Battle: 950 Years Ago, Today
October 14, 2016 12 Comments
You know that I like to commemorate events in history, and October is a rich month for that. I’ve often said that American history is a niece of British, especially English history. This month is a prime example of why. Today is the 950th anniversary of the battle of Hastings. The Norman Conquest is one of the pivots of our (and perhaps world) history. Don’t think so? Let’s look at it, but first a short history of it.
In January St. Edward the Confessor, the last King of England of the House of Wessex, which we have spoken of several times with regard to Alfred the Great, died, and eventually was borne in state to the new Westminster Abbey (which he built) where he was buried. Incidentally, his feast day is 13 October.
The succession was a disputed one, it settled out as having three claimants, Harold Godwinson, The nobles of the realm offered him the crown, although he had a pretty weak claim to it, being the brother-in-law of King Cnut
Amongst the other claimants, King Swegn Estrithson, of Denmark and Edgar Aetheling (Atheling actually means throneworthy) and he was of the House of Wessex, the Grandson of Edmund Ironside, he was also a minor. Neither of these seems to have been considered at all.
But there was also King Harold Hardrada of Norway acting on behalf of Tostig, Earl of Northumbria, and King Harold’s brother. Tostig has always seemed to me to be a very troublesome younger brother, and it looks like Harold thought so too. But this was a serious claim.
Then there was William, Duke of Normandy, whose claim was based on a promise made ears before by Edward, and backed by the Pope.
And so, Harold was crowned at Westminster by Archbishop Stigand of Canterbury and Archbishop Ealdred of York. I also note that Halley’s comet was visiting that year, all seemed to think it a bad omen for Harold and a good one for William.
To contest this matter, William had to convince his nobles to help, and not demand, which he did and got the support of the Pope as well. William was a planner and took his time with his preparations, which worked to his benefit.
And so, in May, Tostig made his first, abortive try to invade England, which caused Harold to call out the Fyrd, which was peasants who were required to serve at his pleasure, and he kept them out, waiting for William.
Meanwhile, William was preparing including calling his magnates to help him dedicate his wife Mathilda’s new abbey of St Etienne, in Caen, on 18 June 1066, and get his people to support him.
On 20 September Tostig and Harold sailed up the Ouse river and fought Earls Edwin and Morcar at Fulford outside York. The Earls were defeated and badly and took no further part. Following this Harold came up with a scratch force consisting mostly of his own Housecarls and thegns, He then marched 180 miles in four days calling out shire levies as he went. He offered Tostig his earldom back if he would change sides, and when he didn’t the forces met at Stamford Bridge on 25 September.
Both Hardrada and Tostig were killed in the battle beneath the Raven banner but, it was a hard battle and the King’s force was beat up and tired.
At this point, William landed probably at Pevensey from his 700 ships. And then he proceeded to burn and pillage to force Harold to come south and fight him. Which worked. Harold raced his forces back south down the Roman road called Ermine Street and on 14 October they met in battle, at where else, the place now called Battle. A friend mentioned the other day that Harold stopped at Waltham Abbey. She writes:
In the run-up to 14 October, an intrepid group of re-enactors are currently retracing the likely route of Harold Godwineson’s march from York to Battle, via Lincoln,Peterborough and the Weald of Kent. Today [6 Oct] they will be passing through Waltham, where (according to the abbey’s twelfth-century chronicle) Harold stopped on his way to Hastings, and prayed before its Black Rood for a victory which would not come:
[Harold] had entered the church of the Holy Cross in the early morning, and placing upon the altar relics which he had with him in his chapel, he made a vow that if the Lord granted him success in the outcome of the war he would endow the church with a large number of estates as well as many clerks to serve God in that place, and he promised to serve God in the future like a purchased slave. Accompanied by the clergy, and with a procession leading the way, he came to the doors of the church where, turning towards the crucifix, the king in devotion to the holy cross stretched himself out on the ground in the form of a cross and prayed. Then occurred an event pitiable to relate and incredible from an earthly point of view. When the king bowed low to the ground the image of the crucified one, which had previously been looking directly ahead above him, now bowed its head as if in sorrow, a sign portending what was to happen.
Turkill, the sacristan, testified that he had seen this while he was himself collecting together and putting away the gifts which the king had placed on the altar, and that he told many people about it. I heard this from his very lips, and it was confirmed by many bystanders who with their eyes saw the head of the figure upright, though none of them except Turkill knew the moment it had bowed.
The Waltham Chronicle: an account of the discovery of our holy cross at Montacute and its conveyance to Waltham, ed. and trans. Leslie Watkiss and Marjorie Chibnall (Oxford, 1994), p.47.
This powerful miracle-story feels as if it was born of the same impulse of historical imagination as prompts re-enactors to retrace Harold’s route today. To me one of the most poignant images of 1066 is the thought of that grieving marble figure, and Harold’s unanswered, though miraculously acknowledged, prayer.
It’s an interesting battle, and the linked article gives a reasonable description but the short form is: William won and Harold died. You may have heard of Battle Abbey, it marks the site.
And so for the last time (so far) in history was England conquered by an outside force.
It is beyond doubt, one of the most pivotal moments in our, and the world’s history.