1066: The Year of the Three Battles
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See more items. Shop now. Enjoy now. Pay later. All you need is a New Zealand: debit or credit card mobile phone number address. Select 'Afterpay' as your payment option. In arguing for a rapid advance on Hastings and an early battle, Harold was probably influenced by four main points.
First, he could not be sure that William was not receiving reinforcements from the Continent and thus growing stronger every day. Thirdly, he felt overconfident after Stamford Bridge and may have dreamed of a second victory which would place him in the annals of the great conquerors of all time, alongside Alexander the Great, Hannibal and Julius Caesar. Fourthly, his strategy depended on bottling up William in the Hastings hinterland which was in those days a peninsula with a narrow isthmus as the only means of access ; it was October, very soon forage for the Norman warhorses would dry up and, if confined on the peninsula, William would have no choice but to surrender.
Battle of Britain
As for re-embarkation to Normandy, Harold hoped to rule that option out by sending his fleet to take William in the rear. These were all weighty considerations, but all depended on being able to bell the cat and, as Gyrth pointed out, the manpower currently available to Harold did not make an early battle seem a feasible option. Gyrth proposed adopting Fabian tactics: wait until all available manpower had come in before offering battle and in the meantime scorch the earth, burn all the land between Hastings and London, leaving the Norman army to march through a wilderness.
Too many men had been lost at Stamford Bridge, he urged, and a breathing-space was needed before another battle. The advice was sound: just a few more days would have given Harold a much more formidable army, and many of his northern units would have come in, including the corps of archers who had been left behind. Even if William and some of his men could have struggled through the man-made desert, his horses would not have survived, and he would have been easy meat for the Saxon housecarls.
Invasion of England,
Harold would have none of it. He insisted that he would never let any man face danger while he avoided it, no matter what the reason; he was therefore duty-bound to go the aid of his vassals in Sussex, and he could not consent to stand idly by while the Normans ravaged without let or hindrance. To speak of the land between Hastings and London was all very well, but once William escaped from the neck of the Hastings peninsula he was free to roam anywhere; he could provision himself and keep his army in being by taking a looping itinerary, north and then west.
Fabian tactics do not necessarily require scorched-earth policies as well. If Harold had waited a week or two, he could have met William with a massive superiority in numbers, especially if his fleet had blockaded Hastings and prevented reinforcements from arriving. Morcar and Edwin would have been forced off the fence and obliged to appear in the field with their housecarls, and Harold would have had archers and even horses, had he chosen to use them. As it was he went to meet William with an army that was certainly no more than half, and possibly only a third, the size he could have taken with him had he only been patient.
Even greater folly was evinced by his insistence that Gyrth, Leofwine and all the great names of Wessex and southern England accompany him to Hastings; this meant that if they were defeated, the English would be left with no leaders who could rally them. Harold set off for Hastings with a motley array of armed men. The core of his force were the housecarls who had fought with him at Stamford Bridge; then there were the thegns he had recruited in London, including sheriffs and abbots from Oxfordshire and Kent; next in importance were the mercenaries, including those sent by Svein Estrithson; then there were the men raised by the fyrd, mainly from southern England, but with a sprinkling from Norfolk and Suffolk.
The legend of the last of the Saxons fighting for hearth and home is an attractive and seductive one, but it does not accord with historical fact. Flushed by the signal victory he had won over Harald Hardrada, Harold never stopped to wonder whether Harald and Tostig had not simply let their attention wander and dropped their guard, thus handing him victory on a plate. Instead, intoxicated by his success, he thought that he could simply repeat his method of forced marches followed by a surprise attack.
A more prudent man, having been smiled on once by the gods, would not have pushed his luck by assuming that Fortune would favour him so easily a second time; perhaps he was simply a victim of that common human arrogance that attributes sheer luck to God-given talent.
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The only real result of his overweening confidence was that he wore his men out by a gruelling mile forced march over three days. The army that reached the eastern edge of the South Downs late on the night of Friday 13 October and possibly as late as 2 a. If Harold hoped to surprise William as he had surprised Hardrada, he was soon disabused, for Norman scouts detected his approach and alerted the duke, who had his men stand to all night in expectation of attack.
It makes most sense to assume a Saxon arrival anywhere from 11 p. There is some evidence that Harold did intend a night attack but rethought his position once he knew the Normans were on to him. But there is absolutely no truth in the absurd propaganda story that the English spent the night of 13—14 October carousing and feasting while the Normans spent it in prayer and silent vigil.
We may assume that both sides passed a tense and nervous night, only too aware of the ordeal to come next day. William intended at first light to try to break out of the isthmus, while Harold, apparently thinking the Normans were short of food and would still be sending out foragers, determined to take out these advance parties in hopes of affecting Norman morale.
The location was at the southern exit from the wooded hills, and some scholars even think the subsequent battle was fought there and not on Battle Hill, the traditional site. But such a reading means that William must have surprised Harold right at the rendezvous point, which does not accord with the best evidence. What did happen was that William tried to break out of the peninsula and that, to forestall this, Harold had to send his men to seize Battle Hill; this forward position then forced them to fight the Normans there and then.
At first light the Norman advance guard on Telham Hill saw the Anglo-Saxon standards on Caldbec Hill, with more men coming out of the Weald forest, what looked like a large army behind them, and the whole scene seemingly a-glitter with spears. They raced back to inform William, who stood for a moment pensively, then ordered his archers forward in an attempt to stop the English seizing Battle Hill.
The signs are, not least from the coiffed knights on the Bayeux Tapestry, that his mounted men were not yet ready but he hoped the archers could delay the English vanguard until his knights were ready to charge and seize the hill. Their orders were to harass the Saxons in hopes of throwing them into confusion, but not to be sucked into premature combat; if too hard pressed, they were to fall back where they would be supported by the knights, who should by that time have donned their armour and mounted their horses. Harold spotted the manoeuvre and sent his men in large numbers to get to Battle Hill first.
First to the hill were the mounted infantry, followed by the slower foot-soldiers proper. The English won the race for the hill and drove off the Norman archers, but not before being badly disconcerted by a cloud of arrows launched towards them. William may have attempted to draw Harold down from Battle Hill to attack him on Telham but this was a forlorn hope with a general as good as Harold, for he knew very well that this would give the Norman cavalry an advantage.
The battle of Hastings was a more prolonged affair than most medieval battles, but some historians have made it absurdly long by stating that the first serious clashes occurred at 9 a. Because of the initial hostilities on Battle Hill, it is unlikely that the first clash of the assembled force of both armies took place until about 11 a.
The English took up their positions on the entire crest of the ridge facing south towards the Normans.
All of the horsemen dismounted to fight on foot. The battle front was about half a mile wide: four hundred yards to the west or right of Harold and his standards and — yards to the east or left. On the crown of the hill, where the ground began to slope away to the south-east, Harold placed his two standards: the Dragon of Wessex and the Fighting Man, his personal ensign. Then he pondered his position.
Both armies contained roughly 7,—8, men, though William had more seasoned professionals and a more varied force, with heavy cavalry, archers and crossbowmen; moreover, they were better armed.