14 October 2014

The Battlefield: Hastings 1066

By Lisa J. Yarde

On a morning nine hundred and forty-eight years ago, a pivotal battle took place to decide the future of England, whether it would remain in the Anglo-Danish sphere of medieval politics or become aligned with the doctrines of the Catholic Church embraced by its continental neighbors. Two opposing armies met during the Battle of Hastings as those who survived the victor’s lifetime called it, one set of forces under the direction of the Anglo-Danish ruler Harold Godwinson and the other led by the invader, Duke William of Normandy. Each man believed so strongly in his right to rule England that he knew nothing short of the annihilation of his enemy would determine the country’s fate.

Resolve would not have been the only commonality between the proud commanders. Both men had Scandinavian origins, Harold being the great-nephew of King Sweyn Forkbeard of Denmark through his mother Gytha and William descended from Scandinavian raiders who had carved out the Norman duchy from northernmost France two centuries before the conflict at Hastings. Harold succeeded to the throne in January 1066 upon the death of his predecessor King Edward called the Confessor. He had commended his queen, Edith who was sister to Harold, and the country to his brother in-law. The rudimentary parliament of England, the witan confirmed Harold as king. William was a bastard, born of the Norman duke Robert and his mistress Herleva. William had survived against all odds, including assassination attempts, to rule Normandy from 1035. He believed in a spurious claim over England based on the promise of Edward the Confessor, with whom he shared blood ties through Edward’s mother Emma of Normandy.

Before I started writing On Falcon’s Wings years ago, the tale of Saxon and Norman lovers torn apart by the ambitions of Harold and William, I knew the significance the Battle of Hastings would have held in the development of the characters. Until I delved into research of the period, I never imagined how dramatic the events of that morning of October 14, 1066 would have been. Some scholars still debate the exact location of the battle, a good distance from the town of Hastings. The Anglo-Saxon chronicle referred to it as the battle at the ‘hoary (gray) apple tree’, the site where Harold’s army convened. A century later, the victors called the place Senlac, a form of the Old English Sandlacu, which referred to ‘sandy water’. In Norman French, Senlac meant ‘lake of blood’, an appropriate term for the aftermath of William and Harold’s warfare. How did it begin?

The root of the conflict between the English defenders and their Norman invaders arose from a claim William made, calling Harold an oath breaker. During Edward the Confessor’s rule, Normans held influence at his court; even the Archbishop of Canterbury Robert de Jumieges hailed from Normandy. As a result, there had been bad blood between Harold’s father Godwin and Edward the Confessor up to 15 years before the battle. Later, Godwin and his family went into exile. When they returned to court, reconciliation with the monarch meant the swift departure of Robert de Jumieges. He took with him Harold’s brother Wulfnoth, never fated to live as a free man in the place of his birth again, along with Harold’s nephew Haakon. Two years before the battle, Harold left England and ended up in Normandy. His motives remain unknown; I theorized in On Falcon’s Wings that he sought the freedom of Wulfnoth. Once handed over to William’s custody, Harold remained a guest of the Norman ducal court.

Was he a willing guest? No one will ever know, but William’s chroniclers claimed Edward had sent Harold to confirm William’s right to rule England. According to them, Harold swore an oath on holy relics and having later broken his oath by accepting kingship of England, William had no choice but to fight Harold for the crown. It is a lie in my opinion that also demonstrated sincere ignorance of the role of the witan in confirming England’s kings and dismissed other likely claimants. If Harold swore an oath, he made it under duress while trapped in Normandy. He would have effectively been giving claim to a foreigner in preference over another relevant claimant, Edgar the Aetheling, who although a six-year old child at the time, remained Edward’s closest living male relative. It seems an unlikely choice for Harold, who had proved himself in wars against the Welsh as a devoted patriot of his birth country.  

For a battle-hardened commander like William, the insult to his pride was enough to spur him into battle, but he also sought the blessing of Pope Alexander II, who provided the papal banner that William’s men carried. Warriors such as Roger de Beaumont, Robert de Mortain, Hugh de Montfort, and William de Warenne, even the duke’s half-brother Bishop Odo de Bayeux, received promises of great wealth and planned the invasion of England with William. The Normans sailed from St. Valery on the coast on September 27, 1066 across the English Channel and landed in Sussex at the market town of Pevensey a day later. They proceeded to steal and kill, ravaging the people of villages that would later be referred to in the annals as ‘laid waste’.

Harold was not idle during these events; he had just emerged three days earlier as the victor in a hard-fought battle at Stamford Bridge where his own brother Tostig supported the ambitions of King Harald Hardrada of Norway to rule England. The exhausted English swiftly went south to deal with the newest threat to their way of life, arriving at nightfall on October 13. Loyal members of Harold’s family remained at his side, including his nephew Haakon, whom he had succeeded in repatriating upon his departure from William’s court. Harold’s brothers Gyrth and Leofwine accompanied him, too. His brothers by marriage, the northern earls Edwin and Morcar were absent, claiming great losses against the Norwegians prior to Stamford Bridge at the Battle of Fulford on September 20.    

On the morning of October 14, 1066, the English and Norman forces met. Marshland and ditches, and sloping natural moors covered in thickets of gorse and trees would have surrounded the site. Harold pitched his banner, the dragon of Wessex at the ridge on Caldbec Hill. The English army gathered, largely composed of the fyrd, who gave yearly service to defend their country. The leaders of the fyrd would have been the earls and thegns, local lords who held lands and supported Harold. The elite fighting force would have been the huscarls assigned to Harold, Gyrth, and Leofwine, professional soldiers of Danish origins who had served in England for decades. Thegns and huscarls rode into battle, but like the fyrd, fought on foot. The armaments would have varied; spears, swords, arrows, and round shields for the thegns, but the huscarls like Harold’s man Skalpi, hefted the long Danish axe, known to scythe enemies. Clergy were present to bless the English army, including Abbott Aelfwig of Winchester, Harold’s uncle. The Normans had taken position in the south at Telham Hill in the hours after dawn and formed ranks in three divisions. They defended their bodies with coats of mail, and carried kite-shaped shields, swords, lances, and maces. Lower ranks included archers and even slingers. A conical helmet protected the heads of Norman warriors, with the strength of their forces remaining in the cavalry. Norman knights rode deep-chested, aggressive stallions called destriers into battle. Bishop Odo alongside Bishop Geoffrey of Coutances would have exhorted William’s men to have courage against Harold’s forces, claiming that God had abandoned the English because of Harold’s supposed treachery.

A mile separated William and Harold’s forces. From their natural defensive position, the English streamed out on the battlefield. Huscarls would have occupied the front lines, but also defended their king and his brothers, forming a shield wall. The Norman cavalry attacked, in part led by Roger de Beaumont’s sixteen year-old son Robert, who later received a knighthood for his exploits at Hastings. In a purposeful feint, the Normans tricked the English into pursuit before the Normans counter-attacked with their heavy cavalry. Just before midday, the two armies regrouped and the fighting began to overwhelm the English, who do not recognize the tactics of another feigned flight by cavalry. At some point Harold learned of the deaths of Leofwine and Gyrth. By midafternoon, arrows rained down upon England’s defenders who had lost ground and withdrawn up to Caldbec Hill. There Harold made his last stand with a company of huscarls, where he supposedly suffered an arrow wound to the eye in the shadow of his standard. The Normans gained the ridge and four of them hacked Harold to death alongside the last of his men. After sundown, the battle was over.

My summary can’t really do justice to the tragedy at Hastings or its aftermath. Not only did the last Anglo-Danish king of England die. His brothers, his uncle Aelfwig and many thegns and huscarls including Skalpi joined Harold in death. The Normans continued their devastating path to William’s claim of a conqueror’s crown. He spent the next several years destroying the country he had determined to rule, particularly in the area of York. He ordered the construction of Battle Abbey to commemorate his fight against Harold. Allegedly, William also held some regret upon his death in 1087 for his brutal actions against the English and their king. Cold comfort to those who suffered and died at Hastings.

After the battle, legends persisted of Harold’s survival or escape, as some of his huscarls had done when they left for the shores of Constantinople and service among its Varangian guard. In 2014, the search for Harold’s body at Waltham Abbey has resumed. His birthplace at a Bosham estate also fostered the idea of his burial there, within sight of the English Channel, particularly supported by the discovery in 2003 of a body lacking a head and portions of the limbs. Wherever Harold’s resting place may have been, the catastrophe of his brief reign and his people’s suffering under the Normans remains undeniable.          

1066: The Year of the Conquest by David Howarth
1066: The Battle of York, Stamford Bridge, and Hastings by Peter Marren
Anglo-Saxon Thegn AD 449-1066 by Mark Harrison
The Godwins by Frank Barlow
Norman Knight AD 950-1204 by Christopher Gravett

Images are licensed from Fotalia.com; include the re-enactment of the Battle of Hastings which takes place every year, Battle Abbey, and elements of the Bayeux Tapestry.

Lisa J. Yarde writes fiction inspired by the Middle Ages in Europe. She is the author of two historical novels set in medieval England and Normandy, The Burning Candle, based on the life of one of the first countesses of Leicester and Surrey, Isabel de Vermandois, and On Falcon's Wings, chronicling the star-crossed romance between Norman and Saxon lovers before the Battle of Hastings. Lisa has also written four novels in a six-part series set in Moorish Spain, Sultana, Sultana’s Legacy, Sultana: Two Sisters, and Sultana: The Bride Price where rivalries and ambitions threaten the fragile bonds between members of a powerful family. Her short story, The Legend Rises, which chronicles the Welsh princess Gwenllian of Gwynedd’s valiant fight against English invaders, is also available.