"What's past is prologue."
It’s the one date everyone knows. 1066 and all that. William the Conqueror AKA William the Bastard AKA Duke William II of Normandy defeats King Harold II of England at Hastings and is crowned King William 1 of England on Christmas Day 1066. Or, as Thomas Paine put it, writing in Common Sense in 1776: “A French bastard landing with an armed banditti, and establishing himself king of England against the consent of the natives, is in plain terms a very paltry rascally original.—It certainly hath no divinity in it.”
But it is not merely a transfer of power from one dynasty to another. It is the end of the Anglo-Saxon hegemony, the end of slavery, the beginning of feudalism. It is a change of culture, of political organization, of language. It turns England into a south-facing country rather than north, looking to Europe rather than Scandinavia.
Don’t listen to those who tell you that it’s the conquest of one lot of Vikings by another – Norman – lot of Vikings. It isn’t. It’s been a century or more since Charles the Simple granted Rollo in 911 the lands that became Normandy and in the meantime they have embraced the French language and French culture to a significant degree, with Rollo embracing Christianity and ruling as a Duke, a liegeman of the French king. They are not even Viking in name by this stage, they are Normans, or Franks, or French. And in England? Well, the Vikings have run their course here, too. Alfred’s Angelcynn (English kin) is back in power and the battle of Stamford Bridge, in which Harold routs Harold Hardrada five days before Hastings, is the last stand and last throw of the Vikings. Edward the Confessor assumes the throne after the death of Hardacnut, the last Danish king of England, in 1042 and he is the legitimate heir of Alfred the Great, who was according to The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle,‘king of all the Angelcynn’.
The Anglo-Saxon line is back.
Except that it is not that simple. Because Edward is not only the heir of Alfred, he is also half-Norman, cousin of William’s father. He has been brought up in Normandy. His closest friends and advisers are Norman. And, according to Norman sources, he has already promised William that he would be his successor. William of Poitiers reports that, Edward, “gratefully remembering with what generous munificence, what singular honour, what affectionate intimacy, prince William had treated him in Normandy, by all of which he was even more closely bound to the duke than by ties of kinship; nay more, remembering also with what zeal the duke had helped him to restore him from exile to his kingdom, determined as a matter of honour to repay him in equal measure – and as an appropriate gift resolved to make him the heir of the crown obtained by his efforts”.
William of Jumièges confirms this and goes further, claiming that Harold himself has been sent to swear allegiance:
“Edward, too, king of the English, by Divine disposition lacking an heir, had formerly sent Robert Archbishop of Canterbury to the duke to nominate him as the heir to the kingdom which God had given him. Furthermore he afterwards sent to duke Harold, the greatest of all the earls of his dominions in riches, honour and power, that he should swear fealty to him concerning Edward’s crown and confirm it with Christian oaths.”
As historians have noted, contemporary English sources mention neither claim and even the earliest Norman accounts are at odds. But another source, the anonymous biographer of Edward notes in Vitae Edwardi Regis that Harold is “too free with his oaths”, and the Norman chronicler Orderic Vitalis records that "This Englishman was very tall and handsome, remarkable for his physical strength, his courage and eloquence, his ready jests and acts of valour. But what were these gifts to him without honour, which is the root of all good?"
As you will be appreciating, there are reasons why the chronicles make these points. And why, as we will discover shortly, there is such dispute about the nature of Harold's death.
It's all about the succession. And it is William who is successful.
Son of Godwin
The Godwins are the most powerful family in England. Harold’s father, the earl of Wessex, has been Cnut’s right-hand man. His mother is Gytha, Cnut’s sister-in-law. He has eight siblings, including three brothers who attain the rank of earl, one of whom, Tostig, will play a key role in the events of 1066 and, notably, his eldest sister Edith who marries Edward the Confessor and who, according to the Vitae Edwardi, “shone above all others in counsel if she was heard”. And Harold himself, born in the early 1020s, appears to be marked for greatness from an early age. But the monarchy was not in the plans of his father. By arranging the marriage of Edith to Edward, he hoped for a grandson who would be king.
Edward agrees to the marriage because he needs Godwin’s help in the face of continuing Norse invasions. But his vow of chastity and probable impotence means the marriage is never consummated and there is no hope of a Godwin heir. The growing realization of this by the Godwins means a power struggle between the two most powerful men in the country which comes to a head in 1051. The King’s brother-in-law, Count Eustace of Boulogne, is returning to Boulogne from a visit to the King in Gloucester. Attempting to billet his retinue on the inhabitants of Dover, he provokes a fracas in which some twenty Normans are killed. Edward orders Godwin, under whose control Dover falls, to punish the inhabitants of the town. Godwin refuses. Edward exiles Godwin and all his sons.
Edward takes the opportunity to appoint Norman bishops to the many vacant sees, including making Robert of Jumièges, the most influential of his Norman supporters, Archbishop of Canterbury, and another Norman to the now vacant post in London. He also sends his queen Edith, Harold’s sister, to a nunnery. He is as powerful as he gets at this point, but it doesn’t last long, because in 1052 the Godwins return. English opposition to the growing Norman influence is such that the Godwins attract huge support throughout the south-east and quickly move on London.
Edward gives in. He restores the earldoms of Godwin and his sons and, importantly, he is forced to get rid of his Norman bishops including the replacement of Robert of Jumièges at Canterbury with Godwin’s nominee Stigand. It’s a temporary armistice and relations don’t improve after Godwin’s death and Harold’s succession to the earldom of Wessex. In fact, it gets worse, because Harold takes it upon himself in 1063 to fight Gruffudd of Wales, who is successfully reconquering the borders. With his comprehensive victory, Harold is covered in glory, receives the head of Gruffudd and promises of fealty from the Welsh and is confirmed as the leading military figure in the realm as well as the most powerful politically.
As such, he is in pole position in the manoeuvrings for the succession - even though Edward has promised William the throne, even though Harold may have also sworn allegiance with one of his freely given oaths, promising according to William of Poitiers that “he would strive with all his influence and power to bring about the succession of the English kingdom to William.”
Throughout the autumn of 1065, Edward weakens. He is unable to attend the consecration of Westminster Abbey at the end of December, and he dies in the first week of January – the 4th or the 5th. Harold is present but, significantly, William is not, despite inevitable knowledge of Edward’s imminent death and despite familiarity with the formality of the election of the Witenagemot, an assembly of the nobles and notables of the realm. But William hasn't actually set foot in the country he claims since 1052.
Harold is elected king on the 6th, after a death-bed scene in which Edward commends the kingdom and his queen to him. This is attested by the Bayeux tapestry, by Norman chronicler William of Poitiers and by English chronicler Florence of Worcester – he’s a monk by the way, his Latin name would have been Florentius. The Witenagemot approve him for coronation and Harold is crowned in Westminster Abbey on the same day “with great ceremony”, perhaps by Stigand of Canterbury (according to William of Poitiers), perhaps by Ealdred of York (according to Florence), perhaps by both.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, or at least the E manuscript, records: “And Earl Harold succeeded to the kingdom of England, as the king had granted it to him, and men had also choosen him thereto; and he was blessed as king on Twelfth-mass day.”
And so begins the short reign of Harold. Historians tend to focus on the events of October 1066, but there are more than nine months between the coronation and the battle. During this time, he is emphatically the King of England. Florence describes him as “subregulus Haroldus, Godwini ducis filius” before Edward's death, and lists his first acts afterwards:
“As soon as he had taken the reins of government, he made it his business to revoke unjust laws, and establish good ones; to become the protector of the churches and monasteries : to cherish and reverence all bishops, abbots, monks, and clerks ; and to show himself kind, humble, and courteous to all good men, while to evil-doers he used the utmost rigour. For he gave orders to his ealdormen, vice-reeves, and all his officers, to arrest thieves, robbers, and disturbers of the peace; meanwhile laboured himself for the defence of the country by land and by sea.”
In the terminology of 1066 And All That, Harold is “therefore a Good Thing”. William of course disagrees and his mouthpiece William of Poitiers calls him “this insane Englishman” who “seized the royal throne with the plaudits of certain iniquitous supporters and thereby perjured himself”. It’s not only the Norman interest that has issues, either. The intrigues and coastal raids of his brother Tostig are more than an irritant and Mercia and Northumbria are convinced only by his marriage to Ealdgyth, sister to the earls of these two powerful regions.
By the summer, he is well-established and more than capable of seeing off a massive expedition by Harald Hardrada, king of Norway, and his brother Tostig. Hardrada is determined to emulate Cnut, but having failed to conquer Denmark, turns his attention to England which, he believes, will be an easier proposition. Especially with the help of Tostig. But although they manage to beat the Northumbrians, they are comprehensively defeated by Harold who forced-marches from the south to inflict a final defeat on the Vikings at Stamford Bridge, one in which both Hardrada and Tostig are killed - Harald Hardrada by an arrow.
Meanwhile, William sees his opportunity and seizes it.
It’s a familiar story. The long march from Stamford Bridge, the battle, the arrow in the eye. Some of it is even true.
It is certainly true that an army which has marched from the south, fought a hard battle against the forces of Hardrada and Tostig, then marched the 240 miles back is going to be weakened at best, exhausted at worst. It is also true that Harold chooses not to wait for reinforcements and rest his troops in London but to press on to give battle against William’s force of Normans, French and Bretons. Why he makes this decision is not known. One historian has called it “one of the deepest mysteries” of the whole saga, speculating that William is now in occupation of Harold’s favourite part of the realm, that his beloved Winchester is under threat, that he has personal fears of which we have no record.
Whatever the reason, Harold and his exhausted army find themselves facing the mounted knights of William near Hastings. Here’s an account from Robert Wace, a canon at Bayeux, writing a hundred years later but using all the available sources together with, he claims, information from those who had been at the battle and “who saw the dead bodies”:
“From nine o’clock in the morning, when the combat began, till three o’clock came, the battle was up and down, this way and that, and no-one knew who would conquer and win the land. Both sides stood so firm and fought so well, that no-one could guess which would prevail …
The Normans saw that the English defended themselves well, and were so strong in their position that they could do little against them. So they consulted together privily, and arranged to draw off, and pretend to flee, till the English should pursue and scatter themselves over the field; for they saw that if they could once get their enemies to break their ranks, they might be attacked and discomfited much more easily. As they had said, so they did. The Normans by little and little fled, the English following them. As the one fell back, the other pressed after; and when the Frenchmen retreated, the English thought and cried out, that the men of France fled, and would never return.
Thus they were deceived by the pretended flight, and great ischief thereby befell them; for if they had not moved from their position, it is not likely that they would have been conquered at all; but like fools they broke their lines and pursued.
The Normans were to be seen following up their stratagem, retreating slowly so as to draw the English further on. As they still flee, the English pursue; they push out their lances and stretch forth their hatchets; following the Normans , as they go rejoicing in the success of their scheme, and scattering themselves over the plain. And the English meantime jeered and insulted their foes with words. ‘Cowards’ they cried, ‘you came hither in an evil hour, wanting our lands, and seeking to seize our property, fools that ye were to come! Normandy is too far off, and you will not easily reach it. It is of little use to run back; unless you can cross the sea at a leap, or can drink it dry, your sons and daughters are lost to you’.
The Normans bore it all, but in fact they knew not what the English said; their language seemed like the baying of dogs, which they could not understand. At length they stopped and turned round, determined to recover their ranks; and the barons might be heard crying DEX AIE! (God be with us!) for a halt. Then the Normans resumed their former position, turning their faces towards the enemy; and their men were to be seen facing round and rushing onwards to a fresh melee;the one party assaulting the other; this man striking, another pressing onwards. One hits, another misses; one flies, another pursues; one is aiming a stroke, while another discharges his blow. Norman strives with Englishman again, and aims his blows afresh. One flies, another pursues swiftly: the combatants are many, the plain wide, the battle and the melee fierce. On every hand they fight hard, the blows are heavy, and the struggle becomes fierce …
Loud was now the clamour, and great the slaughter; many a soul then quitted the body it inhabited. The living marched over the heaps of dead, and each side was weary of striking. He charged on who could, and he who could no longer strike still pushed forward. The strong struggled with the strong; some failed, others triumphed, the cowards fellback, the brave pressed on; and sad was his fate who fell in the midst, for he had little chance of rising again; and many in truth fell who never rose at all, being crushed under the throng.
And now the Normans had pressed on so far, that at last they reached the standard. There, Harold had remained, defending himself to the utmost, but he was sorely wounded in his eye by the arrow, and suffered grievous pain from the blow. An armed man came in the throng of the battle, and struck him on the ventaille (the armoured covering for the lower part of the face) of his helmet, and beat him to the ground; and as he sought to recover himself, a knight beat him down again, striking him on the thick of his thigh, down to the bone.
Gyrth (one of Harold’s brothers) saw the English falling around, and that there was no remedy. He saw his race hastening to ruin, and despaired of any aid; he would have fled, but could not, for the throng continually increased. And the duke pushed on till he reached him, and struck him with great force. Whether he died of that blow I know not, but it was said that he fell under it, and rose no more.
The standard was beaten down, the golden gonfanon (war flag) was taken, and Harold and the best of his friends were slain; but there was so much eagerness, and throng of so many around, seeking to kill him, that I know not who it was that slew him.
The English were in great trouble at having lost their king, and at the duke’s having conquered and beat down the standard; but they still fought on, and defended themselves long, and in fact till the day drew to a close. Then it clearly appeared to all that the standard was lost, and the news had spread throughout the army that Harold, for certain, was dead; and all saw that there was no longer any hope, so they left the field, and those fled who could.
I do not tell, and do not indeed know, for I was not there to see, and have not heard say, who it was that smote down king Harold, nor by what weapon he was wounded; but this I know, that he was found among the dead. His great force availed him nothing; amidst the slain he was found slain also.”
He writes well, doesn’t he?
The death of Harold
The outline of the battle as he describes it is true. It is the indiscipline of the English that causes their downfall and defeat. And it is also true that Harold, together with two of his brothers – Gyrth and Leofwine – are killed.
But the key to what happens subsequently - and the history of it - is the nature of Harold’s death.
Death caused by a chance arrow would be regarded as an act of God; in other words, God’s will. But death by hacking, particularly if William himself is involved, is a major problem, because Harold has been anointed by the Church at his coronation. In short, Harold’s accession is legitimate and his killing is regicide. This is why I mentioned the different reports of Harold’s coronation. Which archbishop actually carried it out? The Norman accounts say Stigand, because Stigand’s appointment in place of the Norman Robert is still not blessed by the Pope. But Ealdred of York, who officiated according to English accounts, has received his pallium. He’s legit – and so is Harold.
Now Wace, writing a great deal later, with access to all accounts, mentions both the arrow and the hacking to death. But the arrow is not mentioned at all in the earliest official accounts and nor is it originally included in the Bayeux Tapestry. Three other contemporary accounts – from William of Poitiers, William of Jumièges and Ordericus Vitalis – report Harold’s death but not the manner of it.
In fact, the only description of his death is in the very earliest record of all, a poem called Song of the Battle of Hastings by Bishop Guy of Amiens in 1067. He’s French but not Norman and he says nothing about an arrow; rather, he recounts, Harold is killed by four knights who hack him to death.
That this story disappears completely when the Norman propagandists William of Poitiers and William of Jumièges is significant because there is still a great deal of doubt about William’s status. It takes four years before he is acknowledged as king by the Pope who also imposes penances on participants in the battle. At the same ceremony, in Winchester in 1070, Stigad is deposed as Archbishop.
You can see how it’s all coming together: the reluctant agreement of the Pope, the ‘official’ accounts of the two Williams, the Bayeux tapestry, the failure to acknowledge Harold as king in the Domesday Book (although his holdings are itemized precisely), the arrow in the eye story in the chronicle of Amaatus of Monte Cassino which appears in 1080 – all contribute to a whitewash of the Norman invasion. Harold is a perjurer, he was not anointed by a legitimate bishop, he was killed by God’s will.
And this new orthodoxy facilitates the transformation of the realm that Harold has ruled for just nine months.
Despite rumours that Harold survives, and is living as a hermit near Chester, despite uprisings in York and East Anglia, William imposes his will on the Angelcynn. By the time of his death in 1087, he has abolished the Saxon kingdoms of Wessex, Mercia and Northumbria. Great estates are now in the hands of Normans and Bretons. Only two Englishmen hold estates of any size. William’s demand of all landowners that they operate on his behalf a quota of mounted knights creates a new ruling class. The peasantry are subject to military service as well as rent to the manor, and William’s appropriation of all hunting rights denies them game as a food source when harvests failed. The Domesday Book ensures that William knows “down to the last pig” the taxes he claims. In almost every town, a castle, cathedral, abbey or church is built - sometimes all of them. The Church itself is transformed: bishoprics are moved from their traditional location to the newly prosperous trading towns, marriage by priests is abolished. The language changes, too. William is recorded as trying but failing to learn English, most nobles don't even try. English is the majority language but French is the language of power.
As the biographer of Wulfstan of Worcester reports, “It was as though with Harold fallen also the whole strength of the kingdom”.