Ralph de Mantes was the son of King Edward’s sister, Godgifu, known commonly as Goda. Goda was the king’s full sister, therefore a daughter of Æthelred the Unræd, and her son, Ralph, was fathered by Count Drogo of Mantes, Goda’s first husband. As such, Ralph could have been considered in line for the royal throne of England, however, he doesn’t seem to have been referred to as ‘ætheling‘, at least there is not any documented evidence. Whether or not, Ralph, whom it was said Edward was very fond of, had aspirations to the throne of England, it is not known, however he was appointed Earl of Hereford in 1052 and he had a project in mind when he took up office, to use Norman-style defence works along the difficult to manage Welsh marches.
Due to the troublesome Welsh incursions along the Herefordshire and Welsh borders, Ralph and his followers, Richard FitzScrob and Osbern de Pentecost began to ‘Normanise’ the county and three castles were built in Herefordshire, Richard’s Castle, and Ewyas Harold Castle as well as the castle built in the town of Hereford. These castles are two of only four known pre-Conquest castles, the other two being Hereford Castle and Clavering in Essex. Ewyas Harold Castle is thought to be the first in England. One can’t help but wonder if this was an attempt on Ralph’s behalf to ingratiate himself to the English and his uncle, in order to raise his standing – and perhaps garner some support in regards to the succession of the throne. If it was, it was all going to come crashing down around him, soon.
In 1055, Gruffudd ap Llywelyn (or Griffith as its pronounced in Welsh) was the small-time king of Gwynedd at this time. Killing off all his other rivals enabled him to become self-styled king of Wales. He was born around 1013, which by 1055, would make him around 42 or 43 and well on the way to ‘medieval old age.’ However by this time, he still appeared to be a very robust man. He came to be known as the ‘Shield of the Britons’ for uniting Wales against the English, but unfortunately when he died, his subjects were unable to maintain what he had built up in a united Wales. He was his father’s only son, however his mother, Angharad, remarried after Llywelyn’s death in 1023 and had two brothers, Rhiwallon and Bleddyn, and a sister for Gruffudd. On the death of Gruffudd’s father, Angharad’s new husband, Iago ap Idwal, took over power in Gwynnedd.
Gruffudd was to claim kingship of Gwynedd in 1039. He’d already held a position of power within Powys and when Iago ab Idwal was killed by his own men, Gruffudd expanded in to Gwynedd . This may have been a deal he had with the men of Gwynedd. It was quite common to kill a ruler off when he was getting too big for his boots, as Gruffudd was later to find out when he, too, was killed by his own men. By the summer of 1055, Gruffudd had rid himself of his other rival, Gruffudd ap Rhydderch, the king of the Deheubarth. This paved the way for him to take the title of King of all Wales.
Alfgar, son of Leofric, Earl of Mercia and the legendary Godiva of the naked horse ride fame, appears to have been an unruly, truculent man, envious of the success the Godwins were having. He found himself exiled after what seems to have been an angry outburst during the witan’s meeting of Easter 1055 to decide a new earl for Northumberland. Charged with treason and stripped of all his wealth and lands, he fled to Ireland to raise a mercenary force. Like the Godwinsons before him, he was determined to return to England by force if he had to. With 18 Hiberno/Norse ships filled with warriors, he sought out Gruffudd ap Llywelyn in Rhuddlan to ally himself with him for an invasion of England, but not before helping Gruffudd in his quest to become king of all Wales by defeating and killing his opponent in the kingdom of Deheubarth. Interestingly, Gruffudd, had been his family’s natural enemy having killed Edwin, Alfgar’s uncle in an ambush in 1040, and also driven Hywel out of Powys and carrying off Hywel’s wife, who’d been a kinswoman of Leofric’s. But past recriminations seem to matter not when a man wanted to fight for his land and what he owned.
The Welsh had long been raiding across the borders and causing chaos for some time, which had caused Ralph to build his castle in Hereford and encouraged other Normans to do the same. He was also bent on training the local thegns to fight on horseback to emulate the continental style of combat. Most people believe that the English preferred to fight on foot, and mostly this seems to be so, however it may not have been unheard of for the English to go into battle on horseback. The tactics however, were not known, but in this case, Ralph wanted to create a continental-style force to combat the continuing harassment from across the Welsh border.
What would a mounted ‘chevalier’ have appeared like and how would he have fought? Most likely he would go into battle with a few javelins to project at the enemy, or/and a spear to skewer them with. His sword or hand-axe would be for closer hand to hand fighting when proximity to his opponent made the longer arms too difficult to use. His tunic would need to be split in the front to allow comfortability in the saddle. The maille he wore would have to be longer than the byrnie to protect his legs, he would also use a kite shield, more manageable than a round shield on a horse. He would need to dexterous enough to be able to control his horse and manage various weapons on horseback. He would need years of training to achieve the sort of horsemanship that was seen at Hastings 11 years later. Those men would have been training from around 12/14, something these English men would mostly have lacked.
Ralph had been working on his Norman style defences too, building wooden structures with palisades, the pre-runner to castles. These would have consisted of a motte, a mound of earth with a towered structure within an inner bailey. The wooden fencing would have contained ramparts and lookouts. Ralph was obviously out to impress his uncle, the king, and may have considered himself worthy of being his successor. A great resounding defeat against the Welsh might have brought him the adulation and respect that he desired. Perhaps it would have gained him the title atheling. Unfortunately for Ralph, it was not the outcome he must have hoped for. Although he had worked hard to ready his force against the coming invaders, when it came to the battle, Ralph and his band of Normans would fail their English forces miserably.
Barlow F (1997) Edward the Confessor (2nd ed) Yale University Press, US.
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 PoitiersGesta Guillelmi
Morris M. (2012) The Norman Conquest Hutchinson, London.
In the previous post, the battle had reached a turning point, one that had finally made a dent in the English Shield Wall. We saw previously, how the Normans had been fighting hard to crack the hard nut that was the English defence. No matter how hard the infantry and cavalry fought, they just couldn’t break in. Even the Norman archers had not made much of an impact. The terrain was not conducive for archers to shoot up hill on such an incline, many of their arrows fell short or went over their enemy’s heads. And it depended on which way the wind was blowing, too, for the wind in their faces would have hampered their shots. The archers were lightly armoured, and most likely would not have wanted to come too close to the fierce, snarling men of the shield wall with their huge Dane axes that could cleave a man in two, and the missiles that were thrown at them could have killed them easily.
William shows his men that he is still alive
But around noon or perhaps slightly later, William got his first break. Frustrated that things were not going as well as he’d hoped and then witnessing his mounted Bretons running away and deserting him, he suddenly gathered his thoughts and the opportunity presented itself as the English broke their right flank and ran down the hill after the fleeing Breton knights. The thing that may have spooked the Bretons was the rumour that William had died, or they may have been losing their morale after taking a hammering from the English, it may have been a bit of both, but if a rumour had reached them that William was dead, then that would have finished the battle. It was customary in medieval battles that if the king, or the leading commander died, the game was up for whichever side it impacted on negatively.
William careered around the battlefield, showing his men that he was alive and kicking. He’d been unhorsed at least three times, but each time, he’d acquired a new one from some poor horseman, who was left to fight on foot with no means of a quick escape. He rallied the men, and led them to circle the right flank that had run after the fleeing Bretons, and slaughtered them, letting only a few escape to make a brave stand on a hillock. But they too were soon slaughtered and William had managed to foil a rout, though his mounted troops were not without losses themselves as they slipped down the marshy slope on the left flank of the hillock to their deaths.
When this particular phase was over, there would have been a need for both sides to regroup, take a few minutes to rest and take some water, some food. It would have been time for William to work out his next plan, and to send orders round to the various commanders of his armies, to give some more rousing speeches to encourage the morale of his men. As for Harold, I’m sure he would be keen to send orders around the lines not to leave the ridge. Losing a large amount of men doesn’t seem to have made too much of a dent in his wall, but he would have wanted to ensure that more men left the ridge again. The gap in the shieldwall was no doubt replenished with reserves, tightening up the lines once more. William may have had a bit of a break, but not the kind he needed to do real damage to the wall of spears.
Looking at both leader’s state of mind at this stage, William would be frustrated, anxious…worried that he had so far failed to break the shieldwall in around 3-4 hours of hard fighting. He had to make his troops work harder, had to make them realise that if they didn’t win today, they would all die far from home, and without the comfort of their loved ones. One can imagine that these thoughts would have had much to do with his rousing half-time speech to his men, and the fact that he would reward them with land in his new kingdom should they help him win what was rightfully his. Harold would be bereft at the loss of his brothers, if they had died before the hillock scene as the BT says. He would be shouldering this terrible loss, and the excommunication, too, would also be affecting him, along with the sight of William’s Papal banner flying above his head, although he might have been buoyed by how little success William was having despite it. But Harold could not afford to lose men like this again, and would be ensuring that everyone knew that they needed to hold the ridge. And so having rested, refreshed themselves and roused their men, the two commanders regrouped and were now ready to start the process of battle again
And so the fighting continued on in the same vein. Both the Carmen written by the Bishop of Amiens, and the Gesta Guillelmi by Poitiers, mention the fighting was hard and that William was in the thick of it and plays the major part. At one time when he loses his horse, he demands that a French knight give him his horse, but the fearful man refuses and an enraged William grabs him by the nose-piece of his helm and drags him from his horse to the ground. Thus William was once more mounted. This incident is a testimony to William’s strength of character. No one refuses him anything and gets away with it! Mind you, that horse was also killed, and if I were a horse, I would not want to be William’s. He seemed to have a habit of getting them killed, for this horse’s fate also followed his previous. Count Eustace of Boulogne, perhaps hoping for the largest slice of the pie, ingratiated himself with the duke by rushing to give him his horse. Not wanting to be without one himself, the count took his next horse from one of his own men. According to Howarth (1977), the two men from then on joined forces and according to one source, ‘cleared the field of the English.’
Poitiers claimed that none other excelled in such bravery or battle skills as did his hero, William, Duke of Normandy, and ‘At the mere sight of this wonderful and redoubtable knight, many enemies lost heart before they received a mere scratch.’ And Poitiers goes on to sing the praises of his lord, Duke William, telling us that he lost his horse from under him three times, and three times he leapt to his feet and avenged his steed. He pierced helms, shields and armour with his sharp sword, and as Howarth (1997) says, God was on his side, therefore adding to his courage and fortitude, making him a formidable warrior.
But William’s victory would only come if he killed King Harold.
There is a story depicted on the BT, (Bayeux Tapestry) as above where Bishop Odo, seeing that some young cavalry men have had enough and are trying to leave the field, armed with a club, confronts them. I wonder which was the most formidable choice, to continue to face the English and their deadly axes, or take their chances with Odo and his club? This seems to have been Odo’s role throughout the day, marshaling and rallying, and ensuring that the men were more afraid of leaving the field than staying on it.
Harold had been safe all day behind the battle lines, guarded by his chosen, hand-picked huscarles. These elite warriors were the closest of his companions, and like the others of his guard that fought amongst the front lines, had sworn to guard Harold with their lives. Whilst the shieldwall remained stable, he was not in a vulnerable position. All he had to do was maintain his situ until sundown when a Norman retreat could be harassed all the way back to Hastings, and with the blockade of English ships obstructing the Normans from fleeing by sea, William and his army would have no choice but to surrender or be cut down (Mason 2004).
Poitiers claims that the Norman army kept up with their relentless assault against the shieldwall well into the afternoon, but they made no ground and incurred many losses of their own. The English were also taking losses, but the enemy did little damage to the structure of their defence. William of Poitiers claims that Duke William ordered a series of feigned retreats, to draw out the English from their lines, similar to what happened earlier that day when the English followed the fleeing Breton horsemen and were cut down by William’s rallying. Apparently this did succeed in bringing some less disciplined men out of the wall (Walker 1997), however it is a wonder just how successful they were in creating multiple repeats of the ruse, considering the slaughter that had met those who had partaken in the chase previously. If I was in that shieldwall, you would be hard pressed to get me down that hill if I had witnessed what had happened to the first lot that did it. But, as according to Poitiers, the ‘feigned retreats’ he speaks of were successful but it still seems largely impossible that many English would take that risk again and again, as Poitiers implies.
The writer could have confused the ‘series’ of feigned retreats with the usual practice of cavalry regrouping and starting the assault again. Horses don’t like to charge into a wall of anything let alone a shieldwall of braying men waving weapons and jeering at them, so the Normans would ride up, attack with missiles or jab their spears and lances at the English, then turn and ride away when they were done. This might well have brought out a few of the English from their lines, reserves perhaps, who had turned up later in the day and joined the front ranks, without the knowledge of Harold’s orders or what had happened earlier. Naturally they would be killed by the Norman cavalry who took advantage of their isolation. Disciplined cavalrymen such as William’s would easily swoop round and trap these men and annihilate them. Could it be that upon seeing how some of the English were willing to be drawn out of their protective wall, William thought to use a cavalry feint, which, because they were tired and eager to get the thing done after a long, hard day, might bring a large amount of English out from the protection of their lines, because at some point, the English wall began to crumble.
I can visualise such a thing happening toward the end of the battle when exhausted men, wanting a resolution to the day, ignoring Harold’s orders, took the chance to follow the cavalry as they retreated down the hill, believing that the invaders, like them, had had enough. Some of the commanders may have chosen to disobey Harold, hoping that if a substantial amount of men ran down the hill to take the battle to the Normans, then Harold would give the signal to follow.
Whatever happened, and we will never know because accounts are often confused and conflicting, the English wall at some point began losing bricks and was now suffering terrible losses. Keeping the lines stretched out all the way across the ridge so that the flanks were not exposed, must have become more difficult. Twilight was approaching and despite the shrinking of the shieldwall, and William’s continued assaults on the English, the duke had still not made any significant break through. With darkness threatening to fall, William knew that the next wave of infantry challenge, cavalry charges, and hails of arrows would have to be their final, otherwise their desired victory would be eclipsed by the setting of the sun. William summonsed all his strength to give heart to his army. He ordered the archers to follow the cavalry as close as they could and to release their bolts right over the heads of the advancing knights and foot soldiers in front of them so that they fired more-or-less straight up, high into the air so that the arrows fell on the heads of the English in their lines. Medieval archers are known for the ability to fire rounds of ten arrows in a manner of minutes. The result of this barrage was that there were now some breaches being made in the wall. And the invaders were fighting as if their lives depended on it, for they did.
According to Rex (2011), in order to keep the wall intact, Harold and his headquarters moved into the front lines. With the shieldwall thinning, the king and his men would now need to fill in some gaps. It is here that, maybe, depending on which version one believes, Harold’s brother Gyrth might have died. Both Leofwin and Gyrth’s bodies are said to have been found near to where Harold’s was found. It should be considered that in order for this to happen, if they had died as per the BT earlier on in the battle, (see previous post for the death of Harold’s brothers) then Harold must have moved his men forward down the lines. On the other hand, other sources put their deaths around the same time as Harold is killed. With the Bayeux Tapestry illustrating the deaths of Harold’s brothers before the scene on the hillock, it is difficult to know which would be correct, but as I quoted in my last post, Guy de Amiens, in his Carmen de Hastingae Proelio, suggests that William had mistaken Gyrth for Harold, killing him in a rage. One can align this with the death scene at the end of the battle, where William and his men are looking for Harold, so they can kill him. Perhaps Gyrth had not died earlier, and he was defending his brother at the time, saw William and his fellow knights come hunting for Harold and threw his weapon at William which killed his horse. William is said to have jumped straight up from his fallen horse and gone for Gyrth shouting “Take the crown you have earned from us!” If William was searching for Harold, knowing him to be nearby, it was an easy mistake. In any case, it is said that William ‘hacked him limb from limb’. A little over dramatic perhaps, but in the end, Gyrth wound up dead, his dismembered body carrion for the wolves and ravens. As I said before, if Gyrth’s aim had been more direct, he might have saved the battle for the English if he had killed William instead of his horse.
What seems to have happened as according to the sources, and having pieced them together, William spots Harold on the top of the hill, with his two handed axe, fiercely cutting down those who were attacking him. Filled with bloodlust, the duke gallops off with three of his men, Eustace of Boulogne, Hugh of Ponthieu and a knight called Giffard, to kill Harold, and are soon followed by others. A breach in the shieldwall allowed them to ride straight for the king, (perhaps it is here that William encounters Gyrth). Guy de Amiens describes the last few moments of Harold’s life: The first of the four (thought to be William) pierces Harold’s shield and mail with a lance, right through to his chest. Blood gushes forth, saturating the ground. The second assailant cuts off his head with his sword. The third liquefies his entrails, and the fourth cuts off the king’s ‘thigh’ and carries it some distance away. This was thought to be Giffard, and Guy was being euphemistic with the word ‘thigh’. What in fact is inferred is that Giffard cut off Harold’s genitals, an act that William thought heinous and later expels the knight from his service in disgust. Mason (2004), quoting an inference from a later writer of the battle, Benoit, states that the group of followers who charged up the hill also had a hand in the disfigurements made to Harold’s body. They each took a turn in thrusting a weapon into the dead king’s corpse and it is said that he had wounds in more than 13 places, and there is a particular report that Harold’s head had two sword wounds thrust into it as far as his ears. Most likely his head had been removed when these were inflicted. So several men could claim to have had a hand in the bringing down of the valiant English king.
This last struggle occurred, as shown in the BT, around the Wessex Dragon banner and Harold’s own banner, the golden fighting man, which had been wrested from the standard bearer as he was mercilessly cut down. Initially, the original warrior drops the banner as he falls to the ground but it is snatched up by another warrior, soon to lose his life also. A man is seen trying to defend Harold as the Norman riders gallop forward. The figure of the tall, majestic man under the legend ‘HAROLD’ with an arrow supposedly protruding in his eye, is not thought by some historians to be Harold. It is the man who is being cut down by the mounted rider who is widely accepted now as Harold. The man with the arrow in the eye is another story, which we will discuss later at some other time. I do not believe that Harold was injured in this way and that there is another story to this figure, as the story of the arrow in the eye seems not to have been mentioned by the earlier recorders of the battle. This man certainly looks like Harold, with his elaborate mustache and the way he holds himself. He clasps a javelin behind his shield and seems to be pulling an arrow out of his eye. Studies have been done on the cloth and it has been noted that the stitching was redone at sometime and it seems possible that it might not have been an arrow at all but a javelin which the man was about to throw. If this were Harold, the artist may have wanted to show him in action just before he was hunted down and killed. The legend says: HAROLD REX INTERFECTVS EST, Here Harold Is Killed. He is fighting for his life, and here he is being killed. There is the problem of the axe, which the first Harold does not appear to have, but we have to remember this is a representation of what happened not an actual real life sketch.
What happens when a leader dies in battle? As soon as the survivors get wind of it, they are likely to run, disappear off the field of death. Word would have got around quickly that the English king was dead. His loyal huscarles had fought to their own deaths around him in a desperate struggle to keep him alive. At what point, it behoves me to wonder, would they have realised they were actually going to die with their king? Was it when they swung that first blow at the mounted men, or was it not until they heard their beloved lord scream his last breath? The fact that they knew their moments were numbered must have been traumatising. They had almost reached the safety of darkness and if they had just held out that bit longer, their king would have lived to fight another day. They would have had William in their clutches and Harold would still have sat on the throne of England.
And the youths who ran from the field with horror in their eyes and terrible sadness in their hearts, knew that it was over; the king was dead. England had lost. In that final hour the darkness descended upon them in more than one way, and death chased them, their blood, like that of their fellows, spilling into the grass and leaving a lake of scarlet upon the green meadows. So on Senlac Ridge and Caldbeck Hill, on the eve of October 14th, 1066, lay dead, the flower of English youth.
Guy de Amiens Carmen de Hastingae Proelio
The Bayeux Tapestry –unknown
William of MalmesburyGesta Regum Anglorum
William PoitiersGesta Guillelmi
Benoit de Sainte Maure Chronique des ducs de Normandie
Howarth D. (1977) 1066 The Year of the Conquest Viking Press, New York.
Mason E. (2004) The House of Godwine The History of a Dynasty Hambledon & London, London and New York.
Rex P. (2011) 1066 A New History of the Norman Conquest Amberley Publishing, Gloucs.
So in the last part of this post, the battle lines have been drawn. Harold’s army has been marshalled along the top of the ridge at the edge of Caldbeck Hill and are watching William’s army of chevaliers, archers, crossbowmen and infantry as the Norman leader arrays them at the bottom of the steep slope, more than 200 yards from the English who are shouting “Ut! Ut! Ut!” as they bang their shields. Amongst William’s army, to the left of the field, are the Bretons, the largest of his mercenary contingents along with the men from Anjou, Poitou, and Maine. They were under the command of the Breton, Alan Fergant. William took up the centre with his Norman troops and on the right flank, were the smaller contingents from France and Flanders, Picardy and Bolougn under the leaderships of William’s seneschal and great friend, William FitzOsbern, assisted by Eustace of Boulogne, who had caused so much trouble over the Dover incident in 1051. This incident had set the ball rolling for William, for if Eustace had not escalated the rift that was growing between Earl Godwin and King Edward, the way would not have been paved for William.
Harold was there with his huscarles and those of his brother, Gyrth, and also thegns and land holders commended to him from East Anglia, where Gyrth was earl. The same with Harold’s other brother, Leofwine, who presided over Middlesex, Kent, Essex, Hertford, Surrey and probably Buckinghamshire. And of course the men of Sussex. On the march back down from York to London, Harold would have needed to recruit men for the fourth army he’d had to call out this year and with the northerners still recovering from the battles in the north, he would have sent messengers on fast horses to call out the fyrds from East Anglia across to Hampshire. Many of these troops would have met him in London, but no doubt, there were those who went straight to the Hoary Apple Tree in Sussex. Harold had marched with those who’d joined with him in London to the proposed meeting place whilst his mesengers were rounding up the men of the southwest to come join them, shires like Dorset, Wiltshire and Gloucestershire, and perhaps Devon and Somerset too. According to Walker (2004) men were arriving throughout the day and augmenting Harold’s army. Many of these were the local militias throughout the shires, 1 man in every 5 hides, who trained for 2 months a year. They would have been equipped with at least a shield and spear, perhaps more, if their 5 hides could afford it, or they had a generous lord. These chaps would not have had to fight in the front lines, for they would have been killed very quickly, being so poorly armoured. It would have been their job to support the professional warriors from the back of the lines.
It has been a popular idea that much of the English army were peasant farmers with pitchforks and slings. I don’t buy it. How on earth would an army made up mostly of yokels have lasted in such a battle all day? Working on a farm can give you muscles, sure, but muscles don’t offer skill or protection alone. The men in the front lines had to be professional, or at least semi professional like the landholding thegns, or the enemy would have broken the lines as if they were a pack of cards. The peasantry would have been better utilised in bringing in the harvest, and maintaining the fields and making sure there was enough food for the winter. Their inexperience would have got them killed, so then, who would be there to work on the land if they were gone? Well, yes, the women, I hear you say. But much of the husbandry would have needed the strength of men, not women. The only peasants that may have turned up, might have been the local Sussex farmers, who turned up to support their lords. This was their land, and perhaps they had been personally affected by the raiding Normans. These may be the men, who, when they arrived, saw that there was enough men on that ridge already, men who were armoured and had fighting experience, so they went away, as is reported inRoman de Rou, and in Florence’s Chronicle of Worcester.
Both leaders had a good reason to want to engage as soon as possible. William must have known that not all of Harold’s army had arrived yet. England’s martial system allowed Harold to draw on around 25,000 men in a national crisis. It is thought that at the opening of battle, Harold had around 7-8,000 men and we know that more were arriving. William was cornered on the Hastings peninsula with little way of retreat, and with rumours of Harold having assembled a fleet to destroy the Normans ships, it was fight or die. But if they could get a foot hold in, say Kent, Harold would be heading for disaster. So, William needed to get this early victory; destroy Harold and the morale of the English would be destroyed. Harold, on the other hand, needed to contain William, to keep him locked into that corner of Sussex until the rest of his army arrived and that was why he took up the defensive stance on the ridge. His army was blocking the road to London and if William retreated, they would be able to follow him and wrap him up in no time. There was also more at stake for Harold: Sussex was also where most of Harold’s ancestral home was, the hoary tree was within the boundaries of Harold’s estate of Whatlington and William had been harrying his people. The king must have felt aggrieved at this and concerned for his lands, and his people. He was their hlaford, their loaf-giver, their lord. He owed them his protection.
The battle was thought to have begun around 9am, however this may have been later, according to Howarth (1977), who states that by the time William had organised all his men, and set out to march at 6.30 am, it would have been considerably later than 9am. This seems possible, but all the sources seem to imply that the battle begun in the third church hour, so 9am. By now, Harold and William would have made the usual obligatory speeches to their men, exhorting their men to fight for their respective just causes. The English would have been told that their homes, their way of life and their families were at risk. If they didn’t beat the invaders, they would lose everything. William’s men would be fighting for the spoils and riches they had been promised, and for their leader’s worthy and rightful cause, and their lives. If they did not beat Harold in the field this day, they would be doomed to die on English soil.
It was time for the battle to begin. Three writers wrote about a minstrel of William’s called Taillefer who begged his lord to be able to strike the first blow. When given permission he charged out of the ranks, singing the La Chanson de Rolandand tossing, twirling and catching his sword. He was reputed to have killed three Englishmen who charged out to meet him before he was cut down and killed, himself. This seems like an embellishment added by the Normans, however, it is the Carmen de Hastingae Proelioby Guy de Amiens, that we must credit with this story first, and it is then mentioned again later by other writers. We might be able to put Taillefer’s insane bravado down to his battle excitement, but surely no sane artist wanting fame and prestige, would perform such a suicidal final act, bearing in mind that minstrels were known to be a little crazy. Perhaps it didn’t quite happen the way the Carmen tells us, for one writer puts this scene in the middle of battle. But whatever happened, if it happened at all, its a nice opener to the story of the battle.
In the next part of this post, the battle begins… join me as we examine the key battle stages as we find ourselves in the midst of the fighting.
Gravett C (2000) Hastings 1066 The Fall of Saxon England Osprey Publishing Ltd, Oxford.
Howarth D (1977) 1066 The Year of the Conquest Viking Press, New York.
Mason E (2004) The House of Godwine The History of a Dynasty Hambledon & London, London and New York.
Harold was marshalling his men as the Norman army and their allies, marched along the road from Hastings, into the valley that was slung between Telham and Caldbeck Hills. Singing their war songs, and shouting ‘Dex Aie!’ – God aid us – and ‘Normandy!’
Watching them whilst on the ridge facing them, Harold’s mob start banging their weapons against their shields and shouting for ‘Godwinson!’ and ‘Oli crosse!’ or ‘Gotte mite!’ essentially meaning, God is on our side! And of course, the famous ‘Ut! Ut! Ut!’ Imagine the noise these thousands of men would have made, a cacophony of languages and chants. It would not have been unlike a football match here in the modern world, except the chanters were the players and not the observers in this game of death.
The ridge was reportedly 800 yards long, the flanks of which were protected by sharp declines and it cut right across the road back to Hastings. At its highest point it rose to about 150ft, and 60ft above the lowest point of the marshy valley. Behind the shieldwall, lay the road back to London and Lewes, on the top of the hill, there was open heathland big enough to camp on overnight. Nearby was the edge of the forest, where after the battle, survivors would run, or crawl, when they realised they had lost the battle. For now, though, they were not thinking of dying, or losing, well, maybe some were, but the confident among them wanted to get stuck into the enemy, thinking only of driving them back into the sea to whence they came. They were fighting for their freedom, the right to govern themselves as their customs dictated over years of building their country from the days when the first Germanic tribes climbed over the strakes of their longships and stepped onto Britannia’s soil.
The Normans, on the other hand, were fighting for what they believed in too, except their beliefs were governed by the desire of their leader, who had promised them that he had God on their side, that he, William of Normandy, was the true King of England. He’d also promised them land, riches and status, to encourage them to come with him. They were fighting for their new lives, land where they had none back in France, and greater prospects. And they were doing this at the expense of their English counterparts.
You can imagine the speeches that each war leader gave their troops, though it must have been difficult to relay a speech to that amount of men without the technology of today, still, no doubt there were speeches and the differences within them would have been to do with the above.
Harold’s men must have been 8-10 men deep and a thousand men across. By these times, the 11th century, that would have been a large army. And there would still be more men Harold could call on, if only he could contain William, at the very least, if not, destroy him completely. His plan must have been to maintain the shieldwall on the ridge until new troops arrived, and all his troops should have known what the plan was. Guy of Amiens, in his Roman de Rou, informs us that many of Harold’s troops deserted him because of the excommunication. Florence of Worcester confirms this but gives a different reason, they left because there was no room on the ridge, the battlefield was full. Howarth (1977) believes that those who went away were local peasants who had turned up to support their masters, perhaps. It seems unlikely that professional warriors would have left their comrades to it, even if there was no more room on the ridge, they would have stayed in reserve, and filled in the gaps when men were wounded or injured.
William had marched at dawn. For an army of that size to get itself up and going, it must have taken a lot longer than initially thought. When the head of William’s army came over the slope of Telham Hill, the rear was only getting started 6 miles away. William halted in sight of the English army who were already lining up on the ridge. Kinights stopped to put on their mail hauberks. William, put his mail on back to front! Just the sort of thing I do on a daily basis with my clothes – not mail – I might add. But once again, he laughs at the bad omen and his men help him to sort himself out.
William deploys his army to the left and right as the English watch on. There is about 200 yards between them. Battle lines draw up and it begins.
Gravett C (2000) Hastings 1066 The Fall of Saxon England Osprey Publishing Ltd, Oxford.
Howarth D (1977) 1066 The Year of the Conquest Viking Press, New York.