Who really won at the Battle of Hastings?

950 years ago today, a beleaguered King Harold met William of Normandy in open battle at Hastings that changed map of Britain.

950 years ago today, a beleaguered King Harold met William of Normandy in open battle at Hastings. Having already repelled a Norwegian invasion just weeks earlier in the North, the Anglo-Saxon forces were overwhelmed by the Norman invaders in a battle that changed the social and political map of Britain. The rest, as they say, is history. 1066 is perhaps the most famous date throughout British history, one learned by rote by generations of school children, but what does this most memorable of moments mean for our British ancestry? Until very recently, it was next to impossible to determine exactly how much the Anglo-Saxons were replaced by Norman settlers. Archaeologists and historians have had to rely on small and sometimes elusive clues in the changing material culture of the time, and could also draw on early census records and changes in the English language (itself a mixture of Norman French and Anglo-Saxon Germanic languages). Now, with incredible advances in genetics, it is possible to look into the very DNA of the modern people of Britain, to discover even more about the incredible stories of our ancestors.

William may have won the battle for the English throne, but from a geneticist's point of view, the Anglo-Saxons are the clear winners. The first fine-scale genetic map of the British Isles was published in 2015, and shows definitively that the genetic signatures of British people are still clustered roughly into areas similar to Anglo-Saxon kingdoms that were established in the 6th Century AD, long before William’s ancestors had even settled Normandy from their homelands in Scandinavia. Incredibly, the borders of ancient and half-forgotten kingdoms such as Wessex, Mercia, and Northumbria are still imprinted onto the DNA of the English today. As of yet, geneticists have been unable to find a clear genetic signature suggestive of Norman lineages within the British populace today. Perhaps we simply have not found it yet, or maybe this hints at a failure for the new Norman elite to intermix with their Anglo-Saxon subjects.

The Normans may not have left a directly detectable genetic signature in Britain, but they and their descendants certainly indirectly affected the makeup of Britain’s DNA outside of the heartlands of England. The numerous wars and insurgencies fought for control of Wales, Scotland, and Ireland have left many physical reminders on the British landscape, with mighty stone castles a common feature along any historic borderlands here. These fortified frontiers also hold traces of these conflicts in the DNA of their modern day inhabitants. In South Wales, we can see a split in the population sometime after 1066, when the eastern and western halves of the region become genetically distinct from one another. In Southeast Wales today you can find both Welsh and Anglo-Saxon DNA combined, a legacy of the Norman incursions into this land, and the resultant intermixing of peoples. Similar changes occur up in the borderlands of Northern England and Scotland, with areas such as Cumbria and Northumbria splitting from one another as territories changed hands. Centuries later, the Ulster Plantations orchestrated in Northern Ireland during the rule of King James I saw many Southwest Scottish farmers relocated to Northern Ireland, which helps explain why the two areas share a similar genetic profile today.

Here at Living DNA, we can give a breakdown of your British ancestry to 21 different areas around the UK. From ancient Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms and Norman conquerors to tales of resistance and rebellion in Medieval Wales, Ireland and Scotland, your DNA will have been shaped by historical processes and people both remembered and forgotten. In order to find out more about where your ancestors may have come from (both within Britain and around the world), head on over to the Living DNA ancestry page to find out more.