William the Conqueror lands

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William the Conqueror lands

Pevensey, Sussex The 28th of September 1066 AD

Duke William of Normandy was temporarily denied the throne of England by Haroldís seizure of the crown on the death of Edward the Confessor . He had been promised the kingdom by Edward in 1051, and it seems likely that Harold had been forced to swear an oath on various holy relics that he would back the Norman when the time came, so William regarded the conquest of England as a righting of wrongs both political and religious.

Williamís invasion was no mere raid: the preparation was painstaking. The Pope had been persuaded to declare it a holy mission, given the reneging by Harold of his vows. Knights had been gathered from the Norman outposts in Italy, and from parts of that country with no fealty to Duke William. A fleet of some 700 ships was collected, a huge undertaking and an enormous investment. Williamís army, carried by that fleet, numbered perhaps 8,000 fighting men, in a force far more balanced than Harold would be able to muster against him: roughly a quarter of the strength was cavalry, and the same again archers and even crossbowmen. Allies from Brittany were present, and from Flanders and France, some of them driven by what was promoted as a holy war; others by the promise of booty and land should the invasion be successful.

William himself was a true leader, physically imposing and with a dynamic and charismatic character. Having come to the Duchy of Normandy in 1035 when he was just eight, William had already shown he was a survivor. He beat rebels in his Norman lands in 1047, and again six years later, and once the undisputed ruler there he expanded his dominion. Not just a strategist, William was also personally proven in battle.

The Norman forces were unable to cross from France for some considerable time because of storms and unfavourable winds, so much so that talk began of the voyage being ill-omened, but eventually they made it to the English coast, somewhere between Hastings and Bexhill , though the precise spot is disputed.

Once on English soil Williamís strategy is hard to understand. The great army remained at the coast, though intelligence would have revealed that Harold and his army had been forced to march north to face Hardrada and Tostig. There would have been but token resistance had they marched on to London . But William remained at the coast, waiting for the Saxons to come to him. Had Harold accepted the advice of his brother Gurth, and gathered greater forces to confront the static invaders, the outcome of the battle of Hastings might have been very different.

Was William sticking to the coast in order to guarantee a safe exit should the conflict go against him? Was he expecting reinforcements? Whatever the reason, Duke William remained roughly where he had landed for some three weeks, waiting for Harold to arrive.

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