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!