“I will give him just six feet of English soil; or, since they say he is a tall man, I will give him seven feet.” – Harold Godwinson commenting on Harald Hardrada right before he destroyed Hardrada and his army at the Battle of Stamford Bridge
Harold defeated his enemies at Stamford Bridge soundly that day. They never suspected him to be there that fast. He marched to York in record time for that era to surprise and defeat them. Harold’s life had been such, that when an opportunity presented itself you did not hesitate. In his time, there was always someone waiting to take what you had. Be it land, treasure, favor or the crown of England itself. For a man like Harold Godwinson, there was no time to rest and no time to waste. The moment was always now and the stakes ever so high.
5. Harold’s early life
Harold was born in 1022 and was the son of Earl Godwin of Wessex and Gytha Sprakling (990 – 1069). Gytha was the great-granddaughter of Harold Bluetooth, King of Denmark and Norway. He had three brothers Swegen, Tostig and Gyrth and a sister called Edith. In 1046, his brother, Swegen, was sent into exile for seducing the abbess of Leominister.
In 1051, Harold’s father, Godwin, raised an army against King Edward the Confessor but a war was averted when it was agreed that the Witan ( a council consisting of 60 powerful nobles) would sort out the dispute. The Witan declared that Earl Godwin and his sons should be banished from England. Godwin and his sons, Tostig and Gyrth went to Flanders and Harold went to Ireland. The following year they all returned and sailed up the Thames in force. They resumed their place as the richest and most powerful nobles in England and forced Edward the Confessor to send the Normans in the English court back to Normandy. King Edward the Confessor was also ‘persuaded’ to marry Edith, the daughter of Earl Godwin and Harold’s sister.
In 1053, Godwin died and his son Harold succeeded him as the Earl of Wessex. In 1055, Harold’s brother, Tostig, became the Earl of Northumbria. Harold and Tostig were great fighters and in 1063 Harold and Tostig subdued Wales.
4. Why did he go to Normandy?
Harold’s strange trip to Normandy in 1064 has become somewhat of a mystery to historians. Why did he go? How much damage did it cause? One thing is certain: Harold and William were far from strangers by the time they met on the battlefield of Hastings. One story says Harold was on a fishing trip in the English Channel when a squall blew his boat all the way to Ponthieu in 1064. Count Guy took Harold hostage and handed him over to Duke William of Normandy. Harold most likely knew he was not going to get back to England without giving up some type of valuable concessions.
The Norman chroniclers are quick to say that King Edward the Confessor sent Earl Harold to Normandy to confirm his choice of William as heir to the English throne. However, Edward had no legal right to appoint his successor because the final decision rested with the Witan, the king’s council. Another theory is Harold was testing the waters with William to see what opposition he may face if he (Harold) were made King. But in 1064, King Edward was in good health and Edgar Aetheling, the true heir, was being raised at the royal court. The motivation that makes the most sense is he went to Normandy in an attempt to secure the release of his brother Wulfnoth and his nephew Hakon, held hostage since around 1052.
Harold’s stay at William’s court was long but very cordial. During this time, Duke William led a punitive expedition against Conan of Brittany, taking Harold with him and fighting side-by-side with the famous Saxon Earl. The Bayeux Tapestry shows a scene where Harold wades into quicksand to save two Norman soldiers from certain death. Afterwards, William knighted Harold and gave him arms and weapons.
Whatever the case, William made Harold swear an oath in front of all the Norman barons before he was permitted to leave for England. Harold was obliged to swear an oath to support William’s claim to the English throne, swear to secure the castle of Dover for William and to marry one of William’s daughters. Knowing this was his only way out, Harold duly swore the oath knowing that under duress, many an oath was often considered invalid. William, however, secretly laid the bones of Normandy’s saints beneath a tablecloth on which the bible sat. Once the pledge was sworn, the tablecloth was whisked off and Harold was in shock that he had just sworn a false oath on holy relics. As a consequence of their extended time together, both men were able to size each other up and observe what kind of warrior they each were.
3. Harold becomes King of England
At Edward’s death, January 10, 1066, there were 3 strong candidates for the throne:
- Earl Harold, the powerful Earl of Wessex, brother-in-law and friend of the late king. Harold did not have royal blood but he was an adult magnate at the heart of English government and the brother of the widowed queen;
- Duke William of Normandy; the late king’s mother, Emma, was the sister of Duke William’s grandfather, making William and Edward first cousins once removed. So William was a close kinsman of the late king, but he was a foreign duke with no powerbase in England;
- Edgar Aetheling, the young son of Edward the Exile; Aethelred the Unready was the late king’s father and Edgar’s great-grandfather. Edgar was thus the direct inheritor of the English royal line. But he was a child with no significant following and so no immediate prospect of being able to rule independently.
The question is what Edward the Confessor intended. There is little evidence to suggest that Edward the Confessor intended to be succeeded by his greatnephew, Edgar Aetheling. The rival claims of Harold and William are harder to understand. To deal first with Harold, he was without any doubt a very powerful figure by the mid-1060’s. Edward had attempted to escape from the power of Godwine and his sons in the early 1050’s, but having failed so to do, he allowed the balance of power to tip in favor of the family. After Godwine’s death, he allowed Harold’s establishment as England’s premier earl. It even appears that in the last few years of his reign, Edward was increasingly stepping back from active political life and allowing Harold and his brothers to play an evermore important role in government. But if Edward considered Harold a viable prospect for the succession, then our story becomes more complicated still – for Harold had a powerful brother, Tostig, who was earl of Northumbria, and of course also the king’s brother-in-law.
In 1065, there was a violent rebellion against Tostig. Edward sent Harold deal with it. But Harold failed and Edward was forced to accept the rebels’ demands, exiling Tostig (who fled to the continent) and giving his earldom to Morcar, who was from an old Anglo-Saxon magnate family.) This might look like a defeat for Harold but in fact he was able to remove his own brother from power. Some English sources claimed that on his deathbed, King Edward designated Harold as his heir. The kingdom was recovering from a crisis and Harold was in pole position – did Edward believe that his succession would be best for the kingdom? We simply cannot say for sure whether the deathbed bequest took place – and even if it did, it does not mean that Harold ‘should’ have been king, or that Edward may not have designated someone else as his heir earlier in his reign.
In any case, Harold had himself crowned with a haste that suggests that he knew that his succession was not going to be without controversy. William, by now furious, began to plan his campaign. At the same time, Harold’s exiled brother, Tostig, began to plan how he could regain his status in England and formed an alliance with Harold Hardrada, the King of Norway.
2. Battle of Stamford Bridge
King Harold was fully aware that both King Hardrada of Norway and William of Normandy might try to take the throne from him. Harold believed the Normans posed the main danger and he positioned his troops on the south coast of England. His soldiers were made up of housecarls and the fyrd. Housecarls were well-trained, full-time soldiers who were paid for their services. The fyrd were working men who were called up to fight for the king in times of danger.
Harold waited all summer but the Normans never arrived. Harold sent some of his troops home after awhile. William’s attack had been delayed. He was busy gathering soldiers and building ships for the journey across the channel. He would have to wait a further month for a change in the direction of the wind.
In early September, King Hardrada of Norway invaded northern England. The messenger told Harold that Hardrada had come to conquer all of England. It is said that Harold replied: “I will give him just six feet of English soil; or, since they say he is a tall man, I will give him seven feet.” With Hardrada was Harold’s brother, Tostig, and 300 ships. Harold and what was left of his army headed north.They defeated the earls of Mercia and Northumbria and four days later took York.
The English army marched 190 miles from London to York in just four days. On September 24th, Harold’s army arrived at Tadcaster. At about noon, King Harald and Tostig were waiting on the banks of the River Derwent with about 7500-8000 men. Not expecting a battle, many of the Vikings were sun-bathing or swimming in the river – it was an unusually hot day for September – and none were wearing their armor, save their helmets and shields. The army was divided, some on the western bank of the Derwent and the majority on the eastern bank. The remainder of the invading army – as well as their armor – was 10 miles away with the fleet at Riccall.
Harold was a master at moving his army at lightening speed and showing up when you least expected him. When Godwinson’s army appeared in sight of the Vikings, Hardrada and Tostig were stunned; they had expected townsmen bringing supplies and hostages, not an army. After pulling together his scattered forces to the eastern side of the bridge, Hardrada left a token force to hold the bridge. When the English force reached the other side of the river and deployed in line, they faced the Vikings who had aligned their force in a shield-wall several ranks deep in front of a ridge. Harold and his English troops devastated the Norwegians. Both Hardrada and Tostig were killed. The Norwegian losses were considerable. Of the 300 ships that arrived, less than 25 returned to Norway.
After the victory, Harold heard that William of Normandy had landed at Pevensey Bay on September 28th. Harold’s brother, Gyrth, offered to lead the army against William, pointing out that as king he should not risk the chance of being killed. Harold replied, “I have taken no oath and owe nothing to Count William”. Harold immediately assembled the housecarls who had survived the fighting against Hardrada and marched south. Harold traveled at such a pace that many of his troops failed to keep up with him. When Harold arrived in London he waited for the local fyrd to assemble and for the troops of the earls of Mercia and Northumbria to arrive from the north. After five days they had not arrived and so Harold decided to march for the south coast, without his northern troops and into the history books.
1. Battle of Hastings
The bulk of his army was exhausted but nonetheless his speed had the effect he had been hoping for, he surprised the Normans by returning so quickly. Much has been made of Harold’s tactical errors. Yes, his men were exhausted. They had been in such a hurry they had not been able to rest or wait for fresh troops. However, the entire Kingdom was at stake. Culture, homes, family and their entire way of life would be altered. They would merely be a conquered people under the mercy of a foreign conqueror. Certainly a man like Harold would have driven that point home to those men who decided to stand and fight with him that day.
In the months leading up to the Battle of Hastings, it was clear that William had a tactical advantage. He was able to go about his preparations in a calm and methodical manner, while all Harold could do was keep a huge standing army in readiness (a massive drain on the royal coffers). Similarly, the legal obligation of Anglo-Saxon fyrd’s was that they must give two months of service. William knew that by delaying this period would soon expire. Certainly, for whatever reason, Harold was forced to disband the fyrd on the September 8.
William understood it was in his best interests to fight a tired Harold as soon as possible. Harold’s brother, Gyrth proposed waiting until all available troops had been assembled and in the meantime burning all the land between William’s army and London. Such tactics would strand William in the harbor because he would be unable to bring an army and their horses through a wasteland. Gyrth also tried to convince Harold to allow either himself or their other brother, Leofwine, to lead the army at Hastings while Harold held a second army in reserve in case the battle at Hastings were to go badly.
Harold refused all of that. He would not allow himself to send others into danger while he remained safely at home; he could not wait for battle for fear that the Norman army was receiving reinforcements from the continent. He was also flushed with victory from Stamford Bridge, a victory which was still fresh in his mind. This would be an all or nothing battle.
William too made some huge tactical errors. He failed to secure the high ground and his scouts spotted the approach of the English army just in time. This shows remarkable lack of foresight in the numbers and range of William’s deployed scouts as Harold’s army would have been large and noisy as they undertook the long march from London.
William also had an all or nothing message for his troops. He let them know that if the battle continued on, the English would have reinforcements and the Norman retreat would be cut off by an English fleet. Quite right. While Harold could settle at a draw, William must win outright if his conquest was to be successful.
On the night of October 13, 1066, Harold’s army of around 6,000 men camped about 12 miles from Pevensey, close to Hastings. The following morning at dawn the Normans marched out to meet them.
The Normans possessed a large cavalry formation of about 2,000 men and horses. Harold knew how fierce a fighting force the Norman cavalry could be, having seen them in action in Brittany. His own army rarely fought mounted men, so to counter this threat, he positioned his men on the steep-sided Senlac Hill. Overlapping their shields the English formed a shield wall along the ridge.
William began his assault with a volley of arrows. Then he sent his infantry up the slope into a hail of javelins, spears and hammers. Unable to penetrate the shield wall the Saxons had formed, William’s left flank fled back down the hill and it wasn’t long before the Norman center decided to follow. William was forced to withdraw to regroup.
William advanced again: this time, his infantry were supported by his knights on horseback wielding lances. In this second advance, William’s horse was killed by a javelin thrown by one of Harold’s brothers. William commandeered the horse of one of his knights but could not penetrate the shield wall and was forced to retreat a second time.
William’s large number of archers opened up on Harold’s army. Harold himself was felled by one of these arrows. For his third assault William changed tactics. This time his cavalry lead the charge, screaming their war cry ‘Dex Aie’ (God’s Help). More headway was made on this occasion against the weary English but again the Normans were driven back.
The Norman bowmen then launched another attack and if the Bayeux Tapestry is to be believed, this is how King Harold was killed – by an arrow in the eye. This is somewhat disputed. Harold’s body was so disfigured that his lover, Edith Swan Neck, was required to identify him by means of birth marks which only she knew. Such extensive damage is unlikely to have been incurred by a single arrow. Accounts of Harold being hacked with a broadsword also appear throughout history. It is possible to find accounts of the Saxons routing the Bretons who were harrying their flank. When some members of the English army broke ranks and gave chase, they were slaughtered when the Bretons turned and reformed. However, to organize such tactics on a mass scale is unlikely.
The Battle of Hastings can be seen in terms of the stroke of luck which won it; the death of King Harold. Overall, both generals appear as phenomenal commanders. At any time the battle could have gone either way and it is arguably only a lucky blow which ended it. Although Harold appeared to have all the advantages (the high ground, a larger force and fighting in an area which he was familiar with) his army was tired and depleted of both men and warhorses from Stamford Bridge. One cannot consider William’s victory as inevitable due to him being the better man and harder soldier, luck undoubtedly played a crucial part, although the style of the Norman forces gave a clear benefit to this army over the Saxons. It must be said however, that William made the most of the resources available to him..