The Norman conquest
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