Life in Eleventh Century Britain: The Fyrd and the Housecarls

Anglo-Saxon Shield Wall

Before the Normans brought over their own version of feudalism, the Anglo-Saxons had a different way of calling up an army in need of defense. At the top of the scale were the Housecarls, the closest thing to a paid, standing army (or household troops) the leader could summon. They were loyal to their employer—the king or a great earl—and were usually composed of Danish or English professional soldiers. Some were landowners; it’s possible that some lived in barracks. When King Harold Godwineson unexpectedly had to go north to stop Harold Hardrada in September 1066, the Housecarls were the only warriors he could initially call upon.

Patterned after the Jomsvikings of Denmark (founded by King Harold, father of Swein Forkbeard), Housecarls are first mentioned in relation to King Canute—probably in 1018—and ceased to exist as an organization after the Battle of Hastings. It is believed they were in essence a military guild, with a body of regulations and the ability to call up a  gemot or huskarlesteffne in the king’s presence to settle disputes or punish a transgressor.

Highly trained warriors, the Housecarls mostly fought on foot although it is more than possible that they were perfectly capable of fighting on horseback. Snorri Sturluson tells us in Heimskringla that Harold’s mounted troops attacked the disorganized Norwegians in the early phase of the Stamfordbridge battle. They would not have attacked head-on like we picture in the 14th century battles; rather they would veer past the enemy and launch javelins into their foes’ ranks, much like the Normans did at Hastings. Then they would dismount and finish the battle on foot. During the Battle of Hastings, Harold most likely spread out his Housecarls along the shield wall to support the less experienced fyrd; they were the only warriors that returned with him after Stamfordbridge, and by then their ranks had been sorely thinned. The Housecarls would have been a formidable sight; as seen in the Bayeux Tapestry, they could take down both rider and horse with one sweep of their awesome Danish axe. It was a testament to their—and the Anglo Saxon—valor that it took a whole day for William’s well-armed force to break their ranks.

Beneath the Housecarls, the fyrd was drawn from the general population of England. They responded to territorial obligations and were roughly divided into two categories, sometimes known as the select fyrd and the great fyrd. The select fyrd were usually better trained, and were generally composed of thegns, ceorls or upper peasantry. They were assigned on the basis of the 5-hide system throughout southern England (in the Danelaw, the land was assessed in carucates, but the same system is thought to be utilized). By the late Anglo-Saxon period, the hide was not a geographic unit of measure; in essence it was used to determine the amount of service owed to the king. I would theorize it had more to do with a density of population rather than its original definition (equivalent to the amount of land required to feed a peasant family). One lord’s manor could contain several 5-hide units, or perhaps several small estates would be stitched together to create one 5-hide unit. The bigger towns had the most hides even though they covered a small area. So for instance Cambridge was assessed at 100 hides; so was Colchester and Shrewsbury. Each would be obliged to produce 20 warriors.

The responsibility of the 5-hide unit was three-fold: military service, fortress work, and bridge repair. For their military obligation, each unit was required to produce one soldier and pay him for two months’ service (20 shillings) if called up by the king. This soldier was usually the same person whenever called up, so this is why he would probably be better trained and equipped than the ordinary fyrdman. Nonetheless, there was no annual training period for the select fyrd, and they were only called up in time of war; years could go by without going into service.

The most important distinction between the two categories of fyrd was that the select fyrd was expected to travel and serve for up to two months. The great fyrd, on the other hand, was called up for strictly local defense. The key difference is that the great fyrd must be able to return home at night; if the king required them to travel, he must pay them a wage. Because they were normally unpaid, they were not expected to come armed with much more than whatever came to hand: clubs, stones tied to sticks, farm utensils, etc. In many cases, they could very well supplement the better-armed select fyrd, which is perhaps what we saw at Hastings.

When taken as a whole, this system seems to have been very well organized. But it did not survive the Norman Conquest. Not all historians are in agreement about this distant era, and I used “Anglo-Saxon Military Instititions” by C.Warren Hollister as my primary source.



Where, Oh Where Has Tostig Gone?

Harald Hardrada killed at Stamford Bridge by Peter Nicolai Arbo
by Peter Nicolai Arbo, source, Wikipedia

Tostig left England in November of 1065 after the disastrous Northumbrian rebellion. While waiting for Harold to set everything straight, it soon became clear that his brother was not going to stand up for him, fight for him, or even defend him in counsel. Harold gave in to every rebel demand including Tostig’s exile from the earldom and even the country. Tostig felt betrayed, Edward was despondent, and the queen shed a great many tears. Although the king did not agree with the outlawry—he even insisted they call out the Fyrd to put down the rebellion—his wishes were disregarded. In the end Edward acquiesced to the forces set against him, and he unwillingly sent Tostig off with gifts and words of regret.

Historian Ian Walker tells us that Tostig was outlawed “apparently because he refused to accept his deposition as commanded by Edward”. However, historian Emma Mason said “Tostig did go into exile, but this was his own decision.” So from the very beginning of his exile, Tostig’s actions were debated.

He may have paid a farewell visit to his mother in Bosham, but by Christmas he had landed in Flanders with his family and close associates. Earl Baldwin, his brother-in-law, received them graciously and settled Tostig at St-Omer with a house and an estate, revenues, and even a contingent of knights to command. This wasn’t such a bad state of affairs for an exile, but it was only temporary, used as a base to gather information and collect mercenaries.

King Edward’s rapid decline has been associated with Tostig’s exile; he may even have had a stroke when he discovered that his rule was breaking down in the north. I would imagine that Tostig was shocked by the king’s death, but was he shocked also to learn that Harold took the crown? Did this alter his plans any, or did he always intend to force his way back? After all, Godwine was successful in doing this very thing in 1052 (with Harold’s help); Earl Aelfgar regained his earldom twice by invasion. Tostig was just following a successful strategy to retrieve his fortunes; perhaps he would have expected Edward to acquiesce. On the other hand, with Harold as King his motives took on a more sinister cast.

Death of King Edward the Confessor
Death of King Edward, Cambridge University Library MS. Ee.iii.59 Source, Wikimedia

In the opening months of 1066, King Harold had much on his mind, not the least of which was the unrest in Northumbria. He was even obliged to travel to York (in the winter), to convince the recently pardoned rebels that his motives were unchanged. It’s entirely likely that he chose this high-profile visit to marry the sister of Edwin and Morcar at York Cathedral. Apparently the new king won over the suspicious Northumbrians, and by spring he returned to Westminster for Easter Court. Harold was famed for his diplomacy, but in all this maneuvering I can find no mention of any effort to reconcile with Tostig. Nonetheless, if Harold thought to hold England together by accepting Edwin and Morcar’s control over the north, he was destined to find that losing his brother’s support made things infinitely worse.

What was Tostig doing all this time? It is possible that his first step was a visit to Duke William, who was probably already deep into his plans to invade England. I can’t image what he could have offered the Duke aside from a small fleet supplied by his father-in-law, but it does seem like the most onerous insult he could have offered Harold. Whether he made this visit early in the year or in late spring, it seemed that Duke William didn’t have any particular use for him (though perhaps he encouraged Tostig to cross over in May as a kind of forward movement).

Conversely, Tostig may not have visited Normandy at all. It’s not impossible that he used the winter months to cultivate likely allies in the north. As the popular story goes, Tostig first went to Sweyn Estridsson’s court in Denmark and tried to talk his cousin into invading England. After all, the Danish King was the grandson of Sweyn Forkbeard, so he was in line to the throne of England. But after 15 hard years of conflict with Harald Hardrada, Sweyn was exhausted and so was his treasury. He offered Tostig an earldom in Denmark, but Tostig spurned his suggestion and the two parted company with hard feelings on both sides.

Disappointed, Tostig went on to Norway and gave Harald Hardrada such a pep talk that the formidable king was chomping at the proverbial bit. According to Snorri Sturleson in HEIMSKRINGLA, Tostig assured Harald “If you wish to gain possession of England, then I may bring it about that most of the chieftains in England will be on your side and support you.” This sounds a little delusional considering recent events, but how was Hardrada to know the difference? But Tostig wasn’t finished; he had some diplomatic skills of his own. He added: “All men know that no greater warrior has arisen in the North than you; and it seems strange to me that you have fought fifteen years to gain possession of Denmark and don’t want to have England which is yours for the having.” What self-respecting Norseman could resist that line of reasoning?

Snorri has this conversation take place in the winter, which gave Hardrada the spring and summer to raise his army. However, not all historians agree with this scenario. The venerable Edward A. Freeman concluded that there wasn’t enough time for Tostig to make the voyage and for Hardrada to raise an army. He concluded that Hardrada had planned the campaign on his own and Tostig joined up with him after he made his move. It has also been suggested that Tostig sent Copsig, his right-hand man in his old earldom, as an ambassador to Norway to plan the invasion and didn’t meet Harald in person until later.

Regardless, Tostig was ready to make his own move in May. Was his purpose to draw Harold out before he was fully prepared? Or was he simply making his own bid for power? The timing seems odd, but he certainly caused a stir. Gathering his little fleet of Flemish and possibly Norman mercenaries, he sailed across the Channel and landed on the Isle of Wight. Here he collected supplies and is said to have forced many of the local seamen to join him with ships. Thus reinforced, he proceeded to plunder eastward along the coast as far as Sandwich, where he expanded his fleet to sixty ships, either voluntarily or by coercion. But by then, King Harold was on his way to stop him, so Tostig made haste to sail off and try his luck farther north along the coast.

Intent on plunder, Tostig entered the Humber and ravaged the coast of Lindesey in Edwin’s earldom of Mercia. But the northern earls were ready for him and drove his little fleet away. At this juncture, most of his allies (volunteers or impressed into service) melted away, and he limped off with only twelve of his original sixty boats in tow. Apparently this setback took the heart out of Tostig’s enterprise—for the moment—and he took refuge with his good friend and sworn brother Malcolm Canmore of Scotland. Always happy to cause trouble on his southern border, Malcolm offered Tostig his protection for the whole summer of 1066. Presumably Tostig sent messages back and forth from there to Hardrada, and he may have attracted some Scottish mercenaries to his cause.

Battle of Fulford
Battle of Fulford from The Life of King Edward the Confessor by Matthew Paris Source: Wikimedia

Whether Tostig went to Norway in 1066 or not, historians agree that he spent the summer at King Malcolm’s court in Scotland and joined up with Hardrada after Harald dropped off his queen in the Orkneys and came south with the Orkney Earls. Some think Harald stopped at Dunfermline where Malcolm and Tostig waited. William of Malmesbury thought that Tostig joined Hardrada and pledged his support when the Norwegians reached the Humber, which is very late in the story. Regardless, by that point Harald Sigurdsson was clearly in charge of the expedition, and Tostig was his subordinate.

The first resistance was from Scarborough, North Yorkshire, a town built into the hills that faced the ocean. The locals put up a stout resistance and seemed to drive the invaders away. False hope! Hardrada landed farther down the coast and made his way to the top of the cliffs overlooking the town. The Nowegians put together a huge bonfire and began tossing flaming brands onto the roofs of the houses. Before long many of the buildings were on fire, and the populace surrendered, to no avail. It’s possible that this and other coastal incursions triggered the messages for help that made their way to King Harold; the timing would have been around the second week of September.

The Battle of Fulford was fought on the 20th of September. At this late date (right before the battle) it’s also possible the first messages were sent south. By then, presumably, Tostig’s presence in the Norwegian force was detected, and Harold would have been informed of his brother’s treachery. I wonder how he took the news? Or was Tostig’s behavior a forgone conclusion? Only the historical novelist is free to make that guess, and I am tackling this scenario in my upcoming novel, FATAL RIVALRY.



Harold, The Last Anglo-Saxon King by Ian Walker, 1997

Heimskringla: The History of the Kings of Norway by Snorri Sturluson, 1964

History of the Norman Conquest of England by Edward A. Freeman, 1875

The House of Godwine: The History of a Dynasty by Emma Mason, 2004

Tostig Godwineson: Was he really a traitor?

Battle of Stamford Bridge by Peter Nicolai Arbo
Battle of Stamford Bridge by Peter Nicolai Arbo (Source: Wikiart)

Tostig reminds me, in a way, of Judas Iscariot, the perennial traitor. No matter what his motivations, our villain’s reputation is blackened forever by future generations. But like Judas, Tostig had his reasons for what he did, and once in a while a closer look might serve to mitigate the circumstances. This is why I chose to write THE SONS OF GODWINE and FATAL RIVALRY in first person. I don’t think there is any better way to interpret what is going on inside his head.

I think that from the first, Tostig grew up in the shadow of his older brother. They were only a couple of years apart, but it’s widely accepted that Harold was his mother’s favorite. And Swegn was his father’s favorite. Still, if you can believe Editha’s Monk of St. Bertin who wrote the Life of King Edward (Vita Edwardi Regis), Tostig was every bit the heroic figure that Harold was: “Both had the advantage of distinctly handsome and graceful persons, similar in strength as we gather; and both were equally brave…And Earl Tostig himself was endowed with very great and prudent restraint—although he was occasionally a little over-zealous in attacking evil—and with bold and inflexible constancy of mind…And to sum up their characters for our readers, no age and no province has reared two mortals of such worth at the same time.” As this book was completed after 1066—and before the death of Queen Editha—it’s hard to reconcile this description of Tostig with the traitor everyone loves to hate. Throughout his life, Tostig was apparently Edith’s favorite—and the king’s, as well. When Tostig was forced to go into exile, King Edward parted with him most reluctantly and loaded him with gifts.

Tostig really didn’t come into his own, so to speak, until 1055 when he was made Earl of Northumbria. By then, Harold had been an earl since c.1045. As we know, the Northumbrians were a tempestuous bunch and apparently old Siward, Dane though he was, ruled with an iron fist. Tostig was both an outsider and a southerner, and it’s amazing that he even lasted ten years. He was criticized for his own harsh rule, but the real trouble didn’t start until taxes were raised precipitously in 1065.

So what went wrong between the two brothers? By all accounts, relations between Harold and Tostig were civil until the Northumbrian rebellion of 1065. But I think there were other factors at play that might have caused stress between them. What about the Welsh campaign of 1063? Historians tell us that it was a joint invasion between Harold (who came by sea) and Tostig (who came overland). They met somewhere around the island of Anglesey and pushed south, driving everyone before them until they captured and decapitated Gruffydd ap Llewelyn. Many historians laud Harold’s genius and point to this successful venture, but who gives Tostig any credit? I can’t see how there was much plunder to be had, and indeed, it is suggested that the infamous tax hike was needed to pay for this campaign.

There’s another possible reason to explain the new taxes. Historian Peter Rex (Harold II, The Doomed Saxon King) suggests that reform in the royal household in the 1060s extended to “a move, possibly inspired by Earl Harold, to require that the north pay more towards the upkeep if its own government.” Since the Witan was dominated by Harold, it “would explain why Tostig blamed Harold for the revolt and accused him of conspiring against him.”

The Northumbrian rebellion precipitated a crisis in more ways than one. While Tostig was in the south hunting with the king, his disgruntled thegns banded together and totally wiped out more than 200 of the earl’s housecarls, raided his treasury, murdered his supporters, and declared Morcar, son of Aelfgar, to be their new earl. They then proceeded to march south, devastating Tostig’s lands on their way to confront King Edward with their demands. Harold was brought in to mediate, but the rebels declared they would never take Tostig back, putting Harold in an impossible position. Negotiations went back and forth as the rebels became more and more unmanageable. King Edward wanted to raise the fyrd and chastise the offenders, but Harold urged restraint, considering the time of year (October) and the difficulty of forcing Tostig’s rule on unwilling subjects.

And what of Tostig through all this? He must have chafed while his brother negotiated for him, and when it was clear that Harold was not going to support him, he flew into a rage and accused his brother of fomenting the rebellion. As the Vita Edwardi Regis said, “But Harold, rather too generous with oaths (alas!), cleared this charge too with oaths.” I doubt that Tostig believed him, especially as things went from bad to worse and the king was eventually obliged to accept the rebels’ terms. Not only did Tostig lose his earldom, the rebels insisted that he be outlawed from the county. Was that the best his brother could do for him?

King Edward took the loss of royal authority very badly, and he soon fell into a decline that precipitated his death two months later. By then, Tostig was long gone, nursing his wounded pride and probably contemplating the means by which he would return. I imagine he had every reason to assume that King Edward would find a way to bring him back. The king’s death must have been a terrible blow; Tostig may not even have realized he was ill. Once Harold took the crown, did Tostig assume his brother would finally help him? That was less certain, and once his brother married the sister of Earl Morcar, his hopes must have been dashed altogether.

Battle of Fulford (Source:

So in reality, Tostig only had one option open to him: the same option taken by his father and his own brother in 1052—the option used successfully at least twice by Aelfgar, Morcar’s father. He would have to recover his earldom by force of arms. This was almost to be expected, and I don’t know why Harold was surprised when it happened. Was the new king so obsessed with Duke William that he forgot to consider Tostig’s claim? Or did he simply underestimate his little brother? Assuredly, Tostig’s aborted invasion in May of 1066 was easily repulsed; perhaps Harold thought he had dealt with this nuisance once and for all. Alas for him and all of England, he was sorely mistaken. Harald Hardrada and Tostig’s invasion of the north drew the king and his indispensable housecarls away from the coast they had guarded so rigorously. If only Harold could have found a way to compensate Tostig for his lost earldom, perhaps things would have been much different when William the Bastard landed unopposed at Pevensey.

Review for FATAL RIVALRY by Helen Skinner, She Reads Novels

This is the third and final novel in Mercedes Rochelle’s Last Great Saxon Earls trilogy, completing the story begun in Godwine Kingmaker and The Sons of Godwine.  Set in 11th century England, just before the Norman Conquest, Godwine Kingmaker told the story of Godwine, the powerful Earl of Wessex, while in The Sons of Godwine the focus switched to the Earl’s children – sons Harold, Tostig, Gyrth, Leofwine and Wulfnoth, and daughter Editha. Fatal Rivalry picks up where that book left off, describing the events leading up to the Battle of Hastings in 1066.

As the novel opens in 1064, Edward the Confessor, Editha’s husband, is still on the throne of England, but the question of his successor is on everybody’s minds. Editha’s brother Harold, who has inherited his father’s earldom of Wessex, has recently returned from Normandy, where he was made to swear an oath to support the claim of Duke William – not an oath Harold intends to keep, because he believes there is a better candidate for the throne: himself. History tells us that Harold will become king in 1066, only to be defeated by William at Hastings later that same year. Fatal Rivalry explores one theory as to why things went so disastrously wrong.

In The Sons of Godwine, we saw how Harold and his younger brother Tostig had been rivals since they were children; in this book the rivalry intensifies. As Earl of Northumbria, Tostig has become very unpopular with his people, particularly after attempting to raise taxes on Harold’s orders. When Tostig’s Northumbrian thegns rebel against him, King Edward sends Harold to negotiate with them. Seeing that the situation is hopeless, Harold agrees to their demands and Tostig is sent into exile. Unable to forgive his brother for siding against him, Tostig searches for new alliances overseas, finally joining forces with the Norwegian king, Harald Hardrada, and setting in motion a chain of events which contribute to Harold’s downfall.

Like the previous novel, this one is presented as the memoirs of the Godwineson brothers, with each one given a chance to narrate his own parts of the story. Leofwine and Gyrth have smaller roles to play, while Wulfnoth, held hostage at Duke William’s court in Normandy, makes only a few appearances – until the end, when he takes on the very important job of concluding his brothers’ stories. Understandably, it’s Harold and Tostig who get most of the attention. I’ve never read about Tostig in this much detail before and I did have some sympathy for him. I’m sure Harold was doing what he thought was in the best interests of the country, but to Tostig it must have seemed like an unforgivable betrayal, particularly when he learned that Harold had married the sister of Morcar, his replacement as Earl of Northumbria.

Fatal Rivalry is an interesting read and probably my favourite of the three books in this trilogy. Because the novel covers a relatively short period of time, it allows the author to go into a lot of detail in exploring the relationship between Harold and Tostig, the motivation behind their actions and how their rivalry could have been the reason why Harold was fighting a battle in the north of the country when William invaded from the south. I am not really a lover of battle scenes, but although there are two major battles which take place in this book – Stamford Bridge and then Senlac Hill (Hastings) – this is only one aspect of the novel and plenty of time is also spent on the more personal lives of the characters, such as Tostig’s relationship with his wife, Judith, and Harold’s marriages to Edith Swanneck and Ealdgyth of Mercia.

I think the Norman Conquest is fascinating to read about and, like many periods of history, there is so much left open to interpretation and debate. I will continue to look for more fiction set in this period and will also be interested to see what Mercedes Rochelle writes about next.

See more of Helen’s reviews at She Reads Novels

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In 1066, the rivalry between two brothers brought England to its knees. When Duke William of Normandy landed at Pevensey on September 28, 1066, no one was there to resist him. King Harold Godwineson was in the north, fighting his brother Tostig and a fierce Viking invasion. How could this have happened? Why would Tostig turn traitor to wreak revenge on his brother?

The Sons of Godwine were not always enemies. It took a massive Northumbrian uprising to tear them apart, making Tostig an exile and Harold his sworn enemy. And when 1066 came to an end, all the Godwinesons were dead except one: Wulfnoth, hostage in Normandy. For two generations, Godwine and his sons were a mighty force, but their power faded away as the Anglo-Saxon era came to a close.

Available in Paperback and Kindle:

In the Days After Hastings

The Body of Harold brought before William the Conqueror by Ford Madox Brown, Manchester Art Gallery

It was said that after the great Battle, William the Conqueror retired to Hastings and awaited the submission of the English people. None was forthcoming. Was he surprised, I wonder? After all, England had been subjected to Danish invasions the last couple of centuries, winning and losing battle after battle. Of course, they had not lost their king during one of those battles, but electing another king was only a matter of time. Apparently—at least initially—no one had any intention of recognizing the usurper. Of course, this was destined to change.

But not yet. With a few days after Harold’s death (I can’t find an exact date), a hastily-assembled Witan elected Eadgar Aetheling as king; he was the last surviving heir of the Royal house of Cedric of Wessex though still in his early teens. Eadgar was not crowned, presumably because this event always coincided with a high religious holiday and the next appropriate date would not occur until Christmas. Historian Edward A. Freeman suggested that Edwin and Morcar put themselves forward as likely candidates but received no support. They duly consented to Eadgar’s election, then went back home with their levies, “and left Eadgar and England to their fate”. Freeman’s judgment was harsh: “The patriotic zeal of the men of London was thwarted by the base secession of the Northern traitors. By their act all was lost.” Divided, England could not stand up to the might of the Norman invader.

William waited at Hastings for five days then resolved to secure the southeast portion of England before advancing on London. He marched along the coast, plundering his way to strike terror in his conquered people. He took especial revenge on Romney who had the audacity to attack some of his men before the great Battle. William then advanced to Dover which surrendered without a blow. Had the garrison already been killed at Hastings? It is said that William intended to spare the city because of its submission but that some of his unruly soldiers plundered anyway, setting fire to many houses. William brought his men under control and even compensated the homeowners for their losses. He spent eight days at Dover and left his wounded there to recover.

The Conqueror’s violence to the resistors and leniency to towns surrendering along the way served its purpose in Kent; even the city of Canterbury met the Duke on the road with hostages and tribute. This was on October 29. Interestingly, two days later, he pitched camp nearby in a neighborhood called the Broken Tower and stayed there for a month, for he was stricken down with a serious illness. This didn’t stop him from sending messengers to Winchester where Queen Editha had taken refuge, offering to leave them alone as long as they submitted to his rule (along with tribute, of course). Editha consulted with the city fathers and together they agreed to William’s terms. For all intents and purposes, the south was in William’s hands.

William enters London, hand-colored woodcut

He now turned his attention to London; the last vestiges of resistance were strong there. Initially he sent forward a small contingent of 500 knights, who were met south of the Thames by a stout company of Londoners. A skirmish took place that sent the citizens retreating back inside the walls of the city; at this, the soldiers set fire to Southwark. But William was not minded to attack London yet; rather, he struck west along the southern bank of the Thames, harrying Surrey, Hampshire, and Berkshire until he reached Wallingford, which offered a bridge and a ford across the river. Unchallenged, William crossed and continued north, intent on creating a circle of desolation around London. Although this was not a formal siege, it was beginning to have the trappings of one.

By the time William reached Berkhampstead, apparently the English were demoralized. An embassy led by none other than Eadgar Aetheling himself, accompanied by Archbishops Ealdred and probably Stigand (as well as many of the chiefest men from London and southern England) came and did homage to William. Prepared to be merciful, the Conqueror received them graciously and gave Eadgar the kiss of peace. As Freeman reminds us: “It was the chance shot of an arrow which had overcome the English King, but it was William’s own policy which had overcome the English people.” And so it began.


Harold Marches to York, September 1066

Battle of Stamford Bridge: Cambridge University Library MS. Ee.iii.59

While working on my novel FATAL RIVALRY, I had quite a struggle putting together a timeline for events leading up to Stamford Bridge. Many histories (even Wikipedia) tell us that as soon as Harold learned of the defeat at Fulford, he rushed north and surprised the Vikings who expected him to be at the other end of the country. OK, I understand the surprise part. But really, Fulford was fought on September 20 and Stamford Bridge was fought on Sept. 25.  Even if Harold and his mounted army were able to do 50 miles a day (unlikely, though I suppose not impossible), this would be predicated on having an army standing by, ready to go. Oh, and how about hearing the news in the first place? Someone had to travel the 190 miles or so from Fulford to London so Harold could get the message. Already that doubles the time he would have required, and what are the odds a messenger would push himself to do 50 miles per day?

There’s little doubt Harold would have set out shortly after he heard the alarming news. Presumably he would have started the march with his housecarls, who were the closest to a standing army available—it has been suggested he had 3000 at hand. He is said to have gathered forces as he rode north, which again must have taken time for they had to be notified and given a chance to prepare themselves—then travel a distance to meet Harold on the march. We don’t know how big the English army was—somewhere between 8,000-15,000 men—but this is one big logistical task in an age when communication was slow and unreliable. Yes, Harold’s march to York was certainly noteworthy, but I don’t think he was a miracle worker! (Even historian Edward A. Freeman was not prepared to accept the five day forced-march saga.)

Cooler heads have sorted out a more reasonable scenario. Harald Hardrada met his first major resistance in Northumbria at Scarborough, which would have been probably the first week of September. Presumably someone would have ridden south at that point, to notify the king of the Viking raids. Meanwhile, we know Harold disbanded the fyrd on September 8 according to the A.S. Chronicle, because “the men’s provisions had run out, and no one could keep them there (on the south coast) any longer”. The timing would be such that Harold could have received the news about Hardrada shortly after he returned to London. He certainly needed some time to prepare for a new campaign and wait for his mounted thegns to come back. So it stands to reason that he might have started his march north some time between Sept. 12-16, which would have given him 9-13 days to reach Stamford Bridge. Undoubtedly he learned about Fulford along the way, which would have spurred him on to greater efforts.

On September 24, four days after the Battle at Fulford, Harold arrived at Tadcaster with his exhausted troops. This town was upriver from Riccall where Hardrada had spread out his 300 ships (beyond a fork where the Wharfe meets the Ouse). It is believed that the Northumbrians withdrew their little fleet to Tadcaster when the Norwegians approached, since they were no match for the invaders. Harold spent the night at Tadcaster and started early in the morning to York, approximately ten miles away. By now he probably learned of Hardrada’s arrangement to wait for hostages at Stamford Bridge. It goes far to suggest that the northerners accepted Harold as their rightful king, for no one sought to warn the Norwegians of the royal army’s approach.

York may have surrendered to Hardrada, but it was apparently lightly guarded by the Norwegians—if at all. Harold made an unhindered entry into the city, acclaimed by the grateful inhabitants who must have felt doubly relieved that they had not been plundered. He marched his army through York and continued east another eight miles to Stamford Bridge. This means his army covered 18 miles that day before engaging the enemy. No rest for the weary!

Edwin and Morcar in 1066

Battle of Fulford from The Life of King Edward the Confessor by Matthew Paris Source: Wikimedia

When Tostig was exiled from England in November, 1065, Earls Edwin and Morcar (or Eadwine and Morkere) must have felt pretty secure in their earldoms. Is it possible they were trying to re-establish a northern entity similar to the Danelaw? Professor Edward A. Freeman seemed to think so, and other historians make the same suggestion. Nonetheless, King Edward’s sudden death must have thrown their plans into some confusion. Like everyone else, Edwin and Morcar would have been at the Christmas Court for the consecration of Westminster Abbey, and they stayed when the king took to his sickbed.

The very day King Edward breathed his last, Harold must have summoned the Witan to choose a successor, since I doubt there would have been time the following morning, with a funeral and coronation to arrange. I can just imagine the state Edward’s court must have been in, with all the running around and jockeying for position. Did anyone have time to mourn the king’s passing? Was Harold’s election in any doubt? Probably not, though it seems that he had to entice Edwin and Morcar to support him; perhaps this is when their sister’s betrothal to the new king came into play. Perhaps they merely bent to necessity, for they had no support in the south and Harold’s star was in the ascendant.

It stands to reason that Northumbria was not fully represented at the Witan electing Harold. What came of this imbalance manifested itself as a passive resistance to Harold’s rule, so much so that within a month the new king was on his way to visit his reluctant earldom with the Bishop of Worcester and a small contingent of housecarls. His conciliatory gesture bore fruit and he is said to have won over the hearts of the stubborn northerners, while flattering them by marring Ealdgyth, sister of Edwin and Morcar, possibly at York Cathedral.

We hear nothing further about the northern earls until Tostig made his move in May. After Harold chased him away from Sandwich, Tostig ravaged the coast of Lindesey in Mercia. Edwin and Morcar were vigilant and soon drove Tostig away, causing his little fleet to disperse. Presumably they spent the rest of the summer guarding the north against invasion—or maybe not. When Harald Hardrada started ravaging the coast of Cleveland and devastated the sturdy town of Scarborough, the local levies had to rely on their own devices to resist the invaders. The Norwegian fleet sailed unopposed into the Humber and dropped anchor near the little town of Riccall on the Ouse, nine miles from York.

Had the sons of Aelfgar been busy raising an army all along? Apparently that’s what they were doing, for Edwin and Morcar chose this time to advance on Hardrada in defense of York with about 5000 men. Later historians have castigated the earls for risking all and not waiting for King Harold to come to their aid. But given the situation, perhaps they thought it was their duty to defend their own territory. They certainly had a formidable army and put up a stout defense at Fulford Gate, only to be defeated by the superior generalship of the battle-hardened Hardrada.

The Battle of Fulford has hardly made a splash in the history books, but its consequences were very significant. Both sides fought long and hard, and it’s estimated that there was a total of 11,000 men on the field. Perhaps 15% of this number was killed, and chroniclers stated that the bodies were so thick the victors could walk across them without getting their feet wet from the swamp. The battle was lost as Harald brought his best fighters around the Northumbrian flank and trapped the defenders against the ditch. Earl Morcar was said to have fled the field and Edwin retreated to York with the broken remains of his army. But York was in no position to defend itself any further and immediately surrendered to the invaders. Luckily, Hardrada and Tostig were not interested in plundering the town, but they arranged for an exchange of hostages four days thence at Stamfordbridge.

Battle of Stamford Bridge by Peter Nicolai Arbo, 1870, Nordnorsk Kunstmuseum. Source; Wikipedia

King Harold’s lightning march from the south saved York from further destruction. He did pass through the city on his way to Stamfordbridge, and apparently only the stoutest housecarls joined his forces. Edwin certainly did not, and I believe Morcar was still unaccounted for. And when Harold was called back south to deal with Duke William, the northern earls lagged behind, claiming they needed more time to gather their broken forces. Harold vainly waited in London for their appearance, then resolved to move on and face the Normans without them.

Much has been made of Edwin and Morcar’s failure to help Harold in his time of need—especially since the king just saved their necks while losing many of his most experienced housecarls at Stamfordbridge. Were the northerners just too exhausted, too disabled to undertake a forced march after having just fought two epic battles? Or was it possible that Edwin and Morcar were holding off in the hopes that they might get a better deal from Duke William? Some historians think their subsequent behavior indicated less-than-noble intentions. Many have thought the earls harbored their family’s historic antipathy toward the house of Godwine. It’s very likely that the concept of a united England had not yet come into play, and it’s possible that Edwin and Morcar were pursuing an ambition of a separate northern kingdom, starting with the Northumbrian rebellion against Tostig. If this this the case, they were destined to be sorely undeceived.

Harald Hardrada plans to invade England

Window with portrait of Harald in Lerwick Town Hall, Shetland. SOURCE: Wikipedia
Window with portrait of Harald in Lerwick Town Hall, Shetland. SOURCE: Wikipedia

Harald Hardrada certainly wreaked havoc with Harold Godwineson’s efforts to protect his new kingdom. I assume King Harold knew there was a threat from the Norse, though historians seem pretty quiet on the subject.

It all started back in Harthacnut’s day. In 1040, the soon-to-be King of England and Magnus I of Norway made a treaty that if one of them died childless, the other would inherit his kingdom (sounds a lot like Canute and Edmund Ironside). When Harthacnut died childless, the Witan decided to elect Edward the Confessor instead, and Magnus threatened to invade and assert his claim. Apparently the English didn’t take the threat too seriously, though Edward is said to have accused  his mother Emma of favoring Magnus’s cause. He retaliated by relieving her of Canute’s treasure. Nonetheless, Magnus’s successor, Harald Sigurdsson (Hardrada) must have inherited the treaty as well as the throne, and hence he had a claim to the English crown…not that he needed much of an excuse.

So when King Edward died, Duke William wasn’t Harold Godwineson’s only rival. But by all indications, Hardrada’s invasion plans weren’t taken seriously. Or did Harold know about them at all? One of our titillating questions about 1066 is: when did Hardrada make his plans, and did the vengeful Tostig have anything to do with it?

As the popular story goes, Tostig first went to Sweyn Estridsson’s court in Denmark and tried to talk his cousin into invading England. After all, the Danish King was the grandson of Sweyn Forkbeard, so he was in line to the throne of England. But after 15 hard years of conflict with Harald Hardrada, Sweyn was exhausted and so was his treasury. Disappointed, Tostig went on to Norway and gave Harald such a pep talk that the formidable king was chomping at the proverbial bit. According to Snorri Sturleson in HEIMSKRINGLA, Tostig assured Harald “If you wish to gain possession of England, then I may bring it about that most of the chieftains in England will be on your side and support you.” He added: “All men know that no greater warrior has arisen in the North than you; and it seems strange to me that you have fought fifteen years to gain possession of Denmark and don’t want to have England which is yours for the having.” What self-respecting Norseman could resist that line of reasoning?

Battle of Stamford Bridge: Cambridge University Library MS. Ee.iii.59

Snorri has this conversation take place in the winter, which gave Hardrada the spring and summer to raise his army. However, not all historians agree with this scenario. The venerable Edward A. Freeman concluded that there wasn’t enough time for Tostig to make the voyage AND for Hardrada to raise an army. He concluded that Hardrada had planned the campaign on his own and Tostig joined up with him after he made his move. It has also been suggested that Tostig sent Copsig, his right-hand man in his old earldom, as an ambassador to Norway to plan the invasion and didn’t meet Harald in person until later.

Whether Tostig went to Norway in 1066 or not, historians agree that he spent the summer at King Malcolm’s court in Scotland and joined up with Hardrada after Harald dropped off his queen in the Orkneys and came south with the Orkney Earls. Some think Harald stopped at Dunfermline where Malcolm and Tostig waited. William of Malmesbury thought that Tostig joined Hardrada and pledged his support when the Norwegians reached the Humber, which is very late in the story. Regardless, by that point Harald Sigurdsson was clearly in charge of the expedition, and Tostig was his subordinate.

The Battle of Hastings, Excerpt from HEIR TO A PROPHECY (inspired by Edward A.Freeman)

Battle of Senlac from History of the Norman Conquest
from History of the Norman Conquest

William sat astride his destrier, helmet on, iron shafted mace in hand. Above his head floated the consecrated gonfanon of the Pope, alongside his own standard. He surveyed the difficult line of attack.
Harold had indeed chosen his spot well; the army was spread across the summit of a hill perfectly suited for his somewhat reduced numbers. They were ten or twelve ranks deep, all on foot.  Both of Harold’s flanks were impassable. To the west was a ravine, cut by a small stream and banked with mushy ground; to the east, the incline was precipitously steep.
Their post was purely defensive. The Saxons could not move from their firmly entrenched spot. William nodded to himself. His own mobile force could attack in waves, allowing them alternate periods of rest, while the solid English line would be forced to defend themselves almost continually. It was only a matter of wearing them down.
However, Harold did have a distinct advantage on his side. With tremendous energy, the Saxons had erected a wall that effectively enclosed them in a fortress. There were only three openings in the otherwise solid wall, to allow for possible forays. Charging uphill into a wooden palisade was no easy task.
The housecarls were concentrated in the middle, directly opposite the Norman division. Both wings were composed of shire levies, less experienced men, grimly clutching their axes and bills, homemade swords and daggers, clubs, rocks tied to a stick for throwing, slings, studded maces, or farm tools; they were crude, but effective enough. Their protection was minimal, but they stood, along with the rest, behind the kite shaped shields, a second line of defense beyond the palisade.
William glanced down as he felt a tug on his stirrup. Standing beside him, brilliantly dressed in parti-color, was his favorite jongleur, Taillefer—Cleaver of Iron—who had kept him amused for so many hours in their long wait across the channel. William’s smile faded at the serious look on the minstrel’s face.
“I beg a boon of you, my Lord,” the man said. William nodded. “The time has come for me to prove my mettle, Sir Duke. Would you permit me the first blow, so that the name of Taillefer shall always be remembered in remembering your own?”
William hesitated, moved by the man’s request. “You know what that means,” he said, bending low over his horse’s neck. “You will never make it back to our protection.”
Taillefer made a gay little leap, belying his fears. “Why Sir, what is that, next to immortality?”
Sighing, knowing that he would lose many more of his supporters before the day was over, William gave his consent. He looked at the sun as the jongleur armed himself. It was about three hours before noon.
In moments, Duke William watched his minstrel ride out into the open space between the two armies. He gave the order to be ready for the attack. The archers would go first.
Meanwhile, Taillefer rode forth on his little pony, singing songs of Roland and Charlemagne, to the astonishment of both armies. Spellbound, all watched him give the most momentous performance of his life, throwing his sword in the air and catching it with a practiced whirl.
He rode through an opening in the palisade, rearing his horse theatrically, when suddenly he brought his mount to the ground and charged forward, killing two men before their comrades came to their senses. In a flurry of axes, jongleur and horse went down.
At that moment the cry was given for the Norman archers to advance. In all three divisions, the first line moved into range, planting their feet wide, taking aim and showering the Saxon line with relentless shafts. However, the trajectory was uphill; the arrows did little damage.
Soon, the archers fell back, and the infantry was ordered to attack. Theirs was the most perilous work; in range of javelins and missiles, they had to apply all of their strength, attempting to tear down the stout palisade.
In places they succeeded. Breaking through, holding up their shields, they surged forward to pit themselves against the unmoving Saxon shield wall. Meanwhile, others continued the laborious task at the palisade.
However, the Saxons proved a formidable enemy. Unbeaten in battle, they smote with practiced confidence. Fierce as the attack was, the defense was fiercer, and the infantry was driven back by a combination of blows and well-aimed stones. They gave way to the next wave of attack.
It was the cavalry’s turn to try their best. The most awesome fighting men ever seen in England, the ponderous knights gave vent to their impatience, thundering past the infantry in their difficult uphill climb.
They were still hindered by the palisade, though the weaker spots were damaged further by the charging horses. Holding their spears before them, they crashed against the unyielding shield wall, crying their slogans, cursing the enemy.
The Saxons gave not an inch. Horses reared against each other, having no space to turn back. The Saxons were prepared; a well-aimed sweep with the poleaxe could bring down both man and horse in one blow. Unarmored, some of the horses fell on the first charge, pierced by English spears. The steep ascent proved too much for the Normans in their preliminary attempt. They retired in order back to their starting point.
This was more of a probing attack than an all-out assault. William had not committed all of his army to the first thrust, nor had he himself joined in. From his vantage point he was able to gauge the places of most serious resistance, and weakness, of the Saxon line.
William had his answer. Judging from his set expression, the strength of the English was every bit as menacing as he had supposed. With a stern shout, he ordered a second assault.
Once again the archers tried their skill, followed by the infantry. The attack was fiercer this time, their shouts of “God help us” answered by cries of “Out, out!” from the Saxon ranks. Still, they made no headway. Again they fell back, unsuccessful, to make way for the cavalry.
The Breton contingent was divided into three sub-commands: that of Alain, his brother Le Noir, and Walter. They found that the untried levies on the wing resisted as stoutly as the housecarls.
Amazed, Alain determined to break through this second time. With a cry of “A Brittany” the leaders spurred forward, followed by their undeterred troops.
But this time their anxiousness betrayed them. Charging through the infantry, no one in the rush, from commander to rear horseman, noticed that in their gentler ascent they had greatly outdistanced the Norman contingent to their right.
Intent on their immediate targets, the Bretons crashed into the shield wall again, meeting with a fiercer resistance than before. Heavy missiles flew at them, meeting their marks with a deadly thud. Sturdy Englishmen met their swords with sweeping axes, cleaving through blades and limbs.
Screaming horses lashed out in pain; men plunged through the shields only to be thrust forth again or pulled from their horses. All mingled in a chaotic roar. Slipping on fresh spilled blood, tripping over writhing bodies, the well-organized line broke into scattered tangles.
Suddenly the foremost knights realized that their right flank was undefended. A few men drew back in confusion, yelling their dismay.
From one man to the next, the word spread that they were unprotected. Bewildered, wanting only to get away from the onslaught, the inexperienced riders reined off, intent on a moment’s reprieve.
Walter felled a man with his sword, and looked up to see men pulling away. Jerking his horse’s head around, he dashed through the pandemonium, yelling for them to turn and fight. Slapping men with the flat of his blade, he cursed, admonished, threatened, but to no avail.
Like an avalanche the retreat gained in momentum, until all the men, losing their heads, shot away from the fighting. In short order they overran the infantry. They passed the Norman line, still struggling forward, spreading terror through their ranks as well.
Some of the Bretons found themselves in worse shape than ever; stumbling into the mire on the edge of the field, their desperate scrambling rooted them even deeper. Many tumbled into the ravine, pushed by their companions who couldn’t stop soon enough. Terrified horses kicked their riders senseless.
Walter found himself beside Le Noir at the rear of the retreat. They did not give up; grabbing men by the shoulders and jerking them around, they finally managed to force a small group to turn back. But it was not enough; from the midst of the confusion came the rumor that Duke William was dead. The battle was over.
Progress came to a halt as the few men milled around in confusion. Walter spotted Alain and rode toward him, leaving Le Noir to make some sense of the commotion. Between them, they shouted some sort of order into those within hearing. The best they could do was halt the retreat.
But a new clamor came to their ears. Turning, Count Alain saw that a group of Saxons were breaking ranks, itching to turn the retreat into a slaughter. Forgetting the safety of the shield wall, they came streaming down the hill.
At the same time Alain heard an even more familiar voice. The Duke spurred directly toward them, helmet off, thrusting at the recreants with a spear. “Madmen!” he shouted at the Bretons. “Behold me. Are you insane? Your retreat means death. Victory lies ahead. See you, cowards! Your Duke is before you!”
William struck more fear into the Bretons than the Saxons did. Turning toward the English, even the most fearful saw the charging men, and they were struck by their opportunity. Yelling their battle cries, the Bretons dashed back into action.
Gathering the fleeing Normans, William led them toward the headstrong English, cutting off the sundered warriors from the safety of their army. Seeing their plight, the Saxons gathered atop a little hillock in the midst of their enemies, fighting desperately for their lives. Their gallant stand, back to back, while they fell under the avenging swords of the Bretons, went farther than any other incident toward demoralizing their companions.
Then followed a brief reprieve, during which both sides managed to repair their disordered ranks. Just as expected, William rode up to chastise the unsteady Bretons, who had nearly lost the day. But the anger was gone from his face. Looking steadily at the men who had learned such a bitter lesson, he tried to boost their spirits.
“Well, my lads,” he spoke evenly, “there is no need to tell you what you have done. But remember…” he raised his voice, “there is no glory in running from a fight. Even were I killed, I would expect you to continue, if only to maintain your honor. There will be other battles after this one!”
He paused, moving his horse among them. “Perhaps not all bad has come from your panic. See how they mourn their dead on that little hill. Methinks we will try the same ruse again; mayhap you can redeem yourselves. But on my order this time! Not before.”
The men cheered, encouraged. William spurred his horse back to the center and gave the order to prepare for another attack.
In ten minutes they moved again. Flowing through the breaches in the palisade, they widened the openings each attack. The Saxons never moved forward to block their way.
This time the Bretons fought valiantly, but the glory in this onslaught went to the Norman division.
In the middle, before the Royal standard, the fighting was the fiercest. William himself was the most apparent, appearing everywhere on his white horse in the midst of the worst exchanges. The pile of bodies was thickest here; making headway on a horse was laborious. William spotted Harold laying about with deadly blows from his poleaxe and surged toward him.
But his movement was checked by a most unexpected attack from Harold’s own brother, Gyrth. Seeing the King’s plight, the Earl of East Anglia heaved his spear, throwing it with tremendous strength. The shaft pierced the heart of William’s gallant steed, and the beast sank, nearly pinning the Duke beneath it.
But a man trained in cavalry fighting must also learn how to clear his fallen mount. Leaping skillfully, the Duke fell heavily on the ground, but regained his feet before anyone had a chance to attack him.
William had not gained his formidable reputation for no reason; he was known to be as deadly on foot as he was on horseback. Shaking the stun from his head, he looked around, searching for his antagonist. With the instinct of a born warrior, he found him; momentarily, the Duke’s eyes locked with those of Gyrth.
Inaction was followed by swift reaction. Determined to avenge this insult, William pressed forward. On his right a man attempted to stop him; a sure sweep of the mace crashed into the unfortunate’s face, dropping him in his tracks. And still the Duke moved on, seeing that his opponent was waiting for him, sword in hand.
They met with a clash of steel on steel. The force of William’s blow would have reduced a lesser man, but Gyrth withstood it, bending slightly at the knees to absorb the shock. He tried to follow his block with a swing to the head, but William easily stopped it.
In anger the Duke swung his mace in a full circle about his head before crashing it into Gyrth’s shoulder; the man’s grimace betrayed his pain. Staggered, the Earl responded with an ineffectual thrust, but he knew the fight was over. In another moment the war club was brought down in a skull-crushing arc, and the valiant Earl’s life force had run out. It was no dishonor to die under the hands of so mighty a foe.
Shortly after, William saw Gyrth’s brother, Leofwine, fall under the mace of Bishop Odo. Brothers were killed by brothers. William gained a dark satisfaction in knowing that Harold had witnessed the slaying of his own two siblings.
But action cut short his unworthy thoughts. He was not as comfortable on foot, and disentangled himself from the Saxon crush, looking for a handy horse to borrow. He spotted a likely steed, mounted by some Maine knight whose name he did not know. The Duke called to the man, requesting him to relinquish his horse. Scorning the thought, perhaps not recognizing his sovereign, the man refused.
Already fired by the fighting, William seethed at his abrupt treatment. Striding forward, he struck the man such a blow that the knight fell from the horse. He leaped on the animal’s back, leaving the rebel to his own devices.
William was as active as ever, for still he had not taken a major wound. But the same luck did not hold for his mounts. Again, William’s horse was killed under him; again he wreaked revenge on his aggressor. This time, Count Eustace offered his own steed, and the Count in turn was given a mount belonging to one of his followers.
Deciding that the charge uphill was in every respect useless, William determined to find a way past the shield wall. He sent a message to Alain instructing him to command a feigned retreat with his whole division. He did not expect them to take long in obeying.
The Duke was not disappointed; shortly afterward, the Bretons took to their heels in a very convincing show of chaos. Forgetting their recent lesson, the inexperienced Saxons charged howling after them, taking nearly a third of their line.     Walter led a portion of the men in a different direction from Alain, scattering the Saxons even further. Then, when he deemed that the pursuers were sufficiently cut off from main army, he shouted for his men to turn.
Reeling their horses in a sudden reversal, the fugitives became the attackers. Realizing their error, the Saxons tried desperately to band together, but many were too late. They were cut down in their momentary bewilderment.
Those in the rear saw the danger; a certain number of them got together on the hill that had already proved so fatal to their fellows. But this time was different. There were more defenders on the hill; they were better armed. Throwing stones and darts, they killed many of the Bretons that were trying, once again, to attack uphill. The Saxons managed to hold the summit.
Other Saxons charged to the hidden ravine, so dangerous to the Bretons in the last incident. They turned on the edge and took a stand, followed by horsemen who hadn’t witnessed that fatal scene, so intent had they been on their own flight.
The Bretons tried to careen to a sudden stop, but their horses were not so nimble as men, nor could they halt those charging behind them. Over and over, horse and man toppled into the gully, crushing those underneath them, and being crushed in turn by those coming after. It was said that the corpses filled the ravine until level with the ground.
Walter’s men had not moved far; faced with the most defiant Saxons who held their ground, the fighting continued without a break. Clean battle-lines had melted into a surging chaos; individual struggles replaced organized assault.
A burly peasant pulled Walter from his horse while he was fighting off two other men. The frightened animal reared, chasing off the first two Saxons who otherwise would have finished him in a moment. Walter twisted from the man’s grasp, swinging wildly with his sword.
The peasant saw the movement, easily evading the badly-aimed cut. With a heavy club, he struck Walter in the side of the head, sending him reeling against his horse. Grinning, the man took a step forward when his face changed to a grimace of pain and his arms went out. The club fell to the ground, and the Saxon with it, blood spurting from his back.
Walter looked up, stunned. Through a fog he saw Le Noir circling him. “Be more careful, my boy. You were lucky your good Breton helmet saved you.”
The knight recovered the reins of Walter’s nervous horse, and held them out. Walter took them, but leaned heavily against the charger’s neck.
“Get out of the fighting,” the other shouted, then was gone, not wanting to miss too much action.
Walter heaved himself onto his mount’s back and followed Le Noir’s advice. Not until his head cleared did he wonder how he managed to maneuver without harm.
Duke William got what he wanted. With the mad pursuit of the Saxons, the continuity of the shield wall was forever broken. They left a large gap at the top of the hill, and the Normans were quick to take advantage. Charging crosswise before the shield wall, the cavalry reached the summit of the hill for the first time all day.
Now, they merely had to attack eastward into the teeth of Harold’s housecarls. The remaining Saxons quickly brought the shield wall around to face the new threat. But the Normans were no longer hindered by that difficult climb; their attacks were more powerful, given the easy footing. The summit, however, was too narrow for all of them; there was still much activity along the slope.
The lack of space on the hilltop also inhibited the movements of the Saxons. No man had the room to make a full swing without stepping out from the safety of the shield wall. It was said that the dead were held up by the living, so tightly wedged were they.
The fighting had gone on for nearly six hours without a stop. William was able to alternate his troops, following archery with infantry with cavalry. Where one tactic was weak, another was strong. The English, however, were forced to stand in one place, frustrated, watching their neighbors die beside them while they were constrained to hold themselves back in a defensive posture. The palisade was almost completely destroyed. The day was evolving in favor of the Normans.
But the outcome was still far from certain. If the Saxons could hold out until nightfall, the battle might be over.
At one point, Duke William found himself faced with an adversary as powerful as himself, who nimbly ducked his tireless attacks. Evading a particularly deadly blow, the man turned and smashed his axe down on William’s head, denting his helm and nearly knocking him from the horse. But the Duke held his seat, then aimed another blow before noticing that the man merged himself among his companions.
However, a group of Normans, always willing to curry their master’s favor, charged toward the fellow, transfixing him with their spears. Seeing this, William turned away, shrugging off his ill luck.
The Duke never succeeded in getting close to Harold. Another Norman almost reached the Saxon King; Robert Fitz-Erneis galloped toward the royal standard, smiting those who dared try to block his way. But the Saxons were too quick for him; they surrounded his horse, striking him until he fell off and was trampled underneath. His charge brought him to within a few feet of the banner.
More and more English abandoned their shield wall, preferring to die in a more actively offensive manner. Anything was better than standing for another minute crammed together. This change in tactics brought the fight back into the Saxons.
William surveyed the field for a moment. Then, with a burst of inspiration, he ordered the archers forward, commanding them to shoot up in the air, so that their arrows would fall like rain on the defending troops. “Aim especially for the royal standard,” he added.
Calmly, the bowmen stepped within range, pointed their bows into the sky; it was a tricky maneuver, depending mostly on luck and the wind. There was a danger of wounding their own men if the arrows were badly aimed.
At first, the Saxons didn’t pay much attention to the arrows. But like magic, the new threat drew their sight upward, threw them into a panic. Men were pierced in the face, in the throat; screaming in fear and frustration, they raised their shields, leaving their lower bodies defenseless.
Suddenly a burst of activity below the Dragon of Wessex relayed the message that one arrow, at least, hit its mark. Rumors spread instantly through the ranks; Harold was pierced in the eye.
Twenty of William’s knights spurred toward the spot, pursued by angry housecarls intent on having their revenge. All but four of the twenty were cut down in this last charge.
But the four reached the fallen King: Eustace of Boulogne, still intent on revenge for an earlier affront; the son of Guy of Pointhieu, Harold’s earlier captor; Hugh of Montfort; and the younger Walter Giffard.
Seeing that Harold was still alive, they leaped from their horses, intent on dealing the fatal blow. One of them pierced him through with a spear. Another struck him with a sword, below the fastenings of his helmet. Harold was stabbed through the chest by a third. But, most unchivalrous of all, the last man cut his leg clean through, and flung it far from the body.
In the struggle, Harold’s Fighting Man went down, trodden into the mud. The royal gonfanon was carried off.
Enraged, the housecarls doubled their vigorous attacks. But the Normans, as well, were heartened by this crucial death. The day was won; all present knew this. Harold’s valiant fighters, his most personal friends, were prepared to die on the field, defending their own honor to the end. Their only intent was to take as many Normans with them as they could.
Around the spot where the standard had fallen, fighting lasted into the dark. But elsewhere, as the banner fell, men who had farms and families waiting for them lost heart. Theirs was not a soldiering life; they were not used to sentiments like dying in battle. First by ones and twos they fled, then the whole field was moving with men streaming to safety, some throwing their weapons in their haste to be off.
The fighting became a race; the Saxons became fugitives, and their enemies the pursuers. But the English unwittingly had the advantage; it was dark. They knew the land, and could traverse the marsh, while heavily laden horses slipped and floundered. Spotting their opportunity, the pursued turned again, wreaking their last revenge on the premature victors.
Many Normans lost their life in that treacherous marsh, later called Malfosse, just at the moment when they thought themselves safe. It was an omen, if only they could see it; herein were displayed the problems facing William in dealing with this, his conquered people.