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Chapter 7

The Conquest of England


The news that Tostig had reappeared with an army of Vikings in tow must have seemed almost too sensational to be true. It probably even surprised Tostig himself. During his exile he had made appeals to several rulers for help, but had been turned away at every turn with humiliating regularity. Finally, desperate and alone, he sailed to Norway and somehow gained an audience with its king, Harald Hardrada.  

The old Viking needed no convincing to look for a battle. He was a unique figure, even by the standards of his time. Fifty years old in 1066, he had been first wounded in battle three and a half decades earlier and showed no signs of slowing down. The name ‘Hardrada’ can be roughly translated as ‘hard-bargainer’, and those who didn’t respect his cunning usually ended up on the receiving end of one of his famous ruses. Norse poets were already singing of his exploits in his lifetime. Enormously tall with large hands, a booming voice, and a reddish blonde beard, he appeared every inch a Viking king. His personal banner was a snowy white field with a single black raven appropriately named the ‘Landwaster’, and although nominally a Christian (his half-brother would become the patron saint of Norway) he nevertheless had two wives and led a life dedicated to the twin goals of fighting and hoarding gold.  

At the age of fifteen he entered the losing side of a battle and had to hide in the forests until his wounds healed enough for him to travel. Limping his way into Russia, he spent one year in the service of the Prince of Novgorod, where he fell in love with his employer’s daughter. Asking for her hand in marriage, he was rejected because he had no throne or wealth, so he left for Constantinople to remedy the situation. There were plenty of opportunities in the Queen of Cities for an ambitious Viking. The empress Zoë, daughter of the last great Macedonian emperor,23 offered him service in the famed Varangian Guard, the elite corps of Scandinavian mercenaries that provided the empire’s best troops. The energetic Hardrada quickly rose to become captain of the Guard, spending his time sacking and raiding in North Africa and Sicily.

It was there that he first gained a reputation for cunning. While unsuccessfully besieging a town in Sicily he noticed birds nesting in the thatch of houses and flying out by day to the woods to find food. Ordering his men to catch the birds, Harald tied chips of wood to them, set them on fire and released them. The panicked birds flew to their nests, setting the town on fire. During another siege he fell sick, and while recuperating he decided to stage his own funeral. His men dressed themselves in mourning clothes and begged for a Christian burial within the walls of the city. The townsmen foolishly agreed, arguing so we are told about who would get the rich gifts the Norsemen were sure to leave with the body. The moment Harald’s men were in the town, they dropped the coffin, blew a war blast for the rest of the army concealed nearby, and slaughtered everyone.  

After a decade of fighting for the empire, Harald had amassed more wealth than any other Viking before him and decided that the time had come to go claim his Russian bride. He had already sent most of his plunder to Novgorod for safe keeping and after concluding affairs in Constantinople24 he collected his treasure and new wife and returned to Norway.  

Hardrada’s nephew was ruling the country at the time, so Harald started a civil war to elbow him aside. The nephew magnanimously offered to split the kingdom to prevent further bloodshed, and five years later he conveniently died leaving Harald as the sole king. This may have satisfied any other man, but after a summer or two without fighting, he decided that he should be king of Denmark as well. The Danes were perfectly happy with the king they had, however, and resisted him with a stubbornness that matched his own. After fifteen summers spent fruitlessly trying to ravage his way to the throne, Harald realized he was getting nowhere and made a rare truce. Two years later Tostig arrived dangling the wild promise of the English throne in front of him, and the bored Hardrada jumped at the chance. Calling for his army, he boarded his longship, the Dragon, and set sail for England.  

On the Tuesday after Easter a ‘hairy’ star Halley’s Comet had been seen in the sky and this was widely interpreted as an ill omen. Now, just weeks after its disappearance the Norse arrived and seemed to confirm everyone’s worst fears. The teenaged northern Earls, Edwin and Morcar, had never fought a battle before, but they gathered the local levee and met the invaders at Fulford, a mile outside the city gates of York. The fighting lasted less than an hour, but it was a disaster for the English. Harald’s beserkers tore into the Anglo-Saxon lines, driving them into a nearby marsh where Norse poets claimed that so many were killed that the Vikings could cross it on English corpses and keep their feet dry.  

The battle effectively sealed York’s fate, and the city immediately surrendered to prevent further slaughter. Harald and Tostig, who seemed to believe that they had conquered the entire north of England at a blow, demanded five hundred hostages. Since it would take time to round them up, Harald agreed to give York four days to find them, stipulating that the hostages should be brought to Stamford Bridge, seven miles east of York. With that accomplished they returned to their ships and spent the next days drinking and feasting.  

The ships were moored fourteen miles from Stamford Bridge, and when the appointed day came, it was warm so most of Harald’s soldiers left their mail shirts behind and leisurely made their way to the site. When they saw a cloud of dust approaching from York they assumed it was their prisoners, but as it approached Harald saw weapons 'shimmering like ice'. Tostig, deluded to the end, assured him that it was probably his kinsmen coming to pledge their support, but it soon became clear that it was nothing of the sort.  

King Harold of England had been in London when he heard of the Norse invasion and he had managed to accomplish one of the most extraordinary military feats of Anglo-Saxon England. Assembling his elite housecarls he immediately started riding, gathering more recruits as he went, both day and night, covering the two hundred miles in an astonishing four days. Entering York before anyone knew he had even left London, he posted guards on every major road so no news of his arrival would leak out.  

The next day he rode out to confront his enemies. Trying as always to come to terms peacefully, he asked his brother if he would lay down his arms in exchange for his old earldom. “And what will you give my ally, Hardrada?” Tostig asked. “Six feet of English soil,” was the reply, “or since he is a tall man, a little more.” 

Hardrada should have retreated to his ships where he had fresh reserves, but his blood was up, and after sending three runners to get the men from the longboats, he went roaring into the attack, wildly swinging a battle axe with each hand. Even with his forces half-armed, Hardrada was a formidable foe and the battle lasted most of the day. By the time the men from the ships arrived Hardrada was dead, hit in the throat with an arrow, but the survivors grimly fought on refusing to surrender, some even throwing off their armor and giving in to a berserker rage. 

When night fell there was hardly a Viking left alive on the field. The next day Hardrada’s son, Olav, came and asked for mercy, and Harold wearily let him go after a promise never to return again. The Hard-Bargainer had come to England with two hundred and forty ships, but only twenty-four were needed to carry the survivors back to Norway.  

There was little time to savor the victory. A week was spent sorting out the situation in York where the easy capitulation to the Vikings had inspired bitter feelings among those who had wanted to resist. Harold held a great feast to sooth tensions, but in the middle of it a messenger burst in to announce that the Normans had landed at Pevensey, on the south coast of England.  

William’s invasion, although minutely planned, had run into a string of problems. He had raised an impressive force from all over France, and built a fleet of Viking style ships that supposedly numbered nearly seven hundred. Men and material flowed to the meeting point, but delays kept bogging the endeavour down. The weather refused to cooperate, preventing the intended late summer crossing, and wrecking several ships with sudden squalls. On top of that, William faced the same problem that had caused Harold to disband his army. Normandy’s feudal forces were only obligated to appear for forty days; after that they had to be paid like everyone else, and the cost was growing prohibitive. The longer William had to wait, the more people doubted his chances of success. In mid-September, with his ships still moored to the coast, and seemingly endless rain and fog, the entire project threatened to descend into farce.  

Then on the 27th of September the weather unexpectedly cleared. William boarded his magnificent flagship the Mora a gift from his wife and cast off at once. The night crossing was relatively calm. Early the next morning the lookout caught sight of the massive walls of the old Roman fort of Pevensey, and William’s soldiers disembarked without incident. Remarkably, the long delays had worked in the duke's favor. Had they arrived at the beginning of August as William intended, they would have come face to face with the English army. Now, however, they were unopposed and since a medieval army’s options were to move or starve, they ravaged their way towards Hastings.  

Two hundred miles away, Harold was already on the move. Repeating his epic march, he was back in London within four days to plan the defense of the realm. But the king was very near emotional and physical exhaustion. Of the last two weeks, eight days had been spent in hard riding, one full one in a bruising battle, and the remaining five in desperate diplomacy. It was only now, fatigued and vulnerable, that he got word that William had brought with him both the relics that Harold had sworn on in Normandy, and a papal bull of excommunication giving the pope’s blessing to William’s invasion.  

It was a devastating blow, a vivid reminder of Harold’s broken oath and horrible confirmation that God’s judgment had gone against him. Harold’s brother, Gyrth, begged him to stay behind and not risk battle, pointing out that if Harold died all was lost. He further suggested that he would take his brother's place, since he was expendable; Harold could stay behind and gather more men while stripping the country of supplies. If fighting didn’t overcome William, starvation surely would. This was a sensible, even a brilliant plan, but Harold rejected it out of hand and on October 14th he assembled his men on a narrow ridge overlooking the field of Hastings. 

William’s plan of battle was relatively simple. Since the English fought on foot in their traditional shield-wall, he would soften up the line with arrows, then send in the infantry. When the English line showed signs of wavering he would order a cavalry charge to finish them off. However, when he put this plan into action, the shield-wall unexpectedly held. When the knights came storming up the hill they met the English housecarls, elite forces who fought with huge battle-axes, and after sustaining horrendous wounds it was the knights who broke and fell back. Some of the English, seeing their opponents scatter, ran down after them, and had the whole army followed the battle may have ended there. A rumor started that William had been killed, and the Normans started to panic. But William, who was alive and well, lifted his helmet to show that he was unharmed and led a rally, trapping and slaughtering the English who had come racing down the hill.  

As the day wore on the battle became one of attrition. Norman arrows and cavalry charges began to take their toll, depleting the English line, and it gradually began to shrink in on itself. Both sides began to suffer setbacks. Harold’s brothers, Gyrth and Leofwine, were killed as they commanded opposite wings of the army, and William had three horses killed underneath him. The Norman archers began to angle their arrows up over the shield-wall so they fell on the unsuspecting men behind, and if we are to believe the usual account in the late afternoon one of these struck Harold in the eye. As the king lay in agonizing pain from this dreadful wound, a group of four Norman knights burst through and hacked him apart.  

When Harold’s standard fell the end came quickly. Some English made a last stand in the woods, killing many pursuing Normans in the gathering dark, but most simply fled. William called off any longer pursuit and began to search for Harold’s body, identifying it the next day with the help of Harold’s mistress. He had the body washed, and according to legend, wrapped it in a purple shroud and buried it under a pile of stones overlooking the coast with an epitaph that read “By command of the Duke, you rest here a king, O Harold, that you may be still guardian of the shore and sea”.  

It’s been famously said that William overthrew the strength of England in a single day, but that isn’t quite true. He had won an important battle and killed his rival, but was still in a very precarious position. As far as he knew there were huge native armies gathering against him, while he was isolated in the middle of a hostile country with limited supplies and no reinforcements. He was also running short of wine a serious problem since the local water had given his men such severe stomach flu that several died from it. In London meanwhile, the young Edgar was elected king and the secular nobility there swore to fight for him.  

Unfortunately for the English, however, there was a conspicuous absence of leaders, and virtually no one of standing above the age of twenty. The boy king couldn’t inspire much effective leadership, and by the time William arrived in London with his army the will to fight was gone. The gates were opened and William entered in triumph. His coronation was marred somewhat by his soldiers who mistook the shouts of acclamation for the beginnings of a riot and set fire to the city, but he received the customary oaths of loyalty from the assembled populace and nobility and he swore to be a good king.  

William no doubt hoped to rule a willing, peaceful people, but he would have little peace in his reign. Harold’s sons tried several times to invade from Ireland, the boy king, Edgar, fled to Scotland and stirred up trouble to the north, and freedom fighters like the legendary Hereward the Wake repeatedly tried to throw off the Norman yoke. It took five years of ruthless oppression to bring the north of England under his control, and few years passed after that without some disturbance. In 1083 his wife Matilda died, removing a moderating influence on him, and William grew increasingly tyrannical. He did make a number of significant reforms, most important of which was the Domesday Book a vast accounting of what everything in the kingdom was worth. But William never liked the people or the countryside of his adopted country. He never bothered to learn the language, and his habit of rewarding land to followers had the effect of alienating his subjects. To the English he remained a cruel, and foreign tyrant for his entire life, best symbolized by the massive structure he built in London the White Tower heart of the Tower of London.  

William spent as much time as he dared at home in Normandy, and it was there that he died in 1087. He had been besieging a castle when his horse suddenly reared, throwing him against the pommel of his saddle and fatally rupturing his stomach. After pardoning his political enemies, the fifty-nine-year-old monarch died, splitting his kingdom among his three sons. Tellingly, to his oldest, Robert, he gave his favorite part, the Duchy of Normandy, to his second, William Rufus, he gave the throne of England, and to his youngest, Henry, he gave about 5,000 pounds of silver. 

His corpse, too fat to fit into the coffin and left unattended for a few days while his sons squabbled for their inheritance, burst when it was forced into the crypt, and was buried as quickly as possible with little ceremony. His stunning conquest of England the last time a foreign invasion successfully conquered the country tied England to the Continent and in the long run proved a great benefit to both Europe and the West. But none of that was any comfort to those who had had to go through it.  

Within twenty years of the conquest it’s been estimated that two hundred thousand French and Normans settled in England, and one in five of the native population were either killed or starved by the seizure of farm stock or land. French replaced English as the court language and nearly every major Anglo-Saxon figure disappeared. The English were forced to watch as their leaders were reduced to poverty, thrown into dungeons, mutilated or killed. Heavy taxes were imposed, huge swaths of the country were depopulated to act as royal hunting forests, and vindictive laws were passed to the disadvantage of the natives. Most hated of all were the castles that William had built all over England, visible symbols of their oppression which were constructed and paid for with English labor and wealth. 

The conquest of England also had another legacy. The ruler of Normandy had always been a vassal of the French king, and the addition of England didn’t change that. Now the English king would have to perform the ceremonial acts of homage for the lands of Normandy, something that no British sovereign was ever going to do. For the moment the French monarchy was weak, but when it eventually asserted itself it would spark a century-long war to evict the English from France.  

As for King Harold, the English began to look back on his brief reign with longing and inevitably a legend started that he had survived Hastings and lived out his life as a monk. His family, as can be expected, suffered horrendously at Norman hands. They had been among the most wealthy and prominent before the Conquest, but after it they rapidly disappeared. Harold’s sons and brothers were hunted down and either killed or imprisoned, and his wife and daughters were scattered in exile. Harold’s daughter, Gytha, fled to western Russia where she married the Grand Prince of Kiev. Their granddaughter married a Danish prince, and gave birth to a son who became the king of Denmark. One of that king’s descendants is Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain. Fittingly enough, the royal family now has the mingled blood of both Harold and William.  

As a final post script, Great Britain erected a monument in Bayeux to the soldiers who had died storming Normandy’s beaches in World War Two. Beneath it they left a plaque which reads “We, once conquered by William, have now set free the Conqueror's native land”.

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