By Tony Rennell
Last updated at 10:16 PM on 26th December 2008
Harold wasn't killed by an arrow in the eye. The battle of Hastings was fought at Bexhill. And William the conqueror should have lost. As Hollywood gears up to recreate the day that changed England's destiny, we separate fact from fiction.
The English King was dying. The ailing Edward the Confessor had just about made it through the Christmas celebrations, but on December 28, 1065, was too sick from a series of strokes to attend the service of consecration of the majestic church, Westminster Abbey, he had personally endowed and just finished building.
Edward was 62 years old and had reigned over his kingdom, barely keeping its warring factions together, for almost a quarter of a century. Around his bedside were gathered the greatest lords in the land, every one of them a would-be king, all of them thinking they had a chance. Edward was childless. Moreover, the monarchy was not a
strictly hereditary business since, by Saxon law, the witan, a council of nobles, had the final say in who would sit on the throne.
Edward woke from a coma to announce that he had seen an apocalyptic vision of an England consumed by fire and sword, and abandoned to the devil.
Then he croaked out his last will and testament, handing over the kingdom and its uncertain future to the protection of the tall, good-looking Harold Godwinson, lord of most of southern part of England, and the most powerful earl in the land.
It was the prize Harold had long been manoeuvring for. On the eleventh day of Christmas, Edward was dead, and on the twelfth, January 6, 1066, the new king was crowned in the abbey.
Some 150 miles away, in Rouen in France, the news of Harold’s elevation was greeted with fury by the ruler there, the pugnacious Duke William of Normandy, a crop-haired bully boy with an insatiable appetite for conquering and subduing his neighbours. England was top of his wish-list.
He believed he was Edward’s rightful successor, that the dead king had promised him as much and that Harold, who had once been his house guest for several months in the summer of 1064, had personally sworn to back his claim. Thwarted and, as he saw it, betrayed, he was determined to take by force what he believed his by right.
The countdown had begun in what would be the single most significant transition in the history of England.
By the following Christmas, handsome Harold, wrapped in a purple cloak, would be rotting in a grave beneath a pile of stones on a beach in Sussex and William the Conqueror would be sitting four-square and unmovable on his throne in London.
The coronation of English King Harold in 1066
Yet it was more than just a coup d’etat, a palace revolution, that had taken place. A major shift now occurred. In language, law, local and national government, administration, architecture and culture, a new England was created, a Norman England. The country would never be the same.
But for all its significance in our history, 1066 and the Norman Conquest has never much excited storytellers or film-makers. Battles such as Agincourt, Waterloo, Trafalgar, the Somme and D-Day have all made it to celluloid, but not the one at Hastings, where William’s Normans beat Harold’s Anglo-Saxons.
Until now. Hollywood, having ‘done’ the Romans (Gladiator) and the Greeks (300 and Troy), has shot another arrow in the air of historical epics. And not just one, but a quiverful: three feature films about 1066 are in the planning stage.
Using Hollywood jargon, they will be ‘buddy movies’, with Harold and William cast as two good mates who end up hating each other, like a medieval Brokeback Mountain (without the sex). Oh dear! Is the most important battle ever fought on English soil, the one that changed our destiny for ever, going to be demeaned and trivialised?
Not necessarily. Harold and William were greatly contrasting individuals: the Norman dour and thick-set with a rasping voice; the Englishman tall, debonair and with an easy-going temperament. Harold was flirtatious and promiscuous. William was a family man, loyal to his wife Matilda, who bore him four sons and six daughters.
William the Conqueror believed he was England's rightful successor
Burrowing into the story of 1066, I was fascinated by the huge personalities, the epic soldiering, the lust for land and power. There were intriguing parallels with the modern world.
England was a country run by ruthless warlords in a state of continual enmity. Armed bands were everywhere. Towns and villages were sacked and pillaged, women raped, men butchered — just as they are today in the Congo and Sudan.
Central government was weak and wary, and might of arms was all that counted. On the borders were ambitious enemies ready to exploit the chaos — the Scots, the Welsh, the Vikings from Norway, the Normans from France. Edward the Confessor held together this mess of swirling alliances, treachery and broken pledges with a blend of double-dealing and spinning, overlaid with false piety, that would do Tony Blair and New Labour proud.
The self-serving jostling for the inheritance was as unedifying then as the scramble to succeed Tony Blair in 2007 or to unseat Gordon Brown in the summer of 2008. Like a modern-day Mandelson, the wily Tostig, Harold’s brother, a prototype Prince of Darkness, played both ends against the middle.
Crucial to what happened was an 11th-century ‘Granita’ moment, clouded not only by
different versions of whom promised what to whom but — as in the Blair-Brown meeting at the Islington restaurant — whether any pact had been made at all.
Eighteen months before he became king, Harold spent time at William’s court. He ended up there after a ship he was on in the Channel was wrecked in a storm on the French coast and he was captured by a local brigand.
William took him to Rouen — though whether as an honoured guest or a hostage is hard to say. Given the aristocratic conventions of the day, it was probably a bit of both. And what Harold was doing in the ship is still a mystery. Some accounts said, implausibly, that he was on a fishing trip, others gave the more likely explanation that he was going to France to secure the release of English prisoners.
But William’s side, like the expert propagandists they were, spun another yarn — that Harold had been sent there on the orders of Edward the Confessor to offer the throne of England to William. Harold had then sworn an oath, his hands resting on a bag of holy relics, to back William’s claim to the throne.
King Harold was tall, debonair and had an easy-going temperament
None of this makes sense. There was no reason for Edward to appoint William his heir. And even less for Harold —who wielded much power in England, didn’t take orders from Edward and was himself the main contender — to be the one to make the offer on his behalf.
As for the pledge Harold is supposed to have given William, he may have made a vague promise, but only to escape from the Norman duke.
Yet the truth did not matter. The story of Harold’s double-dealing was seized on by William as his justification for invading England, with the backing of the Pope in Rome. As his army arrived at Pevensey Bay in Sussex, he had dangling round his neck that bag of saintly bones as proof of his enemy’s perfidy in what he now saw as a holy war.
In truth, it was a cynical land grab overlaid by personal animosity.
The battle that ensued a fortnight later has been much misunderstood and misrepresented in the years since 1066. For one thing, it wasn’t at the fishing port of Hastings, but seven miles north at a place now called Battle Hill. Geographically, it could just as accurately have been called the Battle of Bexhill.
In strategic terms, a more apt name would be the Battle of Pevensey, since the bay where William had landed was, in those days, part of a semi-island surrounded by marshland and water.
There was a narrow causeway near Battle Hill that William’s army had to cross to make any headway. Harold blocked the exit, knowing that all he had to do was bottle up his enemy and the invasion would fail.
That he failed to achieve this is often taken as proof that the Normans were hardened professional soldiers with military skills that the less sophisticated Anglo-Saxons did not possess. The defeat of the plucky but outclassed English army, it is assumed, was a foregone conclusion.
But this wasn’t the case. Certainly, the Normans had a heavy cavalry and brought 3,000 horses across the Channel for its knights to ride into battle.
The Saxons fought mainly on foot. In the Bayeux Tapestry, which recorded the events of 1066, this difference is crucial. But in the close-quarter fighting on Battle Hill,
knights on horseback were no great advantage.
Harold’s army, in chain-mail and armour like their opponents but wielding mighty two-bladed axes instead of swords, erected a wall of shields around itself on high ground and invited the waves of Norman knights and infantry to dash themselves against it. Yet what about the relative strengths of the leaders?
A section of the Bayeux tapestry showing the battle of 1066
William is commonly characterised as the better general, a tough and disciplined fighter in contrast to the dashing but dithering Harold.
Norman spin-doctoring had a hand in this misapprehension. It wasn’t wrong about William, who had won many a campaign at the head of a well-drilled army, its ranks swollen by mercenaries from all over Europe in search of land and booty.
But Harold, though the Normans derided his long hair and moustache as signs of effeteness, was every bit as tough and experienced.
He had been holding the reins in a divided and violent England for years before he became king, and had won a hard-fought war against the Welsh, a campaign every bit as impressive as any the conquering William had engaged in. He had also just seen off the Vikings, whose king had also come to lay claim to the English crown.
At the same time as William had been assembling his task force in France, a 12,000-strong army from Norway had crossed the North Sea, stormed ashore at Scarborough and taken York.
Harold had marched his army north, rallied the potentially disloyal local lords to his flag and soundly beaten the invaders at the Battle of Stamford Bridge.
This was a spectacular and crushing victory that sealed his reputation as a great military commander. It would have been the battle history remembered him for, if that achievement had not been fogged over by what happened next.
William had taken advantage of Harold’s absence from the south to order his army and armada across the Channel. Harold, having defeated his Viking enemies, then
raced back south with his men to meet this new challenge.
William crossed the channel while Harold was fighting the Norwegians at the Battle of Stamford Bridge
It was a historic yomp of 190miles in eight days. Back in London, Harold rested for just five days and then set off with his army for the 60-mile hike to the south coast.
They arrived five days later, numbers depleted but knowing that reinforcements were already on the way to join them. All they needed to do was hold their ground and pen in
the Normans at Pevensey until more men arrived to finish off the invaders.
Arriving to confront William’s 7,500 troops, they were exhausted but exultant at having made it. They celebrated noisily, which led to sneering reports afterwards that the English spent the night before the battle getting legless, as opposed to the Normans who were on their knees in prayer and contemplation.
(No prizes for guessing the colours of the Campbell-esque chroniclers who came up with that particular tale.)
The battle that began on the morning of October 14, 1066 with a thrust by the Normans against the English, lined up in defensive order behind their closely packed wall of
shields, was an unusual one. Medieval battles were normally short-lived confrontations of little more than an hour in which both armies slugged it out toe-to-toe until one side ran.
Hastings lasted the whole day with a series of attacks and counterattacks, tactical feints and diversions. For much of the time, the English had the upper hand as the Normans hurled themselves up the hill, but failed to break their line. William’s men were skewered and their bodies kicked away to English chants of ‘Out, out, out!’
At one stage, the word went round that William, who had already been felled twice in the melee but got back on his horse, had been killed. His men wavered, on the brink of turning tail and running. He rallied them just in time only by removing his helmet to show his face, a brave thing to do on a battlefield.
It was arrows that broke the deadlock — but not in the way that is generally thought. The notion that Harold was killed by an arrow in the eye has persisted for 900 years, despite being a misreading of a small section of the Bayeux Tapestry.
The Bayeux tapestry depicts a person injured by an arrow in the eye - but there is doubt whether it was Harold
In one panel of that elaborate account of the Norman invasion, the Latin words ‘Hic Harold Rex Interfectus Est’ (Harold is killed) were stitched above the figures of a number of stricken warriors, just one of whom appears to have an arrow sticking in his head.
That coincidence was translated into a historical fact, but no other near contemporary account backs it up. The closest does suggest Harold was killed by an arrow, but there is no mention of its being in his eye. Nonetheless, the arrow in his eye remains the one thing everyone thinks they know about the Battle of Hastings.
What did occur is that, late in the day, the Norman archers were ordered to change tactics. Instead of directing their arrows towards the bodies in the English wall, they were told to aim high in the sky. A hail of missiles came down on the English heads, forcing the defenders to raise their shields to protect themselves.
For the first time, significant gaps appeared in the shield wall, which William’s snipers, armed with crossbows, were able to exploit. Then his knights, with long lances under their arms, were at last able to get through.
Slowly, the English lines began to crumble under weight of arms until, in the late afternoon, after nine hours of fighting, the tipping point was reached and they fell apart.
It was at this stage that William is said to have spotted Harold on a hill with just a small entourage of his bodyguards. He sent in a hit squad of his toughest four knights. According to the first known account, the Song Of The Battle Of Hastings written by a French bishop five years later, they pierced his shield with a lance and ran him through the chest and stomach. Then they cut off his head and castrated him.
The last of the Anglo-Saxons kings was dead after a turbulent reign of just nine months. So were two of his brothers and scores of other prominent nobles. England fell to an armed invader — for the last time.
Napoleon and Hitler would fail where William, the one and only conqueror, succeeded. But it had been a close call for him, closer than he or any of the partisan chroniclers who told his story in the years ahead wanted to admit.
victory at Hastings in 1066.