The preliminaries of the conquest and the Battle of Hastings

From William the Conqueror and the rule of the Normans by Frank Merry Stenton 1908

The spring and summer of 1066 must have been a time of restless activity on the part of William and of those who were associated with him in the preparations for the great enterprise of the autumn. The building of the fleet was being pushed forward, and volunteers from kindred states were continually arriving to be incorporated in the Norman army; this much we may infer from the fact that by August both fleet and army were ready for the expedition, but we know scarcely anything as to William's own movements in the interval. On the fifteenth of June a council was held at Bonneville at which Lanfranc was appointed abbot of William's new foundation of St. Stephen's Caen, and three days later Cicely, the eldest daughter of William and Matilda, was formally dedicated to the religious life at the consecration of her mother's house, the sister monastery of the Holy Trinity. The motives which prompted the duke and duchess to complete their religious undertakings were widely felt among the Norman baronage. The conquerors of England appear in a somewhat unaccustomed light as we read the charters by which they gave or confirmed land, each to his favoured monastery, "when Duke William was setting out across the sea." It was fully realised that the enterprise might end in utter disaster; the prudent abbot of Marmoutier, for instance, in case of accidents, secured from Robert, the heir of Normandy, at his father's request, a confirmation of all the grants which the latter had made to the house during his reign. [1]
The temporal affairs of Normandy were also discreetly arranged at this time. Matilda was appointed regent, and was supported by a council presided over by Roger de Beaumont, a man of age and experience, and a personal friend of the duke. No doubt if William had perished in England Robert would have succeeded him, but, although he was now of sufficient age to make a voluntary confirmation of his father's grants of land, he was clearly not old enough to undertake the government of the duchy during an interregnum. The fact that the expedition itself provided employment for the great mass of the fighting men of Normandy would promise a quiet rule for Matilda and her advisers, nor indeed do we hear of any disturbances taking place in the duchy while William was across the Channel.
Before the close of August the fleet was ready at last, and lay at the mouth of the Dive ready to set sail at any moment. [2] The army also was ready for embarkation, and the only thing which was lacking to the expedition was a south wind to carry the fleet to the Sussex coast. But for six weeks at least that south wind refused to blow, and every week of delay increased William's difficulties a hundredfold. Nothing could have been more discouraging to an army of adventurers than week after week of compulsory inaction; and the fact that William was able to keep perfect order, among a force part only of which owed direct allegiance to him as feudal lord, suggests that he possessed qualities of leadership which were not very common among the captains of his day. At more than one crisis in his life William had already shown that he could possess his soul in patience until the moment arrived at which it was possible to strike, and he must have succeeded in imparting something of this spirit to his troops in their vigil by the Dive. In the more definite work of commissariat we know that he proved himself a master; for no shortage of provisions was felt at any time during the unexpected delay, and few eleventh-century armies could have remained for a month in the same quarters without being driven to find their own means of subsistence in plunder. William's biographer was justified in remarking on the fact that the unarmed folk of the neighbourhood could pass to and fro without trembling when they saw a body of soldiers; [3] and before the task of provisioning the army by regular means had become an impossibility, a west wind served to carry the fleet to a point which offered a shorter passage across into England than that which was presented by its original station on the Dive.
Within the county of Ponthieu, which had become a member of the Norman group of vassal states when Count Guy became William's "man" after the battle of Mortemer, the estuary of the Somme supplied an excellent natural harbour beneath the town of Saint Valery. The passage from the mouth of the Dive seems to have been accomplished without incident, and William and his forces took possession of their new quarters on the twelfth day of September. For more than a fortnight the situation did not seem to have improved in any way; the wind which was carrying Harold Hardrada down the coast of Yorkshire kept William locked in the mouth of the Somme. The weather was cold and squally and we have a contemporary description of the way in which William kept watching the weathercock on the church tower and of his joy if for a moment the gale drove it to point northward. [4] The strain of suspense was now beginning to tell upon the army
The common soldiers, as frequently happens, began to murmur in their tents that the man must be mad to wish to conquer a foreign country, that his father had proposed to do the same and had been baffled in the same way, that it was the destiny of the family to try for things beyond their reach and to find God for their enemy." [5]
It was clearly necessary to do something to relieve the prevailing tension, and the expedient chosen was characteristic of the time; the relics of the patron saint of the town were brought with great solemnity out of the church, and the casket which contained them was exhibited to receive the prayers and offerings of the duke and his army. The result was a convincing proof of the virtue of the bones of St. Valery; without further delay the south wind blew. [6]
The same day saw the embarkation of the Norman army, the work being carried through as quickly as possible in evident fear that the wind might slip round again to its former quarter. Night was falling before all was ready, and before the duke, after a final visit to the church of St. Valery, had given his last orders on the Norman shore. It was important that the fleet should be prevented from scattering in the darkness, so each vessel was ordered to carry a light, a lantern of special power adorning the masthead of the duke's own ship. With the same object it was directed that the fleet should anchor as soon as it was clear of the estuary of the Somme, and await further orders. Through the dead of night the fleet hung outside the harbour, and it was still dark when the expedition ventured out at last into the open waters of the Channel. The great body of the ships, each of which carried a heavy load of horses in addition to its freight of men-at-arms, was inevitably outstripped by the unimpeded galley which bore William to his destiny; and when the dawn began to break, the duke found himself out of sight of the rest of the fleet, and not yet within view of the English shore. In these circumstances William cast anchor and breakfasted "as it had been in his own hall," says one of his companions; and, under the influence of the wine with which the Mora was well supplied, his spirits rose, the prospects of his enterprise seemed golden in the morning light, and he spoke words of encouragement to his companions. And at last the sailors reported that the rest of the fleet began to come in sight; the four ships which first appeared together upon the horizon grew more and more until the man on the look-out could be made by our imaginative informant to remark that the masts of the fleet showed like a forest upon the sea. [7] Then the duke weighed anchor for the last time, and the south wind still holding carried him and his fleet into Pevensey bay at nine in the morning; the day being St. Michael's Eve by an appropriate chance, for the archangel was highly honoured in the Norman land.
William's landing was entirely undisputed; the good luck which, as we have noticed, waited on his expedition in its diplomatic antecedents, attended its military details also. During the summer months, Harold, making what use he could of the antiquated military system of England, had called out the fyrd, and lined the south coast with troops, which, however helpless they might be in a pitched battle with the Norman chivalry, might have brought considerable inconvenience to William, if they had been in evidence at the moment of his landing. From May to September the Sussex coast in general, Hastings and Pevensey in particular, were guarded by the rural forces of the shire. [8] At last, about the time when William was moving from the Dive to St. Valery, the patience and provisions of the fyrd gave out together; the rustics had been kept away from their homes for four times the customary period of service without anything hap- pening, and they refused to stay on guard any longer. They probably would not have made any difference to the ultimate result in any case, nor need we blame Harold for being unable to keep them together; but the fact is another illustration of the hopeless inefficiency of the old English state. And then, one week before William's landing, Harold had gathered the whole of such professional soldiers as England contained, and had spent them in the life-and-death struggle at Stamfordbridge. Harold Hardrada had fallen, but his overthrow had gone far to exhaust the military resources of England, and it was a shattered, if victorious, army which was resting with Harold Godwinson, at York, when a fugitive from Sussex arrived to tell that William of Normandy had landed, and that the south lay at his mercy.
William's first movements in England were very deliberate. His immediate care was to fortify his position at Pevensey and so protect his fleet against surprise. At Pevensey, as afterwards at Lincoln, a line of Roman walling could be turned to account in the construction of a castle, [9] which was run up in the course of the day; and having thus, like his Scandinavian ancestors, secured for himself a base of operations if events turned out ill, William marched to Hastings, which was to be his base of operations for the rest of the campaign. [10] At Hastings, therefore, another castle was thrown up, the building, like nearly all the castles built during the twenty years which followed the Conquest, consisting merely of a mound, with wooden defences on the top and a ditch and one or more outer works below. Hastings is a point of departure for many roads ; a fact which no doubt very largely accounts for William's choice of the town as his headquarters; for it could easily be provisioned by supplies from the neighbouring country, and it lay very conveniently as a base for an attack on London. The men of east Sussex were not long before they felt the pressure of the invading army. Most of the villages in the neighbourhood of Hastings are recorded in Domesday to have been "waste" at some period between the death of King Edward and 1066, and the connection between these signs of ravage and William's camp at Hastings is sufficiently obvious. But it is not probable that William attempted any systematic harrying of this district such as that which three years afterwards he carried out with grim success in the country beyond the Humber; the Sussex villages, as a rule, had quite recovered their former prosperity by the date of the great survey. The passage of foraging parties over the land demanding provisions, which would be none too readily granted, and the other incidents of a medieval war of invasion, are enough to account for depreciation of the kind recorded. Harold himself, as he drew towards Hastings, left traces of his march in similar cases of temporary devastation, and there is no reason to suppose that William undertook a deliberate harrying of Sussex in order to provoke Harold to a general engagement. [11]
William, indeed, as yet can hardly have known the result of Stamfordbridge with any degree of certainty. Rumours of the great battle in the north would no doubt gradually filter down into Sussex during the week following the event, but for some days after his arrival at Hastings William cannot have ignored the possibility that it might be a Norwegian host which would ultimately appear upon the edge of the downs. Definite news, however, at some unspecified date, was brought to William by a message from an unexpected quarter. [12] Robert, the son of Wymarc, a Breton knight, who in some unknown way could claim kindred with both William and Edward, had been "staller" or master of the horse to the latter, and had stood together with Harold and Stigand by the king's deathbed. Whether he had actually been present at the battle of Stamfordbridge is uncertain; but shortly after the fight he sent a messenger to William to advise a speedy withdrawal to Normandy before something worse happened to him. The message ran that Harold had destroyed the huge forces of the king of Norway, himself the bravest man in the world, and that now, inspired by victory, he was turning upon the duke with a great and enthusiastic army. Rather unwisely Robert went on to add that the Normans were no match for the English, either in numbers or bravery, and that William, who had always shown himself discreet hitherto, would do well to retire at once, or at all events to keep within his fortifications and avoid a battle in the open field. To this well-meaning person William replied that his one desire was to come to blows with Harold, that although Robert's advice might have been better expressed yet he thanked him for it, and that if he had with him but ten thousand instead of sixty thousand men [13] he would never retire without wreaking vengeance on his enemy. It is not unlikely that Robert's message was really inspired by Harold himself, and from one or two turns of expression in William's reply we may perhaps gather that he suspected as much; although it might be thought that Harold, who had seen something of his rival in past years, cannot have had much hope of getting rid of him by mere intimidation. However this may be, it is interesting to find Robert, a prominent member of a class which has suffered much abuse because of an assumed lack of patriotism towards its adopted country, playing a part which so admirably saves his duty to his king and his kinsman alike.
We have two poetical accounts of the way in which the news of William's landing was brought to Harold at York. Wace, the Norman poet of the twelfth century, tells how a Sussex "chevalier" heard the shouting of the "peasants and villeins" as the fleet drew in to the shore, and how, attracted by the noise, he came out, hid behind a hill and lay there until the work of disembarkation was over and the castle at Pevensey thrown up; then riding off with lance and sword, night and day, to York, to tell the king the news of what he had seen. [14] Guy, bishop of Amiens, who wrote within a short time of the event, makes the news of the Norman arrival be borne by a rustic from Hastings, not Pevensey; and the details which are told to Harold relate to the devastation caused by the invaders near Hastings, not to the landing itself. [15] Perhaps these two stories are not quite incompatible with each other; but we need not attempt to reconcile them here, in view of the undoubted fact that Harold was informed of William's landing within some three days of the event.
At this crisis Harold acted with astonishing energy. Taking with him his faithful huscarles, a body sadly thinned by the battle of a few days before, he hurried southwards by way of Tadcaster, Lincoln, Stamford, and Huntingdon, the same route which in the reverse direction he had followed in the previous week ; now as then drawing into his force the fyrd of the shires through which he passed. Edwin and Morcar were directed to raise the levies of their respective earldoms, and in their expected absence the government of the north was entrusted to Marleswegen, the sheriff of Lincolnshire, [16] an Englishman who remains little more than a name in the narrative of the Conquest, but who, if Harold had triumphed at Hastings might probably have played an important part in the history of the following years. How far Harold really believed in the fidelity of the northern earls is uncertain; they 'had shown no overt signs of disaffection during the last months since he had married their sister. On the other hand, considering the long-standing rivalry between his house and theirs, and their probable share in the Northumbrian difficulties at the beginning of his reign, Harold was perhaps not altogether surprised that Edwin and Morcar, in the words of Florence of Worcester, "withdrew themselves and their men from the conflict." With the best intentions they would have found it difficult to join him in time for the battle; it would not have been easy for them to raise the fyrd from all the shires between the Humber and the Tweed on the one part and between the fens and the Severn on the other, and to bring the troops to London within the five days which Harold spent there. For on October nth, [17] a fortnight after the battle of Stamfordbridge, Harold set out from London on his last march towards the Sussex downs.
It is an interesting, but not very profitable, speculation how far Harold was justified in staking his all upon the result of a single battle with the invader. With our knowledge of what happened it is natural to condemn him; he was condemned by the general opinion of the historians of the next generation, and very possibly their sentence is right. On the other hand we cannot but feel that we know very little of the real facts of the case; even the essential question of the relative numbers of the English and Norman armies cannot be answered with any degree of accuracy. It may be argued with much plausibility that the wisest course for Harold would have been to let William work his will upon the unfortunate inhabitants of Sussex, trusting to time and the national feeling likely to be aroused by the ravages of an invader to bring an overwhelming superiority in numbers over to his side. This, we may be sure, would have been the course taken by William himself in such a case, but Harold was probably by nature incapable of playing a waiting game of this kind. His ability, so far as we can tell, lay in sudden assaults and surprises; the more deliberate processes of generalship were foreign to his temperament. And then there remains the fact that the loyalty of Mercia and Northumbria was at least doubtful; delay on Harold's part might only mean that Edwin and Morcar with their forces would have time to come over effectively to William's side, while another great victory so soon after Stamfordbridge would have placed Harold in a position from which, for the time being, he could defy all rivals. At any rate he took the step, and paid the penalty of failure.
But, whatever we may think of the general wisdom of Harold's strategy, it is impossible to deny that he showed a general's appreciation of the tactical possibilities of the ground on which he chose to put the fate of England to the test. After a forced march through the thick woods which at that time covered the Sussex downs, the king halted his army on a barren ridge of ground seven miles north-east of the town of Hastings, It is plain from all the narratives of the forthcoming encounter that the ridge in question was quite unoccupied at the time of the battle; and when the English chroniclers wish to describe its site they can only tell us that Harold and William came together "by the hoar apple-tree." [18] The strength of the position was determined, not so much by the general elevation of the ground, which at no point reaches a greater height than 300 feet above sea level, as by the fact that it was surrounded by country very hilly and much broken by streams, and that its physical features lent natural support to the disposition of an army which relied for success on its capacity for stolid resistance. The position was undoubtedly chosen by Harold with the object of forcing his enemy to an immediate battle; for William could not move either east or west from Hastings without exposing his base to an English attack; and Harold, who knew that the main strength of a Norman army lay in its troops of mailed horsemen, had been careful to offer battle on a site in which the cavalry arm would be placed by the ground at a natural disadvantage. [19]
From the nature of the case it has come about that we possess very little information either as to the numbers of the English army or as to the details of its formation on the day of battle. The Norman writers, on whom we are compelled to rely, have naturally exaggerated the former, nor did any survivor from the English army describe the order of its battle array to the chroniclers of Worcester or Peterborough. In recent studies of the great battle there is manifested a strong unwillingness to allow to either the English or the Norman host more than a small proportion of the numbers which used to be assigned to it thirty years ago. [20] It is very improbable that William led more than 6000 men into action on October 15, 1066, and there is good reason for doubting whether the knightly portion of his army can have exceeded 5000. Small as this last number may appear, every man included in it was an efficient combatant; but the English force was largely composed of rustics impressed from the shires through which Harold had rushed on his great march from York to London after the battle of Stamfordbridge, and even so, it is far from certain that the native force was materially stronger than the army of invasion. With regard to its distribution, we know that the English line of battle seemed convex to the Normans on their approach from the south-east, [21] and it is probable that it ran for some 800 yards along the. hill of battle, the flanks being thrown well back so as to rest upon the steep bank which bounds the ridge towards the north. It is certain that the English troops were drawn up in extremely close order, and it is a natural assumption that Harold would place the kernel of his army, the huscarles who had survived Stamfordbridge, in, the front rank; stationing his inferior troops in the rear so as to support the huscarles in resisting the impact of the Norman cavalry. [22] On the highest point of the whole line, a spot now marked by the high altar of the Abbey church of Battle, Harold planted his standard; and it was round the standard that the fight was most stoutly contested, and that, after seven hours of struggle, the king at last fell. In speaking of the generalship displayed by Harold's rival on this occasion, it is important to beware of the associations aroused by modern military terminology. At least if we speak of him as a strategist or tactician, we should be careful to remember that strategy and tactics themselves had attained to but a rudimentary stage of development in Northern Europe in the eleventh century. Recent studies of tie battle of Hastings, the one fight of the period in regard to which we possess a considerable amount of detailed information, have brought out the fact that William's host was far too stiff and unwieldy a body to perform the complicated evolutions by which it used to be assumed that the day was won. [23] We should be committing a grave error if we were to suppose that the Norman army possessed that mobility and capacity for concerted action among its several divisions which belonged to the forces led by Turenne or Marlborough. Feudal battles were determined more by the event of simple collisions of large masses of men than by their manoeuvres when in the field: the skill of a great feudal captain lay chiefly in his ability to choose his ground so as to give his side the preliminary advantage in the shock of battle; apart from the example of his personal valour he had but little influence upon the subsequent fortunes of the day. On the present occasion William was compelled to fight on the ground of his opponent's choice; and this initial disadvantage cost the Norman leader an indefinite number of his best troops, and, even after the issue of the battle had been decided, protracted the English resistance until nightfall had put an end to the struggle. On the other hand, there was one fatal weakness in the English host which must have been recognised by the other side already before the fight had begun. The fact that Harold, for all effective purposes, was totally unprovided with either archers or cavalry exposed his army to a method of attack which he was quite unable to parry, and the arrangement of the Norman line of battle shows that William from the first relied for success on this advantage. The battle of Hastings was won by the combination of archery and cavalry against infantry whose one chance of success lay in the possibility that it might keep its formation unbroken until the strength of the offensive had been exhausted. [24] In the early morning of the 14th of October the Norman army moved out of Hastings and advanced across the seven miles of broken country which lay between the English army and the sea. The march must have been a toilsome business, and the rapidity with which it was accomplished is remarkable. [25] At the point marked by the modern village of Telham, the road from Hastings to Battle passes over a hill which rises to some 350 feet above sea-level, and commands a view of the English position. On the far side of this hill it is probable that William halted, waited for his scattered troops to come together, and then drew them out in order of battle. In his first line he placed his light-armed infantry, who probably formed a very inconsiderable portion of his army, and were unprovided with defensive harness. To these inferior troops succeeded infantry of a higher class, protected by armour, but, like the light-armed skirmishers in the front rank, armed only with bows and arrows and slings. The function of the infantry in the coming encounter was to harass the English with their missiles and tempt them to break their ranks. Lastly came the main body of the Norman army, the squadrons of cavalry, on whom it rested to attack the English line after it had been shaken by the missiles of the previous ranks. [26] The whole army was further arranged in three great divisions, the native Normans composing the centre, the Bretons, under the command of Alan, son of Count Eon of Penthievre, forming the left wing, and the French volunteers the right. [27] In the centre of the whole line of advance, the Norman counterpart of the English standard, there was borne the consecrated banner which William had received from the pope. [28]
So quickly had the march from Hastings been made that the actual fighting was opened at about nine in the morning [29] by an advance of the Norman foot. Galled by a heavy fire from the archers, which could only be answered very ineffectively by the spears and stones which were almost the sole missile weapons of the English, numbers of the native troops broke away from their line, in defiance of the strict orders issued by Harold to the effect that no man should leave his post. In the meantime, the Norman cavalry had been steadily making its way to the front in order to take immediate advantage of the disorder caused in the English ranks by the fire of the archers. But the knights could only move their horses slowly up the hill; the solidity of the English formation had not been seriously affected as yet, and the cavalry were compelled to attack an unbroken line. The result was disaster. The Breton auxiliaries on the left fell back, the confusion spread rapidly, and the English, seizing their advantage, sallied forth and drove the entire Norman line before them in headlong flight down the hill. [30] Fortunately William had not joined in this first attack in person, and when in their panic the Normans believed that their leader had fallen, they were soon recalled to their senses by the sight of the duke with bared head, laying about him with his spear, and shouting words of reproof and encouragement. [31] Mounted as they were, the flying knights could have but little difficulty in outstripping their pursuers, but, if we may trust the Bayeux tapestry, a number of English and Normans perished together in the course of the flight, by falling into a deep depression in the ground situated somewhere between the base of the hill and the duke's post. According to the same authority, the bishop of Bayeux did good service at this moment, restoring order among the baggage-carriers and camp-followers, who were apparently becoming infected with the panic which had seized their masters. [32] Between the duke and his brother, the flight was checked, and then the knights, eager to avenge their disgrace, rallied, turned, and cut off their pursuers from their comrades on the hill, making a wholesale slaughter of them. [33] Mainly through William's self-possession the Norman rout had ended after all in a distinct success gained for his side.
As soon as the cavalry had re-formed, the attack on the English position was resumed; this time under the immediate leadership of the duke. The struggle at the foot of the hill had given its defenders time to close their ranks, and the English continued to present an impenetrable front to the Norman cavalry. All along the line a desperate struggle raged for some hours, but of its details no tale can be told, although it is probable that it was at this point in the battle that Gyrth and Leofwine, Harold's brothers, fell, and there is good reason for believing that the former was struck down by the hand of the duke himself. William, indeed, in all our authorities is represented as the life and soul of the attack, "more often calling to his men to come on than bidding them advance" says William of Poitiers; he had three horses killed tinder him before the day was over, and he did all that might be done by a feudal captain to keep his troops together and to inspire them by his example. But notwithstanding his exertions it is evident that the English were more than holding their own, [34] and a second repulse suffered thus late in the day by the Norman cavalry would almost certainly have passed into a rout of the whole army. At this crisis it occurred to some cunning brain, whether that of the duke or another, that it might be possible by feigning flight to tempt the English troops to break their formation, and then, by turning on suitable ground, to repeat the success which had ended the real flight in the forenoon. The movement was easily carried out; a body of Normans rode away, and a crowd of Englishmen, regardless of everything except the relief from the immediate strain of keeping their ranks, hurled themselves down the hill shouting curses and cries of victory. No discipline could have been kept under the circumstances, and when the galloping knights suddenly spread out their line, wheeled around their horses, and surrounded the disordered mob of their pursuers the latter were ridden down and cut to pieces by scores. [35]
It is, of course, impossible to estimate the actual extent of the loss which the English sustained in the episode of the feigned flight, but there can be little doubt that its success marks the turning-point in the fortune of the day. No incident in the great battle made a deeper impression upon the historians who have described it for us, and the tale of the feigned flight is told in different narratives with great variety of circumstance and detail. But from the writers who lived nearest to the time we may infer with tolerable certainty that the manoeuvre in question was a sudden expedient, devised and acted upon without previous organisation, and also that it was a simple, not a combined movement. The whole business of decoying the English from the hill, turning upon, and then surrounding them, was the work of one and the same body of knights. On the other hand, it is probably incorrect to speak of the feigned flight in the singular, for our best authority distinctly asserts that the same stratagem was used twice;[36] fighting was going on along a front of at least half a mile in length, and different sections of the Norman army may very well have carried out the movement at different times, and in complete independence of each other. However this may be, the effect of the manoeuvre was soon apparent. The English line, though shrunken in numbers, closed its ranks and kept its formation, wedged together so tightly that the wounded could not fall behind to the rear, nor even the dead bodies drop to the ground. But the superior endurance of the Norman troops was beginning to tell; the English were rapidly losing heart, [37] and the consummation of William's victory only waited for the destruction of King Harold, and of the warriors who fought with him round the standard.
The attack which finally beat down the resistance of the English line seems to have been delivered from some point to the south-east of the hill. [38] The battle had already continued for seven or eight hours, and twilight was beginning to fall, [39] but its approach could only remind the shaken remnant of the native host that the day was lost, and the end of the great fight was now very near. It was in the last confused struggle which raged round the standard in the fading light that Harold met his death; and then his companions, tired out and hopeless of reinforcement, yielded the ground they had defended for so long, and broke away to the north-west along the neck of land which connects the hill of battle with the higher ridges of the downs beyond it. The victors followed in hot pursuit; but a strange chance gave to Harold, in the very hour of his death, a signal revenge over the men at whose hands he had just fallen. A little to the west of the original position of the English army one of the headwaters of the Asten had cut a deep ravine, of which the eastern face was so steep as to be a veritable trap for any incautious horsemen who might attempt to ride down it. In the gathering darkness knight after knight, galloping after the English fugitives in secure ignorance of the ground, crashed down into this gully; and the name Malfosse, borne throughout the Middle Ages by the ravine in question, bears witness to the extent of the disaster which the victorious army suffered at this point. [40] Harold, after he had lost life and kingdom, was still justified of the ground which he had chosen as the place of battle.
Late in the night William returned to the battlefield and pitched his tent there. There could be no doubt that he had gained an unequivocal victory; his rival was dead, the native army annihilated; he could well afford to give his troops the rest they needed. The early part of the following day was spent in the burial of the Norman dead; the work being carried out under the duke's immediate care. The English folk of the neighbourhood soon came in numbers to the battlefield and begged for the bodies of their fallen kinsfolk, which they were allowed to cany away for burial; but the unclaimed corpses were left strewn about the hill. Before long the bodies of Harold, Gyrth and Leofwine were found lying close together; but Harold's corpse had been horribly mangled, and, according to the later romantic story, it was only identified by means of certain marks upon the body which were known and recognised by the dead man's mistress, Edith the Swan-necked. Towards the close of the morrow of the battle, William returned to his castle at Hastings, bearing Harold's body with him for burial upon the shore in unconsecrated ground as befitted an excommunicate, and an urgent message from Gytha, Godwine's widow, offering for her son's body its weight in gold, did nothing to shake his purpose. [41] With characteristic irony William remarked that it was but fitting that Harold in death should be appointed guardian of the shore and sea, which he had tried to defend in life; and the dead king's body, wrapped in a purple robe, was laid out of sight somewhere among the rocks along the shore of Hastings bay. Later tradition indeed asserted that Harold before long was translated from this unhallowed grave to a tomb in the minster of the Holy Cross at Waltham, which he had founded three years before [42] ; but the authority on which this story depends is none of the best, and, for all that we really know to the contrary, the last native king of England is still the guardian of the Sussex shore.
Harold, above all kings in English history with the possible exceptions of Richard III. and Charles I, was happy in the circumstances of his death. He gained thereby an immediate release from the performance of an impossible task, and he was enabled to redeem the personal ambitions which governed his past life by associating them in the moment of his fall with the cause of the national independence of England. It has been possible for historians to regret the outcome of the battle of Hastings only because it overthrew Harold before he could prove the hopelessness of the position in which he had placed himself. What chance had he, a man of uncertain ancestry and questionable antecedents, of completing the work which had overcome every king before him: the work of reconciling the antagonism of north to south, of making the royal word supreme in the royal council, of making the provincial nobility of England and its dependents the subjects of the king and of the king only? It may well be that such a task would have proved beyond the power of any native king, though descended from the immemorial line of Cerdic[43] how could it be completed by an ambitious earl, invested indeed with the royal authority, but crippled in its exercise by the bitter rivalry cf men who had formerly been his fellow-subjects; whose birth was more noble, whose wealth was scarcely less, who, in opposition to his rule, could rely upon endless reserves of local patriotism, the one source of political strength which the land contained? To genius, indeed, all things are possible, but to ascribe genius to this commonplace, middle-aged earl would be to do sheer violence to the meaning of words. Harold will always hold a noble place in the record of English history; but he owes that place solely to the events of his last month of life, when the terrible necessity of straining every faculty he possessed in the support of his trembling throne roused in him a quickness of perception and a rapidity of action which his uneventful career as earl of Wessex could never have called into being. Harold was undoubtedly the best captain that England had seen since the death of Edmund Ironside, just fifty years before the battle of Hastings; but the work which Harold had undertaken would have called for quite other powers than those which he revealed so unexpectedly on the eve of his death. William the Conqueror, endowed as he was by nature with the faculties of a great ruler to an extent perhaps without parallel in English history; superior by the fact that he came in by conquest to all the local jealousies which distracted Anglo-Saxon politics; and with unique opportunities of recasting the social and tenurial features of English life ; could only create a strong and uniform government in England after three years of almost incessant war, the reduction of a third of England to a wilderness, and the remodelling in principle of the whole fabric of the English administration, civil and military. When it is remembered that the resistance to William was made essentially on grounds not of national feeling, but of local particularism, and that these forces would undoubtedly have conspired against Harold as they afterwards conspired against his rival, we can only conclude that fate was kind which slew Harold in the heat of battle in a noble cause, instead of condemning him to witness the disintegration of his kingdom, in virtual impotence, varied only by spasmodic outbreaks of barren civil war.


1. Round, Calendar of Documents preserved in France, No. 1713.
2. William of Poitiers, 122.
3. William of Poitiers, 123. "Turmasmilitumcernens, noneshomescens."
4. Guy of Amiens, ed. Giles, 58.
5. William of Malmesbury, Gesta Regum, ii., 300.
6. William of Poitiers, 125.
7. William of Poitiers, 126.
8. Abingdon Chronicle, 1066.
9. Guy of Amiens : "Diruta quae fuerant dudum castella reforxnas; Ponis custodes ut tueantur ea."
10. William of Poitiers: "Normanni previa munitione Penevesellum altera Hastingas occupavere."
11. See on this point Round, Feudal England, 150-152.
12. William of Poitiers, 138.
13. William's real numbers probably lay between six and seven thousand.
14. See the paraphrase of this passage in the Roman de Ron, Freeman, N. C., iii., 417.
15. Guy of Amiens, p. 31 : "Ex Anglis unus t latitans sub rupe marina Cemit ut effusas innumeras acies. Scandere currit equum; festinat dicere regi."
16. Gaimar, l'Estoire des Engles, R. S., i., p. 222. Gaimar wrote in the twelfth century, but he followed a lost copy of the Anglo Saxon chronicle.
17. For the chronology of the campaigns of Stamfordbridge and Hastings the dates given by Freeman are followed here
18. Worcester Chronicle, 1066 : "He com him togenes at thoere haran apuldran."
19. The statement that Harold further strengthened his position by building a palisade in front of it rests solely on an obscure and probably corrupt passage in the Roman de Rott (lines 7815 et seqq). Apart altogether from the textual difficulty, the assertion' of Wace is of no authority in view of the silence both of contemporary writers and of those of the next generation. In regard to none of the many earlier English fights of this century have we any hint that the position of the army was strengthened in this manner; nor in practice would it have been easy for Harold to collect sufficient timber to protect a front of 8oo yards on the barren down where he made his stand. The negative evidence of the Bayeux tapestry is of particular importance here; for its designer could represent defences of the kind suggested when he so desired, as in the case of the fight at Dinan.
20. Spatz, p. 30, will only allow to William a total force of six to seven thousand men.
21. William of Poitiers, 133. "Cuncti pedites consistere denslus conglobati." For the arrangement of the English army on the hill see Baring, E. H. R., xx., 65.
22. It is probable that the expressions in certain later authorities (e.g. W. M., ii., 302, "pedites omnes cum bipennibus conserta ante se testudine") from which the formation by the English of a definite shield or wall has been inferred mean no more than this. The "bord weal" of earlier Anglo-Saxon warfare may also be explained as a poetical phrase for a line of troops in close order. See Round, Feudal England, 360-366.
23. This fact, which must condition any account to be given of the battle of Hastings, was first stated by Dr. W. Spate, "Die Schlacht von Hastings." section v., "Taktik beider Heere," p. 34.
24. This point is brought out strongly by Oman, History of the Art of War.
25. Spatz, p. 29, uses this fact to limit the numbers of the Norman army.
26. William of Poitiers, 132.
27. Guy of Amiens: "Laevam Galli, dextram petiere Britanni. Dux cum Nonnannis dimicat in medio."
28. William of Poitiers, 132.
29. Florence of Worcester, 1066: "Ab hora, tamen diei tertia usque ad noctis crepusculum."
30. Guy of Amiens. W. P., 133: "Cedit fere cuncta Ducis acies."
31. "Fugientibus occurrit et obstitit, verberans aut minans hasta." W. P., 134.
32. Bayeux tapestry scene: "Hie Odo episcopus, baculum tenftns, confortat pueros."
33. William of Poitiers, 134.
34. "Animadvertentes Normanni , . . non absque nimio sui incommode hostem tantura simul resistentem superari posse." W. P., 135.
35. Normanni repente regirati equis interceptos et inclusos undique mactaverunt." William of Poitiers, 135.
36. "Bis eo dolo simili eventu usi." William of Poitiers, 135.
37. "Languent Angli, et quasi reattun ipso defectu confitentes, vindictum patiuntur." W. P., 135.
38. Baring, E. H. R., xxii., 71.
39. "Jam inclinato die. 1' W. P., 137. Crepttsculi iempore. Florence of Worcester, 1066.
40. Baring, E. H. R., xsii., 69.
41. Guy of Amiens.
42. See the Waltham tract, De Iwentione Sancti Cruets, ed.
43. Stubbs. William of Malmesbury was evidently acquainted with this legend.