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Why was William able to invade England in 1066?

Introduction and Objectives

The answer above is often answered in the short-term at KS3 and potentially GCSE, partly because of those wonderful Bayeux Tapestry images of ship-building and equipment-loading, partly because GCSE specifications tend to omit or downplay the Norman background to the Norman Conquest. This brief activity looks at the longer-term Norman background to 1066, focussing on how William’s invasion was made possible by a combination of his military successes against neighbouring states and good fortune. Together these factors created a breathing space which allowed him to recruit an army and invade England.

By the end of this activity students should know and understand that:

a) William had faced and beaten a number of attacks from surrounding states during the 1050s

b) If Edward the Confessor had died before 1060 William would have had great difficulty invading England because of threats to Normandy

c) William’s successes created a breathing space from local wars enabling him to invade England in 1066

d) His resulting reputation as a successful soldier enabled him to recruit followers for his invasion of England and he was able to recruit soldiers who would not have been keen to leave their lands if local wars were continuing.

Other notes:

This was created with GCSE in mind – it can’t be too detailed as there’s so much crammed into the GCSE specs. So if you do this for A level you may need to add more detail.

It does not include anything on preparations in 1066 itself – so all that very short-term material would need adding if you want a full answer to the question in the heading!

This activity does not go beyond 1065 but models how a second activity could be constructed to deal with events in northern France after 1066, providing the wider context which helps to explain why William spent so long in Normandy after he became King of England.


A WORD version of this activity and accompanying resources can be downloaded:


1. Plan of how to set out students as a map of northern France

2. Draft recording sheet for use during or after the activity – this is definitely a draft containing questions on the main issues raised in the activity. You need to adapt it to your classes but it hopefully helps you get started.

Setting Up

a) Arrange 5 students in geographical formation as if on a map:

Normandy  France   Brittany  Anjou  Flanders

b) mark Maine on the floor – a major area of conflict and vulnerability for William

c) Create 4 large cards with ‘Danger’ written on them – these are for the 4 states surrounding Normandy.

d) Decide what you want the rest of the class to do during the activity to avoid a breakdown of concentration. One option is to have them annotate a recording sheet such as the attached draft (or you could ask them to do this after the activity is completed).

The Activity

What follows is a script to use as you talk through the events and options facing individuals – but only you will know exactly how to pitch it for each class so don’t treat this as holy writ. The key to success is your interaction with the students playing the 5 states – and how you ask questions and help them towards answers – and also how you keep the rest of the class involved by also asking their advice on the decision-making.

1. The situation in northern France, late 1040s

There is lots of rivalry and warfare between these states – each has its own individual ruler.

France claims to be the overlord of all states but does not have the power to control them. It’s also quite small and not greatly wealthy.

William has been Duke of Normandy since the age of about 8 but has faced much rebellion – he has beaten rivals so far but other local rulers hoped to win lands in Normandy. He will have to fight to keep his lands.

Give out the Danger cards to the four states surrounding Normandy.

ASK William what words he’d use to describe his situation secure he feels about this situation. (Bring in rest of class to make suggestions too. The aim is to emphasise that William had to overcome insecurity and threats – he wasn’t always the mighty conqueror of 1066)

Ask William would you

a) Accept King Henry of France as your overlord in return for support?

b) Refuse to accept King Henry as overlord?

Answer: William chose (a) – he needed to reduce the dangers around him and this might also win French support if other states attack him. [If students choose (b) explain why William chose differently.

Take away France’s danger card. Emphasise that William still faces plenty of threats.

2. 1050 – Normandy and Flanders

William is about 23 – It’s time he married.

Ask William – will you:

a) Marry a girl from within Normandy?

b) Marry a girl from a powerful family in another state?

Answer (b) – Ask William - why this option? (Answer – gains an ally)

Ask Flanders – what would you do if Anjou attacks Normandy after William marries Matilda?

Take away Danger card from Flanders – ASK William how the situation is looking compared to earlier.

Explain – This marriage was important in winning a strong ally and reducing threats.

[Note – Matilda of Flanders was a brilliant choice both short and long term. She provided William with a large family of heirs, was capable of ruling in his absence and they seem to have had a sense of partnership.]

3. A visit to England

In 1051 Geoffrey of Anjou did attack Maine and then Normandy but was beaten by William. Then came an important moment.

In autumn 1051 William probably visited England where he was offered the English crown by King Edward.

Ask William – will you:

a) Accept offer of crown

b) Decline offer – you need to defend Normandy against attacks

William chooses (a) but now ask whole class:

What might prevent him being able to take the English crown when Edward dies?

Keep answer simple – he couldn’t go to England to be king if he’s fighting off threats to Normandy. Don’t worry here about the situation in England.

4. Attacks on Normandy 1052-1060

Ask the King of France – William could become King of England as well as Duke of Normandy – so will you:

a) Continue to support him and help him increase his power

b) Look for ways to reduce William’s power?

France chose (b) – he was anxious about the potential huge increase in William’s power. Therefore France supported rebels within Normandy and then invaded Normandy in 1053/1054.

Give France its Danger card back (builds up a visual sense of threat)

Ask Anjou – will you

a) Sit back and watch the French invasion as you lost to William before

b) Ally with France so you can win land from William?

Anjou chose (b) and brought in other, southern lords (Aquitaine, Blois).

Ask Flanders – will you join alliance against William – your help could finish him off? Answer – no. [refer to marriage of Matilda to William – Matilda possible queen]

Result of war – William’s tactic was to wear down enemies until they made peace. He avoid a one-off battle as too risky.

Ask whole class – if Edward had died in these years could William have invaded England?

Answer – NO – he had to defend Normandy. Emphasise these wars lasted through 1050s – a long time (longer than students will be in secondary school!)

5. Luck and more warfare 1060-1065

1060 William had two slices of luck:

1) Both King of France and Geoffrey of Anjou died in 1060

2) Neither had adult male heir – succession disputes

Therefore there was much less danger to Normandy after 1060.

Take danger cards from France and Anjou to symbolize reduction in threat.

William still faced war with Brittany in 1064 after earl Conan of Brittany raided into Normandy.

Ask William will you:

a) Ignore Breton raids so you’re ready if Edward dies

b) Invade Brittany to punish Conan of Brittany?

William chose b) – needed to show his power and discourage potential enemies.

Results can be seen in Bayeux Tapestry – attacks on Dol, Rennes etc with Harold.

After this success William dominates northern France – take Danger card from Brittany – now complete absence of danger cards.

Ask Flanders – was it a good idea to support William?


Begin by asking students what they have learned from this activity so they have to think about and identify their learning.

Points to focus on if answers not forthcoming:

1. William was able to invade England in 1066 because he was not under attack in Normandy – if there had been attacks he could not have invaded England.

2. Peace in northern France enabled other lords to join him in invasion – they didn’t have to worry about their lands during invasion.

3. His successes raised his reputation as a successful leader so he was more likely to raise support for the invasion of England.


Constructive feedback is always welcome, particularly anything that will help other teachers.

This Page




Setting Up

The Activity