And so, the battle culminated in the end of Harold Godwinson’s reign. The Battle of Hastings, as it has largely been referred to, resulted in wiping out nearly all of the surviving sons of Godwin except for the youngest son, Wulfnoth, who, fortunately for him, was at least alive ( if not kicking) somewhere in Normandy at the time of the battle. For those who may not be endowed with the full story, Wulfnoth Godwinson had been taken to Normandy in around 1052, most probably by the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Champart along with Wulfnoth’s nephew, Hakon. It is thought that Champart had plotted to put William of Normandy on the throne and had brought the boys with him when escaping the wrath of Godwin. Wulfnoth and Hakon, were at the time, hostages for Edward, left behind by Godwin when he had fled into exile. But when Godwin returned and fought his way back to power once more, Champart decided it was a good time to return to his native Normandy, taking the boys with him to use as pawns in the 11th century game of thrones. Was this the time in history that the seeds of William’s hopes were planted, leading him to believe for many years that one day England would be his?
As the sun came down over Battle Hill, later known as Senlac, Harold’s body lay among the rest of the dead, mutilated beyond recognition, so much so, that they had to bring his wife, more Danico, Lady Edith Swannehaels, to the field to identify him the next morning. His brothers Gyrth and Leofwin were said to have been found slain near his body. The king’s ornately decorated banner of the Fighting Man, made, possibly, by the loving hands of Edith, snatched from Harold’s personal bodyguard as they fought bravely to save it, just as they’d desperately tried to save their lord. And in doing so, they had died, their blood and guts spilled over the earth, mingling with the blood of their king. The Carmen was to bemoan that the English ideology of fighting to the death with their lord was the undoing of them. To the English, this was loyalty and honour, which, as we see in centuries to come, would still be an intrinsic part of English nature.
Once the word had gone round that Harold was dead, it was, as is usual when this point is reached in battle, for those who were still alive, to throw their swords down and surrender to whatever fate the victor decides, or to run for their lives. It was known that many did flee, even those who were severely injured, crawling their way to imagined safety. Some of the worst collapsed in the woods and as Poitiers reports somewhat theatrically, their corpses blocked the escape of their comrades. He also tells us that William and the Count of Ponthieu led the pursuit into the night, viciously slashing at the escapee’s backs and trampling over their bodies. But the fleeing English weren’t the only ones to die; as the Norman pursuers rushed into unknown terrain in the darkness, they went headlong into an old ancient rampart. As they rode up against it, on horseback and in full armour, they fell on top of one another, horse and rider, crushing each other to death. Sometime later, the Battle Abbey Chronicle was to refer to this pit as the Malfosse: the evil ditch.
The next morning, Poitiers was to record in poetic prose this poignant phrase referring to the carnage of the day before:
‘Far and wide the earth was covered with the flower of the English nobility and youth, drenched in blood.’
William allowed his men time to bury the dead and left the English to bury their own. He wanted the body of Harold to be dealt with and did not want him taken somewhere where his remains would attract pilgrimages and sainthood. The bodies of the English warriors had been stripped of all their effects and valuables, and due to the horrific mutilations inflicted on them, it was difficult to identify him. According to the Waltham Chronicle, Lady Edith Swannehaels (Swan neck) was called for and brought to the field to identify her husband’s body, which must have been an horrific ordeal. His face was said in later sources to have been terribly mutilated, hacked by the swords of those who had wanted to boast they’d a hand in the ‘killing’ of the King of England. He had been disemboweled and castrated, ‘hacked to pieces’. It was said that the Lady Edith knew him by the marks on his body. What marks these were, one can only speculate, for we are not told. Tattoos, perhaps? Or lovebites? Or maybe moles or scars. Nonetheless she was able to identify him, probably hoping that she could give him a deserving burial. But it seemed that William was to deny him even this in his death, just as he had denied him his life on the battlefield.
Harold’s mother, it is said, offered the duke the weight of her son’s body in gold if he would allow her to take it. William refused, telling one of his retainers, William Malet, to take the king’s body and bury him on a hill under a pile of stones, so that he could continue to watch for enemy invaders. This sounds like the stuff of legend. William was a deeply pious man, it seems hard to believe he wouldn’t have afforded this man, who he had once supposedly greatly respected, a Christian burial. However, we have no solid, non contradictory evidence to support this. Whether or not the aforesaid story is fable or has some truth to it, where Harold’s remains ended up has been the subject of speculation for a long time. Waltham Abbey claimed that it had been secreted there, and a later excavation at Bosham, Harold’s childhood home, has found remains belonging to a man around a thousand years old, suggesting that this could also be him. There are remarkable stories that he survived the battle and wondered around an old hermit. Some people seem to have a hard time accepting someone has actually gone, died, dead, caput.
William had Harold’s own personal standard sent to the pope in thanks for his support. The pope had given him a banner which William used on the day and this must have had a great psychological affect on the morale of the duke and also his opponent, who was by no means an irreligious man. For William, however, the affect would have been positive, for Harold, not quite so positive. He’d heard that he had been excommunicated by the pope sometime during the muster and no doubt seeing a papal banner blowing in the wind on the battlefield hadn’t helped to ease that anxiety. These were days when the outcomes of conflict were decided by God. One can only imagine the profound disappointment Harold must have felt and the injustice of it all, for he’d not had the chance to put his case before the pope as William had done.
Thousands of men died, perhaps as many as 50% of who participated, the majority being English. William had his men rolled into a mass grave, but did not deign to give burial to those English who had no one to take care of their bodies, but did give permission for the English relatives to come and claim their men. It has been said that people came for years to search for their loved ones and give them a decent burial. This must have made it difficult to identify them, seeing as most of them had been stripped of everything they owned. Battle Hill must have been known as a place of sorrow for years to come.
William allowed his men to camp for the next few days to recover, before moving on with the next stage of the conquest, to take Dover, Rochester and London. He was expecting the rest of the English to submit to him but Edgar the Atheling was announced as king in London by the leading bishops and the young northern earls, Edwin and Morcar. London was full of men who’d marched south to support Harold, but had obviously got there too late. Some of the lucky survivors of Hastings, may also have made it back with the news of how the day had gone, shocked and distraught. Apparently the streets were teeming with men who would have no other king who wasn’t a compatriot. But of course, William was unaware of this and instead of rushing on to London, killing and devastating the land as he went, he waited patiently for a fortnight for his new subjects to come to him and surrender. When they didn’t, he decided that he would have to go to them and made ready to move.
William may have been the victorious conqueror of the men he had defeated at Hastings, but it would be some years yet that he could actually consider himself, Conqueror of all the English. Apart from Hastings and Pevensey, the rest of the cities and towns had yet to be taken. The battle for England was only just beginning.
Guy de Amiens Carmen de Hastingae Proelio
William Poitiers Gesta Guillelmi
Morris M. (2012) The Norman Conquest Hutchinson, London.