Archive for October, 2016

Hastings 950: Remembering the End of an Age

October 3, 2016

Over the summer holidays I visited Battle Abbey with my family. We also found our way to Pevensey Bay and Hastings during our trip to re-trace the footsteps of King Harold’s last stand against Norman invaders almost 950 years ago.

Pevensey was atmospheric and eery on an overcast morning with a steely glint on the waves and the slipping pebbles underfoot. We sat on the breakwater and imagined what it would have been like to sight ships on the horizon and dread what they would bring and where they might make landfall. We thought about the effort of unloading supplies and weapons and war horses on a beach like Pevensey and how difficult to would have been to get these up the shifting track ways of pebbles with the threat of an armed response from local defenders and of how treacherous the English channel has proven to be to would-be invaders through our history, made even more so by equinoctial gales and high autumn tides.

Of course, the actual topography has changed in the subsequent 950 years and the exact landing site is also open to debate, but this community was still directly effected by the first landfall of Norman troops, who immediately set out to scavenge and survey the locality.



Pevensey Bay with a Napoleanic defensive Martello Tower


William’s fleet had already suffered the effects of a storm were it lay at anchor at Dives on the Normandy coast and been reduced by perhaps 100 vessels before the wind changed and allowed him to cross the English Channel. Harold’s own fleet was also caught up in these storms as he moved it to London and there may have been a brief naval engagement between the two forces at this point which was alluded to in contemporary sources. (Peter Rex, 1066: A New History of the Norman Conquest, pp. 41-42)



William’s invasion fleet – estimates of around 700 -1000 ships set out for the conquest of England in September 1066


Hastings itself was reduced to the faintest ghost of a memory in the old castle ruins and talking to a local lady who believed that Harold’s mangled body might once have been laid to rest under a cairn of stones on the headland, like a latter day Beowulf, and subsequently washed out to sea during the great calamity of the West Cliff collapse of the C13th. This legend originates in the Carmen de Haestinge Proelio which stated that a William Malet, a friend of Harold’s, was given permission to remove his body to the headland so that Harold ‘might still be guardian of sea and shore.’ William of Poitier, however, thought that William sent his body to his mother, Countess Gytha, for burial at Waltham Holy Cross, his collegiate foundation in Essex. Poor lady, to lose so many of her children in one fateful year must have been a heavy burden to bear.

Battle Abbey, however, will stay with me for a long time because I found it an intensely moving experience. It was impossible not to feel an emotional response to the story and indeed legend of everything connected to ‘Hastings’, even if the site of the actual confrontation is debatable and my visit was tempered by the demands of small children!



Battle Abbey ruins


My love of the Anglo-Saxons came on gradually but found a deeper place in my heart when I read Beowulf and began to understand the culture of the mead hall and the war band, the elegiac poetry of ruined halls and swift hawks and sense of doomed foreknowledge that haunts this period of English history.

Of course, our Anglo-Saxon heritage is a complex thing – we are a product of successive waves of migration and conquest over many hundreds of years and the Angles, Saxons and Jutes were migrants themselves so there is a continuity to the story of Hastings and the Norman Conquest, even as the Normans were themselves descended from Viking forebears. Culturally there are enough similarities between La Chanson de Roland which was recited by the Norman Taillefer just before he was swallowed up by the Anglo-Saxon shield wall in the first wave of the battle and the older cultural heritage of the Anglo-Saxon poets to be recognizably part of a larger, shared Germanic and Scandinavian cultural heritage.

Looking across the field which we are told is the site of such intense slaughter and reading about Harold’s men taking up their stand on this last spur of the Andredesweald under a Hoare Apple Tree, it is hard not to be moved by this pivotal episode in our history. Harold’s army blocked the road to London and William feared a retreat to his ships due to rumours that Harold had sent his fleet back to block the way from Pevensey Bay. Harold’s men had marched for two days from London and set up their lines on a hammer head shaped hill, marching up what is now Battle High Street to set up camp and to emerge on the morning of 14th October 1066 from the wooded ridge with their spears glinting in the early morning light and their brightly coloured banners unfurled. Harold’s house carls stood under his personal emblem of the ‘Fighting Man’ with the banners of other earls and thegns around them in a densely packed shield wall formation designed to minimize the advantage of the Norman cavalry.

Oderic Vitalis gives a spine-tingling account of the opening sequence of the battle in his Historia Ecclesicastica:

‘Turstin, son of Eollo, bore the standard of Normandy. The sound of the trumpets in both armies was the terrible signal for beginning the battle. The Normans made the first attack with ardour and gallantry, their infantry rushing forward to provoke the English, and spreading wounds and death through their ranks by showers of arrows and bolts. The English, on their side, made a stout resistance, each man straining his powers to the utmost. The battle raged for some time with the utmost violence between both parties. At length the indomitable bravery of the English threw the Bretons, both horse and foot, and the other auxiliary troops composing the left wing, into confusion, and, in their rout, they drew with them almost all the rest of the duke’s army, who, in their panic, believed that he was slain.’ (Oderic Vitalis, Historia Ecclesicastica, Ch XIV)

William rallied his troops by raising his visor to display his face and urging them back into the fray.



Battle Abbey


It would take more than nine hours of bloodshed to bring this engagement to a conclusion and take the lives of many good men to see William’s will and ‘rightful claim’ translated into reality.

The impression of the battle is one of heroic endurance on both sides; of confusion, possible feigned retreat and re-grouping from the Norman cavalry where either side might have gained the ultimate advantage and finally of exhaustion and resolute refusal to give an inch til the last man was slain. It is an epic tale and worth re-telling over and over again to each generation because it has become the embodiment of the ‘British spirit’ of resistance and sheer bloody mindedness in the face of attack which has been replayed many times over in subsequent centuries from Agincourt to Rorke’s Drift to the Battle of Britain and become part our national consciousness.



Scenes from the Battle of Hastings on the Bayeux Tapestry


The short video played in the Battle visitor centre captures something of the momentousness of the clash and the poignancy felt by so many over the eventual outcome of the battle. Even the youngest visitors watched in respectful silence as the story unfolded. Like every good story, the details are lost in legend. We don’t know exactly how many men engaged on the day as sources contradict each other depending on whether they sought to inflate the scale of the Norman Victory or mitigate the disaster of Harold’s defeat. We don’t even know precisely where the fighting occurred. The absence of grave pits or archaeological finds relating to the battle may infer a different location or later efforts by the monks at Battle Abbey to cleanse the site of its victims. We don’t know where Harold was taken for burial and this only increases the mystery and ‘romance’ of the events.

While we were there some local re-enactors acted out skirmishes between Norman knights and Anglo-Saxon thegns in the ruins of the Abbey. There was still a marked partiality towards the Anglo-Saxons from the on-lookers and cries of ‘Ut! Ut!’ when the Normans made their attack.



Another layer of ‘myth-making’ added to the Battle Abbey experience


What we do know is that as the dusk fell and Vespers were sung on 14th October 1066, Harold was sighted in the front rank of the shield wall, said to have been fighting bravely with his men to give them heart and William dispatched four knights to cut him down. He fell under a hail of blows and possibly an arrow to his eye and was hacked to death. The cry went up ‘Harold is Dead!’ and the Anglo-Saxons began to despair and flee, to be cut down by the Normans or trampled by panicked horses as they sought the cover of the trees behind them. Some accounts suggest that desperate skirmishes continued in the darkness until William recalled his men from their pursuit. There are no records of any prisoners being taken, only of the ground being soaked with blood and body parts and the bodies of the fallen which lay for several days before William allowed their families to bury them.



The disputed ‘death of Harold’ image from the Bayeux Tapestry


According to the Battle Abbey chronicle;

‘the fields were covered with corpses and all around the only colour to meet the gaze was blood-red. It looked from afar as if rivulets of blood, flowing down from all sides, had filled up the valleys, just like a river.’

So ended the last Anglo-Saxon king of England and a chapter of our national history.

Amidst the controversy over whether Harold took the throne illegally and with unseemly haste after Edward’s death or whether Edward the Confessor ever promised it to William of Normandy at all, is the wider issue of whether the people of England were betrayed by their leaders and doomed to centuries of oppression through greed and mis-management among the elite class.



Harold enthroned as King of England – William called him a perjurer and usurper



Harold’s position was undermined from within his own family circle by Tostig’s treachery as well as from without by William’s propaganda campaign and the partiality of the Pope before William ever set sail. Tostig had approached William before heading to Norway, working to gain half the kingdom under a new regime and seems to have held an implacable hatred for his brother who he accused of undermining his position of earl of Northumbria, according to Orderic Vitalis.

‘Humble the pride of my perfidious brother by waging war; keep for yourself half of England and grant the other half to me so that I may serve you faithfully as long as I live.’

This family division, just when Harold needed to establish his regime, caused untold damage and fuelled the ambitions of the Norwegian, Harald Hardrada who wanted to extend his power base and find a new niche for himself after his far-flung travels to Byantium.

You get the feeling that, had this strategy proved successful, the alliance between Tostig and Hardrada wouldn’t have been for very long and that Tostig was a weak, conniving opportunist with little consideration for his people who was prepared to encourage either a Norman or a Viking invasion to make war and despoliation on his homeland for personal profit but perhaps I misjudge him?

Harold offered him terms at Stamford Bridge  – not only a pardon and his earldom but also a third of the kingdom- which he scornfully refused, preferring death to defeat. The issue of the earldom does raise some questions as presumably Morcar, Earl of Northumbria would have been less than delighted to hear this and Harold’s needed to keep him and his brother on side so perhaps Tostig was right to remain loyal to his new Norwegian king, come what may.

During Harold’s short reign, did he shows signs of  promise? Would he have made a good king for his people if he had been able to throw off the threats from Norway and Normandy and establish his kingship?

Florence of Worcester called him ‘pious, humble and affable to all good men.’ He sought to assure the northern magnates that he would abide by the laws of Cnut, began legal reforms and took a hard-line stance against thieves, robbers and disturbers of the peace, issuing orders to his lawmen to imprison anyone who attacked property or encouraged violent affray.

Harold sought a marriage alliance with Ealdgyth, sister of the Edwin, Earl of Mercia and Morcar, Earl of Northumbria in order to cement their loyalty and hold the country together in unity, although this also signalled a rejection of his previous negotiations with William of Normandy to marry his daughter. Harold was probably acutely aware that things had moved beyond any possible compromise between himself and William over the issue of the English crown and that no Norman marriage alliance was likely to be forthcoming. What he needed was allies and a united response to the threat of foreign invasion.

Here is Oderic Vitalis’s, Pro-Norman account of these events, written later into the Norman period:

‘The earls Edwin and Morcar, sons of Algar the first of the English earls, were attached by the strictest ties to Harold, and employed all their efforts to support his cause, he having married their sister Edith, who had been the queen of Griffith a powerful king of Wales, to whom she bore Blethyn, his successor, and a daughter named Nesta. Tostig, however, Earl Godwin’s son, finding that his brother’s enterprise proved successful, and that the kingdom of England was subject to great oppression, was much distressed, and determined to oppose him and even to levy war against him. Wherefore Harold violently deprived him of his father’s earldom, which as eldest son he had held for sometime during the reign of Edward, and drove him into exile. Tostig, thus banished, took refuge in Flanders, where he committed his wife Judith to the care of his father-in-law Baldwin, earl of Flanders, and then hastening to Normandy strongly remonstrated with Duke William for suffering his perjured vassal to usurp the crown of England, which he pledged himself the duke would secure if he crossed the channel with a Norman army.’ (Oderic Vitalis, Historia Ecclesiastica Ch 11.)

Did the Norman victory and subsequent brutal suppression of dissent truly mark a sea change in the lives of the peasants and farmers who made up the backbone of the population or was life just as miserably hard and unjust as ever? According to Oderic, Harold’s short reign saw ‘great oppression and distress’ of the people but then, he was writing for the new regime so how much truth is there in his claims? His account is clearly biased against Harold, calling him ‘the usurper’ and seeks to find justifications for Tostig’s actions against his brother. Could England have been better off under Norman rule than it had been under Harold’s Anglo-Saxon regime?

Most people who know even a little about the period after the conquest are aware of the ‘Harrying of the North’ but maybe less aware of similar ‘scorched earth’ tactics across large tracts of land around Hastings itself. The Norman army moved along the coast, ravaging Folkstone and Dover and large areas around Faversham and Challock. It must have been truly terrifying to live in England at this time due to the level of lawlessness and banditry among the ‘silvatici’ or resistance to the Normans as well as the brutality of the conquerors and then there was always the threat of attacks further North from Viking forces or Scottish incursions across the shifting border country. The Domesday book gives evidence of the level of destruction during the period after the Battle of Hastings, showing vills and holdings that had lost half their value or worse due to the climate of violence and retribution for refusing to yield to the new regime.




Pillage, slaughter, enslavement, sexual violence and chevauchee style burnings and theft were rampant across large areas and over a long period. Justice was far from any concept we would recognize- still tied up with ancient customs of trial by ordeal and weighted towards the rich and powerful, whether that be the local bishop or the imposed Norman warlord.

The Peterborough Chronicle complained about how William dealt with land ownership ‘The king sold his land on very hard terms, as hard as he could. Then came someone else and offered more than the other had given, and the king let it go to the man offered more. Then came a third and offered still more and the king gave it into the hands of the man who offered him most of all.’ (Peterborough Chronicle, E1087.)

Added to these woes, William demanded gafol – tribute from the monasteries and vills and from wealthy Thegns and many were disinherited through the forced marriage of the widows and heiresses of the old Anglo-Saxon nobility to Norman knights in order to reward them with the lands of the conquered.

Of course it is impossible to know how different things might have been under Harold’s kingship, if he had beaten off the Normans at Hastings and stuck William’s head on a pole. Was there an inevitability to the shift from a culture rooted in the Northern and Scandinavian past to a more southerly facing Anglo-Norman world, drawn increasingly into the power politics of Europe through the intermarriage of Norman and Angevin descendants? The profound changes to our language, laws, customs and landscape which were directly bound up with the Norman invasion may have come to pass through other events, different alliances, trading relationships, political connections etc… yet the legend of 1066 is so deeply rooted in our history and seems to be so symbolic in our national consciousness that I hope it continues to fascinate and inspire new generations to visit the sites and remember the courage and tenacity of the people who resisted to the last man.

May they rest in peace.

Hwær cwom mearg? Hwær cwom mago?
Hwær cwom maþþumgyfa? Where are the horse and the rider? Where the giver of treasure?
Hwær cwom symbla gesetu? Where are the seats at the feast?
Hwær sindon seledreamas? Where are the revels in the hall?
Eala beorht bune! Alas for the bright cup!
Eala byrnwiga! Alas for the mailed warrior!
Eala þeodnes þrym! Alas for the splendour of the prince!
Hu seo þrag gewat, How that time has passed away,
genap under nihthelm, dark under the cover of night.
swa heo no wære.


Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, Trans and Ed by j Stevenson, London 1853

Gesta Regum Anglorum, William of Malmesbury, Ed and trans R.A.B Mynors et Al Oxford, 1998

Historia Ecclesicastica, Oderic Vitalis, Trans Thomas Forester, 1853

Rex, Peter ‘1066: A New History of the Norman Conquest’ – Amberley Publishing Plc, 2011

Walker, Ian W ‘Harold: The Last Anglo-Saxon King’ – Sutton Publishing, 1997