BY OUR DEFENCE EDITOR,
Hastings, Sussex, October 1066
THEY SAY that a month is a long time in politics. It’s even longer if you are an eleventh-century English king. On 25 September, the English king Harold Godwinson celebrated a magnificent victory at Stamford Bridge, in Yorkshire, after defeating an army of Norwegian invaders. But less than three weeks later he lay dead on a battlefield near Hastings, on the south coast, after his army was annihilated by French forces led by William, Duke of Normandy.
The exact circumstances of Harold’s death are disputed. Some witnesses say they saw him take an arrow to the eye; others insist that he was cut down with swords. The English forces soon melted away after losing their leader. One soldier who escaped admitted that the situation was hopeless: “After Harold fell, some of his guards, the Huscarls, fought on to protect his body. The rest of us, knowing the battle was lost, ran for our lives.”
Almost a week after the battle, more facts are emerging from the confusion and chaos of the past month. It is now known that Harold’s body could not be found until Edith the Fair, Harold’s long-term companion and former civil partner, searched the battlefield and identified his corpse. She was incensed to discover that his body had been deliberately mutilated.
The battle at Hastings marked the climax of the constitutional crisis that was triggered on 5 January by the death of King Edward the Confessor without an obvious heir. A council of noblemen elected Harold as king of England the next day. But Edward’s refusal to name his successor led to foreign leaders making plans to seize England on spurious legal grounds. First to act was Harald Hardrada of Norway, last king of the Vikings, who landed with an army in Northumbria. Harold marched north and confronted Hardrada, who was killed in the battle at Stamford Bridge. Duke William chose that moment to cross the Channel. Harold and his men made a forced march south, in itself a remarkable achievement. However, the King ignored advice to gather more forces, instead confronting William with only exhausted troops and quickly raised militia. The conduct of the battle will probably be debated for centuries, but the deciding factor was the King’s death.
Duke William is now expected to head to London and attempt to seize the throne. While the English have excellent infantry, the best men fell at Hastings. William’s forces include archers, many carrying the latest crossbows, and the famed Norman heavy cavalry equipped with stirrups, straps for the feet which allow knights to lean over to use their weapons with greater force. Only time will tell if the future of England continues in the balance or has already been decided.
Extract taken from the Wallbook Timeline of British History