Trial by Combat for the English Throne: Assessing King Harold Godwineson During the Norwegian and Norman Invasions of 1066
By Robert E. Duman
M.A. Thesis (History), University of Nebraska at Lincoln (2002)
Abstract: In 1066, Duke William of Normandy defeated England’s King Harold Godwineson at the Battle of Hastings, and Harold received an unjustified label as a poor military commander. However, analyzing the military background of Harold and his opponents in 1066, William and King Harald Hardradi of Norway, demonstrates that he was a capable military leader. The English, Norwegians, and the Normans had similar army recruitment policies and weapons, but had some differences that affected their strategies and tactics. The Norwegians relied on raids, using their ships for strategic mobility, and the Normans had a strongpoint strategy implementing castles and cavalry.
Harold Godwineson, Haraldr Hardradi, and William used their military systems to establish themselves in their territories and achieve their political agendas. Harold Godwineson’s ability to protect England while an earl led King Edward and the English magnates to select him as the next king. Harald Hardradi served as a mercenary in Kiev and Constantinople before returning to rule Norway. William continually fought other French magnates to keep his position as Duke of Normandy. In 1066, Harold Godwineson marched his army from London to York in a few days to surprise and decisively defeat Haraldr Hardradi at Stamford Bridge. He led another march to southern England, meeting the Normans near Hastings. Harold utilized the terrain to his infantry’s advantage, while William tried to penetrate the formation with archers and cavalry. Not until after Harold was killed after hours of fighting did the English morale collapse, resulting in William’s victory.
King Edward the Confessor died in 1066 with no heirs, leaving several claimants for the English throne. The ætheling (meaning direct descendant of King Cedric, first Saxon ruler of Wessex) usually succeeded the crown, but the only one remaining was a boy. Edgar the Ætheling was the grandson of King Edward’s older half-brother Edmund Ironside. Earl Hardold Godwineson of Wessex did not have royal blood, but he led the most powerful landowning family (besides the King and Queen) in England. He also had the support of his brothers and fellow earls Gyrð and Leofwine.