Gateway to the Classics: Stories from English History, Book I by Alfred J. Church
Stories from English History, Book I by  Alfred J. Church

Harold the King

N OT many days had passed after Harold was thus chosen and crowned King of England, when ambassadors came from William of Normandy, demanding of him that he should fulfil the promises that he had made and confirmed with an oath. To them Harold answered, "The kingdom is not mine to give up; I hold it from the people of England." William had not looked for any other answer, and began without any delay to prepare for taking the kingdom by force. He gathered a vast host together, as is told elsewhere, and Harold, on his part, prepared to resist him with all his might.

While the King thus waited for the coming of the Normans, there reached him tidings of a great danger that was threatening him and his kingdom in the north. Earl Tostig had made alliance with Harold Hardrada, King of Norway, and these two had landed in Yorkshire, and were about to march southward, ravaging the country as they went, unless they should be hindered.

So Harold set forth without delay, taking his house-carles with him, and gathering as he went such as were willing to go with him. These house-carles, I should say, were the King's own guard. His other soldiers were called together when they were wanted, and went back to their homes and their work when the need was past, but the carles were with the King always. There were some three thousand in all.

By the time that Harold, whom I must now call the English Harold, had reached Yorkshire, Harold of Norway and Tostig had vanquished an army that the earls of the north led against them, and after taking York had pitched their camp at Stamford Bridge, which is by the river Derwent. Harold rode through York, where the people received him gladly, and went on to attack the enemy. On his way, it is said, he and his companions met Harold of Norway and Earl Tostig. Said Tostig to his brother, "What will you give me if I consent to make peace?"  "Your Earldom," said Harold, "and more besides, if you want it."  "And what will you give to my ally, Harold of Norway?"  "Seven feet of English ground for a grave, or, for he chances to be very tall, perchance a foot more." Tostig turned away, for he was ashamed to make terms for himself only. It is said also that Harold of Norway, who had stood apart while the two talked together, not knowing who it was that was speaking with Tostig, was angry when he heard that it was the English King. "Why did you let him depart unhurt?" said he to the Earl.

In the end Harold of England fell upon the enemy before they expected him. They had pitched their camp on both sides of the Derwent, the Bridge of Stamford joining the two. Earl Tostig's men lay on the side that was nearer to York. These made haste to escape across the bridge, and were greatly helped by a stout champion who held it against all the Englishmen. So valiantly did he fight, though he was one only against many, that they could not drive him from his place, till some one going under the bridge thrust at him with his spear through the timbers, and so slew him. Then at last the Englishmen crossed the bridge. While this was doing, Harold of Norway put his men in array. Very fierce was the fight that followed; but in the end both the King of Norway and Earl Tostig were killed, and with them a certain Irish king who had leagued himself with them, hoping to get plunder from English folk. Nor did many of the army escape, for they were twenty miles and more from their ships, and all the country was raised against them, and had no fear of them now that they were beaten men.

Nevertheless, they whom Harold of Norway had left to guard the ships escaped with their lives. They had made a strong earthwork round the ships (which may be seen to this day near to Riccall on the river Ouse), and Harold the King judged it best not to attack them, knowing that he could not take the place without great loss of men. So he offered them conditions of peace, namely that they should depart unharmed, but should first swear that they would never come back to England as enemies, and should also leave certain hostages, as pledges of their good faith. This they did, and so departed, carrying with them the dead body of their king.

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