The conquest of the country by William of Normandy in 1066 is one of the most famous events in English history. Having won the Battle of Hastings it took somewhat longer to capture London before being crowned at Westminster Abbey.
The Saxon King Edward (the Confessor) of Wessex and his wife Edith failed to produce any children to succeed him. It would seem that at some point, perhaps during the 1050s, he promised the throne to his cousin William, Duke of Normandy. According to later Norman accounts, however, on his deathbed at Westminster in the last days of 1065 or the first few of 1066 he promised the crown to his brother-in-law. Harold was therefore crowned on Twelfth Mass Day (5th January) at the newly consecrated and incomplete Westminster Abbey, on the day following Edward’s funeral. Since then the coronations of all English monarchs except two have been held there up to and including Elizabeth II in 1953.
William was one of several noblemen who claimed the throne had been promised to them. He raised an army and landed on the south coast at Pevensey near Hastings in September 1066. Harold was at that time in the north of England seeing off another claimant, his brother Tostig, Earl of Northumbria, but urgently marched his army south to meet William’s forces. They rested in London on 5th October before setting off for battle accompanied by a large force from the city. The King was killed in the ensuing battle, finally bringing an end to the Saxon royal line.
William secured Kent and southern England and moved on London, which had declared the Saxon Edgar Aetheling, great-nephew of Edward the Confessor, as their new king. Many of the defeated Saxon army had fled to London after the Battle of Hastings and, arriving at London Bridge, the entrance to the city from the south, William found it too heavily defended. Pausing only to cause much devastation to Southwark at the south entrance to the bridge he marched his troops west to Winchester where he seized Harold’s treasury. The failure to cross the Thames at Southwark required a detour of 50 miles upriver to Wallingford, the next point at which it was possible for William to cross, thus showing the strategic importance of London’s bridge.
William advanced back east on the north side of the river and established himself at Westminster Palace where he offered 50 marks of silver and other precious items for the altar and Edward’s tomb. Preparing to besiege London, he threatened to destroy the walls with siege-engines and battering rams. Inside the city the defence was led by Esgar the Staller, who had survived, but was injured, at the Battle of Hastings and was therefore carried around in a litter. In the event William was able to win over prominent Londoners with promises and bribes. Following negotiations at Berkhamsted, led by the Archbishop of York and various nobles, Ludgate was opened and William’s troops finally entered London in December, past St. Paul’s and into Cheapside. Some citizens went on the attack and a number of Londoners died in the fighting before they finally capitulated. Edgar Aetheling, the would-be king, who was involved in the negotiations at Berkhampstead, was too young to be a serious threat to William and was allowed to live out his life.
William was crowned King of England directly over the spot where Edward was buried, beneath the central tower of Westminster Abbey, on Christmas Day 1066. The ceremony was conducted in French by the Bishop of Coutances and in English by Aldred, Archbishop of York. (William apparently had a low opinion of Stigand, Archbishop of Canterbury). Aldred addressed the English, asking them if they accepted William as King, to which they acclaimed their assent. This French acclamation ritual has continued to be part of the British coronation ceremony into modern times. Norman troops outside the abbey mistook the enthusiastic acclamation as a riot, however, and they set surrounding buildings alight, causing some deaths in the ensuing panic.
There was no need for a capital during William’s reign since government took place and laws decided by the King and his limited number of courtiers wherever they were. William and his successors were not based in one place and travelled around the various towns and palaces of their lands in England and Normandy. Yet London, with its sea-route to the Continent, was conveniently situated for a leader with an Anglo-Norman empire to rule. William generally held court at Westminster for the great feast of Whitsun when he would entertain the leading barons and clergy of his lands. However, he also had equally important palaces at Gloucester and Winchester, the latter being where the royal treasury was kept.
Sources include: Christopher Brooke London 800-1216; John Field ‘Kingdom Power and Glory’; John Richardson ‘The Annals of London’
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