The most famous date and the most famous battle in English history. The year that William, Duke of Normandy crossed the Channel and King Harold got a nasty surprise.
At this time, Saxon England didn’t have any firm rules about who became king. Basically, when one king died, the crown passed to anyone who could show they had a claim to it, or to anyone who was quick enough to take it.
When Edward the Confessor died on 5th January 1066, the King’s Council chose Harold Godwinsson as he was a ‘Nice Man’ who claimed that Edward had promised him the throne on his deathbed …
Everything went well for the coronation but then everything started to go pear-shaped. Another pretender to the throne, William the Bastard, got word of Harold’s coronation and his French blood started to boil. He was NOT a happy Frenchman!
It seems that William had made Harold promise on holy relics, that he would support William in his quest to be King. And now he realised that that naughty Englishman hadn’t been entirely honest…!
No-one really knows whether this was true or not, but we know what happened next … a flaming ball of fire, described by the Anglo-Saxon chronicle at the time as a ‘hairy star’ appeared in the heavens. William was certain that this hairy star was a sign of God’s anger at Harold for breaking his oath and so it was ample authorisation for him to go to war …
… the very next day, he and his Norman army started building an invasion fleet.
Meanwhile, in England, Harold was having a wonderful time as king. His lover for many years had been the beautiful Edith Swan-Neck with whom he had had five sons and two daughters, but to cement his power with the English aristocrats, he decided to marry Ealdgyth, a woman whose brothers were powerful earls in the country.
He would have been better to concentrate on his other family, however. In the summer of 1066, with unfortunate timing, Harold learnt that his brother (who also would have liked to be king) had gone to see the King of Norway (the forth pretender to the throne) and the two had formed an alliance against Harold. The two had already landed their forces in Northumbria and had taken the town of York.
Harold knew that William was poised for attack on the other side of the Channel, but nevertheless, he marched his troops up Britain in record time, killed both men who threatened to take his throne, turned around and jogged all the way back to London where he collected reinforcements, and proceeded to Hastings, taking position on a hill to have the advantage over the Normans.
And so battle commenced.
Now, you will certainly have noticed that the handsome French are riding horses whereas the English are fighting on foot. Harold’s army did have horses … they rode them to battle, but then they tied them up and went into battle on their tired feet. This, it is said, was the beginning of their endings. The English, after their marathon exploit, were not prepared for the force of the Norman horsemen. There were also slight tactical errors when some of the Saxons left their positions at the top of the hill and ran down the hill shouting English insults at the French. Unfortunately, when they reached the bottom, there was no-where left to go except into the arms of the French who chopped them into pieces.
The Battle lasted six hours, and was one of the longest-recorded military encounters in the Middle Ages, but in the end England became Norman. Duke William of Normandy became England’s third king in the tumultuous year of 1066 and his defeated enemy Harold, lay dead on the battlefield with an arrow in his eye … or so we have always thought…!
The earliest recording of the arrow in the eye story has been found in an Italian chronicle written in 1080, but the more likely account of Harold’s death, written only the year after Hastings, is less romantic. According to the “Song of the Battle of Hastings” by Guy, bishop of Amiens, when Williams saw that Harold was still resisting, he handpicked a hit squad and went off to meet him.… four Norman knights tracked Harold down, and overpowered him, the first striking him in the breast, the second cutting off his head, the third putting a lance through his belly and the fourth hacking off his leg (or possibly another appendix if rumours are to be believed).
When William heard of this mutilation, he was horrified and sent home the knight responsible in disgrace. However, he still took over the country and for 400 years following the Battle of Hastings, the English were subjected to subjugation, famine, ethnic atrocities and French humour.
And this is one of the reasons why we have so many nice French words in English, like to demand (‘exiger’ – you can see the misunderstanding between the two populations!), beef, mutton, pork, etc .. (notice that the meat takes the French names and the animals: cow, sheep, pig, etc … take the Saxon names….)
And so we see that the Bayeux Tapestry gives us 70m of “proof” (slightly modified over the years by seamstresses from France and England) that history can be just anything you care to make it and a lesson to learn for the future. Indeed, in 1940, when German forces had occupied Normandy and the rest of Northern France, and as Hitler was preparing to invade England, a group of scholars were dispatched to investigate what lessons could be learnt from the record of the last successful cross-Channel invasion! Who knows what would have happened to Churchill’s leg if he had made it across?!