The year 1066 was a turning point in British history. Until the fateful events of that year England had always looked north, culturally, socially, and geographically. Its Kings, many of them, had come from Norway and Denmark, and a large percentage of the people, especially on the east coast, the Danelaw, were descendants of the Danes. After 1066, specifically after the calamitous events of the 14th October the map was turned around and England looked to the South, to Normandy, and later, to Anjou, for its Kings. Nothing would ever be the same again.
We shall never know why Harold Godwineson made the fateful journey to Normandy in 1064 that lead to his captivity by Duke William and to the swearing of the infamous Oath of which so much political capital is made in the Bayeux Tapestry. Norman Chroniclers, the Bayeux Tapestry included, claim that the journey was made by Harold Godwineson at the behest of the then King of England, Edward the Confessor to confirm, in advance of his death that Duke William of Normandy would succeed him as King. And yet, if that is true, Harold is an odd choice for so important a mission.
First and foremost Edward the Confessor would have known of Harold's own ambitions in that direction and he must therefore have made a most reluctant emissary for him.
Second, of course, there is no reason at all why Harold would have agreed to take part in the enterprise for to do so would surely have jeopardised his own claim to the crown, something that given Harold's character, he is most unlikely to have done.
Third, it must be remembered that on his deathbed Edward the Confessor actually named Harold as his heir - a complete volte-face if the Norman account of events is accepted as true.
Alternative reasons, or theories, for the journey have been put forward by those sympathetic to Harold's cause, none more convincing than the simple fact that he was caught in a storm at sea, and blown off course, landing, by virtue of wind and tide on the coast of Normandy. Seagoing vessels of that age were notoriously difficult to navigate and were at the complete mercy of the winds, as is surely evidenced by the fact that in 1066 William himself, his fleet ready and itching to be off, was unable to sail because of the contrary winds which prevented him from crossing the Channel for several weeks.
Ultimately speculation is idle. The undeniable fact is that Harold was captured by William, was held as his "guest" and did swear an Oath of allegiance to him, which, whatever else it may have done, lent legitimacy to William's claim to the English Throne. Support for the claim by the Pope and by the Church of Rome was, again, vital. It is doubtful whether, without that oath and the support of the Church, Duke William could ever have succeeded.
The long-tailed star seen by Ranulf on the 24th April was in fact Halley's Comet which first appeared in the skies over England that night and shone brightly for a week. It is clearly depicted in the border of the Bayeux Tapestry and must therefore have had enormous significance for the uninformed people of the time. It had last been seen over a hundred years earlier and had heralded the commencement of the dreadful Danish invasions that had so ravaged the east coast of Britain. It was clearly regarded as an evil and unnatural omen of disaster and given what later occurred the chroniclers of the period were undoubtedly right to attach significance to its appearance.
The battle of Stamford Bridge, fought on the 25th September 1066 was, until the battle of Hastings a few weeks later, the bloodiest battle fought on British soil in over a thousand years. The fight on the bridge itself between the huge Norwegian and the Saxons who tried to force the crossing took place much as depicted in the novel. He was indeed slain by a spear in the groin, thrust upwards by an unknown Saxon who had sailed a small coracle underneath the bridge. It was a sad end for an undoubtedly brave man.
Harald Hardraada was every bit as commanding a figure as the novel depicts him. The dominant military figure of the age, Harold Godwineson must have thought Hardraada the major threat to his Throne despite the threat that he faced from across the English Channel. If only he had been blessed with hindsight. Hardraada, the "Thunderbolt of the North" could trace his bloodline back to King Canute and this gave him, by blood at least, as strong a claim to the English Throne as the other two protagonists. On hearing of his landing in the north of England Harold Godwineson must have feared for the worst - especially after the slaughter of his allies' army at Fulford Gate. It is a testament to his courage and determination that he could march his army 200 miles in five days and fight, and win, a fearful battle at the end of it.
The battle itself was again, much as depicted in the novel. The Norwegians, taken by surprise, could hardly have believed their eyes when they saw Harold Godwineson approach with his army hundreds of miles north of where they believed him to be. Without their chain mail, left with the fleet, they were unprepared for battle and the safest course would undoubtedly have been that urged by Tostig, namely to retire to the fleet but Hardraada was not the man to do that. And so he decided to give battle, and lost - the battle and his life, killed in the thick of the action, wielding his great double handed axe when an arrow pierced his neck. What might have happened had Hardraada decided to retire, to fight on his own terms, we shall never know but it is interesting to speculate.
Tostig Godwineson was almost as bad as the novel describes him. Removed from the Earldom of Northumbria because of his brutal and corrupt rule of the people he left England in disgrace bent upon his return and upon the destruction of his brother Harold whom he regarded with loathing and jealousy. Initially he went to the Court of his brother's arch-rival, William of Normandy, seeking arms and support, and receiving little more than a few ships and men he landed at the Isle of Wight in May 1066 expecting aid and support from the people of that island. Not getting it, and acting like a badly behaved child he then embarked upon a journey of wanton destruction along the South Coast of England, ending up in Sandwich. It was only by the narrowest of margins that he escaped capture, evading Harold's pincer movement at the last moment, the sun giving away the presence of Harold's army. Eventually he threw in his lot with Harald Hardraada, only to meet his death at Stamford Bridge.
In describing Tostig's death I have strayed a little from the truth. In reality Tostig was cut down by the English not far from Hardraada's banner, "Land Waster," fighting to the end. But that would be too heroic a death for such an unpleasant character. Instead, like the bully and coward depicted in the novel, he runs from the fight, only to meet his death in any event. I apologise to the purists and to Tostig for traducing his character. I doubt that he would be grateful.
Harold's brothers, the Earls Gyrth and Leofwine did exist and though not a great deal is known of them we do know that they remained loyal to Harold from beginning to end. Gyrth tried hard to persuade Harold to remain in London, to await reinforcements, and then offered to fight the battle against William for him. Harold refused. It had become personal and it cost him his life. The Bayeux Tapestry depicts the deaths of Gyrth and Leofwine - it mentions them by name in adjoining frames - and one can probably make the deduction that they must have died memorably, and, in all probability within close proximity of each other. The Saxons did charge down the hill much as described in the novel but there is no evidence that they were led by Leofwine or that he even took part in it. Once again, an apology is due.
The death of Harold Godwineson remains a considerable talking point even today. The "arrow in the eye" theory has, in recent years been discredited and it is easy to see why. It is known that Harold had placed his twin Standards to the rear of the shieldwall, the defensive formation that he had adopted to repel the Norman infantry and cavalry. It is also known that the Norman archers had, toward the end of the battle, begun to fire their arrows high into the air to rain down upon the men in the shieldwall. If one studies the Tapestry one can see that the man plucking the arrow from his eye (or is it his helmet?) is on the right of the shieldwall, and, possibly therefore, one of Harold's housecarls. The figure being cut down by the Norman knight is clearly behind the shieldwall and, equally clearly, is Harold himself. Are both of these figures meant to represent Harold or is only one of them he? My own view is that the figure plucking the arrow from the eye, or helmet, is one of Harold's housecarls and not Harold himself. Why depict Harold's death in two stages? Does it not make more of a dramatic statement to show Harold in one final frame, the Norman cavalry bursting through the shield-wall to cut down the King? The debate continues, but despite my views I have remained faithful to the traditional story by having Harold first hit in the eye by an arrow and then, mortally wounded, being cut to pieces in the final act of savagery. One can only pity him. And, indeed, Harold Godwineson still arouses sympathy even today, nearly one thousand years after his death. The treatment of the English King by the Norman victors after the battle was nothing short of barbaric. His head was roughly hacked off - it took several blows - and he was disembowelled. His penis and genitalia were removed and stuffed into his mouth and his head then paraded around the victorious army on the point of a lance. Ultimately his corpse was thrown over Dover cliffs in order that he could "lie at the very frontier of the land he had tried so hard to defend."
Should Harold have fought the battle when he did? With hindsight, and knowing what the outcome would be there is no doubt that he would have waited. This would have allowed his tired housecarls to recover from their extraordinary efforts before giving battle again. Delay would also have allowed his allies in the north, Earls Morcar and Edwin to regroup and to march south with their forces. Delay also harmed William. With every day that passed he must have grown progressively weaker whilst, conversely, Harold grew stronger. To fight when he did was therefore a mistake and, obviously it changed the course of history.
So why did Harold fight? First, and perhaps foremost in his mind was the fact that he had just destroyed Harald Hardraada who, as stated earlier, had a fearsome reputation. Harold must have thought that if he could do it once, after a march of two hundred miles he could do it again. He was wrong. He overreached himself and was defeated.
Second, we know from the Bayeaux Tapestry and from other sources that William deliberately fired the countryside south of London in an attempt to lure Harold into battle, knowing, or perhaps hoping, that Harold would not stand idly by and allow the destruction of the countryside continue. William was right.
Third, of course, it had become intensely personal between the two and William calculated, correctly, that the slightest provocation would cause Harold to give battle at the earliest opportunity to rid himself of the festering thorn in his side. One can admire William's tactics whilst at the same time understanding, and having sympathy with, the action taken by Harold. And so, on the 14th October 1066 matters came to a head at Caldbec Hill.
The battlefield still exists and is little changed from how it must have appeared all that time ago. The land in the valley has been drained, and raised about eight feet but one can still appreciate the strength of the position held by Harold. For William to succeed he had to remove Harold from the ridge which barred his path to London. And all day long he attempted to do so, battering Harold's shieldwall with archers, infantry and cavalry. The battle unfolded much as described in the novel. William had three horses killed under him in charge after charge up the hill. William did have to raise his nasal to show his face to his terrified troops who thought that he was killed. The Saxons did break ranks and charge down the hill after the retreating Normans only to be cut to pieces themselves by William's cavalry. And Harold's housecarls did stand and die, one by one, true to their blood-oaths as the battle was slowly lost.
One can scarcely imagine the carnage, the courage it must have taken, to stand and be cut down rather than, as many of Harold's volunteers had done, run for the cover of the trees, but they did. And it is to those men, Harold's housecarls, that this novel owes its existence.
Ranulf, Guthrum, Cnut and the rest of Harold's housecarls are purely fictional characters but the lives they led, and the manner of their deaths, are as heroic as men of any age. To stand on the spot at Caldbec Hill (renamed "Senlac Hill" by the Normans and meaning, literally, "Bloody Lake") where Harold is said to have been slain amongst the wreckage of his army is a vastly moving experience and the visitor comes away with the feeling of great sadness.
Edith Swanneshals, the mother of Harold's three children actually existed and was reputed to be a great beauty. She was present at the battle and it is to her, and to Harold's injunction that she be taken to safety that Ranulf owes his life. He failed in his mission because, sadly, Edith was captured by the Normans and after the battle was required to identify the body of her lover "from marks on his body known only to her." Can any widow have ever had a sadder task to perform? Later that night she took her own life with poison.
For any student wishing to know more on the subject there are any number of excellent books presently available. And for those who want to know something of the battle that cannot be gained from books let them travel to the town of Battle in East Sussex and follow the ridge, now a metalled footpath, where Harold planted his Standards, and then head north, over the crest, to the east of Battle Abbey, to where a memorial stone and an inscription marks the place where Harold fell, and England changed forever.
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