Perhaps the best weapon any military commander could possess in a battle is the benefit of hindsight, particularly those who end up on the losing side. King Harold II of England is certainly no exception. On the spot where Battle Abbey now stands in the late afternoon of Saturday 14th October 1066, as dusk began to close in, the flower of English nobility was wiped out, along with much of the Saxon army, and Harold was cut to pieces by a rapacious foreign foe. However, attempting to assess Harold's tactics on the paucity of material available and the questionable reliability and bias of the sources 950 years later is fraught with difficulty and a questionable exercise in itself, but that's the beauty of history, as EH Carr once exclaimed, 'facts are nothing, interpretation is everything.' So where did Harold get it all wrong?
After his storming knockout blow against the might of the Norwegian King, Harald Hardrada, at Stamford Bridge on 25th September his thoughts would have immediately turned southwards and on his mind, once again, would have been the most formidable warlord in Northern Europe, Duke William of Normandy. 'Ifs and buts' that are bandied about in some quarters of historical study that it was too late in the year for William to set sail for England are surely misjudging the character of William the Conqueror, as perhaps did King Harold. After travelling to Normandy in 1064 to meet William and to judge his character, Harold ought to have known better. The reality was that William had no choice, he would not have been able to hold thousands of soldiers and mercenaries together on a promise through the winter, it was now or never.
William's ships were being built all Spring and Summer and mercenaries recruited from across France and northern Europe, not just soldiers but shipbuilders and ancillary troops too. To merchants that traveled the seaways from Ireland to England to Scandinavia and across Europe such activities and recruitment would have been common knowledge, if only for the fact that there was the possibility of lucrative work and rewards. To lay all of that aside for the Winter would have been a disaster for William, all he needed was a window of one day of reasonable sailing weather. An attack on England was imminent. Perhaps Harold's shortcoming was that he likely thought the job was already done, the few available sources on the subject certainly suggest so.
While William needed time to build his ships and amass his force we are left with the general assumption that Harold played a waiting game and stationed troops from the Fyrd along the coast of southern and eastern England and his ship force on the Isle of Wight. It would have had a debilitating effect on his force. As the Summer months wore on so food and provisions ran low. Moreover, while men were standing guard along the coast they were not bringing in the harvest and preparing for winter, and so it was, for those reasons we are told, that on September 8th Harold stood his forces down. The Fyrd returned to their homes across Wessex, while the ship force moved around Dover to London.
The cost of this exercise on morale is immeasurable, yet there may be much more to it than is generally interpreted. Harold's exiled brother Tostig, who had been deposed as Earl of Northumbria in late 1065, had led a number of sallies around the coast from the Isle of Wight to the Humber in an attempt to gain support and troops, and to test defences. He was eventually beaten off by the northern earls Edwin and Morcar in Lincolnshire. However, there had been more action of which the sources mention very little. The Peterborough version of the Anglo Saxon Chronicle (E manuscript) states quite succinctly that Harold 'went out against William with a raiding ship army. And meanwhile Tostig came into the Humber with 60 ships'; and Domesday Book informs of an Aethelric from Essex who 'went away to a naval battle against King William'. Each source suggests there was activity at sea of great magnitude, so what may have happened here?
What is particularly confusing is that we are informed that William could not cross the channel due to a northerly wind keeping his ships by the shore. If that is the case then how did Harold's ships manage to sail from the Isle of Wight back, due north, to London? This journey would have also required an abatement in the northerly wind. Furthermore, four days after Harold's ships are believed to have set sail on the 8th September, William's ships were also moved up the coast from the mouth of the River Dives to the mouth of the River Somme, in order to make the crossing to England shorter. That is a distance along the land of 50 miles, yet a ship journey of 70 miles, given the layout of the coastline. The reports are that both ship forces suffered heavy losses and casualties in the conditions, and roughly at the same time, but the question must be raised, did they actually meet and do battle?
Well, firstly, we have the two most reliable sources of the age telling us that they did and it is unlikely the Domesday compilers would have included such a statement if it had no known base in reality. But there is further evidence. In 1075, less than ten years after Hastings, a monk-scribe from the Niederaltaich Abbey, situated astride the River Danube in Bavaria, Germany, tells a brief yet intriguing story of how there had been a naval engagement between the English and the Aquitainians that he had learned from its participants. We know that William hired in a large mercenary force from across France to bolster his army. Troops from Breton, Flanders and Boulogne were predominant in his ranks and others from far and wide would have, no doubt, rallied to his cause, given the promise of land on offer should he succeed. Amongst these, Aimeri of Thouars and many of his Poitevins are believed to have come from Aquitaine. However, any soldiers from Aquitaine would have found the most comfortable journey to Normandy was by the sea route along the western coast of France, a much-used route considering the Normans involvement in Sicily from where we are informed William hired many shipbuilders.
Could it be then that rather than waiting on the Isle of Wight all summer, that Harold's ship force were regularly making forays into the English Channel, even blockading it, and that a number of sea battles ensued? We know when William landed at Pevensey a number of Norman ships had been been defeated by English ships based at Romney, further east along the coast. We also know that the Cinque Ports of Romney, Hythe, Dover, Sandwich and Hastings were the regular ports for the English ship force. Some kind of rota was likely to have been in place, with the Isle of Wight as the base camp. The whole scenario leads to the speculation that when William moved his ships out of the Dives and into the mouth of the Somme at St. Valery on the 12th September his initial intent was not to head up the French coast but to make the channel crossing at that time.
William of Poitiers informs us that It was on the 12th that the wind changed in a favourable direction. In order for Duke William's ship force to make it along the coast it had to clear the headland of the Bay of the Seine at Cap d'Antifer, a distance of thirty miles, before it could proceed along the coast. This movement out of the bay is also straight on course for Hastings and at that point he was already a quarter of the way there. Why wouldn't he want to cross, his fleet was ready to go, everything he needed was on board? It can be considered inconceivable to think otherwise. However, disastrously, once out at sea, we are told by Poitiers, the wind changed direction again to a westerly and blew them towards the harbour of St. Valery in the mouth of the Somme. That same westerly wind would have made it comfortable sailing for any English ships that had been delayed on their journey to London, because of the northerly wind, to cross the channel, and get into the Norman fleet, either by accident or design. The Anglo Saxon Chronicle tells us they had 'raiding' parties and any good military commander in Harold's position would have utilised such a strategy and this is surely what he did. We may confidently believe they were still patrolling the coastline rather than heading to London because the northerly wind had made it difficult or perhaps even impossible to reach London, and later reports from Romney confirm that Harold had not left the coast entirely empty of vessels.
This scenario is not born out of speculation, but out of three separate and reliable texts which inform of battles at sea between Harold's and William's ships. If we can accept those statements as correct then we are only a short-step from understanding that Harold likely believed the English shipforce and the weather had done enough damage to William's ships on the 12th and 13th September to assume that William would not attempt another crossing until the following Spring, given that the Autumn season was upon them, making safe passage highly unlikely considering the cargo of horses and ancillary equipment.
Soon, brought down from Norway and the Orkneys by the same northerly wind that kept William at bay, Harald Hardrada arrived off the east coast and King Harold made his momentous journey north to engage him. As he had an army already mobilised in the north under the command of Edwin and Morcar and moved north before knowing they had been defeated, the only plausible explanation is that he believed Hardrada was now the bigger threat and felt more than reasonably safe in the knowledge that the weather conditions and the actions of his sea warriors had defeated William's attempts of a crossing. He acted as though victory in the south was already his.
Unfortunately for Harold the wind turned again, unusually late in the season on September 28th, and this time William, until that moment on the brink of a disastrous defeat, sailed undetected, undercover of the night. Harold's luck had turned with the wind. Having mastered the English Channel all summer Harold's gamble of leaving the south coast largely unprotected thinking the job had already been done had failed, and the Duke of Normandy landed on the south coast relatively unchallenged to lay claim to the English crown. Harold's victory over William at sea had been short-lived and with the benefit of hindsight he may well have done things differently.
Images of the Bayeux Tapestry courtesy of Bayeux Museum, image of King Harold courtesy Waltham Abbey.
1. King Harold statue at Waltham Abbey
2. William's fleet cross the channel
3. William's ships being built
4. William's fleet lands at Pevensey Bay
1066 The Year of Conquest - David Howarth
The Road to Hastings - Paul Hill
Harold, The Last Anglo Saxon King - Ian W Walker
William the Conqueror - David C Douglas
The Gesta Guillelmi of William of Poitiers - Ed's RHC Davis & Marjorie Chibnall
The Carmen de Hastingae Proelio - Ed' Frank Barlow
Anglo Saxon Chronicles - (various incl') Michael Swanton. Anne Savage
Domesday Book - (various and online)