Before Hastings


Anglo-Saxons vs Vikings


As a monarch Edward the Confessor made singularly little impression on the English chroniclers. He also made hardly any impression at all upon the course of English life. Of his character and nature, very little is known. The fact that he survived at all in such a ruthless and violent society suggests that he possessed shrewdness as well as resilience. He was called ‘the Confessor’ because he was deemed to have borne witness to the efficacy of the Christian faith, but in life he was not a particularly pious king. In one eulogistic poem he is described as ‘claene and milde’: he was ‘claene’ because he was not licentious, and he had no child; he was ‘milde’ because he was merciful. But he was not devout. His grants to the abbeys and monasteries were no more than what was expected. He showed no particular talent for diplomacy or administration. He had no grand plan; he worked by hazard and necessity, responding to each crisis in a measured manner. He had no principles other than those of self-interest and survival. Chance, and fortune, were his mentors. In this he was not unlike any other English king. It is perhaps the most important lesson of the nation’s history.

With his death the life of England passes to a new stage. In the period from the eighth to the eleventh centuries, the identity of the nation was formed. Edward the Confessor had been rex Anglorum, ‘king of the English’, and his people were the anglica gens; he controlled Anglorum exercitus, ‘the army of the English’, and anglicanum regnum, ‘the kingdom of the English’. In this period, too, the fundamental components of the English state – the shire, the hundred and the tithing – were complete. England was unique and distinctive in its possession of a strong state. English law was propounded and drawn up in elaborate codes, with laws on property and inheritance that remained fundamentally unaltered for many hundreds of years. The art and literature of the period, including Beowulf (tentatively dated to the eighth century) and the Lindisfarne Gospels (early eighth century), have become part of the English heritage. Most importantly, the customs of the land were maintained and its traditions were preserved. The essential continuities of the English nation were passed on.

To whom did Edward leave his crown? The question has never been satisfactorily resolved. It is reported that on his deathbed he pronounced Harold, son of Godwin, as his successor. Harold was not in fact the rightful heir; that honour was held by the king’s great-nephew, Edgar Atheling, who was only fourteen years old. In turn William, duke of Normandy, claimed that Edward had offered him the crown and that Harold had sworn on the relics of the saints to submit to William. Since history is written by the victor, that account became generally accepted. It is likely to be completely untrue.

In any case Harold believed himself to have the greater claim, even though he was not part of any royal dynasty. He was the senior earl in the country, earl of East Anglia and earl of Wessex, possessed of vast estates and a great fortune. He was brother-in-law to the dead monarch and in Edward’s lifetime he was deemed to be a sub-regulus or ‘under-king’. The chroniclers report that he was of a free and open nature, and his own acts prove that he was skilful and brave in matters of war. With his brother, Tostig, he subdued Wales in 1063. So on 6 January 1066, the day of Edward’s burial, Harold was crowned as king of the English; it was the first coronation in the newly consecrated Westminster Abbey. Yet this happy precedent did not necessarily augur well. His reign, lasting nine months and nine days, was one of the shortest in English history.

Two threats were raised against his kingdom. One came from the Scandinavian kings of northern Europe, eager to restore Canute’s empire, and the other now came from Normandy, where Duke William seems to have felt himself slighted or humiliated by the choice of Harold as king. It is alleged that, on hearing the news, he was much agitated. He could not sit still. He raged. He was driven by greed and desire for power.

William was a child of violence and of adversity. In his earlier years he was known as William the Bastard, being the illegitimate child of his father’s relationship with the daughter of a tanner. He himself said that ‘I was schooled in war since childhood’, when he succeeded to the duchy at the age of seven or eight. He came to power in a region that was noted for private feud and vendetta with ensuing public disorder. But by force of character he subdued his enemies. He won his first victory on the battlefield at the age of nineteen, and reduced the neighbouring regions of Maine and Brittany to feudal dependency. He was a man of formidable power and ruthlessness, greedy for lands and for money. But he had one great gift; he had the power of command and was able to bend men to his will. If they refused to be persuaded, he broke them.

That is why he was able to recreate the Norman state in his own image. It was still essentially a Norse state, fashioned from the early tenth century when Norwegian invaders forced their way into the territory and were allowed to settle there. The Normans were indeed the North men. They were part of a warrior aristocracy, their culture and society far less sophisticated than those of England. But they were learned in the new arts of war, which the English armies had not yet mastered. Duke William took the disparate regions of his duchy and, through a potent mixture of bellicosity and cunning, forged them into a centralized state under his leadership. He is a pre-eminent example of the ‘strong man’, the maker of the state, who emerges in all periods of the world’s history. He was 5 feet and 10 inches in height (1.7 metres), corpulent by middle age, with a harsh and rough voice. He had enormous strength and physical stamina. It was said that he could bend on horseback the bow that other men could not even bend on foot.

This was the enemy that King Harold most feared. William had no possible claim to the English throne except by right of conquest. And that is what he set out to achieve. It was in many respects a hazardous enterprise. The Normans had no fleet; the ships for the invasion, more than 500, would have to be built. William was also confronting a formidable adversary; the English state was wealthier and more powerful, with the potential of raising far more soldiers for the fight. The fortunes of battle were in any case uncertain, which was why the pitched conflicts of armies were avoided at all costs; it was better to harass, and to ravage, than to rely upon the outcome of one event.

Yet the force of the duke’s will was insurmountable; he persuaded the lords of Normandy, and certain French allies, to follow him across the sea. He promised in return innumerable riches from a country as prosperous as it was fruitful. William also enlisted the help of a higher power. He persuaded the pope to give his blessing to the enterprise, on the dubious grounds that Harold had violated a sacred oath taken in his submission to the duke. The pontiff sent William a ring containing one of the hairs of St Peter. In the same period William placed his daughter, Cecilia, into a nunnery at Caen. He had in effect sacrificed his daughter to God in the hope of a victory, just as Agamemnon sacrificed Iphigenia before sailing to Troy.

William made preparations for the great fleet to be collected on the Channel coast at Dives-sur-Mer by the middle of June 1066. 14,000 men were summoned for the onslaught. Harold, knowing of the naval threat, stationed his fleet at the Isle of Wight and posted land forces along the Channel coast. Yet the French army was kept in port by contrary winds. On eventually taking sail for England it was blown off course and was obliged to take shelter in the port of Saint Valéry-sur-Somme. There it remained until the last week of September. Never has an invasion been so bedevilled by bad luck, and it must have seemed to William’s commanders that divine help would not necessarily be forthcoming.

Meanwhile, Harold waited. For four months he kept his forces prepared for imminent attack. Then on 8 September, he disbanded them. Provisions were running out, and the men needed urgently to return to their farms. He may have been informed of the abortive sailing of William’s fleet and calculated that, with the season of storms approaching, there would be no invasion this year. Soon after his return to London, he learned of a more immediate danger. As the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle puts it, ‘Harald, king of Norway, came by surprise north into the Tyne.’ On 20 September, Harald Hardrada descended upon York. On hearing this unwelcome news Harold mustered his retainers; he marched north very swiftly, riding night and day, picking up local forces as he went forward. The first that the Danish army knew of his arrival was the sight of the dust thrown up by the horses. On 25 September he engaged the enemy at Stamford Bridge where he obtained a complete victory. It was a measure of his competence as a military commander. Harald Hardrada was killed in the course of the battle, marking the end of the Viking interest in England. ‘A great man,’ Harold said of Hardrada, ‘and of stately appearance. But I think his luck has left him.’

Harold’s own luck was soon dissipated. He was, in effect, the last of the English kings. As soon as he had celebrated the victory over the Norwegians, he received news that William had launched his invasion force. The duke had put a lantern on the mast of his ship, leading the way across the Channel. The Norman force landed in Pevensey Bay at nine o’clock in the morning on Thursday, 28 September 1066. It was the most fateful arrival in England’s history. From Pevensey Bay the Normans rowed around the coast to Hastings, which they considered to be more favourable terrain. William built a makeshift castle here, and proceeded to ransack the adjacent villages. But he did not march along the road to London; his position was essentially defensive, close to his ships.

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