Duke William's bravado was all good and well, but not everyone in Normandy was as confident about the prospect of invading England. According to William of Poitiers, many of his barons expressed reluctance, and even outright opposition, to the duke's audacious plan. They pointed out that England's resources, both military and financial, were significantly superior to Normandy's. A great army would not only have to be formed and equipped, it would also have to be transported across a hazardous sea. It was surely impossible to build all the necessary ships, let alone do anything else, within the timescale that William required; and with so many men absent from the duchy Normandy itself might be exposed to invasion. In the face of all these arguments, and anything else that the timid-hearted could bring themselves to say, the Duke of Normandy remained utterly resolute. He knew what he wanted and to that end he was as firm as granite. Was he not King Edward's blood kinsman? Had not Edward long ago told him that he would be his heir? Had he not seen with his own eyes Earl Harold utter a sacred oath that he would sup port his claim? There was no doubt whatever in William'smind that England should be his. It was he, William, who should be now seated upon that throne, but Harold had impudently seized it and (so it probably seemed) he was now sitting there, laughing at him.
William of Poitiers has the duke win over the Norman doubters by his powers of oratory at a great meeting, which may have taken place at the town of Lillebonne. If the lack of ships worried his barons, they should not worry, he said, because there would soon be enough. If it was the lack of soldiers, they should remember that wars are more often won by courage than by the number of fighting men. Harold was attempting to retain what he had wrongfully seized; the Normans would fight to acquire what was rightfully theirs. 'This fundamental confidence of our side, dispelling all danger, will give us a splendid triumph, great glory and a famous name.'1 During the spring and summer of 1066 there is evidence that the duke was travelling widely around Normandy, meeting with his chief men, no doubt rallying their morale and overseeing the preparations. Every aspect of the invasion, down to the finest logistical detail, must have been painstakingly planned. The army was probably to number about 10,000 men (though some have suggested a much larger force); there were horses, equipment, transport and supplies to prepare. William was a ruthless man, but it speaks much of his personal authority and powers of man-management that he was able to organise such a great army in so short a time and to hold it together for such a risky enterprise.
He was also one step ahead of Harold in the propaganda war. He sent an embassy to Rome where his wily Norman ambassadors persuaded Pope Alexander II to give his blessing to the invasion.2 Since Harold's case went unrepresented, it may be presumed that this result was achieved by dint of the usual one-sided arguments. The Pope's sponsorship of a war, symbolised by the grant of a papal banner, was a very recent innovation and it was notably astute of William to seek it, for this emblem of the approval of the highest authority in Western Christendom at once legitimated the expedition as a sanctified quest to oust a faithless usurper and an excommunicated archbishop. In the end William had no difficulty raising his army. The bulk of it came from within Normandy but others, sometimes his former enemies, from Brittany, north-eastern France, Flanders and even Aquitaine joined his cause as well. They were lured by the spirit of adventure, the papal blessing and the promise of English land and gold. Many would die, but if the Norman side won the survivors would become rich. The most prominent of the non-Normans who pledged his support (for the time being at least) was an old rival, Count Eustace II of Boulogne, though it is only later that we see him in the tapestry.
The tapestry distils all the decision-making into a single decisive meeting within a turreted Norman palace [scene 32]. Nowhere does it mention Pope Alexander's blessing and amongst all the flags depicted in the work (of which there are many) the papal banner has never been identified with certainty. It may, in fact, not be illustrated at all. The pivotal meeting takes place between an adviser (or informant), Duke William and a tonsured cleric. This is the meeting at which the momentous decision to invade England is taken. The inscription above is unusually spread across the upper border: HIC WILLELM DUX IUSSET NAVES EDIFICARE (Here Duke William ordered ships to be built). These words, like all other sources, make it seem as if the duke was decisive in the matter, but once again the embroidered picture tells a different story. The first man stands in front of the seated William. Perhaps he is counselling caution, referring to the difficulties that William of Poitiers has all the doubters allude to. Or perhaps he is a spy bringing news of Harold's accession. Duke William sits in the middle; he is pointing to the standing man but his head is twisted towards the tonsured cleric at his side. This is a William who is uncertain and wishes to hear the cleric's views. Like William, the cleric is seated on an important throne but he is noticeably depicted higher than the rest. It is the cleric who points to the shipbuilding that follows. Evidently, on this account, it is the cleric's advice that wins over a surprisingly hesitant duke and now, as if obeying the cleric'sown words, a workman with an axe is at once hurrying out of the room in order to get down to work on the formidable task of building all the required ships.
Who is this cleric, so prominent and influential in the counsels of Duke William? He can be none other than William's half-brother Bishop Odo of Bayeux. This enormously ambitious man was as much a secular as a religious figure, and he was already growing rich thanks to William's fraternal patronage. Odo was certainly one of the duke's key advisers, but no other source gives him such a prominent role in persuading his brother to take up arms and invade England. This is another clue about the tapestry's origin. It is the first hint that the tapestry's artist is making a special point of flattering Bishop Odo of Bayeux. He is flattering him, even above the duke himself.
Shipbuilding begins in earnest [scene 33]. In the Norman forests men swing great axes to fell tall, embroidered trees; and then the wood is turned into planks and the surface rendered as plain and smooth as a stretch of white cloth. In the foreground two bearded old shipwrights are now shaping the ships out of wood with little axes; others are performing the same task in the near distance. A contemporary document, the Ship List of William the Conqueror, tells us that Odo contributed 100 ships to the invasion force, which is no mean contribution considering that the total fleet numbered in the high hundreds.3 As all this activity was going on, Harold's own difficulties were becoming worse. Entirely neglected by the tapestry is the fact that in October 1065 there had been a rebellion in Northumbria against Harold's brother, Earl Tostig. It is said that the local people resented Tostig's harsh rule and wanted Morcar of Mercia in his place. The insurgents went on a rampage, killing and looting on a murderous journey into the English midlands. King Edward attempted to restore peace at a great council held at Britford, near Salisbury. Tostig, ill tempered and suspicious, now thought that Earl Harold had instigated the whole uprising and openly accused him before the whole assembly. Harold, in turn, indignantly repudiated the charge on oath. If Duke William and his brother Bishop Odo were at one about their plans, relations between the two English brothers had reached an all-time low; and they were about to become even worse.
By Christmas 1065 the dying king had resigned himself to the fact that Tostig was unpopular and that a royal army could not be raised in sufficient numbers to defeat the rebels. He gave in; the rebels had won. There can be little doubt that Harold had some hand in this pragmatic but unfortunate decision. Tostig was not only deprived of his earldom. Such was the ferocity of the insurgents that he and his wife Judith were forced to flee to Flanders. Not long afterwards Tostig must have received the news that Edward had died and that his brother Harold had ascended the throne in triumph. Maddened by fury, he was determined to revenge himself against Harold, whatever it took. He journeyed hither and thither in an attempt to find an ally in this unwavering and unnecessary vendetta. It is said by Orderic Vitalis, writing in the twelfth century, that Tostig visited Duke William of Normandy, but he was apparently rebuffed. From there it is said that he went to Norway in order to meet with King Harald Hardrada, a bloodthirsty warrior who could easily be persuaded that now was the moment to take up his own tenuous claim to the English throne.4 That may be so. More contemporary sources describe Tostig raiding around the English coast throughout the spring of 1066, before sailing up to Scotland to stay at the court of King Malcolm.5 The outcome was the same. He forged an alliance with the fearsome Viking magnate and by September the Norwegian Harald was poised to unleash his own invasion of England. This was the last thing that Harold needed, and Tostig knew it.
The tapestry proceeds swiftly with its own internal logic. It ignores the Norwegian dimension and omits Harold's troubles with Tostig, though in truth these all played a part, and perhaps the telling part, in his downfall. Instead we are shown the meticulous Norman preparations. There is a swarm of activity by the seashore as everything is loaded on to ships [scene 34]. The newly made vessels are dragged down to the sea. Some of the men are heaving ships to the beach with long ropes; they are struggling against the dead weight, leaning backwards as they progress step by step into the rippling water. HIC TRAHUNT[UR] NAVES AD MARE (Here the ships are hauled down to the sea). Others are carrying suits of chain-mail armour. Each suit of armour has a pole threaded through its arms; the pole is shouldered at each end by a man;borne upright in this manner, it is almost as if an invisible knight were already clothed within and ready to conquer England. Swords, lances, helmets, axes and provisions are all carried on board. Another two men, bent forward and visibly struggling, can be seen hauling a four-wheeled cart on which an enormous barrel of wine had been loaded, together with helmets and spears. ISTI PORTANT ARMAS AD NAVES ET HIC TRAHUNT CARRUM CUM VINO ET ARMAS (These men carry arms to the ships and here they drag a cart with wine and arms). Apparently William thought it wise to take some French wine with him, rather than risk drinking any English beverage. With this on board, William himself now rides to the shore.
What an awesome spectacle he must have seen, hundreds of ships lying in wait along the narrow coast, thousands of men and horses lined up along the littoral ready to embark on their mission, a mission that William had conceived in his own ruthless mind and ordained with his own commanding words. The first part of his vision had become a reality; it remained to cross the sea and conquer Harold. If the Bayeux Tapestry were the only evidence that survived, the crossing of the Channel by the Normans would appear to be a seamless and uncomplicated affair. It is known, however, that it was a two-stage process. The fleet assembled initially at the Norman port of Dives in August 1066, where it stayed for about a month. It then moved northwards along the French coast as far as the estuary of the River Somme at St-Valery, in Ponthieu, apparently driven by westerly gales. Here they waited a further two weeks for the contrary winds to abate. Throughout a tense, uncertain September, the Duke's qualities of leadership were tested as he held his army together. He is said by William of Poitiers to have maintained good discipline and a high morale. When some of his soldiers fell in the water and drowned during the journey from Dives to St-Valery, William, not wishing to cause alarm, ordered the mishap to be kept secret.
All summer King Harold maintained his watch. A large defensive force was placed at strategic points along the southern coast and the English fleet of longships was stationed on the Isle of Wight, ready to intercept the Normans at sea. Spies may have informed the king that the Normans were busy assembling at Dives, for Dives lies directly opposite where he placed his own navy. Harold is also known to have confiscated the estate of Steyning in Sussex from the Norman abbey of Fecamp, fearing, perhaps, that it might be a centre of intelligence for the enemy.6 His forces stood ready and waiting;eyes scoured the horizon on a constant watch for any sign of William's armada, but as the long days of summer grew shorter the anticipated invasion did not materialise. By 8 September there was still no sign of the Normans, and with provisions running dangerously low, and the season of autumnal storms now arriving, the king dropped his guard and decided to disband his coastal forces. It seemed that the danger of invasion, in that tense year of 1066, had at last subsided. Winston Churchill, who found himself in a not dissimilar situation in 1940, later commented dryly: 'in true English style [they came] to the conclusion that the danger was past because it had not yet arrived'.7
It arrived all right, but in another place. Harold had been so preoccupied by the Norman threat that events in the north took him by surprise. King Harald Hardrada had slipped across the North Sea with a formidable army numbering over 7,000 Norsemen. He picked up allies in Orkney, joined Tostig and his Flemish mercenaries, either in Scotland or at the mouth of the River Tyne, and then proceeded darkly down the English coast. As soon as Harold learnt of the danger, he hastily assembled his army of professional housecarls and raised more men from the shires. He sped north from London, hoping to reach York by the old Roman road before the invaders could take the city. He learnt en route that on 20 September Hardrada's army had annihilated an English force at Fulford and had probably already passed through York. This was certainly bad news, but Harold pressed on, undaunted, and the speed of his advance took the Norwegians by surprise.
At Stamford Bridge, on 25 September 1066, Harold launched a decisive attack on an unprepared Norse army. The fighting was 'very hard' and continued 'long in the day', so the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (C) tells us, but it was the English who were victorious. King Harald Hardrada was killed, as were Tostig and several thousand Norsemen. In the end the rout was so great that it took only twenty-four ships to carry home the survivors of an army that had arrived on 300. Hardrada's own son and heir, Olaf, was amongst those who made the sombre journey home; Harold allowed him to return to Norway after he had sworn an oath never to invade England again. The Battle of Stamford Bridge, no less than Hastings, was one of the decisive encounters of the Middle Ages. Three centuries earlier the age of Viking terror had begun when bands of marauding Norsemen struck fear around the coasts of western Europe. Now it was effectively over. Never again was England to be seriously imperilled by invasion from Scandinavia. This, of course, could not have been known to King Harold, but he had undoubtedly won a great battle. It was his finest hour, and on the morrow of victory he could sit back and congratulate himself on the first nine months of his reign. He thought he had seen off the danger from Normandy. He had decisively defended his country against Norwegian aggression, and in the process he had defeated and killed King Harald Hardrada, the most famous and formidable of war riors. His tempestuous brother also lay dead and would trouble him no more. 1066, it seemed, was going to be a good year for Harold Godwinson.
At this point the thread of the tapestry's tale can once more be picked up. Barely three days after Harold's victory at Stamford Bridge, the wind in the Channel changed. Duke William's mighty force took their chance and left the shores of Ponthieu on the night of 28/29 September 1066. The tapestry tells us nothing of events in the north, nor of Harold's preparations, but now the great Norman fleet takes up the whole of the canvas as it crosses a moderate sea of undulating threads [scene 35]. Some of the ships are packed with men and horses; others predominantly horses; others only men. HIC WILLELM DUX IN MAGNO NAVIGO MARE TRANSIVIT ET VENIT AD PEVENSAE (Here Duke William crossed the sea in a great ship and came to Pevensey). William's ship is the largest in the fleet. Illustrated as a typical Viking-style ship, it bears a cruciform banner (or possibly a lantern) at the top of the mast. At the prow there is a carved lion's head; at the stern a sculptured child holds a horn to his lips and points towards England, to which steady progress is being made. The duke's ship, unnamed in the Tapestry, is called the Mora in the document known as the Ship List of William the Conqueror, and it had apparently been given to him by his wife Matilda. Torches attached to the masts, like so many stars, are said to have kept the fleet of 700 ships in contact with each other during the night. We are told by William of Poitiers that at one point the duke's ship, no doubt the fastest, became separated from the rest. He ordered the anchor to be dropped and hid his anxiety by taking a hearty breakfast and drinking spiced wine, cheerfully behaving 'as if he were in his hall at home' until the flickering lights of the rest of the fleet gradually reappeared.8
It has been calculated that at an average speed of three or four knots the whole flotilla would have taken at least twelve hours to cross the Channel.9 They probably left the estuary of the Somme at nightfall, on an ebbing tide, an hour or so after the sun had set at 17.26 p.m. A quarter moon was then in the skies. The moon may have lit the first part of the journey, but would have disappeared from view three or four hours later. It would have been imprudent to arrive in darkness and with the sun not rising until six o'clock on the morning of 29 September 1066 it is possible, as we are told by the Carmen de Hastingae Proelio, that William's fleet had already dropped anchor for a while off the coast of France for a final review or tactical delay. The tapestry's illustration of the crossing is, however, entirely seamless. Under a grey-linen sky the vast armada now arrives in sight of the Sussex coast. What terror it must have struck in the hearts of anyone who saw it approach, first a few spangled dots on the dim horizon, then more and more until the dots numbered in their hundreds, gradually taking on the shape of warships, a terrifying prospect drawing ever nearer, the metal of swords and shields glinting, here and there, in the angled light of morning. The army within was intent on the mission that the English had long feared, and they were arriving only three weeks after Harold had commanded his own coastal force to disband.
The invaders disembarked without opposition from hundreds of ships on to the sloping beach at Pevensey. The tapestry's artist was impressed by the novelty of so many horses travelling by sea, for he shows us the horses, rather than men, leaving ship. One horse has a hind leg still on the boat as he clambers into the shallow water. There must have been hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of such horses being led off the ships that day. Masts are pulled down and the ships are left beached upon the shore. A foraging party now penetrates inland, riding in the direction of Hastings with orders to purloin provisions for the Norman army. Livestock is quickly found. A cow has been seized and slaughtered and now it lies on the linen ground, the first English casualty. Two Normans proceed to fell a sheep with an axe; another carries a pig on his shoulders; and a fourth is holding what appears to be a coil of rope. Behind them we see a line of empty English homes; it is their land that is being pillaged. The pillaging of provisions, though unfortunate, would have been seen as inevitable by viewers of the tapestry. It was what armies did. There is, however, a curious feature about this whole operation. The mounted Norman knight overseeing it is designated by name. HIC EST WADARD (Here is Wadard) [scene 37;plate 8]. This mysterious man is evidently not a person of rank or title, and his job is hardly the most important on the expedition. He is the third of the four obscure characters given a name by the artist.
Food has been seized by the invaders and taken back to the Norman camp. The task of cooking is illustrated in extraordinary detail [scene 38]. At the front, two men are busy boiling meat in a great cauldron, which has been hung by poles over a flickering red fire of tongue-like woollen flames. In the background a rack of spitted fowl is ready to be eaten. An army baker removes hot bread from a field oven, using a pair of tongs, and then places it carefully on a tray. The cooked birds, still on their spits, are served to the eager diners, one of whom blows a horn to announce the start of the meal. A party of knights eats at an improvised field table, a wooden structure on which kite-shaped shields have been laid as a makeshift surface, but the more important of the diners have gathered around their own semicircular table. William's half brother Bishop Odo of Bayeux dominates the table; once more Odo takes centre stage [scene 39; plate 7]. HIC EPIS-COPUS CIBU[M] ET POTU[M] BENEDICIT (Here the bishop blesses the food and drink). This meal is not referred to in any other source, but there can be no doubt that the bishop in question is Odo; one of the diners points to the words ODO EP[ISCOPU]S (Bishop Odo) in the inscription which follows, whilst looking back at the bishop in mid-benediction.
This scene of feasting, observed in these threads, still holds many beguiling secrets. Odo's tonsured head rises above all the others in a carefully constructed composition. There is bread and fish and other food arranged about the table, which the diners eat with hands and knives (forks were not used in the eleventh century). Duke William is unnamed, but he may be the figure upstaged by Odo, seated on Odo's right and looking up at him. Another figure, an enigmatic, older man with a long, straggling beard, sits to the left of the 'duke' and, with his back turned, he rather rudely stretches across him in order to take a piece of bread from the table. At the same time he sips from a cup of wine. A further figure has engaged the older man in the eye and points to a loaf of round flatbread lying in front. It is as if reference is discreetly being made to the bread and wine of the Eucharist; but if so, it is an allusion that is completely ignored by Odo and the duke. At the other end of the table a man is about to eat a fish eye; mysteriously, he points to the vacant eye-socket in the fish. A servant at the front, with his knees bent, offers a bowl of water so that the party can clean their greasy hands and he also has a towel laid over his arm. There are parallels in the iconography of this scene with early medieval manuscript representations of the Last Supper, where the servant figure would be Judas and the man at the centre Jesus. It seems that at one level Bishop Odo is being flattered, not only by upstaging the duke, but more presumptuously by taking on the role of Jesus at this carefully embroidered repast. More discreetly, however, the reference to the bread and wine of the Christian Eucharist passes unnoticed and is ignored by him.
After the meal, Bishop Odo, Duke William and the Duke's other half-brother, Count Robert of Mortain, hold a meeting to take stock of the initial landing and the preparations for the fight with Harold [scene 40]. All three are shown seated on a cushioned bench and are named in the inscription, as if in a family portrait on the eve of the great adventure: ODO EP[ISCOPU]S, WILLELM, ROTBERT. William, as would be expected, is taking counsel from amongst his leading feudal vassals, but the highlighting of his kinsmen Odo and Count Robert, and no others, is noteworthy and it is Bishop Odo who once more takes the limelight. He appears on this occasion to be advising caution and William is evidently listening to him. A commander, presumably on Odo's advice, now orders a fortification to be built at the port of Hastings. Workmen duly take up their tools; but a disagreement arises between two of them and they are now hitting each other about the head with shovels [scene 41]. Whatever disorder occurred, it must have been quickly quelled for the workmen are now busy throwing up an earthen mound on which a makeshift timber castle is raised. The work passes without further incident, except that a stone falls off someone's spade and hits another on the head;perhaps this was the cause of the dispute shown earlier, or a continuation of it. The prefabricated wood necessary to build the castle would have been already prepared in Normandy and transported across the Channel. What is quite possibly the mound of earth that these querulous workmen built may still be seen, at the top of Hastings cliff, where pottery fragments have been found dating from the time of the Norman Conquest.10
William is next illustrated receiving some unspecified news of Harold [scene 42]. King Harold himself received the dire news of William's landing whilst still in the north, though it is possible that he had already commenced his journey south and met a breathless messenger en route. If Harold's heart sank, as it must have, he soon steeled himself to face the new challenge with formidable, almost inhuman energy. He reached London in four or five days, with little more than the core of his men, and stayed there a week in order to wait for reinforcements. He then marched swiftly into Sussex to confront the invaders with an army that could match them. If we are to believe Orderic Vitalis, a comparatively late source, Harold met his mother Gytha in London and she begged him to wait and at least take some rest after all that he had been through. His brother Earl Gyrth even offered to lead the English against William himself, but when Gytha clung to Harold in an attempt to prevent her son leaving, the king indignantly kicked her away. Harold was to fight two major battles, 250 miles apart, within the space of nineteen days.
What may have incensed Harold was that his ancestral homeland in the south was being cruelly ravaged by the invaders; and this is exactly what the tapestry now shows [scene 43]. The invaders are setting a large house on fire, from which a woman and child flee in panic. HIC DOMUS INCENDITUR (Here a house is burned). William of Poitiers himself notes that Harold 'was hastening his march all the more because he had heard that the lands near the Norman camp were being laid to waste'. The woman and child shown in the tapestry are usually regarded as representative figures, and it is tempting to see them as standing generally for the innocent victims of war. It is just as possible, however, that they are meant to stand for actual people. There are only two other women depicted in the work - the named but mysterious Ælfgyva and the unnamed but identifiable Queen Edith - and it would certainly be consistent for the third woman, who also wears aristocratic clothes, to be a real and identifiable person. If so, one wonders whether she might possibly be Harold's mistress Edith Swan-Neck and the child perhaps one of the sons she had borne to Harold. He could be a boy called Ulf who at the time when the tapestry was being made had become, like Harold's brother Wulfnoth, a hostage of William the Conqueror.11 Whether this is so cannot, of course, be proven; it would have to be established that they were either in the vicinity at the time or else that the tapestry is alluding to an earlier flight before the Normans arrived. At some point after 1063 Harold had also entered into a strategic marriage with Ealdgyth, the sister of Earls Edwin and Morcar and the widow of King Gruffydd of Wales.
William's scorched earth policy was probably premeditated. He would have calculated that reports of men, women and children suffering on Harold's own land, people whom Harold knew and was duty bound to protect, would incense his enemy and it was to William's advantage that Harold should be provoked into a decisive early encounter. The path of the Norman rampage may still be traced in the Domesday Book of 1086, where it is noted that a succession of lands to the north and south of present-day Battle - at Crowhurst, What-lington, Netherfield and Broomham - had been devastated and laid waste. Yet although this devastation may have played a part in Harold's decision, he had a tactical reason, too, to advance swiftly and pin William down by the coast, where the isolated invaders would eventually run out of supplies. By the evening of 13 October Harold's army had assembled only a few miles from the point at Hastings where William's forces were encamped.
It is the tense morning of Saturday, 14 October 1066 [scene 44]. William has put on his armour. He stands proudly in his full-length chain mail; he wears a helmet with tassels at the rear; his sword has been placed in his belt and his lance has been planted in the ground; a little banner tied to the top flutters in the wind. His prized warhorse is now led to him by a squire, a virile stallion which (if we are to believe later twelfth-century evidence) had been given to him by King Alfonso of Spain and brought back to Normandy by Walter Giffard, the lord of Longueville.12 William's troops, like him, are already in armour, and they are now setting out from Hastings and advancing towards the place where it is believed that Harold's army lies assembled. In the border above there are two erotic images of a man and woman, neither wearing a stitch, and with arms outstretched they are about to embrace;the naked man's moustache reveals him to be English. In the first image he is carrying his fighting axe with his tunic draped in his arms; in the second, having discarded them, he is ready for amorous action with his genitals exposed. Have the English been indulging in the delights of the flesh on the eve of battle?Duke William has sent scouts to ride ahead, and from the top of a hill they peer down to ascertain Harold's position. One of them is now returning with fresh intelligence [scene 46;plate 9]. HIC WILLELM DUX INTERROGAT VITAL SI VIDISSET EXERCITU[M] HAROLDI (Here Duke William asks Vital whether he has seen Harold's army). The reason why this second comparatively unimportant knight is named is again obscure and Vital's identity and significance will have to be carefully unravelled.
Harold has sent out a scout of his own. His lookout has ventured on foot but he is fully armed and dressed in mail. From behind a thicket of gnarled trees, he peers through lush foliage; and with his hand raised over his eyes he can see that some of William's men are already dangerously close, just on the other side of the wood [scene 47]. The lookout returns hastily across rough terrain in order to report back to King Harold. No doubt the king would have wanted more time to prepare. Reinforcements were on the way and his ships were planning to move round the coast to cut off any Norman escape by sea. His elite bodyguard of housecarls had suffered many casualties at Stamford Bridge and they, like him, must have been utterly exhausted by the hard battle in the north and the long journey south - not to mention any other, on the whole rather unlikely, activities in the night. All in all the decisive battle looked like it was going to come rather too quickly for King Harold of England. He would have preferred a little more time.
William of Poitiers describes the two sides exchanging provocative messages (he even says that the duke offered to fight Harold in a single combat) but if Harold thought that this kind of posturing could delay matters for another day or two, he was wrong. This time it was his enemy who was advancing upon him before he was entirely ready. Clearly Duke William wished to engage the English in a decisive encounter without risking any further delay. Nevertheless, Harold, a native of Sussex, had the advantage of local knowledge and he assembled his army in a strong defensive position at the top of a ridge. The Normans and their allies would have to attack uphill from marshy ground a few hundred metres below. Now was the time for waiting, waiting nervously for the battle to begin.