Would King Harold II have been late for his own death?

A review of the route that King Harold took to the Battle of Hastings

By David Clarke

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‘There were arrows everywhere.

Long arrows, short arrows, broad and narrow arrows, even red and blue arrows.

I was in the bookshop at Battle Abbey and every map in every book that I looked at about the Battle of Hastings gave a different view of the route that Harold took from London.

There were arrows on a diagonal from London, aiming at Battle, four or five in a row as if a hail of arrows had been fired at William.

There was a broad arrow creating a swathe across the south-east as the Saxon army passed over the land.

Arrows approached Battle from all the points of the compass – except the south!’

I wrote the above in my introduction to 1066 Harold’s Way, a 100mile long distance walk from Westminster Abbey to Battle Abbey, inspired by King Harold’s epic march to the Battle of Hastings 1066.

It appeared that the alternatives for King Harold on his march to battle was for his army to either take a more direct route, south east through the Forest of the Andreasweald, or march along the old Roman roads, east then south. The latter would have been a longer journey of over 90 miles rather than the 65 miles of the direct route and Harold was in a hurry.

In my research for 1066 Harold’s Way, a Channel 4 documentary of the mid 2000s gave a thorough, logical and compelling argument for the alternative route along the existing Roman roads, east out of London along Watling Street and south along the clear Roman road towards Hastings, with the added legend of a camp at Rochester on the night of 11th October 1066.

The Weald was a forest in Saxon times and hacking a way through the trees and over the highest parts of the Downs and the Weald, through Tonbridge and Tunbridge Wells, would have been a real struggle for the army. After Tonbridge, where the Roman road ended, the vast Andreasweald, the limited tracks, the climbs, descents and the glutinous Wealden mud would have debilitated any army.

Even in the 18th century the Weald was declared ‘roadless’ and any journey took hours through the deepest clay imaginable (Cobbett). The Weald was not a traveller’s paradise.

With the Roman roads still being used in Saxon times, there was a certain logic to the longer route – it followed the old Roman roads that led to the dock at Bodiam and on to the iron quarries around Beauport Park. It was a clear route through the forest to the ‘old hoar apple tree’ at Caldbec Hill.

If the legend that Harold’s army camped overnight at Rochester is believed, it is possible that they stopped again on the route perhaps somewhere between Sissinghurst and Bodiam or at Bodiam itself as it would take time to cross the tidal Appledore estuary. After Bodiam, the route links up with the line of the old ridgeway towards what is now Cripps Corner where it would link with the trackway south through Vinehall Forest to Caldbec Hill.

BBC History Today, in their September 2016 issue, published an ‘experts’ article on King Harold’s journey to Caldbec Hill, taking a simplistic view of the route from Westminster Abbey that ignored the conflicting views of scholars and historians.

The Roman roads across the South-East still largely exist which contradicts their view that the roads are all gone. If they are in use now they would have been in use in 1066. Although the Rochester route was longer, the easier terrain would have provided a fast and less demanding route across the Weald with the army in a better state to fight a battle.

I would suggest that a march south west from London would not be a route that would follow in the footsteps of King Harold.

Indeed, by taking this route it is quite likely Harold would have been late for his own death!

David is the author of The Saxon Times and 1066 Harold’s Way as well as other History Walks in Kent and East Sussex.

For more information on 1066 Harold’s Way visit: http://www.1066haroldsway.co.uk/1066haroldsway

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