Harold at Hastings

Harold at Hastings          (14 October 1066)        Harald Hardraada, King of Norway, dead With traitor Tostig (Earl Northumberland Before his baser nature had been known), Caught by surprise at Yorkshire’s Stamford Bridge By England’s king as they invaded there To steal his crown away; now that same king, Harold, […]

Harold at Hastings

         (14 October 1066)


     Harald Hardraada, King of Norway, dead

With traitor Tostig (Earl Northumberland

Before his baser nature had been known),

Caught by surprise at Yorkshire’s Stamford Bridge

By England’s king as they invaded there

To steal his crown away; now that same king,

Harold, feasted his victory in York.

     Into his happy celebrations came

A travel-weary messenger to say:

“The Norman Duke has landed in the South

And with brought him a mighty force of knights.

Already he holds Hastings and gives threat

To fearful Sussex with his mounted host!”.

     Those present were aghast at this grave news

Except the king himself, who merely said,

In accents calm and low: “It had to be!.

This was the meaning of the Flaming Star

Which lit the sky by day as well as night

Four months ago to everyone’s amaze!”.

     Then, rising to his feet, he spoke aloud

To that dismayed assembly: “Do not fear

Bastard Duke William of Normandy!.

What we have done at Stamford Bridge so short

A time ago to Viking plunderers —

Than whom few are more skilled in warlike arts —

We shall again at Hastings newly do!.

We Saxons can drink blood as well as beer

And carve flesh-meat with sword and axe no less

Effectively than with a knife. So drink

A Health to Harold, your true king, before

Tomorrow morning’s start to our campaign

To drive those Normans back into the sea

As recently we drove the Berserk horde!”.

All drank and shouted: “Harold!. Health to you!.

Long may you reign, our freely-chosen King,

As steadfast guarantor of English rule!”.

     But many there who gave their lord his due

Were doubtful whether it was possible,

(With their fight-weakened army, which must march

Without respite the long land’s length from York

To Hastings and at once give battle there),

To find strength to defeat the Norman force

Established firmly on the Sussex coast.

(Though many thought, not one would voice his doubts).


     It was not three weeks later that the king,

With his bone-weary men-at-arms, approached

To Hastings from the North. At Senlac Hill

He saw the Norman host, down in the vale.

Strongly entrenched and waiting for him there.

     At once the Saxon King of England saw

With his war-practiced, expert soldier’s eyes

That, for each of his men, the Normans owned

Six mounted knights, two archers and two pikes.

Such overwhelming odds were better played

As fisherman with guile than bull-at-gate!.

     Defences he prepared upon the crest

Of Senlac and disposed his fighting men,

Before the sun went down, to best effect;

Then waited, both to rest his weary troops

And to permit the reinforcements called

To arms, from London and the Western shires),

To rally to his flag. His simple plan

To stay just where he was and to avoid

The fight as long as possible . If he,

(The Norman duke), onset Harold would try

To hold him all next day — behind a wall

Of shielded pikemen and axe-wielding carls —

Trusting that night would bring him fresh support

To turn the battle and force victory.


     Duke William well understood that he

Must overthrow the Saxon king before

Fresh strength could muster to his side and while

His present force — still wearied from their fight

At Stamford and the subsequent march South —

Might not acquit themselves to best effect:

Although he did not doubt their stubbornness.

     He knew that Harold would not risk attack

Until his men were rested and reserves

Could reinforce his strength; but it was now

Too late this day to launch his own assaults —

The gloom of dusk would handicap his knights

And make his archers ineffectual —

So serious hostilities must wait

Until the morrow’s dawn. Then he would send

His cavalry against the Saxon lines

And by sheer numbers overwhelm the foe

As quickly as  they might. He feared that, should

The English army hold out all the day,

(As they were capable, if their shield-wall —

Protected by long pikes — held firm), his own

Chance of success would be at risk as more

Combatants rallied to defend their land

And king from his intrusive presence there.

      So, after giving orders to his chiefs

On how the battle should be fought, he went

Into his tent to pray before he slept

The night away. Before sleep came he mused

Upon the reason for the fateful day

That would decide the destinies of both

Himself and Harold, erstwhile guest now foe.

     He well recalled how Harold had agreed

With solemn oath a few short years ago,

(Misled by clever artifice and threats),

To cede the precedence of England’s crown

To William when Edward — reigning then —

Should die. Then Harold had forsworn that oath

And taken for himself the governance

Promised to William himself, and dared

Him to take the crown by force from him

If he maintained his claim to it. And so

It was that now they met in warlike state

Upon prophetic Senlac — ‘Lake of Blood’

Translated from the Norman dialect —

To settle their dispute. Though Harold was

Elected to the crown by Saxon Law,

The Duke had Papal judgement for his cause

So lost no sleep; the Church was on his side!.


     Next morning early was the struggle joined.

Time after time the mounted mass of knights

Surged stormily against the rigid ranks

Of pike-fringed shields backed by the tireless arms

Of stalwart axe-men who would not yield ground

Nor break their disciplined defensive lines.

Time after time they were repulsed with wrath

As lethal axes sheared through mail and men

And steeds with relentless efficiency.

Time after time loud metal moans ached ears

As arcing axes amputated limbs

And clove helms with dreadful dexterity.


     The rival leaders were exemplary

In all they did that day to win the fight.

Though thrice dismounted by dour dints, (twice thought

Dragged deathward by his horse), the Duke fought on —

No weak-willed courage his! — harangued his troops

Incessantly and led his noble knights

Time after time against the enemy.

     But always stood the Saxon king, bravely

With shield and axe, where danger menaced most,

To link a broken line or break the brunt

Of boldly-led, fierce foes; his stalwart form,

Untiring strength and awesome axe repelled

Each threat wherever it appeared. He seemed

A superhuman warrior who wore

The Saxon cause upon his shoulders like

A scarlet cloak for everyone to see.


     The struggle raged daylong, until it seemed

The stern defenders would survive the strife

As Normans feared that reinforcements would,

Beneath night’s cover, group themselves to strike

Their weakly-guarded backs and pin

The fatally against this hard-rimmed hill.

     The Duke, despairing, tried a double ploy;

He feigned retreat covered by archery.

It worked!.

                      Some Saxons, sensing victory —

And irked by rains of arrows beating down

About their heads as rain on wooden roofs

Or spray from stormy waves on coastal cliffs

Is thrown — forgot their orders and broke out

From their defensive wall to chase their foes.

It was a fatal thing to do.

                                              The Duke,

Rallying his knights, led a final charge

Into the breached defensive wall before

It could be closed. The mounted phalanx rode

Through the weakly-protected barricade

Towards the Saxon Standard where the king

Was organising his depleted force.

     Somehow a solid line was formed to block

The inrush and diffuse its impetus.

Once more, so near success, the knights were pushed

Out of the Saxon lines. Once more a rain

Of arrows covered their enforced retreat.


     Slowly the scarlet sun waned in the West

To touch the far horizon there with hope

For Harold, still encouraging his men

To maintain, (for a little longer), their

Defence. Darkness would bring rest as the fight

Ceased for the day and, if his planned reserves

Arrived, daylight would find him better placed

To beat the Normans back into the sea

Whence they had come with such temerity.


     But then Harold looked up, as though he’d heard

Something compelling pass above his head.

At once he dropped his shield and bloodied axe

To clutch his upturned face with trembling hands

Begored!.  Then those about him saw a shaft

Feathered between his fingers. Backwards then

He staggered with unsteady steps and fell

Beneath the Standard. From his bright blond head

The useless helmet rolled. His anguished hands

Snapped off the arrow’s length, leaving its barb

Deep-buried in his peerless eye. He heaved

A heavy breath and sorely sighed,

     Then said: ” Fight on brave Saxons!. Do not let

My death be England’s loss but, rather, make

It reason for renewed defiance. Hold

The ring, under my brother’s leadership

Till darkness falls. Tomorrow you can end

The work you have begun with me today.

Do not despair!. One man, though king, is not

The kingdom’s all!”. He sighed once more and then

His breath was blown.

                                          A hollow groan rang out

Around the hill. so profound and anguished

It tore the hearts of all who heard — Norman

And Saxon both — its utter bitterness;

And for a while the fighting ceased, as though

Commanded by some unseen arbiter.


     As that great groan’s significant import

Was understood, Saxons revengefully,

Normans remorselessly, each other slew;

And in the space of scarcely half-an-hour

The last of those disheartened Saxons who

Remained upon the battlefield were dead

Around the body of their luckless king

Or taken prisoner by Norman troops.


     As darkness slowly dropped its sable drapes

Over that stubborn hill, the Norman Duke,

(By conquest King of England from that day),

Declared before the barons of his host:

“Upon this spot I will endow a church,

Luxurious and large, to consecrate

Not our success on this, my natal day,

(For it was Harold’s birth-date too, I know),

But valour of the Saxon King and all

His loyal henchmen who, outranked, defied

Our chivalry with courage unsurpassed

In all recorded history of war.

     Ten times did we outnumber their array —

And we were fresh for battle and prepared —

But these stout-hearted soldiers, with their king,

Two weeks ago destroyed the Viking horde

Far North of this red field; then straightway marched

To meet us here and fought so doggedly

I feared lest we should not prevail!. (But God

Gave us the victory. To Him be praise!).

     So let us pay the honour due to those

Who for their country’s cause did such great deeds.

And let us reverence the memory

Of Harold, King of England, who inspired

Such sacrificial, whole-hearted loyalty!.

Happy the land which has such noble sons!.

    When we have taught their sturdy strength and skills —

Their independent natures — to assume

The civilising gloss of cultured arts,

Then England will breed such a race of men

As will astound the peoples of the world

By their achievements and their character!.

     Today we won a kingdom; from now on

We must win hearts to make this dream come true

And build a better nation than these two”.

Author: J. A. Bosworth

See Home Page on this site.

See all posts by (359)

Leave a Reply