Leaving York behind him sometime around the last days of September 1066 King Harold II of England set off on the 270 mile hike to meet the challenge of Duke William of Normandy who had landed at Peavensey on 28th September with a force of many thousands of men. The Battle of Hastings, in fact fought some nine miles north of Hastings, was to become the most famous battle in the history of the English people.
While William and his vast army built castles at Pevensey and Hastings, ravaged the Sussex countryside and waited over two weeks for Harold's arrival on the south coast, Harold had been licking the wounds of battle against the Norwegian Vikings and transporting his tired and weary army almost day after day. It is recognised as one of the most laudable marches of any army in history. Before he got to London it's said he headed to Waltham Abbey, his spiritual home, and spent the day in prayer, and when in London he reconstituted his forces, laid out his plan and no doubt briefed his commanders and adherents. But there are reports that he was facing mounting problems.
William of Malmesbury, writing in the first half of the 12th Century and one of the most credible chroniclers of the era informs that there were desertions among Harold's English army:
When the news of the Norman's arrival reached him, reeking as he was from battle, he proceeded to Hastings, though accompanied by very few forces. No doubt the fates urged him on, as he neither summoned his troops, nor had he been willing to do so would he have found many ready to obey his call, so hostile were all to him, from his having appropriated the northern spoils entirely to himself.
Instead of allowing his men the bonus of the booty it's said that he had instructed the northern earls Edwin and Morcar, still smarting from their defeat at the hands of Hardrada at Fulford, to take the gains to London where it is believed they waited and guarded the city with a sizeable force while Harold headed to Hastings. Seemingly undermanned and with only a few days respite Harold was hoping to catch William by surprise much in the same way he did with Hardrada at Stamford Bridge. Writing in the early 12th Century John of Worcester takes up the narrative:
Thereat the king at once and in great haste marched his army towards London and though he well knew that some of the bravest Englishmen had fallen in his two battles (Fulford and Stamford Bridge) and that one half of his army had not yet arrived, he did not hesitate to advance with all speed into Sussex against his enemies..
There are reports that Harold had tried to take William by surprise with a night attack on him at his base in Hastings while his ship force would leave London and fare to the south coast to attack William from the rear. If this was correct it did not go according to plan. William's chaplain William of Poitiers confirms this:
the king in his fury had hastened the march particularly because he had learned of the devastation around the Norman camp. He intended to surprise them and to crush them in a nocturnal or surprise attack.
Poitiers says the English had 700 ships heading around the coast to hit William from the rear while the Carmen de Hastinga says it was 500 ships. Whichever was the correct number, and each seems highly exaggerated, it is most certainly a plausible plan, so what went wrong for Harold? Perhaps the answer lies within the number of reports of spies and emissaries that passed between the two men and their armies. One is a monk sent by Harold to William to tell him to leave the country forthwith or be crushed. Edward the Confessor, William was informed, had granted the crown to Harold on his deathbed, 'leave now or God will decide' Harold is reported to have said according to William of Poitiers.
Poitiers stresses that William was surprised that the English were so close to Hastings and it seems the monk was followed back to Harold's camp where his forming-up point on Caldbeck Hill, at the Hoary Apple tree, was located, just over half a mile north of Senlac Hill where it is believed the battle was fought. Before first light William, perhaps now aware that he had to get out of the bottleneck at Hastings, then decided to secretly move his troops north from Hastings to Telham Hill some two miles south of Senlac Hill and thus turn the tables on Harold. By 9am the next morning on Saturday 14th October 1066 instead of Harold waiting perhaps all day for the rest of his troops to arrive and march the nine or so miles to Hastings to crush William in his camp in a night attack, his scouts sounded the alarm that Duke William's army were advancing. Harold and the English army were undermanned and barely awake and had little time to take shape and prepare for battle. His army hastily made their way down the steep Caldbec Hill to Senlac Hill to cut off the fork in the road south of Caldbec which would have allowed William an alternative route to London and to get around the back of Harold's army. William had stolen the initiative and landed the first blow. As the battle commenced Harold as a commander of his forces had already made two mistakes that would prove to be fatal. The first was in marching on to the enemy before his full army was assembled and the second was assembling his army too close to the enemy.
Images: Above, William the Conqueror - Top, King Harold.
1066 The Year of the Conquest - David Howarth
The Road to Hastings - Paul Hill
The Godwins - Frank Barlow
William the Conqueror - David C Douglas
Harold The Last Anglo Saxon King - Ian W Walker