Our history is filled with death but in its annals there have only been a handful of singular deaths that set forward momentous events that changed the natural course of history. Off the top of my head, these include the deaths of Jesus of Nazareth, Cao Cao, Charlemagne, Ogedei Khan, and England’s Edward the Confessor.
In the tenth and early eleventh century, England was at a crossroads: would it be subject to the influences (and influencing) of continental Europe? Or would it be culturally isolated as part of Scandinavia? This question may seem ludicrous to us today, but there’s a reason the ninth century’s Alfred the Great is the only English monarch in history with the epithet “the Great” – it is because he fought off and eventually absorbed the great Viking invasions of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, uniting them and preventing them from becoming mere Viking colonies, like Iceland or Greenland.
In 1065 all of Alfred’s work hung in balance: his great great grandson Edward the Confessor (known so for his piety) was without heir. Upon his death on 5 January 1066, there were four claimants to his thrown: his nephew Edgar, a sickly boy of fourteen, Harold Godwinson, a Saxon earl with ties to the Kingdom of Denmark, Harold Hardrada, the Viking King of Norway, and his cousin William the Bastard, Duke of Normandy. On 6 January 1066, Harold Godwinson was crowned by the King’s Council, but the issue was far from decided.
Edward’s death set in motion one of the great dramas in history and would eventually decide the fate of a continent: Would England permanently entrench itself inside Europe and become the incubator for reforms and ideas that Western Civilization so desperately needed? Or would England continue to be a Viking playground? The matter would only be resolved ten months later on a hill just outside of a small town in south east England: