By David Flin
The Saxon shield wall at the 950th re-enactment.
Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Draw up the spears on the hill-top at Hastings,
Fight till the sun drops and evening grows cold,
And die with the last of your Saxons around you,
Holding the land you were given to hold!
1066 is, as the historians Sellars and Yeatman explain, the only historical date that is remembered in England. Other nations have other dates that are memorable for them: 1745, 1776, 1789, 1947, 1991, and many others. The list is as long as there are nations.
I am from England, so I’ll be looking at 1066. There’s a lot of interesting PODs throughout that year:
• What if Edward the Confessor doesn’t die?
• What if Tostig (Harold’s brother) remains loyal?
• What if the winds that delayed William were favourable, allowing him to land before Harold Hadrada.
And so on. 1066 was a chaotic year.
However, this series is focused on PODs of a single day, and the most obvious to use is October 14th, 1066, the Battle of Hastings.
Harold and the Saxons stood at the top of a sharp little ridge, with both flanks anchored by woods, and with marshy ground on the western side of the battlefield, forcing William's forces into a narrow front will little room for manoeuvre, mitigating the Norman advantage in mobility.
Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
In OTL, the Battle of Hastings was an incredibly close-fought battle, with many points during the battle where a single change could have altered the outcome. We all know of the feigned retreat of the Norman knights, which lead to a significant fraction of Harold’s force following in disorder, only to be cut down when they had been lured into the trap set for them.
Which leads to the question: What if Gyrth and Leofwine (Harold’s brothers – he had a lot of brothers. It sometimes feels like Saxon England consisted entirely of Harold’s brothers) had restrained the fyrd and avoided that trap? That would have meant Harold would have had enough troops to defend the entire ridge line. In OTL, the loss of these troops meant that he was forced to reduce the length of the shield wall such that it didn’t extend the whole length of the ridge line, allowing the Norman knights to gain a foothold and assault the shield wall on the flat, rather than after charging up a steep hill.
Senlac Hill. The puddle is the approximate position where the pursuing fyrdsmen found they'd made a tactical error.
Picture from Author's collection.
That’s one potential POD. A second is another well-known episode in the battle. Early on in the battle, William either fell or was knocked from his horse (sources differ as to which), and this sent rumours that he had been killed flying through his army. The army was on the verge of routing, when William raised his helmet and declared that reports of his death were greatly exaggerated.
The implications on the course of the battle of a change here are self-evident.
A third potential POD – and one that I find fascinating – comes right at the end of the battle. Harold had been killed, and the Saxons were retreating with the Normans following in pursuit, William among them. The Normans were not prepared for a Saxon rearguard action, and were caught by surprise by an ambush in the Malfosse gulley, about half a mile from the battlefield. The Saxons were able to get close to Duke William, to the extent that William had to defend himself “with a broken spear”, and members of his bodyguard were killed.
The Malfosse Gulley, where William and his bodyguards were ambushed right at the end of the battle.
Picture: Author's collection.
In OTL, the attempt to kill William failed, but he could have easily died in this ambush.
What if William had been killed in this ambush?
The Normans have still won the battle, but both Harold and William are dead, as is Harald Hardrada of Norway, killed at Stamford Bridge. Who, then, takes the throne of England? Edgar Atheling, who – in OTL – was briefly offered the throne after Hastings? But Edgar was only 15, and England needed a king with experience in what was certain to be turbulent times.
Sweyn of Denmark, who had been floating offshore with an army, waiting to see the outcome of the battle?
Malcolm of Scotland? Someone else?
My guess is that Edgar Atheling would become King of England, and he would face restless earls of Northumberland and Mercia at the least.
Of course, there is also going to be disruption in neighbouring nations.
Duke William of Normandy would be succeeded by his son Robert, aged 15.
In Norway, Harold Hardrada would be succeeded by his sons Magnus (aged 18) and Olaf (aged 16).
The King of France, Philip I (later known as The Amorous) was at this time, aged 14, and was looking to incorporate the duchies into France.
So many new, young monarchs. And so many potential trouble spots. We may as well call any timeline based on this version: “Teenage Wasteland”, and be done with it.
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David Flin is editor of the anthology Ten Years Later, where all proceeds go to help build Ukraine, the author of the AH series Building Jerusalem and Six East End Boys, and the owner of Sergeant Frosty Publications.