How a Beef Between Two Kings Changed the English Language Forever

Alex Johnson - Content Writer

Tags:

Have you ever started a new year and thought, “this is my year—this is the year all my hard work finally pays off.” Then, somewhere between one and 11 months later, it becomes clear that this is, in fact, not your year.

Harold Godwinson had a year like that in 1066. On January 6, Harold was crowned king of England after years of power plays and scheming when King Edward the Confessor, who didn’t have any kids, punched his ticket after a series of stress-induced strokes.1

The weight of the crown took 24 years to crush Edward the Confessor, who died in his bed. Harold Godwinson wouldn’t be so lucky. Ten short months after his coronation, Harold was dead on a hillside in Sussex. Turns out, this wasn’t just the year ol’ Godwinson had been waiting for: it was also the year that William the Conqueror, Duke of Normandy, hit England so hard it started speaking French. It was the traumatic birth year of the language you’re looking at right now.

The Rise of Harold Godwinson

The political landscape of early medieval England was incredibly complex—a tangled web of power plays, warring tribes, and a myriad of kings, some of whom had less actual power than their subordinate vassals, dukes, earls, thegns, etc. By the early 10th century, a number of divided Anglo-Saxon kingdoms had unified under a single king of England.

Sketch depicting the legendary arrow-to-the-face death of King Harold Godwinson at the Battle of Hastings.

Harold, as the Earl of Wessex, controlled one of those former kingdoms, and it was a powerful one. This was at the tail end of the Viking Age, and a lot of England had been subjugated by the Danish. Wessex was one of the kingdoms that, instead of falling to invaders, had stayed intact and consolidated power. Long story short: it meant Harold had more material power than his own king, Edward.

By the first week of the year 1066, King Edward was in his deathbed. Childless, he needed to pick a successor. Harold had political support, power, and experience, so it was a no-brainer. Edward named Harold his successor, and Harold was crowned the Anglo-Saxon king by January 6.

There was one problem: William, the Duke of Normandy. According to William, Edward had promised William the crown, and Harold swore to uphold this promise. Was William telling the truth? Maybe. Edward had resented the leverage that Harold (and his father) had held over him. Plus, Edward’s mom was Norman, and he had sought refuge in Normandy, during a forced exile some 30 years earlier. Edward had also been known to dangle successorship like a political carrot, so maybe he really did play it fast and loose with coronation promises.

Or maybe William was full of sh*t. Regardless, William was prepared to back his claim with a large number of ships filled with men holding pointy things.2

Short Live King Harold II

OK, that was a lot of set up, but context is key, and now we can get down to the real issue: Harold and William were both told they could be the king of England. Fortunately for Harold, he happened to be in country while the dying King Edward was picking a successor.

On the Anglo-Saxon side, you had a bunch of untrained peasants with no gear. On the Norman side, you had guys that wore armor, juggled their swords, and sang during battle (pictured here: the Minstrel Taillefer). So that’s why the Normans won.

Meanwhile, William was across the English Channel, stewing over how the English crown was supposed to be his. Edward, by using his succession as a bargaining chip and making loose promises, had sewn the seeds for a real powder keg clusterf**k.3

King Harold knew a sh*tstorm was a-brewin’, so he levied a peasant army—a fyrd—and set up to defend England’s southern coast from a Norman invasion. Across the channel, William had a large fleet of ships filled with a more professional army. They were set to make sail in August, but then weather happened: the wind blew the wrong damn way for like eight weeks straight, ruining Norman plans for good beach weather at the landing.

Harold had already been fending off raids from his d*ckhead brother, Tolstig. For Tolstig, water was thicker than blood: he joined Team William, and had been raiding parts of the English coast. So, by the time Harold and his army set up camp near the channel to await the Norman invasion, Harold’s militia had already seen combat, fighting off throne-claimers and fraternal foes.

The thing to note here is that standing, permanent armies weren’t really a thing in Northern Europe during the early medieval period. King Harold could only afford to keep his army raised for so long. After waiting for months for the arrival of the Norman invaders, summer was coming to an end, and his army, largely composed of farmers and the like, needed to head home to harvest their crops. They were dismissed on September 8.

Just around this time, another dude showed up on England’s shores to claim the English throne. Harald Hardrada, King of Norway, figured there weren’t enough fingers in this particular English meat pie, so he landed his own invasion and took York. Oh, and guess who was there to help Hardrada? Yup—Harold’s d*ckhead brother, Tolstig.

A little bit of the Bayeux Tapestry. Hard to tell who’s who in these, but if they’re on a horse, they’re Norman.

At this point, King Harold was probably thinking, “you gotta be f**king kidding me.” He’d just disbanded his army and now he had to put it back together and march nearly 300 miles north to put down a viking invasion, a Norwegian king, and his own little brother. He and some of his huscarls—basically, his dedicated, professional soldiers—booked it north, collecting whatever militiamen they could. When they arrived, they took a quick breather, then got into it with Hardrada at the Battle of Stamford Bridge on September 25, 1066.

Harold’s improvised army made the march so fast that they caught Hardrada by surprise and just totally destroyed Hardrada’s forces. Hardrada and Tolstig, were both killed. This battle marked the final nail in the coffin of Scandinavian domination of England, and is considered to be a soft endpoint for the Viking Age.

Harold got to enjoy the savory taste of victory for exactly one week before he got some more news: the winds had changed, and William’s fleet had crossed the English Channel with an army of between 4,000 and 7,000 Normans (estimates vary, but these were large numbers for this time and place) who were now encamped at Hastings, ravaging everything they could reach without venturing too far from their ships.

King Harold likely said a string of Anglo-Saxon curse words, then got ready to do another forced march, back the way he came, again collecting whatever forces he could before reaching Hastings.4

The Battle of Hastings

The march south to Hastings took about two weeks. When Harold’s army arrived on October 13, he had somewhere around 7,000 men, but many of them were poorly armed and trained, and they’d all just marched like 270 miles. Perhaps a more patient, smarter King Harold would have spent some more time raising his army, establishing a defensive position, and waiting for William to take the initiative.

The real King Harold, however, didn’t do that. He took his 7,000ish peasants (and some soldiers) and brought the fight to the entrenched William. Why? Impatience, perhaps. Harold’s own men and lands were under attack, and he wanted badly to get the Normans off his island.

The giddiness to fight was mutual—William wanted to force the battle right away. Personal issues aside, the two leaders might have been eager to wrap up their military campaigns before winter rolled around. War was a spring and summer business.

William the Conqueror treated the Anglo-Saxons so badly that he had a crisis of conscience years later, on his deathbed.

The battle happened on October 14, starting around 9 a.m. The two sides duked it out on a ridge until late afternoon. Harold’s army, lacking archers and cavalry, was at a disadvantage, but the battle tipped back and forth as the day dragged on. At one point, it appeared Harold’s army had managed to force the Norman cavalry to flee. But William rallied his horsemen, turned them around, and crushed the English counterattack. William did this a few times that day: he feigned retreat to draw the English out. When the English broke ranks and overextended, he’d turn his forces around and wipe them out.

By late afternoon, Harold’s brothers, Gyrth and Leofwine, were dead, with Harold soon to follow. According to the Bayeux Tapestry—the massively long, embroidered visual history of the Battle of Hastings, sewn by Norman hands in the 11th century—Harold may have been killed by an arrow to the eye, though this is probably just legend. It’s also said that Harold’s body was so destroyed that his mistress had to identify it by markings on Harold’s birthday suit that only she’d be familiar with. The important thing is that Harold was dead, and his army was left to rot on the battlefield by an unsympathetic William.

England, as the Anglo-Saxons had known it for over 600 years, was over.5

The Fallout

With Harold dead, William—today widely known as William the Conqueror—was free to exert his Norman will over the Anglo-Saxon people of England. It wasn’t a smooth transition, and William treated the locals terribly, especially those in the north who continued to rebel against Norman rule.

The change in management had profound impacts on the island. Ties that had been established between England and Scandinavia throughout the course of the Viking Age had been severed. Now, England was to be dominated by a Norman ruling class shipped across the channel from the European continent.

With the Anglo-Saxon ruling class removed, Norman lords stepped in to fill their places. William kept Anglo-Saxon government structures and laws in place while adding certain Norman customs (like trial by combat) to the mix. But even if the law looked familiar, it was now carried out by a Norman elite ruling over a subjugated Anglo-Saxon peasantry.

More Bayeux Tapestry. It’s like the world’s longest running, least funny comic strip (other than The Family Circus).

With Normans occupying the entire range of upper echelon positions in both government and the church in England, the culture changed. While the Anglo-Saxons had used their own language, which we call Old English, for all manner of things, the Normans replaced it with Latin first, then Anglo-Norman as the official language for all forms of documentation and literature.

The Anglo-Saxon vernacular, much like Anglo-Saxon England, was gone, replaced by Anglo-Norman French. It would be another two hundred years or so until folks even saw a version of English written down again. When it came back, it was more like the English we speak today than the distinctly Germanic Anglo-Saxon language.6

A Linguistic Legacy

By modern standards, these seem like small events. A few thousand guys fighting in a field somewhere—that’s something that has happened plenty throughout the course of human history. There are plenty of battles with more eyebrow-raising numbers, and very old conflicts told by unreliable narrators (history on this is primarily from the Norman perspective) can easily feel too distant to be consequential.

Just to give an idea of the linguistic evolution, from top to bottom: Old English / Anglo-Saxon; Middle English; Early Modern English; and Late Modern English.

But I want you to think about this: this one, relatively small battle had a ripple effect through England, Europe, and all English-speaking people who have lived since. Anglo-Saxon, or Old English, is almost completely unintelligible from the English we speak today. Middle English, which began in 1066, is readable. Yeah, the spelling’s not standardized, everything is phonetic, and there are archaic accents and dialects, but you can read it. I know this because I was forced to do so, time and time again, in college. And the language you speak and understand doesn’t just shape the way we communicate. It changes a people’s identity and how they view the world.

Consider this: prior to the Battle of Hastings, England was a northern country consisting mainly of Germanic tribes under heavy Scandinavian influence. After, the English identity became more European. The England-Denmark rivalry of old was all but gone. In its place: a long-lasting animosity between England and France that’s cooled nicely in modern times, yet still influences the national identities of both people.

The Battle of Hastings, and William the Conqueror’s iron-fisted rule over the surviving Anglo-Saxons, formed the crucible that melded Norman and Anglo-Saxon into a language that has more in common with the English we speak today—a language still classified as West Germanic, but heavily influenced by Scandinavian and Romance languages.

So, the next time you talk about animal products like “beef” or “pork,” see the word “chivalry,” or hear a Brit talk about getting in a queue for the Tube, you can trace your words back to one windy summer in Normandy almost 1,000 years ago.

Share this article... your friends will love it too ❤️

Notes & Gossip 📌

  1. Rimmer, Sandra. (Accessed June 10, 2018). The corpses of 10 Kings and Queens of England exhumed centuries after death. Retrieved from http://www.abroadintheyard.com/corpses-kings-queens-england-exhumed/
  2. Encyclopaedia Britannica. (Accessed June 10, 2018). Godwine, Earl of Wessex. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Godwine
  3. Encyclopaedia Britannica. (Accessed June 8, 2018). Battle of Hastings. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/event/Battle-of-Hastings
  4. Encyclopaedia Britannica. (Accessed June 8, 2018). Battle of Hastings. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/event/Battle-of-Hastings
  5. Encyclopaedia Britannica. (Accessed June 8, 2018). Battle of Hastings. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/event/Battle-of-Hastings
  6. Encyclopaedia Britannica. (Accessed June 10, 2018). Norman Conquest. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/event/Norman-Conquest

Scholarly Shout-outs 🌟

  • Babbel.com. (Accessed June 12, 2018). 139 Old Norse Words That Invaded the English Language. Retrieved from https://www.babbel.com/en/magazine/139-norse-words/
  • BBC. (2016, October 13). What happened at the Battle of Hastings? Retrieved from http://www.bbc.co.uk/newsround/37645852
  • BritishBattles.com. (Accessed June 10, 2018). Battle of Hastings. Retrieved from https://www.britishbattles.com/norman-conquest/battle-of-hastings/
  • Colfey, Sally. (Accessed June 8, 2018). 10 facts about the Battle of Hastings. Retrieved from http://www.britain-magazine.com/carousel/10-facts-about-the-battle-of-hastings/
  • Encyclopaedia Britannica. (Accessed June 8, 2018). Battle of Hastings. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/event/Battle-of-Hastings
  • Encyclopaedia Britannica. (Accessed June 10, 2018). Godwine, Earl of Wessex. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Godwine
  • Encyclopaedia Britannica. (Accessed June 10, 2018). Harold II, King of England. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Harold-II
  • Encyclopaedia Britannica. (Accessed June 10, 2018). Norman Conquest. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/event/Norman-Conquest
  • Encyclopaedia Britannica. (Accessed June 10, 2018). William I, King of England. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/biography/William-I-king-of-England

Want our best stories in your inbox once per week?

Yes 🙌 No 😞