It was said that after the great Battle, William the Conqueror retired to Hastings and awaited the submission of the English people. None was forthcoming. Was he surprised, I wonder? After all, England had been subjected to Danish invasions the last couple of centuries, winning and losing battle after battle. Of course, they had not lost their king during one of those battles, but electing another king was only a matter of time. Apparently—at least initially—no one had any intention of recognizing the usurper. Of course, this was destined to change.
But not yet. With a few days after Harold’s death (I can’t find an exact date), a hastily-assembled Witan elected Eadgar Aetheling as king; he was the last surviving heir of the Royal house of Cedric of Wessex though still in his early teens. Eadgar was not crowned, presumably because this event always coincided with a high religious holiday and the next appropriate date would not occur until Christmas. Historian Edward A. Freeman suggested that Edwin and Morcar put themselves forward as likely candidates but received no support. They duly consented to Eadgar’s election, then went back home with their levies, “and left Eadgar and England to their fate”. Freeman’s judgment was harsh: “The patriotic zeal of the men of London was thwarted by the base secession of the Northern traitors. By their act all was lost.” Divided, England could not stand up to the might of the Norman invader.
William waited at Hastings for five days then resolved to secure the southeast portion of England before advancing on London. He marched along the coast, plundering his way to strike terror in his conquered people. He took especial revenge on Romney who had the audacity to attack some of his men before the great Battle. William then advanced to Dover which surrendered without a blow. Had the garrison already been killed at Hastings? It is said that William intended to spare the city because of its submission but that some of his unruly soldiers plundered anyway, setting fire to many houses. William brought his men under control and even compensated the homeowners for their losses. He spent eight days at Dover and left his wounded there to recover.
The Conqueror’s violence to the resistors and leniency to towns surrendering along the way served its purpose in Kent; even the city of Canterbury met the Duke on the road with hostages and tribute. This was on October 29. Interestingly, two days later, he pitched camp nearby in a neighborhood called the Broken Tower and stayed there for a month, for he was stricken down with a serious illness. This didn’t stop him from sending messengers to Winchester where Queen Editha had taken refuge, offering to leave them alone as long as they submitted to his rule (along with tribute, of course). Editha consulted with the city fathers and together they agreed to William’s terms. For all intents and purposes, the south was in William’s hands.
He now turned his attention to London; the last vestiges of resistance were strong there. Initially he sent forward a small contingent of 500 knights, who were met south of the Thames by a stout company of Londoners. A skirmish took place that sent the citizens retreating back inside the walls of the city; at this, the soldiers set fire to Southwark. But William was not minded to attack London yet; rather, he struck west along the southern bank of the Thames, harrying Surrey, Hampshire, and Berkshire until he reached Wallingford, which offered a bridge and a ford across the river. Unchallenged, William crossed and continued north, intent on creating a circle of desolation around London. Although this was not a formal siege, it was beginning to have the trappings of one.
By the time William reached Berkhampstead, apparently the English were demoralized. An embassy led by none other than Eadgar Aetheling himself, accompanied by Archbishops Ealdred and probably Stigand (as well as many of the chiefest men from London and southern England) came and did homage to William. Prepared to be merciful, the Conqueror received them graciously and gave Eadgar the kiss of peace. As Freeman reminds us: “It was the chance shot of an arrow which had overcome the English King, but it was William’s own policy which had overcome the English people.” And so it began.