SEVEN

THE BATTLE

When William jumped on to the beach at Pevensey, he stumbled forwards. Some were ready to see this as a bad omen. William of Malmesbury’s version of the incident was that: ‘as he disembarked he slipped down, but turned the accident to his advantage; a soldier who stood near calling out to him, “You hold England, my lord, its future king.”’1 Wace, whatever his faults, knew something of the sea, and described or perhaps rather imagined the landing, seeing the Norman invaders

Sally forth and unload the ships,

Cast the anchors and haul the ropes,

Bear out shields and saddles,

Lead out the warhorses and palfreys.

The archers disembarked,

The first to set foot on land.2

The landing had been easier than any invader could have expected. Harold is generally seen as a good commander, and one knows of the problems he faced keeping his force in the field, and having to deal with Hardrada. Even so, the complete lack of any opposition to William speaks of some neglect. It suggests that Harold was not as well informed as William, and believed that William would not come so late in the year.

But William must have felt very satisfied with the success of the crossing. The first major obstacle had been overcome. The period that now followed was for him a game of nerves. The two leaders pursued very clear policies in the short campaign. Harold soon decided to act as quickly as possible, and made all his efforts in that direction. William chose not to push inland against a major town, perhaps London, as most invaders would. He decided instead to wait, which was a bold and risky choice. He did his best to bring Harold to him by making as big a nuisance of himself as he could on the coast. But how long could this game have continued had Harold not accepted the bait?

The Conqueror did his best to protect his position, another good reason for staying near his base. He had chosen his landing place well. Pevensey and Hastings offered harbour for his fleet. He must also have gained information on the fortresses of the region. His demand for Harold’s promise to gain, fortify and hand over to him the stronghold at Dover as part of the oath, demonstrates William’s thinking. He must already then have been considering the possibility of bringing a force to England, and thought in terms of the most powerful naturally defended site on the southern coast, one still important because it marks the shortest passage across the Channel.

We have no way of knowing why William did not land at Dover; possibly it did not offer such good beaching facilities as Pevensey, possibly Harold might expect him there after the 1064 demands. One positive reason for landing in Sussex was that the shire was Godwin territory. Godwin’s first appearance in history was in Sussex, and the family still held considerable lands in the county. It was from Bosham that Harold set out in 1064; he also had manors in the Hastings region of East Sussex.3 William’s intention of bringing Harold to him was enhanced by the fact that it was Harold’s own family possessions that were suffering most from the Norman invaders.

At any rate, Pevensey offered a good defensive position and a ready-made fortress. The coastline was somewhat different in the eleventh century, offering better conditions for embarkation. But one thing that was much the same was Pevensey ‘Castle’. Pevensey had been noted by the Romans as a good site, easily defended from the land direction because access was narrow and difficult. They had built one of their Saxon Shore forts on the site. Unlike earlier Roman forts, it was irregular, roughly oval, filling the good land over the marshy ground around. Those well-constructed walls still stood in 1066, and still stand now, albeit having been repaired from time to time. William built a smaller defence within the walls, though the whole space offered a good temporary protection for the invading army. The later Norman stone castle was constructed within one sector of the walls: a castle within the Roman walls, using those walls as a bailey. It is generally thought that William’s temporary castle had been on this same site.

Before long, however, William moved along the coast and made use of an even more powerful naturally defended site on the cliffs at Hastings. Some historians have queried this, suggesting there was no road to follow, but the chroniclers make it clear that this was his first move and that it was by land. Here he built another castle. The Tapestry beautifully illustrates the construction of the motte: a noble supervising, men carrying tools, two of them fighting, others picking and shovelling to make the earthworks. The castle is portrayed as a motte with a wooden keep on top, just as the Breton castles shown earlier were depicted.4

The Tapestry also shows various scenes of William’s activities during this period in a way that no chronicle could do in words.5 We see the sails and masts being removed and the ships beached; horses being brought ashore. If William had forbidden forage during the wait in Normandy, he made no such proviso now. The troops, including mounted men, seized food from the locals. We see one holding a sheep, another looming over it with an axe, while a cow forlornly looks on. One man returns with a pig over his shoulders, another leading a packhorse.

We also see the invaders cooking on the beach: birds and meat on skewers, a pot slung from a pole fixed in place by uprights, heating over flames on a stand that looks not unlike a modern barbecue. Elsewhere, a bearded man is removing hot cooked food from a grill, using a sort of pincer implement to save his fingers. He is putting the food on a plate ready to be eaten.

Other servants are carrying food on skewers to the nobles at an improvised table made from shields. On these are placed a variety of containers, dishes and plates, while one man refreshes himself from a drinking horn. At what looks like an actual table appears William’s half-brother, Odo, Bishop of Bayeux. This scene, rather cheekily, seems to be inspired by contemporary artworks of the last supper, with Odo positioned in the place taken by Christ, and with a cooked fish before him. The artist was clearly aware of the Christian significance of that creature. No doubt the intention was to enhance the role of Odo, the patron of the Tapestry, but perhaps also to reflect the Norman belief in God’s blessing on the invasion. Odo is shown in the act of blessing the food and drink before them.

William did more than forage to anger Harold and bring him south. He also attacked property and people in the area, much as if it were a Viking raid. Some intending conquerors might try to placate their future subjects; this was not William’s concern at that time. Primarily he needed to bring on a quick decision. Battle-seeking was not always the policy of William, though some historians have made it so. Like all good medieval commanders he engaged in battles sparingly. John Gillingham has pointed out that the Breton campaign, on which Harold had been able to observe William’s methods, was a typically cautious one.6

But now a quick battle was the duke’s best option, unless Harold would take the offered compromise and surrender the throne – which was unlikely. That being the case, William could not succeed unless Harold was removed from the throne by force. As Harold approached, as the English fleet moved in to cut off possible retreat, as supplies began to dwindle, William’s position would become increasingly difficult: at the very least he must fight his way out of a trap. Both commanders at Hastings settled for a battle, but neither can have been entirely lacking in anxiety in a situation which offered much but also would have dire consequences for the loser.

The foraging itself was not necessary. Plenty of provisions had been loaded on board before sailing, and they had certainly not yet run out or even run low. The foraging would provide useful additional provisions, but its main purpose was to harass Harold’s Sussex people. William of Poitiers wrote: ‘when he heard that the territory around the Norman camp was being ravaged, Harold was so furious that he hastened his march. His plan was to make a sudden night attack and to crush his enemies when they were least expecting him’; though the chronicler could not have known the thoughts of the English king. But provocation was in the Conqueror’s mind, and we find him burning down houses and turning people from their homes. One of the most graphic scenes in the Tapestry is of what appears to be a mother and son outside their house as Normans set torches to it and the roof goes up in flames.7

The Tapestry shows a messenger from Harold coming to William.8 If we can take this at face value it means that Harold knew about William’s coming very soon after it occurred, with time to give instructions to a messenger to reach the invader’s camp. Some of the sources also give information on an exchange of messages. If Harold’s came first, as the Tapestry suggests, it was probably to offer some sort of deal. But the Norman sources only tell us about William’s messages, telling Harold to give up the throne. If he did so, he was offered position and lands. But now that Harold was king it must have been clear that such offers were highly unlikely to be accepted. The negotiations were perforce brief, their content superficial, going through the motions: neither leader showed any signs of compromising. It was in such circumstances that medieval battles were often fought.

Harold may have heard the news of William’s landing while he himself was in York. His decision to move south was taken immediately. He returned to London, but was already set on heading straight for William. He could not immediately know William’s plans, and needed to consider some defensive moves. It was quite possible that William would move on to Dover, or would strike at either London or Winchester. London was a good base.

It says much for the English military system that despite two draining battles in the north, the king could still at such short notice raise a solid army. John of Worcester points out that powerful men of England had been lost in the northern battles, and that half the army was not assembled. For once the words of Wace are acceptable on the loss of men from the north, ‘the Danes and Tostig having much damaged and weakened them’.9

The housecarls of Harold’s household and the mounted fyrdmen had come to London from Stamford Bridge. Poitiers says that Harold received some aid from Denmark.10 It is probable that the battle had not been quite so prolonged as later sources said. The nature of it, with the surprise attack resulting in victory, normally would speak of a relatively brief conflict. It had been prolonged by the arrival of reinforcements from the coast, but the English army must have escaped without enormous losses. Had Stamford Bridge been too damaging on Harold’s men, he would not have been able to contemplate another battle. The signs are that the victory had been so great that few men were lost.

Nevertheless, the journey north, the battle, the journey back to London had to be exhausting. Harold waited six days, during which reinforcements arrived or were summoned to meet him. A few days’ rest in London helped to recover strength and determination, but it must have been a weary force that made its way down towards Sussex.

Some historians in the past marvelled at the stamina of men on foot who did all of these things. It cannot be proven certainly, but it is generally accepted that men on foot did not attempt such feats. The housecarls and the fyrdmen who travelled those distances were on horseback. They fought on foot but rode long distances. The men who bulked out the army to greater numbers almost certainly came from local levies, in the main shire levies. This would also help to explain a differing kind of force in different regions of the country. Those recorded as dying at Hastings came mainly from the Midlands and the south. Certainly some could have assembled in London and marched to Hastings on foot, the distance makes that quite possible.

Harold had to take his decisions fast, and he was a decisive man. His military successes had depended upon it. Above all, the victory at Stamford Bridge had come from the bold move of heading fast to York, despite knowing that northern reinforcements would be restricted because of the events at Gate Fulford. His push on through York had taken Hardrada by surprise and the result had been a great victory. Such a victory would put his men in good heart and give them confidence in his leadership.

It was in London that Harold made the vital and fatal decision of when to move on. With hindsight, most would agree it was the wrong decision. According to Orderic, those close to him advised delay or that he himself should not command the army. He responded with anger, and when his mother clung to him to prevent him going ‘he insolently kicked her’.11 These details sound like invention, though there must have been some opposition to the plan. But his choice was justifiable and almost came off. He had a good army whose morale was high.

Because of the way he had become king, it was the military ability which seemed to justify Harold’s accession. He had done his best to make allies of the northern earls, but he knew that it would not take much for men in England to desert a monarch who was, in essence, an upstart with no hereditary right to the crown. Harold could not afford to give William much opportunity to seek friends in England. Like William, Harold also needed a quick victory. Had he caught William by surprise, as he almost certainly intended, there could have been a second Stamford Bridge.

But … but … in the end, even allowing that it is hindsight, we must accept that he made a wrong decision. The longer William had been made to wait, the more difficult his position would have become. Supplies in the end would run low, and supplies could have been denied without coming to battle. The invader would always be in the more difficult situation in this respect. Also, Harold had reinforcements available. There is no doubt that with every day Harold waited more men would join him. It is true that a larger army is not always a better army, and that the core forces were already present, but a larger force against a smaller one in battle is certainly an advantage.

There is also the question of the composition of Harold’s force. He knew that William had cavalry and archers. He obviously hoped that his good men on foot could withstand cavalry if given a reasonable defensive position. But why did he go into Hastings with few archers? The only evidence that he had any archers at all is the depiction on the Tapestry of the one small and rather pathetic figure.12 No chronicler mentions any use or impact of English archery, though there is plenty of mention of Norman bowmen.

The conclusion must be that Harold had very few archers. Yet, as we have seen, archery was a well-known activity in England, and there must have been some available, even if the northern battles had diminished the pool. We are getting into difficult territory, and we do not know where archers came from or how many might have been available to Harold. But at Hastings, against the Normans, from a good position, archers would have been invaluable. Harold ought to have obtained some, even if it meant waiting. In any case, Harold decided on a rapid march to catch the Conqueror off guard as he had done with Hardrada. He rapidly moved southwards to London with the best of his mounted troops. He spent a few days in London, the minimum necessary to organise a new army for battle, raising southern levies. Then it was on to the south coast.

Harold marched on the road from London, through the forest of the Weald. William of Jumièges wrote: ‘Hastening to take the duke by surprise, he rode through the night and arrived at the battlefield at dawn.’13 He arranged for an assembly point on the southern exit from the wooded heights. The place was marked by an old apple tree. We now need to consider the site where the battle was fought. Historians have agreed. There is no doubt. Vested interests would be upset if the accepted site was wrong. It is probably correct, but the ‘probably’ needs to be emphasized. When first suggested that evidence could be interpreted to indicate a different site, one might have expected enraged howls from various quarters.14 In the event, nobody seemed to notice, not even more recent works on the battle. This is odd because the point is a serious one. The best evidence for the location of the battle is not at all definite about the accepted site, and we should recall that none of the eleventh-century sources was the work of an eyewitness, or probably of anyone who ever visited the site. So far as we know, the twelfth-century Battle Abbey chronicler was the only author of any of our sources who actually knew the ground. We should therefore examine the matter of location in more detail.15

The reason that historians assume they know where the battle was fought is that they accept without question the statement in the Chronicle of Battle Abbey. Allen Brown, whose account of Hastings remains the best, wrote: ‘we know the site of the engagement: we know with an unusual degree of precision where it was fought’.16 But the Abbey Chronicle, as we have seen, would not normally be considered a prime source of evidence: it is late, it contains demonstrable distortions and economies with the truth, and it has reasons for manufacturing or exaggerating this particular point. The reason it is taken seriously is because it is a local source: the writer would have known abbey traditions and local lore. But he was writing a century after the event, his knowledge is all at second hand, and the source of his information is not passed on to us. The chronicle tells us that, in building the abbey, the Conqueror was fulfilling a vow that had been made long before on the continent, and the modern editor suggests we should treat this tale with circumspection. We ought to treat all his tales with circumspection.17

He wrote that four monks were brought over from Marmoutier and they ‘studied the battlefield and decided that it seemed hardly suitable for so outstanding a building. They therefore chose a fit place for settling, a site located not far off, but somewhat lower down, towards the western slope of the ridge … This place, still called Herste, has a low wall as a mark of this.’ But when the Conqueror was told, ‘he refused angrily and ordered them to lay the foundations of the church speedily and on the very spot where his enemy had fallen and the victory had been won’. He adds that ‘the English had already occupied the hill where the church now stands’. He then goes on to say that ‘they prudently erected the high altar as the king had commanded, on the very place where Harold’s emblem, which they called a standard, was seen to have fallen’.18

This has convinced many, and it may be true, but in accepting this chronicler we must realise we are taking much for granted. The tale has the same sort of pseudo-realistic ring about it as the vow story. The writer himself says that the Conqueror never visited the site. The building was certainly not ready until many years after the battle. They started in one location and finished in another. The writer was keen to enhance his abbey’s reputation with the tale of the vow; one cannot but suspect that he at least firmed up the foundation story to suit the abbey’s purpose. We should have reservations about swallowing the tale without question. It is some cause for concern that the altar story does not emerge until a century after the event: it is surprising that no earlier writer knew of and repeated such a vivid detail.19

The reason all this is being laboured is that we shall now do what we recommended should always be done, look at the early and best evidence. Only from its being local can the Chronicle of Battle Abbey possibly be thought ‘best’. The early chronicles in fact do not clearly identify the location, and there are some comments which are a little worrying to the acceptance of the traditional site. The most important of these is the one chronicle written by an Englishman in Old English and close to the event, the D version of theAnglo-Saxon Chronicle. This is a brief account of the battle, but it makes a clear statement of location: ‘King Harold was informed of this [William’s landing and activities] and he assembled a large army and came against him at the hoary apple tree.’20 It does not say they assembled there and then moved on a mile and fought, but that is where they fought. This also indicates that it was no chance location, but one that was well known and selected well in advance as a meeting point, perhaps with the prime intention of preventing a Norman march northwards to London.21

The location of the apple tree oddly enough has been investigated and settled to most people’s satisfaction. It is thought to have been on the summit of Caldbec Hill, where there is now a windmill. This is a place where the boundaries of three hundreds met, and such old trees often marked important boundary points of that kind.

The odd thing is that historians have settled the position of the tree, but never considered that the D version might be correct. It is an eminently suitable position for the sort of battle the chronicles describe. Caldbec is a hill with slopes steeper than those at Battle. In fact Caldbec, 300 feet above sea level, dominates the area, and Chevallier, again without considering there might be other significance to the statement, thought that before victory was won the Normans would have needed to control Caldbec. And what of our best source for the battle, William of Poitiers? He wrote: ‘They stationed themselves in a position overlooking him, on a hillside adjacent to the wood through which they had advanced’, which again fits rather better with Caldbec than with Battle.

The Carmen gives some detail of the English taking up position. (We shall keep to our determination to treat the Carmen as a second rank source.) The poet says that the Normans first saw the English while they were still among the trees: they could ‘see the forest glitter, full of spears’. The action begins thus:

Suddenly the forest poured forth troops of men, and from the hiding-places of the woods a host dashed forward. There was a hill near the forest and a neighbouring valley and the ground was untilled because of its roughness … they seized this place for the battle. On the highest point of the summit he [Harold] planted his banner.

This could fit either hill, but the remarks about woodland are of interest.22

Caldbec Hill was right on the edge of the heavily wooded land. Domesday Book allows us to say this with some hope of being accurate, since it indicates which parts were cultivated. The Battle chronicler says there were woods around the abbey, but from Domesday it seems likely that if troops emerged from ‘forest’ they would first come on to Caldbec, which after all was the appointed meeting place. We shall leave the identification of the Malfosse to a later point in our discussion, but it fits as well and perhaps better with a battle fought on Caldbec than one on Battle Hill.

It might be thought that Orderic’s description, though a late one, confirms the abbey account. He wrote: ‘a great multitude of the English flocked together from all sides to the place whose early name was Senlac … Reaching the spot they all dismounted from their horses and stood close together in a dense formation on foot.’ It is important that Orderic uses an otherwise unknown place-name, and it has been universally applied to Battle Hill, but without any evidence. Orderic knew a name for the place, but which place? Senlac means literally ‘sand-lake’, and there is no lake close by Battle Hill, though people have conjectured that there may once have been.23 The hill itself would certainly not be called ‘sand-lake’, and there is no reason to think that Senlac means Battle Hill.

However, there was a lake, or at least a pool, close by Caldbec Hill, close to Oakwood Gill on the edge of the wooded area. We also note that taken as it stands, without prior knowledge of where Senlac is, Orderic’s account sounds more like that of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, as if the English dismounted and fought at the point of assembly, rather than marching on a mile or so, and that Senlac was the name of the assembly point. His account is that they came to Senlac and ‘Reaching the spot they all dismounted from their horses’. The Bayeux Tapestry, just as it moves to the story of the battle, depicts three trees – none have been shown since the Norman felling of timber for building the fleet.24 This seems to confirm that woods were in the vicinity of the fighting, though in this case seen from the point of view of the Norman advance, which also shows a hill on the approach.

There are a few minor points which might cause this pause for thought to seem worthwhile. The battle accounts have always left a few puzzles when historians have tried to relate them to the actual ground of Battle Hill. There are questions about the ‘hillock’ on the Tapestry.25 One has been identified in the flatter ground before the abbey, but it hardly fits, and is very small. The ‘hillock’ also appears on the Tapestry before even the rumour of William’s death. Later, it will be suggested that there was no hillock to look for. Then there is the matter of where the ‘Malfosse’ was, if that is the correct name even to connect with an incident in the battle.26

It is puzzling given the enormous interest in Hastings, that despite the digging of foundations for the abbey, for the old primary school, for all the houses along the main road, all the digging in gardens, the archaeological digs at various points in the abbey grounds, the road making, not a single trace of the battle has been found. There are a few tales about finds, but none which have ever been verified and which would prove that Battle Hill had been the site of a great battle. Have people simply been looking in the wrong place?27

Here we shall end this debate. There is no certainty that the battle of Hastings was fought at Caldbec. What needs to be said is that the evidence is not decisive. There are question-marks against placing the site on Battle Hill, and we should keep a more open mind on the matter than has been the case to date. I did not put this case with any particular pleasure. I have had a long association with Pyke House and the traditional battlefield. I shall be perfectly happy if some further proof appears which confirms the traditional location. It is simply that if one looks at the evidence objectively, questions have to be raised. I must confess to a wry grin at the thought that the traditional site just might be wrong, and at all those people who have so carefully measured Battle Hill to calculate how many men stood on it if each had 3 feet of ground, the little signs all over the place to mark who stood where, the confident guides in the abbey, or whatever… .

The case for Caldbec Hill as the battle site has been put at some length because it has never been done before, not because it is necessarily correct. Yet whatever reservations we have about the Battle chronicler, it does seem likely that the abbey called after the battle would have been built where the battle was fought, and that the monks, who did not know the land or the country, would have sought advice from any one of the thousands who had fought there. But stranger things have happened. We may also question whether the altar is actually on the summit of the hill and was Harold’s command post. But on the ground of probability, there remains a good case for the traditional site.28

Harold certainly placed a banner to mark his command position on the summit of the chosen hill. Harold may have had two banners: the Wessex dragon banner sometimes called the Wyvern which is shown on the Tapestry, and perhaps also his own personal banner of the Fighting Man. William of Malmesbury says that after the battle the Fighting Man, embroidered with gold and precious stones, was sent to the Pope by the victor.29

The following account of the battle will be based on the early chronicle evidence, and will not assume a known site, though locations will be discussed where it becomes important to do so, for example, over the Malfosse business. Before we can move to the actual conflict there is one other disputed matter to settle. Did the English set up some kind of palisade or defence to protect themselves during the battle? We can answer fairly certainly: no they did not. The wall comes either from a mistranslation and misunderstanding of Wace, or from Wace himself if you believe he meant a palisade rather than using that simile for the shield-wall. The palisade in front of the English was popularised by Freeman as a ‘development of the usual tactics of the shield-wall’, and has survived in various accounts since, despite Round’s thorough demolition work on it in the last century.

I have changed my mind over this since 1985. I then believed that Wace got it wrong and had the idea that a shield-wall must be some sort of real wall. This is possible, the matter depends on a translation of a difficult section of his French, and in particular on the translation of ‘escuz’, which could mean either shield or wall/fence. I now feel that Round may have got it right, and that Wace did not mean a solid wall at all, that he realises perfectly well what a shield-wall was, and that his passage is a poetic flight intended as a simile, and that he no more meant an actual wall than Shakespeare thought the sea was a real wall around the scepter’d isle. It is the word ‘escuz’ which persuades me, as it persuaded Round. I think we can credit Wace with deliberate poetic punning. What he is saying is that the shield-wall was like a real wall and so on, with somewhat exaggerated emphasis and detail. Of course, one can always be wrong on such debatable matters.30 In any event, Wace, with his knowledge of twelfth-century warfare, is often interesting on tactics, and added a point we may accept without difficulty in an imagined speech by Harold: ‘all is lost if they once penetrate our ranks’.31 The English did form a solid mass together on the hill, close together, an imposing sight, a difficult obstacle.32

A secondary question relating to the ancient apple tree is why Harold needed an assembly point. It usually seems to be assumed that it was to allow the army with him to sort itself out. But the terms in the chronicles very much suggest a meeting point. It was surely here that Harold had arranged to meet troops raised in the southernmost counties. Given the haste of his march and the very minimum of time for troops to answer any summons, such a meeting place was a necessity. In the situation, it again is possible but seems unlikely that he then advanced further towards William and was halted again. If we are right and this was a broader assembly point, it would be a place where Harold would be forced to delay; troops which are assembling do not all arrive and place themselves neatly within minutes. We know that William was informed of Harold’s movements, the likelihood is that he caught him at the assembly place. It is a small point, and given medieval accuracy not one to press, but John of Worcester specifically says that the march was 9 miles, though Battle is only about 7 miles away.33

Harold probably did intend to march on southwards to the coast and catch the Normans as he had caught Hardrada, though he may have been happy enough to stand on a good defensive site and await the Normans’ coming; again we cannot be certain, though the former always seems to be assumed. Harold was no novice in war, and he had organised something of a trap for the Normans. He had now re-formed the English fleet, and ships had been sent to block any return passage that the Normans might attempt. Orderic says seventy ships performed this task.34

In any case, William roughly knew Harold’s position and had his army on the alert for a sudden move. We need not take William of Malmesbury’s account of the night before the battle too seriously, he was trying to explain away the result in terms of the godliness, or lack of it, in the conduct of the two armies: ‘the English as we have heard passed the night without sleep, in drinking and singing … the Normans passed the whole night in confessing their sins, and received the sacrament’. Wace as usual makes the most of this idea, carried away with thoughts of English drunkenness: ‘All the night they ate and drank, and never lay down on their beds. They might be seen carousing, gambolling and dancing and singing; Bublie they cried, and Weissel, and Laticome and Drincheheil, Drinc-hindrewart and Drintome, Drinc-helf, and Drinc-tome …’, while the Normans and French ‘betook themselves all night to their orisons, and were in very serious mood’.35

William had already been told by Robert fitz Wimarc, who had been in England for some time but acted as an informant for the Normans, of Harold’s victory in the north. According to William of Poitiers, he warned the Conqueror to avoid battle. The chronicler also tells us that there were Norman scouts watching the approaches and informing the Conqueror. William of Jumièges remarks on the duke’s readiness for action: ‘taking precautions in case of a night attack, he ordered hisarmy to stand to arms from dusk to dawn’.36

The warning of approaching troops came on the night of Friday 13 October. William got his men ready and made a battle speech, reminding those around of the courage needed, that ‘there was no way available for retreat’, and that defeat would mean death. Poitiers says: ‘without losing a moment, the duke ordered all those in camp to arm themselves, although that day a large section of his troops had gone off foraging’. William also arranged for a mass, in which he himself participated. He placed around his neck the relics on which Harold had sworn the oath he was to break.

It is about 7 miles from the coast to Battle. In his own haste the Conqueror put his hauberk on back to front, but laughed off the mistake so as not to make it appear a bad omen. No doubt, as Gillingham has suggested, it was the result of William feeling nervous about what was to come. William of Malmesbury says he exclaimed over the hauberk ‘thus shall my dukedom be turned into a kingdom’.37 Then they prepared for the march and set off in the very early hours northwards.

They moved forward behind the papal banner. ‘In the first line William put infantry, armed with bows and crossbows; in the second line he placed more infantry, better armed and in hauberks; finally came squadrons of cavalry, with William in the centre with the stronger force.’38 William took the normal route which brought him to Telham Hill, the summit of which is Blackhorse Hill.

It was here that his look-outs spotted the English and that William prepared his men in order for a battle. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says: ‘William came against him by surprise before his army was drawn up in battle array.’39 Had both armies been on the march, Harold would have been in no more disarray than William. If he were ready to deploy on Battle Hill he would have been in better state than William. The suspicion recurs that William caught Harold at the assembly point.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle also suggests some disloyalty in the English ranks, commenting that Harold was aided only ‘by the men who were willing to support him’. John of Worcester confirms this point.40 Harold had failed to catch the Normans in the way he caught the Scandinavians, but he did have time to arrange his army in a good defensive position on the crest of a hill, whichever hill. ‘They immediately dismounted from their horses and all packed densely together on foot.’ There can be no doubt that the English army fought as an entirely infantry army. No source says otherwise. Even if late in date the opinion of the Carmen is interesting: ‘the English scorn the solace of horses and trusting in their strength they stand fast on foot … all the men dismounted and left their horses in the rear’.41

THE OPENING PHASE OF THE BATTLE

The battle of Hastings was fought through most of Saturday 14 October. Wace says, in another unlikely comment, that Harold chose the day on purpose because he had been born on a Saturday and his mother had told him that he would always be lucky on that day. If Wace was right, then the mother was wrong. William of Jumièges says that battle was joined at the third hour, that is at 9 a.m. Duke William was able to direct movements by hand, by arranged signals, and by shouting. Wace also says the Normans shouted ‘God aid us’, and the English ‘Out’.42

Various later sources suggest that the Breton cavalry made up William’s left wing, men from other parts of France the right wing, and the Conqueror himself commanded the Normans in the centre.

Poitiers mentions Norman infantry on the march but practically ignores them in the battle, his interest is all with the socially superior cavalry. But later sources do say that the first Norman attack was by infantry, which given the composition of the army and its order on the march, seems highly likely. Orderic, for example, describes the first move when ‘the Norman infantry closed to attack the English’. The Carmen has the archers opening the battle, which is also likely, and says that the crossbowmen deliberately aimed at ‘the faces of the English’ to cause them to fall back. The writer adds that shields are no protection against crossbow bolts. Thebolts ‘destroyed the shields as if by a hailstorm’.43

The Tapestry beautifully depicts the cavalry riding casually and then moving to a charge, one with a sword, most with lances held overhead, some grasping them underarm and a few couched – including, perhaps significantly, the rider who first makes contact with the English shield-wall. The Tapestry also shows a group of four Norman archers aiming to shoot, one in a hauberk. One of the foremost pair seems to be standing on the far edge of a ditch, his left foot braced on the slope.44

The battle was begun promptly. Trumpets sounded on both sides. ‘The duke and his men, in no way dismayed by the rising slope, began to advance slowly up the steep hill.’ The Normans took the initiative, as in the circumstances they were forced to do. The Norman infantry opened the attack with ‘missiles’. One would expect the archers to be engaged at this point, but Poitiers does not specifically mention them, though they are shown at the start of the fighting on the Tapestry. The cavalry followed in.

The Tapestry has a vivid picture of the shield-wall resisting the first impact, spears above the English heads, one man with a small hand axe, one with a two-handed battle axe.45 A single diminutive archer appears beside the English, perhaps to represent a small force on the flank. The gap in the stitching to represent the ground might suggest a ditch in front of the English line, into which tumble the first victims of the conflict.

At this point in the Tapestry, the shield-wall is first shown facing left, and then directly right. This surely shows us the technique of the artist in order to continue the flow of the narrative and does not stand for two shield-walls facing in opposite directions. This method of depiction should be noted for a later discussion. The English hurled back their own missiles, chiefly spears. The advancing Normans were faced with the front-line axemen and others wielding a type of club.

This first impact showed that William could not expect an easy victory. The English line held firmly and there was no breakthrough. William had clearly hoped that this infantry onslaught would make gaps for his cavalry to exploit, but when the latter now advanced they found a solid line, the poetically named shield-wall, with spears and axes able to injure the horses. Poitiers describes them keeping in close position, side by side in the line. The slope was doing its job. Horses could not gallop fast up a steep slope and a cavalry charge lost much of its impact.

I was present on the occasion when Ian Peirce and Allen Brown, dressed in Norman armour made by the former, rode up the slope to test the difficulty. The back garden of Pyke House is the only area on the main section of Battle Hill to retain its open grassy nature. Whether the two riders were charging up the actual hill of 1066 we shall not reconsider. To charge up any similar steep slope would make the point.

The experiment showed how well medieval cavalry needed to be trained. Professor Brown was almost pierced accidentally by his comrade’s lance, and his horse bolted through the assembled ‘Saxons’ until, like Don Quixote, he was charging rather worryingly straight towards the brick walls of Pyke House. Later, his steed bolted down the hill, where Allen managed to guide it through a narrow gate which was an obstacle the Normans did not have to contend with. Ian and Allen’s horses were not trained destriers, and although Allen had been in the cavalry, he had not ridden for some years. The experiment was therefore not totally authentic, but does not detract from its interest. The main lesson was how difficult it is on such a slope to gain much speed for a charge.

The Tapestry has vivid depictions of the action, axe against horse, falling men, bodies littering the lower margin, sometimes sliced off heads.46 At one point, horses are shown at the foot of the hill, falling heavily into what appears to be water or possibly marsh. It is here that the supposed ‘hillock’ appears. Recalling a previous comment, this surely again is the artist simply showing the main hill of the battle in two views, as with the shield-wall, so that the action may continue. In which case, we do not need to search the ground for isolated hillocks.

The height of their position helped the English to deal out blows with an advantage as the enemy came within distance for close combat. ‘The noise of the shouting from the Normans on one side and the barbarians on the other could barely be heard over the clash of weapons and the groans of the dying.’ Poitiers says that the English with their weapons, presumably the axes in particular, were able to slice through shields and armour.

The English held off the Normans with swords; the first attack was halted and petered out. Poitiers says ‘they began to drive them back’, which surely implies some English movement forward. We should not view the shield-wall as an immobile force, as some historians have. It was quite capable of forward movement and advance; how otherwise could battles ever have been won, how was Stamford Bridge won?

Hastings was relatively static because the English knew that the height gave them advantage and the slope acted against cavalry, but they would look for a moment to advance to victory. Clearly the English advanced a good distance, because Poitiers says that even the Norman spearmen, operating at a distance, now came under attack and were wounded. The result was a flight of the Norman infantry, and of the Bretons and other cavalry on the Norman left: ‘Almost the whole of Duke William’s battle line fell back.’

The first phase ended in English triumph. Not only had the infantry been driven back and some of the cavalry forced into flight, but there was now a rumour that Duke William had been killed. This does indeed suggest that the whole Norman line was in trouble. How otherwise could it be believed that William, in the centre of the line, had been brought down?

THE SECOND PHASE OF THE BATTLE

This was the crisis point for William. His troops were in disarray. The beginnings of a flight can very easily turn into broader panic. The rumour of his death could have been cause enough for a general flight.

The relative numbers of the armies have inspired thousands of words of print, mostly as we have suggested before, likely to be unprofitable in any except a very general sense. William of Poitiers, our best account, says that the English had a numerical advantage, but then he was biased. Again the unreliable Wace has a credible comment. He says that in his day many have explained the defeat by saying that Harold had a small force, but others say, ‘and so do I, that he and the duke had man for man’, and adds that William had more knights and more archers.47

I have been present at more than one reconstruction of the battle, again on the Battle site, of course. It does bring home something of the problem of deploying men and fighting over difficult, uneven and hilly ground. It also demonstrates the problem of fighting for long periods with heavy weapons and in armour. No medieval battle could have been fought hour after hour without lengthy breaks for the individual soldiers, and probably for the whole armies.

Almost the whole line of Duke William fell back … even the armies of glorious Rome, which won so many victories on land and sea, sometimes turned in flight, though supported by loyal troops, when they learned that their leader was killed, or thought that he was dead. The Normans believed that their duke had fallen.

The Normans were close to defeat. Even Poitiers admits to a flight. Only the commanders stood between them and the loss of the battle. William and his fellow leaders, Odo of Bayeux and Eustace of Boulogne among them, now showed their worth. No one man could have done it, the troops would simply have gone. Bishop Odo is shown on the Tapestry urging on his young men, waving his baton for attention rather than as a weapon.48

William tried to stand in the way but was failing. He had to rip off his helmet and show his face, the scene is vividly shown on the Bayeux Tapestry, right hand pushing the helmet back by its nasal, incidentally revealing that the headpiece of the hauberk covered the top of his head.49 Like Odo, William is carrying a baton, a sign of command rather than a weapon. A rider next to him points at the duke, clearly saying that he is living. ‘“Look at me”, he shouted. “I am still alive. With God’s help I shall win. What madness makes you turn in flight? What retreat do you have if you flee? … if you keep going not a single one of you will escape. ”’ In the Carmen, William’s speech at this desperate moment went on for some nine lines of text.50

William himself rode forward, and it worked, they followed him, ‘taking new courage from his words’. He raised his sword and charged into the enemy. They then turned on the men ‘who had pursued them and wiped them out’. The chronicler says that the Conqueror ‘led his forces with great skill, holding them when they turned in flight, giving them courage, sharing their danger. He was more often heard shouting to them to follow him than ordering them to go ahead of him.’

In the fighting which followed, the duke had three horses killed under him, each time finding a new mount and continuing to fight. Poitiers says that, each time, William killed the man who had brought down his horse, and showed his own physical strength, fighting with his sword and on occasion with his shield. Wace has an unverifiable incident with an English wrestler using an axe, who struck the duke ‘on the head, and beat in his helmet, though without doing much injury’!51

In the account of William of Poitiers, the first flight was a real one, but it was turned to advantage by the action of the Conqueror. This rings true. According to the chronicler, already by this point, the attack following on the reverse, the English line began to falter for the first time. This is important, because it explains Harold’s failure or inability to counter-attack from here on. Poitiers says ‘gaps began to appear in their ranks here and there, where the iron weapons of our brave soldiers were having their effect’. The chronicler records an individual act of valour at this point, when Robert fitz Roger de Beaumont led a battalion to the attack on the right wing. It was his first battle, and he ‘laid about him with great courage’.

It was only now that William of Poitiers describes a feigned flight occurring. He says: ‘they therefore withdrew, deliberately pretending to turn in flight. They were mindful of the fact that only a short time before their retreat had been turned into success.’ The English saw victory in their grasp and, says Poitiers, a thousand of them pursued the retreating Normans. Then ‘suddenly the Normans turned their horses, cut off the force which was pursuing them, made a complete circle around them, and massacred them to the last man’.

This tactic of the feigned flight has caused much debate. Many historians have believed it impossible. Lt.-Col.Lemmon wrote ‘a “feigned retreat” was the recognised method by which chroniclers concealed the fact that the troops on their own side had run away’, and thought the tactic ‘impossible’.52 But Poitiers does not disguise the first genuine flight, and does still describe feigned retreats.

The reasons of those who cannot accept the tactic have been those of ‘common sense’. They contend that it was a tactic beyond the capabilities of eleventh-century cavalry. For some reason, most of them assume that the whole Norman line was supposed to have turned at once. It is true that Poitiers’ account very much suggests that the first flight was genuine, and its outcome fortuitous, but he and others described feigned retreat tactics as well. It is also true that Poitiers says a thousand followed, but this is probably exaggeration unless it denoted not the single feigned flight but an English decision for a general advance. There is no reason to suppose that all the Norman cavalry used the tactic at once. We do not believe that they used a concerted charge with lances. They operated rather in smaller groups together. What one needs to see is a group of ten, twenty or fifty knights deciding on the manoeuvre.

We have pointed out in a previous chapter that feigned flights were a common ploy before 1066, and were used by the Normans on several occasions elsewhere. The historians who declare them impossible are flying in the face of the evidence; virtually all the chroniclers who go into detail include the tactic.53 If we follow Poitiers, there seems no serious reason to discount the feigned flights. The first occasion was accidental, from then on they used the tactic once or twice deliberately and with some success. Some English were drawn off from the defensive position, and killed. If we consider this done by discrete sections of the Norman force, then obviously the English would lose men but not be annihilated, which is what happened.

One argument against the tactic is that it makes the fleeing force vulnerable, with backs to the enemy. The comment of the Carmen is interesting on this, suggesting a normal action in such a tactic. The writer says that, as they fled, ‘shields covered their backs’; the straps of the shields of the mounted men would have allowed this.54 The Normans had some success, there were gaps in the English line, but it still held as the rear ranks filled in for the dead and wounded. Poitiers says ‘twice the Normans used this ruse with equal success’, but the English line ‘was still terrifying to behold’, and the Normans ‘had great difficulty in containing it’. This suggests that still there was that thin line between an English counter-attack and a deliberate drawing off by feigned flight. The feigned flights could very easily have turned into real ones.

William of Poitiers then describes a series of cavalry charges against the English line, which gradually wore down the English without breaking it. The English had by this time suffered heavy losses. There was another breathing space while each side licked its wounds. William, if not desperate, knew that daylight hours were running out. He needed a victory even more than Harold. He began to regroup for a final push.

THE THIRD PHASE

Part of the fascination of the battle of Hastings is that it was such a close-fought thing. For all that the Normans had mounted cavalry and a stronger force of archers, for all that forces which relied on heavy infantry alone were to go out of fashion, these two very different armies had fought almost the whole day and the outcome was not by any means certain. The hill had blunted the impact of the cavalry and had made it more difficult for archers to shoot with effect. The shield-wall manned by heavy infantry, well armed and well disciplined, proved a match for the Norman cavalry as well as their infantry.

With hindsight we see the key moments. The repeated feigned flights had resulted in some deaths and gaps; the repeated cavalry attacks had gradually reduced the shield-wall. But now came the two killer punches. At some point, probably before Harold’s death, his two younger brothers who had fought alongside him, Leofwin and Gyrth, were killed. William of Poitiers simply makes a statement that many English leaders were killed: ‘their king was dead and his brothers with him’.

The death of the younger brothers is presented on the Tapestry at an early point in the battle, before William has shown his face: both killed by lances, Leofwin probably the figure wielding a battleaxe, Gyrth a spear.55 Recently, it has been suggested that they may have fallen in an English advance. There very probably was such an attempt to win the battle, but there is no evidence of who was involved in it, or even what happened, except that clearly in the last resort it failed.56 Again the elaboration by the Carmendoes not carry conviction, with William killing Gyrth in hand-to-hand conflict while on foot.57 No one else noticed that either.

The first killer punch was the death of Harold. The fact that his brothers had also been killed meant that the English lacked a commander. Before we look at the method of Harold’s demise, let us briefly determine at what stage in the battle it occurred. All sources except one suggest or fit with a death towards the end of the battle, including our best source, Poitiers. The fly in the ointment is William of Jumièges, who states: ‘Harold himself was slain, pierced with mortal wounds during the first assault.’58

There is no getting round the meaning of the words, but we cannot take this one comment against the weight of all the other evidence, though at least one later source does follow Jumièges. Suggestions have been made that the chronicler originally said something else, such as ‘in the first rank’, and there is a copyist’s error, or that he meant ‘the first attack in the final assault’ – all the usual excuses when evidence does not fit. We can only say that Jumièges seems to have got this wrong, but his is a brief account, which goes straight on to the final stages of the fight and says that it was the death which led to the flight at nightfall.

William’s last effort was an all-out one, involving every section of his force. We have seen that the Normans had both crossbowmen and archers with ordinary bows, and have argued elsewhere that the latter were in effect longbows. The events which now occurred help to support that argument, since the archery from some distance had the desired effect. William of Poitiers does not say much about this attack, just that ‘the Normans shot arrows, hit and pierced the enemy’.59 But the Tapestry at this point in the margin shows one archer after the other in a prolonged frieze aiming their weapons upwards: nineteen figures without a break, and then more a little further on.60

I have also argued elsewhere against the idea that the arrows were shot high up into the air to come down again on the English heads, largely because it would have been ineffective, the arrows would have lost their force. This does not mean that they would not adjust their shooting to cope with the higher position of the enemy.61 Some of the English on the Tapestry catch the arrows in their shields, clearly shot with force since they become embedded. Harold was not the only one to suffer; a nameless Norman falls to the ground with an arrow in his head. For the first time the English line was seriously weakened, and some of the main front-line troops were killed, including Harold himself.

Some, generally more ‘popular’ works, still repeat the old chestnut that Harold was not killed by an arrow in the eye. This was an idea that stemmed from historians criticising the evidence. A number of late sources spoke of Harold being cut down with swords; the early works did not describe at all the manner of his death.62 Our conclusions depend largely on how we interpret two sources in particular.

The first to consider is the Carmen. Those who accept its account have no arrow in the eye. But it is surely an incredible account, which none of the early sources confirm in any way. By it, the duke sees Harold fighting bravely. He summons to himself a little gang of three, like the magnificent seven: Eustace of Boulogne, whose actions are cowardly in other sources; Hugh the heir of Ponthieu, who is otherwise unknown and who did not succeed to Ponthieu; and ‘Gilfardus’, who is usually identified as Walter Giffard, he of the white hair and bald head according to Wace, another identification which has caused some problems.

The four, including the Conqueror, attack Harold: the first (none are named in this section of the poem) cleaves through his shield with a sword, drawing blood; the second smites off his head; the third pierces his belly with a lance; the fourth hacks off his leg and carries it away. There was then a ‘rumour’ that Harold was dead. Presumably after all that he was.

William of Malmesbury, possibly following the Tapestry, does have an unnamed knight maiming Harold after he was killed by an arrow; the knight in question is disgraced by the Conqueror for this deed, but this does not support the Carmen version in which William himself was one of the four attackers. This incident in the poem really does seem more incredible than any of its other incredible stories. Can one believe that William himself took part in the killing of Harold and no one else apart from the poet recorded the fact? Davis is surely right that this is a later legendary elaboration. It seems unlikely that the Conqueror took any part at all in Harold’s killing. He could not even recognise him after the battle without help.63

The second and the most important source here is the Bayeux Tapestry.64 The anti-arrow school argued that the figure dying with an arrow in the eye or head was not Harold. The following figure, under the words ‘interfectus est’ [was killed], is Harold, being hacked down by a rider with his sword. Again, this cannot be verified. But knowledge of the Tapestry’s way of pointing out its facts would suggest that the lettering of the name ‘Harold’ above and around the first figure was meant to show that this was the king. A number of people have argued that both figures are Harold and it is a sort of cartoon strip representation of him being first hit by an arrow and secondly being finished off by a cavalryman.65

This view has been enhanced by the keen eye of a modern historian, David Bernstein. In a paper given to the Anglo-Norman Studies conference, he pointed out that if one looks carefully at the Tapestry, there are visible stitch marks by the head of the second figure; and the obvious interpretation is that they originally represented the shaft of an arrow in the eye of the second, falling figure too.66

This seems to settle the issue. In the view of the Tapestry at least, Harold Godwinson was hit by an arrow in the head, whether either or both of the figures were meant to be the king. The likely view is that both are Harold. Some later chroniclers give such an account: they may have followed the Tapestry, but even if their facts were not independent, at least they believed the Tapestry meant both figures to be Harold and that he was hit by an arrow.67

The archery had achieved the first major blow of the battle, and one that was fatal to English hopes as well as to their king. The loss of a commander in a medieval battle was very rarely followed by anything but defeat for the side which suffered the loss, and Hastings was no exception. If the English fought on it was from training and discipline, and because the best hope of survival was to slog out the final minutes of daylight and hope to retreat under cover of dark. They did not manage it.

Wace, for all our doubts, is a useful source for quotes, partly because his military knowledge was good even if his particular knowledge of Hastings was less so. He speaks of the lengthy battle, suggesting that the crisis came at about 3 p.m., after a long day when ‘the battle was up and down, this way and that’.68 William of Poitiers says that the remaining English were exhausted and at the end of their tether, which is not difficult to believe.

The Normans began to sense victory: ‘the longer they fought the stronger they seemed to be; and their onslaught was even fiercer now than it had been at the beginning’. The duke fought in their midst, sparing none who crossed his path. In other words, after the infantry attack the cavalry made a final charge, and this time it worked. The shield-wall, which had withstood such a battering all day, finally broke and once that had happened there was no hope.

The English forces broke and fled. The Tapestry’s final scene shows a miscellaneous band of Normans in pursuit, three wielding swords, one a spear and one carrying a bow ready to shoot.69 A small and rather forlorn group of Englishmen are the last figures to survive on the Tapestry, some on horses, some on foot. One may have an arrow in his head, since the context does not seem to fit with him raising a spear. In the lower margin by this point the bodies have been stripped of their armour and lie naked, some without heads, one with a severed arm. The only hope of survival for those who remained was to reach the cover of the woods to the rear. Some ran on foot, some were able to ride. According to Poitiers this was on ‘horses which they had seized’ rather than their own, though there is no reason why others were not able to reclaim the mounts they had left behind earlier in the day. Poitiers says they went by roads and by places where there were none. Many, of course, were wounded and escape was difficult or impossible. ‘Many died where they fell in the deep cover of the woods’, others dropped exhausted along the way. There was a Norman pursuit. Some were cut down from behind, some were trampled under the horses’ hoofs.

We shall again rely primarily on William of Poitiers for an account of the Malfosse incident. He does not give it a name or a clear location, though he describes the natural feature. In Poitiers, it clearly happens after the English had broken in flight.70 He has no tale of a hillock in the middle of the battlefield. According to him, there was a last ditch defence made by a considerable force of English. They had taken up a good defensive position which the Normans approached during the pursuit.71

The reason this is called the Malfosse incident is that our old friend the Battle Abbey chronicler identified it as such. His modern editor queries what is meant, and suggests that it is possible that the name came later. Malfosse means ‘evil ditch’. It could have been named for a variety of reasons: a description of its nature, a burial ditch. Everyone has assumed it was the site of this last resistance, and that is possible – but not certain.

Orderic Vitalis has two versions of the incident. The first is an interpolation in William of Jumièges. He also places the incident during the pursuit.72 In this account, the event could have occurred anywhere as he speaks of a pursuit that continued into Sunday, and an incident that was on ‘the following night’ – though he probably means Saturday night. He wrote: ‘for high grass concealed an ancient rampart’ into which ‘abyss of destruction’ the Normans rode ‘crushing each other to death’. He says 15,000 died here, a figure we need not take seriously. Orderic’s second account, in Ecclesiastical History, is similar, though the feature becomes a ‘broken rampart and labyrinth of ditches’, and the victim Engenulf de Laigle is named. This revised account also makes it clear that he is speaking of Saturday night for the incident.73

The Battle Abbey chronicler gives more space to the Malfosse incident than to the rest of the battle, which is very odd and seems to require some explanation. It does not add to our confidence in him. He seems to have picked up some vivid tale, perhaps from local gossip, and tied it in with an account of the battle which is brief and largely uninformative. He says:

… a final disaster was revealed to all. Lamentable, just where the fighting was going on, and stretching for a considerable distance, an immense ditch yawned. It may have been a natural cleft in the earth or perhaps it had been hollowed out by storms. But in this waste ground it was overgrown with brambles and thistles, and could hardly be seen in time; and it swallowed great numbers, especially of Normans in pursuit of the English.

He says that they galloped unawares into the chasm and were killed: ‘This deep pit has been named for the accident, and today it is called Malfosse.’74 What we seem to have here is an original incident after the battle recorded by Poitiers, turned into something different in a rather confused manner by Orderic, and then a century after the event latched on to by the Battle Abbey chronicler for a local site, though he does not tell us where it is.

It seems ironic that the source which claims Battle Hill for the site of the battle is the one which also says the Malfosse was ‘just where the battle was going on’. The Malfosse has been identified on the ground with reasonable certainty, and is just to the rear of Caldbec Hill, exactly where one might expect a last ditch resistance after the army had been forced to leave its first line of defence on the hill.75 It is quite a way back from Battle Hill – though it could be a last ditch defence after flight from there.

The identification of the site depends primarily on a series of medieval records, including several thirteenth-century charters which refer clearly to the same name as ‘Maufosse’. It is to be placed to the north of Caldbec Hill, behind Virgin’s Lane and very close to the pool (which might be Senlac). Here, 600 yards north of Caldbec Hill, is to be found the natural feature known as Oakwood Gill, which is the natural feature most close to the chronicle descriptions: with a gully which Chevallier calls ‘a deep ravine’, with steep banks, brambles and undergrowth, a stream, just on the edge of Duniford Wood.76

The Conqueror was surprised to find this defended position, and wondered if these were reinforcements, which is possible. It may also have been a deliberate English plan to give some cover in the case of a retreat. At any rate, Poitiers says there were ‘battalions’ of men, making use of ‘a deep gully and a series of ditches’. Eustace of Boulogne with fifty knights was intending to return, in Orderic it is in flight, preferring not to attack this tough position.77 The Conqueror ordered him forward, but at that moment Eustace was hit between the shoulders, the blood spurted from nose and mouth. The Conqueror himself led an attack and the last resistance was crushed. William then returned to the battlefield. The day was his. One of the greatest battles in the history of England had come to its conclusion.

Notes

  1.  William of Malmesbury, ed. Stubbs, ii, p. 300; translation from William of Malmesbury, ed. Giles, p. 274; Wace, ed. Holden, ii, p. 128, ll. 6573–90; Brown, The Normans and the Norman Conquest, p. 133 and n. 61.

  2.  Bennett, ‘Wace and warfare’, pp. 238–9; Wace, ed. Holden, ii, ll. 6483–8: ‘saillir fors e nes deschargier,/ ancres jeter, cordes sachier,/ escuz e seles fors porter,/ destriers e palefreiz tirer./ Li archier sunt primes issu,/ al terrain sunt primes venu’.

  3.  A. Williams, ‘Land and power in the eleventh century: the estates of Harold Godwineson’, ANS, iii, 1981.

  4Bayeux Tapestry, pl. 49–50.

  5Bayeux Tapestry, pl. 43–8.

  6.  J. Gillingham, ‘William the Bastard at war’ in RAB, pp. 141–58, reprinted in Strickland (ed.), Anglo-Norman Warfare, pp. 143–60, especially pp. 146–7, points out that there were long periods when William avoided battles; pp. 157–58 on the Breton campaign.

  7Bayeux Tapestry, pl. 50; Thorpe (ed.), The Bayeux Tapestry, p. 47; William of Poitiers, ed. Foreville, p. 180.

  8Bayeux Tapestry, pl. 50.

  &9.  John of Worcester, eds Darlington and McGurk, p. 604; Wace, ed. Taylor, p. 173; Wace, ed. Holden, ii, p. 173, ll. 7743–4: ‘Daneis les orent damagiez/ e Tosti les out empeiriez’.

10.  William of Poitiers, ed. Foreville, p. 186.

11.  Orderic Vitalis, ed. Chibnall, ii, p. 172.

12Bayeux Tapestry, pl. 61–2.

13.  William of Jumièges, ed. van Houts, ii, p. 168.

14.  J. Bradbury, ‘Battles in England and Normandy, 1066–1154’, ANS, vi, 1983, pp. 1–12, p. 4.

15.  Wace, ed. Taylor, p. 255, at least has the goodness to admit: ‘I was not there to see’; Wace, ed. Holden, ii, p. 215, ll. 8851–2.

16.  R.A. Brown, ‘The Battle of Hastings’, ANS, iii, 1980, pp. 1–21; reprinted in M. Strickland (ed.), Anglo-Norman Warfare, Woodbridge, 1992, pp. 161–81, p. 163

17Chronicle of Battle Abbey, ed. Searle, pp. 4–5, where the editor shows that early claims for the abbey depend partly on forged charters, pp. 15–16, that the Malfosse information is not solid, and, pp. 17–23, that the vow to build the abbey is dubious.

18Chronicle of Battle Abbey, ed. Searle, pp. 42–6.

19.  Some later ones did, notably Wace, ed. Taylor, p. 143: Harold erected his gonfanon ‘where the abbey of the battle is now built’, but also adds that he had it surrounded by a ditch with an entrance on three sides; Wace, ed. Holden, ii, p. 142, ll. 6964–6: ou l’abeïe/ de la Bataille est establie’.

20.  C. Plummer (ed.), Two of the Saxon Chronicles Parallel, 2 vols, Oxford, 1892, i., p. 199; Whitelock et al. (eds), Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, D, p. 143; cf. G.P. Cubbin (ed.), The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, vi, Cambridge, 1996, p. 80: and ‘com him togenes æt ¬ære haran apuldran’.

21.  I am aware that R.A. Brown thought otherwise, ‘Hastings’ in Strickland (ed.), Anglo-Norman Warfare, p. 169: ‘Harold cannot possibly have selected the place of battle well in advance’. One is hesitant to quote Wace, ed. Taylor, p. 174, in support of anything, but his comment is interesting: Harold placing his men where he knew the Normans ‘would come and attack him’; Wace, ed. Holden, ii, p. 173, ll. 7745–6.

22Carmen, eds Morton and Muntz, p. 24.

23.  Orderic Vitalis, ed. Chibnall, ii, p. 172: ‘ad locum qui Senlac antiquitus uocabatur’. Freeman chose to call it the battle of Senlac because it was not actually fought at Hastings, which J.H. Round rubbished, Feudal England, London, 1895, reset reprint 1964, pp. 259–63.

24Bayeux Tapestry, pl. 52.

25Bayeux Tapestry, pl. 66–7.

26.  On the Malfosse see C.T. Chevallier, ‘Where was the Malfosse? the end of the battle of Hastings’, SAC, 101, 1963, pp. 1–13, which outlines earlier ideas too.

27.  Ian Peirce tells a good tale that his father found some buried remains which turned to dust, but agrees this is somewhat uncertain evidence, though I am sure he would dispute changing the location.

28.  Round, Feudal England, p. 261, points out that Domesday Book refers to the abbey as ‘de loco belli’; it is also in Domesday called the abbey of ‘Labatailge’.

29Bayeux Tapestry, pl. 71; William of Poitiers, ed. Foreville, p. 224; William of Malmesbury, ed. Stubbs, ii, p. 302.

30.  Wace, ed. Holden, ii, p. 175, ll. 7793–800; Wace, ed. Taylor, p. 176. Freeman, History of the Norman Conquest, 1873, iii, p. 443; Round, Feudal England, pp. 258–305, esp. pp. 264–73; 307–8. Wace has a ditch around the position of the standard at the assembly point: a great fosse with three entrances, and on the morning of battle he has Harold and Gyrth on warhorses emerging from entrenchments, Wace, ed. Taylor, p. 143; Wace, ed. Holden, ii, p. 143, ll. 6969–72. There is often a suspicion of muddle between chronicle references to ramparts and some more solid construction in the minds of historians. As recently as 1996, Wright, Hastings, seems still to accept the palisade, though wondering about the length of time for construction, p. 78; Bradbury, Medieval Archer, p. 28.

31.  Wace, ed. Taylor, p. 175; Wace, ed. Holden, ii, pp. 173–4, ll. 7767–8.

32.  The quotations use either my own translations, or that from Thorpe (ed.), The Bayeux Tapestry, pp. 32–55. William of Poitiers, ed. Foreville, the battle account is pp. 186–204, only key quotations will be footnoted separately.

33.  John of Worcester, eds Darlington and McGurk, p. 604, though trust is destroyed by the fact that he gets the date wrong.

34.  Orderic Vitalis, ed. Chibnall, ii, p. 172.

35.  William of Malmesbury, ed. Giles, p. 276; William of Malmesbury, ed. Stubbs, ii, p. 302; Wace, ed. Taylor, pp. 155–6; Wace, ed. Holden, ii, pp. 156–7, with slight variant spellings, e.g. ‘drincheheil’. This passage could illustrate Round’s contention that Wace borrowed information on Hastings from Malmesbury.

36.  William of Jumièges, ed. van Houts, p. 168.

37.  William of Malmesbury, ed. Giles, p. 277; William of Malmesbury, ed. Stubbs, ii, p. 302.

38.  William of Poitiers, ed. Foreville, p. 184; Carmen, eds Morton and Muntz, has crossbowmen too. John of Worcester, eds Darlington and McGurk, p. 604, adds slingers to the Norman infantry.

39.  Whitelock et al. (eds), Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, D, p. 143; Cubbins (ed.), Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, p. 80: ‘Wyllelm him com ongean on unwear, ær his folc gefylced wære’.

40.  Whitelock et al. (eds), Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, D, p. 143; Cubbin (ed.), Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, p. 80; John of Worcester, eds Darlington and McGurk, p. 604: many left the battle line and the few with constant hearts stayed.

41Carmen, eds Morton and Muntz, p. 24; Chronicle of Battle Abbey, ed. Searle, p. 38: the English ‘on foot’; William of Malmesbury, ed. Giles, p. 276: ‘all were on foot’; William of Malmesbury, ed. Stubbs, ii, p. 302; Wace, ed. Taylor, p. 238: ‘the English knew not how to joust nor bear arms on horseback’; Wace, ed. Holden, ii, p. 206,ll. 8603–4: ‘Engleis ne saveient joster/ ne a cheval armes porter’.

42.  Wace, ed. Taylor, p. 183, his brother Gyrth answers: ‘he is a fool who believes in luck’; p. 191, the battle cries: ‘Dex aie’ and ‘Ut’; Wace, ed. Holden, ii, p. 179, l. 7923: ‘"Fols est", dist Guert, "qui en sort creit"’; p. 184, ll. 8057–8: ‘Normant escrient "Deus aïe!"/La gent englesche "Ut!" escrie’; William of Jumièges, ed. van Houts, p. 168.

43.  Orderic Vitalis, ed. Chibnall, ii, p. 174; Carmen, eds Morton and Muntz, pp. 22–6. Baudri de Bourgueil, Oeuvres Poétiques, ed. P. Abrahams, Paris, 1926, p. 197, l. 409, also has crossbows: ‘atque balistis’.

44Bayeux Tapestry, pl. 57–61,

45Bayeux Tapestry, pl. 61–2.

46Bayeux Tapestry, pl. 64–7.

47.  Wace, ed. Taylor, pp. 175–6; Wace, ed. Holden, ii, p. 174, ll. 7784–5.

48Bayeux Tapestry, pl. 67.

49Bayeux Tapestry, pl. 68.

50Carmen, eds Morton and Muntz, p. 30.

51.  Wace, ed. Taylor, p. 249; Wace, ed. Holden, ii, p. 210, ll. 8717–26.

52.  Lemmon, ‘ Campaign’, p. 109; others to doubt the flight include Glover, ‘English warfare’, p. 12; Wright, Hastings, p. 93: ‘extremely unlikely’.

53.  Apart from Poitiers, the feigned flight appears in Orderic Vitalis, ed. Chibnall, ii, p. 174, who recognises it as a ‘hazardous stratagem’; Carmen, eds Morton and Muntz, p. 28; Chronicle of Battle Abbey, ed. Searle, p. 38; William of Malmesbury, ed. Giles, pp. 276–7; William of Malmesbury, ed. Stubbs, ii, p. 303; Baudri de Bourgueil, ed. Abrahams, p. 208; Wace, ed. Taylor, pp. 198–200: the Normans call ‘Dex aie’ as the signal to stop and turn, and ‘like fools they broke their line’; Wace, ed. Holden, ii, pp. 189–92. See also B. Bachrach, ‘The feigned retreat at Hastings’, Medieval Studies, xxxiii, pp. 344–7.

54Carmen, eds Morton and Muntz, p. 28.

55Bayeux Tapestry, pl. 64.

56.  S. Morillo, ‘Hastings: an unusual battle’, in S. Morillo (ed.), The Battle of Hastings, Sources and Interpretations, Woodbridge, 1996, pp. 220–30, p. 224.

57Carmen, eds Morton and Muntz, p. 30.

58.  William of Jumièges, ed. van Houts, p. 168: ‘Heroldus etiam ipse in primo militum congressu occubuit uulneribus letaliter confossus’; is followed by Orderic Vitalis, ed. Chibnall, ii, p. 176; F.H. Baring, Domesday Tables for the Counties of Surrey, Berkshire, Middlesex, Hertford, Buckingham and Bedford and the New Forest, London, 1909, p. 220, suggests progressu for congressu, but this is speculation.

59.  William of Poitiers, ed. Foreville, p. 194.

60Bayeux Tapestry, pl. 68–70.

61.  Bradbury, Medieval Archer, p. 26. The idea of shooting high comes from later sources: Henry of Huntingdon, ed. Greenway, p. 394, and Wace, ed. Holden, ii, pp. 188–9, ll. 8145–59, 8161–4; Wace, ed. Taylor, p. 197: they ‘shot their arrows upwards into the air’, and is still accepted by Wright, Hastings, p. 97.

62Chronicle of Battle Abbey, ed. Searle, p. 38: ‘their king was laid low by a chance blow’.

63Carmen, eds Morton and Muntz, pp. 34–6,116–20, appendix D, where the identification of the four is discussed. The editors’ belief that the heir of Ponthieu in the source is called Hugh is accepted, though others have differed. William of Malmesbury, ed. Stubbs, ii, p. 303; Wace, ed. Taylor, p. 169; Wace, ed. Holden, ii, p. 167, l. 7605: ‘Veez mon chief blanc e chanu’.

64Bayeux Tapestry, pl. 71.

65Bayeux Tapestry; Wace, ed. Taylor, p. 198; Wace, ed. Holden, ii, p. 189,ll. 8161–8, is one source who follows this: an arrow ‘struck Harold above his right eye, and put it out’, though he survived to pull it out. He says that ‘an arrow was well shot’ became a saying among the English to the French; and ed. Taylor, pp. 252–4; ed. Holden, pp. 213–14: ‘sorely wounded in his eye by the arrow’, after which an armed man beat him down and cut through his thigh. He also says the duke struck him, but that he may already have been dead: ‘I know not who it was who slew him’. A strong point which Brooks and Walker, ‘Authority and interpretation’, p. 32, make is that the standard bearer is also shown twice: standing and falling.

66.  D. Bernstein, ‘The blinding of Harold and the meaning of the Bayeux Tapestry’, ANS, v, 1982, pp. 40–64.

67.  William of Malmesbury, ed. Giles, p. 277: Harold ‘fell from having his brain pierced by an arrow’; William of Malmesbury, ed. Stubbs, ii, p. 303; Baudri de Bourgueil, ed. Abrahams, p. 209, l. 463, an arrow from the sky: ‘perforat Hairaldum’.

68.  Wace, ed. Taylor, p. 197; Wace, ed. Holden, ii, p. 187, l. 8132: ‘fu si deça, fu si dela’.

69Bayeux Tapestry, pl. 72–3.

70.  William of Malmesbury, ed. Giles, p. 277; William of Malmesbury, ed. Stubbs, ii, p. 303, has the incident in the middle of the battle, but his account is dependent on other sources and this seems to be an error; Wace, ed. Taylor, pp. 193–4; Wace, ed. Holden, ii, pp. 185–6, who may have been following Malmesbury, speaks of a fosse in the middle of the battlefield, which the Normans crossed and then fell back into; he also, ed. Taylor, p. 255, ed. Holden, pp. 215–16, has English during flight falling into water when a bridge breaks, but this seems to be when entering London.

71.  R.A. Brown, ‘Hastings’ in Strickland (ed.), Anglo-Norman Warfare, p. 180, suggests that the Malfosse legend may have grown from an incident during the battle, associated with the ‘hillock’ on the Tapestry, possibly as a result of the feigned flights. We have preferred to stick with Poitiers, but do not discount the possibility of the legend growing by misuse of the earlier sources. Incidentally, the mid-battle incident, with a site of ditches and so on, would fit better with Caldbec than Battle.

72.  William of Jumièges, ed. van Houts, pp. 168–70: ‘sequenti nocti’.

73.  Orderic Vitalis, ed. Chibnall, ii, pp. 176–8; William of Malmesbury, ed. Giles, p. 277; William of Malmesbury, ed. Stubbs, ii, p. 303, has a deep ditch and a short passage, possibly meaning a causeway over the ditch.

74Chronicle of Battle Abbey, ed. Searle, pp. 38, 15–16.

75.  Lemmon, ‘Campaign’, p. 97; Chevallier, ‘Malfosse’, p. 3.

76.  Chevallier, ‘Malfosse’; Lemmon, ‘Campaign’, pp. 111–12.

77.  Orderic Vitalis, ed. Chibnall, ii, p. 178.

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