Plan of the Battle of Senlac [Hastings] and the surrounding country, from Creasy's 'Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World'
Plan of the Battle of Senlac [Hastings] and the surrounding country, from Creasy's 'Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World'

Preparations for War
Harold threw himself vigorously into the work of organisation in right kingly wise, and of preparations for naval defence. No less energetic was the Duke of Normandy, who gathered to his standard by degrees not only all his own vassals, but every adventurous baron and knight in Western Europe who could be enticed by promises of land and loot.

Also he took care to obtain the blessing of the Pope on an expedition directed against the perjured blasphemer who occupied the throne of England, and who was, moreover, in league with an Archbishop of Canterbury whose appointment in the Pope's eyes had been uncanonical.

Tostig's plotting
For Stigand had obtained the archiepiscopal pallium from a Pope who had been ejected from the chair of St Peter and was not recognised by his successors. Sweyn of Denmark looked on, but hesitated to act. Tostig tried some raiding in Northumbria on his own account, but was driven off by Edwin and Morkere, whereupon he sailed north and presently joined forces with Harald of Norway, who had taken the seas with a great fleet.

Meanwhile Harold the king had manned his fleet in the South, waiting and watching for the imminent attack of the Norman duke. But the winds blew out of the North and the Norman did not start. The supplies of the fleet ran short, the ships were becoming damaged, and at last when Harold had to send them round to the Thames to refit, they were caught in a gale and so badly battered as to be useless.

At this moment came news from the North that Harald Hardraada was on the coast. With all the forces he could gather on the way and the best of his Wessex troops, Harold dashed to York, where he found that Hardraada and Tostig had already routed Edwin and Morkere and the levies of their earldoms.

Battle of Stamford Bridge
At Stamford Bridge, a few miles from York, he brought the Norsemen to bay; and there was fought a desperate battle, in which Hardraada and Tostig were both slain and the Norsemen were put utterly to rout. The Norse Chronicle is magnificent but wildly imaginative in its account of the great fight; the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells how at the last a single mighty Norseman held the bridge while his comrades retreated, until he was thrust through from a boat below.

The danger from Norway was over, but meanwhile the winds had changed. The Norman had put to sea, and within a week of the great fight of Stamford Bridge the news reached Harold of his landing at Pevensey.

South again raced Harold at full speed, reaching London upon the tenth day after the right, far faster than Edwin and Morkere could move with the Northern levies, whether they were loyal or not, considering how they had already suffered at the hands of the Norsemen.

With all speed Harold collected whatever troops he could draw together and hurried down to Sussex, where the Norman was wasting the land; resolved to give battle rather than follow the more prudent policy of devastating the land before him and forcing William to pursue him and fight at a disadvantage.

The Battle of Hastings
He took his stand on the hill of Senlac, lining the whole ridge. On the morrow William attempted to storm his position by direct frontal attack, since a flank movement was not practicable. The footsoldiers could not break the line; then William hurled his mailed horsemen against the English shield wall. The English held their ground. The horsemen on the left wing broke and swept back down the slope, the half drilled English burst from their lines and rushed in pursuit.

William saw his opportunity, flung another detachment of cavalry upon the pursuers, and broke in upon the now unguarded flank. But still the English held their ground against charge after charge, till at last the Normans on the right fell back in feigned flight.

The English thought the victory was won, and poured down upon them, except the valiant disciplined body of Harold's huscarles, who still stood in their ranks. The rest had no chance when the Normans turned and charged again upon them.

The huscarles fought on stubbornly against odds now overwhelming, till William brought forward his archers, bidding them shoot so that their arrows should drop from above upon the stubborn Saxons. Harold's eye, says tradition, was pierced by an arrow; but he, his brothers, and the huscarles fought and fell to the last man round the royal standard. So perished the last English king of the old English.

This article is excerpted from the book, 'A History of the British Nation', by AD Innes, published in 1912 by TC & EC Jack, London. I picked up this delightful tome at a second-hand bookstore in Calgary, Canada, some years ago. Since it is now more than 70 years since Mr Innes's death in 1938, we are able to share the complete text of this book with Britain Express readers. Some of the author's views may be controversial by modern standards, particularly his attitudes towards other cultures and races, but it is worth reading as a period piece of British attitudes at the time of writing.

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