Reading and writing Hastings: the battle and its sources

Today marks the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings in 1066, famously noted by Sellar and Yeatman as one of only two memorable dates in British history. It is  an event that has done much to shape the field in which I work, setting the marker by which the Normans were judged, informing the research agenda and leading to seemingly endless debates on what happened on that fateful October day. At fist glance we have a plethora of sources that provide wonderful accounts, yet none of them agree, except as to the outcome. And why should they?

To ask what exactly happened when the two armies met on 14 October 1066 is to pose the wrong question. A far more interesting and instructive way of reading our various accounts is to think about the context in which they were written, including audience, sources of information, genre and date. It is also important to think about what William and Harold aimed to achieve by the end of the day. In many modern analyses of the battle, though, these important aspects have got lost in the noise of trying to determine tactics, numbers, deployments and reconstructing a chronology. For example, how many feigned flights were there? Which squadron was on which flank? Did the battle start with archers?

The first thing to note is that medieval warfare was as bloody and confusing as anything we see in our twenty-first century, conflict-ridden world. Information that comes out of modern warzones can be contradictory, even with (or perhaps, because of) the practice of embedding reporters within armies. On the whole, although churchmen (who were largely responsible for the writing of history in the eleventh century) did form part of William’s entourage, reports written from the frontline in this period don’t exist. All our accounts were, therefore, written sometime after the battle itself. They drew on different information, used different rhetorical devices (such as direct speech) and were written in different places. There is no reason why they should agree on anything, except Harold was killed and the Normans won.

Our earliest sources are not without controversy. William of Poitiers’ biography of Duke William no longer survives in a medieval manuscript and we are dependent on early modern editions for its preservation. The Carmen de Hastingae Proelio has variously been dated to the late 1060s or the mid-twelfth century when R.H.C. Davis dismissed it as a literary exercise (I follow E. van Houts in accepting an early date). The Bayeux Tapestry, also dated to the late 1060s-1070s has been the subject of intense debate regarding patronage, design, where it was made and why. It has suffered a troubled history resulting in damage, repairs, alterations and fabrications that just add to the confusion. English sources only refer to the battle briefly. Our later twelfth-century sources like Orderic Vitalis, Henry of Huntingdon and William of Malmesbury, draw on earlier accounts, most notably, William of Poitiers, while inserting new material reflecting their own ideas. They were of course writing with considerable hindsight and also in a very human way trying to understand the devastating events that led to establishment of William’s dynasty and the death of so many people on the field.

Some examples will help here. One of the debates surrounding tactics is that of the feigned flight. This was a cavalry manoeuvre deployed by the Normans who pretended to run away in order to lure the English down from the high ground and thus break the sheild wall. William of Poitiers records three such flights, though the first one appears not to be intentional:

Terrified by this ferocity [of the English] , both the footsoldiers and the Breton knights and other auxiliaries on the left wing turned tail; amost the whole of the duke’s battle line gave way, if such a thing may be said of the unconquered people of the Normans.

Following this flight, the duke famously lifted his helmet to demonstrate he was a live and fighting, the exhorting his troops to greater deeds, a scene also found on the Bayeux Tapstery.

A key point to note here is the role of the Bretons. William of Poitiers had a low opinion of them as a people, earlier in his work borrowing Tacitus’s description of the Germans to describe them as barbours in comparison to the civilised Normans. It is no coincidence that the Bretons are the knights who turn tail in his account. Orderic Vitalis writing later critices the Breton temprement in other circumstances. For both writers, implicit or explicit criticism of the Bretons served to heighten praise of the Normans and Duke William’s generalship.

William of Malmesbury focuses on explanations for the success of the Normans, describing how they spent the eve of the battle praying while the English got drunk. He also laid the blame for Harold’s failure on the character and sins of the English.

The nobles, abandoned to gluttony and lechery, never went to church of a monring as a Christian should; but into his chamber, in his wife’s embrace, a man would lend a careless ear to some priest galloping through the solemn words of matins and the mass. The common people, vulnerable form every quarter, were the prey of their mower powerful neighbours.

Hastings was part of God’s plan for the English and a response to their sinful ways. A marker of good kingship in the central middle ages was that the ruler was responsible for the sins of his people and their salvation, a theme derived from Old Testament precedents. In this Harold had failed.

Henry of Huntingdon writing in the mid-twelfth century during a period of bitter civil war in England began his account with a wonderful battle speech that he placed in the mouth of Duke William and that recounted past deeds and victories of the Normans’ ancestors. In it William also claimed kinship with Edward the Confessor and his murdered brother Alfred indicating the legitimacy of his cause. Given the succession was at the heart of strugges between King Stephen and Empress Matilda, this is unsurprising.

So what of the aims of the two protagonists? Harold had already fought a fierce battle against Harald Hadraada at Stamford Bridge near York while William had landed on the south coast and was busy raiding his rival’s ancestral lands. This was a smart move as it might well have encouraged Harold to make greater haste to engage in battle than he otherwise would have done. For William the task was relatively straightforward: to kill Harold, thus removing the person he saw as usurping his rightful kingdom. Thankfully, our sources do agree that Harold was killed, though not exactly on when during the battle this happened. Except, of course, a thirteenth-century life of Harold that claims he survived, but that’s another story.

If we want to know the key facts of the 14 October, we can do no better than to turn to three key sources: William of Jumièges’ Gesta Normannorum ducum, Eadmer’s Historia novella and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. William who took up his pen again in 1070 to recount the conquest tells us that ‘Harold was himself slain, pierced with mortal wounds’. Eadmer is admirably concise: ‘a furious battle was joined; Harold fell in the thick of the fray and William as conqueror possessd himself of the kingdom’. The Anglo-Saxon chronicle D version notes that after William had returned to Normandy in 1067, Odo and William fitzOsbern who had been left in charge ‘built castles here and far and wide throughout this country, and distressed wretched folk, and always after that it grew much worse.’

If only these three narrative sources survived, we would know all we needed to know about the facts and events of 14 October 1066: there was a battle between the Normans and the English in which Harold was killed, William became king, and that the process of conquest was a long and hard one.

Further reading:

The main sources for Hastings exist in good modern translations or editions:

Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, trans. by M. Swanton (London: Dent, 1996)

The Carmen de Hastingae Proelio of Guy Bishop of Amiens, ed. and trans. by F. Barlow (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999)

Eadmer, History of Recent Events in England, trans. by G. Bosanquet (London: Cresset Press, 1964)

Henry of Huntingdon, Historia Anglorum, ed. and trans. D. Greenway (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996)

The Gesta Normannorum of William of Jumièges, Orderic Vitalis and Robert of Torigni, ed. and trans. by E. van Houts, 2 vols (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992–95)

Orderic Vitalis, The Ecclesiastical History, ed. and trans. by M. Chibnall, 6 vols (Oxford: Clarendon, 1969–80) 

A History of the Norman People: Wace’s Roman de Rou, trans. by G. Burgess with notes by G. Burgess and E. van Houts (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2004) 

William of Malmesbury, Gesta regum Anglorum, ed. and trans. by R.A.B. Mynors, R.M Thomson and M. Winterbottom, 2 vols (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998)

William of Poitiers, The Gesta Guillelmi, ed. and trans. by R.H.C. Davis and M. Chibnall (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998)

Good introductions to the sources and their problems include:

B. Golding, Conquest and Colonisation: the Normans in Britain, 1066–1100, 2nd edn (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2013)

L. Hicks, A Short History of the Normans (London: I.B.Tauris, 2016)

The Normans in Europe, ed. by E. van Houts (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000)


Author: lvhicks

Medievalist specialising in the Normans

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