There would have been a lot of ‘what if’s’ in King Harold’s life. What if William Duke of Normandy hadn’t been held up by bad weather in France for eight months and what if his brother Tosig and Harald Harada of Norway had not decided to invade England at the very same time that William had planned to invade? If neither had happened, Harold’s army would have been fully prepared when William landed in Sussex and he wouldn’t have been forced to leave London unguarded and make his army march north for four gruelling days to Samford Bridge in Yorkshire to battle it out with his brother.
Then, what if Harold hadn’t been forced to trek 388kms back again to confront ‘William the Bastard’ who was waiting for him unhindered in Hastings, ravaging the countryside? If that hadn’t happened, Harold’s exhausted army wouldn’t have been sitting in hastily dug ditches on top of a hill watching William’s fresh army march confidently towards them, eight miles outside of Hastings.
The battle was mainly because of a disputed succession. For the previous 24 years England had been ruled by Edward the Confessor, who, despite being married, had failed to produce any children to succeed him. It is thought that in the middle of his reign, in the year 1051, the king promised the English succession to his cousin, William, duke of Normandy, or so William said. Edward had spent half his life in exile in Normandy, and clearly felt a strong debt of gratitude towards its rulers. The plan went badly for William because when Edward died on 5 January that year, it was Edward's brother-in-law, Harold Godwinson, who claimed the throne, insisting that the old king had nominated him in his dying moments.
Harold knew that William had cavalry, infantry and archers in his army while he only had foot soldiers. But his men seemed to have caught their second wind as they stood determinately along the ridges facing the enemy in the valley below them. Then as Harold watched, an amazing thing happened. William’s army seemed to be scattering and to Harold, it looked like William’s infantry were retreating.
In hindsight, Harold should have waited. He had fresh reinforcements on the way from London and with the added manpower, he knew he could easily defeat William. But he didn’t want to lose the advantage that was opening up before him, so he raised his sword high in the air and sent his soldiers surging down the hill at breakneck speed.
It didn’t take Harold long to see it had been a ruse. Even as he realised his mistake, William was raising his helmet and his archers were firing a thick volley of arrows high into the air.
Battles of the time rarely lasted more than two hours before the weaker side submitted but the fact that Hastings lasted an horrific nine hours indicates the determination of both William’s and Harold’s armies. After losing thousands of men, Harold’s weary army made their final stand for the day just on dusk, prepared to recommence fighting in the morning when fresh backup arrived.
It was a disaster for the Godwinson family. Less than thirty minutes from sunset, an arrow caught Harold in the eye and killed him. Alongside him, his two brothers, Gyrth and Leofwine Godwinson, lay dead on the battlefield and Tosig had been killed three weeks earlier at Samford Bridge. As the triumphant roar faded away, the shouts of victory would have mingled with the cries of the dying. Horses and riders would have lain as the sinking sun shimmered on helmets, chainmail, broken swords and trampled bodies.
William the Conqueror had won the battle and life in England would never be the same again.