king Harold Godwinson at war

King Harold Godwinson at War

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If you’re English, and don’t think darkly about the consequences of the Battle of Hastings, on at least a semi regular basis, are you truly English? That’s open to debate, but the fact that it fundamentally changed our, and I’d argue, the world’s history, is hard to dispute. This is the story of king Harold Godwinson at war.

Firstly let’s take a moment and remember Harold’s sensational victory against the greatest Viking army ever assembled, at Stamford Bridge. Having seen the weather turn against the Norman invading fleet, Harold had been forced to stand down the Wessex Fyrd two days before hearing news of Harald Hardrada’s landing, and victory at the battle of Fulford, against the Northern Fyrd.

So, in this time, he had to re-assemble the Wessex Fyrd again, which in itself is a sign of how efficient the Anglo-Saxon administration was, and set off north to meet his rival. They then route marched, some 600 miles, over the hills and through the woodlands, avoiding all roads, to preclude detection, in order to take Hardrada’s army by surprise, while they were travelling to the surrendered city of York, to receive hostages.

From a military point of view, this was an exceptional performance. Not only the administrative difficulties of reassembling his army – the men of which had legally fulfilled their obligation of serving 30 days – but then inspiring them to route-march the breadth of the land, to take on arguably the most feared foe in Europe. Not only did he do this, but he chose exactly the right location for the battle, caught his enemy unprepared and off balance, and absolutely devastated them. Hardrada’s fleet was purported to be over 300 ships, of which only 30 limped back north carrying the survivors.

Not only that, but he also had time for a mic-drop moment, as reported by Snorri Sturluson in his sagas, whilst parlaying with his traitorous brother Tostig before battle. Harold made an offer of some lands and titles to Tostig, should he stand his men down. Tostig responded by asking what he would grant Hardrada, to which Harold replied, “Him I will grant but 6 feet of English land, or perhaps a little more as he is taller than most”, before riding back towards the English lines.

After resting in York for a period of around 7-10 days, news reached Harold of William’s landing on the South Coast. This, in my humble opinion at least, wasn’t such a shock as many historians suggest (presumably for some ‘dramatic effect’). Of course they knew William had assembled an army and invasion fleet, they’d been waiting all summer for him. The only hope he might’ve had is that William would have stood down his army for winter. But they would’ve been keenly aware that that threat was there, and his landing a distinct possibility.

Again the Fyrd route marched 600 miles (the Huscarls & aristocracy would’ve ridden, some may have travelled by boat along the coast), before spending around a week in London, while William and his army rode out to set Kent and its surrounding areas (including many lands which belonged to Godwinson) ablaze. This tactic likely went beyond foraging for supplies, and was designed to enrage and draw Harold out.

Now, while many will say Harold was hasty, I’m not sure I’d agree. He had an ample fyrd, of equal number to the Norman army, and the blood up. All the time new men were arriving in London, to meet the new threat. People say he should have sat tight, and raised a huge army, but there’s not really much of a precedent for that. You have to feed and water a sitting army, logistically that in itself is a major problem. Not only that, but he is the King, and one whose position was won on his martial prowess. He has to rise to meet threats in his kingdom. And then there’s the fact that there were 15,000 randy Frenchmen riding around his lands, burning and pillaging his towns and villages.

His grave error in my opinion, was not his eagerness for battle, but failing to leave one of his brothers as a contingency figure, to take charge of raising a second Fyrd, and take the throne should he fall. After Hastings, London was full of fighting men, who had arrived after the ride south, but with Harold, his brothers Leofwine & Gyrth all fallen, along with their retinues and housecarls, pretty much the entire martial leadership and aristocracy of Wessex lay slain.

All that there was at this point were the Northern Earls, Edwin and Morcar, neither of whom had any authority over a Wesssex dominated England, nor one could argue, had they covered themselves in glory in the Battle of Fulford, the subsequent surrender of York, and then failing to ride south with Harold to meet the Normans.

I would argue that it was this lack of a clear leadership figure, post Hastings, that was the death-knell of the Anglo Saxon kingdom. Instead all that was left was the 13 year old Edgar Aethling, evidently ill suited to the martial leader role that England so desperately needed, with a victorious Duke and his army licking their wounds in Sussex, before setting the kingdom ablaze and marching on London.

It was this lack of contingency figure, that was Harold’s disastrous error, not his marching south to engage William. The latter was entirely correct, from a military standpoint. William had, in the most feared heavy cavalry in Western Europe, a highly mobile force. The English Shieldwall, particularly the 3000 or so Huscarls that made up its core, was the most fearsome infantry in Europe.

William’s army, with its heavy cavalry, archers and infantry, was a more modern, versatile fighting force. Harold’s was more rudimentary, it was like a top trump with one knock out capability, but lower scores in other fields. If Harold were to be victorious, the site of the battle was going to be a huge factor. Being caught in the wrong terrain by such a mobile heavy cavalry, of the type that at that time in England, was almost unheard of, would be disastrous. His men would never have faced a foe like it. Certainly, the Fyrd, and any of his fighting men whom had not served in Europe as mercenaries would not know of the Norman heavy cavalryman.

Allowing William’s mobile force to move into the flatlands of Kent, would’ve meant a far riskier potential battlefield to meet him. Instead, as with his remarkable campaigns against the Welsh, and his sensational victory against the Norse, Harold elected to try and use speed, and catch his foe off balance, with a back up plan of knowing the local terrain like the back of his hand. Where he came unstuck, was by William’s use of scouts, who picked up Harold’s movements. On the news of the incoming English Fyrd, William told his entire army to stand at arms overnight before battle. No sleep, no rest, standing in full armour a full 12 hours before the first dawn.

Having failed in his attempted & favoured surprise attack tactic, Harold went to plan B, and took up an excellent defensive formation atop a hill, flanked either side by woodlands, at Senlac. What follows we all likely know well enough. For the sake of brevity, lets focus on a few key facts.

William was unseated from THREE horses, showing how close, Harold came to victory. If William had fallen, surely his battle would have been lost, and deals would’ve been made with what was left of the Norman army, with free passage given them to leave.

It was the Norman’s left flank, their Breton levees, that turned and ran, inadvertently drawing out the Fyrd on the shieldwall’s right flank. This fact puts to bed (in my mind at least), any notion of it being a moment of battlefield genius from the Normans. The latter had indeed used ‘feigned flight’ as a tactic previously, but the Breton levees were essentially just making up the numbers. The equivalent of the English Fyrd. They did not have the martial discipline of the Norman heavy cavalry (that discipline and warlike capability had been hewn in the maelstrom of inter-Norman warfare over the last 150 years).

Here is a key point in Harold’s decision making. If we are to assume he was horrified to see the shieldwall broken, and up to a third of the Fyrd tearing down the hill to be picked apart by the re-forming Norman army (who would no doubt have seen what was occurring to the left, and turning to face the now out-of-formation English in the field), then he was faced with three options.

1) Seeing his flank in disarray, and the integrity of the Shieldwall broken, wave the entire force down to join them as one, and go for the knock out blow.

2) To do everything he could to maintain his position and hope that the broken wing could reform, and that casualties were not unduly damaging. (It is this choice, that we are left to assume he elected for).

3) Seeing his battle plan unravelling, to retreat with his core, and raise another fyrd in London.

It’s easy to think he should have rolled the dice, and with the full weight of the English army against the tired and waning (at least a third of which was in panic, and running), Norman force, however I would say this goes against his best interests, which was to fight a defensive battle.

It is William, as the invader, who has all the necessity of seeking a knock-out blow. Harold can just batter hell out of his enemy, then, when night falls, restock from what we have to assume is a regular amount of Fyrdsmen travelling down from London. William cannot replenish his battered force. 

Harold is the king of England. He has the authority to raise fyrds. However, with his force split, his chances of success with that defensive battle is, as history attests, seriously diminished. One could argue, that in the perilous situation the Fyrd’s indiscipline left him in, he may’ve been better to go all in, and maintain the integrity of his force as one entity, it seems unduly risky to not do this on one’s own terms, but perhaps with the full benefit of hindsight, may’ve won out.

The other option that was open to him, was beating a retreat with his core. Again, he is King, he can raise more fyrds. With him, his brothers and their combined retinues, all laying slain, there was as good as no leadership left in the whole country, certainly with any kind of martial authority. Had he, or at very least one of his brothers, beaten a retreat, they could’ve lived to fight another day and raise another fyrd and then hem in William’s battered force in Sussex as winter drew in.

Again, the key point, is William cannot replenish his men, the English can. Harold is king, and has authority, and the entire kingdom behind him. William is a hated invader in the corner of the kingdom, with a now battered army, that cannot be replenished. If Harold, or at very least one of his brothers, had withdrawn & raised another fyrd, they could have picked at William’s battered force, in a guerrilla fashion, until sickness, lack of supplies and low morale set in.

As tempting as it is to see the pragmatism here, it seems unthinkable that such a figure as Harold would retreat from the field. Again, his position as King is not exactly without question. What is, if not his martial prowess, for which ultimately he won the support of the Witan, in his claim. If he retreats, what would be darkly muttered about him, even in victory?

Again, we turn to the clear error (in my mind at least), the lack of an English contingency figure. His brothers Gyrth or Leofwine were both respected warriors. Just one of those, back in London co-ordinating a second fyrd, and in the historical case of Harold’s death at Hastings, being crowned and being a credible figure for the English to carry the fight against the invaders.

Lest we forget that the Normans were defeated in TWO subsequent battles, post Hastings. First in the Battle of the Foss, where the invaders’ cavalry were chasing down the fyrd, who led them into the perfect location, with a low ditch in the land, that was unseen from the south, ambushed them, slaughtering many, and battered the rest back into retreat.

Then again, as William’s army approached London, from the South, the Fyrd that had gathered (without their erstwhile leadership), banged them back across the London Bridge, again into retreat. This is why William then, rather than cross the Thames, took his army on murderous arching loop, all across the South East, into Hampshire, then up beyond the Thames, into the Chilterns, before riding on London from the North West.

At this point, the northern Earls Edwin and Morcar, did what some might call a traitorous deal with him, and rode their men north, back to the lands that the Duke promised they would keep, under his rule. There was no figure left in London to maintain the fight, and the city surrendered.

The key point to remember in all this, is how sensational Harold’s career as a general was. And how close he was (he fell some 30 mins before dusk, and what would’ve been the end of the battle), to taking on and defeating the two most fearsome militaries in Western Europe, in the space of 3 weeks.

The real tragedy was the lack of a credible military figure from House Godwinson, who could’ve been crowned, and kept the fight against a depleted and far from unbeatable foe, with the clock running down on their ability to keep an army in the field.

Originally published on Wyvern the Terrible’s Substack. Reprinted with permission.

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the key point, is William cannot replenish his men, the English can

That’s my favorite part. Always keep your eye on the future.

Fascinating article I read the other day. Interesting. Not well known facts (?)
But Guillaume won.Westmoutier was beforr Westminster. Eleanor of Aquitaine did win too in a way, did she not.
England was ruled by French and France was ruled by English.
More than once they almost became a country. It wouldn’t have lasted. Shame though.

“The real tragedy was” .. that they lost. Sorry pal haha

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