Listener Shane asked if William the Conqueror and Harald Hardrada had an agreement to attack England jointly. This could after all explain certain curious behaviors by both William and Harald. The Duke delayed his departure to England claiming a lack of favorable winds- was he instead waiting for Hardrada’s attack to draw away King Harold’s forces? Along the same vein, did the Norse invader lower his defenses after Stamford Bridge because he was expecting Harold to be tied up at Hastings? The Normans and Vikings had deep ties and a shared cultural background and it isn’t beyond the realm of possibility that they would act together.
It’s an intriguing idea, but ultimately, I think unlikely. While the close timing of the invasions was certainly mutually beneficial and Hardrada almost certainly knew of William’s plans (he hardly bothered to keep them secret), neither man’s personality was given to sharing. William genuinely believed that he had the best right to the entire kingdom, and while his delay in crossing the Channel proved fortuitous it would be giving him too much credit to say that it was a calculated strategy. Every day that passed with his army still in Normandy cost him in money, food and reputation, and he was as anxious as Harold to resolve the situation as quickly as possible. The more opportunistic Hardrada may indeed have taken advantage of William’s threat, but he was no more likely to share authority than his Norman opponent. He had just finished a fifteen-year war with the legitimate king of Sweden, fought for no other reason than a blatant power grab. This was a man who clearly didn’t tolerate rivals.
If indeed there was an agreement- something like the partition of England that Cnut and Edmund Ironside had concluded a generation earlier- it’s interesting to speculate what would have happened. It would clearly have been a partnership headed for disaster, as neither man would have trusted the other an inch. Only a matter of time and they would be at each other’s throats.
Listener Steve asked “What do you think would have happened had Harold defeated William at Hastings?”
It’s always dangerous to start talking about how history would have been different if a certain key moment had gone differently, but it’s fun to speculate. Harold would undoubtedly have emerged from Hastings with quite a formidable reputation, having held off two full-scale invasions and an earlier series of raids by the Welsh. (King Alfred the Great- the only British sovereign to earn that title- had only managed to keep half his kingdom intact). Normandy, by contrast would have been chaotic- assuming William didn’t survive the battle. It’s amusing to wonder if a strong Harold would have returned the favor and intervened, but the Anglo-Saxons were never as offensively minded as the Normans. It’s also unlikely that they would have invaded either Scotland or Ireland as the Normans did, perhaps at most settling for some sort of ‘over-king’ recognition by the various Scottish clans. That being the case there would be no ‘Act of Union’, no Great Britain and of course no British Empire. England, in fact, would probably have remained part of the northern sphere much like Iceland or Norway. It did have established trading links with the Franks and Low Countries, but both culturally and linguistically it would have been more drawn to the Scandinavian orbit.
Another obvious change would be a linguistic one; the English language as we know it wouldn’t exist (about 60% is Latin or French based) and would be much closer to German . Pre-Conquest England was also generally less efficient and more “democratic” as the King was technically elected by the Witan. William greatly strengthened the monarchy and introduced both feudalism and the distinctive castles that still dot the countryside. Given that the Norman kings were so firmly above the law, democracy may have emerged more quickly under Harold’s descendants- although that’s certainly highly debatable.
Finally, without the Norman Conquest, the English king would not have had a claim to the French throne and would presumably have avoided the hundred year’s war. Without that great unifying struggle the French monarchy would have been weakened and may not have become a centralized state as quickly. While probably not sharing Germany’s fate, France would certainly not have been the power it became by the 17th century.
One could go on and on like this, but the farther we get from the event, the less credible it is. In Harold’s lifetime at least, the people of England would have been much happier if he had triumphed at Hastings.