The predominating ethos of Dark Age societies was martial; the king functioned first and foremost as a war-leader and as the defender of his people, and the more effective he was in this capacity, the higher his standing with his own people and his enemies. It was King Alfred who, in his translation of Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy, first defined what he called the tools of his kingship by separating them into what would be the traditional three classes, the praying men, the fighting men and the working men; but there was never any doubt about which of them formed the aristocracy. In England, as in Normandy, the ability to fight was the most important qualification for life, and the reputation of a renowned warrior the most eagerly sought.
It may seem rather contradictory, therefore, to make the point that major pitched battles, like Hastings, were on the whole avoided whenever possible, and the most successful rulers of the day were generally those who were most efficient in avoiding them. It has been pointed out that the only major battlefield on which William had appeared before Hastings was that of Val-ès-Dunes, when he was only nineteen and where the commander-in-chief was his overlord, the King of France. Over the next twenty years until Hastings, he contrived with considerable adroitness to achieve his objectives by more indirect methods such as siege-work, in which in his early years at least he appears to have been masterly. The battle of Mortemer, in which the Normans defeated the French under the French king and the Count of Anjou, was captained on the Norman side by William’s cousin, Robert of Eu, and the battle of Varaville against the same opponents, where William managed to catch the French army divided in two on either side of a ford, indicates patience and clever tactics but can hardly be compared with a battle of the scale of Hastings. Harold, in his warfare against the Welsh king Gruffydd ap Llewellyn in 1062, showed something of the same tendency. He pursued an extremely effective campaign of harassment against him, but the hands that eventually killed Gruffydd were Welsh, not English. On the whole he appears to have preferred negotiation to battle and to have resorted to force only when diplomacy failed. Edward, on the other hand, despite his saintly reputation, seems to have favoured warfare rather than diplomacy on the occasions for which we have evidence (for example, the exiling of the Godwin family in 1051 and the Northumbrian rebellion in 1065): a not uncommon example of the civilian who knew little at first hand of war contrasted with the soldier who knew all too much about it.
The reason is not difficult to find. Far too much must be hazarded on the outcome of a single pitched battle, and, unless the odds on one side were overwhelming (in which case the lesser side would if it could find a way to avoid battle, such as retreating), the eventual outcome was far too uncertain for the hazard to be worthwhile. The principle was summed up succinctly by Vegetius in his De Re Militari, the military bible of the Middle Ages, probably written about AD 390: battle should be the last resort, everything else should be tried first. ‘The main and principal point in war,’ he went on, ‘is to secure plenty of provisions for oneself and to destroy the enemy by famine. Famine is more terrible than the sword.’lii The tactic of harrying and devastating the enemy’s territory (as Harold did in Wales and as William did when he landed in England) had the double advantage of damaging the enemy’s prestige and economy, and maintaining the invading army at no cost to the invader. As has been pointed out, one man’s foraging is another man’s ravaging. It was also a procedure much more popular with the individual soldier. In ravaging (or foraging), he not only looked after his own commissariat, he also had the chance of plunder. In battle, he was much more likely to be killed. It has been suggested that the harrying of Harold’s lands in Wessex was the most effective stratagem used by William to provoke Harold into confronting him at the earliest possible opportunity. And it was, of course, what the Viking raiders did in the ninth and tenth centuries. Apart from the five pitched battles of Edmund Ironside against Cnut and, of course, the battle of Maldon, there had been few major battles against the Vikings since Alfred’s conclusive victory at Edington. It follows that over the century before Hastings, the English defence capability had been geared more to combat guerrilla Viking invasions than to battles on the Stamford Bridge or Hastings scale, the one notable exception being Athelstan’s great victory in 937 at the battle of Brunanburh over the combined forces of the kings of Scotland and Ireland.
The myth of an Anglo-Saxon army primarily made up of peasants fighting with sticks and stones was exploded many years ago but dies very hard. Such an army could not have held back the Normans for half an hour, let alone a full day. Another myth, strenuously promoted in some circles in recent years, is that the victory of the Normans was that of a highly disciplined feudal force, composed in large part of well-trained cavalry, over some kind of home guard fighting on foot, enthusiastic but poorly equipped and largely untrained, called together in haste from the shires to meet the threat of invasion but hampered by obsolete organization in the face of the sophisticated opposition. In part, this is due to the retrospective effect of the outcome: the English army was defeated by the Norman army, therefore it must, ipso facto, have been inferior. This argument does not take account of the circumstances in which the battle was fought.
A good deal of research has been done on the composition of the two armies that met at Hastings, but in essentials there are several unknowable facts, the most important of which is our ignorance of the size of the two forces. Many efforts have been made to compute these, on the one side from the numbers of men and horses whose heads are shown above the gunwales in the Norman ships in the Bayeux Tapestry (and the belief that one can extrapolate from this a calculation based on the number of ships believed to have sailed), on the other on the assumed length of the English position and the probable depth of Harold’s deployment along it. Neither hypothesis can provide a reliable result. The depictions on the Tapestry are symbolic, not naturalistic, and we have no detailed knowledge of the types or sizes of the ships William built; and the topography of Harold’s original position has been changed so much by time and building work that it cannot support any reliable calculation. There is also the unreliability of the contemporary evidence. On the English side, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, corroborated by some later chroniclers, states that Harold fought before many of his troops had come up – contradicted by a different assertion, that in fact he had too many men for the position he occupied. On the Norman side, there are wildly unrealistic estimates of the size of the English army, designed in part, probably, to enhance the duke’s prestige in having beaten so colossal a force. As for the Norman army, William announced before the battle that if he had only 10,000 men rather than the 60,000 he had brought he would still fight Harold, but this was undoubtedly a rhetorical figure and 60,000 is not credible. The possibility of armies of 20,000 or more on each side has been suggested, but is unlikely. The best guesses of the best authorities, based on calculations of the size of the battlefield, the number of men it could accommodate and the space between them that would be necessary for them to fight effectively, are that the two armies were fairly evenly matched, at between 6,000 and 8,000 men on each side, and this is borne out by the length of the battle since one would not expect a battle where one side was demonstrably superior to the other to last so long. But they are no more than guesses.
Ironically, of the two forces we know far more about the obsolete English than the professional Norman, and what can be deduced from the written evidence available does not support the idea of an out-of-date amateur force, crushed by a highly trained professional army organized along feudal lines. This is not surprising, given the length of time over which the English system had evolved and the various Viking invasions to which it had been forced to react. There must always, from the earliest days and on both sides of the Channel, have been some arrangements, of varying degrees of formality, linking the defence of a country to the holding of land in that country, so that all free landholders had a responsibility to the king, or to some intermediary lord, to give armed service when required. Vestiges of such a system over the previous centuries can be found in many parts of Europe. England, by coincidence, provides more evidence of its development than Normandy.
Long before the advent of the Vikings, the rulers of the individual kingdoms of the Heptarchy had had occasion to call on their subjects for fighting men. It was as a result of the ninth-century raids that Alfred made the most far-reaching changes yet to the organization of that requirement. It was he who initiated the systematized construction of fortified towns or burhs (or boroughs, as they became) throughout his kingdom, to be permanently maintained in a state of readiness and defence; in theory no one was more than twenty miles away from a place of refuge in the event of Viking attack. The germ of this idea had been found earlier in Mercia, but it was Alfred who saw its relevance to the kind of hit and run raids to which so many parts of England had been subjected, though it was left to his son, Edward the Elder, to complete the scheme. Edward also produced the complicated Burghal Hidage document, which provided for the maintenance and defence of the burhs and has been described as a watershed in the history of Anglo-Saxon governance.liii The lack of castles in England has been seen as a sign of the general backwardness of the English in military matters, in comparison with the achievements of the castle-building Normans, and Orderic Vitalis ascribes the speed with which William was able to subdue the country after Hastings to the absence of English castles. But the virtue of castles lay chiefly in the part they could play in defending border territory (most of the few English castles that existed before 1066 were on the Welsh marches), or in holding down rebellious or conquered territory (the reason why William built so many of them) or in providing a focus for insurrection. In the centuries after the conquest, the many English castles held by rebellious nobles were to prove a mixed blessing to William’s successors. Alfred’s system of fortified burhs whose administration and upkeep were in the hands of their inhabitants, not of individual nobles, and into which country-dwellers could retreat for safety in time of danger represented a much nobler vision and proved an effective deterrent to Viking raiders.
It was Alfred, too, who solved the problem of raiders who could attack and disperse before the English shire levies could be called out; he arranged a rota, as described in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, so that half the fighting force would always be on military duty while the other half remained at home for purposes of immediate local defence and maintaining the general affairs of the country. This produced what was, in effect, the first English standing army, and it worked. But in order for it to work, he had to tighten up the legislation that laid the duty on the land to produce the fighting men he needed. It is also Alfred who is credited with laying the foundations of the English navy when in 897 he commissioned the building of a fleet of longships to his own design, though in action these proved less successful than his other innovations, being too deep in the draught for the river work in which the shallower Viking ships excelled. None the less, his was the first recorded attempt to construct an official naval force for the defence of the nation, and his successors were to build on his achievements.
Naturally, there had been many changes in the detailed organization of the national defence between Alfred’s death in 899 and the mid-eleventh century. During the more peaceful years of the tenth century, the upkeep and manning of the burhs was not maintained with the same rigour as had originally been intended, and it was no longer necessary to keep a standing army in the field. As time went on, though the service due from landowners was strictly maintained, there was a move to allowing it to be commuted for a cash payment with which paid troops could be hired. The Danegeld or heregeld, in the reign of Æthelred, was not used exclusively for paying the Danes to go away; it often paid one lot of Danish troops to fight off another, as Æthelred paid the famous Viking Thorkell the Tall for many years. After Cnut’s introduction of the housecarls in 1018, and their development into the front-line troops of the English army, cash was needed to pay them. But the theoretical obligation of all free men to give military service remained, and could be and was called on. There were clearly enormous variations in detail in different parts of the country, but in general there seem to have been two different types of service: first, the system by which the king could call on a force of warriors for a particular purpose, based on the provision of a man for a certain unit of land; second, the responsibility of all free men to defend the country in an emergency such as an invasion. In the first case, the man was provided, armed, paid and provisioned by the lord, the abbey, the village, the hundred from which he was due, and was expected to serve anywhere needed, at home or abroad, for a certain period, usually sixty days. These would be the men who were normally referred to as the shire levies or the select fyrd. In the second, when all free men were expected to turn out for a national emergency, they were not normally expected to go beyond their own locality and had to be able to return to their own homes at night (there were exceptions on the Scottish and Welsh marches); this has been described as the general fyrd. When Byrhtnoth called together his force to meet the Danes at Maldon, he would have called out the shire levies and his own retainers, but he would almost certainly have regarded this as the sort of emergency in which all the local free men should come to the national defence. This might account for the presence of Dunhere, the ‘unorne ceorl’, the simple peasant, though he might just as easily have been there as part of the shire levies.
The provision of men for the shire levies was the most important part of the defensive system and was related to the tenure of land. The general basis (allowing for regional differences, for example in the Danelaw where the land was assessed in carucates, not hides) is set out fairly clearly in the account of Wallingford in the Domesday Book, and it was probably in accordance with this system that the summons would have been sent out in 1066:
If the king sent out an army anywhere only 1 thegn went out from 5 hides, and for his sustenance or pay 4s. for 2 months was given him from each hide. This money, however, was not sent to the king but given to the thegns. If anyone summoned on military service did not go he forfeited all his land to the king.liv
If the landowner went himself, he presumably paid himself from the profits of his land; if a man who was not a landholder (or held a unit of less than five hides) went, he would collect his pay or the balance of it from those who did own the land that he was representing. But there are indications throughout the Domesday Book that it was usually the same man who answered the call on any individual territory unless he was unavoidably prevented (perhaps by increasing age or by sickness), and that he went well armed and equipped, suggesting that he was a reasonably experienced fighter. The evidence of the Domesday Book indicates that in 1066 the summons was to the general fyrd, since it gives instances where more than one man had gone to the army for less than five hides; and in this case they cannot all have been able to return to their homes at night.
There is also evidence that in general, representatives from the same shire tended to fight together, and thus would have become accustomed to operating as a trained unit. Throughout the Chronicle there are reports that the men of this shire turned out on this occasion or the men of that shire repelled a landing on another or that an ealdorman opposed an enemy with the levies of such and such shires. Legend has it, for example, that the men of Kent traditionally had the honour of forming the vanguard in any campaign in which they fought and striking the first blow in any battle; the men of London traditionally fought around the king. It is tempting to see in these early arrangements the origins of the county regiments that mostly survived until the late twentieth century and were such a distinguished part of English military history. It was, on the whole, a remarkably efficient and sophisticated system. It could be abused, though there is little evidence that it was in pre-conquest days; the worst example is that of William Rufus who in 1094 summoned an army of 20,000 men and marched them to the coast where he demanded that each man gave him 10s. they were carrying out of the 20s. that they were due (they would have received the balance when they returned home), and then sent them home again, thus raising the enormous sum of £10,000. This is recorded by several chroniclers. The story does nothing for William Rufus’s reputation but it does indicate that if that number of men had set out each with the same sum of money, there must have been a fairly uniform system in operation and that it had outlasted the conquest. There is no reason to see why it should have produced a less efficient or well-trained force than any other. It has been well described by C. Warren Hollister:
The personnel of the select fyrd was heterogeneous because the obligation was based upon units of land rather than social rank. Throughout much of England, each five-hide unit was obliged to produce a warrior-representative. The miles who was produced was normally a thegn, but if no thegns were available he might be a man of lower status. He might be a member of one of the intermediate groups – a cniht, a radmannus, a sokeman. And he might, if necessary, be a well-armed and well-supported member of the ordinary peasantry. The important thing was that he represented an appreciable territorial unit which was obliged to give him generous financial support. As such, he belonged to an exclusive military group which can, in a sense, be considered a class in itself. And he may well have taken considerable pride in his connection with the select territorial army of Saxon England.lv
There is no reason to suppose that the shire levies were any less well equipped than the Norman infantry they would have encountered at Hastings. There is plenty of evidence that those who served were expected to present themselves with body armour and appropriate weapons. Perhaps the best evidence of this is found in the heriot or tax that was payable on the death of a thegn to his lord; this was, in origin at least, less a tax than a restitution of the arms and equipment with which he had been provided by his lord during his life and which presumably would be passed on to his successor. The word ‘heriot’ itself derives from the term here-geat or war gear. The rules of this are set out in, for example, Cnut’s second code of laws, and are well illustrated in the will of a fairly modest thegn named Ketel (one of the people who made their wills before undertaking a pilgrimage to Rome) in the years shortly before the conquest:
And I grant to Archbishop Stigand, my lord. . .as my heriot a helmet and a coat of mail, and a horse with harness, with a sword and a spear.lvi
This is clearly the average equipment that the shire levies would be expected to turn up with; a nobleman would have been expected to produce more: at least four horses, more armour and a cash payment as well. We cannot now confirm whether or not Stigand had provided Ketel’s equipment in the first place but it is perfectly possible that he did, and it is certain that in most cases it was the lord’s responsibility to ensure that the fighters he was responsible for were properly turned out. It is noticeable that, although the Bayeux Tapestry shows what may be unarmed peasants hurling missiles at the battle, there is no indication that most of the regular English troops were less well equipped than their opponents. If it were not for the lavish English moustaches shown by the embroiderers, and for the battle-axes that Normans did not use, it would frequently be difficult to distinguish one side from the other.
All the evidence suggests that the military duty that the shire levies had to provide included service at sea as well as on land, and there are many indications that the men who were summoned to the king’s standard were able to fight afloat and that their commanders were as experienced at sea as on land. During the wars against Gruffydd ap Llewellyn in 1062, Harold sailed with the English fleet into Cardigan Bay to attack from the sea while his brother Tostig invaded from Northumbria with land forces, and this was a tactic that had also been used by Athelstan in his campaigns against the Scots. In fact the English did not fight on sea often, and in 1062 Harold may have sailed into Cardigan Bay but then disembarked his men to fight on land. The occasions on which King Alfred tackled the Danes on the water were not his most glorious successes. Nevertheless, Harold was more experienced than Duke William in naval matters, and William of Poitiers emphasizes the fear of the Normans at the prospect of encountering Harold by sea:
They said. . .he had numerous ships in his fleet and men skilled in nautical arts and hardened in many dangers and sea-battles; and both in wealth and numbers of soldiers his kingdom was greatly superior to their own land. Who could hope that within the prescribed space of one year a fleet could be built, or that oarsmen could be found to man it when it was built?lvii
There were complicated regulations governing the provision of ships, but it was clearly a duty that, in an island nation, was laid on all landowners, secular or religious, though many of the great bishoprics and abbeys, especially the inland ones, appear to have commuted their obligations for cash payments with which the king could have ships built on the coast. The last recorded instance of a major ship-building exercise before the conquest is found in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (E) in 1009, when Æthelred gave orders for ships to be built all over England, one ship to every 300 hides of land, resulting in a fleet ‘greater than any that had ever been seen before in England in any king’s day’. He was clearly expecting a new invasion since he ordered them to be built quickly, but, according to the Chronicle, he got little benefit from the expenditure. He and his successors had also relied on mercenary ships, although Edward the Confessor paid off most of these to save money in 1051 and 1052.
Despite the supposedly highly organized feudal nature of pre-conquest Normandy, we know much less about how its armed forces were assembled. It is clear that William had no navy; all Norman accounts emphasize that his first action after taking his decision to invade was to order ships to be built, and it is fairly clear that he also hired and commandeered some. The so-called ship list, which gives details of the numbers of vessels to be contributed by his various nobles, indicates that he must have started pretty well from scratch, and we have to assume that the fleet eventually assembled was varied, some large ships, some small, some transports for stores and equipment, others presumably designed for carrying horses. According to the ship list, about a thousand ships were to be contributed by his nobles, apart from any he may have hired or commandeered, though many of the latter may have been transports; the probable total certainly casts some doubt on the figure of 696 that Wace gives in his Roman de Rou, which he tells us he got from his father who was an eyewitness, though Wace is probably nearer the truth than William of Jumièges’s 3,000. It may seem strange that a people so recently descended from sea-pirates should apparently have so completely lost touch with the sea, but by the mid-eleventh century Normandy was to all intents and purposes a French province, happy to accommodate the Viking raiders who visited her harbours with booty gained in England and elsewhere but preoccupied with threats from further inland. In this respect, Harold, as William’s nervous followers pointed out, had a decided advantage in the possession of a fleet manned by an amphibious force that was certainly more experienced than the Normans were in naval warfare.
Much has been written about the army William raised and its training but in fact little is known of the actual contractual arrangements that produced it. It has been too often supposed that to say that the Norman army was feudal and relied heavily on highly trained cavalry (the existence of the latter being regarded as proof of the former) was sufficient to account for their victory and their imposition of the feudal system on England after the conquest. In essence the feudal system meant that a man paid dues, which could be in services or in grain or some other kind of produce or goods, in return for the land with which he was enfeoffed by his lord, and in this sense the Anglo-Saxon system, as we have seen, was as feudal as the Norman. There would have been in Normandy, as in France generally at the time, the custom of arrière-ban by which a ruler could summon his vassals and their own feudatories to battle, but it is uncertain precisely what this meant in pre-conquest Normandy and what it would have produced. There certainly seems to have been some doubt whether it would have obliged vassals to fight overseas. In eleventh-century Normandy, and doubtless in other French provinces, there was a contract between a ruler and his tenants- in-chief by which they would undertake to supply him with a certain number of fighting men when required to do so, but the evidence, pre-1066, for the types of service a tenant was supposed to provide for the ‘feudom’ he held is extremely sparse, and surviving charters give a very varied and (in military terms) unsatisfactory view of the kind of service likely to be required. There is a dangerous tendency to extrapolate from the more formalized and better recorded systems after the conquest (which, in England at least, were much influenced by pre-conquest English customs) to arrangements in Normandy before 1066, which appear to have been vague and indefinite. In practical terms, as far as the battle of Hastings is concerned, the difference between the so-called Norman feudal system and the English five- hide system seems to have been minimal, and it may be fair to say that the average English and Norman men-at-arms at Hastings would probably not have detected much difference in their conditions of service, except that the Englishman might have been better paid. The difference is that, whereas it is possible to make a theoretical calculation from the hidal system of the maximum number of men an English king could have raised in an emergency, no such calculation is possible in Normandy. The development of the feudal system in England after the conquest owed as much to the pre-conquest English system as to the Norman, William and his immediate successors having found a lot in the English tradition that they did not wish to dispense with – as is indicated by the money-raising machinations of William Rufus already referred to.
The biggest difference between the two armies was the heavy Norman use of cavalry. Much has been made of the absence of English cavalry at Hastings, and of this as further proof of an outdated and obsolescent form of warfare. There was certainly no tradition of cavalry charges in the Anglo-Saxon army, though it is clear from the Chronicle that horses were used to get to the battlefield and to pursue the enemy off it, as at Stamford Bridge. It should be noted that Snorre Sturlason’s account of Stamford Bridge inHeimskringla says quite clearly that the English fought on horseback there. Snorre’s account, however, is so late and in many respects so unreliable that no confidence can be built on his report. Harold could hardly have covered the ground between London and Stamford Bridge as fast as he did if he had not had mounted troops (we have seen that Ketel and his colleagues, if Ketel was typical, were equipped with horses), but to what extent he used horses in the battle that followed is another matter and of that we have no firm evidence. Certainly the account of the struggle to take the bridge over the river implies a fight on foot; if the English had been fighting on horseback, they would surely have been able to have ridden down the lone warrior defending it. Byrhtnoth and his followers rode to the battle of Maldon; but when they got there, Byrhtnoth dismounted and commanded his men to drive away the horses and fight on foot, and this seems to have been the routine procedure. J. H. Clapham, in his essay, ‘The Horsing of the Danes’,lviii which gives an interesting summary of what can be gleaned of the extent to which mounted troops were used throughout the Anglo-Saxon period, maintains that the fighting habits that remained so strong in the century before the conquest represent the racial tradition, unaltered to the end. It should be remembered that, for the past century, the enemies the English had usually had to meet in the battlefield were either Welsh (guerrilla foot fighters par excellence, often fighting in hilly country where cavalry would operate at a disadvantage) or Danish or Norwegian raiders who also had the tradition of fighting on foot and certainly did not normally bring warhorses with them, as the Normans did. They helped themselves when they got here when they needed to move fast, as J. H. Clapham points out. If the English had not developed the art of fighting on horseback by 1066, it was largely because they had never needed to.
It should be remembered that when Harold went on campaign with William’s troops in Normandy he would have fought on horseback, like his peers, and apparently acquitted himself with distinction. It was probably his first experience of cavalry in action, and it may have had considerable influence on his tactics at Hastings two years later. Even if, after his return to England, he had wanted to create a corps of cavalry to rival the Norman knights, it would have been difficult, if not impossible, for him to do so in time for the invasion. The Norman knights rode stallions (the Bayeux Tapestry makes this unambiguously clear), specially bred over many years and specially trained for fighting; it is unlikely that many comparably suitable horses existed in England at that date, quite apart from the problems there would have been in training their riders in the time available. None the less, Harold’s first-hand knowledge of the cavalry tactics he knew he would have to face at Hastings may account in part at least for the defensive position he adopted there. Whatever contempt the Norman cavalry may initially have felt for the English infantry at Hastings, it did not last. In many of the most important battles that the Norman kings were to fight after 1066, they fought on foot – as Henry I did at Tinchebrai, as Stephen did at the battle of Lincoln (though with cavalry on the wings). The lesson of the English shield wall had been learned.
There were differences of approach between England and Normandy. All societies in Europe at this time were military to some extent (it was an aggressive and belligerent period) but not all were obsessed with fighting to the degree that the Normans were. It has been said that ‘If not all Norman knights in 1066 were men of substance, it is already true that all great men were knights’.lix The corollary is also true: all great men may have been knights, but all knights were certainly not great men nor men of substance. If ‘substance’ is to be defined here as ‘property’, most of those who enlisted in William’s army, particularly those who were not Norman, certainly weren’t. It was property they were signing up for. Many ‘knights’ were little more than mounted thugs. Precisely how to define the word ‘knight’ in 1066 is controversial – it was certainly not as formalized as it would be by the time of Malory or even Chaucer – but it did indicate a man who fought on horseback and had undergone a long and arduous training to do so. Whether he did so as a condition of the land he held or was a sword for hire was immaterial. Indeed, the very derivation of the word ‘knight’ is suggestive. There seems to have been no precise Norman-French equivalent for it other than the purely descriptive word ‘chevalier’, one who goes on horseback – who need not, of course, be a military man at all. In the Latin chronicles, which are what we have principally to rely on, a knight would frequently simply have been referred to as miles, a word with a wide range of possible applications (William of Poitiers uses miles and equites indifferently). The word ‘knight’, so redolent of chivalry and romance today, derives from the Old English cniht, a serving man or serving boy, possibly because that was how they were seen, post-conquest, by the English in their relationship to the lord who employed them.
Yet, for a people so obsessed by war, the overall picture regarding obligations for military service in Normandy before the conquest does seem to be obscure and messy, by comparison with England. The situation has been summarized by Marjorie Chibnall who, after describing the general arrangements as far as they can be deduced, points out that
there is no clear proof of any general system of military quotas imposed from above; or of an accepted norm for feudal services and obligations, legally enforceable on the initiative of either side in a superior ducal court – and this surely is a necessary corollary for any accepted general norm. It is at least arguable that the services owed were either relics of older, Carolingian obligations, or the outcome of individual life contracts between different lords and their vassals, and that their systematization was the result only of the intense military activity of the period of the conquest, and the very slow development of a common law in the century after it.lx
In other words, the feudal customs to which William’s victory has often been ascribed were the result, not the cause, of the conquest. This makes the calculation of what William might have been able to call on within his own duchy very difficult; that it was insufficient for the enterprise we know, since he advertised widely for mercenaries throughout Europe. It is hardly surprising if one compares the size of Normandy with the size of England: William, the vassal of the King of France, controlled an area only a little larger than the earldom of East Anglia held by Harold, the vassal of the King of England, before the death of his father and smaller than the earldom of Wessex he held after it, let alone the totality of the kingdom of England. In theory, since the size of territory had a direct effect on the number of men who could be expected from it, Harold should have been able to raise an army many times the size of anything William could bring against it from Normandy. In fact, the situation at Hastings was com- plicated by many other factors, as we shall see. One document does give a rough indication of the components of William’s army: this is the penitential code drawn up in 1070 by Bishop Ermenfrid, according to which the sins of those who fought in the Norman army were to be expiated. It distinguishes between those who William had armed, those who had armed themselves, those who owed him military service for the lands they held and those who fought for pay. There is no way now of establishing how many men fell into the various categories; the Bretons seem to have formed a large contingent, presumably fighting for pay, and it is notable that they continued to fight as mercenaries for William in his later career and for his sons.
We know most about the training and equipment of those who fought on horseback. It was the custom, in Normandy as in other parts of France, for a boy of good family to be sent for a knightly education in the household of the ruler (if the boy was of sufficiently elevated rank) or of one of the great lords, and he would presumably find himself there in the company of other boys of his own age and rank, all training for the same future. It was rather like going to public school. The lord who undertook the training of the youngsters would have the pick of them to join his household retainers in due course. From their ranks he would provide the knights who would be called for by his own lord when he needed an army; those whom he did not need or want, or who did not wish to remain with him, would probably have found employment elsewhere quite easily. Those of them who were eldest sons would in due course inherit family estates and would then look for their own retainers. The younger sons on the whole had to fend for themselves, and large numbers of them did so outside Normandy – in Spain, in Byzantium, and most of all in Italy. The Norman conquest of Apulia was largely the work of younger sons of noble families, looking for lands and heiresses outside their homeland. While they were training they would learn horsemanship, the use of weapons, the techniques of war and, in theory at least, manners and chivalric behaviour. They would be trained in hunting and tournament, the main education and diversion of the knightly families if there did not happen to be a war in progress. And they would learn to fight together as a team, usually in squadrons, or conrois, of ten.
The costs of a knightly profession were high. A young man would not, unless he were extremely lucky, be considered for employment by any lord unless he possessed a hauberk or coat of mail, helmet, shield, sword, lance and at least one well-trained war-horse, preferably more (in fact, very similar equipment to that of the English thegn Ketel). But this would be the minimum. Moreover, he would need an esquire or servant of some kind who would also have to be mounted, and presumably a baggage horse as well. All these things were extremely expensive and, in time of war, would frequently have to be replaced. William is said to have had three horses killed under him at Hastings, and this cannot have been unusual. To some extent, replacements could be found on the battlefield. The discrepancies between the differently shaped shields (some round, some kite-shaped) of the English at Hastings, as illustrated in the Bayeux Tapestry, have been hypothetically attributed to the fact that the bearers of the round shields had replaced their damaged kite-shaped shields with those of the dead Norwegians at Stamford Bridge, since round shields were used in Scandinavia later than in England; the borders of the Tapestry show Norman soldiers stripping the English dead of hauberks and swords in the later stages of the battle. But if a father wanted to send his younger son out into the world as a freelance knight, he would have had to spend a great deal of money on his initial equipment. It was to the freelances of this kind that William looked to make up his ranks, and it is not hard to see how his promises of land and wealth in England attracted them.
What the system did produce was an excessive number of testosterone-fuelled young men, unqualified and unsuited for any profession other than fighting and killing, and regarding any other occupation as below their dignity. While the average English thegn, when not required for the defence of his country, would perfectly happily settle back into a routine of agriculture and possibly even a little trade, the young Norman knight would have regarded any such occupations as totally inconsistent with his chivalric training. It is this outlook that explains the large number of necessitous Norman knights that are to be found in the wars of southern Italy, Spain, Constantinople, the Crusades later on – and, of course, in William’s army.
We know least about the infantry parts of his army. We know that he did have foot soldiers, with and without body armour, and also quantities of archers; it has been estimated that he probably had no more than 2,500 cavalry. The infantry would have formed the largest part of his force. It is less clear where they came from and on what basis they were raised. Some of them were probably mercenaries, like the freelance knights, but what kind of training and experience they had (especially the archers) and how they were found is not so easy to establish. If some of them came as part of the service provided by his barons and landowners, what were the terms on which they were sent? Who was responsible for their keep? There seems to have been no such clear arrangement for their provision and payment as there was in the English hidal system. William of Poitiers makes it clear that in this particular case the duke himself paid for their keep to prevent them from ravaging his land for subsistence (he does not say whether they were paid anything more than that, and one must deduce that his promises of money and land in England were in lieu of more orthodox payment), but this cannot always have been so; indeed, it is implied that it was an exceptional arrangement. In enemy territory, of course, they would be expected to live off the land, as they did after they landed in Sussex. But if they were on campaign within Normandy, during the invasions of the King of France, for example, how were they normally maintained? Off the land again, one must suppose. They may, in everyday life, have been professional men-at-arms, huntsmen, peasants; we can only guess. There is nothing to show where the infantry came from or under what conditions they served, and yet they formed the greater part of the army. One of the most remarkable of William’s achievements during the invasion was that he managed to keep his men together during the lengthy period at Dives and St Valéry while he was waiting for favourable winds without allowing any plundering or foraging. To organize a commissariat on this scale must have been a mammoth job, and awed calculations have been made of the amount of meat, grain and ale that would have been necessary for the men, of the amount of fodder for the horses, and of the tons of excrement, human and equine, that would have had to be disposed of in the interests of health (B. S. Bachrach estimated 9,000 cartloads of grain, straw, wine and firewood, 700,000 gallons of urine from the horses and 5 million pounds of horse- droppings, for a month’s staylxi). Yet, if we are to believe William of Poitiers, he did it, and ‘the cattle and flocks of the people of the province grazed safely, whether in the fields or on the waste. The crops waited unharmed for the scythe of the harvester, and were neither trampled by the proud stampede of horsemen nor cut down by foragers’.lxii It was indeed a remarkable achievement, and one in which William is considered to have outgeneralled his rival, who had to disband his forces in August through lack of food. Still, Harold had held his together for four months, a longer period.
In the end, the outcome was determined not by what each man might normally have been able to raise, but by circumstances. If Harold fought at Hastings without archers (one small miserable archer is shown in the English ranks in the Bayeux Tapestry, almost in mockery, though it has been suggested that his appearance is symbolic in character, and that he represented a larger contingent), it was almost certainly because he had used them at Stamford Bridge (the Norwegian king was killed by an arrow), and could not get them south quickly enough, or could not get fresh men in time. Whether they would have made a difference to the final result can never be known.
It may be helpful to add a brief note on the armour and equipment that both sides would have had.lxiii The term ‘body armour’ may imply more to twenty-first century ears than it meant to eleventh-century wearers. For many soldiers, a coat of mail or hauberk probably merely signified metal rings sewn to a leather or boiled leather foundation. For those of higher rank, the hauberk was more likely to be interlinked chain-mail, worn over some sort of padded undergarment, which both cushioned blows and protected the body from having the mail driven into it by sword or axe cuts. Sometimes the hauberk incorporated a sort of hood, which protected the neck and was covered by the helmet. This is, interestingly, one way in which the Bayeux Tapestry designer seems to betray his English nationality. He depicts both sides in hauberks that appear to be trousered. These would have been very impractical (indeed, agonizing) for cavalry wear; the Norman hauberks would probably have been skirted, slashed fore and rear, so that they would divide on horseback and protect the legs. This is borne out by the story that when William was arming on the morning of the battle, he was accidentally handed his hauberk back to front and put it on over his head that way. The English, on the other hand, fighting on foot, did indeed need the trousered variety to protect the groin and other areas that would be more vulnerable. How the wearer got into and out of this kind of mail is still a matter of conjecture. The problem is not solved by the pictures of the Norman soldiers stripping the English dead in the final scenes of the Tapestry. Snorre Sturlason tells us that Harald Hardrada’s coat of mail ‘was called Emma. It was so long that it reached below his knee, and so strong that no weapon could pierce it’.lxiv He was probably not wearing it at Stamford Bridge, but Emma would not have saved him in any event; he was reportedly killed by an arrow in the throat.
Helmets were conical and made of iron, with a nose-piece at the front (clearly shown in the Tapestry) and, in some cases, a metal flap or curtain of mail at the back or sides to protect the neck and cheeks; they seem to have been identical for all ranks. Surviving examples are either cast in one piece, with the addition of the nose-piece and neck-protector, or are constructed from four joined plates coming together in a point at the top and bound by metal or possibly, in some cases, leather, around the head at the foot. Some of those found have traces inside that suggest that they were sometimes lined or padded. Such a helmet is a far cry from the magnificence of the reconstructed Sutton Hoo helmet; but this was more likely to have been a piece of royal regalia (primitive kings are thought to have been crowned with a helmet rather than the later crown, a symbol of their role as protector of their people) than a working helmet. It probably never saw service on the battlefield.
The shield would have been made of wood (lime was generally favoured), covered in many cases with leather and edged with either leather or metal. A round hole in the centre was fitted with a metal boss (round or conical) that covered the grip for the hand and could be used for thrusting. Towards the end of Beowulf, the aged hero orders a shield of iron to be made for his last fight with the dragon, knowing that a wooden shield would provide little protection from the beast’s fiery breath. That the English army at Hastings still had wooden shields is indicated by the Tapestry’s portrayal of the Norman arrows piercing them like pincushions; arrows would have been more likely to have rebounded from metal shields. William of Poitiers’ remark that the English battle-axes had no difficulty in shearing through them suggests that the Normans also used wooden ones.
As for weapons, it is clear from the Tapestry that the Norman knights charged with spears or javelins rather than the lances that became the chief cavalry weapon very shortly afterwards. The ones we see are sometimes wielded overarm, for throwing or piercing, sometimes underarm, as the lance would later be held. But the weight of the couched lance and the discipline of the concerted charge that could pierce the walls of Babylon, as Anna Comnena, the historian daughter of Byzantine Emperor Alexius I, was later to write, were not available at Hastings. There was probably little difference between the spears carried by the two sides. Some surviving spears have wings a short way below the head, presumably to prevent the weapon penetrating so deeply that it could not be drawn out and reused. It was obviously a weapon common to all ranks; it was part of the basic equipment of the English thegn Ketel, and Duke William was found with a broken spear in his hand at the end of the battle. Snorre Sturlason gives an account of Harald Hardrada’s instructions to his men at Stamford Bridge: ‘those in the front rank are to set their spear- shafts into the ground and turn the points towards the riders’ breasts when they charge us; and those immediately behind are to set their spears against the horses’ chests.’lxv Since it is almost certain that the English did not fight on horseback at Stamford Bridge, this has been read as a confused memory of what actually happened at Hastings; at any rate, it is a very plausible account of how spears were used by the English there.
The most feared English weapon was the two-handed bearded axe (so called because of the shape of the blade), the weapon of choice of the housecarls but of other warriors as well, since the king is shown with one in his hand as he is cut down. Indeed, he is shown carrying one earlier, when he is offered the crown, which suggests that some royal or sacramental association may have attached to the axe. In battle, it was normally wielded to strike from the left, to attack the side of the opponent that was not protected by his shield, but in fact it must easily have cut through wood and even through chain-mail, as reported by William of Poitiers. The biggest disadvantage of the axe was that, since it had to be swung with both hands, the axeman could not use his shield to protect himself (unless it was simply hung around his neck), and was therefore very vulnerable at the top of his swing. It is possible that the line included spearmen interspersed among the axemen, who, fighting in the way Snorre described, could provide some cover for them. In addition to this fearsome weapon, there would have been smaller lighter axes for hand-to-hand fighting and for throwing. One weapon that seems to have been peculiar to the Normans at the battle was the mace. The Tapestry shows both William and his half-brother, Odo, Bishop of Bayeux, carrying what appear to be club-like maces, but these may have been symbols of authority (perhaps ancestors of the field-marshal’s baton) rather than weapons.
As for swords, all free men who could afford them would have carried them, Norman and English, and there were enormous variations in quality and strength. It was very much a question of what you had inherited or what you could pay. Those of the English who did not aspire to a double-edged sword, and no doubt also many of those who did, probably carried the seax, a sort of single-edged cutlass or long dagger.
One last point needs to be noted. Snorre Sturlason, in his account of the battle of Stamford Bridge, speaks of the English horses of the housecarls wearing chain-mail. There is no hint in the Bayeux Tapestry of any kind of protection, chain-mail or otherwise, for the Norman horses. If armour for horses was generally in use in 1066, and the English mounts had it, it is incomprehensible that the cavalry-obsessed Normans should not have had it too. By the time Snorre wrote two centuries later, its availability would have been taken for granted. His assumption that it was available in 1066 is a further reminder that we should not be seduced by his readability.