2016 was the 950th anniversary of the Norman Conquest of England.
According to a recent English Heritage survey, 1066 The Battle of Hastings, when William the Conqueror's Norman army defeated the Anglo Saxon King Harold, is the most famous date in English history. It is also, arguably, the most important. Not only did it change the course of English history, but probably much of the history of the western world.
It didn't all begin with that famous battle on October 14, 1066. In the course of the year, four different claimants vied for the English throne. Their lives, their conflicts, their achievements and their landmarks spread across the fields of England and Norman France.
Discover how William The Conqueror's tangled family history linked him to the English throne.
To mark the anniversary of these world changing events, About.com's United Kingdom Travel and France Travel experts have joined forces to tell the story and point out the landmarks you can visit that played a role. Month by month, throughout the year, we'll take you to the key castles, battlefields and abbeys, as the story unfolds. We'll make sure you know about special exhibitions, festivals and battle re-enactments marking the anniversary and we'll show you how the Norman Conquest helped shape the modern world.
1066: The King is Dead, Long Live the...Who?
On January 4, 1066 King Edward, known as Edward the Confessor because of his piety, died at his palace in Westminster. He was the last, but one, of the Anglo Saxon kings and if only he'd fathered an heir things might have been very different.
But besides dying childless,he'd apparently promised the throne of England to several different people. So, basically, he left a mess.
The French Connection
Edward's mother, Emma of Normandy, was the daughter of Richard I, Duke of Normandy. Because of conflicts during his father's reign, Edward spent much of his childhood in exile in Normandy. When he did come to the throne, in 1042, he brought many of his Norman favorites with him to the English court.
William, Duke of Normandy (William the Conqueror) was Edward's distant cousin. He claimed that Edward had promised him the throne of England.
Learn how the complicated links between England and France that made William covet the English throne.
The Danish Complication
On the death of Edward's father, Canute the Great of Denmark became king of all England and married Edward's mother. As Queen Consort of England, Denmark and Norway, Emma had more children by Canute. Her son, Hardicanute ruled England for a short while and for the first two years of Edward the Confessor's reign the two half brothers - one Anglo Saxon, the other Danish - co-ruled England.
Edward's wife, Edith of Wessex, was the daughter of the most powerful
Anglo Saxon earl, Godwin of Wessex, who was loyal to the Danes.
The Anglo Saxon Claimants
Harold Godwinson was Edith of Wessex's brother, and thus King Edward the Confessor's brother-in-law as well as his right-hand man. In the year's before 1066: the Norman Conquest, he successfully subdued the Welsh. Two years before he died, the grateful king named Harold his successor. Maybe he had forgotten his promise to his Norman cousin William and his Anglo Saxon nephew, see below.
Tostig, the unpopular Earl of Northumbria and another of Edith's brothers, fell out with the rest of the family and was exiled. When Edward the Confessor died, Tostig was the first to try to grab the throne.
Plan a visit to modern "Wessex"
The counties of Hampshire, Dorset, Wiltshire and Somerset cover the ancient area of Wessex. Some of England's most popular attractions, including Bath, Stonehenge, Jane Austen country, Longleat Safari Park, the Jurassic Coast and two national parks - Exmoor and The New Forest - are in what was once Wessex - the Kingdom of the West Saxons.
A Pretty Messy Family Squabble
Before William the Conqueror was finally crowned, two others were proclaimed king and several more had a go. During 1066, England actually had four different kings. Edward, who clearly could not keep track of earthly matters, had also promised the throne to his nearest living relative, his nephew Edward the Exile. His son, Edgar Aethling was briefly proclaimed king by England's nobles but was never crowned.
This royal soap opera - more a case of Game of Thrones then Days of Our Lives - was played out against some of England's most popular destinations as well as an iconic London landmark.
Next: Start the Norman Conquest Trail from the beginning.
Start a Norman Conquest Themed Itinerary
Westminster Abbey in London is a fitting place to start a Norman Conquest themed itinerary. His passion for building the Abbey probably left King Edward the Confessor too distracted to either produce an heir or to remember how many different people he promised to leave the throne to. (Find out why William the Conqueror was one of them)
A home for the court
In the middle ages, there was no clear cut capital of the realm. The royal court existed wherever the king happened to be. But because of the importance of Wessex in Anglo Saxon England, Winchester (in Hampshire) was customarily the seat of power.
Edward changed all that by choosing to build his royal palace on the banks of the Thames beside a small Benedictine monastery that had been established about 100 years earlier. Edward poured money and resources into the monastery, founding Westminster Abbey there.
The building of Westminster Abbey was the achievement of his life and led, about 100 years later, to his canonization as St Edward the Confessor.
By building his palace beside the abbey, Edward started London on the road to becoming the capital. He also began to create the links between church and state that still exist in England (though in a watered down state) to this day.
Edward's Palace of Westminster
The Houses of Parliament now stand on Edward's royal palace. The building known as Westminster Hall, the oldest part of Parliament, was build about 30 years after Edward's death by William the Conqueror's son. What you can see, however, is part of the footprint of Edward's original palace. The courtyard, known as the Old Palace Yard, was originally a quiet area for walks and contemplation that connected Edward's palace with Westminster Abbey.
Today, it's the open space between the end of Westminster Hall and the Victoria Tower (the square tower on the opposite end of Parliament from Big Ben) facing Abingdon Street. There's a statue of Richard the Lionheart at its center and, sadly, it's usually used as a parking lot for Parliament. (Check out a streetview of the Old Palace Yard.)
Edward's Westminster Abbey
Edward died very soon after Westminster Abbey was consecrated and he was buried in front of the high altar. His abbey, built in the Norman Romanesque style, endured about 200 years before being rebuilt by Henry III. But you can still see parts of Edward's original building in the round arches and heavy support columns in the abbey's undercroft.and in the Pyx Chamber off the cloister.
By far the most impressive reminder of Edward the Confessor at the abbey is the saint's tomb, still containing his earthly remains and now located behind the high altar. The tomb, which you can see as part of a visit to Westminster, dates from the mid 13th century.