Post-classical history



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WHETHER WE ACCEPT the story of William’s watching the weathervane at Saint-Valéry with alternating moods of inchoate elation and tearful despair, or believe he observed the weather with a more glacial stoicism, it is certain that on 27 September 1066, two days after the battle of Stamford Bridge, the Norman duke finally got the south wind he had been hoping for. As soon as the wind was favourable, William ordered his fleet to put to sea. To avoid frequent collisions and to maintain formation during the overcast and moonless night, each ship was equipped with lanterns, flambeaux and signalling devices. Making full use of the high tide, the Normans left at nightfall on the evening of the 27th and landed at Pevensey the next morning, having experienced favourable winds all the way.1

The voyage across the Channel was uneventful and William, always supernaturally lucky, avoided the worst risk to his armada: that it would be caught by a full gale on the high seas. His own flagship, Maria, lost contact with the rest of the fleet early on, possibly because, unencumbered by horses, it could make easier way, but William had ordered a mid-Channel rendezvous and ordered all his vessels to display lanterns. The statement that the fleet actually anchored halfway across must be taken with a pinch of salt, as this would have required massive lengths of anchor warp. There is no reason, though, to doubt the story that as dawn broke Maria found itself alone on the open sea and that William’s sailors became jittery. He ordered a sailor to shin up the mast to see if there was any sign of their comrades, but there was none; William then calmly ordered his men to prepare breakfast. About half an hour later he ordered his agile sailor to climb the mast again; this time he reported four sail in sight and very soon the entire armada was visible.2

After arriving off the south coast of England around 10 a.m. on the morning of 28 September, the Normans waited for the change of tide shortly after 11 a.m., landed on the shingle beach of Pevensey Bay and found it undefended. They ran the ships up on the beach, cast anchors and lowered masts. Only two of his boats had been lost on the crossing and the only other casualties were sustained by some Normans who landed by mistake at Sandwich and were attacked (presumably killed) by the locals. Once again William was lucky. Harold had spotted the potential of the Hastings area for an invader earlier in the summer and the Pevensey area had been heavily guarded, but when he became preoccupied by the threat from Hardrada in the north, he garrisoned Romney and Dover but pulled his troops out of Hastings. Just a little later or a little earlier William would have been met at the beachhead with overwhelming force.3

However, Harold cannot be absolved from all blame, for his naval dispositions that summer were singularly inept. He made no attempt to singe William’s beard at Dives, as a Drake would have done, or to keep a fleet in being to intercept the Normans in mid-Channel, though some sources do speak vaguely of a number of unspecified fleet engagements. Even if we accept, as some have argued, that such actions were beyond the naval technology of the time, the level of seamanship in Harold’s fleet does not seem high, arguing for a rapid decline of the navy since the 1040s, when it was still imbued with the Viking spirit of Cnut. On paper, Anglo-Saxon society was far superior to Norman in naval strength, reflecting the greater impact of recent Scandinavian culture on England. There is a profound irony in the way Harold, with a long tradition of sea power behind him, failed to use this option effectively, whereas the Normans, who had to build a fleet from scratch, and whose culture emphasized horses rather than warships, performed so well in this virgin territory.4

Inevitably, the story of the Norman landing had to be embroidered by the mandatory stumble. This time it was William who was said to have lost his footing and to have passed off the bad omen by claiming that he had deliberately seized his rightful kingdom in both hands. He ordered the ships anchored close together, as if expecting counterattack, began releasing the horses and commanded the bulk of his men to unload arms and supplies while he sent an advance guard of archers and infantry cautiously inland on reconnaissance. Finding no one there to resist him, William grew more confident and sent his knights to demand the surrender of Hastings, which would solve immediate problems of food supply. With none of Harold’s troops close to them, the burghers of Hastings had no option but to bow the head. Just twenty-four hours after landing the Normans were already engaged in garrisoning both Hastings and Pevensey, where they built a trench and a mound surmounted with a wooden castle.5

Pevensey had powerful fortifications dating from Roman times, enclosed by a stone wall with a perimeter of about seven hundred yards; additionally, there was a network of docks used by the Saxon navy and merchant shipping. The entire complex was sufficiently sophisticated to allow William to land 3,000 battle-ready troops in a single afternoon. He then built walls to protect the horse transports from landward attack, and strengthened and modified the Roman fortifications. The enlargement of fortifications at Pevensey and Hastings had manpower implications, for a garrison of 1,000 men was required at each location; in this concern for the safety of his fleet William was being atavistic, harking back to the concerns of his Norse forebears. He was being overcautious, for the local fyrd commander was evidently not a man of any military talent. It has been estimated that he could have raised a force of 1,500–1,600, which could have been a serious menace to the garrisons once William moved inland, but the Pevensey landing was notable for the absence both of opposition at the beachhead and of a counterattack thereafter.6

It was probably at Hastings on the 29th that William first learned the news of Stamford Bridge – traditionally the news was said to have been brought to him by Robert, son of Wymarc, who had held office under King Edward – so that he now knew it was Harold Godwinson not Harald Hardrada he would be facing. William immediately saw that it was in his interest to fight a tired Harold as soon as possible, while his foe’s strength was diminished and before he could assemble fresh forces. While he sent his armies to ravage Harold’s lands in Sussex to tempt him to an early battle, his propaganda machine got into full swing. Harold’s victory at Stamford Bridge was presented as being in some sense contrary to the natural order and much use was made of Lucan’s phrase in the Pharsalia, dealing with the civil war between Julius Caesar and Pompey, where he says that some battles go beyond even civil war in their wickedness. William encouraged his propagandists to popularize the idea that the campaign against Harold was in part a war of revenge for their ‘kith and kin’ slain at Stamford Bridge; what he would have said about the Norsemen had he had to face them in battle is a moot point. But the most obvious propaganda ploy was to portray Harold as a fratricide for the death of Tostig – an indictment that was embellished with the ludicrous charge that Harold had beheaded Tostig’s corpse.7

After building an inner rampart at Pevensey, William moved his base of operations to Hastings, as it provided a haven for the fleet he had to keep in contact with constantly before he could engage Harold in battle. So far things had gone to plan, for the peninsula of Hastings, fifty miles square, made an ideal short-term base for an invader, as cattle could be penned there and reinforcements brought in by sea. William completed his fort at Hastings and sent out his men to plunder and lay waste everything not of immediate use to the Normans, pursuing a scorched-earth policy and concentrating particularly on lands known to be Harold’s, especially those at Steyning seized from the abbey of Fécamp. This was England’s first taste of the ‘harrying’ mentality that had already made the Normans dreaded in Europe and would later make their name a byword for barbarism and savagery. The Bayeux Tapestry shows houses and huts being burnt to the ground while terrified occupants cower outside. There was method in the brutality, for unless he could dent Harold’s prestige, authority and credibility there seemed no way the vital early battle could be fought. On the other hand, Harold was almost bound to rise to the bait, for contemporary notions of honour demanded immediate retaliation in such a case, or the entire notion of lordship would fail.8

Harold arrived in London on 6 October, having taken eight days to retrace the 190 miles from York. His first action was to go to pray at Waltham Abbey; then he returned to London, to find an ambassador from William besetting him with all the hoary old arguments about the Norman right to the succession. The envoy was Hugh Margot, a monk from Fécamp, who seems to have gone about his business so undiplomatically that Harold lost his temper and was with difficulty restrained from killing the monk on the spot. After rejecting all William’s pleas to have their rival claims assessed by an independent commission, Harold consulted with his advisers and principally with his brothers Gyrth and Leofwine. From this conclave came the absurd Norman propaganda story that Harold lost his nerve and had his sinews stiffened only after a talking-to from Gyrth. What actually happened was that Gyrth made the very sensible suggestion that, if Harold was so set on a quick battle with the Normans, he, Gyrth, should lead the English into the field so that, if he lost, Harold could gather another army and fight again; but if they gambled all on a single cast of the die and lost, the result would be utter disaster for the realm.9

In assessing Harold’s generalship in 1066, there is a particular temptation to adopt an all-or-nothing approach: either to view him as a peerless commander and gallant hero who was the victim of an incredible run of bad luck or as a man who was constantly outwitted by William. The truth lies between the two extremes. Harold had lost the first round, both by stationing his fleet at the Isle of Wight until 8 September and choosing to fortify Dover. The thinking was that William would probably either cross from Normandy to Wessex to march on Winchester or would take Eustace’s 1051 route towards Dover. He was about to lose the second round by a similar failure to think through all possible scenarios. On the other hand, Harold’s actions in the second week of 1066, though wrong-headed, contained more rationality than he is sometimes credited with. The task is to disentangle the rational from the irrational in his thinking, to distinguish the strategic from the tactical, perceptions from reality and courage from stupidity. Certainly no account of his ‘mindset’ is satisfactory which views him as a hot-headed creature of impulse with a short fuse, who burst into anger if opposed and kicked his mother for urging caution; these are simply the vanishing echoes of ancient Norman propaganda.10

In arguing for a rapid advance on Hastings and an early battle, Harold was probably influenced by four main points. First, he could not be sure that William was not receiving reinforcements from the Continent and thus growing stronger every day. Secondly, as lord and king he felt morally bound to rescue his lands from the ‘wrath of God’ treatment to which the Normans were subjecting them. Thirdly, he felt overconfident after Stamford Bridge and may have dreamed of a second victory which would place him in the annals of the great conquerors of all time, alongside Alexander the Great, Hannibal and Julius Caesar. Fourthly, his strategy depended on bottling up William in the Hastings hinterland (which was in those days a peninsula with a narrow isthmus as the only means of access); it was October, very soon forage for the Norman warhorses would dry up and, if confined on the peninsula, William would have no choice but to surrender. His commissariat problems were compounded by the exhaustion of local supplies by Tostig’s raid in May and the demands of the fyrd before 8 September. As for re-embarkation to Normandy, Harold hoped to rule that option out by sending his fleet to take William in the rear.

These were all weighty considerations, but all depended on being able to bell the cat and, as Gyrth pointed out, the manpower currently available to Harold did not make an early battle seem a feasible option. Gyrth proposed adopting Fabian tactics: wait until all available manpower had come in before offering battle and in the meantime scorch the earth, burn all the land between Hastings and London, leaving the Norman army to march through a wilderness. Too many men had been lost at Stamford Bridge, he urged, and a breathing-space was needed before another battle. The advice was sound: just a few more days would have given Harold a much more formidable army, and many of his northern units would have come in, including the corps of archers who had been left behind. Even if William and some of his men could have struggled through the man-made desert, his horses would not have survived, and he would have been easy meat for the Saxon housecarls. There is the further point that Gyrth was successfully second-guessing William’s strategy of a Viking campaign with victory in months rather than a lengthy war.11

Harold would have none of it. He insisted that he would never let any man face danger while he avoided it, no matter what the reason; he was therefore duty-bound to go the aid of his vassals in Sussex, and he could not consent to stand idly by while the Normans ravaged without let or hindrance. Insisting on his ‘bottling up’ strategy, he argued that the scorched-earth policy was impracticable. Even if reluctant peasants could be forced to destroy their own livelihood, where was Gyrth’s cordon sanitaire to be drawn? To speak of the land between Hastings and London was all very well, but once William escaped from the neck of the Hastings peninsula he was free to roam anywhere; he could provision himself and keep his army in being by taking a looping itinerary, north and then west. Harold therefore gave orders for an immediate march and sent his fleet round the Saxon shore to Sandwich to cut off the Normans’ retreat.12

There is no question but that Gyrth’s advice was correct. Fabian tactics do not necessarily require scorched-earth policies as well. If Harold had waited a week or two, he could have met William with a massive superiority in numbers, especially if his fleet had blockaded Hastings and prevented reinforcements from arriving. Morcar and Edwin would have been forced off the fence and obliged to appear in the field with their housecarls, and Harold would have had archers and even horses, had he chosen to use them. As it was he went to meet William with an army that was certainly no more than half, and possibly only a third, the size he could have taken with him had he only been patient. Even greater folly was evinced by his insistence that Gyrth, Leofwine and all the great names of Wessex and southern England accompany him to Hastings; this meant that if they were defeated, the English would be left with no leaders who could rally them.13

Harold set off for Hastings with a motley array of armed men. The core of his force were the housecarls who had fought with him at Stamford Bridge; then there were the thegns he had recruited in London, including sheriffs and abbots from Oxfordshire and Kent; next in importance were the mercenaries, including those sent by Svein Estrithson; then there were the men raised by the fyrd, mainly from southern England, but with a sprinkling from Norfolk and Suffolk. There were not many freemen or genuine volunteers properly so called, and the idea of a Saxon levée en masse or nation in arms is anachronistic, if only because in this era men fought for lords rather than the country or the nation. The legend of the last of the Saxons fighting for hearth and home is an attractive and seductive one, but it does not accord with historical fact.14

Even more amazing than Harold’s disinclination to wait until he had marshalled the full strength of the kingdom was his refusal to wait even twenty-four hours to receive the levies on their way to him from the home counties; he simply left word that they were to follow him to Hastings with all speed. By accepting battle at the earliest possible moment with diminished numbers and resources (for example, the horses he and his men had ridden south from York were not fresh enough for further military use), Harold played into William’s hands. Flushed by the signal victory he had won over Harald Hardrada, Harold never stopped to wonder whether Harald and Tostig had not simply let their attention wander and dropped their guard, thus handing him victory on a plate. Instead, intoxicated by his success, he thought that he could simply repeat his method of forced marches followed by a surprise attack. A more prudent man, having been smiled on once by the gods, would not have pushed his luck by assuming that Fortune would favour him so easily a second time; perhaps he was simply a victim of that common human arrogance that attributes sheer luck to God-given talent. The only real result of his overweening confidence was that he wore his men out by a gruelling 58-mile forced march over three days. The army that reached the eastern edge of the South Downs late on the night of Friday 13 October (and possibly as late as 2 a.m. on the 14th) was an exhausted army.15

If Harold hoped to surprise William as he had surprised Hardrada, he was soon disabused, for Norman scouts detected his approach and alerted the duke, who had his men stand to all night in expectation of attack. There is confusion in the Norman sources, for William of Jumièges speaks of Harold’s army marching all night and arriving at dawn – which would have ruled out the possibility of a nocturnal attack – and the Bayeux Tapestry seems to suggest that the Norman foragers were almost surprised but spotted an English scout at the last moment. It makes most sense to assume a Saxon arrival anywhere from 11 p.m. to 2 a.m. There is some evidence that Harold did intend a night attack but rethought his position once he knew the Normans were on to him. But there is absolutely no truth in the absurd propaganda story that the English spent the night of 13–14 October carousing and feasting while the Normans spent it in prayer and silent vigil.16

We may assume that both sides passed a tense and nervous night, only too aware of the ordeal to come next day. William intended at first light to try to break out of the isthmus, while Harold, apparently thinking the Normans were short of food and would still be sending out foragers, determined to take out these advance parties in hopes of affecting Norman morale. It is clear that Harold did not intend to advance against William’s main force until his own expected reinforcements had come up, and meanwhile was quite content to take up a defensive position on Caldbec Hill near the ‘hoary apple tree’ which had been agreed in London as the rendezvous point for later reinforcements and units not proceeding directly with Harold. The location was at the southern exit from the wooded hills, and some scholars even think the subsequent battle was fought there and not on Battle Hill, the traditional site. But such a reading means that William must have surprised Harold right at the rendezvous point, which does not accord with the best evidence. What did happen was that William tried to break out of the peninsula and that, to forestall this, Harold had to send his men to seize Battle Hill; this forward position then forced them to fight the Normans there and then.17

At first light the Norman advance guard on Telham Hill saw the Anglo-Saxon standards on Caldbec Hill, with more men coming out of the Weald forest, what looked like a large army behind them, and the whole scene seemingly a-glitter with spears. They raced back to inform William, who stood for a moment pensively, then ordered his archers forward in an attempt to stop the English seizing Battle Hill. The signs are, not least from the coiffed knights on the Bayeux Tapestry, that his mounted men were not yet ready but he hoped the archers could delay the English vanguard until his knights were ready to charge and seize the hill. The grim-faced archers advanced, crossbowmen in the middle, and fired a fusillade at the enemy’s faces. Their orders were to harass the Saxons in hopes of throwing them into confusion, but not to be sucked into premature combat; if too hard pressed, they were to fall back where they would be supported by the knights, who should by that time have donned their armour and mounted their horses. If, on the other hand, the archers succeeded according to William’s best hopes, his cavalry would then charge and take the hill.18

Harold spotted the manoeuvre and sent his men in large numbers to get to Battle Hill first. First to the hill were the mounted infantry, followed by the slower foot-soldiers proper. This race for the summit makes sense of otherwise enigmatic remarks in the sources, such as that Harold began the battle before all his army had arrived and that William hoped to ‘establish his knights in the rear of the foot’. The English won the race for the hill and drove off the Norman archers, but not before being badly disconcerted by a cloud of arrows launched towards them. It is said that wounds from the terrifying crossbow quarrels sustained by some of the fyrdsmen shattered their morale, convinced them they were up against some new miracle weapon, and made them desert; in this way William’s first movements in the battle may have had important long-term consequences.19

The initial skirmishes were now over, and a long period of ‘phoney war’ ensued as both sides made ready for the battle proper. William may have attempted to draw Harold down from Battle Hill to attack him on Telham but this was a forlorn hope with a general as good as Harold, for he knew very well that this would give the Norman cavalry an advantage. The battle of Hastings was a more prolonged affair than most medieval battles, but some historians have made it absurdly long by stating that the first serious clashes occurred at 9 a.m. and that the final Norman attack did not take place until 7.30 p.m. Because of the initial hostilities on Battle Hill, it is unlikely that the first clash of the assembled force of both armies took place until about 11 a.m. and the conflict must have been over by 5.30 p.m., for (before Daylight Saving Time) that is the hour of dusk in these latitudes in mid-October.20

The English took up their positions on the entire crest of the ridge facing south towards the Normans. All of the horsemen dismounted to fight on foot. The battle front was about half a mile wide: four hundred yards to the west or right of Harold and his standards and 200–400 yards to the east or left. On the crown of the hill, where the ground began to slope away to the south-east, Harold placed his two standards: the Dragon of Wessex and the Fighting Man, his personal ensign. Then he pondered his position. Both armies contained roughly 7,500–8,000 men, though William had more seasoned professionals and a more varied force, with heavy cavalry, archers and crossbowmen; moreover, they were better armed. Harold’s housecarls wore full armour, helmets and coats of mail, with round shields and javelins to hurl at the beginning of the action, and swords and axes as the follow-up weapons. To stiffen his weak spot, the fyrdmen, Harold partly amalgamated them with the housecarls, putting them in the rear ranks, and partly located them to the south-west of the hill, beyond the isthmus. His army was now in close formation, protected in the front and at the flanks by the shield-wall of the housecarls.21

Harold had an ideal defensive position for his housecarls to fight off the Norman knights and archers, though the location was not without disadvantages. The ranks would have to stand in close order so that the dead would scarcely be able to fall, and the wounded could not detach themselves from the action. Also, the shield-wall would have to part to allow the housecarls to wield their dreaded two-handed axes. Even though a warrior was momentarily (and dangerously) exposed while wielding it, his warriors had practised this manoeuvre time after time, and Harold felt confident. The fyrdmen were more of a worry, for some were frightened by the initial fusillade from Norman crossbows and others deserted when they saw the narrow space in which they would have to fight. Initially this did not trouble Harold, for he knew he had only to hold out until nightfall when reinforcements were certain to arrive; he could play for a draw but William had to have a win. None the less, he was always alert to the issue of morale and decided to exhort his men, stressing their invincibility if they stood firm, and telling them that they were fighting effete aliens who had won only flukey victories in France and could not stand against their axes; he added, however, that if they broke rank, they were lost.22

William’s speech to his men seems to have been more prolix, if we may credit the chroniclers. He began by saying that great courage was needed, for an outright victory alone would suffice this day. Retreat was impossible, and defeat would mean death of a particularly horrible kind; William’s version of the bloodbath at Stamford Bridge lost nothing in the telling. He dwelt on Harold’s broken oath, the murder of Alfred the Atheling, and the victorious record of their kin, the Norsemen, in all battles fought against the English. Pointing to the papal banner in their midst and displaying the relics, hung about his neck, on which Harold was supposed to have sworn falsely two years before, he reminded them that God was on their side and that the pope had blessed their crusade. He wound up by recalling the unparalleled martial record of the Normans in Apulia, Calabria and Sicily. He then made a public vow that if he was granted victory he would build a church on the site of the battle.23

There may have been further inconsequential parleys during this period of lull, and certainly there was much blowing of trumpets. William then ordered his army drawn up prior to the advance. In the centre were William and the Normans, with a picked force of Evreux archers. By his side rode Robert of Mortain and Odo of Bayeux, together with Toustain of Bec, the standard-bearer. This was a right that belonged by tradition to Ralph of Tosny and Walter Giffard but they had waived it so as to be in the thick of the fighting. Other Normans in this central group included Roger of Bigod, William Malet and William Patry. On the left wing were the Bretons, Poitevins and men from Maine under Alan of Brittany, with Aimeri of Thouars as his second-in-command, and Ralph of Norfolk as his deputy. On the right the French troops and the foreign mercenaries were under William Fitzosbern, with Eustace of Boulogne, whom William did not entirely trust, and Robert de Beaumont, in senior positions.24

When the army reached the bottom of Telham Hill, the knights put on their armour and mounted their horses. William’s coat of mail was at first put on back to front, which his men were inclined to take as a bad omen, but he shrugged it off, saying the reversal of the hauberk meant he would that way be turned from a duke into a king. His Spanish warhorse, a gift from King Alfonso, was then brought out, and William mounted up, choosing the mace as his weapon for the day. All three divisions of the army were ranged in a threefold order; first came the archers, slingers and bowmen, then the infantry and finally the knights. The cavalry bore heavy swords, long lances, maces and kite-shaped shields, but the horses had no artificial defence of any kind, and the infantry and archers were not in much better case. William’s intention was for the Bretons, considered his weakest troops, to attack Harold’s supposed weak spot on his right, while the right wing attempted the difficult east and north-east corners of the hill and he himself in the centre aimed straight for Harold’s standard.25

For the first assault on the shield-wall William used the unsupported infantry and archers, partly to test the calibre of the opposition, but also to delay using the shock tactics of the mounted charge until the enemy was more weary. But he was worried about morale in his army, which was noticeably jittery, so called for a volunteer who would open proceedings by challenging a Saxon to single combat. What he was really calling for was a man willing to undertake a suicide mission, and the request was understood as such. Up rode a man named Taillefer, a military adventurer who had also made his living as a juggler and jongleur. Taillefer is himself a battleground, with one group of scholars accepting him as a real person and another as a mythical accretion: ‘the mountebank Taillefer seemed a figure of romance rather than of history’ is one typical remark, and we may well believe that subsequent accounts of the battle added ever more colour to his biography. But the basic idea of a man sacrificing himself to give his comrades heart at a critical moment contains nothing essentially false.26

Taillefer, then, whoever he was or whatever his real background, challenged a Saxon to single combat on horseback and killed him – whether through superiority as a warrior or simply as a horseman is not revealed; he then charged the shield-wall, where he was killed instantly. There is no need to believe the later stories that he killed three men in single combat before dying at the point of a lance – as though Harold would obligingly send man after man out of the ranks for a purpose that was not his – to appreciate that his self-sacrifice might have been just the spur needed to get demoralized and shaky men to charge uphill against a strong defensive position. It seems plausible that the Norman infantry were maddened by the loss of their champion and forgot their fear in an outburst of rage. They were said to have marched determindedly up the slope, singing the Song of Roland in his honour.27

When both sides came within range, there was a fusillade of missiles on both sides: arrows shooting uphill and javelins, hatchets and stone fastened on pieces of wood hailing down. The Norman archers could make no impact on the enemy as, shooting from a lower level, their arrows either struck the housecarls’ shields or passed over their heads. Once within stabbing range of the shield-wall, the Normans were skewered, impaled and scythed down in dozens. The Normans yelled their war cries, especially dieu aide(assist us, God), but could make little impression. The Saxons worked out a kind of land shanty as they went about their grisly work; anyone gaining a toehold anywhere near the adamantine barrier of shields was run through and the corpse thrown back with an exultant cry of ‘Out, out!’28

The infantry assault lasted perhaps half an hour before petering out. There was now nothing for it but sending in the cavalry, on which such great hopes rested. It says something for the calibre of the Norman destriers that they were able to charge uphill carrying 250 lb of rider and equipment, but the velocity on impact with the shield-wall cannot have been great and was easily withstood. This time the English took some casualties, but not nearly so many as the Normans. The advantages of height and the sheer physical strength of the terrifying axemen broke up this mounted attack in turn. The Bretons on the Norman left took a terrible mauling; their nerve cracked, they broke and began streaming down the hill. In defiance of strict orders, those fyrdsmen who were not hemmed within the human stockade of the shield-wall – perhaps the ones Harold had posted on his right flank – rushed after the Bretons, thinking the battle already won.29

Some of the pursuers got too far ahead of their comrades and were easy meat when the Breton cavalry wheeled round and picked them off. But this minor skirmishing was soon subsumed in a general engagement as Harold ordered a widespread advance. The chaos and confusion on the Norman left was his great chance and he knew it. Whereas the Norman knights had been able to isolate the handful of Saxons who had scattered in the pursuit, they were powerless against the shield-wall advancing in formation, for there was no opening in the ranks through which they could ride. The battle had reached its climactic moment, and at this very point William was thrown from his horse – the first of three unhorsings this day – leading to a rumour that he was dead. Had this really been the case, the Normans would have disintegrated; the cavalry might have got away but the infantry would certainly have been slaughtered.30

Why, then, did Harold fail to score a decisive victory at this moment just when the Normans were on the point of being routed? Two separate incidents explain why Harold was unable to press his advantage. In the first place, William, mounted on a new horse, took off his helmet and showed himself to his troops, proving beyond doubt that he was not dead. He is said to have yelled that they were all madmen, that victory was in front of them and only death behind them, but whether he could be heard above the din is doubtful. The important thing was that the rumour of his death was laid by the heels. Grabbing a spear, and ignoring the protestations of Eustace of Boulogne that retreat might be the best policy, William whacked at his fleeing men. His half-brother Odo and some of the other Norman nobles did likewise, so that very soon the Bretons were shamed and browbeaten into facing about.31

But a Norman rally still does not explain why there was not the most colossal shock of arms as the advancing English smashed into them. Somehow, mysteriously, the general advance ordered by Harold was halted, and the logical presumption must be that it was halted by the death of his brother Leofwine, which occurred about this time. This is borne out by the evidence of the Bayeux Tapestry and also, indirectly, by William of Jumièges, who says that Harold was killed early in the battle; clearly he was confused and meant Harold’s brother. If Leofwine was leading the counterattack (he is shown in the Tapesty wielding a battle-axe) and was struck, perhaps by an arrow, in front of the Saxon army just as their advance was hitting its stride, it would not be surprising if the sudden loss of leadership stayed the pulse of the onslaught. It is also possible that the fyrdmen on the wings, who broke rank to pursue the Bretons and were picked off, did so at this point, unaware that Leofwine had died and the advance had been called off.32

The English had lost the vital impetus – for in battle minutes, and even seconds, count. Quickly rallying his men, William headed a charge which drove the Saxons back up the hill with heavy losses. Forming up their shield-wall again, Harold’s men prepared to sustain another furious Norman attack. Despite their losses, they were still in good heart, their discipline was unbroken and they continued to maintain close order. A terrible hand-to-hand combat now ensued, with some inroads being made on the Saxon left by Robert, son of Roger of Beaumont. William was again unhorsed, but soon afterwards the spear-wielding Gyrth was killed – another bad blow to Harold. There is no need to accept the obvious Iliad-inspired story that Gyrth first unhorsed William and that William then slew Gyrth; the chaotic fighting on the hill did not allow for that degree of heroic precision. More plausible is the version that William called to a knight of Maine to give up his horse and, when the knight refused, the furious duke struck him from the charger and mounted up himself, only to be again unhorsed almost immediately and half stunned by the ‘son of Helloc’, who was himself slain by the duke’s bodyguard. It seems that Eustace of Boulogne made up for his earlier lapse into cowardice by rescuing William in the thickest maelstrom of the battle.33

By now it was about two o’clock in the afternoon and the contest was still a stalemate. Both sides paused to rest, recuperate and consider options. Harold must have been concerned by the gradual depletion of his manpower and to have prayed, to amend the words of Wellington at Waterloo nearly eight hundred years later: ‘Give me nightfall or give me reinforcements.’ William must by now have been confident of the outcome, if only the daylight hours would last long enough. He knew that the next attack on the shield-wall would be the crucial one: secure a breakthrough and victory would be his; fail, and the advantage would shift to Harold. William realized that if the Saxon strength could be diminished incrementally, eventually their lack of numbers would allow a breach to be made in the defence. It was time to dig into the deep resources of Norman battlecraft.

It seems clear that, although William was good at improvising in the heat of battle, he was not a particularly original captain and did not innovate in the manner of the great military geniuses of the ages. His tactics at Hastings were based on a store of knowledge dating back to the behaviour of Richer of Rheims at the battle of Montpensier in 892 and of the Bretons against Fulk Nerra of Anjou at Conquerer one hundred years later. Included in this corpus was the stratagem of the feigned retreat, a particular favourite of the Normans, who used it at Arques in 1053, at Messina in 1060 and at Cassel in 1071. The most controversial claim of the Norman historians is that William won the battle of Hastings by luring the English off the brow of the hill by a pretended flight, then turning and destroying them. Is this credible, or is the entire story of a feigned retreat simply a device to mask the real rout of the Bretons early in the battle?34

As traditionally told, the story is obvious nonsense. The bulk of the shield-wall never was lured from the crown of the hill, as William of Poitiers admits when he speaks of this stage of the conflict as being ‘an unknown sort of battle, in which one side launched attacks and manoeuvres, the other stood like rocks fixed to the ground’. There are other obvious objections to the traditional story, which have been put with great force over the years. The Bayeux Tapestry gives no support to the idea. In the heat of battle it would be impossible to carry out such a manoeuvre on a large scale since it would require every man to know exactly when to retreat, how far to retreat, when to turn back and fight again, and would need perfect synchronization if chaos was not to result. Moreover, how could William’s orders be conveyed over the din and clangour of more than 14,000 men in combat, many clad in reverberating metal and wielding clanging metal weapons? Military experts add the point that soldiers once committed to attack cannot be made to change direction. Others say it is not psychologically credible that, having with difficulty extricated his men from a real flight, William should then have involved them in a simulated one. Most telling of all is the objection that stories of feigned retreats occur in the military annals of all medieval nations – the Byzantines, the Saracens, the Mongols – that the stratagem was widely known and was particularly associated with the horsemen of the steppes – the Alans, the Huns, the Visigoths, the Magyars.35

Historians have tended to take up rigid positions on the alleged ‘feigned retreat’ at Hastings, with one side asserting the manoeuvre’s impossibility on a confined battlefield like Hastings, and others simply reiterating that it ‘must have’ taken place because the sources tell us so, and anyway the Norman knights were superlatively trained.36 The entire confusion has arisen because of William of Poitiers’s tendency to hyperbole, first by pretending that the initial rout of the Bretons was faked, and secondly by implying that it was a stratagem involving the whole army. The overwhelming probability is that William gradually whittled away the manpower of the fyrdsmen on the English right who had been placed by Harold on outcrops of the hill to prevent the shield-wall being outflanked. Groups of Norman and Breton knights, no more than twenty strong, almost certainly tempted the men of the fyrd out of their protected positions, then wheeled round and slaughtered them, and these isolated incidents were then built into a ludicrous story involving the entire army. William would have used the Breton cavalry on his left for two main reasons: they had already fled in a genuine panic, so English suspicions would be lulled; and the Bretons were uniquely versed in the technique of the feigned flight, having learned it centuries earlier from the Alans in Armorica.37

William’s ruse worked. The Bretons rode up to the fyrdmen and, after a brief and furious combat, turned and fled. The Saxons sprang after them like hounds but all too soon the Bretons turned and began scything them down. Now it was the turn of the English to flee, but some of the fugitives reached a small outlying hillock, where there was already a garrison; the men on the hill showered the Bretons with missiles, forcing them to sheer off. Yet the best Saxon exploit was yet to come. Another party of English fugitives fled in the direction of ground to the west of the hill known to be treacherous because of the deep gulleys and then made a stand by the steep and thickly wooded banks of a hidden ravine; when the cavalry came charging after them, dozens of horses lost their footing, broke their legs or plunged to their doom in the hidden chasm, taking their riders with them.38

Although the fyrdsmen had acquitted themselves well, they had fallen into William’s trap by losing sight of their primary objective. While they and the Bretons were pursuing their mixed fortunes, the Normans seized the vantage points on the Saxon right and began making their way to the top of the hill via the gentle slope to the west. Harold had all but lost his crucial advantage of ground and was, moreover, now vulnerable to attack from two directions: from the initial point of attack, straight up the hill, and from the west, whence the Normans could charge directly against the Saxon standard. It was now about 4.30 in the afternoon, and at last Saxon spirits began to droop; around this time there were significant desertions from the fyrd.39

William gathered his cavalry for a final effort and this time, with a broader front on which to operate, he was able to co-ordinate his horse and foot. He ordered his archers to work out a high-angle plunging trajectory for their arrows, so that they fell on the defenders’ heads. The purpose was not to achieve significant fatalities this way – unlikely, since the arrows would lose their force on the descent – but to irritate the housecarls, who would instinctively raise their shields in Roman testudo (turtle) formation, giving the cavalry an opportunity to charge. Whereas previously the defenders could either blunt the arrows of the archers on their shields or withstand the mounted charge of the conrois, now they had to do both simultaneously, at the very time there were gaps in the shield-wall from the repeated earlier attacks and they were tired with an unprecedently long day’s fighting. It is also likely that as the arrows from the longbows whistled overhead, the Saxons started to take casualties from the crossbowmen, who were finally close enough to make their powerful shafts tell; hitherto, Harold had been able to keep these sharpshooters at a safe distance, but now his densely packed and reduced ranks provided an easy target.40

This time the Norman charge succeeded in punching a hole in the defence, but not before terrible, sanguinary hand-to-hand fighting had taken place around the Saxon standard. The victorious heroes of previous encounters closed with each other: there was a notable combat between a French knight and a pair of Saxon sworn comrades who had already distinguished themselves by killing large numbers of men and horses; this time it was the Frenchman who prevailed. The Norman Robert Fitzerneis was cut down as he tried to seize the English standard. One gigantic Saxon captain proved himself a veritable Ajax, slaying all around him in heaps and on one occasion scything down both horse and rider from a single swing of his battle-axe; but eventually he was outnumbered and was run through by the lance of a Norman knight. William himself was allegedly in the thick of the fighting, lost his third horse of the day, and was almost killed in single combat before being rescued by his men.41

Terrible scenes of carnage took place as wounded men screamed in agony, sometimes being trampled to death as they fell under the ever-diminishing shield-wall. Others ran around in mortal distress, clutching at arrows in their eyes. More and more holes were made in the defence and soon the shield-wall collapsed altogether, leaving pockets of defenders fighting back to back, perhaps twenty strong against an enemy now present on the hill in overwhelming force. Once victory was assured, many of the French and Normans broke off the fight to plunder the dead and dying. But William knew the battle was not over while Harold still lived. Suddenly he saw him on the top of the hill, with the remnants of his housecarls still grouped around the Golden Dragon and the Fighting Man. Even though William claimed to have been willing to meet Harold in single combat, now that he saw the lion at bay and remembered his superhuman strength from the Brittany campaign, he thought better of it.42

Instead, he summoned Eustace of Boulogne and told him to assault Harold with the best knights available. Eustace took with him Hugh of Ponthieu, son of the man who had held Harold prisoner two years before, Walter Giffard and Hugh de Montfort. A furious fight was raging round the standard, as twenty picked knights were trying to wrest it from the housecarls. Taking advantage of the confusion, William’s four-man hit squad found it an easy matter to slay Harold. Eustace ran him through the chest with a lance, drenching the earth with spurting blood, one of the others cut off his head, a third disembowelled him, and a fourth cut off his leg; some say the severing of the leg is a euphemism, that Harold was castrated. There has also been voiced the dark suspicion that William himself took part in the slaying. He later claimed to have been disgusted at the unchivalrous treatment of his enemy and to have broken the knight who cut off Harold’s leg (or gelded him), but this story is likely to be an ex post facto rationalization of his chroniclers.43

As when Byrhtnoth fell at Maldon and his followers considered it their duty to perish with their lord, Harold’s housecarls did not even ask for quarter and went down fighting to the last man. Among the heaps of slain were names well known in the Godwinson household: Thurkill, Godric and Aelfwig. The only survivors were the wounded who, assumed to be dead, were thrown on to the pile of corpses, but who later recovered enough strength to crawl away under cover of darkness. Even so, not many of them lived: one of Harold’s favourite thegns, Leofric, survived the battle but died of his wounds on 1 November. Ironically, the housecarls probably fought even harder in the last half-hour of daylight than they had done all day, for now they knew they would see the sun no more on this earth. It was otherwise with the men of the fyrd – such few as had not already deserted. They were signally cast down by the death of their king and began slinking away off the battlefield even before dusk fully hid their movements. Some went on foot, and a lucky few on stolen horses; some followed the road to London and others cut across country, thinking themselves safer from pursuit that way.44

As so often when a grimly fought, close-run battle finally inclines decisively to one side (Waterloo is a case in point), the initial flight became a rout, and the rout a slaughter, which went on well after nightfall until William recalled his men for a general muster. Many fugitives were cut down or trampled by horses, and others expired from their wounds in the deep cover of the woods or simply dropped dead from exhaustion. But the pursuit cost the Normans very dear, for they ran into very difficult terrain just as English reinforcements finally began to reach Caldbec Hill, and the result was minor catastrophe. Six hundred yards north of Caldbec Hill, the newly arrived housecarls took up a strong defensive position and encouraged many of the fleeing Saxons to join them. They took up station on the edge of a ravine at a place identified as Oakwood Gill, just on the edge of Duniford Wood, and ever afterwards bearing the name ‘the Malfosse’.45

The Malfosse was a deep gully enclosing a series of ditches with steep banks, whose precipitous nature was largely disguised by brambles and undergrowth. Pursuing fugitives in the gathering gloom, the Norman cavalry plunged into the steep descent on the north side of the hill; those behind them who could not see what had happened followed into the death-trap, until the entire ravine was a seething mass of dying men and whinnying horses. Many riders broke their necks and were killed outright; others who lay sprawling and broken-backed were despatched by the waiting Saxons. Eventually the slaughter came to an end when the pursuers were brought up short by the sheer volume of the dead in front of them. The Normans dismounted and sent scouts forward, who reported the English present in battalion strength. Leading a group of fifty pursuing knights was Eustace of Boulogne. Eustace allegedly panicked at this point and sent word back to William that a fresh English army had arrived. As the opposition was no more than a strong rearguard – as would have been discovered in the morning – Eustace might well have fallen into the duke’s disfavour once more, but he was rescued from his dilemma by a happy accident. Struck by a blow from a missile in the shoulder, he was carried off wounded, with blood pouring from his nostrils, able thus to pass himself off as one of the ‘heroes of the Malfosse’.46

William camped for the night among the carnage of the fallen, deliberately pitching his tent amid the heaps of slaughtered. It was long after dusk before he took off his armour, received the plaudits of his troops and at last sat down to eat and drink. At dawn the Normans began burying their dead, and meanwhile Saxon women came to the camp, asking for the bodies of their husbands, sons and brothers. William allowed them to be removed for burial, then ordered Harold’s dismembered corpse assembled for burial. There was great difficulty at first in recognizing the body, but Harold’s old mistress, Edith Swan-neck, had hurried to the battlefield and was able to identify it by distinguishing marks which only she knew. Her devotion was in sharp contrast to the behaviour of the late king’s recently married wife, who was already on her way north to seek the protection of her brothers Morcar and Edwin.47

Harold’s mangled limbs were wrapped in a purple robe and taken to the beach for burial. At this moment a message arrived from his mother, Gytha, asking William for the boon of her son’s body and promising to pay as ransom Harold’s weight in gold. An angry William refused indignantly: his prickly sense of honour was outraged by the offer of money and he was all the more irritated since, as a notably greedy man, he would probably have liked to accept but could not bear the loss of face in his soldiers’ eyes. Moreover, he told his intimates that he did not want to grant Harold the honour of Christian burial since so many good men had died because of him; more likely, his fear was that a cult would form around the dead king, which happened anyway. The Norman knight William Malet was given responsibility for the bizarre burial of Harold, which some have seen as an atavistic throwback to the Norse paganism of William’s ancestors. Harold was laid to rest under a mound of stones at the foot of a sea cliff. Perhaps taking pity on the dishonoured king, Malet had a lapidary inscription engraved on a large headstone, and the legend read: ‘By the duke’s command, Harold, you rest here, to guard the sea and shore.’48

The battle of Hastings was one of those rare conflicts that actually merits the overused accolade ‘decisive battles of world history’, though it was not immediately apparent that such was the case. Harold’s insistence that his two brothers and all the senior nobility of Wessex should be at Hastings, with no contingency plan in case of failure, was shown to be reckless folly. As well as being one of the longest of medieval battles, it was also one of the bloodiest. No exact figures on casualties are possible – hardly surprisingly when the number of combatants on each side is disputed – but if the Normans were 7,500 strong, they must have taken about 2,500 casualties; in an era when septicaemia meant battle wounds were usually fatal, such a tally represents also the number of deaths. Given the fight to the death by the housecarls and the slaughter of the fugitives afterwards, English casualties must have been far higher, perhaps 4,000. Certainly most European contemporaries, hardly squeamish or with a great feeling for the sanctity of life in this era, were shocked by the bloodshed and the casualty lists, and William himself felt the need to do penance for the slaughter he had wrought.49

There was nothing inevitable about the outcome of the battle. In recent years there has been a tendency to stress the alleged superiority of Norman technology, military science and expertise, to insinuate that England was up to three centuries behind Normandy, to misunderstand and underrate the Anglo-Saxon fighting potential and to conclude that Harold, on his march to Hastings, was engaged in a forlorn quest. The Norman troika of castles, archers and heavy cavalry has been overrated; it was effective in some cases but could make little impact against irregulars and guerrillas or in mountainous terrain, as events after 1066 show very clearly. Others have mistakenly inferred, by extrapolating from the peculiar circumstances of Hastings, that the Anglo-Saxon shield-wall had to remain rooted to the spot and was thus bound to fall victim to mobile archery and the charge of heavy cavalry.50

It cannot be too strongly emphasized that Hastings was a remarkably near-run affair whose outcome was for a long time in doubt and which the Normans won by luck as much as anything else. If Harold had been able to hold out for one hour longer, the balance would have swung in his favour the next day, for William’s force would get no bigger but his would; the Normans meanwhile were in a hostile country with their rear menaced by the Saxon fleet. They themselves had the grace to admit that they came within an ace of defeat and that only divine intervention could explain their ultimate success. Had William been killed, or if he had failed to rally his troops after the Breton left collapsed, the result would have been catastrophe. Harold was unlucky in that his reinforcements did not reach him in time but foolish to trust Morcar and Edwin, for if their housecarls had come to Hastings, as promised, there could only have been one result. Some of the shrewder observers saw that the failure of the Northumbrians to appear in the field was in some ways the great act of treachery in a story not short on perfidy. And of course if Harold had lived to fight again another day, Hastings would not have been a decisive battle but only the Fulford Gate preceding a Stamford Bridge, fought near London and with who knows what result.51

The death of Harold and his brothers and all the great pre-1066 Wessex magnates was, in effect, the death of Anglo-Saxon England. But Harold was destined to win in legend the place denied him in history. According to twelfth-century tradition at Waltham Abbey, Harold’s body was eventually brought there for Christian burial, and a cult grew up around the last Saxon king according to which he, and not Edward the Confessor, was the true saint. In time rumours arose that Harold had not died at Hastings but had survived: the story was that he had been knocked unconscious, thrown into the heap of the dead, then found, still breathing, by peasant women, who nursed him back to health in a nearby cottage. He was then taken to Winchester, where he hid in a cellar for two years before escaping to Germany. The anonymous Vita Haroldi makes even more sensational claims: that he survived and then conducted guerrilla warfare against the Normans for many years, after which he ‘got religion’ and became a hermit. After a pilgrimage to Rome, he settled down as an anchorite in a remote part of England and lived out the rest of his life far from the stress of wars and high politics. A lost cause, it seems, will always win a last victory in the human imagination.52

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