SHEDNOTES 21: On 1066 and all that

The Shed’s library includes a section called Reading For Kids and the Telegraph ran a nice piece by Dominic Selwood on the significance of the Battle of Hastings which needs to go in there.
Full at
Condensed version:
“We like to think that Anglo-Saxon England was brutally cut down in 1066 — unexpectedly — in a battle lasting just one day.
“The reality, of course, is far more complex.
“For a start, in 1066 England was not ruled exclusive by Anglo-Saxons, and the Normans were not an alien race. Leading Anglo-Saxon and Norman families were already deeply intermarried. For instance, that famous 11th-century Anglo-Saxon king Saint Edward the Confessor was mixed race. His father, Æthelred II “the Unready” (unraed, no counsel or unwise) was as Anglo-Saxon as they come. But his mother, Emma, was a powerful Norman noblewoman — daughter of Duke Richard II of Normandy.
“Edward’s connections to Normandy ran deep throughout his life. Although born in the Oxfordshire village of Islip, the unrelenting Viking threat meant he was taken for safety to Normandy in 1013, and again from 1016–1041. So when he ascended the English throne aged 37/40, he had spent the last 25 years of his life in Normandy. Understandably, as soon as he got the chance, he set about appointing Normans to many of the senior positions in English government and the Church.
“It was an age when kings and dukes were primarily warlords. Their worth was measured in land and spilled blood. It was therefore inevitable that as the governments and noble houses of the Anglo-Saxons and Normans became ever more intertwined, the Normans would come for the throne of England sooner or later.
“The road to Hastings began ordinarily enough. A man lay dying. As it happened, it was Edward the Confessor … leaving the world childless. To no one’s surprise, as the end approached, he nominated as heir his brother-in-law, the 46-year-old Earl Harold Godwinson of Wessex.
“Harold was the kingdom’s richest noble, and a great military commander who had subjugated Wales in 1063.
“But the dead king’s ineffectual leadership had passed Harold a major headache, as one of Edward’s favourite political strategies had been to promise all sorts of people he would make them his heir. He had, most likely in 1051, promised the throne to Duke William of Normandy, a distant cousin.
“There were other claimants, too. King Harald III of Norway had a claim to the throne via an earlier agreement between Harthacnut (king of England and Denmark) and Magnus I (king of Norway and Denmark). Over in Hungary, Edgar the Ætheling had a claim as grandson of King Edmund II “Ironside”. And in exile in Flanders and Normandy, Tostig Godwinson, Harold’s rebellious brother, was nursing a venomous grievance against the Anglo-Saxon establishment.
“So, with the sacred coronation oil still wet on Harold’s head, a lot of steel began to be sharpened across the water, from Normandy to Norway.
“Harold identified the most immediate threat as Duke William of Normandy.
“William, like his predecessors, was of Viking stock, tracing his direct male line back to Rollo the Viking, who had moved south from Scandinavia into France around AD 900, where he and his people were recognised asNortmanni or northmen, eventually giving rise to the name Norman. They converted to Christianity, began speaking French, gave up boats and learned the ways of Frankish cavalry combat, but remained fundamentally fired up by their traditional lives of warfare and looting.
“William did not have an easy childhood. His father was true-blue Norman nobility, Duke Robert I “the Devil” of Normandy. But his mother, Herleva, was a concubine and tanner’s daughter — hence the taunts of bastardy that William received throughout his life.
“When he unexpectedly became duke at the age of seven, Normandy immediately descended into anarchy and warfare, as all levels of the nobility (including his family) tried to exploit his youth — murdering three of his guardians and even his tutor. Somehow he survived the free-for-all, and the experience hardened him into a survivor. Once knighted aged 15, he immediately set about pacifying and restoring order to his duchy, seizing back possessions that had been taken from him, and imposing justice on the lawless opportunists who had destabilised his inheritance.
“It was a remorseless apprenticeship in blood and power that turned him into one of the most accomplished warriors and rulers of the age. He earned his authority by the sword.
“By the time Harold Godwinson was crowned at Westminster Abbey in 1066, William was 38 years old, had spent his entire life fighting, and was very, very experienced at taking what he believed was rightfully his.
“Winners write history, and the Battle of Hastings (or, more precisely, the Battle of Senlac) was no exception. There is therefore a lot about 1066 that remains contested and unknown.
“On the 27th of September, after bad weather forced an eight-week delay, William crossed the Channel in around 600 transports with perhaps as many as 7,000 infantry and cavalry. He faced no opposition at sea or on landing at Pevensey, so was free to move east towards Hastings.
“Harold was busy elsewhere. It had been a long summer, with threats to his crown coming from all angles.
“In May, Tostig Godwinson (King Harold’s exiled brother) raided the east coast, but was beaten off by Earl Edwin of Mercia. Harold had been guarding the south coast against an anticipated attack by William, but by the end of the summer he had run out of supplies and had to let his militia go back to their fields for the harvest. Then, in mid-September, King Harald Hardraada of Norway landed an army near York, which was quickly reinforced by Tostig and his men. Together, on the 20th of September, they comprehensively defeated the northern earls at the battle of Fulford.
“To head off this very serious threat. Harold raised men again and rushed to the east of York, where he annihilated Hardraada and Tostig’s armies on the 25th of September at the battle of Stamford Bridge, leaving both invading leaders dead on the battlefield.
“The distance between Hastings and Yorkshire meant that Harold did not hear of William’s arrival until the 2nd of October. A battle on the south coast was the last thing he or his tired army needed. Nevertheless, he headed south. After 11 days — and having stopped to raise local militias and collect some fresh but inexperienced troops in London — he drew near to Hastings on the 13th of October, where his army of around 7,000 pitched camp.
“As the sun rose on the 14th of October, William moved out to meet Harold. He had his archers in front, his infantry behind, and three divisions of cavalry bringing up the rear. The men were a mix of Norman, Breton, Flemish, and French, with a significant number of mercenaries and adventurers.
“Harold’s army was simpler, just infantry, Anglo-Saxon style, who rode to battle but fought on foot. The majority came from the fyrd (locally raised militia), but at the centre of the force were the housecarls, the king’s professional, personal troops, among the toughest infantry of the period anywhere in Europe.
“Some medieval accounts say that Taillefer, a Norman jongleur, rode out first, juggling a sword and whipping the men up with a spirited recitation of the Chanson de Roland. He slew an Anglo-Saxon who ran out to silence him, before running into the enemy ranks and being cut down.
“Attacking from the south, William’s archers scored initial success against the Anglo-Saxons on the top of the hill, but at the cost of many dead from javelins and slingshot. He then unleashed his mounted cavalry up the slope, but they fled after being savaged by Anglo-Saxon double-handed battle-axes and being spooked by a rumour that William was dead.
“William took off his helmet to show he was still alive, regrouped the knights, and set up a rhythm of alternating volleys of arrows and cavalry charges. The Anglo-Saxon shield wall held firm on top of the hill, but William fooled them with two feigned retreats, luring groups of Anglo-Saxons down off the ridge in pursuit, only to be rounded on and massacred.
“The grind and gore of close quarters battle wore on throughout the day. Three horses were cut down from under William, but he drove on until eventually the Anglo-Saxons began tiring of their defence against mounted cavalry. As the shadows lengthened, two of Harold’s brothers fell, and — in the late afternoon — Harold was killed. His men fought on for a while, but as dusk came they broke and scattered.
“It was over. As the Shropshire monk Orderic Vitalis recorded:
The mangled bodies that had been the flower of the English nobility and youth covered the ground as far as the eye could see.
“William wasted no time. He swung his army north-west to London, and the remaining Anglo-Saxon leaders submitted to him at Berkhamstead. He was crowned king of England in Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day 1066. As an indication of divisions to come, when the crowd in the abbey cheered him in English and French, the guards outside were unnerved by the foreign shouts and thought there was treachery afoot, so set fire to surrounding buildings. The coronation descended into chaos as people ran out of the abbey to go looting, while William, the bishops, clergy, and monks finished the ceremony.
“To quash the ensuing revolts, William rapidly built castles across the land (most famously the Tower of London), which he used as bases from which to crush opposition. The most dangerous revolt came from Northumbria in 1069–70, but William’s troops smashed it, before decimating vast tracts of northern England in the almost genocidal “Harrowing of the North”, principally designed to waste the land to stop further Viking incursions or support for them.
“The king stopped at nothing to hunt his enemies. He cut down many people and destroyed homes and land. Nowhere else had he shown such cruelty. This made a real change. To his shame, William made no effort to control his fury, punishing the innocent with the guilty. He ordered that crops and herds, tools and food be burned to ashes. More than 100,000 people perished of starvation.
“Small-scale resistance persisted in isolated pockets — most famously orchestrated by Hereward the Wake from his base on the Isle of Ely in the Fens — but before long the rebellions fell quiet.
“One of the enduring mysteries of the Battle of Hastings is what really happened to Harold. The famous image from the Bayeux tapestry has him felled with an arrow in his eye, but none of the six broadly contemporary chronicles mention this, and the tapestry was made probably 10 or 20 years later. It is most likely that the tapestry weavers included it as a symbolic death — a visual code identifying Harold’s perjury, for which blinding was a common punishment.”
* The Shed has been recommended to the Hereward The Wake books, by James Wilde, who was inspired by a 1950s comic strip we remember. Which comic though?

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