950 years ago today in the early morning of September 28th 1066 Duke William of Normandy with a huge invasion force landed on Pevensey beach in Sussex almost unopposed. Only three days previously England's King Harold had defeated King Harald Hardrada of Norway at Stamford Bridge in Yorkshire, now he had to march his army some 200 miles south to engage William in what was to become the most famous battle in English history, the Battle of Hastings.
It had already been a very long year for both men. The death of King Edward the Confessor had caused a succession problem. William claimed the celibate Edward had pledged the crown to him and that he qualified as heir through bloodline by being the grandson of Edward's maternal uncle. After the death of his father, Harold, on the other hand, had become Edward's viceroy and although having no royal blood claimed Edward had granted him the throne as he lay dying, at which point he was approved by a meeting of the leading nobles of the country.
Harold's year had been fraught with the problem of defending the country against potential attacks from the north and the south. After his estranged brother Tostig had harried the English coastline in the Spring and early Summer his long wait for Duke William's invasion had meant his standing army along the south coast were running out of provisions and so he stood his troops down from coastal duty on September 8th. Within ten days Harald Hardrada was spotted sailing into the Humber and he deployed his forces on a long march north to counter the invasion fleet.
William, by contrast, had spent all Spring and Summer gathering troops, plotting strategy and building ships. By the time he landed at Pevensey it is likely that he did not know whether his opponent was to be King Harold or Harald Hardrada, nevertheless his campaign appears to have been meticulously planned. As dawn broke on the 28th September William sat on the deck of his ship, the Mora, eating a hearty breakfast as the rest of his fleet gathered around just off the Sussex coast.
One particular story tells of how William stepped from his ship, slipped and fell on his hands and knees - those around him saw this as a bad omen, yet he recovered and in getting back on his feet he held two fists full of earthen sand and exclaimed, "see, my lords, by the splendor of God, I have taken possession of England with both my hands. It is now mine, and what is mine is yours."The long beach at Pevensey was ideal for the landing of many men and horses and his troops immediately set about building a wooden fortification within the old Roman fort.
Harold was probably still in York when he heard of William's arrival on the south coast. John of Worcester claims he was busy restoring his depleted troops. His long, arduous march south saw him, no doubt, enlist fresh troops for the battle ahead. It is likely at this point that he arrived in Hereward country at Peterborough and called upon the services of Abbot Leofric who we know fought alongside him against the Conqueror. Unfortunately for Harold Hereward was at that time working abroad as a mercenary soldier after being exiled from England by Edward the Confessor some years earlier. By October 6th Harold had reached London where he began gathering his forces for a major assault on the invader.
For William there had been a testing channel crossing but no great battle or long marches. The day after he landed at Pevensey he moved the majority of his army to Hastings where another fortification was set up on a peninsular which offered a good harbour for his fleet and a strong defensive position should he have to retreat to his ships in the face of an English onslaught. While many of his men harried the surrounding countryside William made no attempt to move out of his defensive position at Hastings and the scene was set for a battle that rings as true in the English psyche today as it did 950 years ago.
Harold - The Last Anglo-Saxon King by Ian W. Walker
William the Conqueror by David C. Douglas
The Normans - History of a Dynasty by David Crouch
Image: 1). King William I statue on Lichfield Cathedral. 2). Duke William lands at Pevensey and his men ravage the Sussex countryside from the Bayeux Tapestry.