Chapter Sixteen: The End of England as it was in 1066

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So, we have come, finally, to the end of the road that took us on our journey to the Battle of Hastings. By the end of December, William was now Harold’s successor,  refusing to acknowledge Harold’s reign at all. William, the Bastard of Normandy, had finally got his wish: to rule the most coveted kingdom in the world. In his lifetime, William had managed to achieve what might have been to some lesser resilient  men, an impossible dream. As a young boy  he endured dangers that no child should have to suffer, with attempts being made on his life and having to hide in peasants hovels. As a young man, he fought for the right to rule his duchy, and later he had to endure the king of France’s treachery, leading invasions into his Norman territories. The king of France had once been William’s protector and ally, but had betrayed him, joining forces with Geoffrey Martell, who had once been their mutual enemy.

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William and his brothers

 

By the time he reached his prime, well into his thirties, he had been able to assert power in Normandy and drew Brittany into his enclave. It was about this time, that he must have begun thinking about the supposed ‘promise’ that William had perceived that his cousin, Edward, King of England, had offered him. Whether Edward had been flippant, or had been manipulated into agreeing to make William his heir, or whether William had believed that Edward had agreed, or whether Edward had agreed, then later changed his mind, we will never know, but the evidence that Eadmer gives us is very telling. Personally, I believe there may have been some manipulation of Edward during that visit in the autumn of 1051, by both William, and Robert Champart, then Archbishop of Canterbury. In later years, as the Norman regime began to dwindle in power in England, I think it is fair to say that Edward’s influences were erring more to the English and we see how William had also used cunning to manipulate Harold into swearing an oath to support his claim.

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Edward the Confessor

 

Edward was a weak king in many ways, but in others he was stubborn, and strong willed. He had only been able to assert himself over his nobles, on one occasion when he had the whole of the Godwin family exiled; and his queen, Godwin’s daughter, banished to a nunnery. It didn’t take the  other English nobles long to be alarmed at Edward’s growing faction of Norman officials and they refused to resist Godwin’s return from exile, compelling Edward to reinstate the family back into power. Edward had never forgotten the part Godwin had played in the death of his brother, Alfred, who was brutally blinded by agents acting for Harold Harefoot and for whom Godwin had been serving at the time. Although Godwin had protested his innocence, and had been proclaimed innocent by a jury of twelve men, Edward would forever hold him responsible.  It was at an Easter feast that Edward was to bring up the subject of the death of Alfred again, and Godwin, frustrated at having the accusation flung in his face once more, was beset by a stroke, dying a few days later. Edward, hopefully because he was feeling guilty, offered the family his own personal apartments to nurse him in.

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The earldom of Wessex, was then passed on to Harold, which left East Anglia free to be  Alfgar of Mercia’s once more. As his father’s successor, Harold was able to start asserting his own authority in the once ancient kingdom. Wessex was a powerful and wealthy earldom and Harold was able to endorse his rise to power by becoming the king’s right hand man.

William was obviously of the belief that he was in line for the throne, but Edward had not confirmed this by the time he was dead, although William would have everyone believe that he had sent the powerful earl of Wessex, (Harold) with gifts and a message that Edward had not forgotten his promise of all those years ago. And this was their insistence, despite the fact that Edward had sent a mission to Europe to search for his nephew, Edward the Exile so that he could have an heir of the same blood as The House of Wessex. Therefore, if anyone should have been in line for the throne, it should have been Edward the Exile’s son, Edgar the Atheling. William did not seem to have any regard for anyone else’s claim, rightful or not.

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But it was Harold Godwinson, King Edward’s brother-in-law, who got the job in the end, though Edward seems to have enjoyed keeping everyone in the dark until he was on his deathbed. It was most likely that in an effort to stop the succession of William, the Witan accepted Harold’s claim, or they may have persuaded him sometime before Edward’s death, and had him crowned as soon as possible. Edgar’s claim seems to have not even been considered, and with the storms brewing south of the channel and from the north, it seemed sensible to choose a man who had been tried and tested and found not wanting. Harold, though not as experienced in warfare as William, nor was he as ruthless, was the most experienced of the English nobles, not only in battle tactics, but also in diplomacy and politics. Why would they have picked a young, untried boy over a man such as he?

It is quite clear that the English had no desire to have William rule them. He was a Norman through and through, and if Harold was not of royal blood himself, he was still an Englishman, born of an English father and a Danish mother, which might also endear him to those who lived in the Danelaw. The Normans were very different from the English, and the Anglo-Danes. At least those who were of Danish descent had a common culture and law code, they could understand each other, they shared a common history. The Normans, despite their Scandinavian blood, were completely alien to the men and women of England, sharing no such common history with the English and had absorbed French culture and law so much into their psyche, that they had become more French than Norse by 1066. One can see that to an Englishman, common or noble, it would be far more desirable to be ruled by someone who understood their language, their customs and their needs. And Harold had seen the ruthlessness of the Normans in action, had been on campaign with William into Brittany whilst he was there in 1064, in the hope that he could free his kin from William’s bondage. Instead, Harold had been manipulated by William, having no choice but to become William’s vassal, selling himself into the bargain in return for his freedom, and only succeeding in returning to England with Hakon, his nephew, and not with Wulfnoth. Harold’s youngest brother, Wulfnoth, was to stay in the care of William, remaining a hostage until Harold had secured William on the throne. One cannot imagine the torment that outcome must have had on Harold, whose intentions in going to Normandy had been entirely for a different reason. Later, when he took the crown, he knew his brother’s fate to be sealed. Whether Harold lived or died, Wulfnoth would never be free.

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Harold swears oath to William on holy relics

 

And as events led to Hastings, culminating in the death of England’s chosen king, those who were waiting in London to hear the outcome of the battle, would look to their boy king, Edgar Edwardson, grandson of Edmund Ironside of the House of Wessex. Would things have turned out differently if Harold had supported Edgar as regent? Most likely not. William would still have come for his crown, and Hardrada, too, would still have come. With Edgar on the throne, William would still have laid his claims, despite Edgar’s  being the stronger. After all, he paid no mind to Edgar, even though the lad had been proclaimed king, post Hastings, by the surviving English. Such was this Norman invader’s arrogance, he would dismiss the claims of a boy whose right was greater than his own, and proclaim himself the true, righteous king, chosen by God; for had he not the papal banner that proved God was on his side? Edgar, it seems, was soon dropped by those who had raised him up to be king, in favour of the Conqueror. The boy who would be king, never had a chance.

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English swineherds

 

William, however, was not loved by the English. He spent the first five years of his rule putting down rebellion after rebellion. Soon, there would be scant numbers of English nobility and most official administration posts, both secular and ecclesiastic would be taken up by newly appointed foreigners. French only would be spoken at court by the ruling classes who saw the spoken English as far too rustic for their tongues. English was soon exchanged for Latin, which became the language of the clerics, where English had once been used freely. But one thing that didn’t change, were the people of England themselves, who forever remained and would remain as English as they had always been.

Primary Sources 

Eadmer: Historia Novorum in Anglia

Vita Edwardi Regis

Further Reading

Barlow F. (1970) Edward the Confessor, Eyre Methuen LTD, Great Britain.

Barlow F. (2003) The Godwins, Pearson Education LTD, Great Britain.

Howarth D. (1978) 1066 The Year of the Conquest, Viking Press, New York.

Swanton M. (2000)  The Anglo Saxon Chronicles (new ed) Phoenix Press, Great Britain.

Walker I (2004)  Harold, the Last Anglo Saxon King (paperback edition) Sutton Publishing LTD, Gloucs.

Chapter Thirteen: The Aftermath of the Battle

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?

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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.

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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, two clerics of that church, Aethleric and Osgod, accompanied Harold to the battle. In the aftermath, they requested from William that he allow the to find his body so they could bring it home for burial. Unfortunately they were unable to identify him because of the poor state of his corpse. They fetched Harold’s wife, the Lady Eadgifu, or Edith Swanneck as she was also known and brought her 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 disembowelled 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, and his body was lifted onto a bier. Some Norman knights out of respect walked by his side to Battlebridge, joined by some English warriors who had turned up late only to find the battle over and their king dead. He was brought back to Waltham and buried with honours.

Unlike the Waltham chronicle, other sources tell a different story. 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.

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William had Harold’s own personal standard sent to the pope in thanks for his support. It was said that the pope had given him a banner which William used on the day but this is now the subject of a thesis by Daniel Armstrong in which he looks into the unlikelihood that the pope had given his blessing. These were, however, the days when the outcomes of conflict were decided by God.

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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.

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The Normans crash into the Malfosse

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.

Primary Sources

Guy de Amiens  Carmen de Hastingae Proelio

William Poitiers Gesta Guillelmi

The Waltham Chronicle

Further Reading

Morris M. (2012) The Norman Conquest Hutchinson, London.

Chapter 12: The Battle 4) Harold meets his end and William wins by the skin of his teeth.

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.

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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.

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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

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A representation of the Papal Banner on the BT

Image by Eugene Ipavec, 21 May 2006

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.

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Odo encourages the boys

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).

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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.

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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.

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Norman infantryman

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.

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The English are surrounded after the Norman’s feigned retreat

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.

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Death of Leofwin and Gyrth

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.

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The fight carries on around Harold’s standards

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.

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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.

Primary Sources

Guy de Amiens  Carmen de Hastingae Proelio

The Bayeux Tapestry –unknown

William of Malmesbury Gesta Regum Anglorum

William Poitiers Gesta Guillelmi

Benoit de Sainte Maure  Chronique des ducs de Normandie

References

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.

Guest Post: Bishops, Banners and Bastards by Robert Bayliss

“…the gift of a banner as a pledge of the support of St. Peter whereby he might the more confidently and safely attack his enemy.”
The Deeds of William, Duke of the Normans and King of the English. – William of Poiters
“The Pope weighed the arguments on both sides, and then sent a banner to William as an earnest of his kingdom.”
Gesta Regum – William of Malmesbury

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Duke William raises his helmet to rally his troops. Beside him, Eustace of Bologne carries the Papal banner  *Source Bayeux tapestry

When Duke William landed at Pevensey in September 1066 on his campaign to dethrone Harold and conquer England, he unfurled his banners which included the Gonfalon, the battle standard of the Pope. Usually these were only issued on campaigns against non-Christian states or those who rebelled against papal authority. Yet here was a Christian Duke launching, what in effect was, a crusade against another Christian state; a Christian state that had been subject to the papacy for a century and a half. The subjugation of a well-established Christian nation could now be undertaken and those who indulged in the excesses of war would be absolved of their sins. And excesses there would be, such as the pillaging around Pevensey to draw Harold to battle and later the near genocidal Harrying of the North in the winter of 1069-70. The gift of the Gonfalon meant that other Christian kings would risk excommunication if they came to Harold’s aid or took advantage of William’s absence from his own lands. How could such a thing come to pass?

The Normans were descended from land hungry Northmen, who under their war chief Rollo, settled in north west France in an area that would bear their name – Normandy. Rollo himself had earned a reputation as a viking raiding Ireland and Scotland. He appears not to have raided England to any great extent, which isn’t surprising as Alfred the Great had recently forced Guthrum to sue for peace and was overseeing an Anglo-Saxon revival of fortunes. Heading south, Rollo’s longships raided deep into Frankia navigating along the river Seine. In 876 Rollo captured Rouen and nine years later besieged Paris itself. It was clear that Rollo and his men meant to stay and in 911 a formal treaty, with Rollo pledging fealty to Charles III of France, created the Duchy of Normandy.

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Rollo of Normandy – Falaise town square. * Source Wikipedia

The Normans adopted the language of the Carolingian Franks and they converted to Christianity. If anyone expected their new found faith to curb their warlike tendencies they would be disappointed, especially as they readily took to the Carolingian concept of heavy cavalry and made it their own. However, being subjects of the French king meant Norman expansion in France could only go so far and only the eldest son inherited lands and titles. Perhaps a second son could find a position in the church but where was the glory for a people who had won their lands by the sword? These were a people whose society was founded on martial prowess, but perhaps an outlet could be found to marry this with their newfound piety?

From 999 AD a steady stream of Normans found their way to southern Italy. Southern Italy had been settled by the Lombards, a Germanic people in the C8th – C9th. They found themselves sandwiched as a buffer state between the Carolingian Empire to the north and the Byzantine Empire to the south in Apulia – the heel – and Calabria – the toe of Italy. The Lombards had briefly had a unified Duchy but this had disintegrated into smaller duchies and principalities. As the Byzantine Empire waned the Saracens had entered the fray and carved out an Emirate in Sicily.

Legend has it that a group of Norman knights returning from pilgrimage to the Holy Land assisted the Lombards of Salerno in repulsing Saracen raiders. Not one to miss an opportunity more Normans arrived to find employment as mercenaries, especially when the Lombards, encouraged by the Pope, revolted against their Byzantine overlords. However the Normans were wily and could fight for both sides, all the time their numbers swelled and Norman held fiefdoms were carved from the chaos.

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*Source – Wikipedia

What originally was a Lombard revolt increasingly became Norman and more towns fell to them. They were not averse to campaigning as their Viking forebears had – raiding, burning farms and villages, starving towns of supplies to encourage their surrender. Their power and influence grew steadily as they crept from the toe and up the boot of Italy.

To the Lombards the Normans had changed from servants to oppressors and further revolts broke out, this time against Norman rule. The Lombards beseeched aid from the Papacy, who looked on in alarm at the turn of events. So it was that in 1053 Pope Leo IX, a relative of the Holy Roman Emperor in Germany led a combined Papal and Imperial force to nip Norman expansion in the bud. The campaign was an utter failure and Leo was soundly defeated and captured at Civitae. Pope Leo was treated well but was reduced to passive resistance only, any hope that the Holy Roman Empire would send further aid to his cause slowly dissipated. This situation continued with two further popes who were antagonistic to the Norman presence; however political reality took hold with the ascension of the reformist Pope Nicholas II. The Papacy sought independence from the Holy Roman Empire for the appointment of the pontiff (this would now be the decision of Cardinals) and also the tardiness in coming to the aid of the Pope had shown the Empire as an unreliable ally. The Normans were nearby, had assisted in the expulsion of the Byzantines and crucially had shown themselves as a strong regional power; despite their feudal form of government and their multiple fiefdoms, they quickly united when threatened. Nicholas II wished to expel the Saracens in Sicily and bring the island back into Christendom; the land hungry Normans were an obvious choice for such a task. The Treaty of Melfi in 1059 cemented the position of the Normans in Southern Italy. They had become the Pope’s sword arm.

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*Norman mercenaries in Muslim Scicily – by Angus McBride 

Nicholas II passed in 1061 and Alexander II, a student of the celebrated Lanfranc of Bec, was elected pope according to the reforms introduced by his predecessor. In opposition the Emperor in Germany chose Honorius II who with Lombard troops defeated the forces of Alexander. An armed standoff ensued between the Pope and the Antipope which only ceased in 1064 when Honorius II withdrew from Rome, although he never renounced his claim to St. Peter’s throne.

Back in Normandy, who should be Duke William’s trusted advisor but Abbot Lanfranc of St. Etienne in Caen; the same Lanfranc who had schooled the young Alexander at Bec.

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Captain Lanfranc – *Source Oxford Bodleian Library

Initially the relationship between both men had been fraught. William’s marriage to Matilda of Flanders in 1053 was deemed non-Canonical; it is unclear why, perhaps due to issues of consanguinity or even affinity. William’s uncle, Duke Richard III, had been married to Adela of France, Matilda’s mother. The marriage had been brief as Richard died the same year and they had no issue, Adela married Baldwin V of Flanders the next year. Whatever the reason, Lanfranc refused to support the marriage and the relationship between William and Lanfranc grew so dire that the Abbot was on the point of being exiled from Normandy. The two men reached a rapprochement at the eleventh hour and Lanfranc successfully gained Papal approval for the marriage in 1059. Lanfranc had William’s gratitude and the Abbot’s influence grew politically as well as in the spiritually.

Upon hearing the news of the crowning of Harold II on the death of Edward the Confessor in early 1066, William wasted no time. Whether Edward had promised him the English crown or Harold had sworn to uphold his claim we won’t discuss here. While embassies were sought with powers around the North Sea to isolate England, Lanfranc and William drew up a legal case for invasion to present to Alexander II.

It was argued that Harold was an usurper, however William’s claim could be described as somewhat shaky being as it was merely built upon a promise and an oath. There had never been papal involvement in the English succession previously, as this was down to the Witan, besides English law did not look favourably upon a bastard’s claim to the crown.

William and Lanfranc’s envoy to the pope argued that the English church was in a poor state and badly in need of reform. Stigand, the Archbishop of Canterbury had been excommunicated for his pluralism in holding the bishoprics of Winchester and Canterbury. However England was renowned for possessing a devout ecclesiastical body that held around 20% of landed wealth. Indeed a papal legate in 1062 found no problems with the church and even Stigand had not been challenged; indeed he held the archbishopric until 1070 when he was finally arrested and unseated in favour of Lanfranc (who else?!), to die two years later in captivity.

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Archbishop Stigand – *Source The Bayeux Tapestry

None of this seems to warrant the issuing of a Gonfalon against a nation which had long recognised the spiritual authority of the Papacy. Unfortunately for Harold events long ago and far away, beyond his influence, conspired against him. The Pope, an ex-student of William’s chief advisor, was threatened by the Holy Roman Empire and their attempts to depose him in favour of their candidate, while the local Italian populaces were in a near state of permanent rebellion, resentful of the growing Norman presence in southern Italy. Pope Alexander II was both dependent on, and a hostage to, Norman power. Any symbol of approval granted to Normans in their homeland would be looked upon favourably by Normans in the Pope’s backyard.

Sources:

The Deeds of William, Duke of the Normans and King of the English. – William of Poiters

Gesta Regum – William of Malmesbury

The Godwins – Frank Barlow 2002

The Normans in the South – John Julius Norwich 1967