In September 1066, William the Bastard, Duke of Normandy and direct descendant of Rollo the Viking (the founder of Normandy), was waiting for an opportunity to seize the crown of England from Harold Godwinson, his cousin once removed, whom he considered a usurper and believed only had the crown because he was at Edward’s deathbed. On 22 September, William was granted his opportunity when his spies reported that Harold marched north in great haste with his army (to Stamford Bridge). William loaded his ships but there was no wind: the finicky weather of the English Channel prevented him from sailing.
On 27 September, a storm blew in but the wind was in the correct direction so William ordered his Norman-French army to sail north. The storm dispersed his ships and the Normans landed all along the southern English coast, but with Harold gone there would be time to consolidate. William landed with a large force at Pevensy in Sussex after scattering Harold’s weak navy. Then in an act that would be emulated by Hernando Cortez 450 years later, William dismantled his ships to signal to his men that there was no return to Normandy. He used the wood to build a castle near the town of Hastings.
William had to wait until the English army moved away from Sussex to land, but now that his army was on the ground, William desperately needed a battle with Harold. With only 11,000 men he could not seize London, and with no way to resupply from Normandy so late in the season (which was why he was ok with dismantling his ships) his army would eventually starve. So William decided to force Harold south before he could gather even more reinforcements from the furthest reaches of England and overwhelm him.
As the former Earl of Wessex, Sussex was part of Harold’s own personal holdings, and nearby Kent belonged to Harold’s brother Leofine. Any on goings in those lands would eventually reach Harold, and more importantly, the nobles and fighting men who left their wives and children to head north. If the news was bad, Harold would be forced to react. So William unleashed the Norman army on the English countryside.
William scourged the undefended Sussex and Kent.
The Normans and French ravaged Harold and Leofine’s lands. They foraged anything useful from the villages and farms, and then fired them. They killed any men they found, and brought the women back to be wives for the army in arranged marriages. The children became pages and servants to the nobles. William wanted the future generations to be Normanized, or “normal”. And his men went about the task with a fury worthy of the Vikings whose descendants they were.
The devastation of Sussex and Kent was so thorough that thirty years later the most common town description in the Doomsday Book (the very detailed tax record of all of England) for those areas pillaged by the Normans was simply,
“Laid to waste”.