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As a direct descendant of William the Conqueror is born it might be interesting to ask ‘what if 1066 had turned out differently in Yorkshire?’

July 23, 2013

Stewart Arnold writes:

The media today is, of course, dominated by talk of the royal baby and dynasties. It is apparently very unusual to have, in effect, the living monarch and the next three in line to the throne alive at the same moment. Perhaps hardly surprising given the relatively short life span of monarchs in the past, not least because of the machinations of rival claimants to the throne and indeed of the moves by members of one’s own family. This is brought to sharp focus on our television screens every Sunday evening in the excellent drama The White Queen on BBC1. I am a big fan as long as I remember this is based on the historical fiction by Philippa Gregory and not on the relatively poor primary records from the time. I am in hope of a different ending; one where Edward IV does not die young and is thus able to pass on the throne to his – by now – grown up son Edward V and so the Yorkist dynasty is established for the long term. Sadly of course it won’t happen! Alternative histories are an interesting, albeit futile, distraction and yet on this day, especially, it might be interesting to ask ‘what if?’. My ‘what if’ goes back to 1066. The present Queen after all is a direct descendant of William the Conqueror (you may boo!). The question often asked is what if Harold had won the Battle of Hastings but for me, living in Yorkshire and having visited the battlefield ‘site’, a more interesting question is what if Harold had lost the Battle of Stamford Bridge? I don’t know enough to give an answer to that but as I was googling I came across this blog piece and I thought it very laudable and so I reproduce it below. I have tried to okay it with the author but it means having to register on the Yuku site which I don’t want to do, so if he reads this perhaps he could get in touch. The piece goes to show that for an arrow here or a bit of chainmail armour there, history could be quite different and today, instead of talking about the descendant of William the Conqueror we might be discussing the future King of Yorkshire (ok then Northumbria!) descended from Harald Sigurdsson.


What if King Harold had lost at Stamford Bridge? (On GWP3 by Stuart J)

On January 4th, 1066 King Edward The Confessor of England died. He stated on his deathbed that the man who would be king after him would be Harold Godwinson, Earl of Wessex, and he was crowned the next day. There were however two other men who felt they had a claim to the throne; one was King Harald Sigurdsson of Norway, and the other was Duke William of Normandy, and both were determined to invade England and take the throne.

All through the summer of 1066, King Harold’s brother Tostig raided the cost of England. He had once been Earl Of Northumbria, but had been deposed in a well executed coup by Earl Morcar and his older brother Earl Edwin of Mercia. Tostig moved to Orkney, where he met up with Sigurdsson’s troops and in early September landed at Scarborough. They then moved the fleet up the River Ouse and camped at Riccall, 10 miles south of York. Sigurdsson and Tostig gave battle to the two northern earls at Fulford, where they routed the English army. Consolidating their position, they rested their victorious army in York.

Hearing of Sigurdsson’s invasion, King Harold lead his housecarls and thegns north with all haste. However, Norwegian scouts learned of the approaching army, and on September 25th, Sigurdsson lead his army to Stamford Bridge to block the road to York. Harold was taken completely by surprise by the sudden appearance of the Norwegians, and all he could do was to order an attack over the narrow bridge. Arrows and throwing spears from the Norwegians made it hard work, as did an enormous Norwegian warrior who barred passage, killing any Saxon who was unfortunate enough to try to attack him. Harold’s brother Gyrth is thought to have died at his hands, leading one of the suicidal attacks over the bridge. Harold himself was shot through the neck by an archer, dead before his body hit the ground. Once he had died the remaining Saxons lost heart and surrendered, putting themselves at the mercy of Harald Sigurdsson.

The day after Stamford Bridge Sigurdsson returned to York, safe in the knowledge that he had eliminated one of his rivals. He had plans to invade the southern part of England, but not until the next campaigning season. His troops were to rest in York and reinforcements to be gathered. He proclaimed himself King of York, and was crowned on September 30th by Archbishop Ealdred in York Minster. Tostig was returned to the post of Earl of Northumbria, and Eystein Orri was given the earldom of Mercia (although he would not move south to claim the title properly until early in 1067). The now deposed Earls Morcar and Edwin fled north, where they were welcomed by King Malcolm III of Scotland.

Meanwhile in London, word had reached the Witan of Harold’s death. Earl Leofwine of Kent, the last remaining loyal Godwinson brother, was proclaimed King of England and crowned on September 29th by Archbishop Stigand in Westminster. The day before the coronation, Duke William of Normandy landed at Pevensey in Sussex, and began the building of a motte and bailey castle. He waited for what he presumed would be an aggressive move by King Harold, but learned of his death and the coronation of Leofwine on 4th October, and immediately broke camp, abandoned the half finished castle, and marched on London.

The armies of William and Leofwine clashed on October 10th at the Battle of Greenwich, south of London. After a day of fighting, the Norman cavalry turned the Saxon right flank and the battle becomes a mass rout. Leofwine escaped the disaster and fled north. William then entered London and proclaimed himself the rightful heir to Edward The Confessor’s throne. On October 25th Archbishop Stigand again performed a coronation, this time for King William I of England.

In November and December King William and King Harald both consolidate their new kingdoms. The border between them cut through the Earldom of Mercia as the Danelaw did, but this new border ran from The Wash to the mouth of the Severn. Early in December William brutally put down a rebellion in Devon, laying waste to the West Country. Villages were wiped off the map, their occupants slaughtered and houses burnt. This would later be known as “The Harrying of the South”.

In stark contrast, life in Harald’s Kingdom of York was relatively peaceful. Earl Tostig guarded the northern border to repel attacks from Edwin and Morcar from Scotland, and Earl Eystein guarded the southern border where there were frequent small skirmishes with Norman forces. Refugees flocked from the south to the north, commoners and noblemen alike, as William installed Norman gentry to keep the peace in his kingdom.

The first major battle between the Anglo-Normans and the Yorkists came on March 16th, 1067. William marched north with some 6,000 knights, foot soldiers, and archers. He met with Earl Eystein’s army at Leicester. The Yorkists were outnumbered two to one and had no chance of winning a pitched battle, so Eystein gave orders to effect a fighting withdrawal. The Yorkists fought a series of delaying actions, and as night fell Eystein was able to slip away north with most of his force intact.

Eystein arrived in York three days later. He had sent riders ahead to warn his king of the coming enemy, and King Harald was able to draw as many soldiers to York as possible. William’s pursuit had been slowed by supply problems, and he didn’t reach York until March 21st where he found Harald’s army arrayed for battle to the south of the city on land near the Fulford battlefield, but higher and dryer.

The battle began with a mass attack by the Anglo-Norman infantry, who attempted to smash their way through the Yorkist shieldwall. After failing to break the Yorkists, the Anglo-Norman archers and crossbowmen moved forward to attack, and their arrows and bolts forced the Yorkists to begin withdrawing. The Yorkist army edged backwards, leaving a trail of wounded and slain men as they went, and this apparent weakness spurred the Norman cavalry into a charge. William himself led the attack, but Harald had a trick up his sleeve. The cavalry charge was brutally cut short when the cavalry encountered a series of shallow pits, each about a foot wide, dug into the ground stretching across the whole Yorkist frontage, and revealed by their withdrawal. The Norman cavalry were thrown into disarray as horses stumbled and threw riders, and with a great shout the Yorkists charged forward to cut down the remaining horsemen. The Norman infantry also charged into the fray, but were not quick enough to save the cavalry. King William and many of his Earls and Dukes were cut down. William’s body was hacked to pieces by the battle-maddened Yorkists, who then counter-charged the Norman infantry with King Harald leading from the front rank. Word got round the Norman army that William was dead, and the battle turned into an undignified rout. Harald pursued the retreating Anglo-Norman army for two days before reigning in his troops.

For the rest of the year, King Harald moved south, crushing all Norman resistance he found. He entered London on December 12th to cheering crowds, and was crowned King Harald III of England on December 25th 1067, and after two years of turmoil England was again at peace


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  1. Richard Carter permalink

    If only! Instead 1066 was effectively both the beginning of England and the end of York. But Yorkshire will rise again!

  2. Nigel Sollitt permalink

    At the time of the invasion by William the Bastard England was not one nation but an amalgamation of individual nations united by a common king, a bit like the home nations are to the UK now. The Earldom of York, formerly the Kngdom of Jorvik, was one of those nations and was unique amongst them in that, whereas the rest were ethnically and culturally of Anglo-Saxon heritage, the Earldom of York was ethnically and culturally of Danish heritage and had its own tongue and traditions. That heritage has never been eliminated. There are so many Yorkshire surnames, placenames, words and expressions that have Danish origins that make that clear and even today’s Yorkshire dialect has evolved from English influence on Old Danish language. ‘Yorkshire’ is unique in culture, heritage and identity and those born there identify themselves as ‘Yorkshire people’ whether they still live there or not. If Wales and Scotland qualify as ‘nations’ on those bases, Yorkshire too must qualify as a nation on those bases and therefore Yorkshire, the remnant of the Earldom of York and Kingdom of Jorvik, must still be a ‘nation’ to this day! I believe that Yorkshire satisfies every criteria that Wales or Scotland satisifies to have the power to determine her own destiny and that the people of Yorkshire have every right to at least an opportunity to have their say in a referendum for a devolved Yorkshire Parliament. If acheiving a Devolved Yorkshire Parliament is what Richard Carter means by, “But Yorkshire will rise again!”, I sincerely hope he is right. The UK Parliament has first carved our magnificent county into pieces and distributed many of her parts such as Middlesbrough, Sedbergh, Startforth and Saddleworth to alien local authorities or government regions and then, after taking all it can from us since the industrial revolution began in the Calder Valley, continued to deprive us of reinvestment whilst ploughing seemingly all into London and the South-East, or since devolution, Wales, Scotland and N. Ireland as well. An English Parliament would do no better for Yorkshire. Let Yorkshire take care of herself like those who already have devolved parliaments/assemblies have successfully taken care of themselves. Let Yorkshire prosper under her own devolved parliament but most of all, never allow your identity as Yorkshire folk to diminish, no matter how little respect others may have for that!

  3. Can only but agree Nigel!

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