With King Harold having seen the elite Norman cavalry in battle during his continental visit on the Breton campaign of 1064 alongside William’s army, did the battle-experienced earl prepare anti-cavalry traps in front of the English line at Hastings?
Norman historian (and former soldier) William of Poitiers mentions such tactics (wooden stakes driven into the ground aimed against Norman cavalry, like at Agincourt centuries later?), but he may have been confusing these “barricades” with the unfamiliar (even to him) germanic shieldwall strategy?
At the long and vicious siege/battles of Alesia between Julius Caesar and ‘Celtic’ chieftain Vercingetorix in Gaul, 52bc- over a millenium before Hastings- Caesar used caltrops(fearsome metal triple-spiked anti-cavalry devices thrown on the ground in large numbers which would cripple horses/impale limbs and break up a charge) against the celtic horsemen.
Or maybe the English could have dug narrow, knee-deep pits (as at bannockburn much later?) which would have fatally broken the horses legs- either devices would have been very quick to sprinkle/dig, and cheap/free to utilise?
Surely the highly-efficient and fearsome war-tricks of defensive wooden stakes/pits and caltrops would have been known to both armies?
But could Harold have achieved this, when he supposedly wasn’t still “ready for battle” on Santlache ridge as William approached and lined up below near the marshes, on the 14th October?
After the bloodbath at Stamford Bridge- what would you do in Harold’s shoes…
Should you send messengers to those loyal Welsh princes (brothers Bleððyn and
Rhiwallon, who were allowed to rule in North Wales after being forced to acknowledge Edward as their overlord in 1063 and agreeing to pay tribute and supply troops when asked), who
could have speeded a substantial armed retinue of men by horse to aid you?
Should you send ‘feelers’ out to king Malcolm Canmore of Scotland (raised in the English court when in his youthful exile)?
Around 21st Sept 1066, you force a huge army northwards 190m- most of it being
mounted housecarls and thegns for speed- to meet a massive Norse invasion army led by a fearsome Viking warlord (Hardraada) and your own traitorous younger brother(Tostig).
You win a gruelling but stunning victory in which your army had slaughtered
about 90% of the Norse veteran warriors (only “24 out of 300 ships” took them home), but you hear of duke William’s landing (29th Sept) 250m to the south.
You leave ‘your man’ in the north- Merleswein- to act as sheriff in that region(as Edwin and Morcar’s forces had been shattered at the battle of Fulford 5 days prior), before another exhausting fast 190m march south to London.
As you dash southwards down the ‘great north road’ to London with your surviving mounted thegns and housecarls to rest, regroup and make arrangements for the impending battle, you send messengers into the southern and western shires (and E.Anglia?) to again quickly raise another general fyrd.
Controversially (and going against your experienced and militarily capable character as a proven general and statesman during King Edward’s and your own short reign) you impulsively ignore your brother Gyrth’s prudent advice (and maybe also Leofwine’s, Edith’s and your mother Gytha’s, as well as many senior commanders?). This might be because;
1. You feel morally bound as Wessex earl & King, to save your kinfolk from the brutal and deliberate ravages of the newly-invaded Normans(hangings, rapes, mutilations and slaying of children etc?), designed to taunt you into premature battle- as William well knew it would, and that he had to.
2. You couldn’t know if William was getting reinforcements by sea & thus getting stronger each day- the Saxon Navy was still in London at this time, changing crews and refitting to soon sail again to cut him off.
3. You are supremely confident of crushing William by surprise march, having done the same to the fearsome Norse warlord Harald Hardrada’s professional army only 3wks before with stunning success. Three years before that, you had crushed the Welsh menace, King gruffydd ap Llewelyn too with equal success.
4. Quickly “bottling William up” within the [then] narrow, marshy confines of the Hastings peninsula, with the natural aid of the flanking dense woods, was crucial to annul his cavalry that you saw in action in 1064- If William ‘broke out’ with his cavalry then he could go anywhere!
Or maybe you could allow him to do so whilst also then ‘scorching the earth’ between Hastings
and London/Winchester (as Gyrth suggested to Harold) whilst hitting the starving, marching Norman army hard with huge, fierce and co-ordinated Guerilla-style ambushes/pitched battles- ala Hereward and the ‘Silvatici’- then melting into the local lands which they would know inside-out?
Norman warhorses, dying from malnutrition, would have left William’s v.weakened army dangerously exposed & almost certainly slaughtered. Containing and starving William’s men – and crucially their
horses- was the crux, you could sap the Norman strength by war of attrition whilst they lay idle in their bottleneck & cut off by sea behind them.
William would have to surrender- time was on your side…
5. You note William’s lack of an advance inland for three weeks and must have thought either William wasn’t strong enough to attack London or engage your army in pitched battle? Or maybe William wanted you to attack him on Hastings peninsula, protected by the
terrain etc, maybe with strong communications with Normandy?
So you arrange a meeting point (‘hoare apple tree’) to link up with the fyrdsmen near the dense Andredsweald which is well known to all the local men which blocks the road to London. A steep hill with marshy ground and easily-protectable flanks.
However, you may have made this meeting point too near to the Norman camp seven miles away, and their scouts alert William (unlike the Norse three weeks before) who pre-empts your attack by himself marching north to meet you. You do indeed have to fight a defensive battle now, but all isn’t lost.
Your adversary is a brutally tough, experienced and great general whom you saw in battle two years before, and whom you also know needs to bring you to battle very soon if his conquest is to succeed- and his men(many mercenaries) don’t revolt, as many did in 1069/70.
All you have to do is issue strict orders to your fyrdsmen to defend well (maybe the ones that broke formation were later arrivals who hadn’t heard those orders?), and wait for reinforcements to come in from England throughout the day- another few thousand fresh fyrdsmen and maybe earls
Waltheof, Morcar & Edwin with any surviving thegns/housecarls…
Apparently, a coalition of Northumbrians (House of Bamburgh) under earl Oswulf, the Cumbrians and the Dublin-Norse had ‘ambushed’ Erik. He had clearly made many enemies in English exile since murdering some of his brothers in his native Norway years before. Supposedly this gained him his fearsome nickname?
But what was Erik and his valiant army doing so far inland on a desolate moor, when he could have easily sailed off in the Humber to the Orkneys or Europe- as he had two years before during his first exile?
Was Erik marching into exile and out of York and heading N.W towards Carlisle on the old Roman road over the moors (avoiding the Mercian border and also Bamburgh?), maybe to venture out into the Irish sea or maybe Orkneys raiding? There had been Norse settlements along the N.W.coast since the early 900’s (Aethelflaed had allowed one, near the Mersey)
Or had he been set up on a meeting with someone (at carlisle?), or perhaps a battle?
He had battled the Scots and Northumbrians in 952 in a ‘great battle’ upon his sudden return after his first exile, so was hardly on good terms with them?
According to Egil’s saga (even though the sagas are confused with some names and dates, not everything is wrong in them), he was initially warmly welcomed to Jorvik by none other than king Athelstan as a ‘protector’ of the north against the Scots and invading Danes.
And as the ASC never mentions Erik, it also never mentions who did govern Northumbria before 939, so it could have been Erik- before he decided to rule independently in latter years, incurring the wrath of the Wessex king Edred (Athelstan’s half-brother and a successor)?
The Fagrskinna saga stated that, along with his son Haeric and brother Raegnald, Erik had;-
“So great an army that five kings followed him because he was a valiant man and a battle-winner. He trusted in himself and his army so much that he went far up country, and everywhere he went with warfare.”
This actually sounds like Erik was deliberately ravaging the surrounding region, but why? Did he intend to simply do this as revenge en route to the W.coast, and to freedom?
Had there been land disputes which led to plots with Edred and others (enemies of Erik) to oust him from York in the first place?
In any event,
“Then came against him King Olaf (Earl of Northumbria), a tributary king of King Edmund (Saga erroneously names Edmund, not Edred who was on the throne). ..A dreadful battle ensued in which many English fell, but for every one who fell three came in his place, and when the evening came on the losses turned against the Norsemen and many were killed…”
Clearly Erik had been lured (by a meeting? or a macho challenge?) into a colossal ambush, and the predictably fierce pitched battle raged, with English reinforcements (prepared for just this occasion?) moving in to quickly negate losses and slaughter the surrounded vikings.
After the lethal cat-and-mouse military manouevring of the English and Danish armies around the south and northof the land during 1014-16, culminating in the bloodbath at Assundun (Ashingdon), almost 50yrs to the day before Senlac, the new KIng, Canute, brutally purged the Saxon nobility whom he did not trust- just as Ethelred/Earl Eadric had also done. (who had had many nobles killed and blinded for different reasons).
Cnut slayed all those whom Ethelred had appointed, though some had switched allegiance to him and been rewarded with power (Earl Godwin and also his distant kinsman Earl Eadric, at first).
Florence says that Canute feared that Eadric would prove to be as treacherous to him as he had been to Æthelred and Edmund. Eadric was “slain in the palace“, and Cnut “commanded his body to be thrown down from the walls and left
Florence protests that the other victims “had committed no crimes“.
But this makes no sense since Cnut wanted to project a newer, cleaner image of kingship, different to Ethelred.
It suggests some other issue, maybe plots or revolt In alliance with atheling Eadwig (King Edmund’s brother)?
So was this a pre-emptive strike against dangerous and influential ringleaders, taking advantage of Cnut’s absence abroad, based upon some intelligence or source base lost to us?
But amongst those he had executed in 1016 alone, were;-
Earl Uhtred (in the build-up to the great battle of Ashingdon, 1016),
Northman (earl Leofwin’s other son- Leofric- succeeded his father as Earl of Mercia in c.1023)
Aethelwine (had his hands amputated as a Danish hostage)
Æthelweard (son of earldorman Æthelmær the Stout)
Beorhtric, ( son of Aelfheah of Devonshire)
And of course…
Earldorman Eadric Stroena, (arrested & killed in 1017 in London by a Viking thegn, Erik).
Others were told also killed by later chroniclers, but not named.
So were the post-Assundun ‘purges’ (similar to Stalin in 1937?) it an insecure new regime? Or revenge for an un-documented revolt in atheling Eadwig’s name?
In October 1016 at the battle of Ashingdon Canute narrowly defeated King Edmund ‘Ironside’ (eldest son of Ethelred II) in a day-long bloodbath and slayed “the flower of the English” (similar to Hastings almost 50yrs later to the day!), aided by earl Edric ‘Stroena’ of Mercia’s betraying of the newly elected king.
According to Sarah Foot– Professor of early medieval history at the University of Sheffield in April 2006’s issue of the BBC history magazine –
“…another battle came soon after, near the forest of Dean(where Edward’s army was reinforced by Welsh troops). As winter approached the two sides made peace…”
Is there any recorded contemporary source that confirms this last battle, or is Prof. Foot mistaken? If it actually happened, are we to believe that this ‘lost’ battle was a Danish or and English victory? Why has it been neglected so far?
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles offer an interesting, but inevitably brief, account of post-Ashingdon events. The Worcester ‘D’ Chronicle for 1016 tells essentially the same story as found in the Peterborough ‘E’ and Canterbury ‘F’ manuscripts, the Battle of Ashingdon is described thus:
“Then , when the king [Edmund] learned that the raiding-army [the Danes] was inland, he…travelled behind them and overtook them in Essex at the hill which is called Ashingdon, and…joined battle. The Ealdorman Eadric as he did so often before, first started the flight – with the Magonsaete – and thus betrayed his royal lord and the whole nation.
There Cnut had the victory and won himself all England. There was killed Eadnoth (bishop of Dorchester), Abbot Wulfsige (Abbot of Ramsey), Ealdorman Ælfric (Ealdorman of Hampshire), Ealdorman Godwine (Lindsey), Ulfcytel from East Anglia, and Æthelweard, son of Ealdorman Æthelsige (Æthelwine of East Anglia), and all the chief men of the nation of the English race.”
So good so far. The Chronicle continues:
“Then after this fight King Cnut turned inland with his raiding-army to Gloucestershire, where he learned that Edmund the king was. Then Ealdorman Eadric and the councillors who were gathered there advised that the kings form a pact between them, and the kings came together at Ola’s Island (possibly in the Severn) near Deershurst, and became partners and pledged-brothers, and affirmed with pledge and oaths, and set the payment for the raiding army; and afterwards they parted, and then King Edmund succeeded to Wessex and Cnut to the north part.”
John of Worcester relates a not dissimilar tale, but credits Edmund with more resolve, stating
“a few days after this [Ashingdon], king Eadmund Ironside still wished to renew the battle with Cnut, but the traitorous Ealdorman Eadric and some others prevented him from so doing…”
Clearly the losses at Ashingdon amongst the nobility were as severe as those suffered at Hastings; the major difference being that Edmund survived whereas Harold did not. The references to Eadric as a traitor are quite interesting. The men of the Magonsaete were from Herefordshire (the episcopal see being in Hereford), which suggests that they were the same ‘Welshmen’ who reinforced the army at the Forest of Dean.
The events following Ashingdon do centre on the area around southern end of the Welsh border: Edmund in Gloucestershire; the treaty arranged on an island near Deerhurst. The Forest of Dean is reasonably close, so given the presence of the Edmund and Cnut in the area, we may assume that the two armies were also present. There may have been skirmishes, raids, etc., but a full-scale battle does not appear in the Chronicles for this crucial period.
Had a major battle occured, given the subsequent division of England, one would speculate that it would have been an English victory – why would a victorious Cnut have allowed Edmund of the hook, so to speak? One imagines that an English victory would have been an event worthy of recording; a Danish victory would have probably removed the need to treat with the English, and would probably have found its way into the ‘Encomium Emmae Reginae’.
So what evidence did Sarah Foot offer for claiming a second battle?
The deaths of the ealdormen of East Anglia and Lindsey at Ashingdon certainly cleared the way for Cnut’s conquest of the eastern part of England. The descripton of the Battle of Ashingdon is interesting: Eadric apparently began the flight, leading away the men of the Magonsaete. The fact that Edmund and his followers retreated to Gloucester, and Eadric’s presence as one of the king’s councillors after Ashingdon, must throw some doubt on the ‘traitorous’ nature of Eadric’s actions at Ashingdon.
It appears that the English made a general retreat to Gloucester, and subsequently across the Severn, followed by Cnut. Did Eadric really betray “his royal lord and the whole nation” by starting “the flight” from Ashingdon? If so, it seems unlikely that he would have been welcome in Edmund’s presence.
The author of the ‘Encomium Emmae’ suggests, that –
“Eadric, who had previously withdrawn in flight from the fighting, now returned to his lord [Edmund] and his companions, and was received for he was an able counsellor”.
Many parties had a vested interest in heaping the blame at Eadric’s feet; Emma’s encomiast, the English chroniclers et al. Interestingly the author of the Vita Edwardi conveniently lay the blame for the disasters of 1066 on Stigand, who the Norman chroniclers of the post-Conquest era also vilified, despite the fact that William kept him in place for some time, until the time was right to remove the pluralist archbishop of Canterbury. Cnut’s removal of Eadric is not dissimilar.
In his “Cnut: England’s Viking King”, M.K.Lawson states something to the effect(I paraphrase) that;
“…Most probably there was another battle [after Ashingdon] at Deerhurst near the Forest of Dean…”
If a battle or heavy skirmish actually happened in the immediate wake of Ashingdon, could it have been connected to the revolt against Canute involving Edmund’s younger brotherEadwig (killed by Canute in 1017)?
Eadwig was called‘King of the Ceorls’- this epithet suggests that he may have led a peasant uprising against Canute?
The effects of famine and Viking ravaging upon them- as well as the crippling taxes levied upon them 1011-14, created the conditions conducive to such a climate. He was exiled by Canute from England in 1017 and returned the same year, only to be slain (by Canute?).
Eadwig must have been the focus of many disgruntled Saxons (against the new Dane) that rallied round him?
The fact that Cnut is not recorded as having been acknowledged as king by the W.Saxons until 1017 might suggest that Aetheling Eadwig, the wounded Edmund’s younger brother, may have tried between 18th Oct -30th Nov to rally support for his own bid for the crown?
The Worcester & Peterborough chronicle says, at latest mid-summer 1017, that
“King Cnut put to flight the Aetheling Eadwig, the “ceorl’s king”.
Or was it simply a rearguard action fought by remnants of the wounded Edmund’s loyal retainers?
These farmer-warriors either died of wounds in the Andredsweald immediately behind the English lines, or on the trails home, or were despatched by hotly pursuing Norman cavalry.
Yet it was now that the ‘victorious’ Norman army suffered a disaster as their cavalry pursued the fleeing saxon footmen in the near-dark, which has only been thinly-documented by the Normans, maybe understandably.
About 1/4m to the north-west of the main battle was a deep gully (Oakwood Gill, today?). It had a series of ditches with very steep banks, it’s perilous nature almost hidden by brambles and undergrowth from the fast-charging Norman horsemen.
Newly arrived Saxons too late to change the outcome of battle, maybe even fresh reinforcements of housecarls(under Earls Edwin & Morcar or Waltheof??), took up an orderly defensive shieldwall position on the other bank of the huge ditches and called to any fleeing fyrdsmen to join them. Many didn’t.
They lured the Normans(who did not know the lie of the land, nor see it or their enemy clearly) towards them at speed, and they charged unwittingly over the edge- somersaulting & tumbling headlong into a pitiful mass of broken human/equine bodies and screaming/dying men.
Any survivors in the huge mass that didn’t break backs/necks or suffocate underneath were quickly despatched by the vengeful Saxons. More cavalry followed behind those- unable to see much before them, until it “almost levelled the ravine”.
The Normans finally realised the scale of the disaster and a withdraw order was issued by nobleman Count Eustace, but duke William himself charged up and counter-manded him. (Or were Norman sources out to blacken Eustace’s name after he revolted against William in 1067?)
Then the Saxons “were dispersed”, more likely they fell back into the darkness back to their villages and burhs.
But were these ‘Malfosse’ Englishmen really huscarls led by late-arriving earls (clearly it took someone with calibre to advance upon a lost battle with fleeing, panicking troops?)?
Or were they simply a group of heartened fyrdsmen – who had been trickling in all day anyway- that decided to turn and stand?
Did these two formidable warriors make a pre-agreed pact to co-invade England in the build up to 1066, as some believe? (I don’t!)
What possible motive would these notoriously ambitious and avaricious men have had? The embittered and ousted Earl Tostig (Harold’s own brother) reputedly visited both men (plus Denmark’s King Swein, his cousin) to persuade them to invade.
How could it have even been practical? The same South-Westerly wind that whisked Hardrada to England in late September 1066 was keeping William pinned to the Normandy coast at exactly the same time?
Surely the military crux of a two-pronged plan is to attack, or at least appear to attack, at exactly the same time?? And of course, there is not even one mention of this in any contemporary source?
King Harald Hardrada of Norway had been locked into bitter internecine warfare with the redoubtable King Swein of Denmark king for 20yrs- and both had designs on invading England (Swein actually prepared a fleet in the late 1040’s!)
Why would two deeply avaricious men- each believing themself to be Edward’s successor via vague and hollow ‘promises’ made to both Norway & Denmark in the late 1040’s by the Anglo-Norman king– have made vague plans to ‘divide and conquer’ when we know from original sources that both over-ambitious men wouldn’t have shared the glory or wealth?
In short, the two experienced and cunning warriors would never have tolerated, or trusted, each other.
Not forgetting the many overt acts and campaigns of savage barbarity he ordered and committed- not least the ‘harrying of the north’ 1069-70 (and the post-Hastings atrocities at Romney, Peterborough and Exeter)- but having read through a plethora of accounts via the many primary sources (Poitiers; Jumieges; Malmesbury; Vitalis etc) there seem to be a few examples where the notoriously hard duke was actually fairly magnanimous and merciful? Not all were simple acts of political/military expediency.
He did conveniently forgive many Frenchmen (even his own uncles) prior to 1066 for various reasons, but are there any other acts of his apparent mercy in England- due to genuine respect or affection?
Redoubtable old warrior Ansgar was a descendant of Tofi ‘the Proud’, one of the Earldorman of King Cnut (1016-35), whose existence is less documented in the history books?
He held land in Middlesex, also in addition to his Middlesex estate he held land in Buckinghamshire, Hertfordshire, Berkshire, Oxfordshire, Northamptonshire, Warwickshire, Essex, and Suffolk. His influence, however, extended beyond these counties for there were in Cambridgeshire, Bedfordshire, and Norfolk.
He was a royal Staller (equivalent to a constable or standard bearer) and held estates worth [then] £447 in Eastern England. After the death of King Edward ‘the Confessor’ (1042- January 66) until William’s reign (December 1066-1087), Ansgar remained in this Office.
He was a tough and fiery old campaigner, a stubborn warrior who was supposedly wounded at the battle of Hastings and had to be afterwards carried about in a litter by retainers.
He led the futile English resistance at the north gates of London as duke William’s army approached, rallying and inspiring the wavering Anglo-Saxons into final surges of martial prowess.
Despite negotiations between William and the defiant Ansgar at the gate, in which access to the obviously victorious Normans was probably finally agreed so long as William ‘contained’ his fired-up men, there were still skirmishes either within or immediately outside London’s stout city walls as William entered (acc. to William of Jumieges).
Ludgate had been reputedly opened from the inside to William’s army (by an English ‘collaborator’?) negotiating with Ansgar, and, in the battle at Ludgate Hill, countless Londoners were slain.
Many of those Saxons that disagreed with the earlier Berkhamstead embassy of the witan who had travelled to submit to Duke William would have fled before he reached London, to live abroad as exiles or mercenaries in foreign armies (ie. Norfolk thegn Eadric, maybe leader of the saxon fleet, fled to Denmark, for example- most likely with any surviving Lithesmen, thegns or housecarls).
But Ansgar didn’t flee- taken captive by William (and maybe a member of the ‘trophy train’ of English noble captives paraded through Normandy in early 1067?), he was taken to a Normandy gaol until his death.
ps. Where were earls Edwin, Morcar and Waltheof at this time?