From Alfred to Harold II: The Military Failure of the Late Anglo-Saxon State
By Richard Abels
The Normans and their Adversaries at War: Essays in Memory of C. Warren Hollister (Boydell, 2001)
Introduction: “It would be a serious error,” Warren Hollister acutely observed in the final chapter of his Anglo-Saxon Military Institutions, “to attempt too radical a separation of military organization from military techniques, since the necessities of battle in large measure govern the structure of the army.” The problem that Hollister faced was explaining why, despite possessing a highly sophisticated military system and effective army, the Anglo-Saxon state, nonetheless, was conquered “once and almost twice by the Danes and again by the Normans.”His answer was that the English were defeated by Swein and Cnut because of “wretched overall leadership combined with widespread disloyalty,” and that Harold simply had the bad luck to fight two major battles back to back. Hollister needed these explanations in order to rescue the Anglo-Saxon military institutions that he had so carefully detailed in the previous chapters from the charge that they had become obsolete and ineffective by 1066. His second book, The Military Organization of Norman England (Oxford, 1962), showed how unfounded that charge was.
Most historians now acknowledge that Hastings was indeed a close-run affair, won more by luck and perhaps generalship than because of fundamental structural or tactical differences in the forces or disparities in their military technologies. An apparent paradox, however, still remains: the Anglo-Saxon state was most militarily effective under King Alfred before, in Hollister’s words, “it achieved maturity.” Some of the reasons that Hollister gave for the failure of Æthelred II and Harold II are undoubtedly correct. But there is more to the story than bad leadership and bad luck.