William the Conqueror


Harold was blamed, as defeated generals are blamed, for being too eager to fight and not waiting for more troops.But to any one who studies the ground it is plain that Harold needed, not more troops, but to some extent better troops, and that he would not have got those better troops by waiting.From York Harold had marched to London, as the meeting-place for southern and eastern England, as well as for the few who actually followed him from the North and those who joined him on the march.Edwin and Morkere were bidden to follow with the full force of their earldoms.This they took care not to do.Harold and his West-Saxons had saved them, but they would not strike a blow back again.Both now and earlier in the year they doubtless aimed at a division of the kingdom, such as had been twice made within fifty years.Either Harold or William might reign in Wessex and East-Anglia; Edwin should reign in Northumberland and Mercia.William, the enemy of Harold but no enemy of theirs, might be satisfied with the part of England which was under the immediate rule of Harold and his brothers, and might allow the house of Leofric to keep at least an under-kingship in the North.That the brother earls held back from the King's muster is undoubted, and this explanation fits in with their whole conduct both before and after.Harold had thus at his command the picked men of part of England only, and he had to supply the place of those who were lacking with such forces as he could get.The lack of discipline on the part of these inferior troops lost Harold the battle.But matters would hardly have been mended by waiting for men who had made up their minds not to come.

The messages exchanged between King and Duke immediately before the battle, as well as at an earlier time, have been spoken of already.

The challenge to single combat at least comes now.When Harold refused every demand, William called on Harold to spare the blood of his followers, and decide his claims by battle in his own person.

Such a challenge was in the spirit of Norman jurisprudence, which in doubtful cases looked for the judgement of God, not, as the English did, by the ordeal, but by the personal combat of the two parties.

Yet this challenge too was surely given in the hope that Harold would refuse it, and would thereby put himself, in Norman eyes, yet more thoroughly in the wrong.For the challenge was one which Harold could not but refuse.William looked on himself as one who claimed his own from one who wrongfully kept him out of it.He was plaintiff in a suit in which Harold was defendant; that plaintiff and defendant were both accompanied by armies was an accident for which the defendant, who had refused all peaceful means of settlement, was to blame.But Harold and his people could not look on the matter as a mere question between two men.The crown was Harold's by the gift of the nation, and he could not sever his own cause from the cause of the nation.The crown was his; but it was not his to stake on the issue of a single combat.If Harold were killed, the nation might give the crown to whom they thought good;Harold's death could not make William's claim one jot better.The cause was not personal, but national.The Norman duke had, by a wanton invasion, wronged, not the King only, but every man in England, and every man might claim to help in driving him out.

Again, in an ordinary wager of battle, the judgement can be enforced; here, whether William slew Harold or Harold slew William, there was no means of enforcing the judgement except by the strength of the two armies.If Harold fell, the English army were not likely to receive William as king; if William fell, the Norman army was still less likely to go quietly out of England.The challenge was meant as a mere blind; it would raise the spirit of William's followers; it would be something for his poets and chroniclers to record in his honour; that was all.

The actual battle, fought on Senlac, on Saint Calixtus' day, was more than a trial of skill and courage between two captains and two armies.It was, like the old battles of Macedonian and Roman, a trial between two modes of warfare.The English clave to the old Teutonic tactics.They fought on foot in the close array of the shield-wall.Those who rode to the field dismounted when the fight began.They first hurled their javelins, and then took to the weapons of close combat.Among these the Danish axe, brought in by Cnut, had nearly displaced the older English broadsword.Such was the array of the housecarls and of the thegns who had followed Harold from York or joined him on his march.But the treason of Edwin and Morkere had made it needful to supply the place of the picked men of Northumberland with irregular levies, armed almost anyhow.Of their weapons of various kinds the bow was the rarest.

The strength of the Normans lay in the arms in which the English were lacking, in horsemen and archers.These last seem to have been a force of William's training; we first hear of the Norman bowmen at Varaville.These two ways of fighting were brought each one to perfection by the leaders on each side.They had not yet been tried against one another.At Stamfordbridge Harold had defeated an enemy whose tactics were the same as his own.William had not fought a pitched battle since Val-es-dunes in his youth.Indeed pitched battles, such as English and Scandinavian warriors were used to in the wars of Edmund and Cnut, were rare in continental warfare.That warfare mainly consisted in the attack and defence of strong places, and in skirmishes fought under their walls.But William knew how to make use of troops of different kinds and to adapt them to any emergency.Harold too was a man of resources; he had gained his Welsh successes by adapting his men to the enemy's way of fighting.

Edward Augustus Freeman