The Bright Day Is Done And We Are For The Dark

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“The Bright Day Is Done - And We Are For The Dark.”

The Battle of Hastings.

The fight for Santlache (later Senlac) Ridge on October 14th 1066 is probably the only battle date that most Englishmen can be expected to remember. Nearly a thousand years after the event, the memory of the resounding defeat of the last native Saxon King and his army rings down the centuries. But why did the battle take place ? Why did William the Bastard, Duke of Normandy, think that he had a claim to the English throne in the first place. Or was it just an adventure; an enormous gamble that paid off and changed the course of world history in the course of an autumn day ?

To try to see the events of those times in perspective across a such a vast stretch of time is difficult indeed. Most of the contemporary reporters were writing for a Norman audience and sought to support what even William saw in later life as an unjust cause. These notes have no scope to do anything but out­ line the causes and expectations of the principal protagonists, but a short reading list is attached for those who would like to follow them up.

Claimants to the English throne.

King Harold II of England.

In order to see Harold clearly, it is necessary to look at his family background in relation to the state. His father became an important man when Knut came to the English throne. Nothing is known of his history until then, but he rose swiftly to become the most powerful Earl in the Kingdom. His genius lay in the gaining and exercise of power and by the age of thirty, he acted as effective ruler of England when the King was overseas. He survived the death of Knut and the short, turbulent reigns of his sons Harold and Harthaknut with his lands and influence undimin­ ished. He was the spokesman for the Witan - the governing body of England - when they defied the Danes and elected an English King, Edward, later called Confessor.

His eldest son was Swein, a true black sheep! When he was twenty four he seduced an Abbess. For this unusual sin, he was exiled, but later forgiven. He then murdered his cousin, Beorn. Again, he was exiled and forgiven, but on the condition that he did penance in Jerusalem. Having walked there barefoot, he died in Constanti­ nople on the way home.

Harold was his second son. Much in the stamp of his father, he came through many vicissitudes at his fathers side. He was ban­ ished with the rest of the family in 1051, when King Edward’s Norman advisors got into a bloody little fight in Dover. But he was back the next year with his father and faced the King across the Thames. The Witan negotiated a peaceful settlement which returned to the Godwin’s their lands and power, thus avoiding a civil war.

The next year, Godwin died and Harold took over as the most powerful man in the kingdom, second only to the King. During the remainder of Edward’s reign, Harold Godwinsson became Dux Anglo­ rum, a title created for him. When Edward died in January 1066, Harold was the choice of the Witan and the people. It is likely he was the King’s choice, too, but the deathbed account is in guarded terms as the writer had a Norman audience to please.

“Into Harold’s hands I commit my Kingdom.”

King Harald Hardrada of Norway.

Hardrada was King of Norway. He had a brilliant career as a soldier. He had fought for the King of Novgorod and spent some years in the service of the Empress Zoe in Constantinople. He fell out with her over the division of war booty and came home to Norway in 1042.

The King of Norway at the time was Magnus the Good, but Hardrada was so rich and had such a fearsome reputation, that Magnus gave him half his Kingdom. He came to rule the whole of Norway when Magnus died in 1047. The Danes, who had been ruled by Magnus, refused to accept Hardrada as King. Hardrada was incensed and spent twelve bloody years trying to conquer Denmark, latterly in the hands of Ulf, cousin to Harold Godwinsson. In the end, he failed and signed a pact with King Swein of Denmark in 1063.

He had a large number of warlike followers who were bored by two years of peace. Tostig, the renegade brother of King Harold of England, arrived in Norway to try to gain support from Hardrada. Led into the delusion that the English Earls would support his tenuous claim to the throne, Hardrada gathered a large invasion force and arrived in the area of York in September, 1066. He beat the hastily gathered local army at the Battle of Fulford Gate, took York and retired to his fleet at Riccal.

He had demanded hostages from York and set out to meet them at Stamford Bridge five days later. They were not expecting trouble and a lightly equipped token force accompanied the King. They were surprised by King Harold, arriving with a fully equipped army who brought them to battle there. After a bitter fight, in which both Hardrada and Tostig were killed, the English army had the best of it, although many men were lost on both sides.

A feast was held in York a few days later and it is said that King Harold was actually at meat when the news of William’s landing at Pevensey reached him.

Duke William of Normandy.

Orphaned at the age of eight, it is not difficult to see that William’s view of the world would have been coloured by the years of his childhood being full of hasty exits and bloody assassina­tion attempts. Not overly blessed with height and the bastard son of a tanners daughter, men sneered at him in his youth. They would sniff pointedly and ask each other if they smelled the smell of the tan yard. The tale is that none of them survived William’s majority.

Edward, later King Edward the Confessor, grew up in the Norman court. He was a personal friend of Williams and it is probably at this time that he promised the Kingship of England to William. Unfortunately, Edward had no right to do so. He knew perfectly well that, in England, kings were elected by the Witan and, al­ though a dying king’s word was important in deciding the succes­sion, it was by no means certain that the Witan would appoint according to the last king’s wishes. The Saxons made up their own minds in such matters and it would by no means be the first time that the Witan had chosen a man they saw as making a better king than the recommendation of a dying man.

William lived in a feudal state, where the eldest son inherited everything and the king’s word was law. He spent years telling everybody that he would be king of England one day and it must have come as a terrible shock when the news was brought to him that Harold Godwinsson had been made king instead of him.

Harold and William also knew each other well. On a diplomatic mission to Normandy in 1064, Harold was shipwrecked on the north­ ern coast of France. The Norman tale is that William rescued Harold from prison, but we are unsure about the validity of that tale. Nonetheless, William treated Harold with the respect due to his rank, took him hunting and even into battle. Here, Harold acquitted himself well and was given a gift of arms by William.

Anxious to be home before the autumn gales made crossing the Channel a risky business, Harold swore an oath to William, agree­ ing to “........ help him to the kingship.....” when the old king died. More he could not swear to, but William tricked Harold into swearing upon holy saint’s relics, thus making the oath more binding. Even then William was not content and made Harold leave his youngest brother behind as a hostage. He was never to see England again until William died in 1087.

Edward died in the closing days of 1065 and his dying words indicated that Harold should follow him. The Witan were in some­ thing of a cleft stick. They only met on the quarter days and it would have been inconceivable to leave England without a king for three months. Therefore, they appointed Harold Godwinsson king and he was crowned immediately. Even at the time it was seen as acting with unseemly haste “ ...... before the funeral meats were cold ....” but the security of the realm was at stake.

It cannot have done Harold’s case any harm that he had virtually ruled England for at least ten years and owned a great swath of southern England. It is reasonable to assume that his troops were, as they say, all over it.

When the news came that Harold was king in England, William had to do something. He could not sit still for this enormous loss of face without loosing the respect of his Continental allies - and with it, their fear and support.

It should be noted that crossing the Channel was a difficult business and a tremendous risk for a big army. William had great difficulty in persuading his allies to help him, but through diplomacy - and a fair amount of trickery - he eventually managed it. Ships were hastily built and assembled in one place, men and horses were equipped and provisioned and then they waited.

The very north wind that wafted Harald Hardrada southwards with such ease was a curse to William. The ships of the time could, to some extent, sail across the wind. But they could only do so at the expense of pretty massive leeway and the narrow confines of the Channel are no place for delicate ship handling, especially when laden with men, equipment and horses in hastily built ships.

Across the Channel, England was in arms. The fleet was based in the Isle of Wight and the army was strung out along the south coast from May to the end of July. This discharged the Saxon army of it’s Fyrd service, the service which all able-bodied men owed to their lord.

“Because of the love they bore the king, they gave another month of their own free will.”

But no more could they give. Urgent tasks pressed at home and the crops must be tended and gathered lest there be a winter famine. In the early days of September, Harold dismissed the fleet and the army. The fleet went back to London and the fighting men dispersed across England.

No sooner was Harold back in London than news was brought to him of Harald Hardrada and his depredations in the north. Now fate’s dice fell badly and one ill turn of fortune followed another in quick succession for Harold. Even so, when he had fought and won at Stamford Bridge and come southward so swiftly that William had not had time to reach London, he might have been justified in thinking that he had retrieved the situation by the skin of his teeth.

Sending out urgent messages across southern England, he marched south, bidding his fighting Thegns to meet him on the morning of 14th October “ the hore apple tree ..... “ on the rising land above the Santlache valley. No-one now knows where the apple tree stood, but it was probably at the place now occupied by the windmill on Caldbeck Hill overlooking the sleepy town of Battle.

The Battle.

Not long after dawn on October 14th 1066, the Saxon scouts re­ ported to Harold that William was moving north with his whole army. At the time, it was not good cavalry country, the road north from Pevensey was on a ridge of land surrounded by trees and marsh. The speed with which William had moved from his bridgehead at Norman’s Bay probably caught Harold by surprise. Only two days had elapsed since his message had gone out and men were still arriving to join his army.

Nonetheless, Harold took the high ground, spreading his men along the ridge overlooking the valley, denying William access to the London road. The story goes that the first blows were struck at about ten in the morning and for many hours the Normans could make no impression on the English.

“All day long they stood there and we could not move them.”

In the front rank of the English army were the Huscarls, Harold’s personal Hearth Troop. These were the best men of their day, heavily equipped with long mail hauberks, helmets, kite shields and the great broad-axe which had been the trademark of the Huscarls since Knut’s time. They were good at what they did and the axes were much feared.

“The axes of the Huscarls cut through man and horse alike.”

They had a great esprit de corps, and this may have been their undoing. The Normans started to ride along the Saxon line, throw­ ing in javelins. As men fell, so the Huscarls closed their ranks, not allowing the lesser men behind them to come to the front. Within a short time, the ranks of men were so tightly packed together they could not fight effectively.

“They were so tightly massed together that the dead could not fall.”

There was much bitter fighting and William had three horses killed under him. At one time, the word went through the Norman lines that Duke William was slain and the heart went from the invaders. But it was not so. Remounting, he took off his helmet and rode up and down the line shouting to his men.

See, I am not dead and with God’s help we shall win this day!”

Then William directed his Breton archers to shoot up into the air, the arrows falling upon the tightly packed English who could not even raise their shields to protect themselves. Neither the technical ability nor the equipment of the archer at war at this time should not be confused with that of the English or Welsh archer four hundred years later at the time of Agincourt. The bows were of lighter draw weight and men seem to have drawn to their chests rather than the chin or ear. Thus, both their accu­ racy and the speed and mass-energy of the arrow was inferior.

Even so, the arrow shot was withering at close range and great damage was done to the English. Eventually, a sortie was made against them and the Bretons turned and ran. We shall never know the right of it, but a good number of the English right flank pursued them, were cut off on a small hill and cut to pieces in the full view of their comrades who were unable to help.

This turn of fortune in the early afternoon gave the Normans the opportunity they had been waiting for. Now for the first time they had access to the top of the ridge and fiercely attacked the English flank. Still the English ranks could not be broken and although the fighting continued with little pause, the sun had set before the end came.

It is reasonable to assume that the Fyrdsmen, a loose militia of lightly equipped men who had already given their required service to the king that year by manning the coast against the expected invasion throughout the summer, were among the first to fade quietly into the fringes of the great forest of Andraeswold that stood behind them. The men of the Select Fyrd and the Huscarls fought on, broken up into isolated groups by the repeated Norman cavalry attacks.

“When the stars came out, men were still fighting.”

With the relative safety of the line gone, the Huscarls formed a ring around the king. With the king were the standards of Eng­ land; the Dragon standard of the line of Cerdic, the ancient House of the kings of Wessex; and the fighting man, the personal marker of Harold Godwinsson, worked with silver and gold thread upon in red and white Byzantine silk by Edith, his wife. Fighting a desperate and failing action against repeated Norman attack, the king was beset on all sides. It may well be that the incident pictured on the Bayeux Tapestry of Harold plucking the arrow from his face happened in these closing moments of the battle. Baudri of Bourgueil, writing thirty years after the battle, was the first man to mention an arrow - but not the last ..............

“William, in the company of Count Eustace of Boulogne, saw Harold from afar. He was fiercely hewing at the Normans that beset him. William called Eustace to help him and they rode with two other knights to give him battle. William, Eustace, Hugo of Ponthieu and Giffard came to the hill top and burst through the English they found there. They came upon the king and hewed at him with their swords. One stabbed him in the chest, another cut off his head and another slashed at his vitals, spilling them upon the ground. This last man cut off the king’s thigh and carried it away, but William was much angered by this vile deed and sent the man from his service.”

So the end had come for the last of the Saxon kings, Harold the second of that name, Dei Gratia Rex, Dux Anglorum and Eorl of Wessex, port and shire reeve of this and that, bearer of other less resounding titles. Some said he survived the battle and occasional reports came of him in the generation of native Eng­lish rebellion and ruthless suppression that followed - but it is, to say the least, unlikely.

The italics in this piece are quotes from the Carmen De Hastingae Proelio (“the Song of the Battle of Hastings”). It is thought to have been written before the end of 1067 by Guy, Bishop of Armi­ ens who was probably an eye-witness of the battle.

In the weeks that followed, William and his army made an almost complete circuit around London. It is hard for us to understand why, but it may be reasonably assumed that he was unwilling to believe that he had succeeded so well at Hastings, killing almost the entire warrior aristocracy of England that were left after Stamford bridge.

On Christmas day, 1066, he was crowned King of England in West­ minster Abbey with great pomp. During the ceremony, there was a commotion outside and his soldiers set fire to a house. It is said that the king’s fingers whitened as he gripped the arms of the throne, but no attack came.

Conquered peoples often see little difference after the fact, but William did more than “remove the heads of the flowers”, as another conqueror directed his son. He distributed the land of England amongst his men, rewarding directly their service in war. Thus, he brought his domination of the country into the lowest home, the poorest farm and the simplest lives were affected directly by his coming.

William survived for twenty years after the battle that secured for him and his successors the flower of Europe. He was killed in a riding accident, when his saddle’s high pommel was driven into his abdomen, rupturing his stomach. He lasted for four days in great pain, and when Confessed, asked for absolution for the lives that had been lost at his hand since the age of eight. At the last, it seems that the subjugation of England bore hard upon his mind. His dying words were recorded thus:

“May God forgive me, for I have taken that which was not mine ............”

His bloated and rank corpse was buried at Caen amidst confusion and his tomb was decorated and desecrated by turns in the follow­ ing centuries. Now, only a thigh bone lies beneath the simple slab there, inscribed with his name.

No-one knows what became of Harold’s body. By tradition, his mangled body was set by William within a cairn of stones on the cliff overlooking the English Channel.

“There,” William is recorded to have said “Harold may yet guard the coast of the land he loved so much.”

Within a year, Harold’s bones were retrieved by monks of the order he had so piously supported all his life and he was laid to rest at Waltham Abbey, behind the alter in the Church he had founded. So the slab there records.

Of his great house at Bosham on the Solent and Edith’s house at Nazening near Waltham Abbey nothing is known to remain: like their owners, they have been washed away by the centuries.

Little other than the names and the deeds of the players of this great drama have come down to us across almost a thousand years and it is perhaps fitting that the lives they lived came together finally in what was to be the most important and seminal event in the continuing history of the English people.

1066: the Battle of Hastings.

Copyright, J. Kim Siddorn. 25 January 1996_

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