The battle of Stamford Bridge was fought on 25 September. On the day it was fought William was still at St Valéry, waiting for a favourable wind. The Carmen de Hastingae Proelio, a slightly controversial source, partly because of problems of dating and attribution, partly because clearly written for entertainment, takes up the story at this point and gives a harrowing picture of his anxiety:
Here you had a long and troublesome delay, spending a fortnight in that territory waiting for succour from the Supreme Judge. You visited the Saint’s church often, devoutly, with sighs and prayers making pure offerings to him. You looked to see by what wind the church’s weathercock was turned. If it was from the south, you departed happily. But if, on a sudden, the North wind interrupted and held it at bay, tears streamed down your cheeks. You were forsaken. It was cold and wet and the sky was hidden by clouds and rain.lxxxix
William had gone so far as to cause the body of the saint to be removed from his tomb and carried around the town in procession to the accompaniment of prayers, to ensure, as William of Poitiers puts it, that the contrary wind became a favourable one. On the 28th, his prayers were answered. Christine and Gerald Grainge wrote an extremely interesting paper about the voyages from Dives to St Valéry and from St Valéry to Pevensey from the point of view of the sailor, in which they discuss the hazards William’s mariners would have faced in sailing from St Valéry. According to them, a typical series of Atlantic low pressures in the Channel would have brought the weather that so distressed William; this was succeeded on the 28th by a high pressure system that brought with it warm weather, clear skies and a southerly wind. By their calculations, high tide at St Valéry on the 28th would have been at 1514 hours.xc Since the fleet would have been dependent on the ebb tide to get them out of harbour, embarkation must have been undertaken at breakneck speed. Both William of Poitiers and the Carmen tell us that, by the duke’s orders, the fleet hove to once it had cleared the coast to enable the stragglers to catch up and the ships to assemble in some sort of order. William, however, also tells us that during the night the duke’s ship so far outstripped the rest of the fleet that he found himself entirely alone at daybreak. Needless to say, he behaved, according to his chronicler, with the greatest sangfroid, eating breakfast on board as if he were in his chamber at home, while waiting for the rest of the ships to catch up with him. Had Harold still had his fleet patrolling off the Isle of Wight, the duke might have been in some danger, though it would have been very much a matter of luck if one isolated ship had been spotted by them. As it was, the Norman fleet landed at Pevensey at daybreak on the 29th, apart from a few ships that became separated from the main fleet and landed at Romney where the crews were attacked and slaughtered by the inhabitants.
It is a matter of conjecture whether William had any news of the Norwegian invasion before he sailed. With the winds in the north as they were before the 28th, it would not have been impossible for word to have been brought to him of the invasion; the knowledge that King Harold had marched north to repel it would certainly have been known to his intelligencers in the south. It is highly unlikely, however, that, even if he knew of the invasion, he could have heard of the result of Stamford Bridge and indeed it is fairly clear from William of Poitiers’ account that he had not. He may have landed, not knowing whether he would have to face King Harold of England or King Harald of Norway; he may not have known about the latter’s invasion at all; he may have been completely mystified to find a virtually undefended shore to greet him. He lost no time in profiting by the opportunity it presented. Having erected a wooden castle on the remains of the old Roman fortifications, he went out personally with some of his leaders to prospect. It took him very little time to realize that Pevensey (where he may have landed as much by chance as by choice), though a good harbour, was a poor base for freedom of movement, and to decide to transfer his headquarters to Hastings.
The coastline of the Pevensey and Hastings area has changed substantially since the eleventh century. Pevensey is no longer on the coast; then, it was at the head of a sizeable inland lagoon (which has since become Pevensey Levels), ideal for sheltering large numbers of ships, but unsuitable for the kind of manoeuvring that William had in mind. In order to move east, towards Hastings and the main road to London, he first had to proceed west to circumvent the large areas of salt marsh, with frequent tidal inlets, which his men could not march across. He could then have turned north-east towards Hastings, descending on it from not far south of where the battle was actually to be fought. At Hastings, which had been one of Alfred’s fortified burhs, he would have found a harbour adequate for his ships and a good defensive position on what was then virtually a promontory, a triangle lying between the Brede estuary, the Bulverhythe estuary and the sea, with the only land exit the road to London. He would also have found the remains of the old Roman fortifications as well as those of Alfred’s, an ideal site for another of his wooden castles. How much of Alfred’s fortifications remained nearly two centuries after they were built is uncertain, but the earthen ramparts would almost definitely have survived. There is a certain irony in the fact that one of the strong points built by Alfred to defend his kingdom against Viking invaders should have served as the base for a latter-day pirate of Viking descent. Since time seemed to be on his side for the present, he would probably have had the horses ridden around the salt marshes to Hastings to avoid the risky business of another embarkation and disembarkation of them, while the ships sailed or were rowed around. Once comfortably established there, he could send out his men to ravage the surrounding lands (most of them belonging to the Godwin family) for provisions while he waited upon events.
The first of these, according to William of Poitiers, was the arrival of a messenger from Robert FitzWymark, a man of Norman or Breton parentage long settled in England, and related to both the duke and the former king – the Robert FitzWymark who less than a year previously had been present at the deathbed of Edward the Confessor. The message he sent to the duke was that
King Harold has fought with his own brother and with the king of the Norwegians, who passed for the strongest man living under the sun, and has killed both in one battle and destroyed huge armies. Encouraged by this success, he is advancing against you by forced marches, leading a strong and numerous troop; against him I consider that your men would be worth no more than so many wretched dogs. . . I urge you, stay behind fortifications.xci
William’s reply was that he would fight Harold as soon as possible and had confidence in the ability of his men to destroy him ‘even if I had only 10,000 men of the quality of the 60,000 I have brought with me’. He spoke with bravado; it is unlikely that he had more than the 10,000 he referred to so disparagingly. Whether because of FitzWymark’s warning or native prudence, he did, however, stay within his fortifications, maintaining close contact with his ships, while he awaited Harold’s arrival.
The situation in the north is much vaguer, since there was no chronicler to leave an account and no direct evidence of the sequence of events survives. It has been calculated that the earliest the king could have had news of the Norman landing was 1 October, which presupposes the arrangement of a relay network of mounted messengers between London and York. (Robert FitzWymark’s warning to William illustrates well the efficiency of the intelligence the duke could rely on; for FitzWymark to get this information to him so fast, ahead of the king’s arrival in London after an exceptionally rapid march, he must have set up his own system of relay messengers to bring the news.) In the days between the battle on the 25th and the arrival of the news from the south, there would have been more than enough to do in the north, with the despatch of the surviving Norwegians, the burial of the more distinguished English dead (Orderic Vitalis speaks decades later of the mountain of dead men’s bones that still bore witness to the terrible slaughter on both sides), the tending of the wounded and the restoration of order in York itself.
The Chronicle does not say whether the news of the Norman landing reached the king in York or whether he had already started south and met it on the way. The balance of probability, supported by Florence of Worcester, is that he was still in York and set out for London immediately. If he left on the 2nd and maintained the same impressive speed he achieved on the journey north, he would have arrived in London on 6 or 7 October. On the other hand, he may have been slowed by wounds inflicted at Stamford Bridge on many of his crack troops; he may indeed have been wounded himself. He may have collected contingents of men on the way south who had not been in time to meet him on his march to York. Few things testify more convincingly to the efficiency of the English military organization (and, indeed, to Harold’s general acceptance as king) than his ability to raise so many effective armies in so short a time between May and October. None the less it would have been the housecarls who bore the brunt of the Norwegian assault at Stamford Bridge, and even their legendary fighting capacity must have been weakened by it. According to some accounts, he diverted his march to offer prayers at Waltham Abbey, his own foundation, but this cannot greatly have delayed his arrival in London, where his first preoccupations would be to rest his men, send his fleet to cut off the Norman retreat and coordinate the levies that were coming in.
At this point, William of Poitiers takes up the story again. According to him, Harold sent an emissary to William, restating the right by which he held the throne and bidding William leave his kingdom with all his men. William replied at much greater length, setting out the basis of his own claim and offering to submit his case to either English or Norman law or to trial by personal combat. According to the chronicler, ‘we wish to bring the tenor of the duke’s own words (which we have diligently sought out) rather than our own composition to the notice of many’ as proof of the justice of the Norman cause.xcii The wisdom and justice that he endeavoured to illustrate by the lengthy speech reported are not, in fact, very clearly demonstrated. By English law William had no case, there was no reason why the English succession should be determined by Norman law any more than by the Pope, and trial by combat had at this time no status in the English legal system and did not have until William at a later date altered that system to accommodate it. And, in parenthesis, if William’s invasion had indeed been blessed by the Pope, it would have been most improper for him to have devalued that blessing by offering any of these alternatives. It is likely that the speech reported here by William of Poitiers, like the speech attributed to the duke at the beginning of the battle, was his own composition. On the other hand, such an exchange of embassies would have been a perfectly normal proceeding in such a situation. The main point of interest about this one is that, if it did take place, it makes nonsense of the claim made by both William of Poitiers and the Carmen that Harold’s objective was to take William by surprise, as he had done with Hardrada. If you plan to take your enemy by surprise after a forced march of exceptional speed, you do not first of all send a formal embassy to him letting him know exactly where you are.
The question of what Harold’s plans actually were now becomes important. William’s situation was straightforward. The success of his venture depended entirely upon how soon he could gain an outright and crushing victory over his opponent. It has been suggested that the savage pillage and harrying of Harold’s lands in Sussex had been designed in part at least to provoke Harold into confronting him as soon as possible. It is true that the obligations of mediaeval kingship dictated that Harold should avenge the slaughter of his people, more especially when they were the people of Sussex among whom he had grown up; but pillage and rapine on this scale was, as we have seen, a fairly routine act of war. It seems unlikely that a commander as experienced as Harold would allow himself to be provoked into precipitate action by it. He had, after all, done a good deal of harrying himself in the past. His situation was, in a way, as straightforward as William’s. William needed a quick and decisive victory as soon as possible, preferably without moving so far from his base that his lines of communication with his ships could be cut; Harold presumably also desired a quick and decisive victory but he did not need it as urgently as William did. He had the luxury of a choice that William did not have. William had to win; Harold could afford a draw. He could retreat from the battlefield in order to regroup and reattack, as Alfred and Edmund Ironside had done on several such occasions.
More important than this, he had the option of not fighting a pitched battle at all. William could not have stayed bottled up on the Hastings peninsula for ever. By 14 October, he must have pretty well exhausted the provisions that could be provided by the surrounding country, and would have been unable to feed his men without moving further away from his base. By far the most sensible strategy for Harold would have been to draw William away from his ships into the interior of the country, over territory unknown to him that had preferably been stripped in advance of anything that could have offered sustenance to the Norman army. Famine, as Vegetius had said, is more terrible than the sword, and in this case could easily have been arranged. William’s stragglers and foragers could have been cut off and destroyed, and the main part of his army could have been engaged and defeated with minimal loss to the English at whatever time seemed to offer the best advantage, when they had recovered from the stress of Stamford Bridge and two long forced marches, and had been supplemented by further levies. This was the kind of strategy that Harold had employed in the past against Gruffydd ap Llewellyn, and it is unbelievable that he did not resort to it again in 1066. The really interesting question is why.
Various explanations have been offered for Harold’s tactics (or apparent lack of them) at this time. There were rumours after Hastings that he had been ill before Stamford Bridge, that he had had some sort of infection in his leg that made it impossible for him to ride. There are always such rumours after the event, impossible to verify later, but if this one is true, it makes his victory at Stamford Bridge even more remarkable. He may have been wounded at Stamford Bridge and he must, at the very least, have been exhausted by the time he reached Hastings, as must most of his army, a situation that contrasted cruelly with the well-rested and well-fed condition of the Normans who had spent a fortnight living comfortably off the fat of Harold’s lands. By 1066 he was probably about forty-four, by the standards of the day no longer a young man. A paper written by a psychiatrist, Dr Max Sugar, endeavours to ascribe what he terms the king’s loss of initiative and nerve before Hastings to a clinical depression brought on by his excommunication by the Pope and consequent conviction of the damnation of his soul. The idea that Harold had been excommunicated has been adopted by several writers and has muddied the historical waters. Setting aside the fact that there is at least a modicum of doubt whether the Pope was involved at all in William’s invasion before it took place, there is absolutely no evidence that Harold was formally excommunicated (any more than William himself had been when he defied the Pope’s prohibition on his marriage with Matilda of Flanders). If William was proclaiming his invasion a holy war (which he was), Harold would have known of it from his spies and would presumably have been extremely annoyed. But that would be a long way from excommunication.
The arguments in this paper, relying, as they too often do, on late or unreliable authorities, cannot be taken very seriously. None the less there are questions that have to be asked and are very difficult to answer. The Harold whom we see during the days between Stamford Bridge and Hastings seems not to be the Harold who is portrayed by the author of the Vita Ædwardi as ‘passing with watchful mockery through all ambushes, as was his way.’xciii Why did he afford William the early battle that was so crucial to him and might be so disastrous to Harold himself? Why, when he was having heavy losses during the battle, did he not withdraw his forces into the forest behind him? Orderic, unsupported by William of Poitiers or indeed any other earlier source, says that Harold’s younger brother, Gyrth, attempted to persuade him to allow him to lead the English army so that in case of disaster Harold would still be alive to lead the resistance against William. Gyrth’s main argument was that he had sworn no oaths to William and could therefore defend his country with a clear conscience. This would have been a sensible proposal, but hardly practicable in the circumstances in which it was made. The first duty of any king at this time was to protect his kingdom and people. The main reason for Harold’s unanimous election as king was his ability to defend the country. His reputation as a warrior was second to none in England, his opposition to a Norman takeover (or indeed a Norwegian one) was well known and of long standing. At Stamford Bridge he had triumphantly vindicated the trust put in him, and in the minds of most Englishmen at that time, Hardrada, because of his fearsome reputation, represented a much greater threat than the then comparatively unknown Norman duke; for Harold not to lead his forces in person against William, not to have revenged the outrages committed against his people, would have severely compromised his credibility as king and his ability to govern in future. Indeed, it is doubtful if such a stratagem would have worked. The army raised by Edmund Ironside against Cnut before his father’s death in 1016 refused (apparently legally) to fight because his father, the king, was not with them. The fact that Æthelred must at this stage have been a dying man clearly made no difference. The custom presumably originated for the protection of a king against ambitious heirs and nobles. In 1016 it worked against the national interest. We shall never know how it would have worked in 1066. If, on the other hand, Gyrth also advised him to adopt delaying tactics and draw William away from the coast, as he is also reported to have done, he would have been on much surer ground.
The frequently offered explanation, that Harold hoped, in a fit of rashness and overconfidence, to repeat the strategy that had worked so well against Hardrada, is not really convincing. In the first place, if indeed emissaries were exchanged before the battle, he was obviously not counting on the element of surprise that had been crucial to his previous victory; and in the second, he must have known that the situation was totally different. The surprise attack that he was able to make so triumphantly on Hardrada depended on a number of fortuitous circumstances (the assignation at Stamford Bridge to receive hostages, the weather, the division of Hardrada’s army) that he could not have known about until he reached Tadcaster and heard what had happened and how he could turn it to the English advantage. The one thing he must have been certain about was that he would not catch William in the same way. He had campaigned with him in Brittany, he must have been aware that he would not catch William off guard and certainly not with his army split in two. The notion that Harold’s strategy was dictated by his determination to surprise William as he had surprised Hardrada has become one of the accepted myths of Hastings; but it is important to remember that it originated solely in the brains of two Normans, William of Jumièges and William of Poitiers, neither of whom could possibly have known what the king was actually thinking or planning. There is no hint of any such design in the English sources. Haste, yes; surprise, no.
In one sense, Harold’s experience of William’s conduct of war in Brittany in 1064 may have been misleading. John Gillingham suggests that it was.
Perhaps if Harold had witnessed William’s sudden strike against Alençon in 1051 he might have been more on his guard in 1066. As it was, however, what he saw was a very typical example of William at war – a campaign in which the duke seems to have been prudently content with a small gain. . . In 1064 there was no sign of an aggressive, battle-seeking strategy. On the contrary it was a struggle of attrition in which, more than anything else, questions of supply seemed to dominate the course of events, a campaign very much in the style of all the other campaigns of the last fifteen years – a good guide, Harold might have thought in the summer of 1066, to the kind of war he was facing now.xciv
If he thought this, he might well have considered that a defensive, bottling-up strategy on his side would be the most effective and the least wasteful of his own men. But he might more prudently have reflected that William’s very act in invading indicated an aggressive, battle-seeking strategy.
It is helpful at this point to look at the various accounts of the battle in the different sources, and the reasons given or implied for Harold’s defeat, bearing in mind that none is written by an eyewitness and that all date from well after the event and share the benefit of hindsight. William of Jumièges gives no explanation and the briefest of accounts. William of Poitiers and the Carmen de Hastingae Proelio, as we have seen, ascribe it to Harold’s overweening pride in thinking that he could take William by surprise, and Orderic Vitalis adopts this version from William of Poitiers. Of the English sources, which are more interesting in this context, the Chronicle (D) says that
William came against him by surprise before his army was drawn up in battle array. But the king nevertheless fought bravely against him, with the men who would remain with him, and there were heavy casualties on both sides.
The E text says that Harold fought ‘before all the army had come’. Florence of Worcester is more expansive: he says that although Harold
well knew that some of the bravest Englishmen had fallen in the two former battles, and that one-half of his army had not yet arrived, he did not hesitate to advance with all speed into Sussex against his enemies. On Saturday. . .before a third of his army was in order for fighting, he joined battle with them. . . But inasmuch as the English were drawn up in a narrow place, many retired from the ranks, and very few remained true to him. Nevertheless from the third hour of the day until dusk he bravely withstood the enemy, and fought so valiantly and stubbornly in his own defence that the enemy’s forces could make hardly any impression.xcv
The Waltham Chronicle (the authors of which may even have had an eyewitness to help them since there is a legend that two of the canons of Waltham followed the English army to the battlefield) follow the E Chronicle and Florence of Worcester, lamenting that
the king who was the glory of the realm, the darling of the clergy, the strength of his soldiers, the shield of the defenceless, the support of the distressed, the protector of the weak, the consolation of the desolate, the restorer of the destitute, and the pearl of princes, was slain by his fierce foe. He could not fight an equal contest for, accompanied by only a small force, he faced an army four times as large as his.xcvi
What these accounts boil down to is that a) William took Harold by surprise, before his men were drawn up in battle array, b) Harold fought on a sit too constricted for his numbers, c) Harold fought too precipitately, before most of his men had arrived, and was outnumbered, and d) there were desertions. There are problems with these explanations, some of which are mutually contradictory and all of which, indeed, are the sort of accusations that tend to be levelled at commanders after a defeat. It is unlikely that he was outnumbered, though it must certainly have been true that his strength had been weakened by the events of the previous fortnight; his housecarls, who were reputed each to be as strong as two ordinary soldiers, must have stood the main brunt of the fighting at Stamford Bridge and many must have fallen. In numerical terms, it seems that the two armies were fairly evenly matched, and this is supported by the unusual length of the battle – eight to nine hours – arguing two forces very close in size, neither of which had a clear superiority over the other. We do not know what Florence of Worcester meant by ‘one half of his army’: half the full force that technically he could have called out (which could have been 40,000 men or more); or did he mean half of the levies whom he had actually summoned? Or half the force that he took to Stamford Bridge, many of whom may have been unfit for further service? If he had waited to fight, he could undoubtedly have had more men. On the other hand, if he had waited to fight, he might not have needed them.
However, the charge that William came on Harold before his men were properly arrayed does not make much sense. Harold is thought to have left London on 11 October on the sixty-mile march to the battlefield, reaching it in the evening of 13 October; if he left on the 12th, it does not affect the timetable much, it merely means that he and his men would have had less rest. He would have bivouacked overnight before the battle at the rendezvous he had appointed, the hoar apple tree, and formed up at daybreak on the 14thon the site he had chosen. According to William of Poitiers, the duke was told of Harold’s approach by his scouts on the 13th (which in itself implies a departure from London on the 11th) and hastily ordered all those in the camp to arm themselves (for, says the chronicler, a great many of his men had been sent out foraging). According to William of Jumièges, the duke was so worried about the possibility of a surprise attack (which may be why William of Poitiers got the idea that Harold intended one) that he kept his men under arms all night just in case. What is not clear from any of the chronicles is whether he started from his camp at Hastings to meet Harold (who would be advancing by the London road) on the morning of the 14th or whether he marched at least part of the way to the battlefield the previous night. If the former, it has been estimated that he would have started his six-mile march from Hastings at approximately 6 a.m. on 14 October, which would have been first light, and that the head of his column would have reached the battlefield at about 8 a.m. If the latter, he could, of course, have been there earlier. Since there is no certain information, this is another occasion when we have to guess. It seems improbable, however, that he would have started his march to meet Harold while large numbers of his men were out foraging. But at this stage, it seems clear that the agenda was being set by Harold. He knew the country and had possibly already decided where to make his stand. It seems unlikely that William, given a free hand, would have chosen ground so unsuitable for cavalry.
The Battle Abbey Chronicle says that William halted his march at Hedgland (or Hecheland) where his troops put on their armour; this is a very late source, but it would have been a reasonable thing to do. He would not have wanted his men to arrive tired on the field from marching in armour. According to the Chronicle, it was while they were doing this that they got their first sight of the English; the Tapestry shows a scout arriving at that point to tell him of their position. According to the Carmen, William’s forces were close enough to the battlefield, whether at Hedgland or further on, to see the English army emerge from the forest on to the ridge that was to be its fighting position and that blocked the road to London. It would therefore seem that both armies must have appeared virtually simultaneously on the field and deployed in full sight of each other. Harold cannot have been surprised by William’s prompt arrival; he would have had his own scouts out, he knew where he was and would have been well aware how important it would be for William to offer battle as soon as possible. Indeed, if we are to credit William of Poitiers’ version, William must, because of the uneven and marshy ground, have had to array his troops almost within stone’s throw of the English line, since if he had done it earlier, they would have had to reform after they had negotiated the various impediments. This would normally have been considered an extremely hazardous proceeding since it would render him vulnerable to attack while his men were not in fighting order. He must have thought it safe on this occasion since it was highly unlikely that the English would desert the strong position they already occupied to attack or harass him while he was deploying, though it could have exposed his men to archery fire as they took up position; he could hardly have known at this stage that the king was short of archers. None of this, however, supports the idea that Harold had been caught unprepared, nor does the course of the battle thereafter suggest that the English suffered any disadvantage for such a reason. Indeed, William of Poitiers’ account makes it clear that the English were fully prepared for the opening onslaught of the Norman archers and infantry.
As far as desertions are concerned, there are desertions in all battles, especially in a battle lasting so many hours, and on the losing side and after the leader is killed. If any rumour had been current that Harold had been excommunicated, this would certainly account for desertions, since no man was bound to fight for an excommunicated leader; but there is no evidence for that whatever. In the first place, it seems at least unlikely that there was any question of his having been formally excommunicated. Secondly, if he had been, William would certainly have made what capital he could out of the fact, and one would expect it to be referred to in Chronicle entries written after the battle, since it would support the idea, clearly widely prevalent, that the judgement of God had been given on William’s side. It would have been a particularly appropriate justification of the usual formula, used by the Chronicle to record any English defeat from the wars of Alfred against the Danes onwards, that the Normans won ‘as God granted it to them for the sins of the people’ – or in this case the sins of the king. None the less it remains likely that there were desertions that cannot be ascribed to the king’s death: the statement in the D Chronicle that the king fought bravely ‘with the men who would remain with him’, implies inescapably that there were some who would not, as does Florence of Worcester’s statement that ‘inasmuch as the English were drawn up in a narrow place, many retired from the ranks, and very few remained true to him’. William of Malmesbury’s story that Harold refused to share out the Norwegian booty captured at Stamford Bridge among his men and placed it in the custody of Archbishop Ealdred until after the encounter with the Normans could offer another motive. If this were true (and William of Malmesbury is the only credible authority for the story, and a late one at that), it could indeed have caused some men to fall away from him and refuse to serve an ungrateful lord, even if the king had strategically a good reason for his refusal to distribute the loot immediately. No army marches fast or fights well when laden with booty, and he knew he would have to march fast and fight hard. The causes of the desertions can only be guessed at; the main point is that the entries in the English chronicles, especially the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, would have been written by men who were as dependent as anyone else on reportage and hearsay after the event amid all the confusion of defeat. We cannot know how reliable their sources were.
A much more serious accusation is that Harold’s choice of ground was poor. It was, in fact, peculiarly suitable for the kind of battle we must suppose him to have had in mind. It was so perfect that one can only suppose that, having been brought up in Sussex and knowing it as well as he did, he had picked it deliberately.
A longish watershed, roughly marked today by the course of Battle High Street, runs south, dipping slightly to a cross-ridge (rather like the head of a hammer). On either side of the watershed the ground fell away steeply; behind it to the north on Caldbec Hill was the site of the hoar apple tree, a distinctive local feature marking the boundaries of three different hundreds; behind that and all around was the primeval forest of Andredesweald. Such trees as this hoar apple frequently marked significant boundaries and were used as markers; they were easy places to appoint as a rendezvous for troops. The battle of Ashdown against the Danes in 871was fought around an equally venerable thorn tree that was the meeting-place of the local hundred. The cross-ridge south of Harold’s apple tree lay squarely across the London road. At its centre, the gradient was 1 in 15; at its west end, 1 in 33; at the east end, 1 in 22. At its foot, in front, was a brook, later dammed to form fishponds, presumably for the monks of Battle Abbey built by William after the battle, then presumably boggy, especially when pounded by cavalry for several hours. Indeed, as a result of the drainage of streams from the higher ground, both Caldbec Hill (on Harold’s side of the field) and Telham Hill (on William’s), much of the ground between the two armies seems to have been marshy and uncultivated.
It was along this cross-ridge, about eight hundred yards in length as far as one can tell today (the site has been altered by the building of the abbey), that Harold deployed his army. No surviving English chronicler tells us how he disposed of his men, but we know roughly where he set up his standards since the place was marked by the high altar of Battle Abbey, and it would have been on the slightly higher ground behind his front line, where he could see over his men’s heads to the enemy lines. It was a superb defensive position. His main front, where the gradient was shallowest, would be occupied by the housecarls, his crack troops, with shire levies behind them, and the levies would presumably have defended the ends of the line where the declivity was steepest, possibly with a stiffening of housecarls and the Danish troops sent (according to William of Poitiers, probably accurate in this case) by his cousin, King Sweyn Estrithson. The normal English shield-wall formation was, in the words of Major-General J. F. C. Fuller, ‘an essential one for infantry against cavalry relying on shock’xcvii. This was where he may have been influenced by his experience of the Norman cavalry when he had campaigned in Brittany. The shire levies are described in many accounts of the battle as unarmed peasants, equipped only with sticks and stones; there may have been many such present, burning to revenge the harrying the Normans had inflicted on them during the past fortnight, but the shire levies proper were, as we have seen, seasoned soldiers, mostly thegns or king’s thegns, whose armour and equipment (as is testified by the Bayeux Tapestry) were virtually indistinguishable from that of the Norman infantry. It was no amateur army.
Harold seems to have sacrificed his archers, whom he had certainly had at Stamford Bridge, in his rapid march south. If he had any, it is likely that the king would position them on his flanks where they would have the best chance of aiming at the charging enemy without wounding their own comrades, but this is guesswork only. In the absence of any documentary evidence, it must be assumed that they can have contributed little to their side of the battle. Under normal conditions, the Normans would have expected to reprovision themselves with the arrows shot by the enemy, but judging by William of Poitiers’ emphasis on the hail of arrows in the later stages of the battle, they must have been adequately supplied by their own reserves.
Many writers have been convinced that Harold must have contemplated an attack at some stage, that he could never have intended a purely defensive action. It seems to me perfectly possible that he did just that. William was the aggressor, he was the defender. He must have been well aware that more men would join him as time went on; he certainly expected that the northern earls, his brothers-in-law, would be arriving with whatever forces they had remaining from Gate Fulford and Stamford Bridge (indeed, we know that they had got as far as London by the time the battle was fought); numerically, his position could only improve. William, on the other hand, as far as he knew, could not expect any reinforcements and if the English fleet could get around to Hastings to cut off his retreat, could be attacked from the rear as well. The duke was trapped in a small promontory of land, which he had already devastated with his customary thoroughness, and would soon have been desperate for provisions. The only exits open to him were either to retreat to his ships and move further up or down the coast (a very risky manoeuvre, under his enemy’s eye, and unlikely to succeed), or to advance by the London road, which was blocked by Harold. General Fuller believes that he would have been able to re-embark his men under cover of archery fire. We do not know how many archers William had, he seems to have had a lot, but, with all due respect to so senior and experienced an officer, it seems unlikely that archers, unsupported and, according to the Tapestry, mostly without body armour, could have withstood alone an attack by the full English army.
The corollary, of course, was that, like any animal at bay, he would attack at once. None the less, it may have seemed to Harold a perfectly feasible strategy to hold him in check and block his exit while his own position strengthened. The various chroniclers indicate that if he could have held his troops together and maintained his impregnable position, this would have been a reasonable tactic. If the situation had become dangerous, he could have withdrawn into the forest behind him to regroup and attack again on a more propitious occasion (allowing, it is true, that retreat along the narrow ridge behind him could have been a risky and slow manoeuvre). As has been pointed out, he did not need an outright victory at this point, he had everything to gain by luring William forward. In the meantime, by keeping him penned in where he was, he was at least preventing any further ravaging of the country. And if he could hold his ground until sunset, he would in effect have won. If William had had to withdraw to his bridgehead at Hastings at the end of the day without victory, with heavy losses, without provisions and with Harold still in possession of Caldbec Hill and the London road, he would have been in a very difficult situation. The only thing that prevented this from happening was Harold’s death.
The insistence of so many historians on William’s consummate generalship in this campaign has always seemed unaccountable. In the first place, he could have had no reason to expect so easy a landing in England, yet there is no evidence of any plan orpreparation made by him for the contingency of his landing being strongly opposed other than his reported and prudent determination not to land in the dark. Even if he had known of Hardrada’s and Tostig’s invasion, he could have had no certainty when he sailed that the king would go north to oppose them, leaving the south shore undefended. There was no more than a 50:50 chance that he would do so. Again, even if he had known that Harold had gone, he does not appear to have had any plan of campaign for after his landing. He does not seem to have had any intention of securing strong points like Dover, Canterbury or even London while Harold was in the north. He established his bridgeheads at Pevensey and Hastings and waited. He might have waited in vain, and, as has already been pointed out, he could not have waited indefinitely. If Harold had been content to wait until hunger and low morale among the Norman troops had forced him to move inland, he would almost certainly have been defeated. He seems, in short, to have been in the position of a general who had managed to establish a bridgehead but had no plan of operation beyond it. Nothing but the incredible luck that attended him throughout the campaign saved him.
The one point on which there seems to be unanimity among the Norman chroniclers is the admission that, if the English had maintained their position on the ridge and had resisted the temptation to pursue the fleeing (or supposedly fleeing) enemy, it would have been virtually impossible to dislodge them. William of Poitiers speaks of ‘one side attacking in different ways and the other standing firmly as if fixed to the ground’. Likewise the Carmen also speaks of the serried ranks of English standing as if rooted to the ground, and adds ‘nor would the attackers have been able to penetrate the dense forest of the English had not invention reinforced their strength’. Baudri de Bourgeuil describes the English as massed in a single dense formation, adding that they would have been impregnable if they had held together. Henry of Huntingdon writes that Harold had ‘placed all his people very closely in a single line, constructing a sort of castle with them, so that they were impregnable to the Normans’. Wace condemns the English for having been lured by the feigned retreats into abandoning a position in which they could hardly have been defeated. Add to this the oral tradition that Harold had exhorted his troops before the battle not to be lured from their defensive position, and it will be seen that his tactics were not as foolish or short-sighted as has been suggested. They should have worked.
M. K. Lawson suggests that Harold’s position was not confined to the ridge but may well have extended on his right flank to take in the hillock to the south-west of it; E. A. Freeman implies the same thing in his account of the battle. This hillock may be the mound depicted in plate 66 of the Bayeux Tapestry; the watercourse that the Tapestry shows as running close by it may have been the little stream that gave the battle its alternative name of ‘Senlac’ (sand lacu or sandy stream). He points out that there are serrations protruding from it that might indicate that it had been staked; if it had been, it would certainly have helped to bring down the horses that are portrayed as having fallen beside it. He supports the idea by reference to the Carmen, which describes the English position as comprising both a mons, which could describe the ridge, and a vallis, which could describe the declivity between the ridge and the hillock. It is an interesting theory, but not one that is easy to accept. In the first place, when would the English have had a chance to stake the water, if they only arrived exhausted late the previous evening (if indeed the serrations shown in the Tapestry are stakes. As Lawson says, they might just as well be reeds or foliage of some kind)? In the second, Harold would surely have been mad to put light-armed infantry (none of the English shown on the mound is wearing body armour) where they would have been unsupported by the housecarls and particularly vulnerable to the Norman cavalry. It is more likely that this plate shows the English who broke ranks to pursue the fleeing Bretons before taking refuge on the hillock and being cut down.
William would have had much less of a choice of ground and the site on which he did fight was particularly disadvantageous for the cavalry that were his greatest advantage over his enemy, since they would be obliged to charge uphill across what seems to have been very marshy and broken ground. His deployment is described by William of Poitiers, who is the best authority we have on the battle and who had the advantage of having served as one of William’s knights before he took holy orders:
He placed foot-soldiers in front, armed with arrows and cross-bows,xcviii likewise foot-soldiers in the second rank, but more powerful and wearing hauberks; finally the squadrons of mounted knights, in the middle of which he himself rode with the strongest force, so that he could direct operations on all sides with hand and voice.xcix
The Carmen supplements this information by saying that William positioned the Breton and other mercenaries on his left, the French and other mixed troops on his right, with the Normans led by himself in the centre, and this is corroborated to some extent by William of Poitiers who says a little later that the ‘Breton knights and other auxiliaries on the left wing turned tail’. The Carmen opens the actual battle with what is probably the best known if most totally apocryphal story connected with it:
Meanwhile, with the result hanging in the balance and the bitter calamity of death by wounds still there, a juggler, whom a brave heart ennobled, putting himself in front of the duke’s innumerable army, with his words encourages the French and terrifies the English, while he played by throwing his sword high in the air. When one Englishman saw a single knight, just one out of thousands, juggling with his sword and riding away, fired by the ardour of a true soldier and abandoning life, he dashed out to meet his death. The juggler, who was named Taillefer, when he was attacked spurred on his horse and pierced the Englishman’s shield with his sharp lance. He then with his sword removed the head from the prostrate body, and turning to face his comrades, displayed this object of joy and showed that the opening move of the battle was his.
Strangely, the Carmen does not give the information that Taillefer rode towards the English singing the song of Roland; this detail is first supplied by Wace, never one to lose anything that would contribute to a good story. But it is William of Poitiers who gives by far the clearest and most convincing account of the actual fighting, as one would expect from a former soldier. It started ceremonially at 9 a.m. with the blare of trumpets from both sides, following which, by his account, the Norman archers and foot-soldiers closed to attack the English, killing and maiming many with their missiles and suffering many casualties in return. The Tapestry glosses this by showing a hail of arrows from William’s archers, most of which are being caught on the shields of the English. Shooting uphill, most of their shafts would either have been caught on the shields or passed over the heads of the defenders. The assaults of the archers and the infantry were unable to make any impression on the tightly packed ranks of English, so the cavalry, who had presumably been waiting for openings in the English lines to make their charge, were called into action earlier than would have been usual. The English, says William, were greatly helped by the advantage of the higher ground, which they held in serried ranks without sallying forward, and also by their great numbers and densely packed mass, and moreover by their weapons of war, which easily penetrated shields and other armour. This is presumably an allusion to the much-feared two-handed axes of the housecarls, which were reputedly capable of cutting down horse and rider together at a single blow. Horses are not stupid, and it is extremely difficult to ride them straight at a line bristling with offensive weapons, as Napoleon’s cavalry found at Waterloo, when they attempted to charge the unbroken British squares. If, in addition to the axes of the housecarls, the horses had been confronted with English spears positioned as Snorre Sturlason described, William’s cavalry would have had quite as difficult a job at Hastings.
It was at this stage, with even the Norman cavalry repelled without any significant advantage gained, that the first noteworthy event of the battle took place. The Bretons in the left wing of the Norman army broke ranks (William of Poitiers says frankly that they turned tail), and retreated, carrying part at least of the central section of the army with them. Indeed, he says, almost the whole of the duke’s battle line gave way, a disgrace he excuses by explaining that the Normans believed the duke had been killed. This may have been one of the occasions on which he was unhorsed, rendering him temporarily invisible. The situation was saved only by his presence of mind. Raising his helmet so that his face could be seen, he halted the retreating men and forced them back into the fight again with the flat of his sword, leading the counter-attack against the English right wing that had broken formation to pursue the fleeing enemy.
At this point disagreement over the course of the battle starts. That this first Norman retreat was genuine is not seriously contested by anyone, least of all William of Poitiers who is, as we have seen, refreshingly frank on the subject. What is contentious is the English response. Was the English pursuit the action of ill-disciplined troops who had been instructed to remain within their lines but were unable to resist the impulse to pursue the enemy when they saw them in flight, or was it part of a deliberate counter-attack that went wrong? Harold has been criticized for not launching a full-scale attack at this juncture, with the duke’s left wing in disarray and his whole battle line faltering, and if he had done so, he might have been successful. General Fuller thinks that he would have been, that he would easily have annihilated the Norman archers and infantry and that the cavalry would not have drawn rein until they reached Hastings. But the other view holds that his chances of success were no more than 50:50, that, once he left the protection of his strongly defended position, he would have been unable to regain it, and that, on a level plain, his infantry would be very vulnerable to the enemy cavalry, precisely the situation Harold had sought to avoid. He had fought with William in Brittany, he knew the duke would reassert control over his men.
It has been suggested by Lt Colonel C. H. Lemmon that the pursuit of the Bretons by his right wing was part of a planned counter-attack by Harold, and that this would most naturally have been led by his brothers, Earl Gyrth and Earl Leofwine.c Their deaths are shown on the Tapestry at just about this stage of the battle; if they had indeed been leading a counter-attack, their fall would certainly have thrown it into disarray, but their deaths might not have been seen by the men on the far right who would have continued to advance as planned, only to find themselves isolated and cut off. On the other hand, the bodies of Gyrth and Leofwine were found close beside their brother at the end of the battle, which is not consistent with them falling at the head of an attack unless there had been an opportunity to retrieve them during a lull in the fighting. It is more likely that the men on the right wing were simply unable to resist the temptation to break ranks and pursue the fleeing Bretons, who were rallied by the duke and rounded on them with the Norman centre, cutting them down. Alfred’s army at Wilton had done precisely the same thing, and the Danes had turned on them with equally disastrous results.
At this stage, there seems to have been something of a hiatus in the battle. As Colonel Lemmon points out, troops cannot engage in hand-to-hand fighting for eight hours on end, and both sides would have needed to regroup and rearm. So far, the battle had not gone at all as the duke had expected, since none of his troops, not even the cavalry, had succeeded in making any impact on the English defences; in William of Poitiers’ words:
When the Normans and the troops allied to them saw that they could not conquer such a solidly massed enemy force without heavy loss, they wheeled round and deliberately feigned flight. They remembered how, a little while before, their flight had brought about the result they desired [i.e., in drawing the English away from their defensive position]. . . As before, some thousands of them dared to rush, almost as if they were winged, in pursuit of those they believed to be fleeing. The Normans, suddenly wheeling round their horses, checked and encircled them, and slaughtered them to the last man.
Having used this trick twice with the same result, they attacked the remainder with greater determination: up to now the enemy line had been bristling with weapons and most difficult to encircle. So a combat of an unusual kind began, with one side attacking in different ways and the other standing firmly as if fixed to the ground.
Nothing in the story of the battle has provoked more argument than this question of the feigned flights. Historians have divided between those who maintain that a feigned flight on the spur of the moment was much too complicated a manoeuvre for troops to carry out at that stage of the history of warfare, and those who point to the occasions on which it had been successfully executed in the past. Experienced soldiers, like Colonel Lemmon, point with justice to the problems associated with the manoeuvre, even in more favourable situations than obtained at Hastings:
A ‘feigned retreat’ would demand that every man taking part in it had to know when to retreat, how far to retreat and when to turn round and fight back; and, moreover, that these movements had to be carefully synchronized, or disaster would result. To arrange this in the heat of battle with men fighting hand-to-hand for their lives was clearly impossible. Could the operation have been a carefully rehearsed act, set off, perhaps, by a trumpet call? Similar acts, performed at military tournaments and tattoos with the well-drilled and disciplined soldiers of today need much rehearsal and, even with the small numbers employed, are difficult enough to stage. Is it possible that a feudal force at the beginning of this millennium could have performed such an act at all? Finally, there is the military maxim, evolved after long years of experience in warfare, that ‘troops committed to the attack cannot be made to change direction’. If the situation created by the real flight of some troops was restored by an immediate charge of fresh troops, the result would be much the same as if a ‘feigned retreat’ had been possible and had taken place, as far as the progress of the battle was concerned. A ‘feigned retreat’, therefore, the chroniclers made it, in order to save the face of the troops who ran away.ci
The Lemmon line is supported by Colonel A. H. Burne in his Battlefields of Britain, who writes, ‘I simply cannot bring myself to believe that a feigned retreat could have been mounted, as an afterthought, in the midst of the battle’, and suggests robustly that the first retreat could be accepted by Norman chroniclers as genuine, since it was the fault of the Bretons, but that the subsequent retreats, which were by Norman troops, had to be presented as something else.
Other historians, however, such as R. Allen Brown, point to the equally convincing reasons for supposing that feigned retreats were possible:
The feigned flight, so the argument runs, cannot have happened because it could not have happened; and it could not have happened because it would have required to a high degree discipline and training which feudal armies, and most especially the exhibitionist knights who formed them, notoriously did not possess. The truth is, of course, that our Frankish knights and Norman knights were as professional as the age could make them, born and bred to war and trained from early youth, in the household which is the contingent of a lord, in the art and science of horsemanship and arms. Not only do we have entirely acceptable, one might almost say overwhelming, evidence for the tactic of the feigned flight employed at Hastings, but we also have further evidence of its practice on other occasions by other knights of this generation – by the Normans at St Aubin-le-Cauf near Arques in 1052–53 and near Messina in 1060, and by Robert le Frison of Flanders at Cassel in 1071. If this is not enough, then we can find much earlier references to the manoeuvre, which was thus evidently a well-known ruse de guerre, in e.g. Nithard under the year 842, over two hundred years before Hastings, and in Dudo of St Quentin writing in the first decades of the eleventh century. Clearly of all the arguments which surround the Norman Conquest and Hastings, this one at least must stop.cii
It certainly seems perfectly probable that small groups of knights, accustomed from long training to fighting together as a conroi or squadron, could have practised and carried out such a manoeuvre, though there would still be the risk of their action being interpreted by the rest of the army (many of whom were foreign mercenaries) as a genuine flight and panic spreading as a result. Bernard S. Bachrach, in his article on the feigned retreats at Hastings,ciii shows that the feigned retreat was a common tactic used by the horsemen of the steppes, and points to its use among the Huns, Visigoths and, especially, the Byzantines, who are said by Gregory of Tours to have used it successfully against a body of Franks positioned very much as Harold’s forces were at Hastings and with very similar results. Clearly, it must be accepted that feigned retreats were perfectly possible by 1066; with the slight reservation that in this case, all the evidence for them comes to us at second hand, from the winning side, and with the proviso, as pointed out by Colonel Lemmon, that in enemy communiqués, a retreat according to plan was usually interpreted as meaning that the troops had run away.
Whether the retreats were feigned or genuine makes no difference to the outcome. William of Poitiers says that ‘some thousands’ of the English had rushed out to pursue the retreats and were all killed. Exaggeration of the numbers of the defeated enemy was standard procedure, to make the eventual victory more glorious, just as the English records imply that Harold was seriously outnumbered. It cannot possibly have been as many as ‘some thousands’ but it was probably enough to cause serious damage to the English defence and to make it necessary for Harold to draw in his wings and shorten his front. This must have made it easier for the Normans to gain access to the ridge and attack him on his flanks, and according to the Carmen, they did so. It is irritating that at this point William of Poitiers’ chronicle stops reporting the various stages of the battle in favour of a panegyric on the courage and ferocity of the duke. He takes up a more sober account only towards the end of the day when, he says:
the English army realized that there was no hope of resisting the Normans any longer. They knew that they had been weakened by the loss of many troops; that the king himself and his brothers and not a few of the nobles of the kingdom had perished; that all who remained were almost at the end of their strength, and that they could hope for no relief.civ
In fact there must have been some considerable interval between the two Norman ‘feigned’ retreats and the collapse that he reports here. William of Poitiers’ failure to report the closing stages of the battle in as much detail as the earlier part probably arose from the general fatigue and confusion of those taking part, and their inability to give him the detailed information he needed. We can imagine the growing exhaustion on both sides, the determination of the English to hold their position till after sunset, the desperate efforts of the Normans to assail the English flanks and break through their line to reach the king. Battles lasting as long as Hastings (between eight and nine hours) and indeed Stamford Bridge (probably about seven hours) were extremely rare in the Middle Ages, and it was part of the bad luck of the English that they should have had to fight two of them so close together.
The crucial factor, which William of Poitiers skates over, is the death of Harold. The highly coloured version in the Carmen, according to which four knights, one of them the duke himself, burst through the English line and hacked the king down under his standards, is not credible. It is the part reputedly played in this version by the duke that is unbelievable. If it had been true, William of Poitiers would certainly have known of it and equally certainly would have reported it. It would have been a story to rank with the death of Roland at Roncesvalles. It is much more likely that no one on the Norman side knew, in the confusion of the battle, precisely when he was struck, especially if his death or initial disablement was indeed caused by an arrow, and that no one survived on the English side who could have given the facts. There is a tradition, unsupported by surviving evidence, that in the later stages of the battle the duke gave orders to his archers to aim high, so that the arrows dropped on the English from above. This would have overcome the difficulties they would have been caused by the rising ground in their opening volleys, though it would have considerably reduced the penetrative power of the arrows. It would also have enabled the Norman cavalry to charge simultaneously under the archers’ cover. If Harold’s death was in fact caused by one of the Norman arrows falling from the sky, the arrows were penetrating adequately and William’s tactics paid off.
R. Allen Brown, in his account of the battle, said that the only really undisputed fact about Hastings was that the Normans won. One other thing is indisputable, which is that the side whose leader fell first would lose. William had the luck with him throughout his campaign for the throne, but nowhere was that luck more striking than his survival on the battlefield, where he must have been as much if not more at risk as Harold. If he did indeed have three horses killed under him in the course of the battle (and there is no reason to doubt it), then on three occasions at least he was particularly vulnerable not just to the enemy but to being accidentally ridden down by his own knights. It is clear from the first, genuine, flight of the Bretons how quickly the Norman army would have faltered and retreated if he had been killed or incapacitated.
The manner of Harold’s death has been almost as much disputed as the retreats, feigned or otherwise. The confusion has been caused partly by the Tapestry, which, in plate 71, shows an armed figure apparently trying to pull an arrow out of his eye and next to him, another armed figure with a battle-axe who is being cut down by a Norman knight. Across the two figures the text reads Hic Harold Rex interfectus est, ‘Here King Harold is killed’. The word ‘Harold’ is directly above the figure with the arrow in his eye, the words ‘interfectus est’ above the figure with the battle-axe. In general, the designer of the Tapestry has taken care to put the name of a character above the person named. The question that has exercised historians is whether both figures depict the dying king or only one of them. Although William of Poitiers could tell us nothing about Harold’s death, and little in detail about the later stages of the battle, he does make it clear that the duke had kept up an unceasing barrage of arrows, so the likelihood that the king was struck in the eye by one of them is strong. It is even stronger that, once he was thus disabled, and with his brothers having already fallen, Norman knights would find it easier to burst through the line and hack him down. This section of the tapestry has been subjected to repairs, and efforts have been made to prove, by examining original and newer stitch marks on the reverse, that what now appears to be an arrow in the eye was originally intended to be a javelin that was being thrown by the figure clutching it – not the king but one of his men. It is certainly true that the Tapestry’s present state does not necessarily represent the designer’s original intention (this is one of the most intensively restored sections), and a very small adjustment of stitches could, quite unintentionally, make a considerable difference to the final effect. Furthermore, blinding was, by Biblical warrant, widely regarded in the Middle Ages as the appropriate punishment for perjury and might therefore be regarded by the Tapestry’s designer as particularly appropriate to Harold.
None the less, it is probable that the Tapestry in its original condition showed the king being struck in the eye by an arrow. Drawings of this part of it made in 1733 before much restoration work had been undertaken show what indubitably looks like an arrow, though it is fair to say that it could also be a javelin, in that no flights are visible on it and the trajectory is pointing a little above the eye. There is also a fairly substantial body of opinion in the century following the battle that the king had been wounded by an arrow. The first to mention it is Amatus of Montecassino (c.1080), who says that Harold was killed by an arrow in the eye. This is corroborated by Baudri de Bourgeuil (c.1100) in the poem he addressed to the duke’s daughter, the Countess Adela, in which he describes the hanging in her chamber representing her father’s conquest of England. He says that Harold was struck by an arrow, but does not say where. The next version is that of William of Malmesbury (c.1125) who says that the king was wounded by an arrow in the brain and, while lying wounded, was struck on the thigh by a knight with his sword, a very fair description of what is shown in the Tapestry. He was followed by Henry of Huntingdon (c.1130) who tells us that the king was struck in the eye by an arrow and was then killed by wounds. This argues the existence of two different traditions, for neither William nor Henry could have got their version of events from Baudri or Amatus. William’s version exactly replicates what seems to be the story in the Tapestry, which possibly pre-dates all of them, though there is no evidence that either William or Henry ever saw it.
We cannot attach much conviction to the contention, frequently maintained, that the designer of the Tapestry would not have shown the king by two separate figures so close together. R. Howard Bloch has drawn attention to the skill of the Tapestry designer in using the techniques of animated cartoons to suggest movement and progression in his portrayal of events; this is most noticeable in, for example, the scene of Harold’s embarkation from Bosham at the start of the Tapestry, and in the charge of the Norman knights at the opening of the battle, where a number of figures are depicted in attitudes that, if speeded up, would give the impression of movement.cv This depiction of the slaying of Harold may well be another example, showing two images of the same character in progression – though if so, it is noticeable that the king had time to change his stockings in between. Whichever explanation is chosen, it is likely that this scene shows us as much as we are likely ever to know of Harold’s death.
It is clear from what William of Poitiers says that part of the English army, probably the housecarls, fought on grimly after the king’s death, in the old Germanic tradition, but it is hardly surprising that many of the fyrd melted away into the forest behind them. There is no mention by William of Poitiers of the celebrated Malfosse incident narrated in the Carmen and elsewhere, according to which Norman knights, zealously pursuing the retreating English in the dark, rode unawares into a deep ditch on the north of the battlefield and were crushed to death by their companions falling on top of them; since it had no effect on the result of the battle, it can be disregarded, although the exact site of the Malfosse has been a fruitful source of controversy among historians of Hastings. William makes it clear that a considerable number of the English host made a last-ditch stand, supported by what he describes as a ‘broken rampart and a labyrinth of ditches’ behind the battlefield. For these people, he says, were ‘by nature always ready to take up the sword, being descended from the ancient stock of Saxons, the fiercest of men. They would never have been driven back except by irresistible force.’cvi But without leadership, there was little they could do except to cause as much damage to the Normans as they could. They well deserved the tribute of William of Malmesbury: ‘they were few in number and brave in the extreme’.
In the meantime, William pitched his tent for the night on the place where Harold’s banners had stood, confident that God had judged between him and his enemy. The ruins of Anglo-Saxon England lay scattered around him on the battlefield.