Your RDA of Irony

Hastings Makes Wastings

On this day in 1066, William the Bastard won the battle of Hastings and improved his nickname. Ironically, the Conqueror could have done just as well in a probate court. William had a better claim to the English throne than the English king did. (Yes, possession is nine tenths of the law; but William’s one tenth included a better army.) The legal wrangling and the bloodshed all stemmed from the inability to the late Edward the Confessor to make up his mind. Who would succeed the childless monarch? Edward apparently promised everyone the throne.

He had promised both his cousin William and his brother-in-law Harold Godwinson. His half-greatnephew Edgar also thought he was in line to the throne. King Edward’s Christmas cards probably read, “You May Already Be a Winner.” Fortunately, few people could read at the time; otherwise there might have been some 200 claimants to the English throne. (That didn’t happen until the 15th century and the Wars of the Roses.)

When Edward died on January 5, 1066, the council of English nobles chose Harold to be the next king. Harold was the most powerful noble in England and he was a distinguished soldier; in fact, Harold had been the de facto ruler during the reign of his ineffectual brother-in-law–whose only real skill apparently was praying. Since he was already doing the work, Harold would seem entitled to the formalities and its perks; besides, why shouldn’t the English have an English king? That would be fair and democratic, and completely anachronistic and wrong.

The council of nobles did not have the right to choose a king. Besides, where did you get the idea that Harold Godwinson was English? Does the name Harold tell you anything? Do real Angle-Saxon names end with “son”? Remember, the Vikings did get around. Eastern England was inundated by the Norse invaders; York was originally pronounced Jorvik. In the 11th century, England already had three Danish kings: Knut, Harold I and Hardicanute. So Mr. Godwinson would have been the fourth.

Being Norwegian and French, William of Normandy felt that he had as much right to the English throne as a Dane. Furthermore, William actually was related to Edward the Confessor. A cousin outranks a brother-in-law, especially when the marriage probably was never consummated. (Edward did have something to confess.) Finally, William could claim to be the overlord of Harold Godwinson. When Godwinson had visited Normandy in 1064, he had received a complimentary knighthood from William. That turned out to be more than a friendly gesture; from a legal perspective, Harold had made himself William’s vassel. Of course, any graduate of Constantinople University (which was the nearest law school in the 11th century) would have found the loophole: Harold only would be a vassal in Normandy, so just stay out of France.

Unfortunately, Harold did not think of hiring a smart Greek lawyer. In fact, he was unrepresented when William went to court. The Norman duke sent a delegation to the Pope, hoping to wangle Rome’s endorsement. Pope Alexander II was very flattered. Few rulers ever showed the Pope any respect–certainly not those imperial thugs in Germany. Alexander was usually preoccupied trying to enforce celibacy on the clergy. But here was a chance to determine the fate of a kingdom. The Pope considered the weight of the Norman’s claims (and bribes); not hearing any English arguments, Alexander decided in William’s favor. So William invaded England, with the blessing and authorization of the Pope.

Having cavalry and God on his side proved decisive for William. While the cavalry was more useful at Hastings, the Pope’s endorsement stifled further opposition from the English.  Obedient to Rome, the clergy of London delivered the city to William.  Besides, the English were getting used to the idea that their kings would be foreigners.

And they now have had 1000 years of practice.

  1. Bob Kincaid says:

    “I may be a bastard,” said Bill,
    But Hal’s just over the hill
    And since I’m in a peckish way,
    I’ll have Danish for breakfast today.

    One wonders if on this date in another 58 years the UK will have a big celebration of the Thousand Year Empire (take that, Adolf!). You’d think they’d be entitled, but they may just build a roller coaster to go with their Ferris Wheel instead.

  2. Bob: I’d love to see the celebration, but in 2066 I’d be 114. My stamina might be questionable.

    However, the British Royal family can trace its roots back 1200 years, to the Kings of Wessex. Henry I, son of Bill the Bastard, married a Scottish princess who also was the great-granddaughter of the last Angle-Saxon king.

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