What If..? (#01: Harold Godwinson had won the Battle of Hastings)

Part of a new series on revisionist history, speculating on tiny changes in British history that could cause a ‘butterfly effect’.



Before the first week of the year 1066 was out, Edward the Confessor, Over-King of England, was dead. Likely heirs scrambled to claim the throne. Harold Godwinson – the Earl of Wessex – was the most powerful landowner in England and was accepted and crowed king by the Witenagemot council. Meanwhile, over in Norway, Harald (Hardrada) III cried foul, that he was the rightful heir. His claim was based on an agreement between his predecessor Magnus I of Norway, and the earlier King of England Harthacanute, whereby if either died without heir, the other would inherit both England and Norway.

Most worryingly of all, William – Duke of Normandy – was also assembling a fleet to come and claim ‘his’ throne. Edward the Confessor had been the son of Emma – the daughter of William’s father, his predecessor as Duke of Normandy – and Edward had grown up in exile there. William claimed that Edward had promised him the throne, and that Harold Godwinson had witnessed and agreed to this. The newly crowned Harold II was facing a fight on both fronts.

In October 1066, everything happened at once. Harold and his troops made the march from London to York in an unimaginably gruelling four days, where he defeated Harald Hardrada and his treacherous brother Tostig, who had sided with him. The Norse army was completely devastated; they were no longer a threat for the foreseeable future. The Anglo-Saxons had no time to celebrate, however; news arrived that William II and the Normans had landed off the coast of Sussex.

Harold turned his weary, battered army around and headed south, taking up a defensive position on Senlac Hill (present day Battle, in East Sussex). Here Harold met his death – as legend has it, from an arrow through the eye – and the Normans swept in to take over England, heralding the construction of stone buildings, the commissioning of the Domesday Book, the invention of the longbow and a switching from “small ales” to “fine wines” (so it wasn’t all bad).


But, what if Harold had defeated William, as eye-witness and contemporary accounts report he came so close to doing? What sort of butterfly effect does this small revision cause? How different do you think the face of Europe – or even the world – would be today because of it?

Well, the first thing to establish is: did William II himself fall in the battle, or not? William wasn’t just being an opportunistic invader; he genuinely believed he was the lawful heir to the English throne. If he had been beaten back, but not completely routed (as Harald Hardrada had been), then it’s fair to say he would have immediately taken steps to regroup and try again. If William had been killed during the Battle of Hastings, Normandy would likely have ceased to have been a threat for some years; William’s son was only around thirteen years old, and would have had his little plate full consolidating his own power on the continent. Besides, Harold II of England would have seemed a truly fearsome leader, having seen off two powerful European rulers who threatened his throne in the same military movement.

There was a third grumbling claimant in 1066 – Sweyn II of Denmark. The only reason he didn’t get involved as well was because he accepted Harald Hardrada’s claim was stronger than his own. In true history, Sweyn harried William (now William the Conqueror, naturally) in 1069/1070 and again in 1074/75. If Harold had retained his throne after Hastings, it is likely he would have had to regroup quickly and see off the Danes as he had done so the Norse.

So, we are supposing that Harold Godwinson had survived, that the Normans, Norse and Danes were all removed as threats and that the Anglo-Saxon way of life was allowed to continue. We are assuming that a legitimate heir of Harold’s would have been allowed to succeed his father smoothly (a big if – Saxon history has very few uncontested, natural successions!). What would be different today?

Obviously the English language would be rather different without its French influences – much more Germanic in tone and content. England as a whole would have been much less focused on continental Europe and countries like France and Spain – our ancient ‘frenemies’. We would have been a natural part of the Northern Europe/Scandinavian political sphere and would have intermarried with Nordic princesses, rather than French heiresses like Eleanor of Aquitaine and her ilk. Without the continental footholds and concerns that these marriages would have brought, the English kings would have had much more attention to spare attempting to unite Wales and Scotland – perhaps we would have seen a ‘United Kingdom’ far earlier?

Whilst the Saxons were Christianised by the time of Harold Godwinson, they were by no means as pious as the Normans. In fact, Harold had been excommunicated by Pope Alexander II, who supported the Norman cause. Had Harold and his line remained on the throne, there’s every likelihood that the relationship between England and the Catholic Church may have strained to breaking point far earlier than the 16th century. Perhaps we would have had a Protestant Reformation much earlier, more in line with Lutheranism, or perhaps our Saxon royals would have started to lean towards Orthodox Christianity.

With no Normans to rebel against, York would not have revolted in 1069 and wouldn’t have been so severely punished. William ordered the ‘Harrying of the North’ – an act of genocide – where everything was burned between York and Durham, the ground salted to ensure it would not be productive for decades to come; the survivors, it is said, had to resort to cannibalism to stay alive. The Harrying is today cited as the reason why the north of England is not as affluent as the south. Perhaps Harold and his descendants would even have had their capital in York, and London would not be the global centre that it is today?

The Norman conquest of England had one strange repercussion, in that it created a lot of tension between the English and the French. The Dukes of Normandy were feudal vassals of the French King and owed him homage. However, they were also now Kings of England and should be considered as equal to any monarch, including their supposed ‘overlord’. The dizzying exchange of land and states and heiresses that followed eventually birthed the ‘Hundred Years War’, which changed the face of France in that it led to all of the independent duchies, etc, uniting into one kingdom, which we would recognise as modern day France. Who is to say that this would ever have happened without the Hundred Years War, or that the Hundred Years War would ever have happened had England not been brought under Norman control? Would we today be nipping off to “Aquitaine” for our summer holidays as opposed to the “south of France”?

What do you think might have come to pass, had that arrow missed Harold Godwinson’s eye, that drizzly October day in 1066? Let me know by leaving a comment!



18 thoughts on “What If..? (#01: Harold Godwinson had won the Battle of Hastings)

  1. I’m not much of a history person, so I’ve no idea of what would have happened, but this is definitely an intriguing subject for a blog post!

    • There likely would be an entirely different skein of kings and queens. No Henry VII, no bloody Mary, no Elizabeth 1, no King George III. Would there be a United States today?

  2. I think had Harold won which he so nearly did Saxon England under his rule would have prospered and kept ties with Northern Europe instead of France. William rewarded French Knights with land in England and created a powerful link with France as the same French/ Norman Knights had land on the continent.
    This led to almost constant wars with France that disrupted trade and the English economy. Without the Feudal government of England it’s likely we would have seen far less turbulent times at home such as the Wars of the Roses. Would Saxon England have had better relations with Scotland and Wales, it seems more likely they would have contained the Celt’s raids than embarked on an aggressive war of conquest which seemed to be in the Norman’s nature.
    Northern Europe tended towards the Protestant faith which could well have happened in England too without the violent and destructive change it did experience in the 16th century.
    If England had changed the effect on the world would have been significant, would there have been a push to create an Empire or would we have been like the Scandinavian countries?
    The battle of Hastings defeat could be largely laid at the feet of one man, Tostig had he not stirred up Hardrada and there had been no Stamford Bridge Harold would probably have won at Hastings having his army in tact and not battle weary, well done Tostig!!

    • John Carroll: Yes, but Tostig wasn’t acting as a loose cannon, he was coordinating with Duke William: they had a strategy meeting before Tostig’s raids on southern England. If you do the calculations, William was poised to invade southern England at the same time that Harald Hardrada invaded the north: they intended a pincer movement to divide Harold Godwinson’s forces, or to surround him. Recall that unfavourable winds delayed William’s launch. Had things gone to plan, England would have been partitioned into a Norman South and a Danelaw (sorry, Norway-law) North.

      • I’ve never come across any evidence to support the theory of a planned pincer movement. I think the claims were rival claims and they were acting independently. I’m not sure whether either the Norse or the Normans would have been happy being rivals and neighbours.
        Tostig started his antics after Harold had to replace him as one of the Northern Earls when he almost created a revolt through his heavy handed rule.

    • Alternatively, William and Harald Hardrada were racing each other to fight Harold Godwinson first: William was closer to Winchester and London, but the northerly storm winds must have given him much concern. On the other hand, had Hardrada won at Stamford Bridge, it’s doubtful his army would have retained sufficient strength to oppose William, unless most of the Norman fleet were lost in said storm.

      In this scenario, Tostig, keenly aware of both rivals to his brother, may have been extracting what he could from each.

      Yet, I contend that Tostig’s wife Judith, who was a first cousin of both William and also kin to Alan (she was named after her ancestor Judith of Brittany, William’s paternal grandmother), was a likely intermediary, especially as Tostig was given a fleet by her half-brother Count Baldwin V of Flanders.

  3. Would we be eating pig instead of pork, would the “Divine right of kings” have never taken such a strong hold among the English nobility, would the Islandic parliament, Althing, have influenced English Common law, and last but not least would Columbus have set sail under an English flag instead a Spanish flag? So many what ifs, if Harold had dodged that fatal arrow. Even a timely hard sneeze might have saved him.

    Then there are the things that would not happen if Harold had won. We certainly would not have the Bayeux tapestry or the Doomsday Book. George Washington’s ancestry can be traced back to the century right after the ‘Conquest.’ All landed gentry in England by this time, would have been Norman descendants or descendants of soldiers in William’s army. (see http://www.lifeofgeorgewashington.org/ancestry1.html) SO, there would be no George Washington.

  4. i need help on my homework and it ‘ How might the Battle of Hastings have turned out differently ?
    write an alternitive ending to the battle of hastings where Harolds is victoriuos .

  5. Sharley, if you enter ” What if Harold had won at Hastings” on Google it throws up lots of ideas which should help, good luck.

  6. This is probably one of the most pertinent “What If’s?” – because it so nearly did happen. If Harold’s troops hadn’t broke ranks but stayed put, I think the Normans would have lost.

  7. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.

  8. It is in my opinion that the ripple effect of the events of 1066 is still having an affect on world politics and who wields the powerbase the divide between those of wealth and the rest in poverty It is also my belief had the battle of Hastings had gone in King Harolds favour a more tolerant society would have emerged to shape world politics and instead of persecuting every culture which refused to yield to Norman dominance a more cooperative relationship between nations could have developed the difference of winning or losing has probably never been more profound and won’t happen again until the nuclear threat is won or lost

  9. William did fall in battle (once, twice or three times, depending on the source) when his horse was killed under him. According to one account, Earl Gyrth rushed downhill accompanied by his Thegns to end William’s life, and hopefully the battle. William’s panegyrists (who weren’t there) later claimed that William picked himself up and slew Gyrth by his own hand.

    Domesday, however, tells a different story. After the battle, William awarded his Breton cousin Alan Rufus many of Gyrth’s manors. Records of Alan’s later exploits make clear that he was by far the most formidable of William’s knight commanders. At Hastings, Alan had the great honour to lead the Norman Rearguard, the most disciplined of all William’s troops, sworn to hold the battlefield even if all was lost. So it seems most likely that Alan saw the danger, galloped forward and parried Gyrth’s blow.

    One of Gyrth’s thegns, named Almaer, survived the battle and thenceforth loyally served Alan. It seems that in the midst of the fury and confusion, Alan had contrived to capture Almaer and thus saved his life.

    Had Gyrth succeeded in his attack on William, something very interesting would have happened. Not necessarily Harold’s victory. For Alan’s father Count Eudon was a maternal first cousin to Edward the Confessor and thus had a stronger claim to the English throne than William did. Indeed, Eudon had a claim to the Norman Duchy as well. Alan would have led the Norman troops in his father’s name and, as he did in real history, coordinated the cavalry feints and other actions that decided the day. England would have had a Breton King and in due course a new King Arthur.

    Had Alan failed, Normandy would have lost all its best troops and fallen into despair. Alan’s cousin Duke Conan II of Brittany would then have prevailed over both Count Eudon and the remaining Normans, becoming Duke of Normandy as well as overlord of Anjou and Maine. Conan was descended from Alfred the Great and from the last great Carolingian Louis IV of France, so he would have laid claim to both England and France, founding a Breton empire.

  10. Steve Ryan wrote: “This is probably one of the most pertinent “What If’s?” – because it so nearly did happen. If Harold’s troops hadn’t broke ranks but stayed put, I think the Normans would have lost.”

    Don’t forget that the Bretons had a specialized anti-shield-wall weapon, the Roman pilum, which they launched from horseback instead of from foot as the Romans had. This had proved very successful against a large Frankish shield wall in 851. It was the Bretons who first broke the Saxon shield wall at Hastings, which is why King Harold moved his command post east, as a consequence of which the Flemish got to him first and hacked him to pieces, as the Carmen de Hastingae Proelio recalls with shame.

    For what it’s worth, Alan Rufus spent the rest of his time in England trying to undo the continuing damage that was caused that day. He retained numerous English lords and ladies in authority on his lands, he brought William I to York to apologise to the English in person, he protected Harold’s daughter Gunhild, he trained the English fyrd and navy in more modern techniques, he abolished the Danegeld in his territories and instead paid his soldiers from his own pocket, and he invested heavily in trade to make England wealthy again. His actions in favour of the English people as against the Normans provoked the notorious Bishop Odo of Bayeux in early 1088 to lead most of the Norman barons in an attempt to quash Alan’s influence, which failed because Alan combined his forces with the English. With Alan’s support, in February 1091 English troops invaded Normandy.

    After Alan died, English exiles (e.g. Walthof son of Earl Gospatric) began naming their heirs after him.

  11. Regarding the English language: it’s true that the French (actually Gallo) element would not have had the influence it did, but Latin was still an official language of the Church and England still looked up to the Pope.

    What’s especially interesting is to read documents that William I had published in both Latin and English: in northern England, it was Anglo-Danish, which was most like reading “Beowulf” in the original. Whereas in the South, they read easily,like Modern English with slightly different spellings.

  12. The Normans had something new which completely changed warfare – heavy cavalry and lots of it. The Normans feigning defeat and pretending to run away was a standard tactic of theirs to persuade their enemy to pursue them. The Saxons and the Vikings at the time used the Shield Wall as their basic military technique – and cavalry was useless against it. Once the Shield Wall broke for whatever reason William’s heavy cavalry was absolutely lethal.

    The interesting question for me is what would have happened if Harold’s troops had not pursued the Normans, and the Shield Wall had stayed in place? Could Harold have won? Or was it just a matter of time for an army facing a whole new way of fighting.

  13. The Normans brought an intellectual, artistic, civilising force to warring Angles and Saxons<; France was Christianised Under Dagobert, the King, in the early 5th century, so the Normans also brought the spiritual element of Christianity–and its humane values–but also Latin (the Mass) which ultimately became the universal language of Learning.
    If Harold had won would France have experienced the endless battling for land and power that tyified the Middle Ages ? Would all the different peoples of the (now) United Kingdom have Advanced or jus kept battling ?

    Would we have had the Renaisssance, at least as early as we did ? It began in Italy in the 13th century when the writings and Learning of the Romans and Greeks were discovered. No internet or international free phoning, so the great Learning and advances–ad largly humanising and civilising effects of the Renaissance would no doubt have come to France, but later, and later still to England–if really at all in a way that would change Britain forever.

    That modern English has 70% of its vocabulary drawn from Norman French–and Latin from the Mass plus Greek from the rediscovery of ancient Greek classics, it still shows some German characteristics. The DATIVE case in Latin and German to show the indirect object is still in English although fast fading. To WHOM did you give the letter ? We would sound stuffy and 'precious' if we say that, but it's still correct. More interesting is the fact that our 'four-letter words' are Germanic and very close to modern German where they are also vulgar—shit is Schiess and f*Uck is ficken. D.H. Lawrence in his Lady Chatterley's Lover wanted us to get back to our pre-industrial revolution roots, to be reallied with nature, to call a spade a spade (Germanic word !), and he was banned until the late 50s in the US for using such words: "Sleep is the peace that comes from Fucking," Mellors says to Connie. As late as the mid-16th century and probably quite a bit after, a bilingual French English dictionary had the entry, "fuck, fucker, fuckee" showing that people still used the word regularly and without being thought vulgar. As someone above observed, the Normans imposed their language, culture, traditions on the conquered, starting with the nobility, but the process of drift down to the common man took centuries.
    Fascinating subject. Fascinating !!

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