Harold Godwinson and the Conquest

By: Erik Roth

On the death of Canute's heirs the rule of England had fallen again to the Saxons in the person of Edward the Confessor, a mild religious man who was nonetheless passionately fond of hunting. He died leaving no heirs and Harold Godwinson grasped the power. But William the Bastard, Duke of Normandy, a big man, tough, ruthless and power-seeking, had some legitimate claim to the throne and had even been considered by Edward as his successor. In Normandy, William heard of Edward's death while in his hunting park at Rouen, he held in his hand a bow, which he had strung and bent, making it ready for the arrow, and he had given it into the hands of a page, for he was going forth to the chase and had with him many knights and pages and esquires. Harold's taking of the English throne was not at all to Williams liking.

In April of that year men looked into the night sky in fearful wonder, as a ‘hairy star' with tails of fire coursed across the heavens for a week. And they muttered that it betokened a great disaster or a great change in some kingdom.

And that summer on the coast of Normandy many ships were built and stocked with provisions, and men were assembled at the behest of William the Bastard who carried the Papal Banner as a sign of the Pope's blessing of his enterprise and there was no knight in the land, no good sergeant archer, nor peasant of stout heart and of age for battle, that the duke did not summon to go with him to England, promising rents to the soldiers and honours to the barons.

And in Norway, a second fleet was being readied by King Harald Sigurdarson, called Hardrade, Hard-Counsel, an ex-Varangian guard and one of the most formidable commanders in Europe. He too had a claim to the English throne based on inheritance from Canute through King Magnus.

While the Normans waited impatiently for favorable weather, the Viking 1ongships set course for England.

The Fighting Man

So the English were wont to say, and still say to the French, that the arrow was well shot which was sent up against the king; and that the archer who thus put out Harold's eye won them great glory.

- Robert Wace

The Viking fleet on the familiar sea road across the north sea made landfall in the Shetlands and paused in the Orkneys, taking on more men from the Norse settlement there, and continued down the Scottish coast. On the coast of England they made rendezvous with Earl Tosti, who had sailed from Flanders. Tosti, Harold Godwinson's brother, considered himself cheated of his inheritance and had made alliance with the Norse king. And yet again to the watchers on land, came the terror and beauty of a Viking attack. The graceful dragon ships running swiftly down the winds with their cargo of terror, skimmed over the surface of the sea with broad, full stretched sails spread like the wings of soaring birds. The gold-gleaming dragon heads on the prows raged at the shore in mute menace as the berserks, crowding the railings, growled and bit the rims of their shields in naked ferocity. When the keels ground on the sandy shore, the raiders leaped into the surf, weapons ready. Together three hundred ships strong, the raiders harried and subdued the coastal areas of Northumbria, burning, capturing and sacking Scarborough.

At Humber mouth, they turned to sail inland as far as the narrowing of the channel at the fork of the Ouse and Derwent rivers. There they landed, about ten miles south of York that had once been Jorvik, a Viking town. Against them stood the powerful army of Earl Morcar from York. Harald, towering above his Vikings and wearing a mail brynie that reached to his knees, went ashore and drew up the larger part of his army on the river bank, and there he set his standard, called the "Land-Ravager". A second wing was placed further inland towards a dike where there was a wide watery marsh. As Morcar's men attacked, the second wing fell back, but Harald had the war blast blown and the Land-ravager was bourne forth and now the English gave way amid terrible slaughter. Those who escaped fled back to York, but so many were killed in the marsh that the Norsemen could cross it over Northumbrian corpses without getting their feet wet. Now Tosti's friends and relatives came to join the Norsemen and the host marched north along the Derwent to Stamford bridge. The townsmen of York, holding no hope of withstanding the Norsemen, sent a message of sur­render. Before the gates of York the townsmen came to council and promised obedience to King Harald and hostages were exchanged. On the following day another council was to be held at which Harald would name rulers and give fiefs and rights and the Norsemen returned to their ships in high spirits, to sleep. But after sunset that evening, there appeared at the gates of York a host of many armed horsemen with grim tired faces and exhausted mounts. Quietly they filed through the opened gates and set guards at the gates and on all the roads so that news of their coming would not be carried from the city.

In the morning the Norsemen on their ships made ready and Harald ordered the landing signal blown. One third of the men remained on the ships, among them Olaf, the king's son. It was a beautiful morning and the sun was hot as the Vikings again marched along the Derwent toward York. They expected no trouble. The men had left their brynies behind and went up with their shields, helmets and spearà and with swords girded; many had bows and arrows and they were merry. But as they neared York, they saw the cloud of dust. As they watched, it resolved into a host of mailed horsemen. The Vikings saw the shields, the gleaming spears and axes and, puzzled, once again came to a halt at

Stamford Bridge

In a moment of ill-luck
The strong king fell dead.
The gold-mounted arrows
Spared not the foe of thieves

- Arnor Jarlascald

Harald called Tosti to him and asked what army this might be. Tosti thought they might be more of his kinsmen, but when they saw the size of the approaching army, both cavalry and infantry, Harald made ready to fight. Three riders were sent to bring the news to the ships and the Norsemen crossed the bridge to get the river between them and the attackers. While preparations were made, some Vikings were left to hold the bridge. One big mailed Viking, standing alone, used his great axe with the vigor of a farmer cutting his first firewood after snowfall, and for some time held the bridge against the whole English army. An archer failed to bring him down and one English­man after another was made to "kiss his thin-lipped axe," as the Vikings used to put it. Forty corpses were piled at his feet before a Saxon housecarle got under the bridge and killed him with a spear thrust up through the planks.

Meanwhile, Harald Sigurdarson ordered his formation in a long thin line and bent back the wings until his Vikings formed a ring that could guard against whisking cavalry attacks. Outside the ring was the king's troop of picked men under his standard and at another point Tosti, with his own troop and standard. Harald intended these troops to be deployed where most needed and ordered that the bowmen shall also be there with them and they who stand foremost shall set their spear shafts in the earth and turn the points toward the riders breasts, in case they ride on us; and they who stand in the second rank shall set their spears points towards the horses breasts. Harald was a bold and very well seasoned sur­vivor. In his fifty winters he had known almost continous warfare since his baptism in blood at Stiklestadir, at the age of fifteen. A big man with blond hair and beard, wearing a splendid helmet and a blue tunic, he now in­spected his lines, mounted on a black blazed horse.

Twenty Saxon riders rode forward from a troop all clad in mail as were their horses. These men were the housecarls of King Harold Godwinson. One among them, not a big man but sitting his saddle proudly, called for the Earl Tosti. He brought greetings from Harold Godwinson with an offer of Northumbria and a third of the kingdom. Tosti remarked that it would have saved many lives and a lot of trouble had the offer been rnade earlier.

‘If I take this choice, what will he offer Harald Sigurdson for his work?" Then said the rider: "He has said something about what he will grant him in England; seven feet of ground or as much more as he is taller than other men". Tosti made his choice; "to die with honor or win England by victory" with his Norse allies, but he did not reveal that the horseman was Harold Godwinson until he was out of range of Viking weapons.

Now the English horsemen began the attack. "The opposition was hard and it was not easy for the Englishmen to ride on the Norsemen because of the archers, and so they rode in a ring around them. At first it was not a severe battle as long as the Norsemen kept their lines; but the Englishmen rode hard upon them and when they could do nothing retreated from them. And when the Norse­men saw that they seemed to ride on them without strength they went against them and wished to pursue the fleeing men. And when they had broken the shield line, the Englishmen rode upon them from all sides and threw spears and shot (arrows) at them." Then Harald Sigurdson rushed forth out of the line into the thickest of the fighting striking with both hands, and the battle began in earnest, with many killed on both sides. Cleaving helms and hau­berks, Harald cleared a space around him and the English were ready to break. The English flight had been a ruse to make the Vikings break ranks, but ruse or not, none could get past King Harald.

One of the thingmen who had ridden forth with Harold Godwinson to the parley was not a Saxon, but a Northman, and he was also a renowned archer, Heming by name, he had left Norway because of differences with Harald Hardrade

Then King Harold Godwinson said to Heming; "What has become of your strong shooting if you don't shoot the king when you can see him so well?" Heming said: "I won't deny that I can see him well, but I don't dare, in the face of King Olaf, to shoot him down." Hardrade was half brother to King Olaf the Saint, who had died in battle at Stiklestadir. Believing his life had once been saved through intervention of St. Olaf's spirit, Heming had made a vow not to kill Hardrade.

"I don't know what you came to the battle for" said King Harald, "if you won't do anything. Now you shoot him enough to mark him clearly for me, for I do dare to shoot him down, in the face of King Olaf."

Heming then shot at the king with a slotted arrow and it pierced his jaw, and the arrowhead locked itself in his flesh. The king cut the arrow out at once, but because of this it was easy to see the king clearly. Harold Godwinson then shot King Harald through the throat. It was a mortal wound and those Vikings who did not fall back with Harald's standard were killed.

Harald Hardrade was sitting on the ground when Tosti reached him. "It was a small dart they sent me," he said, "but I should think that it wasn't meant to be useless when it was taken from the forge. I want you to come to terms with your brother, and I will accept that piece of the kingdom which was offered me this morning." And shortly the last of the great Viking kings was dead.

But Tosti took Harald's place under the "Land-ravager" and there was a long lull in the battle as both sides rallied. Harold Godwinson again offered peace to Tosti and the Norsemen. But the Norsemen shouted all at once that every man would fall,one over the other, before they would take quarter from the Englishmen; they shouted their war cry and then the battle began again.

Harold Godwinson did not want to be the cause of his brother's death but Heming offered to send Tosti a gift if it were not forbidden, and Harold answered that he would not seek vengeance. Then Heming shot Tosti in the eye, killing him.

At this moment, Eystein Orre, second in command among the Norsemen, reached the scene of battle from the ships and took the standard. But his men, in full armor, were already exhausted by the hurried march. Now, half mad in unreasoning beserker fury they threw off their ring-­brynies leaving themselves unprotected. and some collapsed from exhaustion in the last attack. As the day came to an end some of the Vikings escaped into the countryside. One of the fiercest battles ever fought in England was over. More than a hundred and fifty years later, travel­lers reported great heaps of bones still on the field.

Prince Olaf and those men who had remained with him at the ships were permitted to return home in such ships as they required for the trip. Only twenty four were needed, out of the armada of three hundred.

When Olaf later became King of Norway, his reign was long and prosperous. For twenty-six winters there was neither war, nor Viking raids, and he was called Olaf Kyrre, the Peaceful.

But he kept a very large bodyguard.

Meanwhile, in Normandy, favorable winds had at last come to William the Bastard. Weapons and provisions, men and horses were loaded and the Norman ships set sail, William's ship "The Mora", first in the fleet. On the head of' the ship in the front which mariners call the prow there was a brazen child bearing an arrow with a bended bow. His face was turned toward England and thither he looked as though he was about to shoot. A day passed, and a night, a lantern raised on the mast of William's ship as a beacon, and the followihg day the keels grated on the sand of the beach at Pevensey, near Hastings. The ships ran on dry land and each ranged by the others' side. There you might see the good sailors, the sergeants and squires sally forth and unload the ships; cast the anchors, haul the ropes, bear out shields and saddles, and land the war horses and palfreys. The archers came forth, and touched the land first, each with his bow strung and with his quiver full of arrows, slung at his side. All were shaven and shorn; and all clad in short garments, ready to attack, to shoot, to wheel about and skirmish. All stood well equipped, and of good cour­age for the fight; and they scoured the whole shore but found not an armed man there. Then the Norman riders mounted their horses and fanned out from the beach to harry and burn in the undefended land.

In York, as Harold Godwinson sat at his victory banquet, an exhausted Saxon thegn brought news of the unopposed Norman landing on the beach of Pevensey. Ten days and two hundred miles later, Harold was in London. After a brief rest and the gathering of more fighting men, Harold's army again hastened south toward the coast. Norman scouts reported that the English king was rush­ing on like a madman.

Where the road emerged from the forest, there Harold planted the "Golden Dragon" standard of Wessex and his personal standard, the "Fighting Man", on a nameless ridge six miles from the town of Hastings, which had surrendered without resistance. Here he awaited the arrival of the southern Fyrd, the peasant militia that had been called to assemble "at the place of the Hoar Apple Tree", and as they began to arrive, the Saxon pos­ition was prepared. They built up a fence before them with their shields, and with ash and other wood; and had well joined and wattled in the whole work, so as not to leave even a crevice; and thus they had a barricade in their front through which any Norman who would attack them must pass.

On the eve of the battle, the Saxons remained behind their shield wall. Norman scouts reported the merriment in the Saxon camp; laughing, dancing, gambling, and the clash of drinking horns accompanied by the Saxon toast "Waeshael!" and the response "Drinchael!" as the rudely interrupted victory celebration was continued.

But in the Norman camp of elaborate pavillions, tents and brush shelters, the Normans with their French and Breton allies spent the night in prayer, devotion, and the attending of masses. Here the sounds of the night were psalms, hymns and paternosters.

In the morning the Normans armed themselves for battle.

The foot-soldiers were well equipped, each bearing bow and sword; on their heads were caps, and to their feet were bound buskins. Some had good hides which they had bound round their bodies; and many were clad in frocks and had quivers and bows hung to their girdles. One writer tells us that these foremost ranks were armed with bows and "Balistanes". This may have been an early use of crossbows. The knights had hauberks and swords, boots of steel and shining helmets; shields at their necks, and in their hands lances. And all had their cognizances so that each man might know his fellow, and Norman knight might not strike Norman, nor Frenchman kill his countryman by mistake.

William arrayed his forces in three divisions; French on the right, Bretons on the left, and Normans in the middle where he himself rode, and to the pealing of Norman and Saxon trumpets, his army moved to the attack. Those on foot led the way, with serried ranks, bearing their bows. The knights rode next, supporting the archers from behind. Thus both horse and foot kept their course and order of march as they began; in close ranks at a gentle pace, that the one might not pass or separate from the other.

Echard wrote, "The English were severely gaul'd by the thick showers of Arrows from the Norman Long-bowes, before the battle joined; which was a weapon unused in England, and thereby the more surprising, the wounds coming from enemies so far distant, and not suddenly to be revenged." But shooting uphill lessened he effect­iveness of the arrows. In the first assault, at about nine o'clock in the morning, the Bretons broke and re treated. William rallied his forces and the Saxon pursuers were surrounded and wiped out to the last man. As William's forces regrouped for a second assault,the archers were sent forward. The Saxons had few archers to respond. A single Saxon archer is shown in the Bayeux tapestry. The men of York, much damaged and weakened, had not accompanied the army. The Saxon missle weapons were short stone-tipped maces intended to be thrown, hand axes and stones. Again the Norman archers with their bows shot thickly upon the English; but they covered themselves with their shields, so that the arrows could not reach their bodies, nor do any mischief, how true soever was their aim, or however well they shot. According to the Draco Normannis the archers ran short of arrows, for there were no English archers to return them. The archers withdrew and the knights renewed their assault on the hill.

The battle continued in this way for a time, both sides steadfast and vigorous, English against Normans, French, men of Aquitaine, Maine and Brittany. Deeds of valor were done of both sides and the outcome of the battle remained in doubt. With the great five-foot Danish axes swung two-handed, a Saxon housecarl could cleave a Norman from head to breast. English losses were somewhat compensated for by late Saxon arrivals to the conflict.

As William forced his way to the Saxon standards, his horse was felled by a spear thrust by Gyrth, Harold's brother. William, unhorsed, felled Gyrth with his mace.

As the fighting continued, the numbers lessened on both sides, but the shield wall held. Then, the Normans faltered, their attack lost its momentum, and they began to turn and flee and the Saxons, as before, pursued, shouting their exultation and contempt. The Norman barons cried "Dex Aie!" for a halt and the Normans turned. The melee began.

A tall Saxon, leading a war band of a hundred men, bounded through the press, his great ax, its edge a foot long, held high. He struck at a Norman horseman's helmet, missed. The blade glanced from the saddle bow and cut through the horses neck to the ground. The aghast Normans were on the verge of abandoning the attack when a Norman knight galloped forward and drove his lance into the ax-man, calling to the Normans to renew the attack.

The afternoon wore on, the shadows lengthened, and the Saxon shieldwall remained intact.

Time was running out for William. Harold and his housecarls stood firm and the standard of the Fighting Man remained in place. If they held til nightfall they could slip away and raise a new army but for the Normans there could be no new army. They too had lost heavily and those remaining were nearly exhausted, as were their horses. The only men still fresh were the archers whose arrows until now had had little effect other than to give the Saxon shields the appearance of hedgehogs and they had few arrows left. William had few options remaining. He called to him the captains of the archers, men of Evreux and Louviers. They conferred for a time, then William began givingorders.

The archers, bows in their hands, arrows flocked, formed a long loose line leaving enough space between them for horsemen to pass. The knights assembled behind them. Now the archers began to run forward, the horses behind them breaking into a trot. One hundred yards from the Saxon shieldwall the archers halted, raised their bows high and, as the armored knights galloped between them, they loosed their arrows against the unoffending sky.

But the arrows reached the apex of their flight, dipped, and gathering speed, hurtled downward behind the Saxon shields and struck the heads and unarmoured faces of the Saxons and put out the eyes of many and all feared to open their eyes or leave their faces unguarded. The arrows flew thicker than rain before the wind. Fast sped the shafts which the English called, from the sound they made, "Wibetes." The Saxons raising their shields to protect themselves from the arrows, exposed their bodies to the lances of the Norman knights charging up the slope.

One of the plummeting arrows had struck Harold above his right eye, putting it out. In his agony he drew out the arrow and threw it away, breaking it with his hands; and the pain to his head was so great that he leaned upon his shield.

But the battle was not yet over. The Normans drove at Harold's standard throwing, striking, and piercing with their weapons. A Saxon axman struck Duke William on the head, denting his helmet, and was run down and killed by Norman lancers. Even now the men of Kent and Wessex succeded in driving their attackers into flight and William led a charge to scatter their formation.

At last theNormans reached the standard, every inch of ground stoutly defended by Harold's housecarls. Four Norman knights were said to have finished off the wounded and prostrate King Harold, stabbing him in the breast, decapitating him and striking off his leg, but others recorded that Heming got his wounded king off the field and nursed him until his death, then went into a monastery. The thegns and housecarls still fought on until at last they too lay dead and a Norman plucked up the standard, waving it exultantly.

The few Saxon survivors fled, pursued by Norman horsemen. Some fought a desperate rear guard action and the final surrender did not come until December, but in that afternoon it had been decided that future kings of England would speak French. That decision had cost William fifteen thousand men, a third of his army. The Saxon dead were not counted.

On Christmas day in London, William was crowned King of England and became known as William the Conqueror. To some Saxons he was still simply "The Bastard".

The Norman occupation was not altogether peaceful. The Welsh, the Scots and Harolds three sons, who had taken refuge in Ireland, raided England and some Saxons like Hereward the Wake fought on as guerillas for a time. In 1070, the Church gave absolution to the victprs of the invasion but every man was required to do a year's penance for each man he had killed. The mercenaries were required to do penance for homicide and the archers had to observe a triple lent.


Works Cited

  • Sturlason. Heimskringla.

  • Wace. Roman de Rou.

* Italics indicate quotes from original sources