was crowned, French became the language of the ruling classes.  Education was conducted in either Latin or French.  King William never learned English and, for the next 300 years, all the monarchs of England spoke French.

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“... no eye has seen, no ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God prepared for those who love Him.” (I Cor. 2:9)  God moves in mysterious ways; the royal family of the Godwinsons united with the family of great Russian princes.  King Harold’s daughter Gytha escaped persecution and found shelter in Rus.  She married Prince Vladimir who later became Grand Prince of Kiev.  Vladimir Monomakh and Gytha had a large family of eight sons and three daughters.  Their eldest son Mstislav was called Harold by his parents, in memory of his grandfather.  For his numerous holy deeds, Prince Mstislav is venerated by the Russian Church as a saint.

Battle of Hastings - battle scene from the Bayeaux Tapestry

Battle Scene from the Bayeaux Tapestry

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* The Church of the Holy Cross at Waltham Abbey is a functioning church today.

Celtic Cross