King Harold’s Army

Harold’s Army

The king always had with him his personal bodyguard – chosen men with no other function but to protect their lord with their lives. In return, they expected to be housed, fed, paid, and given a share of any plunder. If they survived long enough, they might be rewarded with a gift of land to retire on. They travelled on horseback, but fought on foot, grouped around their king and their standard. They used the fearsome two-handed axe, like the ‘huscarles’ of the Danish king Cnut two generations previously. They wore long mail shirts and iron helmets for protection, and carried wooden shields.


In time of war, the king called on his ‘Ealdormen’ who were regional leaders acting in his name. They would then call out their own personal bodyguards and all the ‘thanes’ of their shires – those local lords who had pledged to fight when called in return for their land. Thanes usually provided their own weapons and armour, travelled on horseback, but fought on foot. These were probably the men of the ‘fyrd’ – they had farms and estates to run and did not expect to fight for very long periods and in most years not at all. The basic weapons were shield and spear, with either a small axe, or a long knife for hand-to-hand fighting.  Richer thanes may have owned a sword. These were the warriors who wanted to return home in the late summer of 1066 to bring in the harvest.


Thanes may have called on some of their ‘churls’ as cooks, wagon-drivers, scouts, smiths or servants:  ‘churls’ were farmers who had no traditional duty to fight. They may, however, have volunteered if they were ambitious, or may have been caught up in the battle (the Bayeux Tapestry shows some Englishmen fighting with clubs and spades, and other unarmoured spearmen fighting on a hill).
Except for the king’s huscarles, therefore, the army was a rather loose and temporary affair. The men fought through duty to their lord, rather than through any sense of patriotism.


The English tradition was to fight on foot in a ‘shield-wall’ where each man interlocked his shield to his comrade’s to left and right. As long as the shield-wall held, defeat was impossible. Individuals, however, might well step out in front to perform acts of individual bravery. There seems to have been little attention paid on either side to the vulnerable ‘flanks’ of the army (the ends of the battle-line).
The best-armoured warriors no doubt stood in the front rank. There’s some debate about whether the huscarles were thinly spread all along the front line to provide a hard ‘crust’ to the army, or grouped in depth around the king and his standard – which seems more probable.
Just one English archer is shown in Bayeux Tapestry. They may have been regarded merely as skirmishers, and had no part in any coherent battle-plan. Perhaps they were the young sons of thanes, getting a first taste of war. The other English answer to Norman archery was to lock shields or throw stones.
Leaders fought on foot and seemed not to be interested in ‘directing’ a battle according to any real plan: battle-tactics seem to have involved a straight clash of arms with the best side winning. Where they wished to influence the outcome, it tended to be either by catching the enemy by surprise, or by encouraging treachery on the other side. There’s some debate about whether or not the English fought on horseback when circumstances were favourable.


At Hastings, the English warriors fought on foot against an enemy on horseback. They probably soon came to regret their apparent lack of archers, for the Norman bowmen were a constant irritation who could easily out-run the heavy English infantry if threatened. What they may never have realized during the battle, however, was Duke William’s main advantage: his control of battle tactics. William organized his army into sections which advanced or fell back at his direction, and he constantly rode up and down the battlefield to see that his orders were being carried out. Harold seems simply to have stood and slugged it out.


Battles in this period were very rare events. The role of an army was generally to ‘lay waste’ the enemy’s lands and plunder its wealth. It was essential, therefore, that warriors were mounted, for speed and mobility.  The three battles of the Hastings campaign, especially coming, as they did in quick succession, were very unusual indeed.  Hastings itself was an exceptionally long battle– the huge physical and emotional stress of a stand-up hand-to-hand fight meant that engagements could rarely last more than an hour or so before one side gave way, or both sides collapsed from exhaustion. 


We know less about the Battle of Hastings than is sometimes claimed: there are hints in the sources that Harold’s army was taken by surprise before it was ready, and that some of Harold’s men deserted before the battle even began. We don’t know exactly when Harold’s two brothers were killed, what eventually led to the break-up of Harold’s shield wall, or how Harold himself died. There’s disagreement about how many times the Norman cavalry charged up the hill to attack Harold’s men, or whether their retreats to lure the English from their position were planned or not.
The only thing that does seem certain, however, is that although Harold and the last Anglo-Saxon army fought hard and long on 14 October 1066, it was ultimately overcome by William’s ruthless and efficient fighting machine.