Chapter 12: The Battle 3) Fight or Die

William the Conqueror stabbing a servant in his chin with a sword

As William rode out at the head of his army, round his neck, William was wearing the holy relics upon which Harold had made his oath to him, hoping to evoke divine influence so that he should win that day in October, the fourteenth day of the month. This was another factor that would convince the Norman duke in the aftermath of his victory, that his defeat of King Harold had been God’s will. William’s close win, proved that his was the just cause, and Harold had incurred the wrath of God for his wrong doings and sins. Later, Norman sources would go on to vilify and defame Harold’s character, though it seemed not to convince people that his vanquished opponent was as bad as they made him out to be.

Harold, crowned in the centre

 Harold didn’t really have much going for him that day in October in terms of divine support, no papal banner, no righteous bishop to speak for him. Harold was a devout man, having provided churches with money and gifts, he’d built his own church in Waltham. But William seemed to be winning in the holier than thou stakes. William had had an unfair head start, having gone to Rome to speak his cause before the pope, whereas Harold had not had the time to make his plea, and so he was excommunicated, word of which he received on the day of the battle. And in such times, warriors needed the gods or God on their side. An excommunication would have deadened Harold’s morale and that of those around him. One can imagine that Harold would not want the morale of his men affected, and so most likely the excommunication  was kept quiet as much as possible.

A medieval encampment at night

 One of the things that pro Norman sources have countered about the English and their ungodly behaviour, was that instead of spending the battle eve in prayer and quiet contemplation as the invaders had done, the English were singing and drinking and making merry. And so, the English had another nail in their coffin, for not only were they not pious and reliant upon God, the Heavenly Father, they were disrespectful drunkards and deserved not to win. Whether or not this is true, it may have been, I’m sure that Harold and those who had been up to York and back again, were far too tired to be up all night drinking, as reported by William of Malmesbury. However, we must not forget that many of Harold’s men survived well into the afternoon the next day, indicating against the probability that the English were too hungover to fight (Mason 2004).


And so it was Taillefer, mentioned in my last post, who struck the first blow and then was killed himself, as Guy de Amiens, author of the Carmen tells us. William deployed his archers as men were collecting the corpse of the brave (or stupid) Taillefer. It seems that William wanted to use the usual formula for medieval warfare, archers first, then infantry, then cavalry. The archers’ job was to make holes in the enemy, weaken them, to make it easier for the infantry. But the archers did not seem to make much of a dent in the shieldwall, the arrows fell short, or went over the English warrior’s heads or simply struck their shields. Archers were lightly clad without heavy armour to enable them to move about quickly.

Re-enactment of Battle of Hastings: The Norman infantry fight the English

 The battle was said to have onset begun with trumpets on both sides, as stated in the Carmen and the English were shouting “Oli crosse! Oli crosse!” the chant of Harold’s followers and reference to the piece of the true Holy Rood itself which was said to have been given to Harold’s church at Waltham by his predecessor. This was important to Harold, for it was said that when he had been ill, near to death, many years before as a young man, his mother had prayed for his life before the relic and he had survived.

The church as it was in 1851 and which was built over Harold’s church

The archers were still shooting when the infantry came up the hill to attack the shieldwall. They were met with a barrage of missiles and spears that jutted out of the tight wall of shields to rip out the infantry men’s guts. If the invaders had thought that the English were going to be a soft target, they were sadly mistaken. The Carmen tells us that William gives a rousing pre battle speech in which he tells his men that  they should not fear the English, as they are like girls, with their long, combed and anointed hair, more reluctant warriors than hard fighters, ready to tear the enemy apart.* They soon learn that this is seriously not the case and are shaken by the ferocity of the English defence.

The shieldwall was still very much intact, with the English banging their weapons and shouting “Ut!Ut” and “Godemite” (God almighty) and “Oli crosse!” at them, as Wace reports in Roman de Rou. It must have been a fearsome experience to face a sheer wall of warriors, roaring their battle cries at them and throwing their projectiles at them. These would have been mostly javelins, and other missiles, possibly stones in slings, even small axes, knives, anything that could have been thrown, for it is not thought that there were many archers on the English team at Hastings. Only one archer represents the bow on the Bayeux Tapestry, telling us that there were not as many as the Normans had. It has been mentioned that these may have been men who were not mounted and had to walk. They had not yet arrived. The Normans appeared to be phased by this onslaught but they stoically carried on to the cries of “Normandy!” and “Dex eis! Dex eis!”. They eventually clash with the English in a fierce fight, trying to break the wall by pushing against it, smashing the tightly overlapped shields with their hand axes and spears.

Enter a caption

After the brutal struggle had gone on for a long time, with the infantry and the archers having  failed to dent the shieldwall, William sent in the cavalry, the best troops he had, on their very expensive steeds. The idea was that the arrows and the infantry attacks should  damage the shieldwall and leave gaps for the cavalry to ride through. By the time the Norman Cavalry got to the wall, the impetus of their charge had been severely hampered by the terrain, and so it had little impact on the wall. The tight overlapping shieldwall broke open only to allow the huscarles with their great Dane axes out into the fight in front of the wall, possibly accompanied by armed shield-bearers, to protect them. A Dane axe is better used double-handed, but it left the axemen undefended and vulnerable, so they would need the protection of their fellow warriors. Many horses and their riders were injured by these great weapons that could, according to some sources, cleave a horse’s head and its rider in half. Tests have proven this unlikely (Davies 2016), though a Dane axe could easily take off a man’s head, and perhaps a horse’s head from the top of its neck, but not in one slice.

The knights ride up to the English and attempt to break through the wall with their lances and then ride away again. Horses never ride into a wall of men, they balk at this, and the trick was for William and his cavalry to approach the enemy, throw their javelins, or spear the men at the wall with their lances and then ride away to repeat the same maneuver. They continue this until an incision is made in the wall, allowing them a way in. As they ride away, the archers and foot soldiers again come up the hill, throwing missiles and shooting arrows again at the wall. And so this brutality went on and on for hours…

The Bretons, to the left of the vanguard, were getting hit hard, along with the other auxiliaries. Since the beginning of the battle, they had been taking casualties and the death toll was rising. Their morale was diminishing. After getting hammered for some time, they were spooked. Both the cavalry and foot-soldiers turned to run down the hill, away from the carnage. William was now dangerously exposed on his left flank. The retreat of the Bretons unnerved William’s centre and even the right flank were confused, especially as William’s men started to pull back. Then, apparently, it seemed that a rumour spread through the invaders that William had been killed, having been unhorsed at some point before the Breton’s retreat.

Bishop Odo, William’s half brother, was positioned with Bishop Geoffrey of Coutances, on the lower slopes of Telham Hill, watching the battle. With them were the priests and servants, perhaps the squires, boys, who were not expected to fight. It seems that Bishop Odo did not actually fight in the battle, but helped to marshal and rally the men in times of trouble. Odo saw what was happening with the Breton cavalry. He rode out to stop them from riding away and directed them back to the field, telling them that their leader, William, needed them and was, indeed, still alive and once again mounted. William sees the chaos that is happening and he lifts his helmet to show everyone that he is still alive and rides before those fleeing, shouting at them that he will personally cut anyone down if they leave the field. William was desperate to keep his men in the field. He could not lose a man, for if he lost this battle, there would be nowhere to run, assuming he would be alive to run. It was fight or die!

William lifts his helmet to show his men he is still alive

In the meantime, the English on the left flank have seen the Breton’s escaping and decide to run down the hill after them. There is some debate about whether or not this was an act by the undisciplined members of the army who took it upon themselves to chase the enemy as they ran away, or it was a coordinated decision made by commanders on the right flank of the English. The command certainly didn’t come from Harold, otherwise the whole army would have run down, and the immediate response by the English who ran down the hill, meant that there would have been no time for Harold to have given the order. And certainly, in that chaos, its possible that not all the men along the ridge saw what had happened with those that ran down the hill to their eventual deaths. Some have said that Harold should have taken that chance too, to run down the hill with the whole army and slaughter the Normans amongst the chaos, but horses can outrun men and there could  have been a wholesale slaughter of the English. The Normans on their horses, once they got it together, could have encircled them as they came toward them. It is also unlikely that Harold would have wanted to risk losing his position on the ridge. He wanted to contain the enemy until they broke, and to do that, he needed to stay on the ridge.

William rallies his cavalry to encircle the English as they run down the hill – Battle of Hastings Renactment

The feeling is that these men who ran down the hill after the Bretons, were the fyrd members who turned up late,  lightly armoured men with no mail, just shields and spears. They might have missed the order to hold the ridge and not leave it due to their lateness. And when they ran down the hill, it might have encouraged others, who thought, in the confusion, that the order had been given to follow. What happened to these men is nothing short of tragic. Their bravado got themselves killed, like  someone who follows another across a busy road without looking. Just because the person they are following has crossed, doesn’t mean it’s safe, because William, seeing what was happening, drove his cavalry to encircle them as they fought against his foot-soldiers. He cut them off from their lines and they were mowed down, though some escaped and managed to take up a forlorn, but brave defence on a hillock, but the horses closed in and wiped them out. The Bayeux Tapestry shows these fyrdsmen wearing no armour and carrying just shield and weapons, so they were easy to kill, but as they stood courageously against the Norman cavalry, some of the horses tumbled down the steep marshy slope at the edge of the hillock to their deaths, taking their riders with them.

The stand on the Hillock – The Bayeux Tapestry

Coming in the scenes immediately before the death of the men on the hillock, are the deaths of Gyrth and Leofwine. If The BT (Bayeux Tapestry) is correct, Harold’s younger  brothers were leading the men in the front lines, perhaps their own huscarles, either side on each flank. Guy de Amiens claims that Gyrth threw a javelin at the duke as he came at his line in the shieldwall. He killed the duke’s horse from under him, (this could have been where the idea the duke had been killed came from) and on foot, William ‘rushed upon the young man, snarling like a lion and hewed him limb from limb, shouting “Take the crown you have earned from us!”‘ suggesting that William had mistaken Gyrth for Harold. In any case, if we are to believe this story, Gyrth, who must have came very close to killing William, was after all killed by the duke. It was a moment that could have ended the battle and won it for the English.

The deaths of Gyrth and Leofwine – The Bayeux Tapestry

In the next part, we take a look at the rest of the battle. Stay tuned.

*Poitiers would later corroborate this when he says that the English nobles, including the elite warriors, took great pride in their hair, which they groomed fastidiously. He also states that after the battle, the Normans believed that the perfectly groomed appearances of the  high-status English, made the  men look as beautiful as young women.

Primary Sources

Guy de Amiens  Carmen de Hastingae Proelio

The Bayeux Tapestry –unknown

William of Malmesbury Gesta Regum Anglorum

William Poitiers Gesta Guillelmi


Davies S (2016) – The Dane Axe, anecdotally.

Gravett C (2000) Hastings 1066 The Fall of Saxon England Osprey Publishing Ltd, Oxford.

Howarth D (1977) 1066 The Year of the Conquest Viking Press, New York.

Mason E (2004)  The House of Godwine The History of a Dynasty Hambledon London, London and New York.

Chapter 12: The Battle: 2) A Worthy and Just Cause


So in the last part of this post, the battle lines have been drawn. Harold’s army has been marshalled along the top of the ridge at the edge of Caldbeck Hill and are watching William’s army of chevaliers, archers, crossbowmen and infantry as the Norman leader arrays them at the bottom of the steep slope, more than 200 yards from the English who are shouting “Ut! Ut! Ut!” as they bang their shields.   Amongst William’s army, to the left of the field, are the Bretons, the largest of his mercenary contingents along with the men from Anjou, Poitou, and Maine. They were under the command of the Breton, Alan Fergant. William took up the centre with his Norman troops and on the right flank, were the smaller contingents from France and Flanders, Picardy and Bolougn under the leaderships of William’s seneschal and great friend, William FitzOsbern, assisted by Eustace of Boulogne, who had caused so much trouble over the Dover incident in 1051. This incident had set the ball rolling for William, for if Eustace had not escalated the rift that was growing between Earl Godwin and King Edward, the way would not have been paved for William.

Harold was there with his  huscarles and those of his brother, Gyrth, and also thegns and land holders commended to him from East Anglia, where Gyrth was earl. The same with Harold’s other brother, Leofwine, who presided over Middlesex, Kent, Essex, Hertford, Surrey and probably Buckinghamshire.  And of course the men of Sussex. On the march back down from York to London, Harold would have needed to recruit men for the fourth army he’d had to call out this year and with the northerners still recovering from the battles in the north, he would have sent messengers on fast horses to call out the fyrds from East Anglia across to Hampshire. Many of these troops would have met him in London, but no doubt, there were those who went straight to the Hoary Apple Tree in Sussex. Harold had marched with those who’d joined with him in London to the proposed meeting place whilst his mesengers were rounding up the men of the southwest to come join them, shires like Dorset, Wiltshire and Gloucestershire, and perhaps Devon and Somerset too. According to Walker (2004) men were arriving throughout the day and augmenting Harold’s army. Many of these were the local militias throughout the shires, 1 man in every 5 hides, who trained for 2 months a year. They would have been equipped with at least a shield and spear, perhaps more,  if their 5 hides could afford it, or they had a generous lord. These chaps would not have had to fight in the front lines, for they would have been killed very quickly, being so poorly armoured. It would have been their job to support the professional warriors from the back of the lines.

An unarmoured fyrdsman, just kitted with shield and spear and a seax at his waste

It has been a popular idea that much of the English army were peasant farmers with pitchforks and slings. I don’t buy it. How on earth would an army made up mostly of yokels have lasted in such a battle all day? Working on a farm can give you muscles, sure, but muscles don’t offer skill or protection alone. The men in the front lines had to be professional, or at least semi professional like the landholding thegns, or the enemy would have broken the lines as if they were a pack of cards. The peasantry would have been better utilised in bringing in the harvest, and maintaining the fields and making sure there was enough food for the winter. Their inexperience would have got them killed, so then, who would be there to work on the land if they were gone? Well, yes, the women, I hear you say. But much of the husbandry would have needed the strength of men, not women. The only peasants that may have turned up, might have been the local Sussex farmers, who turned up to support their lords. This was their land, and perhaps they had been personally affected by the raiding Normans. These may be the men, who, when they arrived, saw that there was enough men on that ridge already, men who were armoured and had fighting experience, so they went away, as is reported  in Roman de Rou,  and in Florence’s Chronicle of Worcester.

Thegn or huscarle

Both leaders had a good reason to want to engage as soon as possible. William must have known that not all of Harold’s army had arrived yet. England’s martial system allowed Harold to draw on around 25,000 men in a national crisis. It is thought that at the opening of battle, Harold had around 7-8,000 men and we know that more were arriving. William was cornered on the Hastings peninsula with little way of retreat, and with rumours of Harold having assembled a fleet to destroy the Normans ships, it was fight or die.  But if they could get a foot hold in, say Kent, Harold would be heading for disaster. So, William needed to get this early victory; destroy Harold and the morale of the English would be destroyed. Harold, on the other hand, needed to contain William, to keep him locked into that corner of Sussex until the rest of his army arrived and that was why he took up the defensive stance on the ridge. His army was blocking the road to London and if William retreated, they would be able to follow him and wrap him up in no time. There was also more at stake for Harold: Sussex was also where most of Harold’s ancestral home was, the hoary tree was within the boundaries of Harold’s estate of Whatlington and William had been harrying his people. The king must have felt aggrieved at this and concerned for his lands, and his people. He was their hlaford, their loaf-giver, their lord. He owed them his protection.

Anglo Saxon Villagers

Pic care of :

The battle was thought to have begun around 9am, however this may have been later, according to Howarth (1977), who states that by the time William had organised all his men, and set out to march at 6.30 am, it would have been considerably later than 9am. This seems possible, but all the sources seem to imply that the battle begun in the third church hour, so 9am. By now, Harold and William would have made the usual obligatory speeches to their men, exhorting their men to fight for their respective just causes. The English would have been told that their homes, their way of life and their families were at risk. If they didn’t beat the invaders, they would lose everything. William’s men would be fighting for the spoils and riches they had been promised, and for their leader’s worthy and rightful cause, and their lives. If they did not beat Harold in the field this day, they would be doomed to die on English soil.

Taillefer wows his fellows

It was time for the battle to begin. Three writers wrote about a minstrel of William’s called Taillefer who begged his lord to be able to strike the first blow. When given permission he charged out of the ranks, singing the La Chanson de Roland and tossing, twirling and catching his sword. He was reputed to have killed three Englishmen who charged out to meet him before he was cut down and killed, himself. This seems like an embellishment added by the Normans, however, it is the Carmen de Hastingae Proelio by Guy de Amiens, that we must credit with this story first, and it is then mentioned again later by other writers. We might be able to put Taillefer’s insane bravado down to his battle excitement, but surely no sane artist wanting fame and prestige, would perform such a suicidal final act, bearing in mind that minstrels were known to be a little crazy. Perhaps it didn’t quite happen the way the Carmen tells us, for one writer puts this scene in the middle of battle. But whatever happened, if it happened at all, its a nice opener to the story of the battle.

In the next part of this post, the battle begins… join me as we examine the key battle stages as we find ourselves in the midst of the fighting.

Further Reading

Gravett C (2000) Hastings 1066 The Fall of Saxon England Osprey Publishing Ltd, Oxford.

Howarth D (1977) 1066 The Year of the Conquest Viking Press, New York.

Mason E (2004)  The House of Godwine The History of a Dynasty Hambledon London, London and New York.

Chapter Twelve: The Battle: 1) The Lines Are Drawn


Harold’s men lined up on the ridge at Caldbeck Hill – Photo c/o

Harold was marshalling his men as the Norman army and their allies, marched along the road from Hastings, into the valley that was slung between Telham and Caldbeck Hills. Singing their war songs, and shouting  ‘Dex Aie!’ – God aid us  – and ‘Normandy!’

Watching them whilst on the ridge facing them, Harold’s mob start banging their weapons against their shields and shouting for ‘Godwinson!’ and ‘Oli crosse!’ or ‘Gotte  mite!’ essentially meaning, God is on our side! And of course, the famous ‘Ut! Ut! Ut!’ Imagine the noise these thousands of men would have made, a cacophony of languages and chants. It would not have been unlike a football match here in the modern world, except the chanters were the players and not the observers in this game of death.

The ridge was reportedly 800 yards long, the flanks of which were protected by sharp declines and it cut right across the road back to Hastings. At its highest point it rose to about 150ft, and 60ft above the lowest point of the marshy valley. Behind the shieldwall, lay the road back to London and Lewes, on the top of the hill, there was open heathland big enough to camp on overnight. Nearby was the edge of the forest, where after the battle, survivors would run, or crawl, when they realised they had lost the battle. For now, though, they were not thinking of dying, or losing, well, maybe some were, but the confident among them wanted to get stuck into the enemy, thinking only of driving them back into the sea to whence they came. They were fighting for their freedom, the right to govern themselves as their customs dictated over years of building their country from the days when the first Germanic tribes climbed over the strakes of their longships and stepped onto Britannia’s soil.


The Normans, on the other hand, were fighting for what they believed in too, except their beliefs were governed by the desire of their leader, who had promised them that he had God on their side, that he, William of Normandy, was the true King of England. He’d also promised them land, riches and status, to encourage them to come with him. They were fighting for their new lives, land where they had none back in France, and greater prospects. And they were doing this at the expense of their English counterparts.


You can imagine the speeches that each war leader gave their troops, though it must have been difficult to relay a speech to that amount of men without the technology of today, still, no doubt there were speeches and the differences within them would have been to do with the above.

Harold’s men must have been 8-10 men deep and a thousand men across. By these times, the 11th century, that would have been a large army. And there would still be more men Harold could call on, if only he could contain William, at the very least, if not, destroy him completely. His plan must have been to maintain the shieldwall on the ridge until new troops arrived, and all his troops should have known what the plan was. Guy of Amiens, in his Roman de Rou, informs us that many of Harold’s troops deserted him because of the excommunication. Florence of Worcester confirms this but gives a different reason, they left because there was no room on the ridge, the battlefield was full. Howarth (1977) believes that those who went away were local peasants who had turned up to support their masters, perhaps. It seems unlikely that professional warriors would have left their comrades to it, even if there was no more room on the ridge, they would have stayed in reserve, and filled in the gaps when men were wounded or injured.

William had marched at dawn. For an army  of that size to get itself up and going, it must have taken a lot longer than initially thought. When the head of William’s army came over the slope of Telham Hill, the rear was only getting started 6 miles away. William halted in sight of the English army who were already lining up on the ridge. Kinights stopped to put on their mail hauberks. William, put his mail on back to front! Just the sort of thing I do on a daily basis with my clothes – not mail – I might add. But once again, he laughs at the bad omen and his men help him to sort himself out.

William deploys his army to the left and right as the English watch on. There is about 200 yards between them. Battle lines draw up and it begins.

Gravett C (2000) Hastings 1066 The Fall of Saxon England Osprey Publishing Ltd, Oxford.

Howarth D (1977) 1066 The Year of the Conquest Viking Press, New York.



Chapter Eleven:The Eve of Battle


For a better look

There were two hills that made the valley called Santlache, meaning a sandy lake in modern English. They were Telham Hill and Caldbeck Hill. Most likely the land here was  marshy and that was why they called it a lake, though obviously not a lake in actual fact. The origin of the name is unknown, but it was not called Senlac until the the Normans, or the French,  changed the original meaning to Sanguelac, which translates as bloody lake, as a sort of pun on the original meaning, and very apt for what it was to become. It was not until Orderic Vitalis wrote in 1140, that it began to be used, before that, chroniclers seem to have called it plain old Battle of Hastings (Howarth 1977).  It was in this valley that the battle was going to take place, Harold, choosing to defend the ridge that ran across the road to Hastings, at the top of the of incline on Caldbeck Hill.


Harold met with his army by the Hoary Old Apple Tree on Caldbeck Hill the night before the battle, approaching via the road from Rochester with the men from the west joining them from a prehistoric pathway that joined the London to Lewes road as stated by Gravett 2000. Knowing that Duke William was waiting in Hastings, Harold knew that the best position to defend against an army containing cavalry, would be on the high ground. He must also have known the mustering place quite well to have chosen this as the spot. No doubt this place was a local meeting point for the local levies who would meet every year to train and hone their skills. He would have seen the advantages of the terrain. The ground was around 235 feet higher than the bottom of the slope and behind the ridge on Caldbeck Hill was open heathland and the forest lay at the edge of the hill, a good escape route if it were  needed.


William was about 6 miles away in his encampment at Hastings when he was told that his rival for the English throne had taken up the position on the top of Caldbeck Hill, his army arriving in units from all over the country. As is the usual custom, more messengers were sent to and fro, not because the matter of the messages were important, but to spy on each other, to see what their plans were and to report anything of importance that they might find out whilst within their camps. One of the messengers reported back to Harold that there were a lot of priests accompanying the Norman army, but Harold knew the habit of the Normans to shave the back of their heads, and so was not surprised. He knew he would not be fighting a bunch of wet, weakling clergy. He had seen William’s army in action. Another messenger reported that William was going to march at dawn (Guy de Amiens), and so Harold knew they were coming, and I am certain that William did not ‘surprise’ or catch the English unawares the next morning. He would have known by now a rough count of their numbers and would have also worked out how long it would take for the invaders to march the 6 miles to Santlache. He would be ready. Unfortunately, there are no contemporary English sources of the battle itself, all we have to go on were those that came from the victorious winners, Guy of Amiens in the Roman de Rou and the Carmen de Hastingae Proelio, being the main ones. What we know of the English side is what the Normans saw, and not what it was like from within the English army itself. Some sources insist that William’s convoy came over Telham Hill and into view just as Harold was still marshalling his troops along the ridge, but on reflection, so many troops would have taken quite some time to organise.  Plus some were still arriving.

Norman Knight

What was the mental state of these two men on the eve before battle? William was buoyant, asssured and confident of a victory, with everything going his way. So far, he had been lucky, but he wouldn’t have seen it as just luck; everything that had happened so far was God’s will: the change of wind, the safe sea crossing, the safe landing with no opposition. And now Harold was out of his safe place in London and coming to him.  He was confident that he would win tomorrow. He had the papal banner to prove he had the right of it. God was on his side.

Anglo/Danish Huscarle

Harold, I’m guessing, would have been in quite a different state of mind from William. He had recently marched north to destroy his brother and the Norsemen. His brother… dead. Not happy news to give to his mother and  sister. So Tostig had betrayed him, but he was still his brother. The psychological impact this must have had on him would have been traumatic. And just when he thought he had dealt with all he needed to deal with that year, along comes the news that William was raiding his lands on his doorstep. The stress of rousing his men, having to march back down in just a few days, must have put a considerable amount of pressure on him. And then, he hears a rumour that the pope had excommunicated him. The Roman de Rou, would claim that this caused men to desert him before the battle had even started. God had deserted him and the effect on his psyche would have been tremendous.

Further Reading

Gravett C (2000) Hastings 1066 The Fall of Saxon England Osprey Publishing Ltd, Oxford.

Howarth D (1977) 1066 The Year of the Conquest Viking Press, New York.

Chapter Ten: The Golden Warrior

Earl Harold was now consecrated king and met little quiet as long as he ruled the realm.” – The Anglo Saxon Chronicle

Harold Hunting in Normandy -The Bayeux Tapestry

Post Stamford Bridge, Harold dealt fairly with the remnants of the surviving Norwegians after chasing them all the way to Riccall. All their leaders were dead, but among them was Harald Hardrada’s son, Olaf, whom he allowed to go home, peacefully, after he had sworn an oath to forever remain there and to not come invade England again. There were so few of the Norse army left that out of 300 ships, Olaf needed only 24 to take them home. Olaf was as good as his word, and this was passed down through his successors, for the Norse would never again blight England’s shores in this manner. This act of compassion by Harold G, might seem to some contemporaries as weakness, but there were other examples where he showed tolerance and fairness, where others would not have. Harold showed time after time that he preferred diplomacy over aggression, and  favoured peace over killing. Only when pushed beyond the limits of what might be considered reasonable, did Harold take the heavy handed approach and when he made his mind up to put an end to something, he did not balk to use his military might, as the Welsh king, Gruffudd, Tostig and Hardrada were to find out. Harold was, indeed, the ultimate Golden Warrior.

Anglo Saxon feast

Sometime around the 29th or 30th, Harold was still in Yorkshire, resting his army, tending his wounded, burying his brother, and celebrating his victory, when he heard that William had arrived and that he hadn’t come for a holiday, or to play chess. He was here for his crown, Harold’s crown. Harold had disbanded the fyrd in the south around about the 8th of September, believing that William was not crossing this year, and would not come now at least until next spring when the winds would be more favourable. Harold had marched north as soon as he could ready himself when he’d heard the terrible news from Yorkshire, that Edwin and Morcar, his young brother-in-laws, had been defeated at Gate Fulford, by Harald and Tostig. He must have been so confident in his belief that William would not come now, that he felt able to take the fighting men of Sussex with him. Seeing as there had been no opposition when William had arrived at Pevensey, its probably safe to assume Harold had marched off with them, no doubt leaving the coastal guard who had been able to send swift news of William’s landing.

William lands at Pevensey

So, Harold, having allowed some of the fyrd to go home, had to summon another army for the fourth time. Of course the mainstay of his army, his huscarles, and I’m imagining that he now numbered his predecessor’s men amongst those of his own, were still assembled for this latest threat. Most likely he would have sent on some of his huscarles to call up the men who hadn’t been at Stamford Bridge. These counties they were pulled from, stretched from East Anglia and across to Hampshire and would most likely have joined with Harold on his way down to London. On the way there, he and a few of his companions took a detour to Waltham. Here is an illuminating account of what Harold did there, and what happened, according to the Waltham Chronicle, showing how medieval churchmen viewed life through superstitious eyes:


Having arrived in Waltham, Harold went straight into the church, and placed gifts and the relics he had taken with him on his journey north, on the altar. He prostrated himself in front of the altar and prayed that if God was to grant him victory, he would release more land to the church.  According to the sacristan, Thurkill, who was putting away the gifts the king had brought in, the head of the Christ on the crucifix, bowed, as if in sorrow, a portent of what was to come. The king did not see it, as he was still prostrate on the floor. This worried the canons and two of their seniors, Osgood Cnoppe and Aethelric Childemaister, were dispatched to accompany the king’s retinue to learn of the outcome of the battle. They were charged with bringing back the body of Harold, should the omen proove to be damming.

Image of the king on Waltham Abbey

So what happened in York whilst all this was going on? Where were Edwin and Morcar and their armies? Why were they not accompanying Harold south? One of the things that Harold had done before he moved south was to appoint Marleswein of Lincoln as sheriff of York. Perhaps this was to support Morcar, who was after all, only young and inexperienced, well, perhaps a bit more experienced, now. The Battle of Gate Fulford had also damaged his and Edwin’s military forces quite badly, and they would have needed time to recover and recoup their losses in terms of military power. The boys may also have been injured themselves, and needed time to repair their wounds, but whatever the cause, it seemed that they would follow when they had readied themselves, for they were in London soon after the Battle of Hastings. The sons of Alfgar needed Harold to win, they had a lot riding on Harold, their king, for he was their brother-in-law, married to their sister Aldith. Some said that there was animosity between the Mercian boys and Harold, for the way the Godwinsons had treated their father, however, all that was now water under the bridge with Harold’s marriage to their sister, and she was now heavily pregnant with the king’s child.

Aldith – an interpretation

The Waltham Chronicle also tells us that Harold was impetuous, ignoring the advice of those around him who encouraged him to wait until the whole fyrd was gathered. He was said to have been over confident, trusting too much in his own courage, believing that the invaders were like the Norwegians, unprepared and weak, but he wanted to destroy them before William’s reinforcements could join him from Normandy.

William and Harold
William and Harold as they once were, friends.

Harold caught up with the rest of his army in London around about the 8th of October. He stayed there until the 11th. During Harold’s march south, William took the opportunity of his absence to cause havoc, raiding homesteads that were Harold’s family lands, mainly because he wanted more supplies. This is normal when an army goes on campaign, they live off the land which means taking food, livestock and provisions from the inhabitants. But with this kind of acquisition of supplies, there usually comes violence and their homes would have been fired to the ground, should they have tried to resist the Normans. Quite probably William knew these were Harold’s lands, and that he wanted to goad him into coming to meet him in battle, and this may have some truth, but it was normal practice, nonetheless.

During Harold’s stay in London, various messages were going back and forth. There are various versions of these and written by various writers, some contemporary and some not. But, as Howarth (1977) states, they all added up to the same thing. Give me back my crown and Get off of my land! And each man claimed that they believed that they had the right of it. The Carmen de Hastingae Proelio, written by Bishop Guy of Amiens and thought to be the earliest account of the events around the Battle of Hastings, seems to know a lot of information about what Harold had said, how he said it and what he looked like when he said it! Due to the fact that it would have been impossible for the Bishop to have been in Harold’s presence when he reports what he has said and the descriptions of how it all went, it seems unlikely that we can put our faith in what he describes as words coming out of Harold’s mouth, and perhaps too, the duke, but is more likely to be true for William than for Harold.

The Carmen tells us  that a chaplain was sent with a message for William, which went like this, “King Harold recalls that King Edward first appointed you as his heir, and he recalls that he, himself, was sent to Normandy to assure you of the succession. But he also knows that the same king, his lord, bestowed upon him the kingdom of England when he was dying. Ever since the time that the blessed Augustine came to these shores, it has been the unbroken custom of the English to treat a deathbed request as inviolable. With justice, he bids you go back to your country with your followers. Otherwise, he will break the pact of friendship he made with you in Normandy. And he leaves the choice to you.”

The Normans burning Sussex villages

The Carmen goes on to tell us that the reply that William’s chaplain sends back on his behalf repeats the same claim he made before. William’s hereditary right given to him by Edward, and Harold’s oath. He states, “I am ready to submit my case against Harold’s for judgement either by Norman law or English law, whichever he choose.”  Then if Harold was to refuse, he offered trial by single combat between the two of them.

We have to remember that the Carmen is a romantic piece of literature, written as poetry. And is essentially a ‘song’ hence the name ‘Carmen’. It is however, ludicrous to think that the ruler of a kingdom could be decided by single combat. That was not the way things were done. Once the parleying was over, then came the battle. And that was what Harold, apparently, had decided. If William was not going to go peaceably, Harold  would destroy him in battle. This was what William had wanted Harold to do, all along.

William the Conqueror

Primary Sources

The Anglo Saxon Chronicle

Carmen de Hastingae Proelio 


Gravett C  (2000) Hastings 1066 The Fall of Saxon England Osprey Publsihing Ltd, Oxford.

Howarth D (1977) 1066 The Year of the Conquest Viking Press, New York.

Mason E (2004) The House of Godwine the History of a Dynasty Carnegie Publishing, Lancaster.

Walker I. W. (1997) Harold The LAst Anglo-Saxon King Sutton Publishing, Stroud.