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Digital Subscriptions > Family Tree > Family Tree December 2018 > Did your ancestor come over with the Conqueror?

Did your ancestor come over with the Conqueror?

Steve Roberts looks back to a turning point in English history; 1066, when the nation fell to William the Conqueror, ending the era of the Anglo-Saxons and heralding a new form of governance. Can you trace your family back to this tumultuous time?



A 14th century depiction of Henry II and his legitimate children, from left: William, Henry the young King, Richard, Matilda, Geoffrey, Eleanor, Joan, and John

Saxon lament As the sun set on a Sussex battlefield the groans of the dying petered out, a lament to an England destined to change beyond recognition. The field was Hastings, the date 14 October 1066, and Norman conquerors held sway. The Norman Conquest is oft proclaimed as the last successful foreign invasion of these islands. It was certainly a watershed moment. When King Edward the Confessor died, childless, in January 1066, there was a disputed succession, which led Saxon, Harold II (or Harold Godwinson), and Norman, William, Duke of Normandy, to trade blows near the Sussex coast at modern-day Battle.

Normans rising

So, who were these Normans and what was their interest in England? Well, they originated as ‘Norsemen’ (or ‘Northmen’), the Vikings of Norway, who found their way to the north-west of modern France from the 9th century AD. The Normans’ hold over ‘Normandy’ was confirmed by treaty with the French king in the 10th century. Conveniently (or inconveniently if you were a Saxon), this Norse enclave in France faced England across the Channel.

William, illegitimate son and heir, succeeded to the dukedom in 1035. It took him until 1060 to feel secure, by which time he was gazing across that stretch of water. The story goes that both Edward and Harold had conceded William could be the next ruler. When the old king expired, however, Harold, the man on the spot, claimed the throne. Armed with a sense of grievance, William garnered papal support, so crossed the Channel with religious fervour, as well as military might. He stated it was, ‘in defence of right that I have crossed the sea into this country’.

The war of words led to the clashing of iron and steel at Hastings. Whether Harold died with an arrow in the eye is debatable. Historians suggest we may not have interpreted the Bayeux Tapestry correctly. He may just have been ‘cut down’ in the battle’s latter stages, but whatever the truth, Harold was dead and Anglo- Saxon England perished with him.

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About Family Tree

From practical projects for a fabulous family history, to the quest to take your family tree back to Norman times, or the journey to heal a broken family, it's all here in Family Tree: Check out our 20 ideas and solutions to help you get organised and create a family history you can cherish. Explore history back in Norman times, and see how you might be able to trace an ancestor back to William the Conqueror too... See what you know in our Family Tree Academy challenges. Explore the latest DNA know-how. Make yourself a cuppa and enjoy those family stories. We know you're going to love this issue!