CONQUEST - 1: COUNTDOWN - On a Hiding to Nothing: From Caldbec Hill to a Stumble in Southwark

1066, conquest not guaranteed. It would be years before William thought himself safe in either England OR Normandy - he did not enjoy the fruits of his labours for long as he died in 1087. [Stigand was Archbishop of Canterbury without pallium]
1066, conquest not guaranteed. It would be years before William thought himself safe in either England OR Normandy - he did not enjoy the fruits of his labours for long as he died in 1087. [Stigand was Archbishop of Canterbury without pallium]
William stumbles on the strand after landing at Pevensey Bay
William stumbles on the strand after landing at Pevensey Bay | Source
The site of the battle at Gate Fulford
The site of the battle at Gate Fulford
Hrafnsmerki or raven banner, also known as Land-Oda
Hrafnsmerki or raven banner, also known as Land-Oda
The present stone-built crossing at Stamford Bridge close to the original wooden planked bridge
The present stone-built crossing at Stamford Bridge close to the original wooden planked bridge
Painting commemmorating Harald Sigurdsson's death from a well-aimed arrow at Stamford Bridge
Painting commemmorating Harald Sigurdsson's death from a well-aimed arrow at Stamford Bridge
Tattered remains of Harald's Land-Oda banner heralded as 'the fairy flag' under glass at Dunvegan Castle on Skye
Tattered remains of Harald's Land-Oda banner heralded as 'the fairy flag' under glass at Dunvegan Castle on Skye

Harald Hardraada's win at Gate Fulford happened so swiftly...

Morkere's select fyrd hardly had time to draw breath. Caught between two water-courses, the Ouse and a drainage stell, the Northumbrians and Mercians led by Earl Eadwin of Mercia and his younger brother Earl Morkere of Northumbria fell back under the fierce onslaught pressed home by the Norse king Harald and his hersir. With the bulk of his force leaving nowhere for the terrified fyrdmen to flee, many drowned and the pressing Norsemen were able by the end of the fight to walk across the corpses to the other bank.

According to Snorri Sturlusson in the 'Heimskringla', the fighting tok place on the eastern bank of the Ouse, outside the settlement of Gate Fulford, the combatants hemmed in by the river and the stell. Earl Eadwin led against Harald on the right of the fyrd, Morkere faced the former earl Tostig on their left. A forceful attack was launched on Tostig's line with some initial success. A Norse counter-attack threw them back with heavy losses, many of the isolated fyrdmen drowning in the river and stell as they sought a way out. The earls escaped but their men were scattered, leaving the way open to Harald and Tostig. York was theirs, and submitted four days later on September 24th, 1066.

Nevertheless Harold Godwinson was by this time a half-day's march away on the Great North Road near Newark. He had stood down the fyrd on the south coast where they had awaited Duke William. On September 8th, the day the Norse fleet first landed on Northumbria's northern shores for a 'blooding raid', the last of King Harold's men were leaving their lookout positions. On hearing of the attacks in the north as the invaders made their way south into the Humber Harold Godwinson ordered his huscarls north. Gathering men on his way he took a week at around twenty to twenty-five miles each day.

On the evening Harald Sigurdsson and Tostig took York's submission, Harold was ready to cross the Wharfe at Tadcaster, a mere fifteen miles west of York. He awaited reports on the Northmen's whereabouts and forded the Wharfe early in the morning of the 25th September.

Harald Sigurdsson and Tostig Godwinson felt safe enough to set up camp near the Derwent at Stamford Bridge to await the hostages and gold, promised by the ealdorman and earls. Harold's army showed above the Derwent in bright sunshine. As Snorri wrote in the 'Saga of Harald Sigurdsson', their bright, untarnished.mailcoats and weapons shimmered 'like a field of broken ice'.

Riders approached the mixed Norse and Flemish force, one asking for Tostig by name to offer terms. Tostig is said to have asked for land to compensate Harald for not achieving the crown of Northumbria and rejected his brother's offer of 'as much land as the Norse king's corpse would take to bury, 'as he is taller than other men'. Only death could now part Tostig from his new-found friend and ally.

A lone Norse giant held the short bridge ov er the Derwent against all comers until his comrades could cross to safety. He repelled several attacks until one sly fellow took a boat under the bridge and speared him from below (as commemorated by a pub sign at the Bridge Inn nearby). The way was clear for Harold and his earls - his brother Gyrth, Waltheof, Eadwin and Morkere - ro cross and position their men opposite the depleted and under-equipped shieldwall. With much of their armour having been taken to the ships at Riccall in a bout of over-confidence, including Harald's own calf-length mailcoat he named 'Emma', the Norsemen were suddenly vulnerable.

They nevertheless held off repeated assaults by Harold's own men, the Mercian and Northumbrian select fyrd bent on revenge. Yet they were fated. Between attacks on the shieldwall arrow-hails 'softened them up' much in the way later artillery would be used to ease the way for the infantry. Harald's shieldwall shrank, and when the Norse king was struck in the throat by an English arrow, they were left under the command of Tostig and Harald's stallari Styrkar. Men arrived from the ships under Harald's elderly stallari Eystein 'Orre', but many were exhausted from the six-mile run carrying armour and weapons. Eystein himself collapsed with heat exhaustion and died soon after reaching his king's standard, 'Land-Oda'. Most of his younger men shed their mailcoats in the heat, making it earier for Eadwin's and morkere's men to finish them off. After another arrow-hail and further onslaught Tostig too was cut down. It was time for the survivors to fight their way back to the ships.

Of the three hundred or so ships that brough the invaders from as far afield as Iceland, the Faeroe Islands, Orkney, Shetland and Man as well as mainland Norway - even Hiberno-Norsemen from Ireland - only a score or so were needed to take the survivors home under the command of young King Olaf Haraldsson.

*The tattered remains of 'Land-Oda' were taken to the Western Isles as a keepsake. You can see this memento under glass at Dunvegan Castle on Skye, the ancestral home of the MacLeod clan.


The English earldoms before William's landing in the south at Hastings and Pevensey
The English earldoms before William's landing in the south at Hastings and Pevensey

The Night Crossing...

The wind came about in Duke William's favour in late September, enabling him to set out from St. Valery in his flagship the 'Mora'. With just a lantern atop the mast to guide the rest of his fleet, only a few strayed in the squall that met them mid-channel. Some ships were scattered and the crews tried to land along the coast westward from Dover. The crews were killed by over-eager townsfolk.

William's intended landing at Pevensey where the fleet would put in to the - then - natural harbour that have served the Romans in their time, and the Saxons after them. A pre-fabricated wooden castle was erected within the walls of the Roman fortified town of Anderida. Behind the harbour were wetlands, boggy and low-lying. The shallow haven was ideal for ships without deep keels, as the Normans' ships were built along the lines of their Viking ancestors' vessels. William sent out scouts and foraging parties to take advantage of the lack of resistance to his landing. He encouraged his men to use more than the usual aggression on the local inhabitants. This was within Harold's own land - passed down from his grandfather Wulfnoth - and his tenants were hard-pressed. They faced a hard winter with their livelihoods in the balance. This could be why Harold pressed on southward, over-hastily as many saw it. Many of his own huscarls were 'walking wounded' and all were tired from the long ride north, fighting, and riding back with only a few days' rest. Perhaps he wanted to achieve the same surprise factor over William as he had with Harald Sigurdsson's forces.

William, however, was only too well aware of all factors, and well-prepared for an attack from the north. He knew the king well since 1064, when as Earl of Wessex Harold became his 'guest' for some weeks.

Having briefly rested in London after returning by way of his church at Waltham to offer prayer, Harold took to the road again, over Watling Street to Rochester and across country through the Andreds Weald. The way south to the coast would take at least a full day. Those who were un-mounted had to follow on foot to reach the Hoar Apple Tree, the assembly point in a clearing of the woods above Hastings. Those fyrd companies from the south coast area came together here, and Harold's men would know the site. An old crab-apple tree that drew its sap through new shoots, the Hoar Apple Tree was above Caldbec Hill where Harold would rest and await his men from around southern Wessex. He hoped to cut Duke William from the London road, and those already with him spread across the hill.

William, however, had other ideas. He had sent out his scouts on the evening of Friday, October 13th. Warned of Harold's nearness, William ordered his men forward to Telham Hill, across a narrow valley from Caldbec Hill. He did not want the 'upstart' Harold to thwart his plans now.

Harold had by this time moved forward onto the ridge, still potentially cutting William's way forward but not as close in to Hastings as he would have liked, where there was a narrow causeway through a boggy area to the east of Pevensey. Here William's plans would have been well and truly scotched. With his men athwart this road Harold could put a strangle-hold on William's supply lines from the surrounding countryside. Starving men would not fight well and without their horses the Normans and their allies could never hope to dislodge Harold's forces. That would have been the end of William's career hopes... probably the end of him.

Trying to by-pass this obstruction would cost William dear. However the ridge was good enough, Harold would have considered. William, his allies and mercenaries would have to attack uphill. His archers would tire soon of trying to project their arrows high enough to cause any harm to the Saxons' shieldwall. The cavalry would be slowed to walking pace up the steep hill, knots and hummocks making progress hard.

Nevertheless, with many of his men still on their way Harold would have to take a defensive stance. There were dense woods to either side of the hill, marshland and soft ground in the valley with thick, dew-laden grass. This left a narrower corridor for William's advance; he would have to make the best of what he had.

Drawing Harold...

To draw Harold faster, William had his men raze the land, make local ceorls and kindred homeless. The duke knew his foe,and Harold - their direct landlord and former earl - took the bait. He abandoned his customary strategic wiles to help them
To draw Harold faster, William had his men raze the land, make local ceorls and kindred homeless. The duke knew his foe,and Harold - their direct landlord and former earl - took the bait. He abandoned his customary strategic wiles to help them | Source

The 'Song of Roland' and the Frankish warrior code

Roland, the hero son of the Frankish emperor Charles the Great (Charlemagne) died fighting the Moors in the Pyrenees at Roncesvalles rather than disgrace his father by withdrawing from overwhelming odds. However, like Byrhtnoth at Maldon he was criticised about his overbearing pride with which he recklessly endangered the lives of his men in taking on a superior force and offering battle he could never hope to win. Wiser men would have accepted that they were out-numbered or out-classed, and withdrawn to await reinforcements in a defensive position.

Norman chroniclers assert a minstrel sang the 'Song of Roland' before the fighting began in earnest on Caldbec Hill. Riding along the valley floor between the lines, the minstrel Taillefer is thought to have been cut down by an arrow as he rode slowly along before his duke. William's knights were well aware of the legend and its bearing on their performance in the forthcoming fight - although at the time the two armies were thought to have been roughly equal.

Not all combatants under William were seasoned warriors. The 'Roman de Rou', written by the Norman chronicler Wace concerns itself with the lot of the common man, the foot-soldier, not just with the mounted knights and their class. He was taken by the role of the duke's archers, of following them from the landing grounds at Pevensey and fanning out in a 'screen' to shield the knights as they brought their horses ashore. Their equipment was detailed in his account: unarmoured, with leather caps and armed not only with bows but also hatchets and bill-hooks hanging from their belts. Their role in the battle ahead was to prove pivotal.

William's own men and those of his allies were divided into three cohorts according to their origin. To his left were the Bretons under Alan Fergant, cousin of the Breton count Alan, who stood across from Leofwin's line in the shield-wall. In the centre was William with his Normans opposite Harold on the hilltop and on William's right were his Frankish allies and mercenaries. In front of the men on foot and knights were the archers. Opposite them was Earl Gyrth with his men. The duke's main task was to break down the shield-wall before despatching the knights. After some time the archers found their range, seeing their arrows striking shields or flying over the shieldwall, after which they were withdrawn to allow the spearmen through. The knights were held in reserve, to exploit gaps in the 'wall'.

From over the shield-wall came missiles of every description, throwing axes, sling-shot, spears and some arrows. This showed William that Harold's bowmen were few in number. The foot-soldiers fell back in disarray, calling for the mounted men to be sent up the hill to support their retreat - more like a rout. With the steepness of the gradient the knights, too, were heavily taxed to hold back a spirited charge against the panicking Bretons' rear. The earls' own huscarls made forays beyond their shield-wall against the mounted attacks with their long-handled Dane-axes, cutting through shields and armour as easily as through flesh and bone. The rout was blamed on the Bretons' lack of discipline and training but also exposed the South Saxons' recklessness. However, at one stage of the fighting confusion led to a belief that William himself had been cut down - after all, two horses had been killed under him buy this time - and he was obliged to risk hos own life by revealing his identity to scotch the rumour. He is said to have raised his helmet to show his shock of russet hair. Count Eustace of Boulogne drew attention to him and, heartened, the Normans counter-attacked, swung around and set on the pursuing fyrdmen, cutting them off from the others. Powerless to help, those in the shield-wall could only watch as their comrades were killed in front of them, despite cries for help. A hard core of armed men put up a stiff fight, but even they were doomed.

William now had a strategy to work on. Harold's southern levies were out of control when they saw what was a headlong retreat by their foes. In this way he drew the unlucky defenders, weakening what had hitherto been a solid wall.

During the fighting first Leofwin had been killed making forays from the shield-wall with his spearmen to guard his back whilst he took his toll of William's knights with his axe. After the mid-battle truce Gyrth fell, leaving Harold alone in command until he was wounded by an arrow to the eye socket. Nevertheless, with his wound dressed by one of Waltham's Brothers, he held command until beset by three of William's knights including Eustace - here was a grudge if ever there was one! His bug-bear dated back fifteen years when on his way home through Dover, when Godwin, as Earl of Wessex had refused to punish the people of Dover for killing some of his men in a brawl [stage-managed by Eustace and King Eadward to cut Godwin down to size]. The other two were Hugh, the heir of Pointhieu and Walter Giffard - the latter being sharply rebuked for hacking off Harold's manhood and sent home in disgrace. Eustace was already in William's 'bad books' for refusing him a mount after both the duke's had been killed. With their act of gross indecency on Harold's corpse - disembowelling included - they had barred themselves from any battle-honours or rewards for their contribution to William's victory.

Harold's death signalled a hasty retreat for all but his huscarls who chose to die around him. Some of his other men withdrew from the slaughter by way of a ravine on their right, slaying pursuing knights with arrows from the surrounding thickets. Their Norman pursuers named the ravine the 'Mal-fosse', the main battle site bcame known as Senlac (or Sanguelac) - the lake of blood.

*Harold's own banner, the fighting man was based on the chalk figure in Dorset at Cerne Abbas (between Dorchester and Sherborne in SW Dorset), the outline on a white linen background marked out in gemstones. This was presented to the Pontiff Alexander on William's behalf as a 'thank you' gesture for his backing of the duke's cause (and which I am informed is still in the Vatican Museum). His second banner, the red dragon of Wessex, resembled a hollow wind gauge - similar to what you see near airfields in war films . It was similar in design to the dragon carried by Roman cavalrymen - featured in one of the Time Team programmes about a Roman fort being dug in Scotland - to frighten the 'natives' with its eerie wailing noise. It may have spooked the Bretons in William's ranks if the wind had caught it, but wouldn't have done much in the calm.

Harold's huscarls steady the shieldwall against oncoming Norman infantry and their allies
Harold's huscarls steady the shieldwall against oncoming Norman infantry and their allies | Source
A huscarl's war gear - paid for by the profits in produce and rents from the five hides he held. His 'landlord' might be the King, the Church or his earl. Many of Harold's huscarls were Danes, Anglo-Danes or Englishmen with Danish forebears
A huscarl's war gear - paid for by the profits in produce and rents from the five hides he held. His 'landlord' might be the King, the Church or his earl. Many of Harold's huscarls were Danes, Anglo-Danes or Englishmen with Danish forebears | Source

See the campaigns that led to the day-long struggle on Caldbec Hill near Hastings and the death of Harold after his younger brothers Gyrth and Leofwin. You'll see the warnings at the roadside: 'Tiredness kills!' In the case of Harold the stress of taking the road north, fighting a battle and then within days making his way south again with the 'walking wounded' may have taxed even a seasoned campaigner such as he was. Thoroughly researched with images, diagrams and maps

Merely winning his first battle did not constitute a Conquest

With Harold and his brothers, Gyrth and Leofwin fallen on the battlefield, William felt free to press on to London - after punishing the men of Dover for killing his sailors who had landed there in error - with the way open to have himself crowned at his leisure. Another pre-fabricated wooden castle was erected at Dover (rebuilt in stone in the 12th Century). A week later he moved on to Canterbury. As Stigand was away in London there was no resistance here either. On William rode with five or six hundred of his knights to London along Watling Street.

Here young Eadgar the aetheling (the Wessex equivalent of Prince of Wales or Crown Prince)had taken charge of the city with the help of Harold's stallari, Ansgar the shire reeve of Middlesex. Ansgar had been at Caldbec Hill and escaped with Harold's nephew Hakon and now commanded the Middlesex fyrd - fore-warned was fore-armed, as the saying goes - along with earls Eadmund, Morkere and Waltheof who had come south to declare their support for Eadgar. Popular thought in the northern shires had been that Harold had shouldered aside Eadward's rightful heir and that now the 'account' was straight.

A stand was made at the southern (Southwark) end of London Bridge, according to the Chronicler (E). Aside from burning much of Southwark William's men achieved nothing, having to withdraw 'with their tails between their legs like whipped curs' to Kent before razing their way clockwise around the southern shires to Wallingford (Berkshire) Here William's men were met by new arrivals from Normandy by way of Portsmouth and Winchester. They were able to cross the Thames here after taking Stigand's submission. From there William advanced eastward through the northern home counties where he took the submission of the Witan (the earls and senior clergy) at Berkhamstead in western Hertfordshire. In circumventing London William had cut off London's food supplies, forcing its defenders into yielding to him.

There is an unsubstantiated account of a fight on the western side of the burh (city) of London , where the Normans gained entry through Ludgate Bar after one of the thegns tricked his countrymen for William's sake.

The matter was brought to a close her and within six weeks William was crowned King of England by Archbishop Ealdred of York on Christmas Day at Eadward's abbey church of West Minster. One story goes about the coronation that when William was presented with the regalia of state he was shivering uncontrollably. Another story connected with the coronation goes that when the assembled nobles shouted out their acclamation of William's kingship his men outside the church thought he was being attacked and began burning the buildings in the neighbourhood as well as killing those unfortunate enough to be near. Fearful that staying at Eadward's hunting lodge (the old king's London residence) he might be attacked he stayed with the Norman abbot to the east of London 'burh' at Barking.

Two castles were subsequently built on the riverside at London, one now known as The Tower Of London sited overlooking the eastern approaches and the other, about a mile away, was Besnard's (Baynard's) Castle near Blackfriars on the western approach to the city. A further one, Montfichets's Castle was established by William's kinsman Guy de Montfichet in the area of Ludgate Hill around AD1100 in the reign of Henry I.

William's younger half-brother Bishop Odo reaches the crest of Caldbec Hill - note, he carries a mace, not a sword. As a man of the church, he believed, he should not draw blood and preferred to cudgel his foe into the next world
William's younger half-brother Bishop Odo reaches the crest of Caldbec Hill - note, he carries a mace, not a sword. As a man of the church, he believed, he should not draw blood and preferred to cudgel his foe into the next world | Source

There would be uprisings, hardship, battles with his own followers as well as the undefeated

After winning on Caldbec Hill another, more successful stand was made with Eadward's heir the uncrowned king in the shieldwall at the Southwark (southern) end of London Bridge. With him were survivors from the battle on Caldbec Hill, amongst whom were Harold's stallari Ansgar, shire reeve of Middlesex, earls Eadwin, Morkere and Waltheof, and Harold's nephew Hakon.

William came with five or six hundred men at arms on horseback, no archers, no infantry. He expected the English to yield to him, hand him the crown there and then. With his survivors he rode back into Kent, tail between his legs.

Then there were other setbacks, both here and in Normandy. Whilst he was away he learned of rebellions, his appointed earl of Northumbria was slain at Newburn-on-Tyne almost as soon as he sat to a welcome feast. Copsig had been Earl Tostig's tax collector, not well liked for his methods. Other lords were sent, such as the Fleming Robert de Commines.

Read about the rebellions and battles in subsequent parts of this series, CONQUEST.


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