Curtain raiser given by Martin Ayres
to the Johannesburg branch of the MHS on
Thursday 9th October 2007
In 1066, three kings reigned in England, there were three battles and two invasions; the history of Anglo-Saxon England changed forever; the English nobility was almost wiped out; a foreign speaking hierarchy and the system of feudalism were thrust upon the nation. There has not been another invasion of England since, although some have threatened to do so.
King Edward the Confessor died on January 4th 1066 and his death led to a series of events, culminating in the crowning of a foreign king on Christmas Day of the same year. I do not intend to go deeply into the politics of the time but some explanation of the political realities is essential in explaining the whys of the events that took place on that small island off the European coast, 66 years into the new millennium.
When Edward died, he left no offspring, being of an inordinately pious nature. According to the eventual monarch, Duke William of Normandy, known as "the Bastard", he was Edward's declared heir. However, no one else knew of this or, if they did, accepted it. This applied especially to the man who was acclaimed and crowned King on January 6th - Harold Godwinson. Harold Godwinson was Edward's brother-in-law and the most powerful earl in England and he had ruled in all but name for the last two years of Edward's reign as the old man was incapable through ill-health.
However, these two were not the only claimants to the throne of England. Others were Harald Sigurdsson, known as Hardraade, King of Norway and Sweyn, king of Denmark, both of whom had claim through King Cnut.
To make matters even more complicated, according to Norman records, Harold had sworn an oath that he would back the claim of William, although he did say that he did not know that there was a reliquary under the alter where he swore that oath. But, the English crown at that time was not an inherited position, the king being elected by the Witan Gamoot, the Council of Wise Men, and they had elected Harold. Finally, there is no doubt in the minds of most historians, that Edward had indicated on his deathbed, that Harold was to be his successor. In addition, William's bastardy, combined with his very distant ties of kinship with the now deceased king, may well have rendered him ineligible in the eyes of the Saxon nobles.
There was no denying that Harold made a very good king. All of the contemporary accounts, with the exception of those of Normandy, refer to his quality of character and leadership. He was strong, fit and good-looking. He was also known for his wisdom, honesty, frankness, loyalty and ability to be both fair and firm. He had the majority of the people of England united behind him as he prepared to face the dangers that he knew would come from over the sea.
To counter any invasion, Harold had an army of over 3000 Huscarls and could call on a further 10 000 of the fyrd, the part time territorials who could be called up for a period of 40 days duty each year. However, they were spread throughout the nation and could not be called up en-masse. Harold also had a fleet, manned by sailors and fishermen from coastal ports, which amounted to a sea-fyrd.
Meanwhile, both Harald Hardraade and William were making their preparations to invade. King Harold meanwhile used his fleet and the local fyrd to guard the southern and eastern coasts against William. He left the defence of the north to two teenaged brothers, Edwin, Earl of Mercia and Morcar, Earl of Northumbria.
Then, Tostig, Harold's rebellious brother, invaded the Isle of White with a force of Flemings before he moved east along the south coast. He commandeered a small fleet in Sandwich harbour and then was joined by Copsi, a Northumbrian supporter with 18 ships. Now with a fleet of 60 ships, and avoiding Harold's fleet, Tostig harassed Norfolk before sailing north. Defeated by Edwin and fended off by Morcar, Tostig sailed to Scotland to summer with Malcolm Canmore, King of the Scots.
Harold had sent his spies to the Cherbourg peninsular, and they had told him of the size of William's army and fleet. Harold continued his watch throughout the summer, convinced that the greatest danger was from William and was resigned to leaving the defence of the north to the Edwin and his brother, Morcar. Neither were experienced commanders and nor had they fought a battle before.
Finally, convinced that William would not come that year, Harold stood down his army and disbanded the fyrd on September 8th. From this it was also apparent that he thought that Harald Hardraade would also not attack this late in the year. The fleet was therefore stood down and returned to London.
It was about this time that Tostig most likely submitted to Harald Hardraade and, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, became his vassal. Tostig and Hardraade joined their fleets at the mouth of the Tyne, according to previous arrangement and landed on the east coast of Yorkshire soon after. Their combined fleet has been estimated at over 250 ships.
Harold Godwinson probably learned of Hardraade and Tostig's attacks on Cleveland and Scarborough as early as 15th September, shortly after he returned to London and before he learned of the defeat of Edwin and Morcar at Fulford on 20th September.
Fulford is just south of York and the two young earls, with a considerable force, left the defences of York and advanced to meet their enemy. The two armies met at Fulford, then a wet and muddy field, now a suburb of the city of York.
It has been estimated that Hardraade's army totalled 7 - 8 000 men, while the northern earls must have raised as many if not more. From a previous episode in Harold's life when he and his father was forced into exile, it has been estimated that the combined armies of Mercia and Northumberland constituted at least half of the available Huscarls and fyrd in England. It may be that the size of the invading army forced Harold's decision to march north as he realised that the earls had too small an army to ensure that the invaders would be defeated. It may therefore be said that the earl's defeat at Fulford, lost Harold the services of many men he would need at Hastings.
The battle lasted possibly an hour at the most and ended when Hardraade rolled up the English right wing, slaughtering many and drowning even more in the river Ouse. The earl's army was cut to pieces and Hardraade's standard, the famous "Landwaster", a white standard with a black raven, fluttered triumphant over a field strewn with fighting men England could ill afford to lose.
Possibly because Tostig wanted to preserve the town, the Norse army did not enter York but turned back to their ships and entered into negotiations with their defeated enemies for the surrender of the city and delivery of hostages. These negotiations took place at Stamford Bridge, eight miles north east of York. So, it was not until 24th that Hardraade and his army would have reached the river Derwent.
Resting there in a meadow, they must have received a shock when they saw the glint of sunlight off many helmets, a mile or two to the west. Soon they made out the standards of Wessex and the banner of the fighting Man, Harold's personal standard. They had been expecting a group of 500 hostages and had not expected another army.
The king had not hesitated and had sped his Huscarls up the straight Roman road to the north calling up the fyrd as he went. He arrived at Stamford Bridge with a considerable army, possibly enlarged by some of the survivors of Fulford. Harold's army had covered 180 miles in 4 days, one of the greatest marches in military history. Leaving Tadeaster on 24th, Harold arrived in York the next day. Finding the Norsemen only 8 miles away and unaware of his arrival, the king ordered the march to continue.
Hardraade's army, consisting of Norwegians, Flemings, Scots and even some English, was caught totally unprepared for battle. The main body was taking it's ease on the east bank of the river in fields around the present site of Danes Well garage and Battle Flats farm. So warm was the weather and so unsuspecting were those warriors, that many had discarded mail and weapons. A mile to the west of Stamford Bridge the ground rises and Harold's army would not have been in sight until they reached the top of this ridge, so there would have been little time or warning to prepare any defence.
The outposts were ordered to stand firm and gain time for the rest of the army to don armour and take up battle positions and messengers dispatched to Riccall to recall the rest of the army guarding the ships. Fighting with their backs to the river, the men on the west of the river were in an unenviable position as the bank in those days was much steeper than it is now and the only safe way across was by the narrow bridge.
Despite their tiredness, Harold's troops swept the Norsemen aside, those not killed by the Saxons were drowned in the Derwent. But one man took his guard on the bridge, and like Horatio, held the bridge against all comers. He stood on the western end of the bridge and taunted the Huscarls to hazard themselves and match his skill. As the Saxons fell before his axe, his companions on the east bank raised a cheer. But a Huscarl, finding a swill-tub upstream, paddled this ungainly craft under the bridge and thrust his spear through a gap in the bridge and into a particularly vulnerable and unprotected part of the Norseman's body and the Saxon army was able to rush across the bridge.
The details of the battle, if recorded, have been lost to us. It is accepted that the Norse army formed a shield wall to the north of the bridge. The bridge was narrow and could have been easily defended, as has already been shown.
But we do not know why they allowed the English to cross the bridge after the berserker was killed. It is possible that Hardraade allowed the English army to cross and form up as he desired a battle so he could finish and vanquish his main rival and his army. Once across the river and formed up, the English would have had but one objective, to smash the Norse shield wall, for there could be no retreat except into the dark and swirling waters of the Derwent.
The numbers of the two opposing armies are not known but we do know that about 1/3rd of Hardraade's army were at Riccall under Eyestein Ore and they did not join the fight until much later. The battle was a trial of strength between the Huscarls and the Norsemen, each trying to destroy the other.
The contemporary accounts said that the fighting lasted until dusk and apparently the Norsemen stood their ground magnificently and the English could only advance by inches. As men fell, others took their places and every time a gap was forced in either shield wall, it was as quickly closed. The chronicles are confusing in that some say that Hardraade was killed by an English missile early in the battle and the Norsemen rallied under Tostig until he was killed. Others that Hardraade was killed late in the day and Tostig failed to rally an army much discouraged by the death of their giant king. Eyestein's force arrived late and attacked immediately although probably unarmoured and tired. Once Eyestein was killed, the Northern army disintegrated and the pursuit and slaughter ensued.
The final count of the dead has been estimated at 5000 Norse and their allies as well as 2000 English. Harold was magnanimous in that he allowed the survivors to leave in their ships, only needing 24 of the initial fleet of 250 ships to do so. Hardraade got the seven foot of English soil promised him by Harold.
Within a week, Harold, already possibly marching south again, heard that Duke William of Normandy had landed near Hastings, in Harold's own earldom. William is thought to have landed on 28th, three days after the battle of Stamford Bridge. Harold arrived in London on 6th October and immediately prepared to march his tired army towards their new enemy. Harold started south, gathering up extra Huscarls and the Fyrd as he went. He knew from personal experience that William would carry out a ruthless harrying of the area where he had landed and this knowledge lent an extra urgency to his march to Hastings.
Now we must return to earlier in the year and look at the preparations made by Duke William for the invasion of England to take his crown from a man he had already named as usurper. When he had heard of Harold's coronation, William had been extremely angry and, after consultations with his half-brothers, resolved to avenge this insult by force of arms - it was now a point of honour for the Duke.
He called a council of war at Lillebonne where he sought support in his quest. The council was much against what they saw as a foolhardy adventure as they had never assembled such a force as would be required to be shipped across the Channel. They therefore turned down the proposal leaving William angry and insulted. But William was well versed in the art of political manoeuvring and intrigue so, by one-on-one discussions, coercion, promises of foreign land and suzerainship, he was able to persuade his vassals not only to support him in his fight against Harold, but to double their quotas. He now had around 1200 armoured horsemen available but required more and so went for support outside of his Duchy.
In addition he sought and got the Papal blessing for his invasion. He even received a consecrated banner, thus making his expedition into a crusade, morally demanding practical military assistance from the Christian nations of Europe against a man who had betrayed a sacred oath. As a result, William received promises of aid from Emperor Henry IV, Sweyn of Denmark and from neighbouring provinces such as Brittany and Flanders, Artois and Picardy.
He now set out to build a fleet. Some were existing craft but most were built especially for his expedition. According to one later chronicler, William had a fleet of 696 of his originally planned 752. Styled on the Viking dragon ships, they could carry cargo, men and horses.
This vast undertaking required the combined efforts of several ports and a well organised system of supply of all sorts of shipbuilding and chandler's requisites. And with no time for seasoning the wood, the ships were made to serve for the expedition only. William also built three pre-fabricated castles to take with him.
By the middle of August, William had his fleet provisioned and ready to sail, gathered between the Seine and the Orne. But the wind was unfavourable and he was forced to wait, maintaining the morale and fitness of his men and horses.
On 12th September, William moved his fleet north to St Valery at the mouth of the Somme. This brought him closer to England, making for a much shorter crossing when the weather favoured it. The trip was not without incident as some vessels were lost to bad weather and some deserted. After secretly burying the dead, William had the bones of St Valery paraded to maintain morale and take his army's minds off the waiting. He was forced to continue to try every avenue to maintain morale, with prayers and exhortations, for the weather continued to be contrary for a crossing from France. Of course, the wind direction made it easy for Hardraade to make his crossing.
Finally, on 27th September, the wind veered and there was frantic activity to load the ships before dusk. The 500+ ships stood off the coast, each with a lamp, awaiting the signal from the Mora, William's ship. The fleet weighed anchor around midnight and, closely watching each other's lights, crossed the short stretch of channel to Hastings. William arrived at dawn, well before the rest of the fleet and had time to eat before the masts and sails were sighted.
The fleet landed at Pevensey Bay, which indented the coast in 1066. Only two ships were lost in the crossing, one carrying William's soothsayer who had failed to foresee his own death.
The unloading of the ships was eased by beaching them in line abreast and unshipping the masts. The horses were offloaded first so that they could be settled and scouts sent out to look for any resistance. William would not have known that Harold had gone north to fight Hardraade but did expect local resistance while the English king brought his army to meet the Normans.
Quickly raising one of the portable castles, inside the ruins of the Roman fort at Pevensey, William consolidated his landing before moving to Hastings. He continued to dominate the surrounding region for about 25 miles all round, with standing patrols. These men harassed the locals, even entering the churches and denying them sanctuary. This had always been Williams's method of lowering the defenders morale by creating alarm and despondency. Harold knew of this from 1064, when he accompanied William on a raid, so it is possible it rushed some of the decisions, which he took in this short campaign. Also, the country was under excommunication and that could have persuaded Harold that he had to defeat the Norman invasion to reverse that decision by God's grace. William meanwhile erected the two other pre-fabricated castles at Hastings and waited for the English army.
It has been estimated that William had a total force of 5000 armed men, with possibly 2500 more sailors, supply personnel, stable lads, maintenance men and servants. His infantry consisted of archers, spearmen and some axemen. The cavalry were well armed with mail hauberks, helm with nasal and a large kite shield.
The English army was considered by most historians to be the finest in Europe. It was a purely infantry army with Harold's elite, the Huscarls, and the fyrd with a few archers. They fought on foot, although the Huscarls travelled to and from battle on horseback. Their method of fighting was the shield wall, a tight, shield-locked phalanx, difficult to beat either in defence or attack.
It is clear from what followed, that William's scouts kept him well informed about the army coming to meet him; it's strength, speed of march and route. But he did not know until late on the 13th October, where the English army would concentrate. He was therefore unable to set an ambush. Also, as the English came out of a forest, he was unsure of any local reinforcements travelling through that forest.
However, by assembling his army early on 14th, William made sure Harold could not afford to wait for more reinforcements and forced him onto the defensive on Senlac Hill. The site chosen by Harold, probably from his own local knowledge, gave him a ridge where he could assemble his shield wall, flanked by marshland to force a frontal attack. It has been established that the shield wall occupied about 680 metres along the ridge. Giving that each man took up about 2 feet, Harold had 1000 men in the front line with more behind. By overlapping their shields, the English were in an extremely strong defensive formation.
William had placed his archers in the front, with the infantry behind them. The cavalry were in the rear, the Bretons and Franco-Flemish on the flanks and the Normans in the centre. Led by a born leader, the Normans and their allies faced a battle hardened, though possibly tired army also led by a man who inspired his troops. William was 38 and Harold 44 years of age. Both were experienced and in their prime. One mounted and one on foot, they faced each other for the crown of England.
The Norman army stood facing a forbidding wall of warriors on a 20 metres high ridge, 50 metres in front of them. The Norman leaders knew that their attack would require all their coordinating ability if they were to exert simultaneous pressure on the English line in spite of the varying slope of the length of the ridge. Meanwhile the English must have looked down with satisfaction, knowing that the hill they defended would be very difficult to attack, even the charge of armoured cavalry would be very difficult up such a slope. Harold was near the centre, with his standards, his personal banner The Fighting Man and the Wessex Wyvern. This was to be a new type of warfare for both armies - an infantry wall against a combined army of missile firers, infantry and cavalry. A new era in warfare was to be announced this day.
About 9 am, William's three divisions advanced to the attack. Leading the attack were the archers, firing their short bows into the shield wall. They soon ran out of ammunition as their arrows were impaled on the shields or lost over the English line - firing uphill is not easy. They also had few arrows fired back at them so there weren't many to be picked up and shot back.
As the archers withdrew, the infantry filed through them and began to climb the hill towards the waiting Saxons. They found that the archery had been almost ineffective and the wall before them was intact. They fell back under a storm of missiles - axes, stones and javelins. Probably because the slope before them was shallower, the Bretons reached the shield wall first. Inexperienced, they held back, waiting for the rest of the Norman line to come up with them. The Breton cavalry attacked in an uncoordinated melee with their flanks exposed, only to find that they could not approach the shield wall to use their swords without endangering their unarmoured mounts and the attack fell back. Still unsupported by the rest of the Norman army, they now exposed the Norman left flank.
When the Normans and Franco-Flemings finally reached the top of the ridge, having struggled through the hail of English missiles and the melee of their own infantry, they too, against all their expectations, came up against an intact shield wall. With their left flank exposed, they also turned and fled in considerable disorder.
But some of the inexperienced Fyrd, thinking the battle won, broke the wall and pursued the Bretons. William immediately turned some of his cavalry onto them. Seeing the cavalry coming, the fyrd stood at bay on a small hillock near the base of the hill. Unarmoured and against cavalry, these English died to a man. As the Norman army regrouped, both they and the English could relax a little and regain composure.
Harold, sticking to his decision to hold his line and not attack the retreating Norman army, was able to close ranks and restore his right flank. His dead and wounded were taken to the rear. Dead horses were probably used as a barricade while Norman dead were left where they lay.
In addition, hauberks were removed from the dead and weapons taken for the use of others in need. Meanwhile, William was regrouping his army back into their divisions prior to another attack. Not wanting to allow the English any more breathing space than he could help, he led the second attack himself. It is most probable that, unlike the first attack, this one was better timed and the entire English line came under assault at much the same time. The distance between the archers, infantry and cavalry following up may have been reduced and consequently the pressure on the shield wall much stronger. But it suffered the same fate as the first assault - the shield wall held and the cavalry could not get in close due to the vulnerability of their mounts to Saxon axes.
But the attack was evidently repeated over a 2 hour period and many died on both sides.
The wall of bodies would have hampered the Norman attacks, just as they did the French at Agincourt 350 years later. Failure to break the English line demoralised the invaders and the Franco-Flemings broke and retreated. It is recorded that they believed William was killed and he had to ride amongst them with helmet off to stop the rot.
It has always been believed that William deliberately organised a feigned retreat to again cause the inexperienced fyrd to break the shield wall and allow his cavalry to cut them up, thus reducing the numbers in the shield wall. There was no indication of such happening being depicted on the Bayeau tapestry.
The English had suffered grievous losses but their wall had held and they stood and watched as William's army fell back to regroup again. Both sides consolidated and made ready for the battle to commence. William may have placed all his unwounded cavalry and infantry into one division for a final attack. He knew that if he lost the battle, none of his men would get home; it was win or die.
The last, combined attack started around 3 pm, with the archers firing their arrows at a steep angle to get them over the shield wall. The combined cavalry and infantry would have walked up the hill so as to support each other; the infantry using their spears and javelins to open spaces for the cavalry to burst through. The attack possibly lasted up to an hour before the shield wall began to fail and the Normans broke in at last.
Harold, despite the breaking of the wall, was still surrounded by his Huscarls and his standards still flew. But as the flanks were driven in, the plight of his army became desperate. Harold was killed, along with his brothers as the light began to fail. The story of his getting an arrow in the eye is a misinterpretation of the Bayeau tapestry. Here it can be seen that Harold (under the words INTERFECTUS EST) is killed by a cavalryman with a sword cut to the leg. The man with the arrow in the eye was not Harold, but a Huscarl or perhaps one of his brothers. It was normal practice for the Huscarls to stand with their lord and die with him. They considered it a great dishonour to leave the battle when he had died. So, they would have kept on fighting until all were dead. Thus the elite of the army would have been destroyed along with their king. According to the record, the Normans spared no English, wounded or not.
In the morning the battlefield was covered with the bodies of an estimated 4000 men and 6-700 horses. The Normans were buried near the battlefield, the English, with the exception of Harold, allowed to be taken away by the locals for burial. Once the bodies had been removed, William led his army back to Hastings.
William had suffered about 30% casualties and possibly thought the number remaining too few to take the country. But he soon knew that he was the only surviving claimant to the throne and decided to march to London and await the English response. He went on a circuitous route via Dover, Canterbury, south, then west and north of London before entering the city. He continued to harry the country he marched through, again to demoralise the remaining English nobility and to force them to come to him. He waited a full month west of Canterbury, possibly because of illness (some of his army had succumbed to diarrhoea and fever) but also because of the complete silence from the English.
The indecision of the English was because of the loss of so many of the nobles. Those left were mostly young and did not want a foreign king. So, after much deliberation, the witan Gamoot elected Edgar, the only remaining possibility. But the bishops delayed crowning him, mainly because of the excommunication of the nation announced by the Pope. The defeat of Harold had confirmed William's claim as right in the eyes of God. They believed that the nation had sinned and God's punishment was the defeat of their king, the harrying of the country and the imposition of a foreign king.
William continued on his ramble around London, burning villages and towns and killing and raping the people. Once he had arrived to the north of the city, he sent 500 horsemen to test the defences. The people of London attacked them and were driven back. The Normans burnt Southwark and then rejoined the army. Some reinforcements arrived from Normandy and William then took the city of Winchester.
It took a while for the resistance of London to die, but, following the defection of the Archbishop of Canterbury Stigand, they finally gave in and William received a deputation of submission. Hostages were given and oaths taken. He entered London and was crowned on Christmas day, by the man who had crowned Harold, Aldred, Archbishop of York.
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