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