Harold Godwinson’s Rush to Hastings: Rash or Rational?

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Every schoolchild in the UK knows that in 1066 Harold Godwinson marched north and defeated Harald Hardrada at the Battle of Stamford Bridge. Almost immediately he had to turn his men south and march the length of the country to confront William of Normandy at the Battle of Hastings. There, his army arrived exhausted, and this exhaustion is often cited as one of the reasons why Harold and the English lost the day.

The move from York to Hastings was an epic feat of military maneuvering, initially covering 190 miles in eight days from York to London, then pausing for one or two days in London, before embarking on the final sixty mile march to Hastings which was covered in a further three days. Although this speed of movement was without doubt impressive, Harold Godwinson has spent the last thousand years being widely criticized for being too hasty to get to the battle and arriving at the battle with a fatigued and understrength army.

The march to Hastings is often portrayed as an act of great hubris, a critical misjudgment made by a man overconfident after a stunning victory against the legendary Viking king. But Harold was an experienced military commander who had commanded numerous campaigns in his life. He is described by chroniclers such as Orderic Vitalis as an intelligent and able man. The author of the Vita Eadwardi, a contemporary biography of Edward the Confessor, describes Harold as a wise, patient and temperate man.  So, was the dash to Hastings really just an act of overweening arrogance? Or were there sound tactical reasons for Harold’s rush to fight the Normans?

It is true to say that Harold had a history of lightning strikes against his enemy, most notable is the victory already mentioned against Harold Hardrada. He had marched an army from London to confront the Vikings in just four days and had taken the Norsemen completely unawares. Harold had also led a mounted raid into Wales in 1062 to capture the Welsh King Gruffydd. Although he failed in that aim, he did sack the palace at Rhuddlan in North Wales and force the Welsh king to flee.

These two campaigns are usually seen as examples of tactical brilliance rather than rashness. In both cases, the decision to move so quickly was informed by intelligence. As Harold had progressed north to fight the Vikings, he had received intelligence that Hardrada would be at Stamford Bridge expecting to receive hostages from a defeated and submissive English population. So confident was Harald Hardrada, that he took only a third of his force to Stamford Bridge and instructed them to leave their mail shirts and shields behind with the ships as the day was hot and the march to the meeting would be long. It was therefore the perfect time to catch him off guard.

Harold’s raid into Wales occurred immediately after he received news of the death of Earl Aelfgar of Mercia. Earl Aelfgar had been an English ally to the Welsh king and his death made Gruffydd momentarily more vulnerable. Harold immediately sought to exploit this vulnerability.

However, the lightning raid was not the only string to Harold’s tactical bow. His earlier dealings with the Welsh in 1055 and 1056 are actually notable for his caution and restraint. At this time, he made very limited incursions into Welsh territory despite leading a large force. Instead, he sought to negotiate with Gruffydd.

One must therefore presume that Harold felt he had good reason to rush to confront William rather than adopt a more cautious strategy. Indeed, Orderic Vitalis tells us that Gyrth, Harold’s brother, argued against such a hasty march. Harold must have countered his arguments with some sort of logic.

What arguments can he therefore have made?

The Norman chronicler, William of Poitiers, suggests that Harold did not want to see his own lands in Sussex, an area of England that had long been ruled by his family, suffer unduly from the ravages of the Norman army. Whilst it is attractive to see Harold in this compassionate and sentimental light, in truth Harold was as ruthless as any other medieval leader. This was a man who had orchestrated the exile of his own brother, Tostig, as well as arguing for the exile of another brother, Swegn. He was a man whose campaign in Wales in 1063 wreaked such devastation on the local population that it would take the Welsh generations to recover. Harold also held lands all over England, so it seems unlikely that he would abandon sound tactical sense to protect one small territory.

Perhaps a more compelling tactical argument is that, at this time, William and his army were holding a defensive position on the peninsula on which Hastings is found. This then presented a time limited opportunity for Harold to force William into battle somewhere where his options for evasion or retreat would be limited.

It should not be forgotten that Harold was probably far better informed than most other people in England about how the Normans waged war. If the Bayeux Tapestry is to be believed, he had fought alongside Duke William just two years before 1066 in the campaign in Brittany. He had seen firsthand the way the Normans could move across the land, how they could strike hard and fast and then disappear into the countryside. For this reason, Harold may have felt that he simply had to pin them down in battle then and there, or otherwise risk a mobile army of Normans raging around England, bringing the country to its knees, always able to avoid a decisive conflict.

Perhaps Harold was simply overconfident, perhaps he simply chose a tactic that had been effective for him before when another tactical option would have been better. But there is certainly more nuance to that decision than people often allow.

In fact, the army that Harold ultimately arrived with at Hastings was able to fight all day long against a formidable Norman force suggesting that it was neither as exhausted nor understrength as is often assumed. Had they held out an hour or two longer, night would have fallen and the battle would have ended. The English army could have been further reinforced, the Norman army could not. If the English had held on, it is debatable whether the Normans could have fought on again the next day.

Although Harold did not win the Battle of Hastings, he came close. Had he done so, we would no doubt still be talking of his strategic brilliance, not his hubristic rashness.

Adam Staten is the author of Blood Debt.