It can be said that Harold’s triumph over Harald and the Norwegian invasion force was a tremendous victory. It can be said that the end of the Viking threat to England was a monumental accomplishment, one that should have followed Harold into the history books under a heading that could have read Great Men Who Did Great Deeds for All Time. Harold’s victory over the Norwegians might have echoed Alfred himself if it wasn’t for the almost immediate presence of William. Alas, Harold was not blessed with such accolades, at least not ones without a hitch.
For the end of the Viking threat did not go off without a hitch. It had a very large hitch, attached to a horse-and-army maneuver set to devastate southeastern England in the person of one William of Normandy.
William, it will be recalled, had a claim–bogus or bona fide thought it might have been to the throne of England. And, being a hot-blooded powerful military man, he was always aiming his mark higher. This mark, however, was on the throne of England. As history tells us, he hit the bullseye many times over, especially with regard to Harold himself.
It is extremely likely that William would have been aware of the Viking invasion that Harold stopped cold at Stamford Bridge. After all, Tostig the Norman-lover was undoubtedly a regular (if not frequent) visitor at the Norman court, and his detestation of his brother and his “paltry” claim to the throne were common knowledge there. That he found a brood companion in the old yet effective Harald of Norway could not have gone unnoticed by the brash William. Whether he planned his timing is a different question. Whatever his intentions, he arrived at the perfect time to claim his prize with a minimum amount of risk.
The English, jubilant yet exhausted, were forced to double-time it back to Wessex and other parts southeast, there to do deal with yet another threat. And it can be said that by this time, many of even the most valiant and steadfast defenders of the English crown and way of life were weary of all the fighting. They certainly can not have been happy about marching up to the northeast corner of the Island, fighting without rest, and then having to march down to the southeast corner of the Island, on little food and an even smaller amount of energy.
When the English army reached its destination, Harold was confident that he would prevail again. He had faith in his men and in his cause, and had an eye for the dramatic as well. Trouble for him was that William had all of that and more. He vowed, figuratively or not, to strike Harold hard and fast and hit him right between the eyes. Time and history tell us that his vow was truer to his literal words than he might have intended.
William arrived, in the fall of 1066, with a large army, all of whom were confident in their leader’s right to be in England and, indeed, rule it. They were skilled fighters, infantry and cavalry, and well-fed and rested besides. Harold and his men, on the other hand, were scattered and scatter-brained, starving and exhausted.
On paper, this looks like either a predictable wipeout or one of the world’s greatest upset victories.