It was not long before raiding Northmen, the Norse peoples referred to collectively by the English as Danes, began to settle in northern parts of the island. The Germanic peoples had to contend with Danish raids and influence for many years until Alfred the Great of Wessex (the West Saxons) began the reconquest of England from the Danes. Alfred's treaty with the Dane Guthrum in 886 defined the Danelaw, that body of law which applied to the regions north of the Thames and which was held by the Danish peoples. The term Danelaw was soon used to refer to the area itself which was subject to the Danish Law. Danegeld, a tax raised to buy off raiding Danes, continued to be a part of the English system well into the beginning of the 11th century when Aethelred was King of England.
King Aethelred was a descendent of Alfred the Great. His reign was part of a dynasty that included rule as Bretwalda, or Britain leader, even before the recognition of any king of all England. In 1013, Sweyn Forkbeard of Denmark invaded England. Sweyn was not just on a Norse raid. He came with the intent to stay, and was successful in sending the ruling family of Aethelred into exile. Aethlered took flight to Normandy, the home of his wife Emma.
There followed twenty years of Danish overlordship under Sweyn's son Canute that extended beyond the territories of the Danelaw to all of England. However, upon Canute's death in 1035, the struggle for the succession became a battle of wills of the great lords such as Godwin, Earl of Wessex, and Leofric, Earl of Mercia. Harold Harefoot, Canute's son by an English mistress, ruled for five years. Then Hardecanute, the son of Canute and Aethlered's widow Emma, assumed the throne for only two years. Finally in 1042, Aethelred's son Edward, Hardecanute's half-brother, came out of exile in Normandy where he had been for almost thirty years. With Edward's coronation, Anglo-Saxon rule in England was reinstated.
For twenty-four years, England enjoyed relative peace and prosperity under Edward and the able-bodied Earls of the realm. Upon Edward's death in 1066, however, the succession was again contested since Edward had no heirs of his own marriage to Edith. Considering the claimants, Haraald of Norway, William of Normandy and Harold of Wessex, it was most likely Harold that had the best chance of winning support among the Witan, that group of wise men under English custom and law in charge of naming the next king of their land.
Our place in time allows us the luxury of seeing history in perspective, helping us to answer many questions including the what, where, when and how of important events. To determine why things happened as they did requires still to guess at the motivations of the main characters in history. The men of the 11th century were perhaps simpler than modern Europeans, since their world was in many ways less complex. Yet, standing out from other men of their times, the main characters of history often look bigger than life, even by 20th century standards. However, they were men still. Men who suffered from the same weaknesses as do their descendants today. They had courage to face their world, yet they were not always in control of their lives. Perhaps there might have been a smooth transition after Edward the Confessor passed away, had Fate not dropped a spark into the kindling made up of Harold, Duke William and the King of Norway. Even the skies above England brought a harbinger of great changes afoot when Haley's comet made a strikingly splendid appearance, heightening the hysteria as the events of 1066 went uncontrollably ablaze.
King Haraald, Duke William, and Earl Harold: These pivotal characters were men of passion as well as strength. Not surprising then to find that the spark that lit the bonfire was a woman. Born in 1030, the Lady Godiva of Coventry became the young wife of Earl Leofric of Mercia. Devoutly religious, she took pity on her subjects and wished that her husband would not burden the townsfolk with such high taxes. However, unbeknownst to Lady Godiva, her celebrated ride through Coventry in 1057 put into motion events that set brother against brother and made would-be kings out of unlikely candidates. In Godiva and the Golden Dragon, Godiva's ride sets history on an irreversible course that destroys the mighty Haraald III of Norway, brings an end to Anglo-Saxon rule in England, and allows William of Normandy to change his surname from the Bastard to the Conqueror.