This article is an edited transcript of 1066: Battle of Hastings – Marc Morris on Dan Snow’s History Hit, first broadcast 14 October 2016. You can listen to the full episode below or to the full podcast for free on Acast.
The year 1066 saw several candidates emerge as rivals for the English crown. Having defeated the Vikings at Stamford Bridge, King Harold Godwinson journeyed south very quickly to respond to the new Norman threat that had landed on the south coast.
Harold could have travelled 200 odd miles from York to London in around three or four days at that time. If you were the king and you travelled with a mounted elite, you could ride hell-for-leather if you needed to get somewhere quick, and the horses could be replaced.
Whilst he was doing that, Harold would have had other messengers riding out into the provinces, proclaiming a new muster in London in 10 days’ time.
Should Harold have waited?
What we’re told by several sources about Harold is that he was too hasty. Both English and Norman chronicles tell us that Harold set out for Sussex and William’s camp too soon, before all his troops had been drawn up. That fits with the idea that he disbanded his troops in Yorkshire. It wasn’t a forced march south for the infantry; it was instead a gallop for the king’s elite.
Harold would likely have done better to wait rather than to rush down into Sussex with fewer infantry than might have been ideal.
He would have had more troops if he had waited a bit longer for the muster, which involved counties sending their reserve militiamen to join Harold’s army.
The other thing to note is that the longer Harold waited, the more likely he was to gain more support from Englishmen who didn’t want to see their farms put to the torch.
Harold could have played a patriotic card, positing himself as a king of England protecting his people from these invaders. The longer the prelude to battle went on, the greater the danger for William’s position, because the Norman duke and his army had only brought a certain amount of supplies with them.
Once the Normans’ food ran out, William would have had to start breaking up his force and going out to forage and ravage. His army would have ended up with all the disadvantages of a being an invader living off the land. It would have been much better for Harold to wait.
William’s invasion plan
William’s strategy was to loot and sack settlements in Sussex in an attempt to provoke Harold. Harold was not only a crowned king but a popular one too, which meant he could afford a draw. As a 17th-century quote from the Earl of Manchester, about the Parliamentarians versus the Royalists, says:
“If we fight 100 times and beat him 99 he will be king still, but if he beats us but once, or the last time, we shall be hanged, we shall lose our estates, and our posterities be undone.”
If Harold was defeated by William but managed to survive, he could have headed west and then regrouped to fight another day. That exact thing had happened 50 years earlier with the Anglo-Saxons versus the Vikings. Edmund Ironside and Cnut went at it about four or five times until Cnut eventually won.
All Harold had to do was not die, whereas William was gambling everything. For him, it was the biggest roll of the dice of his career. It had to be a decapitation strategy. He wasn’t coming over to plunder; it wasn’t a Viking raid, it was a play for the crown.
The only way William was going to get the crown was if Harold obliged him by coming to battle early and dying.
William thus spent time harrying Sussex to demonstrate the ineffectiveness of Harold’s lordship, and Harold rose to the bait.
Harold’s defence of England
Harold used the element of surprise against the Vikings to win his decisive victory in the north. He rushed up to Yorkshire, secured good intelligence on their location and caught them unawares at Stamford Bridge.
So surprise worked well for Harold in the north, and he attempted a similar trick against William. He tried to hit William’s camp at night before the Normans realised he was there. But it didn’t work.
Hardrada and Tostig were completely caught with their pants down at Stamford Bridge. That’s literally the case in terms of dress, because we’re told by an 11th-century source that it was a hot day and so they had gone from York to Stamford Bridge without their armour or their mail shirts, putting them at a massive disadvantage.
Hardrada really dropped his guard. Harold and William, on the other hand, were probably equally matched in their generalship.
William’s reconnoitring and his intelligence were better than Harold’s, however; we’re told that the Norman duke’s knights reported back to him and warned him of the impending night attack. William’s soldiers then stood guard throughout the night in expectation of an attack.
When an attack didn’t come, they set off in search of Harold and in the direction of his camp.
The site of the battle
The tables were turned and instead it was William who caught Harold unawares rather than the other way round. The place he met Harold at the time didn’t have a name. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says they meet at the grey apple tree, but nowadays we call that place “Battle”.
There has been some controversy in recent years about the site of the battle. Lately, there has been a suggestion that the only evidence that the monastery, Battle Abbey, was placed on the site of the Battle of Hastings, is the Chronicle of Battle Abbey itself, which was written more than a century after the event.
But that isn’t true.
There are at least half a dozen earlier sources that say William built an abbey on the site where the battle was fought.
The earliest of them is the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, in William’s obituary for the year 1087.
The Englishman who wrote it says that William was a great king who did many dreadful things. He writes that of the good things he did, he ordered an abbey to be built on the very spot where God granted him victory over the English.
So we have a contemporary voice from the time of William the Conqueror, an English voice from his court, that says the abbey is situated where the battle was fought. It’s as solid evidence as we will find for this period.
One of the most titanic, climactic battles in British history, saw Harold begin in a very good defensive position, anchored to a large slope, blocking the road to London.
Harold had the high ground. Everything from Star Wars onwards tells us that if you’ve got the high ground, you’ve got a better chance. But the issue with Harold’s position is that it was too narrow. He couldn’t deploy all of his men. Neither commander had an ideal position. And that’s probably why the battle descended into a long, drawn-out melee.