October 16, 2020

Belated Anniversary of Hastings

Timothy Birdnow

Better late than never! I forgot to repost this from my old blog on the actual anniversary date (October 14, 1066.)

The Anniversary of Hastings


Throughout history certain days and events have been momentous, and the future often depends on the outcome of single occurrences. The battle of Marathon, Caesar`s crossing the Rubicon, Pope Leo facing down the ``Scourge of God``Attila, Charles Martel`s victory over the invading Saracens at Poitiers (or Tours), Washington`s victory at Yorktown, etc. are all examples of events which changed history. Oftentimes nobody understands the significance of the event. Today marks the anniversary of one such turning point, one which few know much about; it was on this day, October 14, in the Year of Our Lord 1066 that William, Duke of Normandy, destroyed the English army at the battle of Hastings and set the English speaking peoples on the path which would lead them to rule the world.

Our story begins in Roman times with the conquest of Britain by Caesar. The Britons were a Celtic people who lived on the southern half of the Island. Because of their proximity to Gaul they had cultural and trade contacts with the Continent, and so were a bit more cosmopolitan than their Highlander cousins. Eventually Rome cast covetous eyes on Britain, and Caesar launched the first of several invasions of the island. The Britons put up a half-hearted resistance, and took easily to life as a Roman province. (Rome was never able to subdue the Scots and Pics, nor the Irish. In fact, the Emperor Hadrian built a giant wall to keep the Scots from raiding Roman territory, much like the Chinese had done to keep the nomadic tribes out of the Middle Kingdom.) Times were good, and Britain became an amalgamation of Celtic and Roman culture.

With the Barbarian Invasions that all changed. The Britons found themselves on their own, and a series of Germanic tribes launched invasions across the channel. First came Angles, then Jutes and Saxons, and each of these tribes set up several kingdoms on what had been British territory. The Britons themselves slowly retreated into the western highlands, eventually becoming the Welsh. (As an interesting side note, the legendary King Arthur was the ruler of the Britons, not the English!) Over centuries the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes integrated into the Anglo-Saxons, and a classic feudal kingdom was established by Alfred the Great in 871.

A descendant of Alfred would rule England (with the exception of the Danish kings Cnut and his two sons) until Hastings. Royal blood was important to medieval people. They believed that God had ordained certain families for kingship, and it was therefore critical that the succession be followed. It`s hard for us to understand this concept today since we live in a world of opportunity and social mobility. The middle ages were very different; you were generally born into your state in life, and rarely did you leave it. (That was why the colonization of America proceeded so quickly; it offered hope to those stuck on the bottom rung of the socio-economic ladder!)

Throughout the early middle ages Vikings had been invading the coastal regions (and even the interior) and England was no exception. Numerous former Viking bands from Denmark had settled in what became known as the Danelaw (because they were under their own laws). Similarly, Vikings settled on the peninsula of Normandy, and this bunch adopted French language and customs. As a result, there was kinship between Normans and many English, and Normandy would be the land where the boy-king Ethelred the Unready would flee when the usurping Dane Cnute took his throne. The entire royal family went into exile-including a young man named Edward who would form a fast friendship with his little cousin William and who would eventually be forced to wear the crown of the Saxons.

Edward never wanted to be king. He was a quiet man who loved to hunt, and he often spent weeks at a time in the forests. He was also an exceptionally pious man, devoting hours every day to prayer in his private chapel and earning the moniker ``confessor`` from his adoring subjects. (Confessor was a medieval term for saint.) Because Edward had no desire for the throne, he proved to be a weak though kindly king. Fortunately, he found a very able and wise deputy who ran England through most of Edward`s reign and this man is pivotal to our story.

His name was Harold, son of Godwin. Godwin was the Earl of Wessexand, by and large, the most powerful man in England. He was largely responsible for the elevation of Edward to the throne, and was the only man who could tell the king to take a flying leap (although Edward would exile Godwin for a short time). Godwin had a large family, and his first son died so Harold became his heir, and Edward took him into royal service. Harold proved to be a very able administrator, and proved himself a military genius against the Welsh. Under his administration English coinage became the standard for all of Europe. Seeing that the kingdom was in good hands, Edward went into semi-retirement (you never get to fully retire as king) and, since Edward never sired an heir, Harold was the obvious next king.

I`ve always had a soft spot for Harold Godwinsson; he is the living embodiment of Greek Tragedy! Fate saw fit to align everything against him, and yet he still almost won. Harold would have been one of the greatest kings of England if he had been victorious-and England would have become a backwater as a result!

When it became obvious that Edward the Confessor would soon be meeting his maker, several individuals threw their hats into the ring to become king of England. There was Harold Godwinsson. There was the King of Denmark, a man named Sweyn who was a descendent of Cnut. There was the fierce Norse king of Norway Harold Hardrada, and there was William, duke of Normandy.

The Danish king Sweyn was not a serious contender because he was struggling to hold onto Denmark against the incursions of Harold Hardrada. The Fearsome Hadrada was the last of the great Viking kings. He had traveled the world, pillaging and plundering before settling down to rule Norway. It was said he personally blinded a Byzantine emperor, among other exploits. Hardrada was an enormous man; he generally had to walk into battle because he was too large for most horses! It didn`t matter whether he walked or rode-he was a killing machine in either case. He was related to the English throne by marriage, and was determined to become the next king of England.

Duke William of Normandy had the strongest claim to the throne. First cousin to Edward, he had actually paid Edward a state visit (something that was never done during the middle-ages) and claimed that Edward promised him the crown. William was a great warrior. He had survived numerous assassination attempts, and had to fight for his right to rule Normandy against a host of usurpers-including the king of France. William ruled by right of birth, and right of military power. His dukedom was far more centralized than England, with a standing army and construction crew which could build castles on occupied territory, thus allowing a few Norman soldiers to control large amounts of land.

Unfortunately for Harold Godwinsson, he had nothing comparable. England had no army or navy at that time. The English army was a militia called up from the nobility, with peasants following behind carrying sticks and clubs. The only navy England possessed consisted of privately owned fishing boats impressed into service. The feudal system in England meant that the local earls were supposed to contribute troops in time of need-but this rarely actually happened as the earldoms were more interested in grabbing what they could after a battle! The militia was operated by the Housecarls who acted as butlers during peacetime but led the ragtag militia during war. All of the soldiers, nobles and peasants alike, had to attend to their farms and so could only be called up for duty temporarily. Harold essentially had no army.

Shortly before Edward died, a strange thing happened to poor Harold; on a boating trip in the channel a storm shipwrecked him on the coast of Normandy where he was imprisoned by a local chieftain and held for ransom. Hearing of this, Duke William fetched the unfortunate Assistant King and held him for 9 months as an ``honored guest``. William was a very shrewd man, and he wanted to get Harold to endorse his claim on the throne. He feasted Harold. He swore oaths of brotherhood to Harold, and had Harold make similar statements. He offered his daughter to Harold in marriage, and asked for Harold`s sister in return. He took Harold on a military expedition, then knighted him (thus making himself Harold`s sovereign.) Finally, days before Harold was to be sent home, William made Harold go before the nobles at his court and swear on a Bible that he would support William`s claim to the throne of England. This was a wily trick because underneath the Bible lay the bones of a number of Saints. In medieval times it was believed that oath taken on the remains of a Saint was unbreakable. Harold made this oath under duress, and he did not believe it binding, but to the rest of the world at that time it was considered absolute..

Harold would break this oath. When Edward finally died he supposedly told him to rule wisely over the kingdom, and the Witan (the English ruling counsel) immediately confirmed Harold king. The Archbishop of Canterbury was holding more than one office at that time, and the Pope excommunicated him, so Harold wisely had himself anointed by the Bishop of York to avoid tangling with the Papacy. It did him no good; William went to the Pope and received a proclamation declaring him king (the Pope wanted to reign in the independent-minded English). At any rate, Harold was in England, and he was king!

This infuriated both William and Harold Hardrada, who began preparations for an invasion. William promised English land to whoever helped him, and his invasion became something of a crusade with men from all over Europe going to Normandy to participate. Harold Godwinsson called up his militia in the spring and awaited the arrival of his enemies.

The first invasion of England in 1066 came from a surprise source; Harold`s own brother! His younger brother Tostig had been earl of Northumbria, and an uprising against him drove him into exile. Harold knew his brother was tyrannical and foolish, and supported the rebels. Tostig went first to William, then to Denmark without any luck. Finally, Harold Hardrada supplied him with some men and ships-solely to keep King Harold busy while he made his preparations to invade. This first invasion by Tostig was easily put down by the Northumbrians, but it drew away valuable resources from the real war. The Northumbrians would lose soldiers, and would be softened up for the Northmen who followed the standard of the Land Waster! (This was Harold Hardrada`s standard and it had a black bird of prey.)

William was ready to go in August, but a strong north wind blew steadily for two months, forcing his fleet to remain in harbor. William waited for calm, fearing that God was against him. He needn`t have worried, King Harold held his militia on active status far longer than was customary, and by the end of September he was forced to disband so his men could head home for harvest.

No sooner had Harold sent his men home then terrible news reached London; Harold Hardrada of Norway had invaded 200 miles to the north, and was imperiling York!

The Northumbrians were weakened from fighting Tostig, and they fought one battle against Harold`s Vikings and managed to drive them back. After this, the Northumbrians dug in and left the fighting to King Harold. What occurred was one of the most amazing military feats in history; Harold recalled his army and marched them 200 miles from London in 4 days! This was an unbelievable feat, and the English shocked the Vikings, who were drinking and carousing when they arrived. The Norsemen, ever ready to fight, quickly formed into a defensive perimeter, and sprang a surprise strategy on Harold. They had large shields, and they interlocked them forming an impenetrable shell. The English attacked several times but were driven back without success. Not for the first time, Harold showed his military genius; he ordered a retreat.

The word Berserk used to mean ``without shirt`` because Vikings would often storm into combat in various states of undress when the bloodlust hit them. Harold knew this about them, and ordered his men to feign flight. As he expected, the Viking warriors broke ranks and attacked, falling into the trap which Harold has set for them. The Great Harold Hardrada fell during the route that followed, and the English slaughtered the invading Norsemen.

Sometimes things are just against you, and fate was against the wise and noble Harold. Almost immediately after the victory over the Norwegians, word arrived that Duke William had landed an invasion force and had taken the town of Hastings!

The amazing Harold Godwinsson managed to do it again; he marched his army south to London in 4 days despite their exhaustion. Upon returning to London, Harold took counsel with his advisors who recommended a policy of attrition. They argued (rightly) that Harold should merely keep the Normans penned up at Hastings and should scour the land of food until the Normans either surrendered or gave up and went home. Harold wanted this OVER! He, like General Lee at Gettysburg almost 800 years later, was tired of waiting, tired of the cat-and-mouse games, and wanted to put an end to things. His brothers argued against this, then argued against Harold`s leading the army since he had broken his oath, but Harold could not let others do his dirty work; he was determined to face Duke William and defeat him once and for all.

Immediately before the battle, word came that the entire English army was excommunicated by the Pope. It was said that Harold turned deathly pale.

William`s army was in a bad position; they occupied a low valley while Harold`s forces were up on a ridge-line. Furthermore, Harold had learned from his defeated foe; he had seized the Viking`s shields and was using the same tactics employed by Harold Hardrada! William`s army had two major innovations which had always served them-they employed archers and crossbowmen while they used cavalry for flanking and quick assaults. Unfortunately, Williams archers were unable to penetrate the shield wall, while his cavalry were being cut down by Harold`s own archers. After several terrible charges William was forced to pull back, and in desperation he ordered his archers to shoot into the air. In one of those unfortunate incidents an arrow came down and went into the eye socket of Harold Godwinsson! Harold was said to have pulled the arrow out (tearing the eye out along with some brain) and continued to lead the battle for a time. He grew weaker as the fighting continued but remained at the front of the lines slaying countless Normans. Finally, his strength gave out and a knight struck him with a battle ax and killed him (William, it was said, executed the man who killed Harold.)

The fighting continued, despite the loss of the king. The English rightly understood that the Normans meant to rule over them and take their lands rather than just make William king. Without Harold the English were disorganized and demoralized, and William tricked them with the same fake retreat that Harold had used against the Norsemen. Had Harold been alive he would never have fallen for it, but without him the English had no one to stop them. They broke the shield wall and ran into a trap. William broke their lines and destroyed them. Only a handful of English troops survived and among the dead were Harold`s two younger brothers as well as the Great King himself.

William would go on to force the Witan to declare him king, and would earn the title ``Conqueror`` for his victories in Northumbria and Wessex. He would sweep the old aristocracy away and replace them with French-speaking nobles who were fiercely loyal to him, and who feared to displease him. (William could be ruthless when angered,.) The feudal system of old England was broken, and the more centralized system of the Normans would put England on the path to Empire.

Had William not prevailed at Hastings, England would have remained one of the Germanic nations along with Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Germany, etc. The language would have remained Germanic, it would have remained a decentralized system of earldoms and would never have developed a parliament, nor have had the Magna Carta, nor would have build a massive navy. England would have sunk into the backwater of history had Harold won on that fateful day. We would not have Shakespeare, nor Dickens, nor any of the great literature the English language has given us. America would never have been colonized by Britain, and so there would be no United States. The whole development of western civilization since 1066 was different because of Hastings. In a way, we owe William the Conqueror a debt of gratitude.

Still, I always wonder what would have happened had poor Harold Godwinsson been victorious. He was a great and wise king, and a noble man. Like great tragedy he was brought low by his flaws; his oathbreaking and impatience destroyed him, despite his many, many virtues. He is one of my favorite characters from history.

I hope you all enjoyed this short narrative of one of history`s most momentous events. (Well, I hope it wasn`t TOO boring!) Remember to toast Harold Godwinsson with a spot of champaign, or a flagon of mead if you have that handy (oh, well, a can of beer will do!) and turn your thoughts for just one moment to that fateful day, October 14 1066 when the world changed forever!

Posted by: Timothy Birdnow at 04:16 PM | Comments (3) | Add Comment
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1 Nice review. Probably the most succinct summary I've ever read of what is usually described in a manner that resembles a basket of squabbling cats.

One of my grandmothers was always fond of saying that her ancestry was "pure English," which made sort of turn purple to avoid laughing. She was a very dear lady and I loved her to death, but that "pure English" bit always got me. English is probably the only nationality in the world which is more genetically scrambled than American.

Posted by: Bill H at October 17, 2020 08:21 AM (vMiSr)

2 Very good point, Bill. "Pure English" is kind of a joke, as Tim and I were discussing awhile back.

Posted by: Dana Mathewson at October 17, 2020 04:44 PM (6Btpe)

3 Well said Bill; Britain is a mongrel nation and especially England. The Scots at least are somewhat pure Celtic, but the English? Their heritage comes from Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Danes, Celts of multiple stripes including the original Britons, Normans, and even some Spaniards who wound up there after the sinking of the Spanish Armada. They are mutts.

Which is why America so easily accepted immigrants; it was par for the course culturally.

And the English language is as pidgeon as it gets. A mix of the Germanic Old English with French and a smattering of multiple other languages. It's part of why the world uses it as the international language. It has twin sets of words for everything. It is also a bear in terms of spelling and grammar thanks to that very fact.

Posted by: Timothy Birdnow at October 18, 2020 06:56 AM (oQVfM)

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