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The Truth About the Battle of Hastings

by Dawn Nelson 4 months ago in Historical

King Harold’s surname and other things you didn’t know about 1066

The Truth About the Battle of Hastings
Photo by Paweł Furman on Unsplash

We’ve all heard the stories about how the big bad Norman duke, William the Conqueror sailed over the Channel to give the English a bloody nose and take their crown. Right?

And how poor old King Harold, the rightful Anglo-Saxon king of England, was taken out by an unlucky arrow through his eye. Well...it’s not quite that simple.

There’s a lot more to 1066...as you are about to find out.

Deathbed

Let’s roll it back to the beginning of that year, with the old king, Edward the Confessor, was on his deathbed. Edward was the son of Aethelred the Unready and during his childhood, England was the target of numerous Viking raids and invasions. Mainly by the Danish Viking Sweyn Forkbeard and his son, Cnut. It got so bad that, for their own safety, Edward and his family fled to France where they lived in exile for a good number of years. Cnut conquered England in 1016 and the country stayed under Danish rule for nearly 25 years.

Edward eventually returned to England as king in 1042 and ruled England for twenty-four prosperous years, his wife, Edith, daughter of Godwin, at his side.

Fast forward nearly quarter of a century and poor Edward was dying. Although he had been married for a number of years, he had no heir, leaving good old England with a problem: if there was no king, there was always infighting amongst the nobles and the country was vulnerable to invasion, particularly by the Vikings again.

And nobody wanted that.

Historians have long debated why Edward and Edith never had children. Some historical accounts claim that Edward was so pious - hence his nickname of The Confessor (as in confessing to God) - that he and Edith practised marital chastity. Others think he refused to have children with Edith because he hated her father, Godwin. Whatever the reason, there was no Prince to take over once he died. So, what was England going to do?

Three Contenders

There were three main contenders for the throne.

The first was Harold Godwinson, aged 44, son of the hated Godwin, and brother-in-law to Edward. He was a battle-hardened warrior, had been acting king in all but name anyway, and had the support of other English nobles. He also claimed that Edward, while still in sound mind, named him as successor.

Across the English Channel was the second contender: William, Duke of Normandy, who was the 38-year-old illegitimate son of the Duke of Normandy and, Herleve, the pretty daughter of a local tanner. Throughout his youth he was called “William the Bastard” despite being recognised as his father’s heir.

He’d had a traumatic childhood (his father died when he was seven and he survived numerous assassination attempts), but grew up to be a respected and feared warrior who was known as much for his piousness as well as his ruthlessness. He once cut off the feet and hands a number of men who had dared to rebel against him.

William claimed that Edward had promised him the crown of England when the two met in 1051. He also said that Harold had made the same promise to William 13 years later in 1064 and had even sworn an oath on holy relics saying as much.

The third contender for the throne was Harald Sigurdsson, the third king of Norway. Harald, who was also known as Harald Hardrada (or hard leader), was waiting for Edward to die so he can take England. After all, other Vikings - the Danish – had ruled over it for 25 years, so why shouldn’t he?

He was a 50-year-old warrior who had earned his battle scars fighting as a sword for hire around the world: in Sicily, Russia, Constantinople and the Holy Land. He loved fighting and killing, so much so that he even wrote poems about it even on the battlefield. It was his way of recording all his great victories and cementing his fierce reputation for future generations.

In mediaeval terms, Hardrada was old, but he was not ready to give up yet. He’d had many successes in life, but wanted one last, and more importantly, huge victory before retiring. He had already tried and failed to conquer Denmark and his time as a powerful Viking warrior was running out.

Invading England was his last chance to show off how manly and Viking he was and, if he got his hands on it, it would make him one of the most legendary Vikings ever...and that was something the big-headed Harald liked the idea of.

There was someone else who had a much more legitimate claim to the throne than any of them.

Edgar the Aetheling (’throneworthy’) was Edward’s great-nephew, he was a true Anglo-Saxon prince and had royal blood running through his veins. But there was one problem: he was barely in his teens and had never been in battle, so was thought not to be a good fit for a king. He was ruled out.

Edward

Edward had been ill for most of December and into the New Year, but on January 4, 1066 the king surprised everyone by rallying. He told the people at his bedside that he’d had a nasty dream where “devils shall run through this land”. They tried to calm him, but he was adamant something nasty was going to happen and he was right.

He died the following day setting off a chain of events that affected England for years to come.

Edward’s body was barely cold when leading nobles, who have been in London since Christmas waiting for him pass away, discussed who should succeed him. They called together the Council of Nobles, which handily included Harold’s brother Gyrth, to decide. It was then that Harold told them that Edward had named him as next king. He had been doing the job anyway while the king’s was ill and had been doing a good job, so they agreed.

The next morning, on January 6, 1066, Edward was buried at Westminster Abbey, the very same Abbey he had only lately finished building as part of his devotion to God. That afternoon, also at the Abbey, Harold was crowned king. Normally, mediaeval kings were crowned months after their predecessor died, but Edward was barely in his grave when Harold was made the new king.

The News

The news of Edward’s death and Harold’s coronation took days to reach both William and Hardrada. William was in Rouen when he heard about it and was furious. He immediately sent an envoy to the new English king.

When the envoy arrived in London, he told Harold that his lord, William was displeased as he was the rightful king. Harold was the usurper, the envoy said, and William demanded he give up the crown. If not, William would come and take it. Harold listened to what the envoy said and then sent him packing.

While all this was happening, poor Harold was unaware that there was another enemy at the gate in the shape of his own brother, Tostig.

Tostig

Tostig had been the rather brutal Earl of Northumberland whom Harold had to force into exile because of his behaviour in the north of England. His brother had over-taxed the people and oppressed the nobles...so the nobles rebelled.

Harold had had two choices: support his brother which would lead to civil war giving the Vikings the perfect opportunity to invade or make his brother go into exile. Not wishing to leave the kingdom vulnerable, he chose the latter.

And that was the end of the matter...or so he thought.

Tostig, who was reputedly more handsome and braver than his brother, almost immediately hopped on a boat across the Channel and asked for an audience with Duke William. In a stunning act of treason and family disloyalty, Tostig plotted with the Duke against his own brother. He told William that he would help him take the crown of England and in return all he wanted was his stolen lands back.

William wasn’t sure he could trust Tostig…he was Harold’s brother after all. Besides William had his own plans about how he was going to get England.

Hardrada

Tostig’s next move was even more astonishing. According to the Norse sagas, he travelled north to Norway to petition Harald Hardrada.

He told Hardrada that Harold is an unpopular king and that if Hardrada invaded, the nobles would support him rather than their king. Hardrada, who was no fool, thought about it and then finally agreed to join forces. The pair set about planning how they would attack England from the north in late summer.

Meanwhile, a thousand miles south, William was also making plans to attack England in the summer. He gathered together troops, horses, ships, provisions and weapons in readiness for invasion.

In April, Harold was busy visiting his nobles in their own homes across England. He knew that he must secure power and win the support of all the nobles if he was to retain the crown, especially with the rebellious northern Earls. He went to Northumberland with Gyrth where Harold married Edith, sister to one of the Earls there, cementing family and political ties.

First Attack

While this happened, Tostig was getting anxious. He couldn’t wait for the Vikings to get their act together. He wanted his lands returned to him as quickly as possible. So, rather than waiting for them, at the beginning of May, Tostig took 60 warships, sailed them to England’s south coast and attacked the Isle of Wight. He landed unopposed and then allowed his men to run riot: they attacked people, burned houses and other buildings, and they stole weapons.

The news of his betrayal took a couple of days to reach Harold. Furious with his brother, Harold gathered together a large army and the navy and headed south. It was the “largest concentration of land and naval forces ever assembled by a king of England” according to the Anglo Saxon Chronicles.

On hearing that Harold was coming, Tostig jumped back into his ship and fled up the east coast of England where he carried out raids on Norfolk and Lincolnshire. The local Earls defended their lands and Tostig’s army was outnumbered and beaten back. He fled again by ship and took refuge in Scotland to wait for Hardrada

God’s Support

Back in Normandy, William was trying to get support of his nobles for an invasion of England. He promised them all a piece of English land when he became king. There was some support for the invasion, but there was also reticence. The nobles feared that their men, horses and ships were at risk of being lost at sea and then there was the squeamish issue of killing an anointed king...someone put there by God.

William realised he was never going to get their support that way so he sent an envoy to Pope Alexander II in Rome asking for his help.

The envoy puts forward William’s case and Pope Alexander listened carefully to the arguments, accepted them and gave his blessing. He even issued William with a papal banner to carry into battle, which was basically a large flag telling everyone that God was on their side. Now William had the support he needed to invade.

The Vikings

In late June, Hardrada, still in communication with Tostig in Scotland, assembled 500 ships and 30,000 battle hardened Viking warriors at Solund, Norway. Amongst the men were Hardrada’s personal guards, all professional killers; and the Berserkers, warriors who slip into fits of psychotic rage, who have no fear of death and feel no pain. They were the most feared warriors in all Europe.

Hardrada also made provision for his son, Magnus, to become king of Norway. He knew he was not coming back - he would either become king of England or die trying.

The Normans

A few days later, William mustered his forces at Dives-Sur-Mer and waited for the perfect weather for crossing the Channel. With him were more than 1000 ships packed full of men, horses, weapons and provisions. They set up camp on land and waited for conditions to be right for the crossing.

And they waited and they waited.

Meanwhile, he had to provide food for around 14,000 men. At the time, seventy per cent of a Norman soldiers’ diet consisted of bread. Historians have estimated he would have needed 14 tonnes of flour to create enough bread to feed his arm...every single day.

On top of that, his forces also had a bit of a smelly problem. There are around 3000 horses living at the camp as part of the cavalry, which was a vital part of William’s plans. The only problem was that each horse produced about 50 pounds of manure a day. Apart from the smell, manure can cause real issues for a large gathering of people because it can spread diseases such as dysentery. It is estimated, William’s horses produced around 3000 tonnes of manure for the seven weeks they were camped there. Add that to around 2,500 tonnes of human waste from soldiers and you would have had a veritable mountain of stinking, smelling poo. To counteract this, carts were used to transport the poo to a safe area several miles away...and around 5,000 cartloads were removed from the camp.

Next Moves

At the end of August, Harold was in the Isle of Wight having frightened his brother north. He knew William was going to invade at any time and decided to await his arrival. With him is his army and navy.

William, meanwhile, was still waiting in France for the perfect weather that never seemed to come.

And Hardrada was making his way to the north of England. He stopped off first at Shetland and then Orkney to pick up provisions then sails down the east coast of Scotland. A week later, Hardrada joined Tostig and his men in Northumbria.

There was no doubt now that war is coming yet again to England.

Down in the Isle of Wight, Harold was reconsidering his position. August turned into September and there was no sign of William. The Channel is notoriously difficult to cross at that time of year and was far worse in winter, so Harold believed William wouldn’t take the chance and would wait until spring to try and invade. In fact, he was sure of it.

Besides, his men were itching to go home. Their two months of service - the levee that they give the king every year - was at an end, the army was running out of food and the men were needed at home to help gather in the harvest. Harold had no choice but to send his soldiers home and ordered the fleet to return to London.

Setting Sail

In France, the scheming William learned that the south of England now lay undefended. But he was frustrated, it was the perfect time to strike, but the weather just wouldn’t play ball. He couldn’t cross.

In the north, Hardrada and Tostig were about to sail up the River Ouse intent on attacking York, the ancient Viking capital of England. The news didn’t reach Harold until around September 11. He immediately called the army together again and headed north.

Still in France, William decided to set sail despite the poor conditions. Bad decision...his fleet was caught up in the stormy seas and ships and men were lost. He was forced to take refuge in St Valery-Sur-Somme some 140 miles east.

Back in England, in Fulford near York, Hardrada and Tostig’s forces met a regional army lead by the northern Earls .

Now, if the English held their line, they had a chance of defeating the invaders.

But Hardrada, who was a clever strategist, had other plans. He sent a crack team of his best warriors to sneak around behind the English and attack them from the rear. This move proved crucial in the battle and lead to victory for Hardrada and Tostig.

After taking survivors prisoner, the invaders marched to York, which quickly surrendered to them. The Vikings had control of the north.

Prisoners

A few days later Hardrada and Tostig were waiting to exchange prisoners with the defeated Northumbrian Earls at Stamford Bridge a few miles away. They were expecting a small group of armed men, so were just waiting around enjoying the break from fighting. Instead of a small group, it was Harold and his massive army who showed up.

The king had travelled north more quickly than either Tostig or Hardrada had anticipated.

The two armies meet on opposite banks of the River Derwent and there was only one way to cross it - a narrow bridge which was guarded by one of Hardrada’s best warriors armed with a war axe. The unnamed Viking stood alone on the bridge, taking on the English single-handedly as they attempted to cross it. The English soldiers kept coming again and again but he held them off, killing one after another.

This brave warrior, supposedly a giant of a man, was only defeated when some English soldiers got into a half barrel and floated down the Derwent. They positioned themselves under the bridge and killed him by thrusting a spear from below between his legs.

However, his sacrifice was not wasted for it allowed Hardrada and Tostig to get their forces organised into a shield wall to stop the English advance. There was one small problem: many of the Vikings were not wearing chainmail and that made them vulnerable to the English archers. The bowmen picked them off one by one...including Hardrada himself who was downed by an arrow.

In one swift action, the great Norwegian warrior was dead and his dream of being king of England died with him.

Tostig fought on as leader of the Viking force, but the English were too strong. They defeated them and Tostig was left to face the consequences. There was no pardon or exile this time. Tostig was sentenced to death.

According to legend, it is Harold himself who killed Tostig by cutting off his head.

The Battle of Stamford Bridge went down in legend. It was so bloody that 50 years later, one chronicler noted that a great mound of dead men’s bones still lay on the battlefield.

And it was a disaster for the Vikings - marking the beginning of the end of the era of Viking invasions.

Where’s William?

William, meanwhile, was still stuck in France and he was not happy. According to the chronicle Carmen Widonis, which was written months after these events, William was in France desperately watching the weather vane of a local church, “tears streaming down his face” in despair.

Meanwhile, his men weren’t happy either. They were beginning to doubt that God was indeed behind this invasion and wondered about their leader’s mental health.

William’s luck started to change two days later when the weather improved. He immediately gathered his forces together and 700 ships carrying 14,000 men sailed for England.

He headed to Pevensey in Sussex which was then part of the Earldom of Wessex. And the Earl of Wessex…? Well, he was King Harold himself. William was heading for Harold’s lands deliberately to annoy the king.

The Normans landed in Pevensey Bay at around 9am the following morning, unopposed. William stumbled as he stepped on to English soil, an omen that would have looked bad to his men. But, so confident was in his claim that he was the rightful king, he just laughed it off.

The Normans quickly made camp and captured the nearby town of Hastings. They settled down to wait for Harold.

Harold

So where was Harold in all this? Well, he was still in York celebrating his win over the Vikings. News finally reached him a few days later and by October 3rd he was heading back south with a depleted and battle-weary army.

Harold reached London three days later and immediately gathered family and other nobles to his side to decide what to do.

His brother Gyrth (remember him?) suggested that he lead an army to take on William whilst Harold remained in London. If Gyrth lost, Harold could take on William in a second wave. It was a good plan, but Harold was impatient and angry, particularly when he learned William was on his land torching his villages and murdering his people. He decided to lead the army himself.

A few days later, Harold, Gyrth at his side, lead the army south to Hastings.

Hearing the English army was coming, William sent an envoy to Harold asking him to back down. He offered to put both claims for the crown before judgement either by Normans or English nobles. Harold refused. William offered to fight Harold in a one-to-one combat so that none of their men should have to die in battle. The victor will be crowned king. Harold said no. The envoy returned with Harold’s answers. A battle it was then.

Battle

Friday the thirteenth of October, 1066 - the night before the battle of Hastings. The two sides were camped in an area near what is now the town of Battle - about eight miles from Hastings. Sources say that William, afraid of a night-time attack made his men stand-to all night. They spend the night in prayer.

The English, however, were apparently up all night drinking and partying. But as the source of this scurrilous accusation was pro-Norman we could take this with a pinch of salt.

At dawn the following day, Harold and his army were on the move heading towards William. Two hours later they emerged from woodland on a distant hill above the Norman camp.

Down below, William was ready. He stood with his army. In front were his archers. Behind them, the infantry and at the rear the cavalry.

At nine a.m. the battle began. William’s archers attacked sending volleys upon volleys of arrows raining down on the hill. The English immediately formed a shield wall to protect themselves and hold the hill.

Shield Wall

A second wave from the Normans involved a charge by the infantry. Wielding daggers and axes and swords they run up the hill to try and break through the shield wall. Again the shield wall holds.

Seeing his infantry fail, William sent in the cavalry, chivalric knights on huge war horses. But again they couldn’t break the English lines. He sends in wave after wave after wave, but the English, Harold at the helm, stood strong.

Three hours he tries and then something weird happens. An entire flank of William’s men turned and ran away. Were they scared? Or was something else going on?

Well according to the Carmen, it was a ruse of the Normans to get the English to let their guard down. And it worked. The English, believing they had the Normans on the run, broke rank and charged after them in pursuit.

As this was happening, a rumour went round the Norman camp that William had been killed. Under mediaeval rules, if the leader dies then the battle is over and the other side wins. But William had not died. In order to show his men he was still alive William removed his helmet and showed his face. Happy their leader had not expired, the Normans rallied and turned around to hack the English soldiers to death.

Now, you would think that having used the ruse of men running away to trick the English, that this wouldn’t work again. But guess what? William feigned retreat again...and again the English fell for it. They broke their shield wall and chased after the Normans only for the Normans to turn around and kill them. The shield wall, once so impenetrable, was now full of large holes just waiting for William’s troops to push through.

The battle raged on for another two hours and many men fell including Gyrth, Harold’s loyal brother. Accounts claim it was William himself who killed him, but we don’t know for sure.

Harold’s Eye

The Norman cavalry wreaked havoc amongst the English and the archers took out many more, including King Harold.

Or did they?

An account written thirty-five years after the battle said that Harold was “pierced by a lethal weapon”. Thirty years later and another account, this time by William of Malmesbury, said that an arrow pierced his brain. A third account, written by an historian ten years after that, tells us that he was killed by an arrow through his eye. This last one is the story that stuck, but is it true?

The Carmen may have the true story. Now, remember historians believe this epic poem was written only MONTHS after the battle, which makes it a far better source. It says that William sent in a dedicated death squad whose only mission was to kill King Harold. It’s not known if William was part of this squad, but the poem states that Harold was tracked down and killed.

First, he was pierced through the chest. Then his head was slashed from his shoulders. He was disembowelled and then his thigh was removed which is a mediaeval euphemism for his genitals being cut off.

With Harold gone, the English army collapsed. They tried to flee but the Normans went after them and killed them. That was it. The battle was over and William had won.

Harold’s Body

So, what happened to Harold’s body? There are two accounts of what might have happened. The first is that his mistress recognised his body amongst the carnage through certain marks that only she knew. The second was that Harold’s mother, Gytha pleaded with William to give her the body of her son. In return, she would give him the body’s weight in gold. He said no.

There are other stories that Harold is buried on a clifftop near the battlefield and there were later records claiming Waltham Abbey was the site of his burial. No-one knows for sure what happened to him.

So, William won and all he had to do was sit tight and wait for England’s remaining nobles to offer him the crown. Right? Wrong! William does indeed sit and wait to be offered the crown, but no offer comes. Instead, the noblemen left in London decide to make Edgar the king. He is the rightful heir after all.

Two weeks pass and still no offer from London. William takes his army and marches east to Dover where he attacks and takes the town. Then he goes to Canterbury and does the same. The Normans then travel to Southwark where Londoners have blocked access to a bridge over the Thames which leads to the city. In retaliation, William has his men set Southwark alight as they leave.

Frustrated, William headed west, eventually crossing the Thames at Wallingford. He marched back to London where the nobles who had been supporting Edgar suddenly had a change of heart. They decided to accept the inevitable. In early December, the remaining English leaders, which included nobles, senior clergy and Edgar himself, rode out to William’s camp just outside London. They politely asked the Duke to become king and William agrees.

King

On Christmas Day 1066, William is crowned king of England at Westminster Abbey. At the coronation was a crowd consisting of both Norman and English nobles. When asked if they agree that William should be king, they let up such a cheer that Norman guards outside thought a riot was taking place. So, they did what any other self-respecting mediaeval guards would do and set fire to surrounding houses.

In the years that followed, William faced a number of rebellions by the English and, as was his reputation, he retaliated with utmost brutality. He killed tens of thousands of innocent people and replaced any remaining English noblemen with his own Normans.

He also split the wealth and the land between his followers. Other changes that were made: not only had he brought a new ruling class to England, but a new language, laws, traditions and new ways of building. But it wasn’t all bad - he did bring with him the idea of chivalry, a mediaeval religious, moral and social code, and he abolished slavery...although the institution of serfdom - where people were in debt bondage and indentured servitude – wasn’t fully gotten rid of in England until 1574.

William stayed in England for a few years before returning to Normandy to sort out some skirmishes at his borders. He never returned and died in 1087 after being seriously injured at the Battle of Mantes in France. He was buried at the Abbey of Saint-Étienne in Caen and was succeeded by his favourite son, William Rufus. William Rufus became the new King William II of England whilst his brother, Robert became the new Duke of Normandy.

Edgar

But what happened to poor Edgar? After being part of William’s court for a little while, Edgar escaped his clutches and joined his mother and sisters at King Malcolm the third’s court in Scotland. Malcolm was married to Edgar’s sister, Margaret, and agreed to help Edgar reclaim his throne. The Scots joined English rebels and fought William at York where they were defeated. Edgar took part in a number of other failed attempts to get his throne back, but none prevailed. He spent a good part of his life going back and forwards to England and the continent, and made as much nuisance of himself to the Normans as he could. Eventually he was pardoned and lived out the rest of this days in England dying sometime around 1125.

The Battle of Hastings has gone down as one of the most influential events in English history. But it was so much more than that. While the battle was the end for King Harold, it was only the beginning for a new England. The Anglo Saxons were all but obliterated, a new way of life took over with new laws and a chivalric code, and 1066 marked the start of the end of the Viking invasions. Things would never be the same again.

Historical

Dawn Nelson

Dawn is a writer, journalist and award winning author from Scotland. She lives near Loch Lomond with her kids and numerous pets and is currently working on a couple of new book series.

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