A Tale of Two Battles: Harold Godwinsson (or Godwin, or Godwinson) was crowned King of England in January, 1066, as per the wishes of King Edward the Confessor and the Witan (the high council of noblemen, responsible for choosing the next king). Harold was expecting William to invade, as William believed he had been promised the English crown decades before, so in early May, Harold summoned one of the largest armies England had ever seen. He also called the English fleet to patrol the English Channel, waiting to fight off the expected Norman invasion fleet. But foul weather and politics kept William from sailing over the Channel, and provisions and pay ran dry by early September, so Harold dissolved the fyrd (the national army) and told the fleet to return to port. Military campaigns were rare in the cold winter, so it was reasonable to assume that if William had not yet made his move, he would wait until spring.
On September 12, however, the weather changed and allowed William of Normandy to set out for England. The Normans happened to run into the English armada and a sea-battle ensued, only to be cut short by a storm. Because of the Normans' inferior ships, they suffered great losses. While Harold was at the London docks hearing of the sea battle with the Normans, a messenger arrived to warn the king that Tostig, Harold's envious and revengeful brother, had convinced King Harald Hardraada of Norway to invade England in the north. Harold and his housecarls (personal guards/soldiers) immediately marched north, calling his fyrd to be gathered after him.
|A 19th century Norwegian depiction of the battle|
The victory celebrations lasted six days, until a messenger brought the news that William of Normandy had landed and was devastating the land around Pevensey, in southern England. Harold had 241 miles to march to meet the invaders, and Harold covered the distance averaging an incredible speed of over forty miles a day. Harold’s fyrd had suffered heavy losses at Stamford Bridge, so he called for a mass levy of every man able to fight. The reinforcements which arrived in time to leave London with Harold on October 12 totaled over 4,000. More men joined Harold’s troops as they marched south toward Hastings, so that by the time the battle began on October 14, Harold’s troops numbered around 8,500.
The core of Harold’s fyrd, the housecarls, had taken heavy casualties at Stamford Bridge, leaving Harold with no option to employ a mounted regiment, as had been so successful at Stamford Bridge. Instead, the housecarls would serve as the regulating backbone of his levied army – the majority of which were now inexperienced men mostly lacking armor and armed with primitive weapons such as hayforks and clubs.
The Battle of Hastings began in the late morning, with Harold’s troops forming a strong battle line atop a ridge, forcing the Normans to charge up the hill to attack them. Had all of Harold’s men been trained and experienced soldiers, the plan probably would have worked. But by late afternoon, both forces had taken heavy losses, and after one attack, the Norman cavalry turned and fled in retreat. The shire-levies (the untrained men called by the mass levy) broke from the line and pursued the fleeing Normans, battle-eager and “unaware of the danger they brought upon themselves and the whole hope of England.” The retreating Normans turned around and enveloped the separated Englishmen, few of whom survived to regain the ridge. Harold had the fyrd regroup into a tight clump around his standard at the crest of the hill, but a group of Normans fought straight for the king of England and killed him. Once word of the king’s death had spread among the remaining troops, they began to flee the battlefield. A small detachment of the English made a last stand against Norman pursuers by luring them to charge (to their deaths) over a ravine in the dim twilight, but the battle – and England – was lost.
Speeches, Strategy, and Stirrups: Remember how I said that scholars have blamed things such as inferior military technology and poor leadership for the downfall of the English at Hastings? Well, I don't believe that either of those were the real reason behind the English defeat. For one thing, the Anglo-Saxon chroniclers are adamantly clear that King Harold was an exceptional military leader and motivator. He was known to give eloquent and rousing speeches, and was unparalleled in his ability to move his troops at astonishing speeds while marching northward to Stamford Bridge, then south to Hastings.
I even remember reading somewhere that the Normans won because they had the technology of the stirrup (which was relatively new in Europe in 1066), allowing the Norman knights to fight effectively atop horses, while the Anglo-Saxons did not have the stirrup and therefore only fought on foot (wrong, they did have stirrups). I've also read that the Anglo-Saxons did not know how to fight on horseback, though they did have stirrups - they would ride to a battle, then dismount and fight on foot. This was actually true for most of Anglo-Saxon history, but we know that Harold employed mounted warriors very effectively at the Battle of Stamford Bridge. He lost far too many horses, however, to employ similar strategy at Hastings.
And that's where Harold's strategy comes into play. Harold had proven himself an excellent warrior and military leader long before his coronation, fighting in a series of campaigns in Wales. The chronicler Orderic Vitalis described Harold as "very tall and handsome, remarkable for his physical strength, his courage and eloquence, his ready jests and acts of valor."
The Real Culprit: Fatigue. Most medieval battles lasted around an hour or two, ending with one side causing the other to flee the battlefield, so the descriptions of the Battle of Stamford Bridge lasting all day, and the Battle of Hastings lasting about nine hours combine for two very long and exhausting battles. In addition to the fighting itself, Harold and his fyrd marched day and night for several days and then immediately begin attacking the army of Harald Hardraada upon arrival. Similarly, the march southward to London and then Hastings was also an incredible feat, as the English fyrd traveled over forty miles a day – a challenging pace even for soldiers who were mounted, and soldiers with horses accounted for less than half of Harold’s army.
According to the U.S. Army Medical Department, “Fatigue adversely affects a person’s framework; emotional, cognitive, physical, social, and spiritual aspects are compromised.” In addition to travel, chronicles tell of singing, dancing, and drinking that filled the night for the men of the fyrd. Denis Butler writes that it was likely the inexperienced new soldiers whose unthinking excitement led them to party through the night, while the veterans of Stamford Bridge and other experienced soldiers likely tried to rest while they could. Drinking, dancing, and singing through the night certainly would have started those already disadvantaged soldiers – because of their lack of experience, armor, or decent weapons – at a greater disadvantage because of a lack of sleep and the exertion of the night’s merriment.
In the End, the battle that changed the course of English history was lost for the English not because of poor leadership, technology, or lack of military expertise, but because of a series of circumstances far outside of Harold Godwinsson’s control. Certainly, other factors contributed to Harold’s demise and that of England, but the result of the compressed timing of the Battles of Stamford Bridge and Hastings was unavoidable fatigue. Though Harold’s leadership fought valiantly against the effects of the fatigue with his ability to move and motivate his troops, fatigue won out in the end and England succumbed to the Norman invasion of 1066. William pressed an unwilling Anglo-Saxon England into the Frankish-European world, and the glory of Anglo-Saxon England, along with her last king, Harold Godwinsson, breathed their last.
 Denis Butler, 1066: The Story of a Year, (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1966), 27.  Emma Mason, The House of Godwine, (New York: Hambledon and London, 2004), 141-142.  Emma Mason, 143.  Denis Butler, 162.  Denis Butler, 169.  Denis Butler, 194.  Denis Butler, 169-170.  Denis Butler, 184.  Kelly DeVries, The Norwegian Invasion of England in 1066, (Woodbridge, UK: The Boydell Press, 1999), 278-279.  Kelly DeVries, 295.  Denis Butler, 203.  Denis Butler, 205, 210.  Denis Butler, 205.  Denis Butler, 217-220.  Emma Mason, 163.  Denis Butler, 229.  Edwin Tetlow, The Enigma of Hastings, (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1974), 171.  Denis Butler, 243-244.  Denis Butler 248-249.  Denis Butler, 250-251.  Emma Mason, 157.  Denis Butler, 176.  Kelly DeVries, 270.  LTC Sheila Adams, “Resiliency Training for Medical Professionals,” United States Army Medical Department Journal, (April-June, 2010): 48, http://www.cs.amedd.army.mil/AMEDDJournal/2010aprjun. pdf (accessed July 13, 2012).  Denis Butler, 229.