On 14th October 1066 Harold Godwineson, Harold II, our last English King, died in battle attempting to protect his kingdom and his people from foreign invasion. Subsequent history, written by the conquering Normans, scratched his short - and legitimate - reign from official records or returned entries to his previous title of Earl of Wessex. Kings became numbered from William I, ignoring all previous Saxon names.
For me, Harold II is a hero. He died fighting for freedom, and I honoured him by writing, to the best of my ability, a novel that reflected the people and events that led to the Battle of Hastings.
In memory of Harold II's efforts, I will be posting some excerpts over the next few days.
§ London - 9th October 1066
Harold reached London late in the evening of the ninth of October. The news was bad. His brother Leofwine awaited him at Westminster, was first down the Hall steps into the torch-lit courtyard as the King rode in.
“Well?” Harold demanded as Leofwine ran up.
“He has fortified himself within that area of marsh-edged land known as the Hastings Peninsula. It would be difficult to take our army in there - boundaries of marsh and river are as effective as any palisade wall. For the moment he has no lack of supplies, is living off the land, looting all he can and destroying what remains.”
Harold tossed the reins of his stallion to the nearest servant, unbuckled and removed his war cap as he strode up the wooden steps leading into his Hall. Alditha stood at the top, the cup of welcome in her hand. She offered it to him, he took a quick gulp and passed it back, pressing a light but inattentive kiss to her cheek. “I have no time for formal welcome, lass, but would appreciate a tankard of ale and something to eat, cheese will do.” He kissed her a second time, more fondly. “You look tired,” he added. “Does the child bring discomfort?”
“No, my Lord, the child is well,” Alditha answered him resting her hand on the bulge of her belly. He did not hear, for he was talking again to Leofwine and others of his command who were gathering around the table set beside the eastern wall, already cluttered with maps and parchments. His queen, for want of something to do to help, went to fetch ale.
“I have been studying the route south, and the entire Hastings area,” Leofwine said, indicating one map unrolled and spread, a salt box, tankard, ink pot and wooden fruit bowl anchoring the four persistently curling corners. “From what we have already learned, these villages,” he indicated three, “have been burnt, razed to the ground.”
“Casualties?” the King snapped.
Leofwine cleared his throat, glanced at his own captain of housecarls, knowing Harold would not be pleased at the answer, “Several.”
“Aye, I would expect the Bastard to butcher the menfolk.”
“’Tis not just the men. There are bodies of women and children - bairns, some of them still at the breast.” Leofwine swallowed hard, reluctant to continue. The brutality of the battlefield was no stranger to any of the warrior kind, but this, this was sickening. Quietly, his voice hoarse, he said, “Many are only charred remains, they burnt with their houses. Nothing has been left standing. No one left alive. It seems he has not come merely to conquer England, but to destroy everyone and everything in the process.”
Harold was standing with his palms resting flat on either side of the map, looking at the markings of river, coast, settlement and hill. He set his jaw, said nothing. He dared not. The words that were sticking in his throat would have erupted into fury had he released them. He swallowed down his anger with a gulp of ale from the tankard that Alditha fetched him, his mind turning to campaigning in Brittany… William’s determination to succeed whatever the cost in human life or suffering. His manic obsession with winning. Too clearly could Harold see in his mind that smouldering ruin of Dinan. The senseless killing of the innocent. Of women and babes. Heard in his ears the screaming as women and their daughters, innocent of men, were violated. Now it was happening to his own; to English people. People he knew - and knew well, for he held estates in that coastal area, had hunted there often as boy and man grown. He had a stud of fine breeding horses at Whatlington, and Crowhurst held a mews with some of the best hawks in the country. His hawksman there was a loyal and good-humoured man, his wife and four daughters all exceptionally pretty. Crowhurst had been one of the places Leofwine had pointed to.
After a while, when his breathing had calmed, Harold asked, “Do we know the extent of his supplies? The Hastings land will not feed him for ever.”
“With the number of ships he has brought with him, I would say he is capable of withstanding a siege through the winter at least.”
William could devastate the area in that time, and aye, it would be difficult to flush him out. The Hastings Peninsula might be no stone-built fortress, but it mattered not. A siege was a siege, whatever the defensive circumstances, and Duke William was well versed in siege warfare. Nor, Harold reflected grimly, was he likely to make foolish mistakes through arrogance, as had Hardrada.
“I say leave him to rot!” That was Gyrth, who had just entered the Hall, stripping off his riding gloves as he did so. Like Harold, his beard-stubbled face was grimed with white dust, his clothes sweat-stained, eyes tired. Twice, in a matter of weeks, had they made the journey between London and York in six days.
Once in itself was feat enough for any man, but twice? Surely this king deserved the respect and loyalty of his subjects!
“We shall ensure he cannot get reinforcements; therefore he will run out of food eventually - perhaps his men will not stand firm if we starve them out, Leofwine added.”
Harold pushed his weight from the table, hooked a stool forward, sat. He was so weary. His body felt a dead, limp weight, but he could not afford the luxury of paying mind to it. “We need to consider this carefully,” he said. “I know Duke William. Know some of his vile tactics - he made damned sure I did. I see why, now. He hopes to goad me into hasty action through what he has ordered done to my people in Sussex.”
“He intends to draw us into the arena, do you think?” Leofwine spoke his thoughts out loud. “Is waiting for us to go in after him, lure us into an ambush?”
“Or, once he has burnt and plundered everything in sight, will he march out towards the Weald?” a housecarl captain asked, indicating a possible route with a grimed fingernail. “Could he have designs on Winchester, or Dover?”
“That we must wait and see.” Harold selected a chunk of soft goat’s cheese and bit into it, not tasting its tangy saltiness. “I do not care to let him run riot in the Weald. With only one narrow road in through dense woodland and impassable marsh he is safe from any land-based attack, but equally, that makes only the one route out. Within Hastings, we have him contained, can choose our own time to attack.” He ruffled his hair then brought his hand down over his nose, across his chin. “It is easier to spear a boar while it is trapped. Only a fool would prod such a creature out into the open.”
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(UK Title) Harold the King
(US Title) I Am The Chosen King
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Previously posted 1066 related articles that may be of interest