My Battle of Hastings, part one

To begin with,
it was an early interest in childhood. I loved knights and castles, and that got me started. I would fill up sheets of paper with penciled warriors, all wearing barrel helms and full chain-mail -- depicted by making hundreds of little circles inside the outlines of arms and legs (just like in the Bayeux Tapestry) -- and all hacking at each other. Bodies and pieces-parts -- arms, legs and heads -- would litter the lower margins (also just like in the Bayeux Tapestry).

I suspect that most enthusiastic historians of the subject got their beginnings in a similar way. At least, I sense a kindred spirit when I read the works of Jim Bradbury (a recent source on the battle at Hastings), Hope Muntz, Charles Oman, John Beeler, or R. Allen Brown; to name a few off the top of my head.

I have loved studying (reveling in) the Battle of Hastings. That is not to say that I love battle. I am not an aggressive person. But the fascination of Hastings, Normans, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings, the whole period, has grown upon me from early boyhood and continues to this day. The movies showed me full-length mail and fancy full helms, surcoats and trappings on horses. Later, I saw "Norman" arms, in books and the paintings for the National Geographic, where I was also introduced to the Bayeux Tapestry. That became my favorite period of armor development, even before I knew that such a development had occurred. Before armor encased the whole body and covered man and horse in a gaudy display, there was the Viking Age, when mail was like a coat with three-quarter length sleeves and skirts to the knee: This was the full mail of the period, lesser coverage being lighter and cheaper. But even a fully-armed warrior was allowed to sport colors on his limbs, and his horse's muscles rippled under the healthy sheen of a scrupulous grooming, without being hidden away under the housing which typifies what we call the Age of Chivalry, or the High Middle Ages of the 13th and the 14th centuries.

I drew knights. And I collected a small army of plastic figurines. Some I painted. Then, while I lived in New Zealand for two years, I discovered this perfectly sensible hobby called wargaming. There on the TV were several men of various ages, pushing around some Napoleonic soldiers on a table, with little model hills, trees, houses and the like. The cameraman got in real close and I was captured. I had no great interest in troops with guns. But it did not take me more than a second to imagine doing wargames with painted lead Norman knights and Anglo-Saxons. I resolved forthwith to get two armies together and refight Hastings. And as soon as I got back to the States that is what I set about doing. Of course, it did not stop there: I have medieval armies ranging from the Viking period right through the Wars of the Roses and into the early 16th century. I am not a wargamer per se. I have only dabbled in other periods. I have a Ramesses II period Egyptian army, some late Romans, and a variety of fantasy critters too.

My favorite activity with the hobby is to take both sides to the table top and refight historical battles, and I have refought Hastings at least twenty times -- with other gamers and solo -- that I have record of. And so far the score is: Norman-French 10, English 8, and two drawn battles.

The most recent game was one of those freak chancy things. Actually this outcome has happened twice: where William has been performing the interdiction against pursuing English from the left wing, only to fall dead to javelin fire. But also equally unlooked for were the deaths of Leofwin and Gyrth to missile fire, leaving Harold the only survivor of note. Up till that time, it appeared as though the two armies would separate, allowing the game to continue into a second phase, with both sides receiving back 50% of their losses; but then William had to go and get hit (only an 18% chance), and fail his saving throw (1d6 and anything larger than 2 would hit his horse instead). The battle ended abruptly: or rather, I didn't bother to play out any more, because the English still retained a very strong force, and with William dead, there would not be any regrouping of the Norman army for a second go.

In an earlier refight, William's Normans crushed through the English center, but he lost both flanks; the cavalry then moved down the hill and charged into the separated English wings, annihilating the right and killing Leofwin, but failing to catch Gyrth and the English left when they retreated into the woods. The two games before that were variations on the historical Norman victory. But then there was another drawn battle: the Breton left wing routed in historical fashion: then William's right wing -- the French -- also routed, at least the knights did (which was not historical but also not unusual when refighting this incredibly bloody and closely fought battle): after that, William threw in his own division of Norman cavalry and cut up the English right which had pursued the Bretons; while the other Norman cavalry of the center performed a feigned rout, which drew down the English thegns in front of them. The rallied French then caught the thegns in the flank and the Normans turned and butchered them to a man. Here is where the battle could have gone very close to reality, but instead took a serious divergent course: the housecarles, grouped around king Harold's standards in the English center, saw this massacre of their peers down below and promptly took off for the woods in their rear. Duke William had by then finished with the English right wing and was on hand with several hundred knights to pursue the routed English. The Normans surrounded the king and his bodyguard of housecarles and cut them down. His brother, Leofwin, had earlier perished in the fighting on the right; but Gyrth still survived to reach the trees with perhaps 1,500 men all told. He defied the Normans to come and get him. William's army, still organized and capable of receiving commands, numbered somewhat more, but there it stood: Gyrth Godwinson had the advantage of ground with the woods at his back, and William had the advantage of cavalry and marksmen should the English venture out onto the open hillside. His holding of the field could only be a tactical victory, since Gyrth could continue leading the resistance.

The previous refight was an English victory: as the carrion crows began to feast upon the fallen, king Harold and his two brothers were on their way back to London with duke William's head on a pike! The refight before that, William had the best of it in true historic outcome; even to the chance meeting between himself and Harold at the end -- which is perhaps not historical, but could have happened -- and thus William (that time) played a personal role in his rival's death.(1)

I have reconsidered my own views on the battle so many times that I have lost track. But this is good. If wargaming it often has helped sharpen my perceptions in any way, it has been to raise more and more questions. Many of my questions are directed toward others' interpretations of the original sources.

At the beginning, as I have said, I loved Normans. I did not mind that the English part of my ancestors got whupped repeatedly. At first I was oblivious of any blood connections with Hastings at all. My interest lay in the arms and armor and tactics of the time. But with maturity comes a waning of early interests and a growing need to understand more deeply. I still find all those conical helms and kite-shaped shields beautiful. Ring mail is still my favorite armor, even though I have long since learned to accept its shortcomings as compared with other forms of armor construction.(2) None of these accouterments are Norman at all. I was actually glad to discover (a long time ago) that the English looked like the Normans, and that the warriors in the Bayeux Tapestry depicted their true appearance, which is identical.(3) Because the Anglo-Saxons looked just as pleasing to my prejudiced eye as the Normans, I slowly decided that I cared just as much for their part in the Norman Conquest. In fact, I no longer cheered for the Normans when we refought Hastings. I looked for ways to make Harold Godwinson win.

Going on three decades ago, my friends and I developed wargame rules for refighting battles in the ancient and medieval periods. My own contributions to our army lists have naturally been centered in the period of the 11th and 12th centuries -- my love affair period. My first attempt at creating an accurate army list for the Anglo-Saxons was a world of difference compared to the list we use now. The old one had no archers, no horsed troops of any kind(4) and very few armored troops. The missile fire capacity was limited to throwing one axe or spear, and then only the housecarles.(5) Morale of this "outdated" (Oman) infantry force was always low. They ran away if charged by cavalry -- hence king Harold's choice of fighting only on a substantial piece of high ground. And perhaps most inaccurate of all: an Anglo-Saxon army of the 11th century must have been composed of a horde of unarmed rustics, mere peasants with no real weaponry or training, backed up by a small central core of only slightly better thegns and their followers (housecarles were foreign mercenaries and hired only by the king in any numbers -- which I discovered also was far from the facts.)

By contrast, my first Norman army list was awesome. I had them all looking like duke William's army at Hastings, i. e. all heavy cavalry, heavy infantry and archers. I soon made them even better by adding crossbow-men. The Norman morale was high and their cavalry charge simply irresistible. But even without the impetus of a charge at Hastings, the Norman knights were too tough for mere Anglo-Saxons to handle.

Equipped with my army lists I refought Hastings for the first time solo. And of course the army of king Harold lost horribly. At the time I thought, "well, of course they lost, the real king Harold didn't stand a chance." And I came away from that first refight feeling quite smug.

Studying the Norman Conquest -- prejudice and consensus

This was a vastly immature position to feel comfortable in. But not so different, I believe, from greater smugness on the part of many scholars. The fraternity of historians -- professional or amateur it makes no difference -- perhaps reveals this side of human weakness more readily than other groups: simply because the history buff has fallen in love with an idea and cannot refrain from pursuing it and telling his peers, hoping to be the first to expound successfully some controversial point and thus win immortal fame. Historians of the Norman Conquest have fallen foul of the taint of prejudice. Freeman is acknowledged, perhaps, as the worst of the lot. His opponent, Round, was equally prejudiced, but at least his was not blatantly racial.

Freeman's racial bent was so powerful that it blinded him. His noble Englishmen were conquered not by superior technology nor superior generalship but by dirty tricks and circumstances beyond the capability of human strength and genius to overcome. His copout for the English was nothing less than the same argument the Nazis fell back on to explain the German defeat in the great wars of our 20th century: they complained of overwhelming odds, and Freeman claimed it first in so many words. The Nazi racial blindness and the English racial blindness are no different. Both see the greatest good and greatest prowess in their own people. Freeman was so convinced of this that he saw it represented in the Bayeux Tapestry, where he claims the English warriors are taller than their French enemies. Anyone scanning the BT will at once see that there is no scale to the figures of warriors; some are small and others ridiculously tall, seemingly at random or given the available space on the Tapestry for the stitcher to work with.(6)

In my case the prejudice was decidedly Norman. I loved knights first. However, I released, very early on, my notion that "Norman" armor was special to them. But I found many writers who loved Norman things and went on rapturously about their accomplishments. So although I accepted that there was no Norman look or special appearance that identified them in the period artwork and artifacts, yet I persisted in being convinced that a preponderance of their greatness was their prowess on the battlefield. And Hastings was the example par excellence of that superior prowess. But continuous reading over the years, and having at heart a desire to know the truth about everything no matter what it might be, has led me away from earlier errors and brought me to love the whole subject of Hastings for the sake of its importance in the history of my own race and blood. No longer do I view Normans and Anglo-Saxons as enemies, but instead as the great composite race which produced the democracy which is still thrusting into every corner of the globe. This phenomenal result of the Norman Conquest is the mainspring of my current interest. I remain intrigued by the weapons, and armor, the tactical studies; but revulsion is there now which wasn't present before. I am not sure when or how it crept in. But now when I pick up a broadsword or axe and finger the sharpened edge a thrill of horror takes me. My imagination boggles at the scene of ranks of flesh, enclosed in iron, advancing deliberately into each other with their hand-held instruments of dismemberment and impalement. Madness! Warfare to me now is the ultimate calamity. That anything good can result from it is impossible -- unless you accept that God, who knows the end from the beginning, can work the calamities of men to suit our best eventual good.

Anyway, it is a rule of human nature, that any person who tries to examine and explain how humanity does things and why will always perceive and express those views based on the prejudices he possesses -- or is possessed with.

It is amazing to me that such a long-ago event as Hastings continues to be retold and refought with words by so many passionate people. Hardly prepared, by all the debate and rebuttal, is the novice historian when he finally gets his hands on the extant original sources for the battle of Hastings. What eager buff has not felt the same pangs of disappointment upon finishing the last few pages that there are? Other sources, archeological, artistic and scientific, must be gleaned to expand the picture. It becomes tempting to read details into those paucities. The desire to amass as much source material as possible further tempts the historian to draw on corrupted sources that came along much later. (Wace for certain, and the Battle Abby Chronicle, and some also believe the Carmen de Hastingae Proelio to be of 12th century origin.) Such later sources are not be trusted any further than the historians of today, who often write revised history to suit their own agendas or their desires to tell the story the way it should have happened. 12th century historians -- and later -- would naturally feel motivated to tell the definitive version of the famous battle of Hastings. So we must always be cautious in accepting too final a picture from the original sources and the latter as well.

Understanding the battle of Hastings is important. Not so much as greater studies, but it has its place. To study battle is to gaze upon human reason and passions running amok: in short, the examination of an alien and nightmare world. At the very least, such a study should reveal the immutable qualities of human nature and warn us to beware of modern man. The best possible outcome of such studies is to dissuade the thinking person from all acts of aggression. So let us study Hastings for a brief while. Perhaps at the end we might appreciate, if nothing else, that we live in a period when carnage is more distant and not usually so personal. Battle nowadays is another subject, best left to professional and modern philosophers. It has been reduced to firepower and the specter of germ and chemical warfare: hardly to compare with warriors facing each other within reach of their own hand-held instruments of death, eye to eye, noting and appreciating their shared humanity, fear, and desire to live or die a hero's death.

In the study of military history it is axiomatic that all are striving to establish or uphold a consensus. This, perforce, must be a modern consensus; the older views having been long ago supplanted by recent discoveries and scholarship. The individual historian tends to be ambitious -- in emulation of his mentors -- toward helping add unique material to that consensus. And, early or late, historians fall into a common trap: the extremist view. This is a tendency to either accept features of the battle or reject them outright. The pride of the historian cannot take middle ground easily. Points are seldom made or noted in the middle ground. Only extreme points will get notice, or have the chance of revising the consensus; to the immortal fame of the innovator. Commentators on Hastings tend either to adhere to well-expounded theories or reject them out of hand. Half measures will not do -- especially if some new point is being advanced -- if accolades are to be won from admirers and grudging respect from rivals. It would be worthy if such motivation could be eradicated from the writing of history. But such is not to be anticipated.

So I will now add my own observations and opinions to the already huge pile, only a portion of which I have even heard of, let alone read. And I do this only to satisfy myself.

The wargaming approach

In coming to an understanding of what actually occurred on the 14th of October 1066, I will use the original sources and later seminal and borrowed works, like everybody else, and I will add an advantage not shared by the vast majority of writers: the experience of examining the battle through wargaming reenactment.

This is a point I would like to drive home: With a good, proven set of rules, an accurate scale representation of the terrain and above all a thorough knowledge of the battle, a wargamer has an advantage over other historians in visualizing what is most probable. And I will state here that our rules do produce historical outcomes a majority of the time, in all tactical situations, thus vindicating our claims that our rules, after literally hundreds of games, have been fine-tuned to produce historic accuracy. Too often, historians have entered into a study of Hastings with a picture already in mind about how it must have all gone down. With their attention already fixed upon some favorite -- or controversial -- theory they proceed to explain the battle without ever having a chance to actually see it.

Since first publishing this paper to the Net, I have managed to finally walk (and "fight" on) the battlefield. Having seen firsthand how the site of the battle of Hastings looks today does not alter my opinion, that the wargaming approach is adequate to study the ingredients and outcome of the battle in a way that is not available to merely positing through educated guesswork. (7)

To illustrate the advantage a wargamer has in visualizing the battle, I will examine the usually accepted depth of the English army and the frontage it must have occupied to fill the crown of Battle hill. We are told that many English troops took one look at king Harold's chosen site for the battle and fled, because it was too narrow.(8) Now this ridge is c. 600 yards long at the 250' contour. This is where many historians are pleased to draw up king Harold's army, because the ground at that level most advantageously allows the English to meet an attacking enemy. They give the English army anywhere from eight to twelve ranks of depth, assuming this to fit the description of too many troops in a too "narrow place."(9) But a wargamer laying down his figurines representing c. 8,000 Englishmen will immediately discover that he has a lot of room -- in fact too much. Trying to stretch to the limits of the ridge so the Norman horsemen cannot come up and charge along it is no easy task. The difficulty lies in the length of the English phalanx and its decreasing depth as it is extended. Obviously the strength of the English shield-wall was its solidity, which comprised more than anything else its depth. All the original sources give us a picture of great depth and solidity, wherein the English wounded were forced to remain standing because of the press, and even the dead could not easily slide to the earth.(10) Men pressed together on the defensive, as the English were, cannot have exceeded nine or ten feet of thickness if only eight ranks deep. Here is where the wargamer has the edge: he knows that a single line of based miniature figures -- eight ranks of real men -- is not even half as resilient as a line two figures (sixteen ranks) deep. A wounded man could slip out of the former but would have real difficulty extricating himself from the latter. Given the original sources and their descriptions of Harold's warriors as they stood,(11) one might be better served by another parallel either from antiquity or the later middle ages. I am thinking of the great depth in which the pikemen of Alexander of Macedon and the halberdiers and pikemen of the Swiss cantons formed up.(12) Sixteen ranks were often used and up to three times that by the Swiss, whether attacking or defending. So again, the wargamer who stands in the place of king Harold finds himself at once challenged with holding the ridge and keeping reserves of troops sufficient to make penetration of his line very difficult; while at the same time extending his formation far enough to secure his flanks on the steep ground in the rear to prevent them from being wrapped.(13)

It is bad form to digress before one has really begun! I will return to the subject of army strength anon. My point hopefully having been made with the above example, I will now proceed as sequentially as I can manage to give a narration of the campaigns of 1066, which shook the western world at that time and forever changed the political face of Europe.

A narrative

"-God made the duke the victor." Bishop Guy of Amiens

"They say that in this battle many thousands of the English perished, and that Christ thus recompensed them for the foul and unjust murder of Alfred, brother of king Edward." William of Jumičges.

"And no doubt the hand of God so protected (duke William), that the enemy should draw no blood from his person." William of Malmesbury.

"Of that battle the French who took part in it do to this day declare that, although fortune swayed now on this side and now on that, yet of the Normans so many were slain or put to flight that the victory which they had gained is truly and without any doubt to be attributed to nothing else than the miraculous intervention of God." Eadmer of Canterbury.

"Thus the hand of the Lord brought to pass the change which a remarkable comet had foreshadowed in the beginning of the same year-" Henry of Huntingdon.

The above passages are a sampling of the prevailing opinion regarding duke William's victory at the battle of Hastings, which began his achievement of reshaping a whole nation and people. God's hand was seen, and few had any doubts about it.

Even at the time, however, panegyrists for the Norman cause, such as William of Poitiers, attributed their victory in no small degree to their superiority over the English as fighting men. Many historians still do likewise and assume the Norman army was tactically superior to the English. But we are now seeing that in fact the Anglo-Saxon, Anglo-Danish army was not inferior to any degree, just different from the Franco-Normans, or in other words, continental tactical forms. The battle of Hastings was so closely fought that any honest man who had participated in it had afterward to admit that victory for the Normans was either dumb luck or the will of God.

Why fight at all? The reasons seem clear enough, even now after more than nine centuries.

England's throne had recently become vacant with the death of king Edward (the Confessor) in early January 1066. By then, England had already been a long-contested prize. In 1016 Canute the Great received baptism and the crown, and in 1017 a Norman wife, Emma, daughter of duke Richard (the Fearless). She had already been the wife of the late king Ethelred. Canute captured Emma, and for reasons not now clear -- but perhaps no more complex than simple female vanity and ambition -- she gave her consent and became queen of England a second time.(14) This act denied her two sons, the athelings Edward and Alfred, who withdrew into a long exile at the Norman court.(15) Their elder half-brother king Edmund (Ironside) waged a very brief war with king Canute before dying later in 1016. He had held the south of England below the Thames by treaty with Canute.(16) King Edmund's baby son Edward was whisked away to safety, where he grew up in Germany and Hungary and married a German princess.(17) He was afterward known to folk in England as the Exile.

In 1035 Canute sent to duke Robert (the Devil -- or the Magnificent) of Normandy, offering to divide half the kingdom of England with Robert's cousins the athelings. But Robert went away on pilgrimage to Jerusalem at that time, and shortly after Canute had sent his offer he died and his throne was quickly occupied by his son Harold I, known popularly as Harefoot.(18) He had the support of England's strongest earl, a Danish commoner named Godwin of Wessex, whose wife descended from the kings of Sweden. Edward and his brother decided that the time had come at last for them to seek to England to defend their rights, which the offer of Canute had admitted. So with troops from Normandy and Boulogne, and using Boulognnais ships,(19) the two athelings fared oversea. Edward landed near Southampton and fought a successful battle. But the countryside did not rally to his cause as he had hoped they would; so he retired back to the mainland to await the return of Alfred. But his brother did not come. It was soon learned that he had answered an invitation of the wily earl Godwin to a parley; but at the meeting Alfred and his men were treacherously seized and delivered over to Harefoot. He imprisoned Alfred and blinded him so savagely that he died. Harefoot lived another two years. His half-brother, Hardicanute, Emma's and Canute the Great's legitimate son, assumed the crown in 1040 with Godwin's backing. And Edward the Atheling was invited over to live at the English court. Two years later, Hardicanute perished at a banquet from overeating. Edward was hailed by the witan as the next king of England.(20)

Now for the contenders: King Hardicanute had also been king of Denmark, and at war with Magnus, king of Norway. They broke off hostilities with a treaty, to the effect that if either should die childless the other would inherit his lands and titles. When Edward became king of the English, Magnus sent envoys to warn him that England was his by agreement with Hardicanute. Edward and his people defied Magnus, who never got to press his claim by the sword, because he died in 1047; leaving his uncle Harald Hardrada (the Cruel, the Stern, Hard-counsel) as sole king in Norway.(21) Hardrada considered the claim of his nephew on England as his own by inheritance, but his long war with king Swein Estrithsson of Denmark prevented Hardrada from pursuing it.(22)

Meanwhile in Normandy, anarchy prevailed upon the death of duke Robert in 1035, on his way home from the pilgrimage to Jerusalem. He had left no legitimate issue -- his marriage to Estrith, the mother of the future king of Denmark, was barren -- and had extracted oaths from all his magnates to recognize his bastard son William as his heir. They did not take well to the idea of being ruled by a child and a bastard, not when there were so many legitimate cousins and uncles available. The anarchy lasted some fifteen years, during which time William's life was often despaired of. But his guardians, dying left and right, managed to safeguard their lord till he arrived at his majority in 1045. With the support of his sovereign king Henry of France, William survived the next five years and grew stronger. But his marriage to Matilda of Flanders in 1051 caused a break with France and a war that lasted until 1060, when king Henry died. The new king of France was a boy who was in awe of the Norman warlord. With his position secure for the first time, William could expand his power into other lands. Soon he was lord of Maine and most of Brittany. He had a claim on England as well, through his relationship as Edward's cousin -- and perhaps Edward was grateful toward William's family for sheltering and aiding him and his brother Alfred all those years in exile. Did Edward really promise William once, long before, that he would favor the duke as his heir? If so, the English either had not heard more than a rumor, or disdained the idea of being ruled by such a foreigner.

But in 1064 came a windfall: Harold Godwinson, the earl of Wessex, crashed on the coasts of Ponthieu, and the count who was a client of duke William's gave up the Englishmen to him. William held Harold as his guest until he swore to be his vassal in England for certain holdings and to help William gain the throne. The fact that Harold swore oaths seems irrefutable. Even the English historians admit or infer as much. Where the disagreement comes in is regarding the much earlier promise of Edward's to duke William, that he would make him his heir to the kingdom of England. The promise, if ever there was one, must indeed have been a very long time before, as Edward had left the court of Normandy way back in 1041 or '42. There was one rumored meeting in the interim between William and his royal cousin, in 1051, when William visited England very briefly before his marriage. The promise could have been given then, or confirmed. Edward was at that time on very bad terms with earl Godwin, and he and his sons were banished that year. Edward was looking out for himself and could name his heir as he pleased. He was more Norman than English in his sentiments anyway, having stayed the main part of his young adult life in Normandy. He preferred to speak French, and there is evidence that he was on very friendly terms with his cousin duke Robert during the period of exile. But whether or not the promise had in fact been given or confirmed, it was soon rendered moot. The witan sought for an heir for their childless king. Edward the Exile was invited to take up his heritage. He did so in 1057, but died before he and king Edward could meet. Nevertheless, he publicly recognized the Exile's son, Edgar the Atheling, as successor to his father's claim on the crown. So the English were not in anywise unduly concerned about the future: Until Harold managed to get himself captured by the Normans and made all those oaths to gain back his freedom.(23) But that was not particularly significant until 1065 when king Edward fell mortally ill. Everyone knew that duke William was holding Harold Godwinson to his oaths as the witan met to discuss the succession. Even as Edward breathed his last in the first week of 1066, they argued that a mere boy (Edgar) could not lead the kingdom in a war against the Norman and Norse claimants. Harold, since earl Godwin's death in 1053, had been the king's right-hand man and leader of the army. His sister was Edward's wife. To Harold, then, the witan turned and gave their promises of support. It helped that Harold had heard the king say on his deathbed that he was to take charge of the kingdom. He was crowned as Harold II on the same day Edward was buried.(24)

Duke William sent envoys to remonstrate with king Harold over his broken oaths. But to no avail. The king and his people prepared for invasion. All summer the southern coasts were watched by the fyrd, while across the Channel the duke gathered troops and ships at the river Dives. The Norman army was joined by volunteers from Brittany, France, Flanders, and Normans from Italy and Sicily who escorted the pope's personal banner to give to William as the champion of Mother Church: the English king, foresworn and stigmatized by Norman propaganda, was excommunicated and the kingdom of England placed under the ban of Rome.(25)

Tosti Godwinson, Harold's younger brother, had been deposed from his earldom of Northumbria and banished from England late in 1065. The shock of this had been instrumental in bringing on king Edward's last illness; and Tosti blamed Harold for being the chief instigator. He swore vengeance and went first to William and then to Harald Hardrada to gain support for his invasion of England. He told Hardrada that once in England he would raise many friends in Hardrada's support. So while Harold and the main strength of England guarded the southeastern coasts during the summer of 1066, the Norse king raised a large fleet of over two hundred warships. The winds were northerly and the Vikings sailed first to the Shetland and Orkney islands to get reinforcements, then down the coastline of Scotland and England, raiding at Cleveland, Scarborough and Holderness before putting in finally at Riccall up the Ouse river. On 20 September, Hardrada and Tosti met the army of the earls of Mercia and Northumbria, Edwin and his brother Morcar. The invaders won a complete victory in a battle just south of York, and Hardrada obtained the fealty of the earls and their men.

King Harold had received warning that the Vikings had entered Yorkshire. It was mid September. The fyrdmen and ceorls watching the coasts of Sussex had eaten up all their food supplies and he had disbanded them to their homes to get in the harvests. But a quick recall to arms brought out a large muster to London. The fyrd came mounted and joined the royal housecarles. The king and his brothers Gyrth and Leofwin led their men north, arriving at Tadcaster on the evening of the 24th where they camped briefly before moving on early next morning. They marched straight through York and headed east to where the Norse awaited the delivering of hostages. This show of force was a complete surprise to Hardrada. His army was unprepared and outnumbered. Nevertheless, he and Tosti offered battle on the far side of the river Derwent. A bridge, named after the nearby village of Stamford, lay between. The English forced the crossing against stiff resistence by a holding force and engaged the main Viking host in an all-day battle (with rest periods, to be sure). In the end, the army of Hardrada and Tosti was almost annihilated and both of them were slain. The survivors returned to their homes in only 24 (or 20) ships. The rest of the great Norse fleet fell as spoils to the king.

While the north winds had aided the Norse invasion, William's fleet had languished for weeks. Only his determination had kept his army together for so long. A momentary shift in the contrary winds had made William attempt a crossing of the Channel on 12 September, but the weather drove his fleet east, wrecking many ships before the rest put in finally at the Somme estuary. There William was held up until the winds finally changed and allowed his fleet to cross on the 28th. News of the landing at Pevensey and Hastings was swiftly carried to York, where the Godwinsons and their battle-worn troops were recuperating. Without delay, Harold and his brothers led their mounted army in a rapid return to London. Harold waited there a few days to rest the men and horses and collect reinforcements, then headed swiftly south on 12 October. He covered the 60-odd miles in two days, arriving just nine miles north of William's camp at Hastings late on 13 October; hoping, apparently, to take the Normans and French by surprise as he had the Vikings.(26)

But William's reconnaissance was good and he had his men up and armed all during the night. The English were encamped on Caldbec hill, at the edge of the Andresweald forest. Harold and William exchanged envoys but came to no resolution except battle. William, according to the Norman accounts, offered Harold the choice between taking their grievances before any court in Europe, or engaging in single combat to resolve their differences. But Harold refused, saying that God would decide between them on the morrow.

Early on Saturday the 14th William had his men in their ranks, and once arrayed he harangued them with all of Harold Godwinson's faults and crimes. After doing what he could to inflame their fighting spirit, he led them inland toward the place where the English were waiting. The Carmen says that the footmen went first, the marksmen to the fore. But as the invaders descended the north slope of Telham hill, they could see that the trees up ahead were aglitter with sunlight on countless spears. William saw the bare ridge of Santlache hill a mile outside the Andresweald forest. Whoever held that ridge would have the advantage of the high ground. But before he could rearrange his knights to ride and seize it, the English rode out from the trees and dismounted there and began to form a shield-wall. Nevertheless, William tried to make a contest for the ridge, but the English were the winners in the game of "get there firstest with the mostest" and the Normans were forced to withdraw.(27) King Harold's two banners -- the Dragon of Wessex, and the Fighting Man -- were planted on the summit and he stood there with his household troops. The marksmen of William's army went forward and peppered the English from below as they steadily formed their battle line: though to little effect, as the overlapped shields took most of the missiles and those shot higher simply went over the heads of the English warriors to land harmlessly far behind. The invader army deployed behind the screen of their marksmen: the Bretons formed the left (west) wing, the Normans of Normandy held the center, and the right (east) wing was made up of other Normans, the contingents from Boulogne and Flanders and other French troops. Count Alan the Red and count Brian -- cousins -- commanded the Bretons; the center was under William's command, and his two half-brothers -- count Robert of Mortain and bishop Odo of Bayeux -- served there with him; the French-right was under the overall command of count Eustace of Boulogne.

William of Poitiers' description of the invader array has led to a consensus that the three battles just mentioned were arranged with the marksmen in the front line, the heavy infantry spearmen behind, and the mounted knights in a third line in the rear -- but I disagree with this direct interpretation and will say more later. The English army was commanded in the center by the king himself: his two brothers were in the front ranks with their own housecarles; but possibly commanded the wings of the array, if their presence is indicated by the claim that Harold "strengthened both his wings with noble men."(28) The English army fought in a prearranged order, the various mustered shires standing beside each other in position according with tradition. The Anglo-Danish housecarles were a fairly new addition to this army (king Swein established the first of them in England in 1014) and were employed by the kings and all the powerful earls. These elite troops fought in the front, the better-armed men from each Hundred alongside them, with the lesser-armed fyrdmen in the rear ranks.(29) The rustics of Kent and Sussex, out for vengeance for their burned farmsteads, were gathered in the extreme rear of their own shire levies.(30)

The armies were now deployed in the lines from which they would open the battle-proper. The battlefield was a small one, scarcely half a mile from end to end, surrounded by marshy flats and woodland. The road to London crossed through the middle of it. The English army lay astride the road, holding the invaders in the Hastings peninsula. William had to break out or in a few days his men would begin to starve. He required a battle as soon as possible. Harold, on the other hand, could have waited and his total strength would have only increased. Most commentators share the following view:

"The longer William had been made to wait, the more difficult his position would have become. Supplies in the end would run low, and could have been denied without coming to battle. The invader would always be in the more difficult position in this respect. Also, Harold had reinforcements available. There is no doubt that with every day Harold waited more men would join him. It is true that a larger army is not always a better army, and that the core forces were already present, but a larger force against a smaller one in battle is certainly an advantage. But. . . in the end, even allowing that it is hindsight, we must accept that he made a wrong decision."(31)

Contradictory claims that Harold also required a quick victory don't really make a lot of sense. If William was hated in England enough for the witan to elect Harold Godwinson as their king, who in England would prefer the invading duke to the "upstart"? Hindsight gets us nowhere here either; for contemporaries could have seen no certain bad end to supporting the new Godwinson dynasty in preference to the Norman claimant. And, despite arguments to the contrary, Harold's claim to the throne of England was at least as good as William's. The old saw that, "possession is nine-tenths of the law," certainly applies here. Besides that, Harold's sister had been wife to the late king. Harold's own blood was royal -- if not of any ruling house of England(32) -- so in the eyes of the people his lineage was not unworthy: He was the people's hero: they were used to him being in charge as vice-king long before he assumed the crown. Matched against Harold's position, William's at the moment was weaker: he had a Flemish wife whose ancestor was Alfred the Great; the former king was his first cousin once-removed; he brandished an old promise from king Edward that he would make William his successor (which would only infuriate proper-thinking Englishmen, who had always guarded their ancient right to choose their own kings over hereditary succession), and he had the backing of the church (again, not a serious problem for Englishmen, who always put loyalty to native land over loyalty to church if they had to choose -- which propensity to independence led through process of time to England's break with Rome during the reign of Henry VIII). But, the Norman favorites of king Edward had always been resented or hated. The fact that William had to enforce his claims by invasion showed how weak his position had become. It is exaggeration to argue that if Harold had not brought him to battle quickly, that William would have been afforded "opportunity to seek friends in England."(33)

Harold was hoping to surprise the invaders in or near their camp, as he had the Norse. But failing that, he was prepared to stand at the head of the Hastings peninsula and pen the invaders in. The assertion that William surprised him is weakened by the detailed description of exchanged envoys in both the Carmen and William of Poitiers,(34) and the absolute absence of any evidence of Harold's being surprised in the other sources except the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. (Florence of Worcester also, but his language is so similar that he was probably using a different copy of the ASC.)(35)

So, Harold, having failed to surprise his foes, resorted to his contingency plan and stood his ground; daring William to attack his strong position in an attempt to break out of the bottleneck and into open country, where his army could continue to forage. William had absolutely no choice but to comply, much though he must have hated having been outmaneuvered and forced to fight with the ground at his disadvantage. So far, Harold's strategy had been praiseworthy. His army was already big enough for the job at hand, and he could expect it to receive strength from reinforcements as the day wore on. The invaders seemed to lack enthusiasm for the attack. They remained, we can't tell how long, in their ranks while the English warriors taunted them.

References and commentary:

1. The Carmen de Hastingae Proelio, of Bishop Guy of Amiens, allows that this is what happened. Catherine Morton and Hope Muntz, Oxford 1972. Hereafter referred to as Carmen.

2. Mail is a shotbox for arrows. The rings catch the bodkin points easily, transmitting the full force of the shaft against the single ring in which it is caught. Only the strongest mail, welded and perhaps also riveted, could withstand such pressure. When the link breaks the arrow and sometimes pieces of broken iron ring are driven into the body. Even if the link does not break, sometimes the mail will be driven wholly into the wound. The chief protection of ring mail -- even cheaply-made butted mail, with rings whose ends are merely touching -- is in turning cutting weapons. Crushing damage must be relieved by wearing thick clothing underneath it.

3. The Age of chivalry, National Geographic Society 1969, page 104. Since the Tapestry is probably stitched by English artisans it stands to reason that the fine details shown of arms and armor are what was familiar to them.

4. I was influenced by an old (even then it was old) Life magazine article I came across in New Zealand. Some walking club in England did the march down Watling street to see how much ground they could cover while wearing armor. They carried axes and spears and shields too. After admitting they were somewhat footsore, they felt they could still fight after a good night's sleep. They covered some mileage in the teens, I forget now what exactly, but nowhere near 38 miles in a day. See note 26.

5. I could see in the Bayeux Tapestry that the housecarles held bundles of spears. But I ignored this as artistic licence at first, or perhaps as indicating that the English were picking up javelins, first thrown by the Norman knights, to throw back. But actually, the Anglo-Saxon army depended on hand-thrown missiles to a far higher degree than the Normans did. See note 63.

6. Stephen Morillo's The Battle of Hastings, Sources and Interpretations, Boydell 1996, pages 153-154, hereafter referred to as SM. But taller figures in the Tapestry are also used, apparently as a visual convention, to show the height advantage of standing on a hill.

7. I have two quite good contour maps of the battlefield. And though a walk over the whole area was very interesting, still, too much has changed over the centuries: too many buildings and ponds, bracken that was not there, and no more forest, etc. The contour maps do not give an appreciation for how steep and difficult the ground near the top of the ridge must have been. And the reality is hardly less revealing: because a good 10 to 20 feet is missing from the original ridgetop (the abbey construction leveled off the place where Harold's army stood). It all comes down to imagining how it must have been in 1066.

8. Florence of Worcester, page 31 in SM. This assumes that the battle actually took place where tradition says it did. In fact, there is evidence for placing the battle on Caldbec hill, a mile north of Battle hill. See pages 168-178 in Jim Bradbury's The Battle of Hastings, Sutton Publishing Limited 1998. Although fascinating in his "case for Caldbec hill," I will continue to accept the traditional placement of the battle. Other than the desire for exactness, there is little or no difference to our examination in spite of any controversy over which hill the battle was in fact fought on. The English army is not to be determined as to its size by a measurement of the available ground, so the question of which hill is moot. The terrain of either fits the narration of the original sources.

9. Florence of Worcester, SM, page 31.

10. Most historians have followed a formula of measuring the frontage of 600 to 900 yards, at 2 to 5 feet per man, and then multiplying by the assumed number of ranks to arrive at a strength for the English army, a wholly arbitrary method.

11. Oman, A History of the Art of War in the Middle Ages in two volumes, vol. 1, page 156. In the footnote, "cuneus" has been translated to mean a body in deep order, as opposed to a line. SM, pages 14 and 47.

12. Greece and Rome at War, Connolly page 78. War in the Middle Ages, Philippe Contamine, page 232. At 200 men wide and 50 men deep, these troops occupy only 60m x 60m ! This is barely enough room for each man to press his chest sideways against the back of the man to his right while holding his pike, i.e. about 12" of frontage per man. To move out of defensive formation, this would loosen up somewhat; and the depth of 47" per man would probably be greater on the advance.

13. J. F. C. Fuller in SM page 167.

14. Gesta Normannorum ducum (Deeds of the Norman Dukes), edited and translated by Elisabeth M. C. van Houts, vol. 1, pages 20-21, hereafter van Houts.

15. Ibid, pages 76,77. Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, edited by Anne Savage, page 157, hereafter ASC.

16. ASC, pages 161-165.

17. ASC, page 184. Van Houts, page 180n.

18. Neither Harefoot nor his brother king Swein of Norway were illegitimate by Danish standards. Canute's Danish marriage was legal, though Christian chroniclers did not see it that way. Carmen pages 124-125.

19. The Athelings in Normandy, Anglo-Norman Studies XIII, page 195 and note 110. Their sister, Godgifu, was married to Eustace II the future count of Boulogne. His father Eustace I did not die until 1046.

20. Van Houts, pages 78-79, 104-107. Bradbury, page 23 and note 29.

21. King Harald's Saga, Snorri Sturluson, translated by Magnus Magnusson and Herman Pálsson, Penguin Books, pages 65-77. Hardrada's father, Sigurd Sow, and Magnus' grandfather, Harald of Grenland, were both married to Queen Asta: making king Olaf the saint -- Magnus' father -- and Harald Hardrada half-brothers. When Hardrada had returned in 1045, after a long career in the Byzantine empire, Magnus' advisors convinced him to share the kingdom rather than fight over it.

22. Swein Estrithsson was the nephew of Canute the Great.

23. See Bradbury, The Battle of Hastings, pages 63-71 for a full discussion of the differing points. Preeminent is the question of whether king Edward sent Harold to duke William as his messenger, or whether Harold went on his own initiative. Regardless, even the Vita Aedwardi, an English-authored history of Edward the Confessor, admits that Harold made too many oaths to the duke of Normandy. The fact that Harold's brother and nephew were duke Williams's hostages adds to the likelihood that Harold went on his own, or at least the idea was his to go. See also the ASC "C" version: ". . .(Harold) had been told as a fact that Count William from Normandy, king Edward's kinsman, meant to come here and subdue the country." SM, page 22. The implication is that William had some claim to the throne recognized by the English chroniclers. William of Poitiers even claims that king Edward had actually adopted duke William; SM, page 9. Either it was true, or William the Conqueror believed it, or he allowed his favorite sycophant-historian to perpetrate the most outrageous lies to help subdue the rebellious English.

24. Bradbury, page 118: "The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle states that Edward had 'entrusted the realm', and 'granted' the kingdom to Harold, while the Vita records that he commended 'all the kingdom to his protection'. Even the French chronicler William of Poitiers spoke of Harold 'raised to the throne by Edward's grant on his deathbed'."

25. Carmen, pages 18-19. The only original source for the mention of troops in William's army from the Norman holdings of Southern Italy and Sicily. The Normans were the staunchest supporters of Rome. There was certainly time for such troops to arrive in response to duke William's advertisement for mercenaries. Who better to bear the banner of Rome to her favorite son? Harold was not represented in Rome, and duke William's friend was Lanfranc -- later archbishop of Canterbury -- who was pope Alexander's friend and teacher. William agreed to hold England as a vassal state of the church, an unprecedented political move. David C. Douglas, William the Conqueror, University of California Press 1964, pages 187-188. SM, page 7. David Howarth, 1066 The Year of the Conquest, Barnes & Noble Books 1993, page 102.

26. See Douglas, William the Conqueror, appendix D, for a full discussion of Harold's departure from London. If his army depended on foot troops, then the king led his men south at the very latest on the 11th. But if he used only mounted men, two days sufficed to cover the distance to the battlefield. Carmen, appendix B, page 74 note 3, quotes from a version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle giving Harold's march into the north as seven days and nights, or c. 29 miles a day -- London to York is c. 200 miles. Most historians give 20 September as Harold's departure from London on his way to Stamford bridge. The battle was fought on the 25th, starting in the morning toward noon. The total distance covered is c. 205 miles, or c. 38 miles per day. Neither march rate is possible for infantry farmers to sustain.

27. Carmen, appendix C, pages 78-80.

28. Ibid page 25.

29. David Hume, SM pages 146-147, states that the "Kentish men were placed in the van; a post which they had always claimed as their due: the Londoners guarded the standard." The inference is that the other shire units also knew their traditional roles. It would be natural for arriving units to head towards the king's standards, wishing to place themselves near him and his troops. Some ordained tradition of the ages would have prevented this from happening, by assigning the shires to their places in the phalanx.

I cannot agree with the popular notion that the housecarles fought all across the front of the English army; nor the latest, that they refused to let lesser warriors than themselves, i. e. everybody else, fight beside them -- see Kim Siddorn, The Battle of Hastings, Regia Anglorum Publications 1995. My reason is the same: like the shires -- whose units from the Hundreds must have learned their place to avoid confusion -- the housecarles were coherent units who grouped around their lord and employer in battle. There is no conceivable way that such units could function if they were spread out to form a couple of ranks of depth in front of the fyrd: such a posture would destroy any housecarle command control, and reduce their morale, since the purpose of the housecarle was to fight for his lord and under his gaze, so that he could reward his housecarle for valor. If Harold's brothers were mustered near him, then all the housecarles were in the center. If, on the other hand, Gyrth and Leofwin were placed on the flanks -- as the reinforcement of "noble men"? -- then their housecarles went with them and formed up in a body where their lords stood. Minimum depth for a unit should be understood as four ranks; less than this would be mere skirmishing order.

30. The terms "select" and "great," (or "general") fyrd were first coined by professor C. W. Hollister in 1962, as an elegant solution to the debate that had for years been waged amongst scholars: was the fyrd only composed of the noblemen warriors who fought for the king and earls in exchange for lands and privileges; or was it a general levy of all able-bodied freemen, mainly the ceorl class, but inclusive of the nobility? The former was referred to as the "select" fyrd, the latter as the "great" fyrd, or the nation under arms. Further study has shown Hollister's neat theory to be too simple: the fyrd system was undergoing changes all the time. The early history of Anglo-Saxon England is more obscure the further back you look. But by the time of the Conquest, it seems clear that thegns, housecarles and well-off ceorls -- called geneats ("companions") -- comprised the fyrd, or standing militia, of the realm; while the general population of peasant freemen only fought when their own shire was endangered. Therefore, at Hastings, the only peasants -- rustica gens -- in the English army were the locals of Kent and Sussex.

31. Bradbury, page 167. And yet he earlier states (page 163): "The foraging itself was not necessary. Plenty of provisions had been loaded on board before sailing, and they had certainly not yet run out or even run low." This is not correct, if one seeks to explain why William would leave troops behind and take plenty of food with a smaller army. His ship strength was a problem, despite the huge number he had managed to collect and build. Every spare foot of space on his ships would have been devoted to carrying as many horses, men and arms as possible. The foraging began at once upon disembarking at Pevensey and had perforce to continue uninterrupted to supply the lack. I don't believe more than two or three day's worth of rations would have been taken onboard. Wine, on the other hand, was in great supply, as the army did not run out until a few weeks after the battle of Hastings. Perhaps it was well-known that having to drink strange water brought on complaints of the bowels, and William had guarded carefully against this calamity as long as possible by taking adequate wine. Reinforcements arrived at the end of October (Hastings 1066 The Fall of Anglo-Saxon England, Christopher Gravett, Osprey Publishing Ltd 1992, page 81), which goes to show that had he been provided with adequate shipping he would never have left them behind to begin with.

32. Godwin Wulfnothson, a Dane of obscure parentage, was married to Gytha, daughter of Thorgils Sprakaleg, son of Styrbjörn, who descended from the kings of Sweden. Carmen, page 124, for family tree.

33. Bradbury, page 167.

34. And possibly the Bayeux Tapestry. There is nothing to positively identify the scout as such. He could be a Norman envoy, even a warlike monk as the Carmen seems to imply, page 19.

35. Anglo Saxon Chronicle D version: "William came against him by surprise before his army was drawn up in battle array." E version: "Harold came from the north and fought with him before all the army had come." Florence of Worcester: ". . . .and though (Harold) well knew that . . .one half of his army had not yet arrived, he did not hesitate to advance with all speed into South Saxony. . .and before a third of his army was in order for fighting, he joined battle. . . ." All in SM, pages 23, 24, 31. The ASC is the only original source -- and the only English source we have for certain (the Tapestry probably used English artists) -- which claims that Harold was surprised before his army was fully gathered and prepared for battle. A motive of attempting to give a good, strategic reason for the English defeat, in place of the widespread belief that it was the will of heaven, is easy to understand.