Authors: Ian W. Walker
Tags: #Harold: The Last Anglo-Saxon King
News of the Norman landing probably reached King Harold while he was still in York, perhaps two or three days later on 29 or 30 September. According to John of Worcester, he was in the midst of restoring the strength of his tired and depleted forces and tending to the wounded. Once again, King Harold received an extremely unpleasant surprise, and once again he set about dealing with it in the same purposeful manner. He is said to have assembled a large army, in effect the fourth to be summoned during this astonishing year – the first two summoned for two months each to garrison the coast, and the third to deal with Harald of Norway. This was a remarkable feat for a supposedly moribund military system. It seems likely that this new army was once again formed around the surviving core of the force of
which had just destroyed the Norwegians. In order to restore its losses, additional troops were drawn from a wide area of the country, stretching from East Anglia to Hampshire. Some of these reinforcements may have joined Harold’s army as it journeyed south, but the bulk of them probably gathered in London to await his arrival. They may have been collected under the auspices of one of his brothers. A late source speaks of Earl Gyrth accompanying the king to Stamford Bridge, so perhaps Earl Leofwine had been left in charge in the south.
Unfortunately, as in the case of the earlier campaign against the Norwegians, we have only fragments of information on the men who answered Harold’s summons. Again, the men of the English abbeys appear to have been well represented, although this seeming preponderance may simply be a result of the greater survival rate of monastic sources. Two abbots are known to have died during the Hastings campaign, presumably while accompanying their men: Abbot Aelfwig of the New Minster at Winchester, who fell apparently in the battle itself, and Abbot Leofric of Peterborough, who died of an illness contracted during the campaign. In addition, men holding land of the abbeys of Abingdon, St Benet of Holme, Bury St Edmunds, and St Augustine’s, Canterbury, appear to have fought in this campaign. A number of other men came to serve their king, including Godric, Sheriff of Berkshire, Eadric the Deacon, an unnamed freeman of Harold from Cavendish in Suffolk, Breme from Suffolk, a freeman of King Edward and, presumably therefore, of his successor Harold, and two unnamed freemen from Tytherley in Hampshire. It may simply be a coincidence but it is nevertheless interesting that those abbeys and counties noted as sending forces to join Harold at Hastings are different from those who had sent forces to join him at York. This may possibly reflect a sophisticated form of selective summons, whereby different abbeys and counties provided troops on different occasions. Unfortunately, there is insufficient evidence to prove this.
The absence of the northern earls from King Harold’s army at Hastings has been seen as evidence of dissension between Harold and his ‘rivals’. In fact, Orderic Vitalis describes the earls as Harold’s ‘close friends and adherents’ and we must remember that the earls’ sister, Alditha, was Harold’s queen, and therefore they had a stake in his success. A late source claims that Harold replaced Earl Morcar with Marleswein, Sheriff of Lincolnshire, and possibly a newly appointed
. This seems unlikely as Morcar is still named earl, later in the year, and was probably taken hostage to Normandy early in 1067 as Earl of Northumbria. It is more probable that the crushing defeat at Fulford had resulted in such disastrous losses among the forces of Edwin and Morcar, and particularly among their
that they required time to rebuild them. The reference to Marleswein’s activities in the north might then be part of his function as a royal
to assist them in this process. This delay meant that the earls were unable to march south with King Harold but followed him when they were ready, arriving in London not long after the battle of Hastings.
Meantime, King Harold moved rapidly southwards with the core of his northern army, the remnants of his own and perhaps Earl Gyrth’s
. This was the second great journey of this year, and brought Harold to London possibly around 8–9 October. This assumes a roughly comparable speed for this southward journey, based on the same rates of progress for mounted troops, as for the recent journey to Stamford Bridge. It is probable that Harold again made use of mounted royal messengers to carry his latest summons to the shires. In this way, he could have ensured that another substantial army was already collected in London on his return. The period of time involved would easily allow for such a possibility, and this would mean the bulk of Harold’s forces would be reasonably rested and ready for him to collect on his way south. He halted briefly in London, perhaps for a day or two, to rest those troops he had brought back from the north and to allow reinforcements to join him. Chronicle D speaks of another large army being raised, and the probable size of the English force at Hastings also indicates that Harold received substantial reinforcements. It was only when suitably reinforced that Harold then marched his army the 60 miles or so southwards into Sussex. This final march perhaps took some three days, allowing for slower progress of 20 miles a day through the more difficult country of the Sussex Weald to where the Norman army remained at Hastings.
The rapidity of King Harold’s reaction to William’s landing is undoubtedly impressive, but some have seen weakness in the haste attending his journey to Sussex. It is important here to distinguish between Harold’s rapid journey south to London and his subsequent advance into Sussex. The former served to bring him swiftly to the scene of action in southern England, but should not be given undue weight in consideration of the subsequent battle. As discussed above, it is probable that Harold spent one or two days in London collecting reinforcements, resting those troops brought back from York and considering what course of action to adopt. According to the recorded dates, he was then left with three days for the onward movement to Hastings, and it is this short period, the time that Harold spent in London and his subsequent march to Hastings, that should be examined when considering the claim that he acted rashly. It has been suggested, on the basis of the Chronicle texts, that Harold went into battle with less than his full forces, even though time had been on his side, and that he should have waited for his full strength before engaging the Normans. In this context, Chronicle E is rather ambiguous, stating only that Harold ‘fought with him [William] before all the army had come’, which could mean that the battle began before all Harold’s army had arrived on the field, but that reinforcements joined him as the day progressed. This suggestion may receive support from Chronicle D, which states that the battle was joined ‘before his [Harold’s] army was drawn up in battle array’. John of Worcester, writing later, elaborates on these statements but whether on the basis of additional knowledge or in an attempt to clarify the earlier texts is unknown. He states that ‘although he [Harold] knew that all the more powerful men from the whole of England had already fallen in two battles, and that half of his army had not yet assembled, yet he did not fear go to meet his enemies in Sussex, with all possible speed’. John’s account clearly intends to imply that Harold left London without all the troops he had summoned, but its author goes on to complain that the narrowness of Harold’s position at Hastings prevented a full deployment of his army, rather than there being a depleted number of men in the first place. This is confusing and contradictory. The sources are not entirely conclusive and either interpretation is possible; the balance of the contemporary accounts perhaps favours Harold having sufficient forces available, but that not all were deployed at the start of the battle. The length and intensity of the battle itself seems to confirm that there was no lack of English troops.
If Harold did in fact arrive in Sussex before the full force he had gathered could be deployed, what was the reason for this? The contemporary Chronicles provide no explanations for Harold’s motives. John of Worcester is not specific, but perhaps suggests an element of recklessness in his account of Harold’s great haste and insufficient forces. However, recklessness does not appear to have been one of Harold’s normal character traits. He had previously showed considerable caution in his dealings with Gruffydd of Wales, and only mounted his surprise attack on Rhuddlan after careful calculations as to the chances of success. Similarly, he had only attacked the Norwegian army at Stamford Bridge after first collecting intelligence at Tadcaster, and therefore being confident of success. William of Poitiers suggests the reason as a desire to curb, as soon as possible, the Norman devastation of his family lands in Sussex. This almost certainly played a part in King Harold’s reasoning, but it is unlikely to have been more than an incidental factor. A man who had previously sacrificed his brother, when the larger interest required, was unlikely to be distracted from his purpose by the ravaging of his lands. Also, as king, Harold held vast lands all over England and the temporary wasting of a small portion is unlikely to have affected him very deeply.
The Norman accounts suggest Harold intended to repeat the tactics used to such effect against Harald of Norway and to catch William by surprise at Hastings. Initially, this seems a more plausible reason for Harold’s actions, but it must be considered that now the circumstances were very different. In September the Norwegians had just won a major victory against local forces and had taken York with ease. They were off guard and not expecting the swift arrival of a southern army when Harold attacked. Even then, Harold had first confirmed that the Norwegians were unprepared and isolated from their fleet before launching his attack. In contrast, the Normans were still anxiously awaiting an English response to their landing, in what must have seemed a rather exposed position, and were fully prepared for flight. Therefore, they would be alert and prepared to respond to any attack. Any supposed plan for a surprise attack is further called into doubt by William of Poitiers’ account of Harold’s messenger and his talks with Duke William. Of course, this may be merely a conventional elaboration added to his story to enable him to set out Duke William’s case, but equally it may be true and if so, effectively removes surprise as a possible reason for Harold’s haste.
A more important factor in Harold’s actions may have been the personal knowledge of William and of Norman tactics that he gained during his visit to Normandy in 1064. There he had witnessed at first hand the mobile tactics of the Norman knights, when he accompanied Duke William on his Breton expedition. He had seen how William could rapidly move his cavalry from place to place, ravage wide areas of territory, and swiftly pursue enemies. He had also seen castles used as refuges, from whence raids could be sent out to subdue the surrounding countryside. If the Normans were able to advance inland from Hastings to more open country in Kent or Hampshire, they would become a major threat. They could exploit the mobility of their cavalry to plunder widely and live off the land, easily outmanoeuvring the less mobile English infantry and throwing up castles to preserve their communications and provide fortified refuges behind them. This last point was a particular threat because by these means the Normans could establish footholds in a territory rather than merely raiding it and moving on like the Vikings had done. Indeed, these were the very tactics pursued by the Normans later in their march on London and during their subsequent subjugation of England.
It was probably this knowledge, rather than a desire to catch William unawares or to preserve the family lands, which persuaded Harold of the need for haste in advancing into Sussex. He had to contain the Normans in Sussex and in the peninsula on which Hastings stood, in order to prevent them taking full advantage of their mobility. Once he had the Normans bottled up there, he could build up his forces against them, while simultaneously cutting off their supplies and preventing their raids on Sussex. Thus he moved the forces he had gathered rapidly in order to block a Norman break-out and at the same time summoned a fleet to destroy their ships and cut off their retreat. Harold intended to deal with William as thoroughly as he had Harald of Norway and his actions were directed to that end.
King Harold ordered his army to meet at the ‘hoary apple tree’, a local Sussex landmark obviously well known to the English. Indeed it may have lain on the boundary of Harold’s own estate at Whatlington, just over a mile from the battle site. If Harold did intend to trap William’s forces then this would explain why he apparently sent a messenger to treat with William. The intention behind this would be to stall William at Hastings until Harold’s army and fleet arrived to trap him. We need not believe the exact words put into the mouth of the messenger by William of Poitiers, although interestingly the emphasis he places on the gift of the kingdom to Harold by the dying Edward, reflects English traditional practice. The gist of Harold’s message, that William should leave England before he was destroyed, is probably accurate enough. Duke William could not back out now without a loss of prestige of incalculable consequence, and he therefore rejected Harold’s ultimatum. According to William of Poitiers, Duke William is supposed to have made a challenge to single combat, which was ignored by Harold. This challenge probably represents a literary device which has no foundation in truth, although Harold’s refusal of such a challenge would reflect English tradition, which found trial by combat an alien concept. In a sense, William’s rejection of Harold’s ultimatum reflected the fact that his position was improving in that he would soon be trapped with no alternative but to fight. Therefore, he was able to set aside the earlier doubts, which had plagued him after Harold’s victory over the Norwegians.
King Harold’s army emerged from its march through the Sussex Weald probably in the late afternoon of 13 October. Harold had achieved his primary purpose by interposing his army between the Normans and the more open country beyond the peninsula on which Hastings stood. He could now build up his own forces and watch the Normans become weaker before attacking at the time of his choosing. Warned by their scouts, the Normans withdrew their foragers back to their camp near Hastings. William was obviously more wary of Harold’s military reputation than later historians, or the result of the battle, would appear to admit. He clearly feared a sudden attack by Harold, possibly during the hours of darkness, and had his troops armed and stood to throughout the night, expecting an assault which never came as Harold did not yet intend to attack.