At last, the Normans land in Pevensey on the morning of the 28th September.
William had been waiting in St Valery since August for the weathercock to point in the right direction, even parading the relics of the saint whose name endowed the town, so that God may send them favourable winds with which to cross the Channel to England. They had embarked on the 27th, and needed the high tide in the afternoon to allow the boats to be brought to shore so that the horses could mount the ramps into the vessels (Gravett 2000). According to Poitiers, William and his fleet of Normans, French and Bretons, left before sunset, which probably meant around 5pm.
It must have been a fantastic sight, with William, proudly leading the fleet at the head, standing at the prow of his ship, the Mora, which had been gifted to him by his wife, the Duchess Matilda. He must have looked every inch a prospective king, ready for conquest, his head held high, as he sailed out from the Somme. On the sternpost was a figure of a boy with an ivory trumpet and a lantern was hung on the masthead as a guiding light to the other ships, we can see the artist’s interpretation on the Bayeux Tapestry. As they left the shores, a horn gave the sign for the advance, and the Mora sailed swiftly out to sea with his fleet struggling to keep up. At dawn the next morning, William and his companions found themselves alone. How disconcerting must that have been? Wondering what had happened to the rest of his army, and concerned about the morale of his men, he ordered that breakfast and wine be partaken whilst they waited for the rest of the fleet to catch them up and gradually, to his relief, mastheads began to appear. William and his men, moved toward the shores of Sussex.
The amount of men, ships and horses that William brought with him have been questioned by many. Modern historians believe it is somewhere in the region of 7000-12000 men, a portion of those being cavalry, archers, crossbowmen, foot soldiers and mounted archers. I’m sure there would have been noncombatants too, such as engineers, grooms, servants etc. Contemporary sources say William brought 725 ships and anywhere near 14,000 -150,000 men but it seems that these are gross over-estimates. He probably had something like the first figures, suggested by modern historians, given the population for the time and the amount of professional fighting men. Besides, Harold’s men were reported to have been well matched in numbers, so if there were 150,000 men, I doubt if it would have taken a few minutes for the Normans to overwhelm the English, let alone a whole day. More like seconds.
Still, it must have been a daunting situation for William to have found himself in. He had planned his mission to the smallest detail, waited patiently for the right time to get across that water, built hundreds of boats, and prefab portable wooden castles that even Ikea would have been proud of. He’d been to see the pope (or perhaps someone on his behalf) and built his case amongst his peers. Gathered an army of professional warriors and cavalry, archers, crossbowmen, knights and squires and others from Brittany, France and Normandy. He had a plan of what to do when he got to English shores, but he wouldn’t have known what was going to be waiting for him. Was he brave? Yes, I do believe he was one of the truly brave warriors of history. Was he insane? Most likely, for it could have gone horribly wrong and if he had lost the battle, he would have surely died there on that bloody field where so many English and French also lost their lives, as did Harold. As much as I dislike this man, I have to admire him, what he achieved throughout his life was remarkable. I wonder how much he thought about what could go wrong. I wonder if he had a contingency plan. Obviously, he would have left his boats somewhere he could get back to them in a hurry if he needed to, but it was a huge gamble. He must have either believed he had God on his side and that there was no way he would lose, after all, he had the Papal Banner, or he was the bravest man, ever to have come out of Normandy.
But the moment he stepped onto English soil, the portents were not good.
William, it was said, tripped over as steps onto the English shore. He landed on his two hands and it was reported that a great cry went up amongst his men that it was a bad omen, but William, never daunted by superstitious thinking, jumps up with handfuls of sand and cries, “See, my lords, by the splendor of God, I have taken possession of England with both my hands. It is now mine, and what is mine is yours.” Of course this reassures his men and they happily begin their preparations for the conquest of England.
William and his forces seem to have met with no opposition at Pevensey, or Hastings, however, it seems more logical to me that Harold would have left some form of defence along the coastal regions just in case William did turn up. This is a point in the story that I find incredible and wonder if there was a small garrison at Pevensey and, or Hastings, that were easily overwhelmed. Either that or Harold must have misjudged the determination of William to get across the channel so late in the year.
It is not known why William chose Pevensey to land, some have stated that they believe he was heading for Hastings and ended up steering off course. Pevensey does seem like a good choice, as the coastal line was much different in 1066, allowing a fleet of soldiers, plus horses, weapons, supplies, equipment etc to beach up in a lagoon where they could keep their ships safe and fortify the old Roman fortress. Sometime during the day, as we see on the Bayeux Tapestry, they unload the boats From there William wanted to move on to Hastings. He most likely left men guarding the boats, whilst the bulk of his army marched to Hastings via inland around the lagoon, harrying the villages en route across Sussex and down toward Hastings a few miles below Caldbeck Hill. Perhaps he moves some of the fleet to Hastings by sea, so that he can get there quickly to impose his castle on the burgh. Whichever way they went, the Normans are in Hastings by September the 29th having fortified and garrisoned Pevensey in one day, doing the same in Hastings by the next. They talk about the speed with which Harold moved his army up to York and then back down again, but what the Norman’s managed in just a few days was pretty awe inspiring.
So with two burghs fortified in William’s name, William must have been thinking of his next move. It is possible that William would have known that Harold had gone north to fight his brother Tostig and his comrade Harald of Norway just a few days before. According to Gravett ( 2000), William may have been hoping to take London before Harold came back, if he came back at all and so would have been readying himself and his army to march, via Dover and Rochester. But before he started out, he was visited by a messenger from a kinsman who had been settled in England for sometime, also known as Robert of Hastings, son of Guimara, known from the Domesday book as holding land from the Abbey of Fecamp in the area. William was informed by the messenger that Harold had secured a definitive defeat of the Norse and was on his way back to London. William was advised to stay in his entrenchments and not to offer battle. And with his inimitable courage and style, William’s response was, according to William of Poitiers ‘I will not hide behind ditches and palisades… but will engage Harold’s army as soon as possible.’
William’s dilemma now was that he could not march on London, the land around East Sussex and the Andredeswald forest was marshy, boggy and difficult for an army to move through, so his choice would most likely have been to march via Dover and Rochester, however if he did, he risked cutting off escape and communication routes between him and his men guarding his boats. No, he would have to stay where he was, in Hastings. He was secure there, and had consolidated his hold there. He would wait for Harold to come to him.
William of Poitiers.
Gravett C Hastings 1066 The Fall of Saxon England, Osprey Publishing Ltd, UK.
Walker I Harold the LAst Anglo Saxon King, Sutton Publishing Ltd, Stroud.