Return to the Battle of Hastings

Anglo-Norman Historians

Even at the time, the Battle of Hastings was recognized as significant. But it was an event recorded by monks, whose interpretation of it and the subsequent conquest of England was moral as well as historical, and who selected and presented, abbreviated and interpreted, the material as it was known and valued according to the assumptions of the time. Orderic Vitalis, the most important of the Anglo-Norman historians, believed, for instance, that Harold's death in battle represented God's judgment for his perjury and that William the Conqueror ruled by divine will. It was natural for him to believe, therefore, that a reign so oppressive to the English would require William to feel penitent and attempt to make reparation. And this is just how his deathbed scene is described.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

The English perspective of the Battle of Hastings is represented by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. The Peterborough MS, which is based on a chronicle that probably came from Canterbury and was rewritten in 1121, is all too brief.

"And meanwhile Earl William [came] up at Hastings on the Feast of St Michael [September 28] and Harold came from the north, and fought with him before all his raiding-army had come; and there he fell, and his two brothers, Gyrth and Leofwine. And William conquered this land, and came to Westminster, and Archbishop Aldred consecrated him as king. And men paid him tribute, and gave hostages, and afterwards bought their lands."

The Worchester MS of the Chronicle is the only contemporary English account of the battle and probably was written very soon after it was fought, as the annal for the year ends with a prayer, "When God wills, may the end be good."

"Then King William came from Normandy into Pevensey, on the eve of the Feast of St. Michael, and as soon as they were fit, made a castle at Hastings market-town. Then this became known to King Harold and he gathered a great raiding-army, and came against him at the grey apple-tree. And William came upon him by surprise before his people were marshalled. Nevertheless the king fought very hard against him with those men who wanted to support him, and there was a great slaughter on either side. There were killed King Harold, and Earl Leofwine his brother, and Earl Gyrth his brother, and many good men. And the French had possession of the place of slaughter, just as God granted them because of the people's sins."

There is no justification for the Conquest, and neither version of the Chronicle mentions Harold's earlier visit to Normandy nor his promising William the succession to the English throne upon the death of Edward the Confessor.

Unlike these abbreviated annals, the Norman accounts of the battle are panegyics, written to eulogize William and legitimize his conquest of England. Even though they vary in detail, the accounts of William of Jumièges and William of Poitiers (as well as the depiction of the Bayeux Tapestry) may derive, in fact, from the original Norman claim presented to Rome early in 1066 to obtain papal support for the invasion of England.

William of Jumièges

The Gesta Normannorum Ducum ("Deeds of the Norman Dukes") was written by William of Jumièges, a monk of that abbey, shortly before 1060 and then, at the request of King William, extended early in 1070 to include in Book VII an account of the conquest.

In his dedicatory letter to the king, William indicates that the first part of his narrative has been excerpted from several works, which he abbreviated and reinterpreted. The rest is "partly related by many persons trustworthy on account equally of their age and their experience, and partly based on the most assured evidence of what I have witnessed myself, from my own store." But much of this information seems to have been based on hearsay, rather than eyewitness reports, and William is incorrect when he says that Harold was slain at the beginning of the battle. Nor is it certain that Harold was imprisoned and then released when in Normandy.

William of Jumièges promulgates the Norman version of events and defends the duke's claim to the English throne. He relates that King Edward had sent the Archbishop of Canterbury (a former abbot of Jumièges) to Duke William to designate him as heir to the English throne, a visit that only he and William of Poitiers mention. If it did occur, it probably was in 1051. This promise was confirmed in 1064 or 1065 by Earl Harold, who came to Normandy on behalf of the king "that he should swear fealty to the duke concerning his crown and, according to the Christian custom, pledge it with oaths." When Edward died, Harold occupied the throne, himself, "thus perjuring the fealty he had sworn to the duke." The later defeat of the English at Hastings was, for William, "God's retribution for their unjust murder of Alfred, King Edward's brother."

William acknowledges that he is a cloistered monk, "cut off from the world out of reverence for the monastic habit and the profession of the religious life." He recognizes that there are men in a better position to record the secular deeds of the world and, in his epilogue, leaves the composition of a future account of William the Conqueror to those "most eminent in wisdom and eloquence who are surrounding him."

William of Poitiers

He may have been referring to William of Poitiers, who had fought for Duke William and later returned to his service as a royal chaplain. The Gesta Guillelmi Ducis Normannorum et Regis Anglorum ("Deeds of William Duke of the Normans and King of the English"), which he wrote at the command of the king, probably sometime between 1071-1077, is the most detailed and best informed record of the campaign in England, even though its author also is the most apologetic, the most fulsome in his praise, and the most eulogistic. An accomplished Latinist, he consciously modelled his style on classical authors and compared the English campaign to that of Julius Caesar, always to the Conqueror's advantage.

William of Poitiers was not at Hastings but seems to have depended largely upon oral sources, possibly including chansons, or songs about the event, and information from those who were there. Indeed, William later may have been associated with Bishop Odo, himself, and learned about the battle from him.

To the simple remark of William of Jumièges that Harold had sworn fealty to Duke William, William of Poitiers improbably asserts that Harold promised

"to ensure that the English monarchy should be pledged to him after Edward's death; that in the mean time the castle of Dover should be fortified by his care and at his expense for William's knights; likewise that he would furnish with provisions and garrisons other castles to be fortified in various places chosen by the duke."

To the statement that Edward had appointed William as his heir, William of Poitiers adds a long account of William's right to Edward's throne, that "of all those belonging to his line, he believed [William] to be the most worthy and the most able either to help him while he lived, or to govern the kingdom after his death." He speaks of hostages being offered as surety and of Harold being sent to swear fealty. The Gesta Guillelmi, in fact, provides the most complete statement of William's claim to the throne, stressing his right of inheritance by blood, Harold's loss of right through perjury, victory in battle as a sign of divine favor, election by both Norman and English, and dutiful coronation.

The depiction of William as the perfect Christian prince leads to some historical distortions, however. No mention is made of his brutality to the English. Rather, the duke is said to have offered to fight Harold in judicial combat in order to save the English from needless slaughter. Because of his virtues, the English even are said to have wished William to be their king. "They all shouted their joyful assent, with no hesitation, as if heaven had granted them one mind and one voice." God, too, is on William's side, "particularly since his intention was not so much to increase his own power and glory as to reform Christian observance in those regions."

As William is made to be a paragon, so Harold is vilified. His victory at Stamford Bridge is ignored and Harold portrayed as duplicitous ingrate, an impious usurper, a tyrant, and a perjurer (William of Jumièges was content simply to denigrate Harold for his perjury). Still, in spite such excesses, William of Poitiers is sufficiently well informed for the Gesta Guillelmi to be considered the most valuable description of the English conquest.

Orderic Vitalis

Orderic Vitalis was born in 1075 of an English mother and a French father, and lived the first ten years of his life in England before being sent as a boy to a monastery in Normandy. Monk, scribe, and historian, his earliest work, which largely was completed by 1109 and revised a few years later, still exists in his own hand. It is a thorough revision of the Gesta Normannorum Ducum of William of Jumièges, a history widely circulated at the time and later redacted by others, most extensively by Orderic, who so interpolated the original that Book VII, which concerns Duke William, almost doubled in size. Much of this miscellaneous material is not found elsewhere.

Orderic, for instance, gives the earliest account of Harold's brother Gyrth attempting to dissuade the king from going into battle so that he, who had not taken an oath, could defend the country without perjuring himself. He is the first author to refer to the Malfosse incident, when Normans who were pursuing the fleeing English rode up against a hidden rampart and were killed, an incident that Orderic suggests was God's retribution for so many English deaths. Details also are added from William of Poitiers, as well as stories that probably are English in origin. He relates how William promised Harold his daughter in marriage and half the English kingdom, and how Tostig sought support from the king of Norway to overthrow his brother Harold.

Although Orderic accepts the Norman account of Harold's oath and perjury, he is writing more than forty years later and is less eulogistic of the Conqueror and more sympathetic to the English cause. Where William speaks of the "most valiant duke," Orderic says simply "valiant." A description of the duke as "hereditary lord" of the English is omitted. And, whereas both William of Jumièges and William of Poitiers are silent about the illegitimacy of "William the Bastard," Orderic is the first to identify Herleva, William's mother, as his father's concubine and the daughter of parents who once had prepared corpses for burial.

Orderic's most important work is the Ecclesiastica Historia ("Ecclesiastical History"), on which he worked the last thirty years of his life. Book VII, which probably was written between 1130 and 1133, ends with the death of William the Conqueror and a death-bed speech that includes a summary of his life and achievements. The Historia is important, too, because it preserves sections of the Gesta Guillelmi by William of Poitiers. When first published in 1619, the first and last folios of the Gesta were missing, and the unique manuscript, itself, subsequently disappeared, probably in the Cottonian fire of 1731. Almost all that is known about its conclusion is in Book IV of the Historia, which preserves the lost folio and consequently is the principal source for the events of 1068-1070.

Orderic refers to both William of Poitiers and William of Jumièges, "who carefully recorded the deeds of the Normans and, after William became king of England, dedicated their works to him to gain his favor." Orderic is not so sycophantic and uses his sources with discretion. Having grown up in England as a boy, he presumably knew of the injustice and suffering caused by the Norman dispossession of the English, especially their harrying of the north after the rebellion at York. Remarks on the compassion of the Normans, therefore, either are ignored or directly contradicted by Orderic, who does not repeat William of Poitiers' obsequious characterization of the Conqueror.

"Wherever he went, everyone laid down his arms. No way was barred to him; on all sides people flocked to submit or negotiate. He showed clemency to all, especially to the common people. Often his face revealed the pity in his heart; often he commanded mercy to be shown when he saw supplicants or poor people, or noticed mothers and their children pleading with voice and gesture....Very many Englishmen received through his generous gifts what they had not received from their kinsmen or previous lords....nothing was given to any Frenchman which had been taken unjustly from any Englishman."

A more realistic perspective can be found in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (Peterborough MS). Reading these lines, it is not difficult to appreciate who wrote as victors and who the vanquished.

"The king and the principal men greatly loved, and over-greatly, greed in gold and in silver, and did not care how sinfully it was got as long as it came to them. The king granted his land on such hard terms, the hardest he could. Then a second came and offered more than the other earlier gave, and the king let it go to the man who offered him more. Then a third came and offered yet more, and the king let it go into the hands of the man who offered him most of all, and did not care how very sinfully the reeves got it from wretched men, nor how many unlawful things they did; but the greater the talk about just law, the more unlawful things were done. They levied unjust tolls and they did many other unjust things which are difficult to relate...."

References: The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (1996) translated and edited by Michael Swanton; The Gesta Normannorum Ducum of William Jumièges, Orderic Vitalis, and Robert of Torigni (1992) edited and translated by Elisabeth M. C. Van Houts (Oxford Medieval Texts); The Gesta Guillelmi of William of Poitiers (1998) edited and translated by R. H. C. Davis and Marjorie Chibnall (Oxford Medieval Texts); The Ecclesiastical History of Orderic Vitalis (1969) edited and translated by Marjorie Chibnall (Oxford Medieval Texts); The World of Orderic Vitalis (1984) by Marjorie Chibnall; English Historical Documents 1042-1189 (1953) edited by David C. Douglas and George W. Greenaway.

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