September 28, 1066, Duke William II of Normandy invades England and begins the Norman Conquest of England which, in essence provides the foundation for Great Britain as we know her today.
To understand these events we have to go back a bit farther. In 911, “Charles the Simple”, “negotiating” with a group of Vikings and hoping to create a buffer against other Norse raiders, allowed that group of Vikings, led by one Rollo, allowed that group of Vikings to settle in a region adjacent to the English Channel. These Vikings were called “Northmen”, shortened to “Normans” and the region called “Normandy.”
The Normans quickly assimilated, adopting Christianity and mostly adopted the local language (keeping some elements of their own). They did not entirely give up their warlike ways and acquired some of the neighboring lands, incorporating them into Normandy.
In 1002 King Æthelred the Unready married Emma of Normandy, the sister of Richard II, Duke of Normandy. Their son, Edward the Confessor lived in Normandy in exile for many years before ascending the English Throne in 1042. This, however, led to the Normans casting their eyes across the channel and becoming quite interested in the situation in England.
In England, Edward found himself in conflict with Godin, Earl of Wessex. He may also have “encouraged” William, Duke of Normandy, Grandson of Richard II, in his own ambitions for the English Throne (wink wink nudge nudge).
When Edward died, still childless, there were a number of claimants to the throne. The primary claimant was Harold Godwinson, the son of Godwin, Earl of Wessex. Harold was elected King by the “Witangemot” a “meeting of wise men” an assembly of the ruling class and duly crowned.
Two powerful forces immediately rose to challenge that crowning. One was Harald III of Norway, commonly known as Harald Haradrada–based on a supposed agreement between earlier Kings of Norway and England that if either died without issue the other would inherit both Kingdoms. The other was William of Normandy who claimed that Edward the Confessor had promised him the throne.
Both Harald Haradrada and William of Normandy began assembling troops.
A spoiler of a sort arose in Harald Godwinson’s exiled brother Tostic, who began raiding England’s southern coast. Driven back, Tostig retreated to Scotland to recruit fresh forces.
Harold Godwinson continued to patrol the south of England with levied troops but as the troops were levies and not full-time soldiers they needed to go back to their farms in time for harvest son on September 8, Harold dismissed them.
Of the two main rivals, Haradrada struck first. In early September he invaded England. Tostig joined his forces to Haradrada’s and together they defeated an English force raised by Edwin of Mercia and Morcar of Northumbria. They then moved on York and took it.
Harold Godwinson had to raise his army again and march North. And on September 25, Harold Godwinson defeated Harold Haradrada, killing both the Norwegian king and Tostig at the battle of Stampford Bridge.
In the meantime, in Normandy, William was gathering forces. Modern historians say probably about 7-8000 men. Contemporary writers claim as much as 150,000. In any case, they landed at Pevensey in Sussex on September 28.
Harold (easier to write now that there’s only one of them left), with his army tired and depleted by the hard fighting at Stamford Bridge, had to march south where he met William near the town of Hastings.
Whether through strategem or chance (I have seen arguments for both), William’s forces drew part of Harold’s out of position and was able to concentrate the larger part of their force on a smaller part of Harold’s, severely depleting the defenders of Harold’s forces. Eventually, Harold fell. Tradition, and one interpretation of the scene depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry, says that Harold was struck in the eye with an arrow. In any case, his forces, now leaderless, were routed.
And that was pretty much the end of Anglo-Saxon England. There was some resistance over the next few years but in the end, William, now dubbed William the Conqueror, and his Normans had control of England until the ascension of Henry II, the first of the Plantagenet Kings in 1154.