Edward the Confessor had no children. The English practice at the time was for the Witan, the council of the chief men of the country, to select from the male members of the royal family the one thought most suitable to be the next King.
In 1066 there was only Edgar, the King’s half brother’s grandson, who was about 12 years old. Harold Godwinson, the Earl of Wessex, had effectively ruled England on behalf of King Edward for the past 14 years, as had his father, Godwin, for many years before him. This could have continued.
Two foreigners had staked a claim to the throne: Harald Hardrada, encouraged by Harold’s estranged brother, Tosti Godwinson; and William the Bastard, Duke of Normandy, who said a promise had been made to him by King Edward the Confessor and that Earl Harold had sworn to promote his claim. On his deathbed King Edward decided to tell the Witan that Harold Godwinson was to be his heir, and the Witan proclaimed Harold King of the English.
The first invasion was that of Harald Hardrada. The English met Hardrada and his Viking army at Fulford in Yorkshire. They fought well, but the experience of the Vikings told and the English army was put to flight. Hardrada and Tosti took the city of York.
Meanwhile Harold had gathered the Huscarls, the professional warriors who formed the bodyguard, and ridden north, collecting elements of the Fyrds, the territorial army of those days, as they went. They had covered 320 km in six days, and having caught the Vikings off guard, they attacked and defeated them, killing Harald Hardrada and Tosti.
Harold then had news that William had landed and established himself at Hastings. The King gathered the remaining Huscarls and rode south, picking up Fyrdmen on the way. They reached the hills outside Hastings, where they could wait for yet more men to join the English army. William could not wait. He had sailed late in the year, was living in a hostile land, with limited supplies and mainly hired troops. He marched towards the English, and King Harold moved his army to Senlac Ridge to block the advance. The steepness of the hill prevented the Norman cavalry from charging the English, who always fought on foot.
The Battle of Hastings raged all day. Just before dusk William made a final attack using archers, infantry, and cavalry together. King Harold died, and the English army fell apart. With Harold dead the Huscarls, who would never leave their lord, and all the nobles, fought till they too were killed.
With thanks to Geoff Boxell, Wendlewulf Productions