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The Battle of Hastings

"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."

This terse entry in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (Worcester MS) for the year 1066 is the only contemporary English account of the Battle of Hastings, an event that can be better understood if one looks back to the millennium, when the country suffered wretchedly from Viking predation. "In every way," records the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (Peterborough MS), "it was a heavy time, because they never left off their evil."


In 1002, twenty-four thousand pounds in Danegeld (tax) was paid "on condition they should leave off from their evil deeds." But then, indecisive and badly served by his counselors, and fearful for himself and his kingdom, Æthelred the Unready (a play on his name, Æthelred, "good counsel," and Unraed, "ill-advised") rashly ordered that "all the Danish men who were among the English race to be killed on St. Brice's Day [November 13]." This attack is mentioned in a later charter, which records the restitution made to a monastery in Oxford for the loss of its church, which had been destroyed during the massacre. It relates that the Danes,

"who had sprung up in this island, sprouting like cockle amongst the wheat, were to be destroyed by a most just extermination, and this decree was to be put into effect even as far as death, those Danes who dwelt in the afore-mentioned town, striving to escape death, entered this sanctuary of Christ, having broken by force the doors and bolts, and resolved to make a refuge and defence for themselves therein against the people of the town and the suburbs; but when all the people in pursuit strove, forced by necessity, to drive them out, and could not, they set fire to the planks and burnt, as it seems, this church with its ornaments and its books."

And all those who had taken refuge inside. (William of Jumièges is the first to mention the atrocities: women buried up to their waists and attacked by dogs, children dashed against door-posts.)

That same year, in hope that an alliance with the duchy would deny the Danes safe harbor, Æthelred married Emma, the young daughter of Richard I, Duke of Normandy. It was to no avail, and in 1007 thirty thousand pounds in Danegeld was paid. Ships were built, "more of them than there had ever earlier been in England in the days of any king" to defend the country, but it all came to naught. Wulfnoth (the father of Earl Godwin) actually took some of them and plundered the coast, himself. Others, in an attempt to capture the traitorous thegn, were driven ashore by a storm and their own ships burned. Hearing all this, Æthelred simply returned to London and, in the words of the Chronicler, "thus lightly let the whole nation's labour waste; and the deterrent in which the whole English race had confidence, was no better."

More tax was paid but it never was enough. The harrying continued until, in 1013, Sweyn Forkbeard, the king of Denmark, and his young son Cnut invaded England and "wrought the greatest evil that any raiding-army could do." London submitted and Æthelred and his queen, together with their children, the æthelings (princes) Edward and Alfred, fled to Normandy.

Only a few months later, however, Sweyn died and the exiled family returned. In 1015, Cnut came again to England, determined to reclaim the country for Denmark. Æthelred and his son by his first marriage, Edmund Ironside, resisted, but "it did not achieve any more than it often did before." The next year, "after great toil and difficulties in this life," the hapless king died. Edmund, too, died that year and in 1016 Cnut succeeded to the throne of England, taking the widowed Emma as his consort the next year, while her children remained exiled in Normandy.

The Succession

When Edward himself was recalled to England in 1041, he had been at the Norman court for twenty-four years. There, among his mother's family, he had made friends, with whom he surrounded himself when he became king the next year, especially Robert, who was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury in 1051. As a result, relates the anonymous author of the Vita Ædwardi Regis ("Life of King Edward"), "he offended quite a number of the nobles of his kingdom by means of another's fault. And for such reasons his realm gradually became disturbed." Especially resentful of the undue influence of these Norman favorites was the most powerful magnate in the land: Godwin, Earl of Wessex.

That same year, an incident at Dover almost brought the country to civil war. Eustace, Count of Boulogne, who was married to Edward's sister and later would fight at Hastings, had demanded accommodation for his entourage on the return to France. It was not given; there was a fight and men were killed on both sides. Edward demanded that Godwin punish the town for its insolence. When the earl refused, he was exiled, together with his sons. It was during this absence that Duke William is said to have visited the king and presumably then that Edward promised him the kingdom. Godwin returned in strength the next year and forced a reconciliation but died in 1053 to be succeeded by his son Harold.

Late in 1065, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (Abingdon MS) records that Harold's brother Tostig, who had ruled as Earl of Northumbria for ten years, was rejected by his thegns. They rebelled, killing his retainers and seizing the treasury, and demanded that Tostig be replaced "because he robbed God first, and then despoiled of life and of land all those he had power over." Harold acquiesced and Tostig was driven into exile, for which he never forgave his brother.

A devout man but a weak and ineffectual king, whose greatest achievement was the construction of Westminster Abbey, Edward the Confessor died on January 4, 1066. There was no successor nor were there any children. Having been sent abroad as a boy and deprived of his patrimony, his mother having married his father's mortal enemy, Edward regarded Edith his queen, Godwin's only daughter, more as "a beloved daughter" than a wife.

Edward was buried in the abbey he had founded. Hours later, Harold Godwin was himself crowned there, insisting, as William of Poitiers relates, that the kingdom was his by right, bequeathed to him by Edward on his deathbed, and that "the gift that anyone made at the point of death shall be held as valid." William, who had assumed that the throne was his, insisted that Harold was forsworn and prepared to invade. Indeed, such was William's claim that it was blessed by Pope Alexander II, who sent him a banner under which to march.

In April, a comet appeared, though Harold did not need to be told its portent. He had raised the greatest army and fleet that England had ever known. It consisted of his housecarls, the retainers of his own court, and those of the great earls and magnates, as well as the fyrd, a national militia which was conscripted in times of danger. Through July and August, Harold kept his men at the ready along the southern coast of England, waiting for an invasion that never came. In the words of the Chronicle (Abingdon MS), "in the end it was to no avail. Then when it was the Nativity of St Mary [September 8], the men's provisions were gone, and no one could hold them there any longer. Then the men were allowed to go home, and the king rode inland, and the ships were sent to London."

The fyrd was disbanded and the fleet sent around the coast to the Thames. But it was late in the season and a storm destroyed many of the ships. William's own ships, which had been assembled in the estuary of the Dives River just north of Caen, had been sent out as well and they, too, were caught in the storm. Some were lost and the others driven up the coast to the mouth of the Somme River. The result was that, either by accident or design, William had reduced the distance to the English coast almost by half.

But William was not the only claimant to the English throne. The Chronicle relates that, when Harold came ashore, he was informed that Harald Hardrada, the king of Norway, had landed in Northumbria and burned Scarborough to the ground, Snorri Sturluson telling how Harald had built a bonfire on the hill above the town and then pushed it down onto the thatched houses below.

Stamford Bridge

Aided by the northerly winds that kept William on the Norman coast, Harald crossed the North Sea from Bergen and was ravaging the countryside as he advanced upon York, the capital of Northumbria. There, he was met by the fyrd of Earl Edwin and Earl Morcar, who, records the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (Worcester MS), "gathered from their earldom as great a force as they could get, and fought with that raiding-army and made a great slaughter." But the English were "killed and drowned and driven in flight; and the Norwegians had possession of the place of slaughter." The battle at Fulford was fought on September 20.

Harold hurried north, "by day and night, as quickly as he could gather his army." Incredibly, he arrived at York only four days later, his army strengthened by levies along the way.

"Then Harold our king came upon the Northmen by surprise, and encountered them beyond York at Stamford Bridge with a great raiding-army of English people; and there was that day a very hard fight on both sides. There was killed Harald [Hardrada] and Earl Tostig, and the Northmen who remained were put to flight, and the English fiercely attacked them from behind until some of them came to the ship, some drowned, and some also burnt, and thus variously perished, so that there were few survivors, and the English had possession of the place of slaughter."

So the Chronicle (Worcester MS) describes the Battle of Stamford Bridge. A more vivid account is provided by Snorri in his saga of Harald Hardrada.

It was a hot, sunny day when Harald, having had his morning meal, ordered his men ashore. A third were to stay on board to guard the ships, while the others, their heavy hauberks left behind, marched toward York "in excellent good spirits." But instead of defeated townsmen coming to offer hostages, they saw a cloud of dust raised by approaching horses and the glint of shields and shining coats of mail, and "it looked like gleaming ice as the weapons shone."

As his men drew up in a defensive ring, Harald was thrown from his horse. Harold Godwin noticed and asked who had fallen. When told that it was the King of Norway, he replied, "A big man and stately; but more likely his good luck has deserted him." Rather than fight his brother, Harold offered to return Northumbria to Earl Tostig. Asked what part of England would be granted to Harald, he was told "seven feet of English soil or so much more as he is taller than other men." Tostig was chastised for having let the king escape but replied that "I would rather that he slay me than I him."

Snorri's mistakenly recounts that the English fought on horseback and, when the Norwegians broke their shield-wall to purse them, turned and rode them down. Harald was said to have raged like a beserker until he, too, was killed by an arrow in the throat. Men from the ships arrived but were so tired from the march that some died from sheer exhaustion. Others, enraged, threw off their hauberks and, unprotected, died all the more readily.

The Norse refused to surrender, and the battle lasted until it was too dark to kill any more. It was the worst defeat ever inflicted on the Norse. Almost sixty years later, Orderic Vitalis recorded that "a great mountain of dead men's bones still lies there and bears witness to the terrible slaughter on both sides." Magnanimously, Harold allowed those who had been guarding the ships to live. Of the three hundred ships said to have sailed to England, only twenty-four were needed to return the survivors home.

(Although the Abingdon MS of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle ends with the Battle of Stamford Bridge, one other incident was added later. It tells of a Norwegian who stood alone on the bridge, holding it against the English advance "so that they could not cross the bridge nor gain victory." He was not dislodged until someone drifted unseen beneath it and stabbed him from below.)

The next day, the wind changed. For the first time in two months, it began to blow steadily from the south. And the day after that, unknown to Harold, William and his army began to embark for England. Harold had guarded the coast all summer. Now, only three weeks before, the fyrd had gone home and he was two hundred and fifty miles away, having fought one of the bloodiest battles in England's history.

On September 28, the Normans would come ashore at Pevensey unopposed.


Harold rushed south to London, where, says Orderic, he "sent far and wide to summon the populace to war." The Normans were devastating his former earldom of Wessex and, after waiting in vain for the northern earls to join him, Harold marched his exhausted troops to Hastings, perhaps in the hope that another sudden strike would be victorious.

It is difficult to estimate the number of men and horses that had landed, but, if there were as many as could be placed on the battlefield, then William might have had seven thousand men, comprising perhaps three thousand cavalry, a thousand archers, and the rest infantry. It was the horses that were unexpected. Though the English rode to battle on horses, as they had done at Maldon seventy-five years earlier, they dismounted and fought on foot.

Harold's army comprised at least as many men but had no cavalry and few archers. His housecarls were formidable warriors, "so valiant," Snorri relates, "that one of them was better than two of Harald's best men," but many had been lost at Stamford. And yet, even though John of Worcester chastises Harold for advancing before even a third of his army had assembled, many in the fyrd thought the field already so congested that they left before the battle even began.

The English occupied the high ground along the crest of a ridge on the road to London. It was a strong defensive position, well suited for the Anglo-Saxon shield-wall. The Normans were arrayed below in three divisions: Bretons on the left; the Normans under Duke William and his half-brother Bishop Odo in the center; and the French on the right, together with other mercenaries and adventurers. Each division, in turn, was comprised of three arms: archers in the front to weaken the enemy, foot soldiers to break it up, and behind them all, mounted knights to ride down the scattered ranks.

It was there on the morning of October 14, that William "came upon him by surprise before his people were marshalled." The battle began with the blare of trumpets, the Normans initiating the attack with a volley of arrows. As the archers fell back, the foot-soldiers advanced, but they were repulsed, says William of Poitiers, by a fusillade of "javelins and missiles of various kinds, murderous axes and stones tied to sticks." As the battle continued, mounted knights moved forward, but they too were driven back.

There was panic, as first the Bretons and then the whole Norman line reeled and began to give way, fearful that William, himself, had been killed. Pursued by the Saxon fyrd opposite them, they rallied only when William rode into the fray and revealed himself to be alive. Exhorting his men to fight, the English who had broken rank were cut off and annihilated.

Perhaps if the rest of the English had advanced at that moment or if there had been a deliberate retreat to the forest behind them, the outcome of the battle would have been different. Or if they earlier had laid waste to the countryside, denying the Normans fresh supplies while waiting for the northern fyrd to reassemble, which it never did. It was late in the season; reinforcements could not be sent, and the English would become only stronger. But Harold was passive, even fatalistic, and never ordered a concerted attack. On foot, he may not have been able to command such a large force, unlike the Normans, whose three divisions, each with its three arms, were more mobile. Or it may be that Harold was disheartened by the realization that he was under papal interdict and had been excommunicated.

The fighting continued throughout the day, the Normans varying their attack, the English "standing firmly as if fixed to the ground." So stalwart was the English shield-wall that William of Poitiers marveled that "the dead by falling seemed to move more than the living," the wounded unable to extricate themselves from the ranks of their companions.

Remembering what had happened before, William then is said to have ordered his knights to feign retreat. Again, the undisciplined men of the fyrd charged downhill in pursuit. And again they were trapped and killed, as the cavalry wheeled their horses and turned on them. Dusk now was approaching and the English were exhausted. There was no hope of respite or relief, and Harold and his brothers, Gyrth and Leofwine, had been killed.

Finally, the shield-wall broke. "Some lay helplessly in their own blood, others who struggled up were too weak to escape. 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."

There was a last stand among a broken rampart and rough ground, where, in the gloom and long grass, the pursuing Normans tripped and fell, "one on top of the other," says Orderic, "in a struggling mass of horses and arms," to be slaughtered by the English on the other side of the ravine. But it was not enough; the battle had been lost. And "the mangled bodies that had been the flower of the English nobility and youth covered the ground as far as the eye could see."

On Christmas Day 1066, less than three months after landing at Pevensey, William was crowned king of England. At the coronation, William of Poitiers writes that the English "all shouted their joyful assent, with no hesitation, as if heaven had granted them one mind and one voice." The Normans added their own voices as well, and 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 fire spread from house to house, says Orderic, as those in the congregation frantically rushed outside, some to fight the fames, others to loot. Only the bishops and a few clergy remained to complete the consecration of the new king, who was seen to be "trembling from head to foot."

So began William's reign: with fires burning all around him. And so would England burn for five more years until it finally was subjugated. The plundering of the country's wealth would begin immediately.

"When King Cnute had reigned for twenty years, he departed this life at Shaftesbury and was buried at Winchester in the Old Minster. A few words must be devoted to the power of this king. Before him there had never been in England a king of such great authority. He was lord of all Denmark, of all England, of all Norway, and also of Scotland. In addition to the many wars in which he was most particularly illustrious, he performed three fine and magnificent deeds....The third, that when he was at the height of his ascendancy, he ordered his chair to be placed on the sea-shore as the tide was coming in. Then he said to the rising tide, 'You are subject to me, as the land on which I am sitting is mine, and no one has resisted my overlordship with impunity. I command you, therefore, not to rise on to my land, nor to presume to wet the clothing or limbs of your master.' But the sea came up as usual, and disrespectfully drenched the king's feet and shins. So jumping back, the king cried, 'Let all the world know that the power of kings is empty and worthless, and there is no king worthy of the name save Him by whose will heaven, earth and sea obey eternal laws.' Thereafter King Cnut never wore the golden crown on his neck, but placed it on the image of the crucified Lord, in eternal praise of God the great king. By whose mercy may the soul of Kng Cnut enjoy rest."

Henry of Huntingdon, Historia Anglorum (VI.17)

The Anglo-Norman historians, together with the Bayeux Tapestry, provide the primary sources for the Battle of Hastings. Two other anonymous sources are important but vexing.

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); Encomium Emmae Reginae (1949/1998) edited by Alistair Campbell and introduction by Simon Keynes; William of Malmesbury: Gesta Regum Anglorum: The History of the English Kings (1998) edited and translated by R. A. B. Mynors, R. M. Thomson, and M. Winterbottom (Oxford Medieval Texts); The Chronicle of John of Worcester: The Annals from 450 to 1066 (1995) edited by R. R. Darlington and P. McGurk, translated by Jennifer Bray and P. McGurk (Oxford Medieval Texts); Snorri Sturluson: Heimskringla: History of the Kings of Norway (1964) translated by Lee M. Hollander; King Harald's Saga: Harald Hardradi of Norway (1966) translated by Magnus Magnusson and Hermann Pálsson (Penguin); The Carmen de Hastingae Proelio of Guy, Bishop of Amiens (1972) edited by Catherine Morton and Hope Muntz (Oxford Medieval Texts); Henry, Archdeacon of Huntington: Historia Anglorum: The History of the English People (1996) edited and translated by Diana Greenway; The Life of King Edward Who Rests at Westminster: Attributed to a Monk of St. Bertin (1992) edited and translated by Frank Barlow (Oxford Medieval Texts).

William the Conqueror (1964) by David C. Douglas; Historical Writing in England c.550 to c.1307 (1974) by A. Gransden; The World of Orderic Vitalis (1984) by Marjorie Chibnall (Oxford); English Historical Documents c. 500-1042 (1979) edited by Dorothy Whitelock; English Historical Documents 1042-1189 (1953) edited by David C. Douglas and George W. Greenaway; 1066: The Year of the Conquest (1978) by David Howarth; The Year of the Conquest (1966) by Alan Lloyd; The Battle of Hastings (1998) by Jim Bradbury; William I and the Norman Conquest (1965) by Frank Barlow; Edward the Confessor (1970) by Frank Barlow; Reassessing Anglo-Saxon England (1996) by Eric John; The Bayeux Tapestry: A Comprehensive Survey (1965) edited by Sir Frank Stenton; The Bayeux Tapestry (1985) by David M. Wilson; The Bayeux Tapestry (1994) by Wolfgang Grape; Anglo-Saxon Art: A New Perspective (1982) by C. R. Dodwell.

See also Lady Godiva, the wife of Leofric, Earl of Mercia and rival of Godwin, Earl of Wessex.

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