Dating the past

Dating the past. When was 1066?

27th april 2017

The battle of Hastings took place on 14th October 1066. Just saying that seems to imbue the date with the quality of being an incontestable fact. I will go on to show that dating the past is not always as simple as it might seem.

But first. Let us recall some things that are known about the battle – which actually took place near to the bay of Pevensey, in what is today the county of East Sussex. The battle was fought between the king of England Harold Godwinson and William, Duke of Normandy. A few days earlier Harold had won a battle against invading Danes under the leadership of Harald Sigurdsson of Norway, known as Hardrada. This was the battle of Stamford Bridge. Harald was killed, along with Earl Tostig Godwinson, brother of the English king in a conflict that saw Harold Godwinson victorious.

William of Normandy’s fleet of ships landed at the bay of Pevensey, which is between the modern day towns of Eastbourne and Hastings. During the battle, Harold’s younger brother Gyrth Godwinson and his other brother Leofwine were killed. The battle was fought close to the place now called Battle – about eight miles from modern day Hastings; an abbey was erected to mark the conflict near to the site where it had traditionally been said to have been fought. The town of Hastings was first mentioned in the late 8th century when it was known as Hastingas. Clearly there was a settlement there during Anglo-Saxon times. Battle Abbey was built in 1095.

The earliest account of the battle is found in the Carmen de Hastingae Proelio, written in the 11th century. Only a copy of it, from the early 12th century, still survives.

Following the battle at Pevensey, where Harold Godwinson was killed, the English nobles surrendered to William at Berkhamstead in December, after which William rode into London and was crowned, at Westminster Abbey, on Christmas day.

My interest in this event was kindled by watching the series on BBC2 television: 1066 – a year to conquer England.

So how certain can we be that dates given in historical accounts are accurate? Clearly, medieval writers know dates and could record any date on which an event took place. Our problem is in counting backwards and saying that an event took place x or y hundred years ago.

This problem stems from changes to the calendar that has been used over time. The calendar we use today, at least in the West, is the Gregorian Calendar which was introduced by Pope Gregory XIII in the 16th century, in October 1582. That calendar was introduced because errors were discovered in the previous calendar – the Julian – which was based on an even earlier one – the Roman calendar. The Julian calendar introduced a very small correction to the length of the year. Not all European countries adopted the Gregorian calendar straight away – Greece did not adopt it until 1923. The Gregorian calendar was used to calculate the date of Easter, a very important festival for the Christian church. According to Wikipedia, ‘Since the introduction of the Gregorian calendar, the difference between Gregorian and Julian calendar dates has increased by three days every four centuries.’ This article goes on to explain variations between the two calendars in some detail. A table shows that the differences in days can vary between 10 and 14 days.

Great Britain adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1752. The Wikipedia article (see below for references) provides an example of the problems that can occur when dating important events: ‘So, for example, the Parliamentary record lists the execution of Charles I on 30 January as occurring in 1648 (as the year did not end until 24 March), although later histories adjust the start of the year to 1 January and record the execution as occurring in 1649.

So, when the scribes – who wrote about the Battle that took place in Southern England – gave the date as 14th October 1066, they would have been using the Julian calender.

Even today, various other calendars exist. The Islamic faith has its own calendar, which differs from that of the Christian church. There is a calendar for the Chinese which is based astronomical observations of the sun’s longitude and the phases of the moon.

Going back to the Norman invasion, how long did it take them, to fully conquer the whole country? In particular, when did they take over Leicester? William died in 1087. That marked a milestone in Norman Britain. He was succeeded by his third son, William who was crowned William II in 1087. He has become known as ‘William Rufus.’ The years of William’s reign were marked by sporadic insurgencies and the odd rebellion and by threats of invasion from mainland Europe. There was an uprising by the Northumbrians who captured Durham and lay siege to York. The 21 years of William’s rule were peppered with revolts and uprisings. After conquering England, William ousted the old aristocracy replacing it with his system of Earls and nobles. Although the Normans introduced a powerful aristocracy to the country they preserved some of the established Anglo-Saxon posts and positions of the local administrations, much as the Roman had done several centuries earlier. Just as Roman rule did not extend fully into Scotland, so too the Normans failed to subdue the Scottish tribes.

When did the Normans take over Leicester?

Robert de Beaumont was created the 1st Earl of Leicester (born sometime between 1040 and 1050, died 5 June 1118). He was a close associate of William. He fought at Hastings. He had four descendants all of whom were called Robert and they all became Earl of Leicester. Leicester castle was built around 1070 under the governorship of Hugh de Grandmesnil. It was constructed on the site of a much earlier Roman fortification. The castle still exists today and the mound of the Motte can be visited. It had remained in continuous use since it began though for several years it fell into a state of poor repair. The great hall was given a brick frontage in the style of Queen Anne. Before the coming of the Normans, Leicester had been a thriving Anglo-Saxon town. The town was mentioned in the Domesday book of 1086, when it was called Ledecestre. It was described as a small walled town surrounded by farms, fields and agricultural plots. There were four gates in the walls. William’s army had taken over nearly the whole of England prior to his being crowed, in London, on Christmas day 1066. Before the times of the Anglo-Saxons, the town was an important centre for the Romans, when it was called Ratae Corieltauvorum.


Marc Morris, The Norman Conquest: the battle of Hastings and the fall of Anglo-Saxon England, 2012. Random House.

Difference between Gregorian and Julian calendar dates, Wikipedia,

Dating the past, article in Science Learning Hub,

Dating the past, chapter 4, in Archaeology an introduction, University of Newcastle Upon Tyne, 2002,

Chronological dating in Wikipedia,

Dating the Past: An Introduction to Geochronology. FREDERICK E. ZEUNER. (xx, 495 pp.,
103 figures, 24 plates, $8.00. Third revised edition. Methuen & Co., Ltd., London
and Longmans, Green & Co., Inc., New York, 1952.)