By S. Jeffrey Duff
Part I. How King Harold and the English found themselves in a Royal Mess:
Prelude to 1066 : King Harold Godwinson and the Anglo - Saxon English lived through more turmoil and events in the first ten months of 1066, than most people will experience in a lifetime.
But more about that later. First, let's start off with our cast of major characters.
The epicenter of 1066's political, social, military and economic earthquake was Harold Godwinson and he was 43 or 44 years of age, by September of 1066. Harold Godwinson was one of six children born to Godwin, Earl of Wessex, and his wife (Gytha), who were members of England's Saxon nobility. Only two of Godwin and Gytha's sons are relevant to this story, Harold Godwinson and Tostig Godwinson.
Tostig Godwinson was supposedly even smarter than Harold, and Harold was a pretty smart Saxon himself, but Tostig lacked a few of Harold's virtues: loyalty, decisiveness and an occasionally pleasant personality. Tostig was the ne'er-do-well son, rebellious to his parents and generally disliked by many of the people of Wessex. He was also a schemer and liked to view himself as more talented than his siblings. Apparently, Tostig's opinion of himself was higher than most of the people who knew him.
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On the other hand, Tostig Godwinson's older brother Harold was said to take after his father in most ways and was respected for his courage, intelligence and serious nature. He was more respected than liked, by those who knew him personally. These attributes - and his minor military successes against the ever-rebellious Celtic Welsh and occasional Viking raiders - caused Harold to move up within King Edward the Confessor's small army of battle-hardened noblemen and professional men-at-arms. The king's small professional army were known as the 'House Carls' and were considered a tough, well-trained force. By 1065, Harold was one of King Edward's most trusted battle captains and a good man to lead the English soldiers into any battle.
Unfortunately for everyone in the relatively prosperous Anglo - Saxon lands of England, King Edward the Confessor had spent his 24 years as King of England doing pious works, but not producing any hereditary heirs to the English throne. This meant that when King Edward died on January 5th, 1066, he was without a hereditary heir of any kind, legitimate or otherwise. But, seemingly to enhance the mischief and confusion after his death, the king had a driving desire for peace and piety during the final years of his reign. He disliked verbal disputes and avoided military action, as much as possible, in the last days of his reign. Since the future succession of the English throne was on the mind of every Englishman - and plenty of foreign nobles, too - King Edward's desire to avoid conflicts and controversy led to disastrous misbehavior by the king. The elderly, sickly and vacillating king seems to have kept his personal life peaceful by making vague promises to supplicants for the throne!
To anyone who could claim a blood relationship to the English throne, King Edward would avoid long, contentious discussions by implying (or stating) that each supplicant would be his designated heir to the English throne. He asked these various noblemen to stop bothering him about the succession to kingship and to stay discrete on the matter, but that King Edward would someday announce that the nobleman/supplicant - and only that particular nobleman/supplicant - would be his designated and official heir to the throne of England. We don't know how many domestic and foreign noblemen received King Edward's quiet and vague promises that he (and he alone) would be Edward's designated heir to the throne! We do know who at least two of these noblemen/supplicants are: Harold Godwinson, by then the Earl of East Anglia, and William the First, Duke of Normandy (in modern northwest France). King Edward the Confessor could hardly have been thinking of the welfare of his successor, or of the people of Anglo - Saxon England, when he made these empty promises to powerful noblemen of his acquaintance.
King Edward had foolishly sown the seeds of disaster for whoever would follow him onto the throne of England.
Even as the King of England teased the greedy appetites of noblemen at home and abroad, the prosperity and relative wealth of England was a rich lure for the power hungry. Even noblemen without blood ties to English nobility were enticed by the weak and heirless King Edward.
The King of Norway, Harald Hardrada, was one of those unrelated foreign nobles who were enticed to think about invading weak but prosperous England. But, unlike the other foreign noblemen who remained passive, King Harald had an experienced army near to hand, also known as the Vikings. He had just spent 20 years in a sporadic and failed war of conquest against Denmark, which had not improved his standing among his Norwegian subjects, and especially among his famed Viking warriors. But, King Harald had one more motivating factor: he had the encouragement and services of one of King Harold's younger brothers, the endlessly - plotting Tostig Godwinson. Tostig sought out and offered the King of Norway the use of a small troop of armed supporters and a certain Saxon legitimacy to Harald's contemplated invasion of England. (More on this odd partnership later.)
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1066 starts with a dead King Edward :
When King Edward the Confessor finally died on January 5, 1066, the major noblemen of Western Europe turned avaricious eyes towards heirless England. Meanwhile, most of the Anglo - Saxon English population was in mourning for a dead king who was still popular with most of his subjects.
Harold Godwin was the nearest supplicant to the dead king and also had good relations with most of the Anglo - Saxon earls and dukes of England. This gave him an advantage over the other candidates to the throne, which office Harold pursued with great alacrity. Through the usual combination of extravagant promises, vague threats and his own past performance, Harold was able to persuade the majority of senior English noblemen and clergymen to appoint himself as the next King of England. His coronation occurred on January 6 th , 1066, barely 24 hours after King Edward breathed his last.
Other noblemen, including Harold's brother Tostig and Duke William of Normandy (a.k.a., Duke William the Bastard - which he actually was), were furious that Harold Godwinson had managed to ascend to the English crown in such haste. Tostig almost immediately began seeking ways to undermine or overthrow his older brother Harold, while Duke William the Bastard began to assemble the army and fleet he would need to conquer England. (Harold may not have had many personal friends, but his enemies were multiplying like rabbits.)
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Fortunately for Harold, Tostig's subversive plots were clumsy and they became public almost as soon as each scheme was hatched. He was exiled from England, even before King Edward had passed away, and King Harold made sure that Tostig wasn't somehow forgiven and returned to England, to resume his mischief. But, unfortunately for King Harold, Tostig went to Normandy in the spring of 1066, to try to encourage Duke William to invade England and oust King Harold. The duke was well along in his invasion plans and didn't need encouragement from Tostig Godwinson. Besides, there was something about Tostig that 'even treachery couldn't trust' and Duke William was smart enough to recognize an energetic troublemaker when he saw one. The duke sent Tostig on his way with little more than bland encouragements.
Among a few other powerful foreign noblemen who were approached by Tostig, the only nobleman to be truly intrigued by Tostig's schemes was the King of Norway, Harald Hardrada. Although Harald was termed a King, he really ruled as more of a warlord, and was mostly involved with his subjects in the areas of raiding foreign lands and making war. As essentially the leader of Norway's Viking raiders, rather than a traditional national monarch, Harald had led a sputtering, sporadic and eventually unsuccessful war against Denmark. King Harald's less than well-organized war to conquer the Danes was hampered by the fact that many of his potential Norwegian warrior - invaders had family and friends among the Danes, while many Norwegians openly questioned the concept of violently conquering their Danish relatives and friends, instead of attacking other richer - and weaker - European lands. Harald had finally given up on his rather personal grudge against Denmark in 1064 and was looking for a new military project to regain some of his diminished prestige among the Norwegian Vikings. Conquering a rich and prosperous England, while it was led by the unpopular and inexperienced new King Harold (as he was told by a malevolent Tostig in the spring and summer of 1066), seemed like the perfect military project! King Harald would conquer Anglo - Saxon England first, then worry what to do about Tostig's claims to the throne later. (In the meanwhile, Tostig's dubious claims to the English crown provided a good-sounding excuse for conquering England and plundering that prosperous land.) So, King Harald spent the spring and summer of 1066 in recruiting a large Norwegian - Viking army of conquest and assembling a naval fleet of over 300 Viking long ships.
Ironically, while the King of Norway was openly recruiting a Viking army to conquer England, King Harold Godwinson was paying much more attention to Duke William of Normandy's military preparations in northern France. To Harold's thinking, Tostig Godwinson had less hereditary right to be the King of England than Harold did and the King of Norway had absolutely no hereditary rights to the English throne. But William of Normandy, while a bastard son of a noble-born count, did have royal bloodlines to the English throne on both his father and mother's sides. In fact, although the whole born-out-of-wedlock rules for royal accession were complicated, William just might have a stronger hereditary claim on the English crown ... than Harold. To King Harold, this made William a greater threat to Harold's hard-earned kingship than any spurious hereditary claims that could possibly be asserted by Tostig Godwinson or Tostig's new and powerful friend, the King of Norway.
Meanwhile, in the late spring of 1066, King Harold had heeded the warnings of his foreign spies, and recruited most of his army to join him on the Isle of Wight, along the southeastern English seacoast. This main army was in place to defend England against the army of Duke William of Normandy. His professional army (the 'housecarls') numbered over 2,000 men, while the remainder of his 9,500 man army consisted of the 'fyrd', mainly drafted men who were civilians most of the time, such as farmers, drovers, shopkeepers, etc. (In essence, the fyrd was basically a militia group.)
While he was primarily focused on William's threat to southeast England, Harold was also concerned about the potential of a large Viking attack to the northeast section of England (in and around the current County York). He had sent couriers and a small group of his housecarls to the two recently appointed and loyal earls of northeast England: Morcar, Earl of Northumbria and Edwin, Earl of Mercia, with instructions to prepare to defend their lands from an invasion by the Norwegian Vikings under King Harald Hadrada. Morcar and Edwin eventually recruited about a thousand housecarls (professional soldiers) between them, plus another 4,000 male draftees of the fyrd. The two earls gathered the men together near the Village of Fulford (just outside the City of York) and spent the summer in military training, while awaiting the attack of the Norwegian Vikings.
Unfortunately for Harold Godwinson, unfavorable north winds had kept Duke William's fleet blocked up in Normandy for the spring and summer months of 1066. But, those same winds from the north that hampered William's fleet and army were just what King Harald of Norway needed for his fleet and army to sail to northeast England. Approx-imately 300 ships set sail from southern Norway in early September and enjoyed a fast voyage to Yorkshire, England. Along the way, Harald's new partner, Tostig Godwinson, added a few hundred armed men (on a dozen ships) of his own and joined the Norwegian King at sea, just prior to their naval landing near the City of York.
The Anglo - Saxon English and the Norwegian Viking armies became aware of each others' presence on the day of Harald and Tostig's naval landing. The armies quickly prepared themselves and the Vikings (plus Tostig's few hundred Flemish and Scottish mercenaries) marched towards the awaiting Anglo - Saxon army, which was jointly commanded by the Earls of Morcar and Mercia. (King Harold Godwinson and his main army were still in southeast England and not yet aware of the sudden Viking attack into York.)
The Battle of Fulford was about to commence ...
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Continue to Part II. The Battle of Fulford
Everyone knows 1066 as the date of the Norman invasion and conquest of England. But how many of us can place that event in the context of the entire dramatic year in which it took place? From the death of Edward the Confessor in early January to the Christmas coronation of Duke William of Normandy, there is an almost uncanny symmetry, as well as a relentlessly exciting surge, of events leading to and from Hastings.
If ever there was a year of destiny for the British Isles, 1066 must have a strong claim. King Harold faced invasion not just from William and the Normans across the English Channel but from the Dane, King Harald Hardrada. Before he faced the Normans at Hastings in October, he had defeated the Danes at York and Stamford Bridge in September. In this superbly researched study, Frank McLynn overturns long-accepted myths, showing how William's victory at the Battle of Hastings was not, in fact, a certainty, and arguing that Harald Hardrada was actually the greatest warrior of the three. This is a masterly study, and reveals the truth to be more interesting than the myths surrounding this pivotal year in history.