Battle of Hastings and Stamford Bridge (1066)
King Harold was crowned king in 1066 and during his short reign fought two huge battles, within twenty days of each other, against possibly the two most powerful armies in Europe. He came within an ace of defeating both of them and assuring his place in history as one of the greatest mediaeval generals.
The seeds of the battles he was to fight as a man were sown while as a young boy the English searched for a suitable successor to King Cnut. Eventually Edward the Confessor was sent for and offered the crown. Edward, despite being the only candidate descended directly from the English royal line, had spent virtually his entire life in exile at the Norman Court. The fact that Edward had spent so much of his time at the Norman court and to a great degree, was very heavily influenced by them was to sow the seeds of later discontent.
As Harold grew up many of the English nobility, including Harold's father Godwine who was the most powerful English Earl, became increasingly to resent the way in which Edward; appointed Normans to key posts in the English hierarchy. Things came to a head when in July 1051 Count Eustace of Boulogne, King Edwards's former brother in law landed in Dover on his way to see the King and "caused much offence to the people of Dover by their high handed manor". On the return from his meeting with the King trouble broke out between the Norman knights and the people of Dover. With many of the locals dead and nineteen of his best men killed the furious Count raced back to King Edward at Gloucester to demand retribution.
Because Dover was part of Godwines Earldom many chroniclers at the time saw the whole incident as a pre-meditated plan by King Edward to wrestle some power away from the English nobility. King Edward immediately ordered Godwine to punish the town and its inhabitants, to which Godwin flatly
Encouraged by his Norman advisors, the King raised his army to crush Godwine. Harold and his other brothers rode swiftly to the side of his father along with their own retinue of elite household troops or housecarls. Eventually their was a standoff at the river Thames and although the King was backed by many Norman reinforcements many of the English troops refused to face their King in battle. When the King took Harold's younger brother and nephew hostage, Earl Godwine and his sons, with no other option open to them saddled up and rode away, to all intents as outlaws. The English troops allowed them to escape. The Godwine family split into two parties with the aging Godwine and most of his family embarking for Flanders and Harold and one of his brother Loefwine setting sail along with their housecarls for Ireland. They would be back.
After Harold's and his father's land was split between the King's Norman friends they were joined abroad by many more disenchanted Englishmen. After joining forces with the local Irish chieftain and helping him regain control of Dublin from the Vikings Harold gathered his forces and set sail for England. He defeated a force, sent by King Edward, at Porlock and then joined up with his father and the rest of his family. In London the King, deserted by virtually the whole of the English army had no option but to negotiate. The status quo was re-established with the English once again taking precedence in the English court and many of the Normans banished. Eustace of Boulougne, who had started the whole drama, had escaped back to France with Harold's younger brother and nephew.
Harold's father soon died and Harold was promoted to Earl of Wessex the most powerful earldom in the country. Edward became to increasingly rely on Harold's diplomatic and military skills. After increased raiding by the Welsh and the sacking of Hereford, Harold was sent to sort it out. He led the English army into Wales that succeeded in subduing the Welsh. Harold had achieved the hitherto impossible and conquered Wales using combined navy and infantry forces. When the Welsh King's head was brought to him, Harold characteristically showed mercy to the defeated and called a halt to
all reprisals and after having the Welsh nobility swear allegiance to King Edward even lifted the ban on Welsh women marrying English men.
Soon after Harold set sail for Normandy with a small force in an attempt to negotiate the safe return of his brother and nephew. The reason for this journey is very important because Norman's wanted to show Harold as someone who usurped the throne for his own purposes and suggests that the real reason for this journey was to take a message from King Edward to William the Conqueror that the Norman was his chosen heir to the Crown of England. Historians now dispute this; after all Harold was now the most powerful man in England, he was at his peak of his powers. After all the trouble that had previously happened over Norman dabbling in English affairs, would Harold or the rest of the English nobility really have so meekly accepted a foreign King? The answer has to be no.
On the channel crossing Harold was shipwrecked off the French coast and eventually came into the hands of William the Conqueror. He was received well by William as a head of state and even went into battle with William against his enemies and fought so well that he was awarded a knighthood by William. The Bayeux Tapestry shows Harold rescuing two of Williams's men from a swamp by carrying one on his shoulder and dragging the other with his spare hand. It was around this time that the Norman historians say that Harold had gave an oath to William that he would make good his claim to the crown. This again cannot have been true. In Norman society unlike English society, oath giving was almost unheard of. Instead the Normans would usually have taken hostages in order to compel Harold to make good on any promise. Instead of taking more hostages William actually released Harold's nephew into his care. Also both Harold and William would have known that it was beyond even his power to offer the crown to anyone as the new King was always voted for by the Witan (parliament). The matter of the oath has to be seen as more of Williams's attempts to justify his forthcoming invasion.
The year was 1066 and King Edward had died naming Harold as his successor with the agreement of the Witan. Harold's brother Tostig had rebelled and travelled to the court of King Harald Hardrada of Norway in order to seek assistance. The King of Norway was at this time the most renown and feared warrior in the whole of Europe. He stood 6 feet 6 tall and had fought and won battles everywhere from the Orkneys to Byzantium where he had been the leader of the Emperor's elite Varangian Guard.
Tostig eventually persuaded Harold Hardrada that he could invade England and no one there would have the force to stop him. Meanwhile in Normandy after hearing of the Witan's decision William began to put together an invasion fleet. Through his spies Harold knew that William would be coming and gathered together a huge army backed up by the navy on the southern shores of England. Unfortunately the southerly winds which kept the Normans in France were welcomed by Harold Hardrada who immediately set sail for England and landed near York with a massive army of Viking warriors. They were immediately met by the Northern Earls and at the Battle of Fulford Gate the local forces were quickly routed.
On the south coast Harold heard the news of the invasion and immediately marched the 190 miles north with his army; completing the entire journey in under four days. The Norwegian army was at this time camped at Stamford Bridge when they first became aware of a dust cloud coming towards them. Not believing that a second English army could have travelled from the south so soon they took no immediate action until Tostig recognises the two banners; the Dragon of Wessex and King Harold's own personal banner "The Fighting Man".
King Harold rode out with twenty of his Housecarls and was met by the Norwegian King, his body guards and Tostig. Snorri Sturluson; a Norwegian who was present at the battle later wrote that King Harold rode forward and spoke to Tostig:
"Your brother King Harold sends you his greeting, and this message to say you can have peace and the whole of Northumbria as well. Rather than have you refuse to join him, he is prepared to give you one third of his whole kingdom"
Tostig replied asking if he accepted this offer what would King Harold offer the Norwegian King.
"King Harold has already declared how much of England he is prepared to grant him: seven feet of English ground, or as much as he is taller than other men"
With the talking finished both armies formed their battle lines. The Norwegian
King asked Tostig who was the man was who had spoken so well and stood so proudly in his stirrups. Tostig replied that, that was his brother King Harold of England. The Norwegian King was annoyed that if he had been told he could have killed Harold there and then. Tostig replied:
"That would have made me his murderer and I would rather that he was my killer than I his"
At this point battle was joined and the English army fell on the Norwegians. The battle lasted for hours and eventually the Norwegian King was killed. Harold offered quarter to Tostig and the remaining Norwegians but they refused this and once again the battle was rejoined until the Norwegian army was eventually destroyed.
Harold had won a stunning victory against a foe that up until now had been considered unbeatable. The Norwegian fleet which had come to England had been 300 ships strong. After a final surrender Harold once again showed mercy to the survivors and allowed the remnants of the army to leave in peace. It took only 20 ships to carry them home. The English had also suffered casualties and many of Harold's housecarls, the core of the army lay dead on the battlefield.
Word soon reached Harold that once again the winds had changed and William had landed at Pevensy. After taking his brother's body for burial at York Harold gathered the remnants of his army together and once again force marched the 190 miles to London.
Once in London Harold tried to bolster his exhausted army with local levies raised from the surrounding areas. On 14th October 1066 it was a very different English army that faced the Normans from the one that had waited for them just twenty days earlier. In a hard fought battle on Senlac Hill, after two forced marches of 190 miles each and two major battles in twenty days the English and the Normans fought until early evening. The battle had raged all day and although the English army had still not been joined by their archers and were without any form of cavalry, with the core of their army dead from the previous battle; in the end only the element of chance could finally resolve it when Harold was struck by an arrow and fatally wounded. Without their King the English were gradually ground down by the Norman archers and repeated cavalry charges. As the part-time soldiers of the fyrd withdrew into the darkness one of the great unsung chapters of our military history took place.
With the English King dead the day was lost but a group of English warriors - the Kings feared Housecarls - refused to yield and refused leave the battlefield. They rallied at a place on the battlefield known as Malfosse and in a desperate last stand caused such a huge slaughter among the Norman troops that once again the outcome of the battle hung in the balance. At the very end they were overcome, and they died to a man around the King's personal banner - "The Fighting Man"
Against seemingly insurmountable odds the English had come very close to pulling off another stunning victory but fate conspired against them, and at the last, their luck had once again deserted them.
English resistance to the Normans continued for many years although with most of the English leaders killed in the two battles there was never a figure head to bring the separate rebellions together. It was only in 1100 when Henry 1 married Edith that the Norman hold on the throne gained widespread acceptance. Edith was of "the true royal line of England", a direct descendant of Alfred the Great and once again Anglo-Saxon blood ran in the royal line. Eventually over the generations the lines between Norman and Saxon became blurred.
The events of 1066 were known as the Norman Conquest but it is worth remembering that although William was crowned king and many of English aristocracy replaced by Normans, the people of England were not replaced. The ordinary English; the Saxons; remained English. Although England was ruled by Normans, it never actually became Norman. In fact there may well have been only a few thousand Normans who actually stayed in England and eventually these became English. As the Eagle magazine put it when they ran the story as a comic strip, "from the ashes there arose a greater England.