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"Eis vos la Bataille assemblee,
Dunc encore est grant renomee." ROMAN DE ROU, 1. 3183.
Arletta's pretty feet twinkling in the brook gained her a duke's love, and gave us William the Conqueror. Had she not thus fascinated Duke Robert, the Liberal, of Normandy, Harold would not have fallen at Hastings, no Anglo-Norman dynasty could have arisen, no British empire. The reflection is Sir Francis Palgrave's: [History of Normandy and England, vol. i. p. 528.] and it is emphatically true. If any one should write a history of "Decisive loves that; have materially influenced the drama of the world in all its subsequent scenes," the daughter of the tanner of Falaise would deserve a conspicuous place in his pages. But it is her son, the victor of Hastings, who is now the object of our attention; and no one, who appreciates the influence of England and her empire upon the destinies of the world, will ever rank that victory as one of secondary importance.
It is true that in the last century some writers of eminence on our history and laws mentioned the Norman Conquest in terms, from which it might be supposed that the battle of Hastings led to little more than the substitution of one royal family for another on the throne of this country, and to the garbling and changing of some of our laws through the "cunning of the Norman lawyers." But, at least since the appearance of the work of Augustin Thierry on the Norman Conquest, these forensic fallacies have been exploded. Thierry made his readers keenly appreciate the magnitude of that political and social catastrophe. He depicted in vivid colours the atrocious cruelties of the conquerors, and the sweeping and enduring innovations that they wrought, involving the overthrow of the ancient constitution, as well as of the last of the Saxon kings. In his pages we see new tribunals and tenures superseding the old ones, new divisions of race and class introduced, whole districts devastated to gratify the vengeance or the caprice of the new tyrant, the greater part of the lands of the English confiscated and divided among aliens, the very name of Englishmen turned into a reproach, the English language rejected as servile and barbarous, and all the high places in Church and State for upwards of a century filled exclusively by men of foreign race.
No less true than eloquent is Thierry's summing up of the social effects of the Norman Conquest on the generation that witnessed it, and on many of their successors. He tells his reader that "if he would form a just idea of England conquered by William of Normandy, he must figure to himself, not a mere change of political rule, not the triumph of one candidate over another candidate, of the man of one party over the man of another party; but the intrusion of one people into the bosom of another people, the violent placing of one society over another society, which it came to destroy, and the scattered fragments of which it retained only as personal property, or (to use the words of an old act) as 'the clothing of the soil:' he must not picture to himself on the one hand, William, a king and a despot--on the other, subjects of William's, high and low, rich and poor, all inhabiting England, and consequently all English; but he must imagine two nations, of one of which William is a member and the chief--two nations which (if the term must be used) were both subject to William, but as applied to which the word has quite different senses, meaning in the one case subordinate, in the other subjugated. He must consider that there are two countries, two soils, included in the same geographical circumference; that of the Normans rich and free, that of the Saxons poor and serving, vexed by RENT and TAILLAGE; the former full of spacious mansions, and walled and moated castles, the latter scattered over with huts and straw, and ruined hovels; that peopled with the happy and the idle, with men of the army and of the court, with knights and nobles,--this with men of pain and labour, with farmers and artizans: on the one side, luxury and insolence, on the other, misery and envy--not the envy of the poor at the sight of opulence they cannot reach, but the envy of the despoiled when in presence of the despoilers."
Perhaps the effect of Thierry's work has been to cast into the shade the ultimate good effects on England of the Norman Conquest. Yet these are as undeniable as are the miseries which that conquest inflicted on our Saxon ancestors from the time of the battle of Hastings to the time of the signing of the Great Charter at Runnymede. That last is the true epoch of English nationality: it is the epoch when Anglo-Norman and Anglo-Saxon ceased to keep aloof from each other, the one in haughty scorn, the other in sullen abhorrence; and when all the free men of the land; whether barons, knights, yeomen, or burghers, combined to lay the foundations of English freedom.
Our Norman barons were the chiefs of that primary constitutional movement; those "iron barons" whom Chatham has so nobly eulogized. This alone should make England remember her obligations to the Norman Conquest, which planted far and wide, as a dominant class in her land, a martial nobility of the bravest and most energetic race that ever existed.
It may sound paradoxical, but it is in reality no exaggeration to say, with Guizot, [Essais sur l'Histoirs de France, p. 273, et seq.] that England owes her liberties to her having been conquered by the Normans. It is true that the Saxon institutions were the primitive cradle of English liberty, but by their own intrinsic force they could never have founded the enduring free English constitution. It was the Conquest that infused into them a new virtue; and the political liberties of England arose from the situation in which the Anglo-Saxon and the Anglo-Norman populations and laws found themselves placed relatively to each other in this island. The state of England under her last Anglo- Saxon kings closely resembled the state of France under the last Carlovingian, and the first Capetian princes. The crown was feeble, the great nobles were strong and turbulent. And although there was more national unity in Saxon England than in France; although the English local free institutions had more reality and energy than was the case with anything analogous to them on the Continent in the eleventh century, still the probability is that the Saxon system of polity, if left to itself, would have fallen into utter confusion, out of which would have arisen first an aristocratic hierarchy like that which arose in France, next an absolute monarchy, and finally a series of anarchical revolutions, such as we now behold around, but not among us. [See Guizot, UT SUPRA.]
The latest conquerors of this island were also the bravest and the best. I do not except even the Romans. And, in spite of our sympathies with Harold and Hereward, and our abhorrence of the founder of the New Forest, and the desolator of Yorkshire, we must confess the superiority of the Normans to the Anglo-Saxons and Anglo-Danes, whom they met here in 1066, as well as to the degenerate Frank noblesse and the crushed and servile Romanesque provincials, from whom, in 912, they had wrested the district in the north of Gaul which still bears the name of Normandy.
It was not merely by extreme valour and ready subordination or military discipline, that the Normans were pre-eminent among all the conquering races of the Gothic stock, but also by their instinctive faculty of appreciating and adopting the superior civilizations which they encountered. Thus Duke Rollo and his Scandinavian warriors readily embraced the creed, the language, the laws, and the arts which France, in those troubled and evil times with which the Capetian dynasty commenced, still inherited from imperial Rome and imperial Charlemagne. They adopted the customs, the duties, the obedience that the capitularies of emperors and kings had established; but that which they brought to the application of those laws, was the spirit of life, the spirit of liberty--the habits also of military subordination, and the aptness for a state politic, which could reconcile the security of all with the independence of each. [Sismondi, Histoire des Francais, vol. iii. p. 174.] So also in all chivalric feelings, in enthusiastic religious zeal, in almost idolatrous respect to females of gentle birth, in generous fondness for the nascent poetry of the time, in a keen intellectual relish for subtle thought and disputation, in a taste for architectural magnificence, and all courtly refinement and pageantry, the Normans were the Paladins of the world. Their brilliant qualities were sullied by many darker traits of pride, of merciless cruelty, and of brutal contempt for the industry, the rights, and the feelings of all whom they considered the lower classes of mankind.
Their gradual blending with the Saxons softened these harsh and evil points of their national character, and in return they fired the duller Saxon mass with a new spirit of animation and power. As Campbell boldly expressed it, "THEY HIGH-METTLED THE BLOOD OF OUR VEINS." Small had been the figure which England made in the world before the coming over of the Normans; and without them she never would have emerged from insignificance. The authority of Gibbon may be taken as decisive when he pronounces that, "Assuredly England was a gainer by the Conquest." and we may proudly adopt the comment of the Frenchman Rapin, who, writing of the battle of Hastings more than a century ago, speaks of the revolution effected by it, as "the first step by which England has arrived to that height of grandeur and glory we behold it in at present." [Rapin, Hist. England, p. 164. See also Sharon Turner, vol. iv. p. 72; and, above all, Palgrave's Normandy and England.]
The interest of this eventful struggle, by which William of Normandy became King of England, is materially enhanced by the high personal characters of the competitors for our crown. They were three in number. One was a foreign prince from the North. One was a foreign prince from the South: and one was a native hero of the land. Harald Hardrada, the strongest and the most chivalric of the kings of Norway, was the first; [See in Snerre the Saga of Harald Hardrada.] Duke William of Normandy was the second; and the Saxon Harold, the son of Earl Godwin, was the third. Never was a nobler prize sought by nobler champions, or striven for more gallantly. The Saxon triumphed over the Norwegian, and the Norman triumphed over the Saxon: but Norse valour was never more conspicuous than when Harald Hardrada and his host fought and fell at Stamford Bridge; nor did Saxons ever face their foes more bravely than our Harold and his men on the fatal day of Hastings.
During the reign of King Edward the Confessor over this land, the claims of the Norwegian king to our Crown were little thought of; and though Hardrada's predecessor, King Magnus of Norway had on one occasion asserted that, by virtue of a compact with our former king, Hardicanute, he was entitled to the English throne, no serious attempt had been made to enforce his pretensions. But the rivalry of the Saxon Harold and the Norman William was foreseen and bewailed by the Confessor, who was believed to have predicted on his death-bed the calamities that were pending over England. Duke William was King Edward's kinsman. Harold was the head of the most powerful noble house, next to the royal blood, in England; and personally, he was the bravest and most popular chieftain in the land. King Edward was childless, and the nearest collateral heir was a puny unpromising boy. England had suffered too severely during royal minorities, to make the accession of Edgar Atheling desirable; and long before King Edward's death, Earl Harold was the destined king of the nation's choice, though the favour of the Confessor was believed to lean towards the Norman duke.
A little time before the death of King Edward, Harold was in Normandy. The causes of the voyage of the Saxon earl to the continent are doubtful; but the fact of his having been, in 1065, at the ducal court, and in the power of his rival, is indisputable. William made skilful and unscrupulous use of the opportunity. Though Harold was treated with outward courtesy and friendship, he was made fully aware that his liberty and life depended on his compliance with the Duke's requests. William said to him, in apparent confidence and cordiality, "When King Edward and I once lived like brothers under the same roof, he promised that if ever be became King of England, he would make me heir to his throne. Harold, I wish that thou wouldst assist me to realize this promise." Harold replied with expressions of assent: and further agreed, at William's request, to marry William's daughter Adela, and to send over his own sister to be married to one of William's barons. The crafty Norman was not content with this extorted promise; he determined to bind Harold by a more solemn pledge, which if broken, would be a weight on the spirit of the gallant Saxon, and a discouragement to others from adopting his cause. Before a full assembly of the Norman barons, Harold was required to do homage to Duke William, as the heir-apparent of the English crown. Kneeling down, Harold placed his hands between those of the Duke, and repeated the solemn form, by which he acknowledged the Duke as his lord, and promised to him fealty and true service. But William exacted more. He had caused all the bones and relics of saints, that were preserved in the Norman monasteries and churches, to be collected into a chest, which was placed in the council-room, covered over with a cloth of gold. On the chest of relics, which were thus concealed, was laid a missal. The Duke then solemnly addressed his titular guest and real captive, and said to him, "Harold, I require thee, before this noble assembly, to confirm by oath the promises which thou hast made me, to assist me in obtaining the crown of England after King Edward's death, to marry my daughter Adela, and to send me thy sister, that I may give her in marriage to one of my barons." Harold, once more taken by surprise, and not able to deny his former words, approached the missal, and laid his hand on it, not knowing that the chest of relics was beneath. The old Norman chronicler, who describes the scene most minutely, [Wace, Roman de Rou. I have nearly followed his words.] says, when Harold placed his hand on it, the hand trembled, and the flesh quivered; but he swore, and promised upon his oath, to take Ele [Adela] to wife, and to deliver up England to the Duke, and thereunto to do all in his power, according to his might and wit, after the death of Edward, if he himself should live: so help him God. Many cried, "God grant it!" and when Harold rose from his knees, the Duke made him stand close to the chest, and took off the pall that had covered it, and showed Harold upon what holy relics he had sworn; and Harold was sorely alarmed at the sight.
Harold was soon, after this permitted to return to England; and, after a short interval, during which he distinguished himself by the wisdom and humanity with which he pacified some formidable tumults of the Anglo-Danes in Northumbria, he found himself called on to decide whether he would keep the oath which the Norman had obtained from him, or mount the vacant throne of England in compliance with the nation's choice. King Edward the Confessor died on the 5th of January, 1066, and on the following day an assembly of the thanes and prelates present in London, and of the citizens of-the metropolis, declared that Harold should be their king. It was reported that the dying Edward had nominated him as his successor; but the sense which his countrymen entertained of his pre-eminent merit was the true foundation of his title to the crown. Harold resolved to disregard the oath which he made in Normandy, as violent and void, and on the 7th day of that January he was anointed King of England, and received from the archbishop's hands the golden crown and sceptre of England, and also an ancient national symbol, a weighty battle- axe. He had deep and speedy need of this significant part of the insignia of Saxon royalty.
A messenger from Normandy soon arrived to remind Harold of the oath which he had sworn to the Duke "with his mouth, and his hand upon good and holy relics." "It is true," replied the Saxon king, "that I took an oath to William; but I took it under constraint: I promised what did not belong to me--what I could not in any way hold: my royalty is not my own; I could not lay it down against the will of the country, nor can I against the will of the country take a foreign wife. As for my sister, whom the Duke claims that he may marry her to one of his chiefs, she has died within the year; would he have me send her corpse?"
William sent another message, which met with a similar answer; and then the Duke published far and wide through Christendom what he termed the perjury and bad faith of his rival; and proclaimed his intention of asserting his rights by the sword before the year should expire, and of pursuing and punishing the perjurer even in those places where he thought he stood most strongly and most securely.
Before, however, he commenced hostilities, William, with deep laid policy submitted his claims to the decision of the Pope. Harold refused to acknowledge this tribunal, or to answer before an Italian priest for his title as an English king. After a formal examination of William's complaints by the Pope and the cardinals, it was solemnly adjudged at Rome that England belonged to the Norman duke; and a banner was sent to William from the holy see, which the Pope himself had consecrated and blessed for the invasion of this island. The clergy throughout the continent were now assiduous and energetic in preaching up William's enterprise as undertaken in the cause of God. Besides these spiritual arms (the effect of which in the eleventh century must not be measured by the philosophy or the indifferentism of the nineteenth), the Norman duke applied all the energies of his mind and body, all the resources of his duchy, and all the influence he possessed among vassals or allies, to the collection of "the most remarkable and formidable armament which the Western nations had witnessed." [Sir James Mackintosh's History of England, vol.
Throughout the spring and summer of 1066, all the seaports of Normandy, Picardy, and Brittany rang with the busy sound of preparation. On the opposite side of the Channel, King Harold collected the army and the fleet with which he hoped to crush the southern invaders. But the unexpected attack of King Harald Hardrada of Norway upon another part of England, disconcerted the skilful measures which the Saxon had taken against the menacing armada of Duke William.
Harold's renegade brother, Earl Tostig, had excited the Norse king to this enterprise, the importance of which has naturally been eclipsed by the superior interest attached to the victorious expedition of Duke William, but which was on a scale of grandeur which the Scandinavian ports had rarely, if ever, before witnessed. Hardrada's fleet consisted of two hundred war-ships, and three hundred other vessels, and all the best warriors of Norway were in his host. He sailed first to the Orkneys, where many of the islanders joined him, and then to Yorkshire. After a severe conflict near York, he completely routed Earls Edwin and Morcar, the governors of Northumbria. The city of York opened its gates, and all the country, from the Tyne to the Humber, submitted to him. The tidings of the defeat of Edwin and Morcar compelled Harold to leave his position an the southern coast, and move instantly against the Norwegians. By a remarkably rapid, march, he reached Yorkshire in four days, and took the Norse king and his confederates by surprise. Nevertheless, the battle which ensued, and which was fought near Stamford Bridge, was desperate, and was long doubtful. Unable to break the ranks of the Norwegian phalanx by force, Harold at length tempted them to quit their close order by a pretended flight. Then the English columns burst in among them, and a carnage ensued, the extent of which may be judged of by the exhaustion and inactivity of Norway for a quarter of a century afterwards. King Harald Hardrada, and all the flower of his nobility, perished on the 25th of September, 1066, at Stamford Bridge; a battle which was a Flodden to Norway.
Harold's victory was splendid; but he had bought it dearly by the fall of many of his best officers and men; and still more dearly by the opportunity which Duke William had gained of effecting an unopposed landing on the Sussex coast. The whole of William's shipping had assembled at the mouth of the Dive, a little river between the Seine and the Orme, as early as the middle of August. The army which he had collected, amounted to fifty thousand knights, and ten thousand soldiers of inferior degree. Many of the knights were mounted, but many must have served on foot; as it is hardly possible to believe that William could have found transports for the conveyance of fifty thousand war-horses across the Channel. For a long time the winds were adverse; and the Duke employed the interval that passed before he could set sail in completing the organization and in improving the discipline of his army; which he seems to have brought into the same state of perfection, as was seven centuries and a half afterwards the boast of another army assembled on the same coast, and which Napoleon designed (but providentially in vain) for a similar descent upon England.
It was not till the approach of the equinox that the wind veered from the north-east to the west, and gave the Normans an opportunity of quitting the weary shores of the Dive. They eagerly embarked, and set sail; but the wind soon freshened to a gale, and drove them along the French coast to St. Valery, where the greater part of them found shelter; but many of their vessels were wrecked and the whole coast of Normandy was strewn with the bodies of the drowned. William's army began to grow discouraged and averse to the enterprise, which the very elements thus seemed to fight against; though in reality the north-east wind which had cooped them so long at the mouth of the Dive, and the western gale which had forced them into St. Valery, were the best possible friends to the invaders. They prevented the Normans from crossing the Channel until the Saxon king and his army of defence had been called away from the Sussex coast to encounter Harald Hardrada in Yorkshire: and also until a formidable English fleet, which by King Harold's orders had been cruising in the Channel to intercept the Normans, had been obliged to disperse temporarily for the purpose of refitting and taking in fresh stores of provisions.
Duke William used every expedient to re-animate the drooping spirits of his men at St. Valery; and at last he caused the body of the patron saint of the place to be exhumed and carried in solemn procession, while the whole assemblage of soldiers, mariners, and appurtenant priests implored the saint's intercession for a change of wind. That very night the wind veered, and enabled the mediaeval Agamemnon to quit his Aulia.
With full sails, and a following southern breeze, the Norman armada left the French shores and steered for England. The invaders crossed an undefended sea, and found an undefended coast. It was in Pevensey Bay in Sussex, at Bulverhithe, between the castle of Pevensey and Hastings, that the last conquerors of this island landed, on the 29th of September, 1066.
Harold was at York, rejoicing over his recent victory, which had delivered England from her ancient Scandinavian foes, and resettling the government of the counties which Harald Hardrada had overrun, when the tidings reached him that Duke William of Normandy and his host had landed on the Sussex shore. Harold instantly hurried southward to meet this long-expected enemy. The severe loss which his army had sustained in the battle with the Norwegians must have made it impossible for any large number of veteran troops to accompany him in his forced march to London, and thence to Sussex. He halted at the capital only six days; and during that time gave orders for collecting forces from his southern and midland counties, and also directed his fleet to reassemble off the Sussex coast. Harold was well received in London, and his summons to arms was promptly obeyed by citizen, by thane, by sokman, and by ceorl; for he had shown himself during his brief reign a just and wise king, affable to all men, active for the good of his country, and (in the words of the old historian) sparing himself from no fatigue by land or sea. [See Roger de Hoveden and William of Malmesbury, cited in Thierry, book iii.] He might have gathered a much more numerous force than that of William, but his recent victory had made, him over- confident, and he was irritated by the reports of the country being ravaged by the invaders. As soon therefore, as he had collected a small army in London, he marched off towards the coast: pressing forward as rapidly as his men could traverse Surrey and Sussex in the hope of taking the Normans unawares, as he had recently by a similar forced march succeeded in surprising the Norwegians. But he had now to deal with a foe equally brave with Harald Hardrada, and far more skilful and wary.
The old Norman chroniclers describe the preparations of William on his landing, with a graphic vigour, which would be wholly lost by transfusing their racy Norman couplets and terse Latin prose into the current style of modern history. It is best to follow them closely, though at the expense of much quaintness and occasional uncouthness of expression. They tell us how Duke William's own ship was the first of the Norman fleet. "It was called the Mora, and was the gift of his duchess, Matilda. On the head of the ship in the front, which mariners call the prow, there was a brazen child bearing an arrow with a bended bow. His face was turned towards England, and thither he looked, as though he was about to shoot. The breeze became soft and sweet, and the sea was smooth for their landing. The ships ran on dry land, and each ranged by the other's side. There you might see the good sailors, the sergeants, and squires sally forth and unload the ships; cast the anchors, haul the ropes, bear out shields and saddles, and land the war-horses and palfreys. The archers came forth, and touched land the first, each with his bow strong and with his quiver full of arrows, slung at his side. All were shaven and shorn; and all clad in short garments, ready to attack, to shoot, to wheel about and skirmish. All stood well equipped, and of good courage for the fight; and they scoured the whole shore, but found not an armed man there. After the archers had thus gone forth, the knights landed all armed, with their hauberks on, their shields slung at their necks, and their helmets laced. They formed together on the shore, each armed, and mounted on his war-horse: all had their swords girded on, and rode forward into the country with their lances raised. Then the carpenters landed, who had great axes in their hands, and planes and adzes hung at their sides. They took counsel together, and sought for a good spot to place a castle on. They had brought with them in the fleet, three wooden castles from Normandy, in pieces, all ready for framing together, and they took the materials of one of these out of the ships, all shaped and pierced to receive the pins which they had brought cut and ready in large barrels; and before evening had set in, they had finished a good fort on the English ground, and there they placed their stores. All then ate and drank enough, and were right glad that they were ashore.
"When Duke William himself landed, as he stepped on the shore, he slipped and fell forward upon his two hands. Forthwith all raised a loud cry of distress. 'An evil sign,' said they, 'is here.' But he cried out lustily, 'See, my lords! by the splendour of God, [William's customary oath.] I have taken possession of England with both my hands. It is now mine; and what is mine is yours.'
"The next day they marched along the sea-shore to Hastings. Near that place the Duke fortified a camp, and set up the two other wooden castles. The foragers, and those who looked out for booty, seized all the clothing and provisions they could find, lest what had been brought by the ships should fail them. And the English were to be seen fleeing before them, driving off their cattle, and quitting their houses. Many took shelter in burying-places, and even there they were in grievous alarm."
Besides the marauders from the Norman camp, strong bodies of cavalry were detached by William into the country, and these, when Harold and his army made their rapid march from London southward, fell, back in good order upon the main body of the Normans, and reported that the Saxon king was rushing on like a madman. But Harold, when he found that his hopes of surprising his adversary were vain changed his tactics, and halted about seven miles from the Norman lines. He sent some spies, who spoke the French language, to examine the number and preparations of the enemy, who, on their return, related with astonishment that there were more priests in William's camp than there were fighting men in the English army. They had mistaken for priests all the Norman soldiers who had short hair and shaven chins; for the English layman were then accustomed to wear long hair and mustachios, Harold, who knew the Norman usages, smiled at their words and said, "Those whom you have seen in such numbers are not priests, but stout soldiers, as they will soon make us feel."
Harold's army was far inferior in number to that of the Normans, and some of his captains advised him to retreat upon London, and lay waste the country, so as to starve down the strength, of the invaders. The policy thus recommended was unquestionably the wisest; for the Saxon fleet had now reassembled, and intercepted all William's communications with Normandy; so that as soon as his stores of provisions were exhausted he must have moved forward upon London; where Harold, at the head of the full military strength of the kingdom, could have defied his assault, and probably might have witnessed his rival's destruction by famine and disease, without having to strike a single blow. But Harold's bold blood was up, and his kindly heart could not endure to inflict on his South Saxon subjects even the temporary misery of wasting the country. "He would not burn houses and villages, neither would he take away the substance of his people."
Harold's brothers, Gurth and Leofwine, were with him in the camp, and Gurth endeavoured to persuade him to absent himself from the battle. The incident shows how well devised had been William's scheme of binding Harold by the oath on the holy relics. "My brother", said the young Saxon prince, "thou canst not deny that either by force or free-will thou hast made Duke William an oath on the bodies of saints. Why then risk thyself in the battle with a perjury upon thee? To us, who have sworn nothing, this is a holy and a just war, for we are fighting for our country. Leave us then, alone to fight this battle, and he who has the right will win." Harold replied that he would not look on while others risked their lives for him. Men would hold him a coward, and blame him for sending his best friends where he dared not go himself. He resolved, therefore, to fight, and to fight in person: but he was still too good a general to be the assailant in the action. He strengthened his position on the hill where he had halted, by a palisade of stakes interlaced with osier hurdles, and there, he said, he would defend himself against whoever should seek him.
The ruins of Battle Abbey at this hour attest the place where Harold's army was posted. The high altar of the abbey stood on the very spot where Harold's own standard was planted during the fight, and where the carnage was the thickest. Immediately after his victory William vowed to build an abbey on the site; and a fair and stately pile soon rose there, where for many ages the monks prayed, and said masses for the souls of those who were slain in the battle, whence the abbey took its name. Before that time the place was called Senlac. Little of the ancient edifice now remains: but it is easy to trace among its relics and in the neighbourhood the scenes of the chief incidents in the action; and it is impossible to deny the generalship shown by Harold in stationing his men; especially when we bear in mind that he was deficient in cavalry, the arm in which his adversary's main strength consisted.
A neck of hills trends inwards for nearly seven miles from the high ground immediately to the north-east of Hastings. The line of this neck of hills is from south-east to north-west, and the usual route from Hastings to London must, in ancient as in modern times, have been along its summits. At the distance from Hastings which has been mentioned, the continuous chain of hills ceases. A valley must be crossed, and on the other side of it, opposite to the last of the neck of hills, rises a high ground of some extent, facing to the south-east. This high ground, then termed Senlac, was occupied by Harold's army. It could not be attacked in front without considerable disadvantage to the assailants, and could hardly be turned without those engaged in the manoeuvre exposing themselves to a fatal charge in flank, while they wound round the base of the height, and underneath the ridges which project from it on either side. There was a rough and thickly-wooded district in the rear, which seemed to offer Harold great facilities for rallying his men, and checking the progress of the enemy, if they should succeed in forcing him back from his post. And it seemed scarcely possible that the Normans, if they met with any repulse, could save themselves from utter destruction. With such hopes and expectations (which cannot be termed unreasonable, though "Successum Dea dira negavit,") King Harold bade his standard be set up a little way down the slope of Senlac-hill, at the point where the ascent from the valley was least steep, and on which the fiercest attacks of the advancing enemy were sure to be directed.
The foundation-stones of the high altar of Battle Abbey have, during late years, been discovered; and we may place our feet on the very spot where Harold stood with England's banner waving over him; where, when the battle was joined, he defended himself to the utmost; where the fatal arrow came down on him; where he "leaned in agony on his shield;" and where at last he was beaten to the earth, and with him the Saxon banner was beaten down, like him never to rise again. The ruins of the altar are a little to the west of the high road, which leads from Hastings along the neck of hills already described, across the valley, and through the modern town of Battle, towards London. Before a railway was made along this valley, some of the old local features were more easy than now to recognise. The eye then at once saw that the ascent from the valley was least steep at the point which Harold selected for his own post in the engagement. But this is still sufficiently discernible; and we can fix the spot, a little lower down the slope, immediately in front of the high altar, where the brave Kentish men stood, "whose right it was to strike first when ever the king went to battle," and who, therefore, were placed where the Normans would be most likely to make their first charge. Round Harold himself, and where the plantations wave which now surround the high altar's ruins, stood the men of London, "whose privilege it was to guard the king's body, to place themselves around it, and to guard his standard." On the right and left were ranged the other warriors of central and southern England, whose shires the old Norman chronicler distorts in his French nomenclature. Looking thence in the direction of Hastings, we can distinguish the "ridge of the rising ground over which the Normans appeared advancing." It is the nearest of the neck of hills. It is along that hill that Harold and his brothers saw approach in succession the three divisions of the Norman army. The Normans came down that slope, and then formed in the valley, so as to assault the whole front of the English position. Duke William's own division, with "the best men and greatest strength of the army, made the Norman centre, and charged the English immediately in front of Harold's banner, as the nature of the ground had led the Saxon king to anticipate.
There are few battles the localities of which can be more completely traced; and the whole scene is fraught with associations of deep interest: but the spot which, most of all, awakens our sympathy and excites our feelings, is that where Harold himself fought and fell. The crumbling fragments of the grey altar-stones, with the wild flowers that cling around their base, seem fitting memorials of the brave Saxon who there bowed his head in death; while the laurel-trees that are planted near, and wave over the ruins, remind us of the Conqueror, who there, at the close of that dreadful day, reared his victorious standard high over the trampled banner of the Saxon, and held his triumphant carousal amid the corses of the slain, with his Norman chivalry exulting around him.
When it was known in the invaders' camp at Hastings that King Harold had marched southward with his power, but a brief interval ensued before the two hosts met in decisive encounter.
William's only chance of safety lay in bringing on a general engagement; and he joyfully advanced his army from their camp on the hill over Hastings, nearer to the Saxon position. But he neglected no means of weakening his opponent, and renewed his summonses and demands on Harold with an ostentatious air of sanctity and moderation.
"A monk named Hugues Maigrot came in William's name to call upon the Saxon king to do one of three things--either to resign his royalty in favour of William, or to refer it to the arbitration of the Pope to decide which of the two ought to be king, or to let it be determined by the issue of a single combat. Harold abruptly replied, 'I will not resign my title, I will not refer it to the Pope, nor will I accept the single combat.' He was far from being deficient in bravery; but he was no more at liberty to stake the crown which he had received from a whole people on the chance of a duel, than to deposit it in the hands of an Italian priest. William was not at all ruffled by the Saxon's refusal, but steadily pursuing the course of his calculated measures, sent the Norman monk again, after giving him these instructions:--'Go and tell Harold, that if he will keep his former compact with me, I will leave to him all the country which is beyond the Humber, and will give his brother Gurth all the lands which Godwin held. If he still persist in refusing my offers, then thou shalt tell him, before all his people, that he is a perjurer and a liar; that he, and all who shall support him, are excommunicated by the mouth of the Pope; and that the bull to that effect is in my hands.'
"Hugues Maigrot delivered this message in a solemn tone; and the Norman chronicle says that at the word EXCOMMUNICATION, the English chiefs looked at one another as if some great danger were impending. One of them then spoke as follows: 'We must fight, whatever may be the danger to us; for what we have to consider is not whether we shall accept and receive a new lord as if our king were dead: the case is quite otherwise. The Norman has given our lands to his captains, to his knights, to all his people, the greater part of whom have already done homage to him for them; they will all look for their gift, if their Duke become our king; and he himself is bound to deliver up to them our goods, our wives, and our daughters: all is promised to them beforehand. They come, not only to ruin us, but to ruin our descendants also, and to take from us the country of our ancestors and what shall we do--whither shall we go--when we have no longer a country?' The English promised by a unanimous oath, to make neither peace, nor truce nor treaty, with the invader, but to die, or drive away the Normans." [Thierry.]
The 13th of October was occupied in these negotiations; and at night the Duke announced to his men that the next day would, be the day of battle. That night is said to have been passed by the two armies in very different manners. The Saxon soldiers spent it in joviality, singing their national songs, and draining huge horns of ale and wine round their camp-fires. The Normans, when they had looked to their arms and horses, confessed themselves to the priests, with whom their camp was thronged, and received the sacrament by thousands at a time.
On Saturday, the 14th of October, was fought the great battle.
It is not difficult to compose a narrative of its principal incidents, from the historical information which we possess, especially if aided by an examination of the ground. But it is far better to adopt the spirit-stirring words of the old chroniclers, who wrote while the recollections of the battle were yet fresh, and while the feelings and prejudices of the combatants yet glowed in the bosoms of their near descendants. Robert Wace, the Norman poet, who presented his "Roman de Rou" to our Henry II., is the most picturesque and animated of the old writers; and from him we can obtain a more vivid and full description of the conflict, than even the most brilliant romance-writer of the present time can supply. We have also an antique memorial of the battle, more to be relied on than either chronicler or poet (and which confirms Wace's narrative remarkably), in the celebrated Bayeux tapestry, which represents the principal scenes of Duke William's expedition, and of the circumstances connected with it, in minute though occasionally grotesque details, and which was undoubtedly the production of the same age in which the battle took place; whether we admit or reject the legend that Queen Matilda and the ladies of her court wrought it with their own hands in honour of the royal Conqueror.
Let us therefore suffer the old Norman chronicler to transport our imaginations to the fair Sussex scenery, north-west of Hastings, with its breezy uplands, its grassy slopes, and ridges of open down swelling inland from the sparkling sea, its scattered copses, and its denser glades of intervening forests, clad in all the varied tints of autumn, as they appeared on the morning of the fourteenth of October, seven hundred and eighty- five years ago. The Norman host is pouring forth from its tents; and each troop, and each company, is forming fast under the banner of its leader. The masses have been sung, which were finished betimes in the morning; the barons have all assembled round Duke William; and the Duke has ordered that the army shall be formed in three divisions, so as to make the attack upon the Saxon position in three places. The Duke stood on a hill where he could best see his men; the barons surrounded him, and he spake to them proudly. He told them how he trusted them, and how all that he gained should be theirs; and how sure he felt of conquest, for in all the world there was not so brave an army or such good men and true as were then forming around him. Then they cheered him in turn, and cried out, "'You will not see one coward; none here will fear to die for love of you, if need be.' And he answered them, 'I thank you well. For God's sake spare not; strike hard at the beginning; stay not to take spoil; all the booty shall be in common, and there will be plenty for everyone. There will be no safety in asking quarter or in fight: the English will never love or spare a Norman. Felons they were, and felons they are; false they were, and false they will be. Show no weakness towards them, for they will have no pity on you. Neither the coward for running well, nor the bold man for smiting well, will be the better liked by the English, nor will any be the more spared on either account. You may fly to the sea, but you can fly no further; you will find neither ships nor bridge there; there will be no sailors to receive you; and the English will overtake you there and slay you in your shame. More of you will die in flight than in the battle. Then, as flight will not secure you, fight, and you will conquer. I have no doubt of the victory: we are come for glory, the victory is in our hands, and we may make sure of obtaining it if we so please.' As the Duke was speaking thus, and would yet have spoken more, William Fitz Osber rode up with his horse all coated with iron: 'Sire,' said he, 'we tarry here too long, let us all arm ourselves. ALLONS! ALLONS!'
"Then all went to their tents and armed themselves as they best might; and the Duke was very busy, giving every one his orders; and he was courteous to all the vassals, giving away many arms and horses to them. When he prepared to arm himself, he called first for his good hauberk, and a man brought it on his arm, and placed it before him, but in putting his head in, to get it on, he unawares turned it the wrong way, with the back part in front. He soon changed it, but when he saw that those who stood by were sorely alarmed, he said, 'I have seen many a man who, if such a thing had happened to him, would not have borne arms, or entered the field the same day; but I never believed in omens, and I never will. I trust in God, for He does in all things His pleasure, and ordains what is to come to pass, according to His will. I have never liked fortune-tellers, nor believed in diviners; but I commend myself to our Lady. Let not this mischance give you trouble. The hauberk which was turned wrong, and then set right by me, signifies that a change will arise out of the matter which we are now stirring. You shall see the name of duke changed into king. Yea, a king shall I be, who hitherto have been but duke.' Then he crossed himself and straightway took his hauberk, stooped his head, and put it on aright, and laced his helmet, and girt on his sword, which a varlet brought him. Then the Duke called for his good horse--a better could not be found. It had been sent him by a king of Spain, out of very great friendship. Neither arms nor the press of fighting men did it fear, if its lord spurred it on. Walter Giffard brought it. The Duke stretched out his hand, took the reins, put foot in stirrup, and mounted; and the good horse pawed, pranced, reared himself up, and curvetted. The Viscount of Toarz saw how the Duke bore himself in arms, and said to his people that were around him, 'Never have I seen a man so fairly armed, nor one who rods so gallantly, or bore his arms or became his hauberk so well; neither any one who bore his lance so gracefully, or sat his horse and managed him so nobly. There is no such knight under heaven! a fair count he is, and fair king he will be. Let him fight, and he shall overcome: shame be to the man who shall fail him.'
"Then the Duke called for the standard which the Pope had sent him, and he who bore it having unfolded it, the Duke took it, and, called to Raol de Conches. 'Bear my standard,' said he, 'for I would not but do you right; by right and by ancestry your line are standard-bearers of Normandy, and very good knights have they all been.' But Raol said that he would serve the Duke that day in other guise, and would fight the English with his hand as long as life should last. Then the Duke bade Galtier Giffart bear the standard. But he was old and white-headed, and bade the Duke give the standard to some younger and stronger man to carry. Then the Duke said fiercely, 'By the splendour of God, my lords, I think you mean to betray and fail me in this great need.'-- 'Sire,' said Giffart, 'not so! we have done no treason, nor do I refuse from any felony towards you; but I have to lead a great chivalry, both hired men and the men of my fief. Never had I such good means of serving you as I now have; and if God please, I will serve you; if need be, I will die for you, and will give my own heart for yours.
"'By my faith,' quoth the Duke, 'I always loved thee, and now I love thee more; if I survive this day, thou shalt be the better for it all thy days.' Then he called out a knight, whom he had heard much praised, Tosteins Fitz-Rou le Blanc by name, whose abode was at Bec-en-Caux. To him he delivered the standard; and Tosteins took it right cheerfully, and bowed low to him in thanks, and bore it gallantly, and with good heart. His kindred still have quittance of all service for their inheritance on that account, and their heirs are entitled so to hold their inheritance for ever.
"William sat on his war-horse, and called on Rogier, whom they call De Mongomeri. 'I rely much upon you,' said he: 'lead your men thitherward, and attack them from that side. William, the son of Osber the seneschal, a right good vassal, shall go with you and help in the attack, and you shall have the men of Boulogne and Poix, and all my soldiers. Alain Fergert and Ameri shall attack on the other side; they shall lead the Poitevins and the Bretons, and all the Barons of Maine; and I, with my own great men, my friends and kindred, will fight in the middle throng, where the battle shall be the hottest.'
"The barons, and knights, and men-at-arms were all now armed; the foot-soldiers were well equipped, each bearing bow and sword; on their heads were caps, and to their feet were bound buskins. Some had good hides which they had bound round their bodies; and many were clad in frocks, and had quivers and bows hung to their girdles. The knights had hauberks and swords, boots of steel and shining helmets; shields at their necks, and in their hands lances. And all had their cognizances, so that each might know his fellow, and Norman might not strike Norman, nor Frenchman kill his countryman by mistake. Those on foot led the way, with serried ranks, bearing their bows. The knights rode next, supporting the archers from behind. Thus both horse and foot kept their course and order of march as they began; in close ranks at a gentle pace, that the one might not pass or separate from the other. All went firmly and compactly, bearing themselves gallantly.
"Harold had summoned his men, earls, barons, and vavassours, from, the castles and the cities; from the ports, the villages, and boroughs. The peasants were also called together from the villages, bearing such arms as they found; clubs and great picks, iron forge and stages. The English had enclosed the place where Harold was, with his friends and the barons of the country whom he had summoned and called together.
"Those of London had come at once, and those of Kent, Hartfort, and of Essesse; those of Suree and Susesse, of St. Edmund and Sufoc; of Norwis and Norfoc; of Cantorbierre and Stanfort Bedefort and Hundetone. The men of Northanton also came; and those of Eurowic and Bokingkeham, of Bed and Notinkeham, Lindesie and Nichole. There came also from the west all, who heard the summons; and very many were to be seen coming from Salebiere and Dorset, from Bat and from Somerset. Many came, too, from about Glocestre, and many from Wirecestre, from Wincestre, Hontesire, and Brichesire; and many more from other counties that we have not named, and cannot indeed recount. All who could bear arms, and had learnt the news of the Duke's arrival, came to defend the land. But none came from beyond Humbre, for they had other business upon their hands; the Danes and Tosti having much damaged and weakened them.
"Harold knew that the Normans would come and attack him hand to hand; so he had early enclosed the field in which he placed his men. He made them arm early, and range themselves for the battle; he himself having put on arms and equipments that became such a lord. The Duke, he said, ought to seek him, as he wanted to conquer England; and it became him to abide the attack who had to defend the land. He commanded the people, and counselled his barons to keep themselves altogether, and defend themselves in a body; for if they once separated, they would with difficulty recover themselves. 'The Normans,' he said, 'are good vassals, valiant on foot and on horseback; good knights are they on horseback, and well used to battle; all is lost if they once penetrate our ranks. They have brought long lances and swords, but you have pointed lances and keen-edged bills; and I do not expect that their arms can stand against yours. Cleave wherever you can; it will be ill done if you spare aught.'
"The English had built up a fence before them with their shields, and with ash and other wood; and had well joined and wattled in the whole work, so as not to leave even a crevice; and thus they had a barricade in their front, through which any Norman who would attack them must first pass. Being covered in this way by their shields and barricades, their aim was to defend themselves: and if they had remained steady for that purpose, they would not have been conquered that day; for every Norman who made his way in, lost his life, either by hatchet, or bill, by club, or other weapons. They wore short and close hauberks, and helmets that hung over their garments. King Harold issued orders and made proclamation round, that all should be ranged with their faces towards the enemy; and that no one should move from where he was; so that, whoever came, might find them ready; and that whatever any one, be he Norman or other, should do, each should do his best to defend his own place. Then he ordered the men of Kent to go where the Normans were likely to make the attack; for they say that the men of Kent are entitled to strike first; and that whenever the king goes to battle, the first blow belongs to them. The right of the men of London is to guard the king's body, to place themselves around him, and to guard his standard; and they were accordingly placed by the standard to watch and defend it.
"When Harold had made his reply, and given his orders, he came into the midst of the English, and dismounted by the side of the standard: Leofwin and Gurth, his brothers, were with him, and around him he had barons enough, as he stood by his standard, which was in truth a noble one, sparkling with gold and precious stones. After the victory, William sent it to the Pope, to prove and commemorate his great conquest and glory. The English stood in close ranks, ready and eager for the fight; and they moreover made a fosse, which went across the field, guarding one side of their army,
"Meanwhile the Normans appeared advancing over the ridge of a rising ground; and the first division of their troops moved onwards along the hill and across a vallley. And presently another division, still larger, came in sight, close following upon the first, and they were led towards another part of the field, forming together as the first body had done. And while Harold saw and examined them, and was pointing them out to Gurth, a fresh company came in sight, covering all the plain; and in the midst of them was raised the standard that came from Rome. Near it was the Duke, and the best men and greatest strength of the army were there. The good knights, the good vassals, and brave warriors were there; and there were gathered together the gentle barons, the good archers, and the men-at-arms, whose duty it was to guard the Duke, and range themselves around him. The youths and common herd of the camp, whose business was not to join in the battle, but to take care of the harness and stores, moved on towards a rising ground. The priests and the clerks also ascended a hill, there to offer up prayers to God, and watch the event of the battle.
"The English stood firm on foot in close ranks, and carried themselves right boldly. Each man had his hauberk on, with his sword girt, and his shield at his neck. Great hatchets were also slung at their necks, with which they expected to strike heavy blows.
"The Normans brought on the three divisions of their army to attack at different places. They set out in three companies, and in three companies did they fight. The first and second had come up, and then advanced the third, which was the greatest; with that came the Duke with his own men, and all moved boldly forward.
"As soon as the two armies were in full view of each other, great noise and tumult arose. You might hear the sound of many trumpets, of bugles, and of horns: and then you might see men ranging themselves in line, lifting their shields, raising their lances, bending their bows, handling their arrows, ready for assault and defence.
"The English stood ready to their post, the Normans still moved on; and when they drew near, the English were to be seen stirring to and fro; were going and coming; troops ranging themselves in order; some with their colour rising, others turning pale; some making ready their arms, others raising their shields; the brave man rousing himself to fight, the coward trembling at the approach of danger.
"Then Taillefer, who sang right well, rode mounted on a swift horse, before the Duke, singing of Charlemagne and of Roland, of Olivier and the Peers who died in Roncesvalles. and when they drew nigh to the English, 'A boon, sire !' cried Taillefer; 'I have long served you, and you owe me for all such service. To- day, so please you, you shall repay it. I ask as my guerdon, and beseech you for it earnestly, that you will allow me to strike the first blow in the battle!' And the Duke answered, 'I grant it.' Then Taillefer put his horse to a gallop, charging before all the rest, and struck an Englishman dead, driving his lance below the breast into his body, and stretching him upon the ground. Then he drew his sword, and struck another, crying out, 'Come on, come on! What do ye, sirs! lay on, lay on!' At the second blow he struck, the English pushed forward, and surrounded and slew him. Forthwith arose the noise and cry of war, and on either side the people put themselves in motion.
"The Normans moved on to the assault, and the English defended themselves well. Some were striking, others urging onwards; all were bold, and cast aside fear. And now, behold, that battle was gathered, whereof the fame is yet mighty.
"Loud and far resounded the bray of the horns; and the shocks of the lances, the mighty strokes of maces, and the quick clashing of swords. One while the Englishmen rushed on, another while they fell back; one while the men from over the sea charged onwards, and again at other times retreated. The Normans shouted 'Dex aie,' the English people 'Out.' Then came the cunning manoeuvres, the rude shocks and strokes of the lance and blows of the swords, among the sergeants and soldiers, both English and Norman.
"When the English fall, the Normans shout. Each side taunts and defies the other, yet neither knoweth what the other saith; and the Normans say the English bark, because they understand not their speech.
"Some wax strong, others weak: the brave exult, but the cowards tremble, as men who are sore dismayed. The Normans press on the assault, and the English defend their post well: they pierce the hauberks, and cleave the shields, receive and return mighty blows. Again, some press forwards, others yield; and thus in various ways the struggle proceeds. In the plain was a fosse, which the Normans had now behind them, having passed it in the fight without regarding it. But the English charged, and drove the Normans before them till they made them fall back upon this fosse, overthrowing into it horses and men. Many were to be seen falling therein, rolling one over the other, with their faces to the earth, and unable to rise. Many of the English, also, whom the Normans drew down along with them, died there. At no time during the day's battle did so many Normans die as perished in that fosse. So those said who saw the dead.
"The varlets who were set to guard the harness began to abandon it as they saw the loss of the Frenchmen, when thrown back upon the fosse without power to recover themselves. Being greatly alarmed at seeing the difficulty in restoring order, they began to quit the harness, and sought around, not knowing where to find shelter. Then Duke William's brother, Odo, the good priest, the Bishop of Bayeux, galloped up, and said to them, 'Stand fast! stand fast! be quiet and move not! fear nothing, for if God please, we shall conquer yet.' So they took courage, and rested where they were; and Odo returned galloping back to where the battle was most fierce, and was of great service on that day. He had put hauberk on, over a white aube, wide in the body, with the sleeve tight; and sat on a white horse, so that all might recognise him. In his hand he held a mace, and wherever he saw most need he held up and stationed the knights, and often urged them on to assault and strike the enemy.
"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 Norman archers with their bows shot thickly upon the English; but they covered themselves with their shields, so that the arrows could not reach their bodies, nor do any mischief, how true soever was their aim, or however well they shot. Then the Normans determined to shoot their arrows upwards into the air, so that they might fall on their enemies' heads, and strike their faces. The archers adopted this scheme, and shot up into the air towards the English; and the arrows in falling struck their heads and faces, and put out the eyes of many; and all feared to open their eyes, or leave their faces unguarded.
"The arrows now flew thicker than rain before the wind; fast sped the shafts that the English called 'wibetes.' Then it was that an arrow, that had been thus shot upwards, struck Harold above his right eye and put it out. In his agony he drew the arrow and threw it away, breaking it with his hands; and the pain to his head was so great, that he leaned upon his shield. So the English were wont to say, and still say to the French, that the arrow was well shot which was so sent up against their king; and that the archer won them great glory, who thus put out Harold's eye.
"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 mischief 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!' 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.
"The Normans were playing their part well, when an English knight came rushing up, having in his company a hundred men, furnished with various arms. He wielded a northern hatchet, with the blade a full foot long; and was well armed after his manner, being tall, bold, and of noble carriage. In the front of the battle where the Normans thronged most, he came bounding on swifter than the stag, many Normans falling before him and his company. He rushed straight upon a Norman who was armed and riding on a war- horse, and tried with, his hatchet of steel to cleave his helmet; but the blow miscarried and the sharp blade glanced down before the saddle-bow, driving through the horse's neck down to the ground, so that both horse and master fell together to the earth. I know not whether the Englishman struck another blow; but the Normans who saw the stroke were astonished and about to abandon the assault, when Roger de Mongomeri came galloping up, with his lance set, and heeding not the long-handled axe, which the English-man wielded aloft, struck him down, and left him stretched upon the ground. Then Roger cried out, 'Frenchmen, strike! the day is ours!' and again a fierce MELEE was to be seen, with many a blow of lance and sword; the English still defending themselves, killing the horses and cleaving the shields.
"There was a French soldier of noble mien, who sat his horse gallantly. He spied two Englishmen who were also carrying themselves boldly. They were both men of great worth, and had become companions in arms and fought together, the one protecting the other. They bore two long and broad bills, and did great mischief to the Normans, killing both horses and men. The French soldier looked at them and their bills, and was sore alarmed, for he was afraid of losing his good horse, the best that he had; and would willingly have turned to some other quarter, if it would not have looked like cowardice. He soon, however, recovered his courage, and spurring his horse gave him the bridle, and galloped swiftly forward. Fearing the two bills, he raised his shield, and struck one of the Englishmen with his lance on the breast, so that the iron passed out at his back; at the moment that he fell the lance broke, and the Frenchmen seized the mace that hung at his right side, and struck the other Englishman a blow that completely broke his skull.
"On the other side was an Englishman who much annoyed the French, continually assaulting them with a keen-edged hatchet. He had a helmet made of wood, which he had fastened down to his coat, and laced round his neck, so that no blows could reach his head. The ravage he was making was seen by a gallant Norman knight, who rode a horse that neither fire nor water could stop in its career, when its master urged it on. The knight spurred, and his horse carried him on well till he charged the Englishman, striking him over the helmet, so that it fell down over his eyes; and as he stretched out his hand to raise it and uncover the face, the Norman cut off his right hand, so that his hatchet fell to the ground. Another Norman sprang forward and eagerly seized the prize with both his hands, but he kept it little space, and paid dearly for it, for as he stooped to pick up the hatchet, an Englishman with his long-handled axe struck him over the back, breaking all his bones, so that his entrails and lungs gushed forth. The knight of the good horse meantime returned without injury; but on his way he met another Englishman, and bore him down under his his horse, wounding him grievously, and trampling him altogether under foot.
"And now might be heard the loud clang and cry of battle, and the clashing of lances. The English stood firm in their barricades, and shivered the lances, beating them into pieces with their bills and maces. The Normans drew their swords, and hewed down the barricades, and the English in great trouble fell back upon their standard, where were collected the maimed and wounded.
"There were many knights of Chauz, who jousted and made attacks. The English knew not how to joust, or bear arms on horseback but fought with hatchets and bills. A man when he wanted to strike with one of their hatchets, was obliged to hold it with both his hands, and could not at the same time, as it seems to me, both cover himself and strike with any freedom.
"The English fell back towards the standard, which was upon a rising ground, and the Normans followed them across the valley, attacking them on foot and horseback. Then Hue de Mortemer, with the sires D'Auviler, D'Onebac, and St. Cler, rode up and charged, overthrowing many.
"Robert Fitz Erneis fixed his lance, took his shield, and, galloping towards the standard, with his keen-edged sword struck an Englishman who was in front, killed him, and then drawing back his sword, attacked many others, and pushed straight for the standard, trying to beat it down, but the English surrounded it, and killed him with their bills. He was found on the spot, when they afterwards sought for him, dead, and lying at the standard's foot.
"Duke William pressed close upon the English with his lance; striving hard to reach the standard with the great troop he led; and seeking earnestly for Harold, on whose account the whole war was. The Normans follow their lord, and press around him; they ply their blows upon the English; and these defend themselves stoutly, striving hard with their enemies, returning blow for blow.
"One of them was a man of great strength, a wrestler, who did great mischief to the Normans with his hatchet; all feared him, for he struck down a great many Normans. The Duke spurred on his horse, and aimed a blow at him, but he stooped, and so escaped the stroke; then jumping on one side, he lifted his hatchet aloft, and as the Duke bent to avoid the blow the Englishman boldly struck him on the head, and beat in his helmet, though without doing much injury. He was very near falling, however, but bearing on his stirrups he recovered himself immediately; and when he thought to have revenged himself upon the churl by killing him, he had escaped, dreading the Duke's blow. He ran back in among the English, but he was not safe even there; for the Normans seeing him, pursued and caught him; and having pierced him through and through with their lances, left him dead on the ground.
"Where the throng of the battle was greatest, the men of Kent and Essex fought wondrously well, and made the Normans again retreat, but without doing them much injury. And when the Duke saw his men fall back and the English triumphing over them, his spirit rose high, and he seized his shield and his lance, which a vassal handed to him, and took his post by his standard.
"Then those who kept close guard by him and rode where he rode, being about a thousand armed men, came and rushed with closed ranks upon the English; and with the weight of their good horses, and the blows the knights gave, broke the press of the enemy, and scattered the crowd before them, the good Duke leading them on in front. Many pursued and many fled; many were the Englishmen who fell around, and were trampled under the horses, crawling upon the earth, and not able to rise. Many of the richest and noblest men fell in that rout, but the English still rallied in places; smote down those whom they reached, and maintained the combat the best they could; beating down the men and killing the horses. One Englishman watched the Duke, and plotted to kill him; he would have struck him with his lance, but he could not, for the Duke struck him first, and felled him to the earth.
"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 fell back, 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 pressed on so far, that at last they had 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 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.
"Gurth 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 standard 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.
"William fought well; many an assault did he lead, many a blow did he give, and many receive, and many fell dead under his hand. Two horses were killed under him, and he took a third at time of need, so that he fell not to the ground; and he lost not a drop of blood. But whatever any one did, and whoever lived or died, this is certain, that William conquered, and that many of the English fled from the field, and many died on the spot. Then he returned thanks to God, and in his pride ordered his standard to be brought and set up on high where the English standard had stood; and that was the signal of his having conquered and beaten down the foe. And he ordered his tent to be raised on the spot among the dead, and had his meat brought thither, and his supper prepared there.
"Then he took off his armour; and the barons and knights, pages and squires came, when he had unstrung his shield: and they took the helmet from his head, and the hauberk from his back, and saw the heavy blows upon his shield, and how his helmet was dinted in. And all greatly wondered, and said, 'Such a baron never bestrode war-horse, or dealt such blows, or did such feats of arms; neither has there been on earth such a knight since Rollant and Olivier.'
"Thus they lauded and extolled him greatly, and rejoiced in what they saw; but grieving also for their friends who were slain in the battle. And the Duke stood meanwhile among them of noble stature and mien; and rendered thanks to the King of Glory, through whom he had the victory; and thanked the knights around him, mourning also frequently for the dead. And he ate and drank among the dead, and made his bed that night upon the field.
"The morrow was Sunday; and those who had slept upon the field of battle, keeping watch around, and suffering great fatigue, bestirred themselves at break of day and sought out and buried such of the bodies of their dead friends as they might find. The noble ladies of the land also came, some to seek their husbands, and others their fathers, sons, or brothers. They bore the bodies to their villages, and interred them at the churches; and the clerks and priests of the country were ready, and at the request of their friends, took the bodies that were found, and prepared graves and laid them therein.
"King Harold was carried and buried at Varham; but I know not who it was that bore him thither, neither do I know who buried him. Many remained on the field, and many had fled in the night."
Such is a Norman account of the battle of Hastings, which does full justice to the valour of the Saxons, as well as to the skill and bravery of the victors. [In the preceding pages, I have woven together the "purpureos pannos" of the old chronicler. In so doing, I have largely availed myself of Mr. Edgar Taylor's version of that part of the "Roman de Rou" which describes the conquest. By giving engravings from the Bayeux Tapestry, and excellent notes, Mr. Taylor has added much to the value and interest of his volume.] It is indeed evident that the loss of the battle to the English was owing to the wound which Harold received in the afternoon, and which must have incapacitated him from effective command. When we remember that he had himself just won the battle of Stamford Bridge over Harald Hardrada by the manoeuvre of a feigned flight, it is impossible to suppose that he could be deceived by the same stratagem on the part of the Normans at Hastings. But his men, when deprived of his control would very naturally be led by their inconsiderate ardour into the pursuit that proved so fatal to them. All the narratives of the battle, however much they may vary as to the precise time and manner of Harold's fall, eulogise the generalship and the personal prowess which he displayed, until the fatal arrow struck him. The skill with which he had posted his army was proved, both by the slaughter which it cost the Normans to force the position, and also by the desperate rally which some of the Saxons made, after the battle, in the forest in the rear, in which they cut off a large number of the pursuing Normans. This circumstance is particularly mentioned by William of Poictiers, the Conqueror's own chaplain. Indeed, if Harold, or either of his brothers, had survived, the remains of the English army might have formed again in the wood, and could at least have effected an orderly retreat, and prolonged the war. But both Gurth and Leofwine, and all the bravest thanes of Southern England, lay dead on Senlac, around their fallen king and the fallen standard of their country. The exact number of the slain on the Saxon side is unknown; but we read that on the side of the victors, out of sixty thousand men who had been engaged, no less than a fourth perished: so well had the English bill-men "plied the ghastly blow" and so sternly had the Saxon battle-axe cloven Norman casque and mail. [The Conqueror's chaplain calls the Saxon battle-axes "saevissimas secures."] The old historian Daniel justly as well as forcibly remarks, [As cited in the "Pictorial History."] "Thus was tried, by the great assize of God's judgment in battle, the right of power between the English and Norman nations; a battle the most memorable of all others; and, however miserably lost, yet most nobly fought on the part of England."
Many a pathetic legend was told in after years respecting the discovery and the burial of the corpse of our last Saxon king. The main circumstances, though they seem to vary, are perhaps reconcilable. [See them collected in Lingard, vol. i p. 452, ET SEQ.; Thierry, vol i. p. 299; Sharon Turner, Vol. i. p. 82; and Histoire de Normandie par Lieguet, p. 242.] Two of the monks of Waltham abbey, which Harold had founded a little time before his election to the throne, had accompanied him to the battle. On the morning after the slaughter they begged and gained permission of the Conqueror to search for the body of their benefactor. The Norman soldiery and camp-followers had stripped and gashed the slain; and the two monks vainly strove to recognise from among the mutilated and gory heaps around them the features of their former king. They sent for Harold's mistress, Edith, surnamed "the Fair" and the "Swan-necked," to aid them. The eye of love proved keener than the eye of gratitude, and the Saxon lady, even in that Aceldama, knew her Harold.
The king's mother now sought the victorious Norman, and begged the dead body of her son. But William at first answered in his wrath, and in the hardness of his heart, that a man who had been false to his word and his religion should have no other sepulchre than the sand of the shore. He added, with a sneer, "Harold mounted guard on the coast while he was alive; he may continue his guard now he is dead." The taunt was an unintentional eulogy; and a grave washed by the spray of the Sussex waves would have been the noblest burial-place for the martyr of Saxon freedom. But Harold's mother was urgent in her lamentations and her prayers: the Conqueror relented: like Achilles, he gave up the dead body of his fallen foe to a parent's supplications; and the remains of King Harold were deposited with regal honours in Waltham Abbey.
On Christmas day of the same year, William the Conqueror was crowned at London, King of England.
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