“the rates of travel offered for mounted troops of this period, of around 25 miles per day, would bring Harold’s forces to Tadcaster by 24 September and to Stamford Bridge by the afternoon of 25 September, if they left London early on 16 September.” (Norwegian Invasion of England in 1066. 264)
King Edward of England died in the first days of January in 1066 without an heir to the throne. Harold Godwinson claimed that moments before he died Edward entrusted the kingdom into Harold’s hands, this meant that he would break his oath to William but it was worse to not fulfill the dead kings last wish than to break an oath to a duke. The Earls of England elected Harold as king and crowned him on the same day that Edward was buried. The swiftness of this is potentially a result of Harold’s fear that William would lay a claim to the throne when he heard of Edwards death. This complicated the relationship built by Cnut and Williams’ family between England and Normandy and led to William enforcing his claim to the throne and the idea that Harold had stolen it from him.
Despite this complication, Harold ran England as normally as possible. He appointed at least two clerics to abbot and two to the title of earl. Harold even married the sister of a northern duke, cementing the shaky relationship between the northern shires and the crown. He also continued to uphold Edward’s ruling of giving his brother Tosti’s former shire to a northern earl. This prompted Tosti to attack Southern England in early May an attempt to regain some power. However, after only a few days of raiding the area, Tosti retreated before royal troops and began to look for powerful outside nobility to help him regain power. (Harold the last Anglo-Saxon King. 144) Tosti reached out to Harald Hardrada, who was in need of money for continuing his siege of Denmark, during the summer and the two decided to make plans to invade England. Harold watched Tosti closely but was also aware of the threat posed from William of Normandy who was furious that Harold had claimed the throne instead of William. It is said that William sought permission from the Pope to invade England, he did so in an attempt to make his seizing of the throne as legitimate as possible. While William was waiting on Papal approval, he built and moved his ships and troops to the closest point between Normandy and England in preparation for attack. However, summer winds kept William and his men on the beach while at the same time making it possible for Tosti and Harald to invade.
Harald Hardrada and his fleet met Tosti and his men in mid-September in the North and they planned to take York as a base for their invasion. (Harold the last Anglo-Saxon King. 155) They were seen sailing toward York and a message was sent to Harold in London. Harold called for a second military force and is estimated to have left London early September 16th. On September 20th Harald and Tosti met earl’s Edwin and Morcar in battle near Fulford, at one of Earl Morcar’s estates; marshes and the river provided protection to both armies flanks. (Harold the last Anglo-Saxon King. 155-157) The battle experienced Vikings had a slight edge over the earl’s and their men and after a long and bloody battle the Earls fell to the invaders and York was claimed by Tosti and Harald.
Their victory was cut short as they received word that Harold and his men were only days away. On September 25th Harald and Tosti faced Harold and his troops at Stamford Bridge. It is mostly likely that Harold called troops to him as he went north instead of bringing an army with him from London. These forces were called fyrd – well equipped men from areas around England, most likely called up in sections and not all at once. Many fyrd joined Harold en route to York; they came from Essex, Ramsey Abbey, and even Worcestershire. (Harold the last Anglo-Saxon King. 160) It was a spectacularly bloody battle, with the river being said to have run red with the amount of blood in it. It appears to have been an evenly matched battle in the way of numbers. The exact numbers of both the English and the Vikings are unknown but it is estimated that Harald and Tosti had started with nearly 300 ships full of warriors. Accounting for the men already lost from York and had left some of their warriors behind to guard their ships, it is estimated that there was around 4,000 warriors on both sides. (Harold the last Anglo-Saxon King. 162) Harald Hardrada and Tosti were both killed and only 30 Viking ships returned to Norway.
As the remaining Vikings were fleeing to Norway the winds of southern England changed to finally favor William and the Normans quickly boarded their ships after having waited for three months. William and his men landed in Pevensey and built a castle to strengthen his foothold. William moved his forces to the port of Hastings and were unopposed for 17 days. It appears that William stayed in Hastings instead of continuing into England to ensure that he had a quick and defendable retreat available. After landing in Hastings he heard of the victory of Harold over the Vikings and it is possible that he was wary to venture inland at the risk of encountering Harold’s victorious troops.
Harold received the news of Williams invasion and marched south, still with his core Huscarls (house soldiers) that had been with him on the way from London to Stamford. He also gaining a 3rd round of fyrd’s as he went, probably from East Anglia, Hampshire, London, as well as men from abbeys. (Harold the last Anglo-Saxon King. 168) Around October 8th Harold made a stop in London to gather any men waiting there for him and to recover from the quick marches to York and back. By October 13th Harold and his men arrived in Sussex, going slightly slower than they had on the ride north. The English hoped to battle the Normans in Hastings and cut off their supplies, thus starving the invaders into surrender or easy defeat. William suspected this strategy and was aware of Harold’s approach, it forced William to attack first in order to prevent Harold’s plan from taking effect. As the English arrived in Sussex, William made plans to attack soon after dawn. (Harold the last Anglo-Saxon King. 173)
As dawn approach both sides formed their battle lines, the English defending from a hilltop and the Normans spread to attack on three fronts. The English most likely had around 7,000 warriors for the battle but most of these were inexperienced ‘reservists’ though they were well armed. (Harold the last Anglo-Saxon King. 174) The Normans were attacking uphill but had more consistent training and balance of warriors, they also had around 7,000 warriors. (Harold the last Anglo-Saxon King. 175) It is suspected that a few hours after dawn the first attacks occurred, there was brutal fighting on both sides but no one knows for sure what the attacks and counter-attacks looked like. It is rumored that the Normans faked a retreat several times to give their cavalry room to charge the English and that William had to prove he had not died by taking his helmet off (The Battel of Hastings 1066. 219) It is suspected that there was a slight break in the fighting around noon allowing both sides to regroup and recover. (Harold the last Anglo-Saxon King. 178) Harold’s brothers, Gyrth and Leofwine were killed during the battle though it is unsure how or by whom. The English started to give in when Harold was fatally wounded, it is assumed by an arrow in the eye though the Bayeux Tapestry also depicts a Norman horseman close to the figure marked Harold. (Harold the last Anglo-Saxon King. 179) Despite modern confusion over how Harold died, it is clear that he died at Hastings and that the Normans were victorious. The Normans pursued the remaining English through the night to secure their victory and ensure that they would be safe through the night.
The Battle of Hastings 1066. Stroud, Gloucestershire: Tempus Publishing Limited, 2003. 219.
Vries, Kelly De. The Norwegian invasion of England in 1066. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell Press, 2003. 264.
Walker, Ian W. Harold: the last Anglo-Saxon king. Thrupp, Stroud, Gloucestershire: Sutton, 1997. 144.
Walker, Ian W. Harold: the last Anglo-Saxon king. Thrupp, Stroud, Gloucestershire: Sutton, 1997. 155-157.
Walker, Ian W. Harold: the last Anglo-Saxon king. Thrupp, Stroud, Gloucestershire: Sutton, 1997. 160-162.
Walker, Ian W. Harold: the last Anglo-Saxon king. Thrupp, Stroud, Gloucestershire: Sutton, 1997. 168.
Walker, Ian W. Harold: the last Anglo-Saxon king. Thrupp, Stroud, Gloucestershire: Sutton, 1997. 173-179.