The best known date in English history may be 1066, but how much do you really know about the battle that destroyed Anglo-Saxon England? Tickets to English Heritage’s re-enactment of the Battle of Hastings this weekend are sold out, but here are 10 alternative ways to mark the 950th anniversary of William the Conqueror’s victory over the Anglo-Saxons.
1. Visit one of the Conqueror’s castles in England
When the Normans conquered England in 1066, they lost no time embarking on what is generally recognised as the biggest programme of castle-building Western Europe has ever seen. The two main castle-types that William brought to England were motte-and-bailey castles and stone tower keeps. So head to Dover, Hastings, Rochester, or Guildford this weekend to explore England’s Norman castles. See details of English Heritage’s top ten Norman castles here.
2. Explore the site of the Battle of Stamford Bridge in Yorkshire
Three weeks before the Battle of Hastings, King Harold’s army won a stunning victory over the Norwegians at the Battle of Stamford Bridge, fought near York on 28 September 1066. The invaders were led by warrior-king Harald Hardrada of Norway. Hardrada considered himself the rightful heir to the English throne because his predecessor Cnut had been king of England, Norway, and Denmark in the early 11th century. Some historians think this battle reduced the capacity of Harold’s army to fight effectively at Hastings, leading to the Anglo-Saxons’ defeat, but this has been debated. Nevertheless, the Battle of Stamford Bridge certainly did distract Harold from the looming Norman threat. You can’t access the main battlefield anymore, but you can reach its eastern side, and explore the town and surrounding country.
3. Search for Harold’s final resting place in Essex
Harold stopped to pray at Waltham Abbey in Essex on his way from Stamford Bridge to fight William at Battle. Harold supported the abbey when he was alive, and he is said to have been buried here after his death.
4. Stay indoors and watch a documentary
If you’d rather not brave the elements, you can explore Anglo-Norman England from the comfort of your own home. There are lots of documentaries about the Norman Conquest, but we recommend the BBC’s The Normans, presented by medieval historian Professor Robert Bartlett. It’s no longer on iPlayer, but you can access all three episodes through BBC Store.
5. Find the tomb of Edward the Confessor in London
The succession crisis in 1066 was sparked by the death of King Edward the Confessor, who died childless in January of that year. Edward was buried in Westminster Abbey and later made a saint.
6. Bring history to life at Chepstow Castle in Wales
Norman lord William FitzOsbern began building Chepstow Castle in 1067, just after the Battle of Hastings. Built in the Welsh Marches, Chepstow Castle was strategically placed to defend England from Welsh attack, while also serving as an outpost for the Norman invasion of Wales. To commemorate the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings, which led to the castle’s creation, Chepstow Castle is holding historical re-enactments this anniversary weekend.
7. Cross the Channel to see where it all began
William the Conqueror was a powerful Norman duke. Visit his duchy today, and you can see the original Bayeux Tapestry in all its glory at the Bayeux Museum in Normandy, France.
8. Take the train to Pevensey
The Normans landed at Pevensey Bay on 28 September 1066. Duke William set up camp in an old Roman fort near the shore, before travelling east to Hastings. He later built a castle in Pevensey, the ruins of which are still visible today. There’s also a 1066-themed race on Sunday 16 October.
9. Investigate the Normans’ influence on Scotland
Although the Normans did not conquer Scotland, Norman influence spread north of the border in the late 11th and early 12th centuries. David I of Scotland spent his childhood in Scotland, but was temporarily exiled to England, where he spent his time at the court of King Henry I, William the Conqueror’s son. There he was steeped in Norman culture. When he returned to Scotland, he brought with him many aspects of the Anglo-Norman government, and granted land to Normans who knew how to implement these systems. David was buried at Dunfermline Abbey, which he established in 1128. The abbey was built in the Norman style, and you can still visit it today. It is also the resting place of King Robert the Bruce (from the French de Brus), who was descended from Anglo-Norman nobility.
10. Go Norman castle-hunting in Ireland
The Normans set sail for Ireland in the late 12th century. As much of the area fell under Anglo-Norman rule, new castles were thrown up to consolidate the invaders’ hold on the region. One such example is King John’s Castle in Limerick, completed around 1210 (look out for David Flintham’s review of the castle in MHM 75, out 10 November). We covered the Norman invasion of Ireland in issue 17 of MHM.
We covered the Battle of Hastings and the Norman Conquest in an in-depth special feature in issue 73 of Military History Monthly. MHM Assistant Editor Hazel Blair profiled the men on the battlefield and analysed the battle itself, while contributor Jack Watkins explored the castles built by William the Conqueror after his victory on the field. This post includes edited excerpts from those articles.