© Michael Leete 2005
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Nothing of the Northumbrian rebellion is recorded in the Tapestry but the resulting enmity between Harold and his brother Tostig had far-reaching effects. In addition, it is far from certain how queen Edith1 was affected by the quarrel between her two brothers; her husband's incapacity and her own imminent obscurity2. If she and Edward had plans for the succession, she did nothing to further them unless we accept the statement by William of Poitiers that she came to hate Harold and to support William, passively, for defeating him. If, as we here suppose, Harold's mission to France was not to bequeath the kingdom of England to William of Normandy then Edward had no plans to be succeeded by his nephew. Edward and William may well have talked a lot of nonsense among themselves before Edward became king - before, even, he can have had much expectation of becoming king - and Edward, infuriated with all his wife's family, may have passed some ill-judged remarks to William in 1051/2 if William did visit England at that time, but sending for his cousin Edgar the Exile, another grandson of Æthelred the Unready, in 1056/7 must have established his proposed plan for the succession beyond doubt. Edgar had died before he met king Edward3 but his son, Edgar the Æthling, was an obvious and suitable heir providing that Edward lived long enough for the boy to reach maturity.4
Tostig may have visited Normandy and enlisted limited support for his return to England. Nowhere is it either recorded or discussed that he approached his brother Harold after Edward's death for the restoration of his earldom. In the normal course of time, Tostig will have expected to have been reinstated by the king, of whom, we are told, he was a particular favourite. Had Edward not acted as Tostig must have hoped, a return in force was an option against king Edward but a return by force of arms against his own brother was so improbable an action that king Harold himself seems not to have considered it. The result was that Harold called out the fyrd in the belief that Tostig's pillaging was a precursor to a major invasion. Even if Tostig had approached Harold for his restoration, Harold's hands were tied. We know now that the greatest threat was from the south but Harold might well have reasoned that the Narrow Seas and the Anglo-Saxon shipmen would prove a formidable barrier to the Normans whereas an invasion in the north by the battle hardened marines of the Scandinavians was the greater menace. In any case, security in the north was imperative. With hindsight, the disinheritance of Morcar might have been the wisest course but, at the time, Harold was conciliatory towards the northern Earls and proved his support for them by marrying their sister, Edith.
Tostig also engaged support from Harald Hardraada of Norway because he was later joined in Sandwich by a flotilla of seventeen ships from the Orkney Isles, which were nominally Norwegian. In the event, after the news of king Edward's death had spread, Tostig sailed from Bruges with a mixed crew of Flemish and English adventurers and invaded the Isle of Wight, where he obtained money and supplies. He then moved east along the coast, raiding wherever he could, until he came to Sandwich. There he recruited a considerable fleet. He then sailed towards the Humber. While raiding in Lincolnshire, his forces were surprised by Earls Edwin and Morcar, who inflicted such casualties that the recruits from Sandwich deserted and Tostig fled to Scotland, with his fleet reduced to twelve ships. As an invasion it was a sad failure but, above all, it seems to have inspired both William of Normandy and Harald Hardraada of Norway to mount their own invasions as soon as possible since they must both have known that king Harold would be at his most vulnerable in the early months of his reign before his authority had become accepted throughout the kingdom. The local support for Tostig amply demonstrated this.
Tostig's pillaging on the Isle of Wight is dated in early May, just after the appearance of Halley's comet. The comet appeared over England on 24th April and was first seen in Normandy two days later5. The comet scene in the Tapestry is just before a messenger brings some news to king Harold (Panel 75). The lower border contains the outline of five ships so it seems clear that the message either refers to the fleet that William is collecting near Dives or to the ships that Tostig is obtaining in Sandwich. In the next scene, an English ship lands in Normandy and in the scene after that, possibly when it has been realised that there will not be enough ships for the scale of invasion that is planned, William orders ships to be built (Panel 80) and the carpenters and ship-wrights set to work. We do not know how many ships were used in the invasion and we do not know how many ships William was able to beg, borrow or steal both in the duchy and from its neighbours. The maritime resources of the duchy itself must have been considerable, with its long northern shoreline and its whole southern border on the navigable river Seine. Robert Wace6 claimed that his father told him there were 696 ships in total but the number was being disputed even in his time. In any event, it must have been of motley composition resembling the fleet involved in the evacuation of Dunkerque7.
Meanwhile, the English fyrd manned the sea-shore and the shipmen patrolled the seas from a base at Portsmouth until 8th September. Then they had to be disbanded. The English ships sailed for London and a large number were lost in a storm. Four days later, William's fleet left the Dives and sailed to St Valéry on the river Somme.
It seems probable that William was not then aware that the English forces had gone home. A wind favourable for leaving the river Dives and weathering Cap d'Antifer would have been equally favourable for a Channel crossing to Pevensey. Had the weather been changeable, William would have been a fool to sail at all with largely inexperienced crews, vast quantities of equipment and all his future hopes on board. And William was no fool! In addition, crossing from the Somme, being so much further east than Dives-sur-Mer required a much rarer wind, as William later discovered, than the prevailing westerlies and south-westerlies. It is most probable that William wanted to practise a disembarkation before engaging in the real thing, not to mention the cardinal advantage of moving an army of hooligans out of Normandy in case the invasion had to be postponed over the winter months. News that the English coast was undefended will have reached William rapidly but there was nothing he could do about it because the wind had moved into the north, and obstinately remained there. With hindsight, of course, it was the best thing that could have happened because the same wind that kept William's fleet firmly in the Somme estuary released the huge fleet prepared by Harald Hardraada from the Solund Islands, virtually modern-day Bergen.
Hardraada was an ageing but still formidable warrior of vast experience. For some reason he may have believed that Tostig would be influential in gaining support in the north of England, which, since the earlier rebellion in Northumbria had been specifically against Tostig, was extremely unlikely. However, the fleet of some 300 ships8 did some token raiding as they made their way south from Scotland until they reached Scarborough. There they sacked and burnt the town and the proof that a fresh wind still blew from the north keeping William's fleet weather-bound in St Valéry is that they fired the town by throwing burning faggots from the castle-hill onto the houses below9. Hardraada then moved into the Humber where Tostig joined him and they sailed up the Ouse as far as Riccall with the Northumbrian fleet retreating before them. The Northumbrians turned up the Wharfe towards Tadcaster, possibly with a view to attacking Hardraada in the rear as he proceeded up-river to York, but Hardraada disembarked at Riccall so keeping the Northumbrians upstream of his ships. From Riccall, Hardraada marched his men overland, leaving a strong force to protect the ships, and met the northern earls at Gate Fulford. It was now Wednesday, 20th September. After some fierce fighting, the Northumbrians were badly cut up and driven into the marshes to their east and the river to their west. Only a small number escaped, with both earls, into York. The city formally surrendered on 24th September.
There are several reconstructions of the events that followed the battle but none suggest that Hardraada moved his fleet. Nonetheless, the events that follow and our reports of them, are best explained if Hardraada took his fleet a short way downstream and then rowed up the Derwent and moored at Stamford Bridge. He expected to receive supplies, some one hundred and fifty children as hostages and, no doubt, some more loot, so a bridge would be more convenient than stepping across a 'bridge' of longships or repeatedly wading through a ford. 'Stamford' is one of the many placenames in England deriving from 'stone ford' or 'stony ford'. The ford here was replaced by a bridge at an early date10. King Harald's Saga introduces a wooden bridge into the battle. Quite apart from being nearer to the City than Riccall, the river Ouse was nearly full of dead bodies at Gate Fulford and the Norwegians, who have not come down to us in history as noticeably fastidious, may have preferred not to drink the water. Meanwhile, in London, king Harold heard the news of the defeat at Gate Fulford (or anticipated it) and covered the two hundred miles to Tadcaster with an entirely mounted force, consisting mainly of his housecarls and thegns, at an incredible speed, riding both by night and by day11. Although speed was of the essence, Harold did not ride directly to York since he can have had only sketchy intelligence of what opposition he might meet either at the city itself or upon the main York road. He bore off to the east and at Tadcaster, which he reached in the evening of Sunday, 24th September, he sent word for the shipmen and any others from the local militia to join him. Early in the morning of Monday, 25th September, having collected such infantry as he could, Harold rode swiftly to York.
If the Norwegians had remained in the vicinity of Riccall, they must have heard Harold and his men thudding past them12. As it was, they had no inkling of any form of further opposition and a large party set off towards York, lightly armed, on what was expected to be virtually a picnic. Once again, a substantial number remained with the ships but the others were joined on their march by hundreds of sympathetic Northumbrians, whose own family trees were scarcely more than two generations removed from Scandinavia. King Harold, fully informed by now of the surrender of York by the northern earls and the movements of Tostig and Hardraada, rode through York on a green light13 and hit Hardraada's men before they knew what was happening. For once, the Anglo-Saxons did not dismount for the battle. The Norwegians and the Northumbrians ran for the ships at Stamford Bridge. King Harold's men rode them down and inflicted formidable casualties. Orderic Vitalis wrote of the bones 'of two peoples' mouldering in the fields but still visible in his day. The comment about the two peoples has been taken to include the Anglo-Saxons but in a running fight, such as it was at this stage, the Anglo-Saxon casualties will have been very slight so Orderic Vitalis can only have meant the bones of the Norwegians and their Northumbrian allies.
From the ships, the harbour watch, so to speak, ran to help their friends and the fight became more serious for the Anglo-Saxons14. Legend interposes a pause for negotiation where king Harold pretended to be a herald and offered Tostig the return of all his former honours if he would surrender. Tostig asked what king Harald Hardraada could expect and received the reply, "Seven feet of English ground or as much more as he is taller than other men." In the event, he did not even get that. Both Hardraada and Tostig were killed. Hardraada's body was eventually taken to Norway in the spring of 1067 and buried in St Mary's church, Nidaros (Trondheim). Tostig's body was buried at York.15
Harold and his men withdrew to York to rest. But not for long! News reached York, traditionally in the evening of 1st October, that William had landed in the south. Again, by tradition, Harold reached London on 5th or 6th October, where he spent five or six days. Some of the timing difficulties are removed if it is accepted that Harold had with him only the mounted force that he brought north - or what was left of it, augmented by mounted thegns and housecarls conscripted from the northern Earls to replace the casualties he had suffered. The same applies to Harold's overnight ride from London to Battle, arriving in the early morning of 14th October. The infantry, the southern fyrd, were directed to assemble at the hoary apple tree - somewhere in the neighbourhood of Caldbec Windmill, where the tree might have been the landmark for the point of intersection of three Hundreds16. Those from south of the Thames will have collected themselves automatically into groups from different localities and have made their way there in bunches. Those north of the Thames, from east and central England, will have passed through London and were probably escorted in daily groups into Sussex since they could not be expected to know the lie of the land.
Although the hectic ride to York and the stress of the battle of Stamford Bridge will have taken a lot out of Harold himself, the thesis here is that it was not the casualties in the north that diminished his fighting force at the battle of Hastings but insufficient time for all the southern fyrd to assemble. That is to say that, in the main, the men engaged in the north would not have been called upon to fight in the south and, if they had, may not have reached Sussex in time even if Harald Hardraada had not upset everyone's agenda. The men in the south had been called out about a week earlier. The fyrd from the more distant regions can hardly have reached Sussex on foot in that time.
Time was on Harold's side. To state the obvious, the longer Harold waited before putting himself within range of a strike by William the more difficult William was going to find it to maintain his army. We must therefore consider why Harold rushed into Sussex contrary to all common sense.
1 Queen Edith must have been among the first five of Earl Godwine's children. His eldest four sons all had Scandinavian names: Sweyn, Harold, Tostig and Gyrth. Edith's baptismal name, after her mother, was surely Gytha.
2 She died in 1075 after a period since 1066 of complete retirement and obscurity.
3 There is a Greek dimension in the tragedy of Edgar the Exile returning to the land of his fathers after 40 years, probably not speaking a word of English, and dying before a lifetime of hopes had come to fruition. He died within the month of August 1057 and set off a chain reaction that culminated in the Norman conquest.
4 At Christmas 1065, Edgar can have been no older than fourteen.
5 1066, The Year of the Three Battles (1998), Frank McLynn, p.190. The Abingdon and Worcester Chronicles give April 24th and add '... a portent such as men had never seen before was seen in the heavens.' The Parker Chronicle gives April 18th without naming the comet as a portent. An interesting feature about the comet is that if it were a portent of bad news for the English (or, presumably, good news for the Normans) how did anyone know it? No earlier references to comets being portents have been recovered although portents occurred from time to time before Viking raids, consisting of sightings of flying dragons and bloody rain. Comets do not seem to have had any common reputation for either good or evil. The previous sighting of Halley's comet was in August/September 989 - within a bad decade of Viking raids into England and with the battle of Maldon in 991. Ray Middleton, astronomer, wrote, '... on the night of April 24th 1066 when Halley was at it brightest, there was no moon, Jupiter was really bright in the west (magnitude -2.10, Mars was very bright in the southwest (m=-0.7) and Saturn was fairly bright in the SSW (m=0.8). With the comet also visible it would have made a beautiful sight.' He also supplied data from the California Institute of Technology that the comet was first reported on 2nd April 1066 (Julian Calendar) and would have been visible to the naked eye for 66 days.
6 Roman du Rou.
7 Anglo-Norman Studies 7 (1984), Carol Gillmor.
8 The size of Hardraada's armada has been variously calculated between 200 and 1000 ships but about 300 longships seems to be the most likely number.
9 King Harald's Saga (1966), Magnus Magnusson and Hermann Pálsson.
10 A Dictionary of English Place-Names (1995), A D Mills. 'Stanford brycg c.1075'
11 George Osbaldson, alias Squire of England, who lived at Ebberston Hall (11 miles west of Scarborough) in the early eighteenth century, is said to have ridden from York to London in under twelve hours with a change of mount every ten miles!
12 300 ships moored on both banks probably stretched at least two miles. From Cawood (just below the confluence of the rivers Wharfe and Ouse), for example, which is about two miles upstream from the river's nearest point to Riccall, Harold's force probably passed within less than five miles (the road is now the A162).
13 This expression is lifted from The Great North Road (1961), Frank Morley. P.108 'Could Harold count on riding straight through York on a green light?'
14 Orri's Battle from king Harald's Saga. The sagas add colour and interest to the bare bones of the history but not only was king Harald's Saga written down some 170 years after the Battle of Hastings, it was also written more to illustrate the character of the individuals than as an accurate record.
15 1066 The Year of the Three Battles (1998), Frank McLynn. p.205.
16 The Battle of Hastings (1998), Jim Bradbury. p.173.