The War of English Succession was a major conflict between the Kingdom of Norway and Kingdom of England, concurrently against the Duchy of Normandy. Resulting in the Peace of Westminster, the war saw the death of King Harold Godwinson of England and his replacement by Duke William the Bastard of Normandy.
In 1065, King Harald Hardrada of Norway, leading 6000 men, crossed the North Sea from Norway to the Orkney Islands, Norwegian domain since 875, in order to defend Norse possessions against the spreading rebellion in Northumbria. Several days later Hardrada lead his force to attack Scotland, then known as the Kingdom of Alba. The lightning assault of the Norse on the weak kingdom of Malcolm III succeeded in subjugating much of the kingdom between March and November of 1065. On November 22, 1065 the forces of Malcolm III and Harald Hardrada met at the Battle of the Fields of Perth, just outside of the Scottish royal capital, where Hardrada defeated an outnumbered Scottish force of 2,400. The defeat also saw the death of Malcolm III of Scotland in battle, and with his death the Norse conquest of Alba was complete.
While the Norse had seized the majority of Scotland by 1066, the English had put down the Northumbrian rebellion of Lord Tostig by the end of the year 1065 as well. As he prepared for likely war with the Norse in late 1065, however, King Edward the Confessor died of a stroke on January 5, 1066. Edward was directly succeeded by his brother Harold Godwinson, who continued to raise an army to fight the Norse and marched it north in the early spring of 1066. Meanwhile, to the north King Hardrada rested his men along the Scottish-English border and began to raid many English towns north of Hadrian's Wall to acquire food and supplies for his army.
As events on Great Britain boiled, Duke William the Bastard of Normandy also began to raise an army with the permission of the Pope, as well as support of Normandy's nobles, Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV, and King Sweyn II of Denmark. Henry IV was a minor and therefore could not accompany William to pursue the crown, while Sweyn assisted William in order to seek defense against the Norwegians, as Harald had began to covet the Danish throne. With the support of foreign powers, as well as volunteers from Brittany, William constructed a fleet of 3000 small ships and crossed the English Channel and landed at Pevensey on September 28, 1066. With the news of the landing reaching King Harold Godwinson in October, he was forced to raise two armies to combat the invasions: one under his command of 9000 to combat the Norse to the north, and one of 6000 which was given to his brother Leofwine Godwinson, Earl of Kent, to hold of the Normans in the south.
Norse Invade North
The Norse crossed over from Scotland in September 1066, just as the Normans were crossing the English Channel, and began to pillage the English countryside for fresh supplies. The Norse encountered a small English contingent of 500 cavalry at Rothbury, easily defeating them by shear numbers and marching to the English towns of Newcastle upon Tyne and Sunderland. However, at the fields of Morpeth the Norse again encountered the English, this time under the direct command of Harold Godwinson. The overconfident Norsemen launched a cavalry charge on the English shield wall, which was forced back and required the marching of Norse infantry. The Englishmen, enraged by the Norse pillaging of local villages, beat the Norwegians savagely and forced Hardrada to retreat to Norse-controlled towns to the west.
From there Harald resupplied his army and began another assault, this time to the town of Kendal, where English soldiers were defending from the remains of Roman forts. Harald lead his forces in besieging the town and massacring the soldiers defending it, while sparing the civilians inside to avoid angering local troops. After seizing Kendal, Hardrada moved his troops east to the town of Leyburn, hoping to surround Godwinson's forces, which were stationed in Sunderland for the winter. At Leyburn, Godwinson's forces again encountered the Norse infantry, but this time the Norwegians defended themselves from an English assault, allowing themselves time to recuperate and launch a counterattack, massacring the English soldiers. After this defeat the English army was forced to march south in order to avoid being cut off from supply lines and surrounded by the Norse.
Soon after their retreat from Sunderland, the Norse ambushed the rear guard of Godwinson's army at Pickering. After the success of the Viking attack, the English retreated at breakneck pace to Beverley, hoping to avoid marching against the sea to avoid a possible Viking attack by water. The Vikings then seized the large town of York from an English garrison, further decreasing the morale of Godwinson's army. As they marched to Beverley, the Norse again began to pillage the local area after the bolstering of their army by Scottish reinforcements. With a larger force the Norse began their march to intercept the English army, who maneuvered rapidly to avoid facing the brunt of the Viking army. Finally the two armies met in full force along the River Derwent at the Stamford Bridge across the river.
Determined to finally defeat the Norsemen at Stamford Bridge, Godwinson ordered his men to cross the bridge, defended by 100 elite Norsemen known as Berserkers, after the legendary fighters of Norse myth. The Berserkers managed to hold off the English assault while only taking on relatively small losses of their own. The sweltering heat of May 1067 influenced the battle greatly as the heavily armored English finally managed to cross the bridge and attack the Norse, who had formed a shield wall. After charging uphill to reach them, the English began to falter under the weight of their armor, which the Norse exploited by sending a cavalry charge against the English flanks. Battered, beaten and tired, the English retreated to the bridge. The English still across the river had been ordered to burn the bridge if the Norse threatened to cross, and under the blistering heat they mistook their own men for Vikings. As the men across the river watched, helplessly, the Norse massacred the English that remained on the other side of the river.
The Norse then deconstructed their supply wagons and used the timber to build pontoon bridges to cross the River Derwent. Once over, the diminished English force failed to hold out against the Viking assault, and many Englishmen began to retreat from the battlefield. In the ensuing chaos, the English fell back in large numbers and a Norse archer managed a single shot that killed Harold Godwinson by hitting him in his right eye. The English, disheartened by the loss of their king, went into full retreat as the Vikings advanced. With their kind dead and their army in the north defeated, the English court in London finally accepted William the Bastard as heir to the throne and asked him to defeat the Norse invaders.
Normans Invade South
After landing at Pevensey on September 28, 1066, William the Bastard lead his Norman army north to the town of Hastings to the east. There a large English contingent of 2500 men had been gathered to march in case of a Norman assault from the sea. At the fields of Hastings, William's far larger force crushed the meagre English force, who were without any cavalry and were crushed under the overwhelming force of the Norman army. Leowfine Godwinson, charged with defeating any Norman invasion by his brother Harold, became incredibly worried after the English loss at Hastings. At Tonbridge, Leowfine lead a force of 5000 Englishmen to victory after his archers were able to pick off Norman cavalry mid-charge. The main result of the Battles of Hastings and Tonbridge were that the war in the south wouldn't be brief.
After his defeat at Tonbridge, William marched his army west to Crawley, where he quickly lead seige to the town. A brief skirmish soon followed at Guilford where William's army again managed to best the English army, and William made plans to march on London via Southwark, but was again rebuffed by the English army. Forced to the point of desperation, William decided to cut off London by surrounding it and then besieging it. William spent much of March and April 1067 accomplishing this, seizing Farnborough, Farnham, Newbury, Oxford, Hemel Hempstead, and Harlow. To prevent his forces from being cut off, Leowfine marched his army from their fortress in London to Chelmsford, the Normans' next target.
At Chelmsford the English and Normans fought the penultimate battle of the campaign. A Norman cavalry charge ambushed the bulk of English archers, forcing the English to rely primarily on infantry and their own small cavalry force to defeat the Normans. The resulting battle was the most well-fought of William the Bastard's career. He moved his infantry to clash, shield-wall to shield-wall, with the English, and personally lead his cavalrymen to defeat the English cavalry. He lead his cavalry then to smash into the English shield wall, forcing them back and into an unmanageable defensive position. The English were forced to retreat and what remained of their large army limped its way back to the dwindling safety of London. With London itself now cut off from outside help, William began his final march on the city.
Soon after he reached the outskirts of London, William was met by a personal envoy including Leowfine Godwinson, who had just received word of his brother's death at Stamford Bridge. Seeing as they believed they could not defeat the Norse, the English nobility picked the lesser of two evils and offered William the English crown on June 22, 1067. William then began his plan to march his renewed army against the Norse and keep the English throne for himself.
In August 1067, with his army resupplied with Englishmen, King William I of England began his march to the north to fend off the remainder of England from Harald Hardrada's army. Having spent the summer of 1067 marching Hull to Birmingham, Harald had continued to replenish his army by pillaging the fields of England, regardless of the repercussions he faced earlier. However, by the time Hardrada had reached the town of Birmingham, William had arrived at Coventry and was preparing to surround the city and force Hardrada's surrender. Having left a large portion of his army at Leicester before marching to Birmingham, Hardrada decided to retreat upon news of William's army reaching Coventry. Caught by surprise at the rapidity of William's force, Harald was caught in an ambush by English forces en route to Leicester.His army barely escaping destruction, Harald Hardrada managed to retreat from the ambush with his life and the majority of his army. Finally reaching Leicester on September 8, Harald rallied his army for a final battle that would decide the fate of England. The two forces met at the Fields of Rugby on September 20, 1067, where Hardrada found an English encampment. Sound encountering the whole of William's massive army, Harald managed to surprise the English, who thought his force was at least a day's march away. Despite this element of surprise, the English stood their ground and soon the battle had extended to consist of around 30,000 men. After neither side seemed to claim the victory, the Norse began to cut down large trees, set them on fire, and roll them down to the English lines. Despite early successes, Harald ceased the use of this strategy to conserve men and the battle continued to drag on for the rest of the day.
After losses continued to mount, and neither side gaining the upper hand, the casualties began to reach above 5000, both sides combined. Eventually, William saw the toll his men were paying and decided to retreat rather than face complete defeat. Because of this historians still dispute whether the battle was won by William, whose forces suffered fewer losses, or Harald, whose forces lost more men but stood their ground as William retreated. Emboldened by his apparent success, Harald lead his forces in pursuit of the English, but after a small loss outside Northampton, decided it would be better for his forces to retreat rather than risk annihilation. Hardrada marched north again this time to Sheffield, hoping to wait for further reinforcements from Norway before moving again. However, while waiting there he received a request for treaty with William by an English envoy. Tired and with many of his men getting homesick, Harald agreed to meet with William to discuss terms of peace.
Peace of Westminster
After the end of his Northern campaign, Harald Hardrada had conquered much of northern England. After receiving envoys from William the Conqueror, Harald Hardrada and a contigent of 1000 men marched south to London to make peace with the English court. At Westminster Abbey in March 1068, the English and Norse agreed to the Peace of Westminster under the following conditions:
- Harald Hardrada will recognize William I as the King of England.
- England will recognize Norse control of Scotland, as well as the provinces of Northumbria, Durham, Tyne and Wear, and Cumbria
- England will agree not to take up arms against the Kingdom of Norway for another 25 years.
While Harald wasn't able to wrest control of all of England for himself, he did get William to agree to give up some territory. Despite wishing to hold on all to his northern lands, he could only get William to agree to not take up arms against Norway for a quarter-century if he relented and took the rebellious provinces of the north only. But the agreement for twenty-five years of peace meant that Harald and his sons were able to set their eyes on William's supporter, Denmark, as well as Ireland. In the long term, William seemed to be the winner of the war, but the growing power of Norway's empire only appeared to be held off for a short time. While his potential kingdom was shrunk by the loss of northern England, William was finally able to consolidate power in England and Normandy.