The Nor­man con­quest

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The Bat­tle of Hast­ings marked a new era in our his­tory, says Al­lan Mallinson

Afor­tune if they suc­ceeded or re­mis­sion of sins and ad­mit­tance to heaven if they failed: an of­fer that had al­ways brought men flock­ing for mar­tial ad­ven­ture. Duke Wil­liam of nor­mandy promised the riches of An­glosaxon eng­land (gold and sil­ver for the hum­ble foot sol­diers, land for the knights) and, he as­sured them, the pope had guar­an­teed sal­va­tion for those slain in the cause. eng­land, he de­clared, was his by rights; the child­less King ed­ward had promised him the crown but Harold God­win­son had seized it. He, Wil­liam, would as­sem­ble a great fleet, cross what the “english” called the Sueth-sae (South Sea) and take what was right­fully his.

King ed­ward, “the Con­fes­sor”, so called for his piety, had died on 5 Jan­uary 1066. He was the el­dest son of King Aethelred (“the un­ready”) from his sec­ond mar­riage to the sis­ter of Duke richard of nor­mandy. But Aethelred had sons from his first mar­riage and when he died in 1016, the el­dest, ed­mund “Iron­side”, suc­ceeded to the throne. He was at once chal­lenged by Cnut (Canute) of Den­mark, elected king of the Dan­ish set­tle­ment in eng­land (the “Danelaw”). ed­mund died in novem­ber af­ter bat­tle with the Vik­ings, leav­ing Cnut to take the throne. twenty years later, on Cnut’s death, there was an­other suc­ces­sion dis­pute. ed­ward se­cured the throne only af­ter seven years of bat­tling. Al­fred the Great’s line was thus re­stored to the english throne but only by the sup­port of the pow­er­ful earl God­win of Wes­sex. to strengthen his po­si­tion ed­ward mar­ried God­win’s daugh­ter, edith.

God­win died in 1053 and his el­dest son, Harold, suc­ceeded to the earl­dom, his other sons be­com­ing provin­cial lords of much of eng­land. ed­ward, wary of their power, thought it pru­dent to main­tain good re­la­tions with nor­mandy, now ruled by Duke Wil­liam, and prob­a­bly im­plied that the crown would one day be his. Con­se­quently, at ed­ward’s death there were four con­tenders for the throne. the one with the great­est blood claim was edgar “Aetheling” (“young prince”), grand­son of ed­mund Iron­side and thus in the di­rect english royal line. But he was only 15, with no sig­nif­i­cant back­ing and so no im­me­di­ate prospect of be­ing able to rule in­de­pen­dently. the Wi­tan, or King’s Coun­cil, con­sist­ing of the most pow­er­ful sec­u­lar and spir­i­tual lords, would not sanc­tion his claim.

Harold God­win­son had been ed­ward’s brother-in-law and friend, and was brother of the wid­owed queen. though he had no

The events of 14 Oc­to­ber 1066, 950 years ago this month, marked a new era in Eng­land’s his­tory, as Al­lan Mallinson re­lates

royal blood he had been at the heart of English gov­ern­ment – in late years the Subreg­u­lus (“Un­der-king”) – and had a for­mi­da­ble mil­i­tary rep­u­ta­tion. He was about 45, “very tall and hand­some, re­mark­able for his phys­i­cal strength, his courage and elo­quence, his ready jests and acts of valour”, wrote the 12th-cen­tury chron­i­cler Orderic Vi­talis. Harold claimed that on his deathbed Ed­ward had named him king. In the Bayeux Ta­pes­try Ed­ward is shown reach­ing out and touch­ing Harold, who is kneel­ing be­side him. The Wi­tan con­curred and Harold was crowned on 6 Jan­uary.

Yet if Harold had a claim, then why not Tostig, his brother, whom Ed­ward had made Earl of Northum­bria? In Oc­to­ber 1065, the Northum­brian lords had risen against Tostig and Ed­ward had sent Harold to put down the re­bel­lion. Unusu­ally, Harold had not been suc­cess­ful. Ed­ward there­fore made peace with the rebels, ex­il­ing Tostig and giv­ing the earl­dom to Mor­car, younger brother of Earl Ed­win of Mer­cia. Tostig be­lieved Harold had con­spired at this to strengthen his own po­si­tion. All this added to Duke Wil­liam’s be­lief in his own cause. Be­sides Ed­ward’s “prom­ise” of the crown, the late king’s mother was the sis­ter of Wil­liam’s grand­fa­ther, mak­ing Wil­liam and Ed­ward first cousins once re­moved.

Tostig was the first to chal­lenge Harold by force. With the help of his brother-in-law, Count Bald­win of Flan­ders, he as­sem­bled a fleet and in April be­gan raid­ing the south coast. When Harold moved against him, Tostig sailed north to Lin­colnshire but here was met by the forces of Ed­win and Mor­car and se­verely beaten. He fled to Scot­land with just 12 ships but was by no means fin­ished.

Harold, mean­while, was pre­par­ing for the ex­pected chal­lenge from Nor­mandy. Ac­cord­ing to the An­glo-saxon Chronicle, be­gun in the ninth cen­tury dur­ing the reign of Al­fred the Great, by early sum­mer he had “gath­ered such a great naval force, and a land force also, as no other king in the land had gath­ered be­fore”. The core of his army was his per­sonal body­guard of house­carls (Dan­ish húskarl, lit­er­ally “house man”) – pro­fes­sional sol­diers, per­haps around 2,000 prac­tised fight­ing men. The ma­jor part, how­ever, was the fyrd, the lo­cal “mili­tia”, com­pris­ing the shire landown­ers who in re­turn for their land were obliged to give up to two months’ mil­i­tary ser­vice a year, and a num­ber of men from each “hun­dred”, a sub­di­vi­sion of the shire con­tain­ing a hun­dred home­steads. The fleet was manned by liths­men – pro­fes­sion­als of lower so­cial stand­ing than the house­carls – and fyrds­men of the south coast har­bours.

How­ever, with no ap­pear­ance of Wil­liam or reap­pear­ance of Tostig, in early Septem­ber Harold stood down the fyrd. Their two months’ liege ser­vice was com­ing to an end and they were needed on their farms to gather in the last of the har­vest and be­gin the au­tumn tillage. As soon as his spies in­formed him of the fyrd’s dis­per­sal, Wil­liam made ready to strike.

But an ill wind was now blow­ing from the north and with it came Tostig once more – and the most feared Vik­ing of the age, Cnut’s grand­son, Har­ald “Hardrada” (Hard Ruler). Their com­bined num­bers may have been as many as 10,000 and on about 16 Septem­ber, hav­ing en­tered the Hum­ber and sailed up the Ouse, they marched on York. They were met by the north­ern earls at Gate Ful­ford, two miles south of the city. Ed­win and Mor­car were de­ci­sively beaten and sued for peace. Hav­ing pil­laged York, Hardrada and Tostig moved east to a cross­ing of the River Der­went known to­day as Stam­ford Bridge to await hostages and more gold.

As soon as Harold learned of the in­va­sion, he sent out sum­monses for the fyrd to re­assem­ble and set off up the old Ro­man Road with his house­carls. It is said that he cov­ered the 190 miles from Lon­don to York in four

days – highly im­prob­a­ble even on horse­back with­out re­lays, which would not have been avail­able in any num­ber for the house­carls. Six or seven is more re­al­is­tic but, even so, the fyrds­men who made it to York­shire would prob­a­bly have come from the mid­land shires. Harold reached Tad­caster, 10 miles south­west of York, on 24 Septem­ber, where he was joined by Ed­win and Mor­car, then at dawn next day marched for Stam­ford Bridge.

Harold took Hardrada by sur­prise. The bat­tle raged long and hard but the Norse­men even­tu­ally suc­cumbed to the English bat­tleaxes. Hardrada and Tostig were killed, Hardrada by an ar­row through his throat. The Vik­ing losses were so se­vere that only 25 long­boats from the fleet of more than 300 were needed to carry the sur­vivors away, which Harold only al­lowed af­ter Hardrada’s son gave a pledge never to at­tack Eng­land again.

Two days later, 27 Septem­ber, the wind in the Chan­nel changed, blow­ing south no longer but north-east. Wil­liam be­gan em­bark­ing his army to­wards even­ing, set­ting sail af­ter dark to evade the English fleet. Harold’s navy was still laid up for the win­ter, how­ever, so he was able to cross un­mo­lested – with more than 900 ships, ac­cord­ing to one chron­i­cler – mak­ing land­fall the fol­low­ing morn­ing at Pevensey, then mov­ing east to the Hast­ings penin­sula, a more suit­able de­fen­sive base.

Harold reached Lon­don on 6 Oc­to­ber with his house­carls, hav­ing, ac­cord­ing to Orderic, “sent far and wide to sum­mon the pop­u­lace to war”. True to his in­stincts for swift ac­tion, how­ever, he de­cided to take what men he had at once to Hast­ings, trust­ing that the fyrds­men would soon be gath­er­ing at the ren­dezvous – the “Hoar Ap­ple Tree” on Cald­bec Hill, nine miles north of the town.

How many men Wil­liam had is un­cer­tain. Be­tween 7,000 and 10,000, per­haps: 2,000 mounted knights in chain ar­mour bear­ing sword and lance, a thou­sand archers and cross­bow­men, the rest in­fantry. Harold’s army prob­a­bly num­bered as many but he had no cavalry – the house­carls rode to bat­tle but dis­mounted to fight – and few archers. Ac­cord­ing to the Ice­landic chron­i­cler Snorri Sturlu­son, writ­ing 150 years later, Harold’s house­carls were “so valiant that one of them was bet­ter than two of [Hardrada’s] best men”.

Harold left Lon­don on Wed­nes­day 11 Oc­to­ber and reached the Hoar Ap­ple Tree late on Fri­day. But it was Wil­liam who had de­cided on an im­me­di­ate at­tack, for he knew the odds against him could only in­crease. Hoist­ing the pa­pal ban­ner, he set out at dawn the fol­low­ing morn­ing, Satur­day 14 Oc­to­ber, to march the seven miles to Cald­bec Hill.

De­spite the claims of some chron­i­clers, Harold could not have been taken by sur­prise. As a sea­soned sol­dier he would have had pick­ets out beyond his bivouac and mounted pa­trols keep­ing watch on the Nor­man camp. Ac­cord­ing to the 12th-cen­tury Nor­man poet Maistre Wace, “the English passed the night with­out sleep, in drink­ing and singing”. The fyrds­men of dis­tant Devon and Corn­wall, who had stum­bled onto Cald­bec Hill only that even­ing, prob­a­bly slept soundly.

Lit­tle of what hap­pened that mo­men­tous Satur­day is known for sure, for there are no true eye-wit­ness ac­counts. Tra­di­tion has long held that Harold drew up his army not on Cald­bec Hill but on the lower ridge of Sen­lac, about a mile to the south. Yet why he should have given up the much stronger po­si­tion, so well suited for the An­glo-saxon “shield-wall”, is in­ex­pli­ca­ble. The ar­chae­o­log­i­cal ev­i­dence is lim­ited. Only the po­si­tion of Bat­tle Abbey it­self, built, again ac­cord­ing to tra­di­tion, at the ex­act place where Harold fell, sug­gests Sen­lac as the place of the fight. The space avail­able on both Cald­bec and Sen­lac hills al­lows for a

Harold’s house­carls were ‘so valiant that one was bet­ter than two of Hardrada’s best men’

frontage of a thou­sand men stand­ing shoul­der to shoul­der. By cus­tom, the men of Kent took the place of hon­our, the front rank. Be­hind them, there­fore, would have been those of Wilt­shire, Som­er­set, Devon and Corn­wall, gath­ered by shire un­der their sher­iffs, mus­tered with neigh­bours un­der their Hun­dred­man, some with weapons of war, oth­ers with bill hooks, scythes and forks. The men of Lon­don were prob­a­bly formed round the Wyvern stan­dard in the cen­tre. The Danes of York­shire and Northum­bria, who had vol­un­teered to join Harold af­ter Stam­ford Bridge, guarded the left flank. The house­carls would have formed Harold’s close de­fence but some may have been posted in the front rank to stiffen the fyrds­men. Harold’s broth­ers, Le­ofwin and Gyrth, had their own house­carls and prob­a­bly stood flank­ing the King.

Wil­liam drew up his army at the foot of the hill. On the left were his mer­ce­nar­ies from Brit­tany, An­gou and Maine un­der Alain “Fer­gant” (“Younger”), Duke of Brit­tany. In the cen­tre was the main body of Nor­mans un­der Wil­liam and his half-brother Bishop Odo, while on the right stood a com­bined French and Flem­ish mer­ce­nary force un­der Count Eus­tace of Boulogne. Each di­vi­sion was formed of archers to the front, foot sol­diers in the suc­ces­sive lines and mounted knights be­hind. “At the third hour”, nine o’clock, say the chron­i­clers, the bat­tle com­menced with vol­leys of Nor­man ar­rows. As the foot-sol­diers be­gan their ad­vance up the slopes, the house­carls and fyrds­men banged their shields, shout­ing “Ut!” (“Out”). They were re­pulsed, wrote Wil­liam of Poitiers in his near-con­tem­po­rary ac­count, by “a fusil­lade of javelins and mis­siles of var­i­ous kinds, mur­der­ous axes and stones tied to sticks”. The mounted knights now moved for­ward but were driven back. Wil­liam re­peated the at­tacks all morn­ing.

To­wards mid­day, panic seized the Nor­man army when word spread that Wil­liam had been killed. First the Bre­tons and then the whole line be­gan to give way, pur­sued by some of the fyrd, ral­ly­ing only when Wil­liam raised his vi­sor and rode into the fray. His knights turned sav­agely on the dis­or­dered fyrds­men.

Fight­ing con­tin­ued into the af­ter­noon, the English, ac­cord­ing to Wil­liam of Poitiers, “stand­ing firmly as if fixed to the ground”. So res­o­lute was their shield-wall that “the dead by falling seemed to move more than the liv­ing”.

The bat­tle was al­ready more pro­longed than most me­dieval bat­tles – per­haps even the long­est – and leg­end has it that late in the

af­ter­noon, mind­ing the ear­lier hap­less pur­suit by some of the fyrds­men, Wil­liam or­dered his knights to feign re­treat. This time the whole of the fyrd – though much re­duced by the fight­ing – charged down­hill af­ter them, where­upon the Nor­man cavalry turned on them and did ter­ri­ble slaugh­ter.

When, ex­actly, Harold was struck down by an ar­row is dis­puted. Even the story of the ar­row is ques­tioned, for the orig­i­nal stitch­ing on the Bayeux Ta­pes­try placed it above the fig­ure of Harold’s head, the eye be­com­ing the ar­row’s lodg­ing only dur­ing 19th-cen­tury restora­tion work. In­deed, the fig­ure of Harold is it­self ques­tion­able, for he holds a spear; Harold the King would have car­ried a sword – and Harold the Saxon war­rior an axe. The story is hal­lowed by cen­turies of sto­ry­telling, how­ever.

As dusk ap­proached, with the King and his broth­ers dead, the house­carls and fyrds­men alike ex­hausted, and with no hope of respite or re­lief, the shield-wall broke. “Some lay help­lessly in their own blood, oth­ers who strug­gled up were too weak to es­cape,” wrote Orderic. “The pas­sion­ate wish to es­cape death gave strength to some. Many left their corpses in deep woods, many who had col­lapsed on the routes blocked the way of those who came af­ter… The man­gled bod­ies that had been the flower of the English no­bil­ity and youth cov­ered the ground as far as the eye could see.”

Leg­end has it, too, that Harold’s com­mon­law wife, Edith Swan-neck, was af­ter­wards brought to the field by Wil­liam to iden­tify him, which she did from marks that “only a lover might know”. Leg­end also has it that she took the body for burial to Waltham Abbey, which Harold had founded, though other ver­sions have Wil­liam re­fus­ing a proper in­ter­ment be­cause Harold was an “oath-breaker”.

On Christ­mas Day 1066, Wil­liam was crowned King of Eng­land. At his coronation in West­min­ster Abbey, wrote Wil­liam of Poitiers, “the English all shouted their joy­ful as­sent, with no hes­i­ta­tion, as if heaven had granted them one mind and one voice”. But the guards out­side the abbey “hear­ing the loud clam­our in an un­known tongue, thought some treach­ery was afoot and rashly set fire to houses near to the city”. The con­gre­ga­tion rushed out, with only the bish­ops and a few clergy re­main­ing to com­plete the con­se­cra­tion of the new king, who was ob­served to be “trem­bling from head to foot”.

Thus be­gan King Wil­liam’s reign, with fires burn­ing around his throne. They would burn over Eng­land for five more years un­til the last re­sis­tance – by Here­ward the Wake, deep in the fens of Cam­bridgeshire – was fi­nally crushed.

The Bat­tle of Hast­ings by Tom Lovell; Bishop Odo wields a bac­u­lum, a sym­bol of author­ity

Left to right: the crown is of­fered to Harold II – de­tail from the Bayeux Ta­pes­try; Duke Wil­liam’s in­va­sion fleet cross­ing the Chan­nel; Harold de­fend­ing a hill at the Bat­tle of Hast­ings

One shaft, falling from Heaven, pierced his right eye, litho by C Dud­ley Ten­nant (left); Af­ter the Bat­tle of Hast­ings, by Henry Jus­tice Ford (right)

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