Orderic Vitalis Historia Ecclesiastica

CH. XI. Death of Edward the Confessor - Duke William's preparations for the invasion of England

In the year of our Lord 1066 [the fourth indiction], in the month of April, there appeared in the zodiac, for fifteen days together, a star called a comet, which, as clever astrologers, who have keenly investigated the secrets of nature, assert, portended a revolution. For Edward, king of England, the son of King Ethelred by Emma, daughter of Richard the elder, king of Normandy, had died just before, and Harold, Earl Godwin's son, had usurped the English throne. Guilty as he was of perjury, cruelty, and other iniquities, he had now held it three months, to the great injury of many persons, inasmuch as his unjust usurpation had occasioned violent animosities between different families, from which mothers had to bewail the loss of their sons, and wives of their husbands. There is no doubt that Edward had bequeathed the realm of England to his kinsman William, duke of Normandy, announcing it, first by Robert, archbishop of Canterbury, and afterwards by Harold himself, and, with the consent of the English, making the duke heir to all his rights. Moreover Harold had taken the oath of allegiance to duke William at Rouen, in the presence of the nobles of Normandy, and doing him homage had sworn on the holy relics to all that was required of him. After that, the duke took Harold with him in an expedition against Conan, count of Brittany, presenting him and his retinue with noble war horses, splendid armour, and other gifts of value, in the presence of the army. This Englishman was distinguished by his great size and strength of body, his polished manners, his firmness of mind and command of words, by a ready wit and a variety of excellent qualities. But what availed so many valuable gifts, when good faith, the foundation of all virtues, was wanting? Returning to his country, his ambition tempted him to aspire to the crown, and to forfeit the fealty he had sworn to his lord. He imposed upon King Edward, who was in the last stage of decay, approaching his end, by the account he gave of his crossing the sea, his journey to Normandy, and the result of his mission, falsely adding that Duke William would give him his daughter in marriage, and concede to him, as his son-in-law, all his right to the throne of England. The feeble prince was much surprised at this statement; however, he believed it, and granted all the crafty tyrant asked.

Some time afterwards, King Edward, of pious memory, died at London on the nones [fifth] of January, in the twenty-fourth year of his reign, and was interred in the new monastery which he had just built on the western side of the city, and at the consecration of which he had been present the week before. His body was laid near the altar which St. Peter the apostle had blessed with the working of miracles in the time of Mellitus, bishop of London. On the very day of the funeral, when the people were bathed in tears for the loss of their beloved king, Harold caused himself to be crowned by Archbishop Stigand alone, though the pope had suspended him from his functions for certain crimes, without the concurrence of any other bishops and the earls and barons of the realm. When the English were apprized of the bold usurpation effected by Harold, they were very indignant and some of the most powerful lords, resolved on an obstinate resistance, refused to offer him any token of submission. Others, not knowing how to free themselves from the yoke imposed upon them, which soon became firmly fixed, and, on the other hand, considering that they could neither depose him, nor while he held the reigns of government set up another king to the advantage of the realm, submitted to the usurpation, consolidating the power which he had already established. In a short time the throne which had been iniquitously seized was stained by horrible crimes.

The earls Edwin and Morcar, sons of Algar the first of the English earls, were attached by the strictest ties to Harold, and employed all their efforts to support his cause, he having married their sister Edith, who had been the queen of Griffith a powerful king of Wales, to whom she bore Blethyn, his successor, and a daughter named Nesta. Tostig, however, Earl Godwin's son, finding that his brother's enterprise proved successful, and that the kingdom of England was subject to great oppression, was much distressed, and determined to oppose him and even to levy war against him. Wherefore Harold violently deprived him of his father's earldom, which as eldest son he had held for sometime during the reign of Edward, and drove him into exile. Tostig, thus banished, took refuge in Flanders, where he committed his wife Judith to the care of his father-in-law Baldwin, earl of Flanders, and then hastening to Normandy strongly remonstrated with Duke William for suffering his perjured vassal to usurp the crown of England, which he pledged himself the duke would secure if he crossed the channel with a Norman army. These princes had been long attached to each other, having married two sisters, through whom their regard was frequently revived. William therefore received his companion with open arms, and thanking him for his friendly suggestions, and roused by his exhortations, assembled the barons of Normandy to consult with them publicly on what was to be done with regard to an enterprise of such vast importance.

At that time Normandy was favoured by possessing many accomplished prelates and illustrious nobles. Maurilius, who from a monk became a metropolitan, was archbishop of Rouen; Odo, the duke's uterine brother, was bishop of Baieux (sic); Hugh, brother of Robert Count d'Eu, was bishop of Lisieux; William of Evreux; Geoffrey of Coutances; John, son of Ralph, count of Bayeux, was bishop of Avranches; and Ivo, son of William de Belesme, of Seez. All these prelates were distinguished by the splendour of their noble extraction, their zeal for religion, and their many excellencies.

Foremost in the ranks of the laity stood Richard, count of Evreux, son of Archbishop Robert; Count Robert, son of William viscount d'Eu; Robert, earl of Morton, uterine brother of Duke William; Rodolph de Conches, son of Roger Toni, standard-bearer of Normandy; William Fitz-Osbern, the duke's cousin and high steward; William de Warrene, and Hugh Boteler; Hugh de Grrant-mesnil and Roger de Moubray; Roger de Beaumont, and Roger de Montgomery; Baldwin and Richard, sons of Count Gislebert, with many others whose valour had gained them military distinction, and whose native sagacity and decision in council were not inferior to the matured virtues of the Roman, senate, but aspired to imitate them both in their indefatigable constancy, and the talent and courage they employed in conquering their enemies.

All these were summoned by the duke's command to a general consultation; and upon an affair of so much importance being submitted to their consideration, opinions were divided according to the differences in men's minds. The more daring spirits, willing to flatter the duke's ambition, encouraged their comrades to plunge into the contest, and were for engaging in so great an enterprise without hesitation. Others were opposed to an undertaking of so much difficulty, pointing out to those who were too venturesome, and were running headlong to destruction, its great inconveniences and perils; they magnified the obstacles presented by the want of a fleet and the dangers of the voyage, and alleged that a handful of Normans were unequal to the conquest of the numerous hosts of the English. At length the duke sent Gislebert, archdeacon of Lisieux, to Rome, to ask for advice from Pope Alexander on the state of affairs. On hearing all the circumstances, the pope favoured the legitimate rights of the duke, enjoined him to take up arms against the perjurer, and sent him the standard of St. Peter the apostle, by whose merits he would be defended against all dangers.

Meanwhile, Tostig received the duke's permission to return to England, having firmly engaged to assist him, both in his own person and with all his friends. But as it is written: "Man proposes, but God disposes," things turned out very differently from what he expected. For embarking from the Cotentin, he was unable to reach England. Harold held possession of the channel with a large fleet and the coasts with strong bodies of troops, in order to prevent the enemy from landing in the kingdom he had treacherously usurped without a severe conflict. Tostig was therefore in great perplexity, it being out of his power to make a hostile descent on England with his small force in the face of innumerable enemies, nor could he direct his course back to Normandy, the winds being contrary. Driven to and fro alternately by winds from the west, the south, and other quarters, he was exposed to great distress and encountered many perils while wandering over the sea, until at last, after severe sufferings, he landed in the domi nions of Harold, king of Norway, surnamed Harfager. Being well received by this prince, and perceiving that he could not fulfil the promises he had made to Duke William, he altered his plans, and thus addressed him: "Great king, I come a suppliant to your highness, offering myself and my faithful services to your majesty, in the hopes that, by your aid, I may be restored to my hereditary rights. My brother Harold, who in truth ought to submit to me as his elder brother, has treacherously magnified himself against me, and even presumed, at the price of perjury, to usurp the English crown. Knowing therefore, your preeminence in power, and in forces, and every excellence, I earnestly entreat you, as one prepared to do you homage, to render me your powerful assistance. Humble the pride of my perfidious brother by a hostile invasion of England; and reserving one half of it for yourself, confer the other on me, who will thenceforth preserve my fealty to you unbroken as long as I live." The ambitious king was highly pleased at this proposal. He immediately ordered an army to be assembled, warlike engines to be prepared, and the royal fleet was, during the six months following, completely equipped. The exiled wanderer encouraged the Norwegian king to this great enterprise, and by this skilful change in his plans, while it flattered the king and saved himself from being treated as a spy, afforded him the opportunity of obtaining revenge for his banishment by his faithless brother.

Meanwhile, the marquis of Normandy was making preparations for his own enterprise, uninformed of the disasters which had befallen his precursor, and had driven him northward so far out of his intended course. A fleet of ships was carefully fitted out in Normandy, supplied with all necessaries, in building which both the clergy and laity rivalled each other in contributing both funds and labour. Large bodies of troops were raised by a general levy throughout Normandy. Reports of the expedition drew many valiant men from the neighbouring countries, who prepared their arms for battle. Thus the French and Bretons, the Poitevins and Burgundians, and other people on this side the Alps, flocked together for the war over the sea, and scenting the booty which the conquest of Britain offered, were prepared to undergo the various perils and chances, both by sea and land, attending the enterprise.

CH. XIV. Invasion of England by William, duke of Normandy - Battle of Stamford bridge - Battle of Hastings - William marches to Dover - Thence to London, where he is crowned.

In the month of August, Harold, king of Norway, and Tostig, with a powerful fleet set sail over the wide sea, and, steering for England with a favourable aparctic, or north wind, landed in Yorkshire, which was the first object of their invasion. Meanwhile, Harold of England, having intelligence of the descent of the Norwegians, withdrew his ships and troops from Hastings and Pevensey, and the other seaports on the coast lying opposite to Neustria, which he had carefully guarded with a powerful armament during the whole of the year, and threw himself unexpectedly, with a strong force by hasty marches on his enemies from the north. A hard-fought battle ensued, in which there was great effusion of blood on both sides, vast numbers being slain with brutal rage. At last the furious attacks of the English secured them the victory, and the king of Norway as well as Tostig, with their whole army, were slain. The field of battle may be easily discovered by travellers, as great heaps of the bones of the slain lie there to this day, memorials of the prodigious numbers which fell on both sides.

While however the attention of the English was diverted by the invasion of Yorkshire, and by God's permission they neglected, as I have already mentioned, to guard the coast, the Norman fleet, which for a whole month had been waiting for a south wind in the mouth of the river Dive and the neighbouring harbours, took advantage of a favourable breeze from the west to gain the roads of St. Valeri.

While it lay there innumerable vows and prayers were offered for the safety of themselves and their friends, and floods of tears were shed. For the intimate friends and relations of those who were to remain at home, witnessing the embarkation of fifty thousand knights and men-at-arms, with a large body of infantry, who had to brave the dangers of the sea, and to attack an unknown people on their own soil, were moved to tears and sighs, and full of anxiety both for themselves and their countrymen, their minds fluctuating between fear and hope. Duke William and the whole army committed themselves to God's protection, with prayers, and offerings, and vows, and accompanied a procession from the church, carrying the relics of St. Valeri, confessor of Christ, to obtain a favourable wind. At last when by God's grace it suddenly came round to the quarter which was the object of so many prayers, the duke, full of ardour, lost no time in embarking the troops, and giving the signal for hastening the departure of the fleet. The Norman expedition, therefore, crossed the sea on the night of the third of the calends of October [29th September], which the Catholic church observes as the feast of St. Michael the archangel, and, meeting with no resistance, and landing safely on the coast of England, took possession of Pevensey and Hastings, the defence of which was entrusted to a chosen body of soldiers, to cover a retreat and guard the fleet.

Meanwhile the English usurper, after having put to the sword his brother Tostig, and his royal enemy, and slaughtered their immense army, returned in triumph to London. As however worldly prosperity soon vanishes like smoke before the wind, Harold's rejoicings for his bloody victory were soon darkened by the threatening clouds of a still heavier storm. Nor was he suffered long to enjoy the security procured by his brother's death; for a hasty messenger brought him the intelligence that the Normans had embarked. Learning soon afterwards that they had actually landed, he made preparations for a fresh conflict. For his intrepidity was dauntless, and his conduct of affairs admirable, while his personal strength was great, his presence commanding, and he had the arts of a persuasive eloquence, and of a courtesy which endeared him to his supporters. Still his mother Githa, who was much afflicted by the death of her son Tostig, and his other faithful friends, dissuaded him from engaging in battle with the Normans; his brother, Earl Gurth (sic), thus addressing him: "It is best, dearest brother and lord, that your courage should be tempered by discretion. You are worn by the conflict with the Norwegians from which you are only just come, and you are in eager haste to give battle to the Normans. Allow yourself, I pray you, some time for rest. Reflect also, in your wisdom, on the oath you have taken to the duke of Normandy. Beware of incurring the guilt of perjury, lest by so great a crime you draw ruin on yourself and the forces of this nation, and stain for ever the honour of our own race. For myself, I am bound by no oaths, I am under no obligations to Count William. I am therefore in a position to fight with him undauntedly in defence of our native soil. But do you, my brother, rest awhile in peace, and wait the issue of the contest, that so the liberty which is the glory of England, may not be ruined by your fall."

Harold was very indignant at this speech. Holding in contempt the wholesome advice of his friends, he loaded his brother with reproaches for his faithful counsel, and even forgot himself so far as to kick his mother when she hung about him in her too great anxiety to detain him with her. For six days Harold sent forth the summons to call the people to arms from all quarters, and, having assembled vast numbers of the English, he led them by forced marches against the enemy. It was his design to take them unawares, and crush them at once by a night attack, or, at least, by a sudden onset, and, that they might not escape by sea, he caused a fleet of seventy ships, full of soldiers, to guard the coast. Duke William, having intelligence of Harold's approach, ordered his troops to take to their arms on the morning of Saturday. He then heard mass, strengthening both body and soul by partaking of the consecrated host; he also reverently suspended from his neck the holy relics on which Harold had sworn. Many of the clergy had followed the Norman army, among whom were two bishops, Odo, of Bayeux, and Geoffrey, of Coutances, with attendant clerks and monks, whose duty it was to aid the war with their prayers and counsels. The battle commenced at the third hour of the ides [14th] of October, and was fought desperately the whole day, with the loss of many thousand men on both sides. The Norman duke drew up his light troops, consisting of archers and men armed with cross-bows, in the first line; the infantry in armour formed the second rank; and in the third were placed the cavalry, in the centre of which the duke stationed himself with the flower of his troops, so as to be able to issue his commands, and give support to every part of the army.

On the other side, the English troops, assembled from all parts of the neighbourhood, took post at a place which was anciently called Senlac, many of them personally devoted to the cause of Harold, and all to that of their country, which they were resolved to defend against the foreigners. Dismounting from their horses, on which it was determined not to rely, they formed a solid column of infantry, and thus stood firm in the position they had taken.

Turstin, son of Eollo, bore the standard of Normandy. The sound of the trumpets in both armies was the terrible signal for beginning the battle. The Normans made the first attack with ardour and gallantry, their infantry rushing forward to provoke the English, and spreading wounds and death through their ranks by showers of arrows and bolts. The English, on their side, made a stout resistance, each man straining his powers to the utmost. The battle raged for some time with the utmost violence between both parties. At length the indomitable bravery of the English threw the Bretons, both horse and foot, and the other auxiliary troops composing the left wing, into confusion, and, in their rout, they drew with them almost all the rest of the duke's army, who, in their panic, believed that he was slain. The duke, perceiving that large bodies from the enemy had broken their ranks in pursuit of his flying troops, rode up to the fugitives and checked their retreat, loudly threatening them, and striking with his lance. Taking off his helmet, and exposing his naked head, he shouted: " See, I am here; I am still living, and, by God's help, shall yet have the victory." Suddenly the courage of the fugitives was restored by these bold words of the duke; and, intercepting some thousands of their pursuers, they cut them down in a moment. In this manner, the Normans, twice again pretending to retreat, and when they were followed by the English, suddenly wheeling their horses, cut their pursuers off from the main body, surrounded and slew them. The ranks of the English were much thinned by these dangerous feints, through which they fell separated from each other; so that, when thousands were thus slaughtered, the Normans attacked the survivors with still greater vigour. They were charged home by the troops of Maine, France, Brittany, and Aquitaine, and great numbers of them miserably perished.

Among others present at this battle, were Eustace, Count de Boulogne, William, son of Richard, Count d'Evreux, Geoffrey, son of Robert, Count de Mortagne, William Fitz-Osbern, Robert, son of Robert de Beaumont, a novice in arms, Aimer, Viscount de Thouars, Earl Hugh, the constable, Walter Giffard, and Ralph Toni, Hugh de Grant-mesnil, and William de Warenne, with many other knights illustrious for their military achievements, and whose names merit a record in the annals of history amongst the most famous warriors. Duke William surpassed them all in courage and conduct; for he nobly performed the duties of a general, staying the flight of his troops, reanimating their courage, their comrade in the greatest dangers, and more frequently calling on them to follow where he led, than commanding them to advance before him. He had three horses killed under him in the battle; thrice he remounted, and did not suffer his steeds to be long unavenged. Shields, helmets, and coats of mail were shivered by the furious and impatient thrusts of his sword; some he dashed to the earth with his shield, and was at all times as ready to cover and protect his friends, as to deal death among his foes.

Although the battle was fought with the greatest fury from nine o'clock in the morning, King Harold was slain in the first onset, and his brother Earl Leofwin fell some time afterwards, with many thousands of the royal army. Towards evening, the English finding that their king and the chief nobles of the realm, with a great part of their army, had fallen, while the Normans still showed a bold front, and made desperate attacks on all who made any resistance, they had recourse to flight as expeditiously as they could. Various were the fortunes which attended their retreat; some recovering their horses, some on foot, attempted to escape by the highways; more sought to save themselves by striking across the country. The Normans, finding the English completely routed, pursued them vigorously all Sunday night, but not without suffering a great loss; for, galloping onward in hot pursuit, they fell unawares, horses and armour, into an ancient trench, overgrown and concealed by rank grass, and men in their armour and horses rolling over each other, were crushed and smothered. This accident restored confidence to the routed English, for, perceiving the advantage given them by the mouldering rampart and a succession of ditches, they rallied in a body, and, making a sudden stand, caused the Normans severe loss. At this place Eugenulf, lord of Laigle, and many others fell, the number of the Normans who perished being, as reported by some who were present, nearly fifteen thousand. Thus did Almighty God, on the eve of the ides [14th] of October, punish in various ways the innumerable sinners in both armies. For, on this Saturday, the Normans butchered with remorseless cruelty thousands of the English, who long before had murdered the innocent prince Alfred and his attendants; and, on the Saturday before the present battle, had massacred without pity King Harold and Earl Tostig, with multitudes of Norwegians. The righteous Judge avenged the English on Sunday night, when the furious Normans were precipitated into the concealed trench; for they had broken the divine law by their boundless covetousness; and, as the Psalmist says: " Their feet were swift to shed blood," whereupon, "sorrow and unhappiness was in their ways."

Duke William, perceiving the English troops suddenly rally, did not halt; and when he found Count Eustace with fifty men-at-arms retreating, and the count wished him to have the signal sounded for recalling the pursuers, he commanded him with a loud voice to stand firm. The count, however, familiarly approaching the duke, whispered in his ear that it would be safer to retreat, predicting his sudden death if he persisted in the pursuit. While he was saying this, Eustace received a blow between the shoulders, so violent that the noise of the stroke was plainly heard, and it caused blood to flow from his mouth and nostrils, and he was borne off by his comrades in a dying state.

The victory being secured, the duke returned to the field of battle, where he viewed the dreadful carnage, which could not be seen without commiseration. There the flower of the youth and nobility of England covered the ground far and near stained with blood. Harold could not be discovered by his features, but was recognized by other tokens, and his corpse, being borne to the duke's camp, was, by order of the conqueror, delivered to William Mallet for interment near the seashore, which had long been guarded by his arms.
Inconstant fortune frequently causes adverse and unexpected changes in human affairs; some persons being lifted from the dust to the height of great power, while others, suddenly falling from their high estate, groan in extreme distress. Thus Edith, Earl Godwin's relict, who once enjoyed wealth and influence, was now overwhelmed with grief and a prey to the deepest misfortunes. She had borne seven sons to her husband: Sweyn, Tostig, Harold, Gurth, Alfgar, and Wulnoth. They were all earls, and distinguished for their handsome persons, as well as what the world calls excellence; but each of them underwent a different and disastrous fate. Alfgar and Wulnoth, indeed, feared God and lived according to his laws, and both died in the odour of sanctity confessing the true faith, the one a pilgrim and monk at Rheims, the other at Salisbury. For the other five, following the career of arms, they met their death in a variety of ways, and on different occasions.

The sorrowing mother now offered to Duke William, for the body of Harold, its weight in gold; but the great conqueror refused such a barter, thinking it was not right that a mother should pay the last honours to one by whose insatiable ambition, vast numbers lay unburied. He issued orders that the bodies of his own soldiers should be buried with the greatest care; and also gave all the English who applied for leave free liberty to bury those of their friends. After providing for the decent interment of the dead the duke marched to Romney, and taking it by assault, revenged the slaughter of a party of his troops, who, having landed there by mistake, were fiercely attacked by the inhabitants and cruelly butchered, after great loss on both sides.

Translation by Thomas Forester 1853