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Tuesday 22 May 2012

Did the English Fleet Meet Duke William at Sea?

Tuesday Talk
(original article was written last year - this one extended and re-posted + original comments)

Why did Harold II, King of England, stand the fyrd down in August 1066? (Thus allowing William to march in unopposed in late September).
When King Edward died in January 1066 Harold Godwinesson was crowned king - elected by the English Witan as the only man suitable for the job. 
(Anyone who disagrees with that statement: that's another debate, you are more then welcome to submit an article and I will post it)

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Harold was expecting William to come  - let's face it, he had his spies and word would have got back to him that Duke William of Normandy was building a fleet and preparing to invade.
All summer Harold had the men of the Southern Fyrd (Wessex, Kent, Hampshire etc) on stand-by; one can imagine the Watch keeping close eye for any sails appearing on the horizon of the English Channel.
But in August, Harold sent the men home. 

The argument of "it was harvest" is not acceptable. The women and children left at home were perfectly capable of getting the harvest in while the men-folk were away. Contrary to popular (Victorian?) belief, war did not stop because of the harvest - to use that thinking, war should also stop in spring because of the sowing / lambing / calving, in autumn because of the autumn slaughter - which leaves winter: when fighting was not a good idea because of the cold, wet, dark. Sounds a good method of stopping war to me! 
Pity the Saxons / Vikings et al did not adopt it.

Harold was not stupid. he was an extremely capable and experienced commander (which is why he was crowned King, of course).
The only logical reason why would be because he was certain William would not be coming that year.I do not have evidence, just logic, intuition, and listening to what was not said in various primary sources. 

Dives Sur Mer
William built his fleet at Dives sur Mer - we know he sailed earlier than September (end July, early August). The next we hear, he is at St Valerey and some of his ships are wrecked, men have died. He hushes this up and commandeers other ships to replace those that were lost.
The Norman version is that he met a storm which destroyed his fleet.
So if it was just a storm why try to hide the fact? Why not just say "we'll sail in better weather next time chaps"?

Many of his men were Viking descended & fishermen, therefore, experienced sailors. They'd know full well the dangers of storms, and not be overly bothered by them - not enough for the need of hiding the bad luck of a storm, anyway. (And William had no trouble convincing them to set sail that second time, in September, did he?)

Now, consider the fact that England had a powerful and effective navy and plenty of ships. You can see the fleet as "ghost" ships in the border of the Bayeux tapestry in the Westminster scene where Halley's Comet is depicted. Given the time of year, it is probable that this scene depicts the keels hauled up onto the land to overwinter; i.e. not made ready for sailing - an indication of the season & that Harold had not sent the fleet out yet.

"ghost" ships in the bottom border
Given we had an effective & efficient fleet - is it not absurd that Harold would not have ordered a blockade of the Channel? His predecessors - Aethelred, Cnut (and Edward) used blocakade tactics very successfully. Harold grandfather and father were heavily involved with the Fleet - the scyp fyrd) Indeed the Godwinesson's main manor house was specific as a deterrent against ship-borne invasion. Bosham is on the coast near Chichester, in Harold's time it was a bust little harbour. Earl Godwine had the church tower specifically built as a watch tower - not a church tower. 


It is therefore inconceivable that Harold had not used his knowledge and available forces to best advantage.

It therefore does not take much logic to work out that William met the English Fleet head on and was turned back with heavy casualties of men and ships. That fact he would want to keep quiet! If Harold had already defeated William - does this not explain why he assumed William would not be coming that summer, and stood the men down.

I concede this was a mistake on Harold's part, which later cost him his life - he underestimated William's determination. Maybe he received exaggerated information. Perhaps he was told that most of William's fleet had been destroyed, whereas in fact many of the ships were only damaged. All credit to Duke William: he re-rallied and tried again - most unexpectedly. 

I also wonder - just throwing this in here - as Harold assumed that William would not be coming until 1067, was this why he went north to Stamford Bridge to face his brother Tostig and the invading Hardrada and his men? It's just a thought: if Harold had suspected that William would rally and try again, would he have stayed in the south and sent his brothers north in his stead? As it was, the South was safe.... apparently.

The Normans made no mention of a first (failed) attack and defeat by a blockade  - this does not indicate that it didn't happen. 
In fact, I think the no mention of it proves that it did!

And as final "evidence": one of the first men William had arrested and imprisoned was the Commander of the Fleet - Eadric the Steersman (who later fled to Scandinavian exile). I wonder why William was so cross with this guy!

A selection of the Previous comments from the original post: Please feel free to add your thoughts!


paula said...
I think that what you have said definitely makes sense Helen. Its a good assumption and given the fact that the English fleet was there  and William's ended up in St valery in a bad way, you can easily put two and two together as you say. And History is often written by the victor, leaving out the facts and events that might cause embarrassment or loss of face, especially when your rationale for invasion is not exactly popular or just worthy.
cel said...
I wonder though at the believing that William would not hide the destruction by storm. Superstitions were strong, could not ships being destroyed by a storm be seen as a sign that God is against, and that he should not continue. Although of viking stock, sailors also were superstitious, so they may not be willing to sign on to a campaign that has had signs against it.
(H.H. see my additional comments now inserted above)
Carolyn Schriber said...
I've always understood that the fyrd was conscripted from local men who had to provide their own weapons and supplies for a short period of service. They were not a standing army, and they had major responsibilities at home. During harvest season, Harold would not have had any choice but to let the men return home to their crops and the chores associated with getting ready for winter -- unless, of course, he had clear proof of imminent danger, and that he did not have.
(H.H. see my additional comments now inserted above)

Marilyn said...
Yes Superstitions were very strong! I had to hunt for this but found it finally just to show the importance they attached to it:
"After a discouraging delay caused by adverse winds, William's fleet finally got under way and on September 28, 1066, arrived in the Bay of Pevensey on the Sussex coast. William was the first to land, and as he sprang from the boat, he, like Casar when he landed in Africa, slipped and fell. Like Cesar, too, he turned the accident into a good omen with the exclamation, "By the splendor of the earth, I have seized England with both my hands." from this site :

Helen said...
@ Cel & Marilyn
If sailors were superstitious about setting out to sea because of a past storm all merchant shipping would have stopped pre Roman times - yes sailors were (are!) superstitious, but it's never stopped them sailing. In fact they were more likely to have run into bad weather in September than in July/August as the winds change along the Channel as any regular UK sailor will tell you.
This would have been another factor as to why Harold stood the men down. If William had been seen off in early August, because of the approaching poor sailing conditions Harold possibly assumed he had no threat from William until next spring. What he did not expect was William to move further along the Norman/French coast (and thus make a shorter crossing) or to re-organise his fleet so quickly. And here I do give William his due, he managed to do so & took advantage as soon as a lull in the wind gave him opportunity to sail. Though even then he did mess up as his fleet did not stay together (indicating adverse weather conditions)
I also think William had no intention of landing at Pevensey - hence he moved along the coast to Hastings (which clearly indicates a cock-up) The Hastings peninsular was a daft place to land - because it was a peninsular and William could so easily have been penned it (which he nearly was.) Far better to have landed further down the coast near the Isle of Wight (easily reached from Dives sur Mer) where there is flat land and many small creeks to come ashore and hence easily penetrate inland. The next good landing place would be "round the corner" in Kent, or Exeter/Lyme Bay in Dorset - but that would mean a long march towards London.
There is a good reason why Ceasar, Claudius, the Saxons landed at Portsmouth/Southampton, Exeter and Thanet! William is the _only_ invader to have landed along the Hastings coast! He got it WRONG.

Helen said...
@ Carolyn, yes, technically, during normal circumstances the fyrd served for only so many days - but not during a time of emergency. Did the fyrd pack up and go home when the Vikings were raiding during Alfred's time? Did they serve their required time when Swein Forkbeard & Cnut invaded - get to harvest time then down weapons and go home? No. They did not.
Harold could easily have stood part of the fyrd down & brought in more men from a different area (He had the whole of Wessex to call upon - i.e all the lower part of England, from Somerset to Kent. As is proved by how many men he called up to come to Hastings.)
It would have messed up the harvest to keep the men on stand-by - but much of the harvesting was actually done by the women and children anyway.
We managed to get the harvest in during all the other following wars (right up until WWII ) even though the men were away!

Cel said...
So William got his landing wrong, and yet does he think in his eyes that he got things right after the battle when Harold died and he had conquered.

Does this fact reflect an element of chance/luck in how events pan out? How history develops?

Hus said...
There are several frustratingly vague and inconclusive references to naval 'battles' between the English and the Normans during the summer of 1066.
After all, the 'Normans' were not known for being a naval people, unlike their distant ancestors, the Vikings.

The English fleet had been stood down by Harold (running out of supplies and possibly not expecting William to brave a late-season Channel's rough tides), and was partly destroyed by bad weather by the south coast, en route for London.
The Norman fleet's first, aborted, attempt to sail, was beaten back by the same terrible non- campaigning season weather.

Were they merely minor skirmishes as the two fleets (Normans sailing to St.Valery & The Saxons patrolling in the Channel?) got lashed about in the severe storms that are recorded in the sources?

•The Peterborough Chronicle reports that Harold had "sailed out against William with a naval force".

•Henry of Huntingdon states that Harold "with a naval force went forward at sea against duke William".

•The Domesday book itself records that thegn Aethelric(of Kelvedon hatch, essex) "went away to a naval battle against King William and when he returned fell ill" (leaving his lands to St.Peter's, Westminster)

•The scribes from Neider-Altach describe a naval battle between the "Aquitanians" and the English that summer.
This hints at alot more than simply guarding the coast. It suffered wrecks whilst making for the Thames from the Isle of Wight (after being 'stood down' by Harold? -Portents of doom by the "Long-haired star"?).

The many separate sources could be confusing the naval clashes with the doomed English naval attack against France/Normandy during Ethelred II's reign, decades before?

And, if it did happen in 1066 as described, why would the Normans play it down, or even omit this supposed but recorded event?

Steven Till said...
It's possible there was a battle b/w Norman and English fleets, but I don't believe any of the sources are strong enough to support this actually happened. Even the Anglo Saxon Chronicle accounts I have read do not back this scenario with much conviction.

1) "Then came King Harold to Sandwich, where he awaited his fleet; for it was long ere it could be collected: but when it was assembled, he went into the Isle of Wight, and there lay all the summer and the autumn. There was also a land-force every where by the sea, though it availed nought in the end. It was now the nativity of St. Mary, when the provisioning of the men began; and no man could keep them there any longer. They therefore had leave to go home: and the king rode up, and the ships were driven to London; but many perished ere they came thither."

2) "Then came King Harold to Sandwich, and there awaited his fleet, because it was long before it could be gathered together. And when his fleet was gathered together, then went he into the Isle of Wight, and there lay all the summer and the harvest; and a land-force was kept everywhere by the sea, though in the end it was of no benefit. When it was the Nativity of St. Mary, then were the men's provisions gone, and no man could any longer keep them there. Then were the men allowed to go home, and the king rode up, and the ships were dispatched to London; and many perished before they came thither. When the ships had reached home, then came King Harald from Norway, north into Tyne, and unawares, with a very large ship-force, and no small one; that might be, or more."

3) And that same year that he became king, he went out with a fleet against William [Earl of
Normandy]; and the while, came Tosty the earl into Humber with sixty ships.

The Chronicle accounts make it sound as though King Harold's fleet lay in wait all summer around the Isle of Wight. And when the harvest season was upon them, and their provisions were running low, and Harold was certain due to the seasonal weather that another crossing would not be attempted until the following year, he ordered everyone to return home.

I would think if there was a battle, the Chronicles would describe it in more detail as they did the battle at Stamford Bridge and the Battle of Hastings. These accounts make no mention of a naval battle. The closest thing we have is King Harold "went out with a fleet against William," but arguing from that there was a naval battle would only be speculative.

On the one side, we have the Norman sources telling us the fleet of William was broken up by a storm. The English sources are silent about this storm. I suppose you could argue for either the case -- a naval battle or a storm -- breaking up the Norman fleet, but I lean more towards the storm scenario. There is just not enough strong evidence, in my opinion, to claim Harold's forces defeated William's forces in a naval battle.

Helen said...
I have said that Harold's fleet meeting William's is my own theory - and I stick to that as a "gut feeling" - however, at least we have now established that Harold DID have a fleet and it WAS deployed as an (effective ?) blockade.
Maybe the damage to the ships was a bad storm, which combined with word that the English had a blockade was enough for Harold to (wrongly) assume William would not be coming that year.

Though I do not see him as being that much of an idiot! He was brought up at Bosham, he would have known the sea very well. I really can't picture him standing the men (and the fleet) down without solid cause.
No proof - gut feeling, intuition and logic.

Steven Till said...
That's why I love history. There is not 100% proof either way, so sometimes it is left up to our own guesswork.

jel said...

Is not another interesting part of the history trying to see through the victors reports to remove the distortions the comments made about the vanquished. This of course can be very hard. A case in point is where the person who records an incident has different memories of it from others. (As the research is showing be wary of eye witnesses who say they saw identical things - as we have different ways of seeing things.

mikees1 said...
the Normans did seem to underwrite this fact. Though when producing the Domesday book they seem to have slipped up when mentioning an Aethelric of Kelveden in Essex who "went away to a naval battle against king William" and fell ill on his return.

Helen said...
that's interesting mikees1 - not come across that piece of information before.
Aethlric of Kelveden.... odd place for a navy man .... though I think Kelvedon is near the river Roding which is connected to the Lea, which is the main river in Essex  and flows into the Thames. (anyone watching the 2012 Olympics will be seeing a lot of the Lea!)
I am 100% convinced that the scyp fyrd met William at sea in the summer.
mikees1 said...
Its either one of two books i found that fact in, obviously its in the Domesday book but it was either The Battle of Hastings: The Fall of Anglo Saxon England by Harriet Harvey Wood or The English Resistance:The Underground War against The Normans by Peter Rex that pointed me towards the Domesday book entry. I was wondering if you maybe had a book about Hereward in mind at any point? Im yet to read Peter Rex's other book about Hereward but i think his story is an excellent one as well because he was exiled to start with so had nothing to do with any of 1066's three battles. But on his return he was very very close to beating William The Bastard, along with the last remaining English Earls Edwin,Morcar (and i think Waltheof was involved somewhere) and some Danish support.Had it have all gelled together more effectively leadership wise then history could have been very different as he really did come close. The English Resistance states that William was close to doing a deal with him(which could have led to a partitioned country,English North Norman South), it was only the Norman lords who had been given Herewards lands who talked him out of it. The whole era fascinates me, and I'd absolutely love to see Herewards story told by someone at some point.

Helen said...
I've an article on Hereward  Hereward  I might one day write his story (on my "to do" list!) 


  1. I think it is highly likely that Harold's fleet met and damaged Williams fleet and that Harold thought he was fairly safe to go and deal with the threat in the North.
    Williams fleet was reluctant to set sail a second time and would only do so under cover of darkness. This was not normal procedure in those days owing to the risks of sailing by night and for the Normans to do so suggests that their fleet received quite a severe mauling at the hands of Harolds fleet.
    Unfortunately for Harold the mauling was not severe enough.

  2. CJ - credit to William for re-organising so quickly. And yes - I'd not considered the darkness bit - but you are so RIGHT! The one sure way to avoid a blockade - sail by night.

    Q.E.D. I'd say.


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