It’s the 5th century AD, and a banquet is taking place in a monastery in the south of Great Britain.
Seated along, a long table are the leaders of two separate tribes: Britons and the Anglo-Saxons. Candlelight bends shadows against the flagstone walls as the guests eat, drink, and make merry. Sitting at the head of the table, his eyes glinting with undisguised malice, is the Anglo-Saxon warlord Hengest.
Since the Anglo-Saxons’ arrived in Britain from mainland Europe, tensions have been brewing between them and the native Britons. So, Hengest invited the Britons to this banquet as a gesture of peace. But the unsuspecting Britons have walked into a trap.
Hengest picks up a goblet and drinks until the vessel is empty and his beard is dripping with mead.
Then he slams the goblet down so forcefully that the entire table shakes.
A hush descends over the banquet hall. Echoes of laughter fade away. And all heads turn toward Hengest. The Anglo-Saxon warlord glowers around the room until his gaze falls on the man opposite him: Vortigern, King of the Britons.
But then slowly, a smile spreads across Hengest's lips, bearing a snaggle of rotten teeth.
He barks a command in his native language.
And all at once, the Anglo-Saxons jump to their feet and pull daggers from beneath their tunics.
Then, with orchestrated brutality, the Anglo-Saxons slaughter the unarmed Britons, slitting their throats and littering the banquet hall with bodies.
Within seconds, all of the Britons are dead. All except one. Vortigern sits motionless, paralyzed with shock, his chest rising and falling in rapid movements.
Hengest approaches the helpless King of the Britons. He draws his longsword and points the blade at his rival’s throat. Then he gives Vortigern an ultimatum: surrender all your kingdom, or die. Vortigern doesn’t hesitate. He hands Britain over to the Anglo-Saxons and flees from the monastery with nothing but his life.
Following the massacre, more Anglo-Saxons will pour into Britain from their native domains of modern-day Germany, Holland, and Denmark. Soon, they will establish a stronghold over Britain, imprinting their culture, language, and way of life on the island. And so it will remain for the next six hundred years. Until, another invasion will bring the Anglo-Saxon Age to a close, and introduce a new way of life to Great Britain, with the start of the Norman Conquest on September 28th, 1066.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.
Today is September 28th, 1066: William the Conqueror Arrives in Britain.
Act One: A Sacred Oath
It’s 1064 off the north coast of France; two years before the Norman Invasion.
An English longship labors across storm-tossed waters.
Sprawled on deck, his face green with sea-sickness, is the Anglo-Saxon nobleman Harold Godwinson, the Earl of Wessex. Hours ago, Harold embarked from England on a fishing trip. But a squall blew his ship off course. Now the 42-year-old nobleman grits his teeth and mutters frantic prayers, begging God to spare his life.
But all around him is the tumult of rain and thunder. Until the sound of splintering wood joins in. Harold is hurled forward as the keel of his ship smashes into a rocky coastline. Salty brine fills his mouth and nose as Harold plunges beneath the surface of the roiling sea.
For a moment, all is silent. Then a powerful wave picks Harold up and flings him toward the shallows. Harold grabs hold of a rock and clings on as the breakers crash over him, each wave threatening to drag him back to his doom.
But eventually, the storm relents. Harold takes advantage of a gap between the waves to crawl to safety. He collapses on the beach, swallowing great lungfuls of air. And soon, exhaustion overwhelms him and he loses consciousness.
Hours later, Harold wakes to the tide lapping against his face. He opens his eyes to a bright and sunny morning. It takes a moment for his vision to adjust, but when it does, he is met by a strange sight: several pairs of leather boots forming a circle around him.
Harold lifts his head and squints upward. He is surrounded by a group of knights wielding double-headed axes and dressed in the traditional garb of the French nobility. With a sinking heart, he realizes he’s washed up on foreign shores.
Harold climbs to his feet. It’s not uncommon for shipwrecked English sailors to be captured and sold into slavery by the French. But Harold is no ordinary sailor; he’s an influential nobleman, the brother-in-law of England’s King, Edward the Confessor. Harold hopes that by introducing himself to these French knights - who abide by the same chivalrous code as he does that they’ll send him on his way.
But unfortunately for Harold, he has fallen into the clutches of Guy of Ponthieu, a notoriously deviant French count. When Harold reveals his identity as the Earl of Wessex, Guy only grins with malevolent glee. He isn’t going to release Harold - far from it. Instead, he’s going to hold him captive and demand a hefty ransom.
Guy arrests Harold and throws him inside a dungeon. With little hope of rescue, Harold spends his days skulking around his cell, indignantly reminding the guards of his noble status and warning them of the serious repercussions of this grave insult.
But as the days turn into weeks, Harold’s spirit dwindles. He grows sullen and withdrawn, sitting slumped in the corners of his rat-infested cell. But just when it seems all is lost, the Englishman receives a stroke of good fortune.
One day, Harold is jerked awake by keys scraping in the lock. A guard declares that Harold’s imprisonment has come to the attention of William, the Duke of Normandy, who has ordered the Englishman’s release. Harold is overwhelmed with gratitude.
William is a powerful nobleman with familial ties to the English monarchy. Guy of Ponthieu is one of William’s vassals. So, Guy is powerless to oppose the wishes of the high-ranking nobleman.
Quickly, William’s squires whisk the Englishman away to the Duke’s castle in Rouen, where Harold is presented before William. Harold bows his head and thanks the nobleman. William says he was only too pleased to rescue Harold from captivity. But his kindness has a price. The Duke requests Harold’s military assistance in his campaign against his rival duke: Conan of Brittany. Harold knows he’s in no position to bargain.
So days later, William’s troops set off for Brittany with the Englishman among their ranks. But disaster soon strikes. While crossing the mouth of a river along a narrow land bridge, the tide rushes in, leaving the Norman forces trapped. In the ensuing chaos, knights leap from their horses only to get sucked into perilous quicksand…
William’s endeavor seems set to fail before it’s begun. But amidst the panic and mayhem, Harold keeps a cool head. He single-handedly pulls two knights out from the muck, displaying remarkable strength and bravery. And over the course of the campaign, Harold continues to fight courageously for William’s cause, aiding in the successful siege of Conan’s castle and helping Normandy achieve victory.
But still, Harold’s debts are not repaid. William demands that the Englishman swear an oath of allegiance to him before letting him return to Britain.
Harold hesitates. He knows that William has a claim to the English throne as the cousin of King Edward. By swearing allegiance to him, Harold would be committing his support to William’s claim. But Harold doesn’t want William to become King. As brother-in-law to King Edward, Harold has his own ties to the crown and a possible path to the throne. But right now, at this moment he sees little other choice. So, Harold bends his knee and swears allegiance to the Duke of Normandy.
But Harold will have no intention of keeping that oath. Soon, he will return to England and accept his own claim to the English throne, setting off a chain of events that will lead to the invasion of his kingdom and the downfall of the Anglo-Saxon Age.
Act Two: A Troubled Succession
It’s January 5th, 1066 in London; nine months before the Norman Invasion.
The King of England, Edward the Confessor, lies on his deathbed. Kneeling by the King’s side is his brother-in-law, Harold Godwinson, the Earl of Wessex. With the last of his strength, Edward lifts a withered arm and touches Harold on the shoulder, a gesture that symbolizes Harold’s succession as King. Having named his heir, the light fades from Edward’s eyes and the King draws his final breath.
Shortly after Edward’s death, the Anglo-Saxon royal council confirms Harold’s succession. And later that day, Harold is crowned in Westminster Abbey. As he takes his seat on the throne, Harold reflects on his journey to power and his triumph over rival contenders. He knows his coronation will upset at least a few people.
Two years ago, Harold was coerced into swearing an oath of allegiance to William, the Duke of Normandy. By accepting his own coronation, Harold has broken his oath. And William isn’t the only person he’s betrayed recently.
Last year, there was a revolt against Harold’s brother Tostig, Earl of Northumbria. Rather than suppress the rebellion against his brother’s governance, Harold persuaded King Edward to side with the rebels and banish his brother, Tostig into exile. This was a measure to preserve peace in Britain. But it left Harold with an embittered brother set on revenge. Now, Harold worries his coronation will bring his brother back into the fray. And soon enough, his concerns prove warranted.
Less than a year into his reign, King Harold receives troubling news. His brother Tostig has made contact with Harald Hardrada, the Viking ruler of Norway. A fleet of longships has landed on British shores, and an army of Tostig’s supporters and Hardrada’s troops is marching south to kill Harold and seize the throne.
Harold assembles an army of his own and rides north to confront Tostig and Hardrada. On September 25th, the two armies clash outside the village of Stamford Bridge in the north of England. The Norsemen put up a stout defense. But they are outnumbered by the English forces, who catch their enemy by surprise.
After several hours of bitter and bloody fighting, the Norse army begins to weaken and fragment, allowing the English knights to swarm through their lines. Soon, over 10,000 soldiers lay slaughtered in the mud, and the English emerged victorious.
Among the slain are Tostig and Hardrada. King Harold rides back to London, having seen off this dangerous threat to his sovereignty. But soon, another threat to Harold’s reign emerges.
Three days after the Battle of Stamford Bridge, a fleet of seven hundred Norman longships cuts through the waters of the English Channel. The sun glints off the brightly covered paintwork of the hulls and catches in the chainmail of the seven thousand soldiers on board, rowing in unison.
William, Duke of Normandy, stands at the prow of one of the ships, his striking silhouette illuminated against the yellow and crimson sail. The Duke’s eyes are trained on the horizon, where the chalky white cliffs of England loom into view. William’s grip tightens around his sword; he’s been waiting for this moment for many months.
When news of Harold’s succession reached William’s ears, he was incensed. Not only had Harold sworn allegiance to him, but succession to the English crown had already been promised to him years ago by the late king, Edward the Confessor. Quickly, he swore vengeance against Harold and began plotting an invasion of England. After Harold’s coronation, William assembled an army and a fleet, and set out to claim what he believes is rightfully his.
On September 28th, the Norman ships land near Pevensey, a village on the southern coast of England. First ashore are the archers, their quivers full and their bows strung. Once the archers have disembarked, the knights follow, dressed in chainmail tunics and carrying longswords.
Once it’s been established that no English resistance has been assembled to oppose them, the Normans unload their vessels. They remove more weapons, horses, equipment, and supplies. They even carry pre-constructed wooden fortresses onto the shoreline. Every detail of this invasion has been meticulously planned.
Finally, Duke William himself disembarks.
But as he wades ashore, he trips and falls forward onto the beach. His squires rush around to help him up, but William waves them away. He stays there, closing his hands around the sand, and says quietly, in a voice charged with emotion, “See here my lords, by the splendor of God, I have taken possession of England with both of my hands.”
From Pevensey, the Normans will advance through southeast England, torching villages and overcoming whatever resistance they encounter. Upon learning of the enemy’s approach, King Harold will muster what forces he can and set out to meet the invaders. Soon, the two armies will clash near the village of Hastings, where the fate of England, her sovereignty, and her people will be decided on the battlefield.
Act Three: Battle of Hastings
It’s October 14th, 1066 in southeast England; just over two weeks since the Norman Conquest began.
King Harold rides at the vanguard of his battle-weary army. After seeing off the combined threat of his brother Tostig and the Norwegian King Harald Hardrada in the north of England, Harold had no time to recover. Within days, he learned of the invasion of William’s troops on the south coast. So he galloped to London, where he mustered a force of 5,000 infantrymen, and headed down to protect his kingdom once again.
As Harold and his men drew close to William’s army, they entrench themselves on a patch of elevated ground. From here, Harold surveys the Norman ranks. As he does, a feeling of dread creeps in. The enemy, though equal in number, are better equipped than the Anglo-Saxons. While Harold’s army wields large double-headed axes, the Normans boast an impressive regiment of archers and longbowmen.
Still, when the fighting commences, Harold’s troops manage to hold off the enemy. The Anglo-Saxons erect a defensive barrier with their shields and repel the onslaught of Norman arrows. Harold’s spirits soar as he rides among his men, and starts to believe that victory is within reach.
When the Norman cavalry appear to retreat, Harold’s soldiers sense an opportunity. They abandon their defensive positions and charge.
But this is exactly what the Normans had planned.
When the Anglo-Saxons break ranks and advance, the Norman archers penetrate the shield wall and inflict heavy losses on Harold’s troops. Harold tries to restore order, but it’s no use. Chaos breaks out. The Norman cavalry turns retreat into attack as they storm through the Anglo-Saxon lines.
Harold fights valiantly, swinging his sword and felling many Norman soldiers. But amidst the heat of battle, the King does not notice the longbowman taking aim. A split second later, an arrow lodges itself in Harold’s eye, and the King dies instantly.
Soon after Harold’s death, William’s forces claim victory at the Battle of Hastings. From there, the Norman Conquest will continue. Within two months, William will have taken London. And on Christmas Day, 1066, he will be crowned William I of England, bringing an end to 600 years of Anglo-Saxon rule, and heralding the dawn of the Norman Age.
William will spend much of his reign crushing rebellions and repelling invasions, just as his predecessors did. But William will also prove an able administrator, introducing a more sophisticated legal and political system. He will divide England into regions known as shires, administered by “shire reeves”, or “sheriffs.” He will build hundreds of castles, including the Tower of London which still stands today. And ultimately, England will never be the same again following the Norman Conquest, which began when William’s fleet landed on the south coast of England on September 28th, 1066.
Next onHistory Daily.September 29th, 1864. During the American Civil War, the Battle of New Market Heights sees 14 African American soldiers awarded the Medal of Honor for their gallantry under fire.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing by Mollie Baack.
Sound design by Derek Behrens.
Music by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by Joe Viner.
Produced by Alexandra Currie-Buckner.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, Pascal Hughes for Noiser.