King Harold on his Way to Hastings: 1066
Is it possible that King Harold and his Saxon army passed through Leigh on his way to the Battle of Hasting – or the Battle of Senlae as it was more often called?
It is very unlikely that he went through the village itself but fairly likely that he went through the parish – from Sevenoaks to Tonbridge via Hildenborough – which we could call the parish of Leigh – just.
The query arises because of two folk rumours, one concerned with Riverhill and the other concerned with Bidborough.
The Riverhill part of the story comes from research undertaken by Mrs E Rogers whose family have lived at Riverhill House for many generations. (In 1539 John Rogers published the Matthews Bible which was the Tyndale New Testament with notes from Tyndale for the Old Testament). Hildenborough is shown in the medieval Textus Roffensis as ‘Ritherden’ with ‘Rither’ meaning ‘hill’ (hence Hill-den). It became a ‘borough’ later. This would make sense too of ‘Underriver’ as well as ‘Riverhill’ with neither place having a ‘river’ anywhere near them, but one on the hill and the other under the hill.
There is a clear track leading through Riverhill House grounds from Sevenoaks down to the road to Hildenborough. This is apparently shown on mediaeval maps as ‘The King’s Highway’. The Rogers’ family have always known the part in their grounds as ‘Harold’s Road’ and the historian, Arthur Mee, mentions the tale.
Assuming that Harold did come down from his hugely successful battle at Stamford Bridge near York via what would have been the main road to Sevenoaks probably down the Darenth Valley , his most likely crossing point of the Medway would have been Tonbridge. The Rogers’ folk history, noting that the Medway at Tonbridge was five small streams easily crossed by simple log bridges until the Normans built the Castle and directed the Medway into one main channel below it, thinks that after Tonbridge the most likely route to Pevensey – the site of the Battle of Hastings – was what is today through Southborough, Tunbridge Wells, Eridge and down to Battle (as opposed to the route via Pembury down to Rye.
The Rogers ‘ thesis is supported by another folk tale. There is a field in Bidborough called ‘Camp Field’ where it is said Harold’s army stayed on the night of 12 October 1066 . Two yew trees in the churchyard are also said to have some connection with Harold’s stay.
Even if both these folk rumours are correct, it is only just possible that Harold would have crossed at the ford where Ensfield Bridge is today: but it is a pleasing thought that Harold, one of the greatest of the Saxon rulers, a fine soldier and administrator and a man of huge intelligence, nearly came to Leigh.
Parish Magazine Article: Apr 2009: by Chris Rowley