Liveblogging the Norman Conquest: October 12, 1066: Harold Godwinson the Usurper and His Army Arrive at Hastings
Arnold Blumberg: Too tired to fight? Harold Godwinson’s Saxon army on the march in 1066:
Sometime between 29 September and 1 October Harold was notified that the long awaited invasion of Saxon England by William of Normandy had taken place. He now had no choice but to return to the south to deal with this new threat. From York the King raced southwards toward London…. Most likely, he only led the core of [his] force… his housecarls… as well as his brother Gyrth’s contingent….
Absent on the return to the south were many of Harold’s [Stamford Bridge] army… due to the heavy casualties the army had sustained… as well as a lack of vital supplies and transport needed to move all soldiers. This was largely the result of the king’s inability to procure these resources from the North Country…. The northern earls and their men were also absent…. They had suffered severe losses at the Battle of Fulford (25 September 1066)…. By 8 or 9 October, Harold reached his capital. Before his arrival in London, he had sent out royal summons to the different shires in the Midlands and southeast of England, calling on his subjects to muster for military service. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle D version refers to this as the raising of a new army… [to] assemble at London…. The bulk of this new army would be reasonably rested and supplied and ready to follow the king to the Sussex coast where the Norman invaders had landed. On the minus side of the ledger, except for… housecarls… the army Harold lead to Hastings against the Normans would have been untested in battle.
After arriving in London, Harold lingered there for a day or two, resting his veterans from the campaign in the north and absorbing daily arriving reinforcements. Then the king moved the 60 miles (96 km) to where the enemy was encamped, near Hastings. This Saxon maneuver was conducted at a more leisurely pace… 20 miles a day. [It] did not over overtax the troops, assured secure sources of supply, kept the army concentrated, and allowed for reinforcements to join the main column in a timely manner.
Before the king departed for the coast, his mother and brother, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle D version, begged him to be cautious, saying to him that, ‘You have just returned worn out after the war against the Norwegians; are you now hastening to move against the Normans.’ Some historians point to this as a sign that the army Harold was gathering was itself tired and in disarray due to its exertions on the march and in battle since September. But the above facts suggest that it was not the army that the king’s relatives were concerned about, but Harold’s current health and judgment….
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle E version suggests that Harold set out from London too soon (on 11 October), ‘before all his host came up.’ John of Worchester expanded on this idea by writing that the king had only ’half his host’ when he marched for Sussex. But the author then goes on to relate that [it was] the narrowness of the Saxon position at Hastings [that] prevented a full deployment of Harold’s army….
Norman sources, such as William of Poitiers, chaplain to Duke William, suggest that Harold’s motive for quickly coming to grips with the Normans was to prevent further damage to the king’s estates in Sussex…. But he never says that the king’s haste made him move with only a part of his army…. Other Norman accounts mention the possibility that Harold’s movements were prompted by the desire to repeat the surprise attack on Hardrada, but this time with the Duke of Normandy as the target. This is a logical conclusion, since Harold was a bold commander who had been successful with such stratagem very recently…. This would seem to counter the argument that the Saxon army was tired or below strength. A force in such a condition is usually unable to execute such ambitious schemes with precision and celerity. Further, this ties in nicely with the general attitude toward war of Anglo-Saxon military forces of the period: the desire to come to grips with the enemy as soon as possible and engage in a decisive battle. (In contrast, the Norman practice stressed campaigns of maneuver and a proclivity towards siege warfare to bring about successful military conclusions).
The physical condition of Harold’s army is further brought in to relief on the eve of the Battle of Hastings by the remarks of William of Jumieges in his Gesta Normanorum Ducum (‘Deeds of the Dukes of Normandy’), and the twelfth century Medieval historian William of Malmesbury in his Gesta Regum Anglorum (‘History of the Kings of England’). The former states that the English army had marched all night, arriving on the battlefield at dawn. Common sense would indicate that the men would have been worn out by this recent exertion. But William of Malmesbury says that the Saxons spent the entire night before the battle singing and drinking. So were the Saxons on the move during the time immediately before the fight, or were they encamped resting and enjoying themselves before the blood bath of the next day? Either way, the Saxons fought very well and continuously at Hastings which indicates neither fatigue nor the poor morale which accompanies tired soldiers. On the contrary, both stories seems to point to a force brimming with confidence.
Originally published at www.bradford-delong.com.