Gateway to the Classics: Stories from English History, Book I by Alfred J. Church
Stories from English History, Book I by  Alfred J. Church

Harold the King (continued)

W HILE King Harold remained in York, to which city he returned after the battle, that he might rest himself and his army, there came a messenger from the south in hot haste with news that William, Duke of Normandy, had landed in England with a great host of men. This was, as near as can be judged, on the first day of October. Not an hour did the King tarry in York after he heard the news, but journeyed in haste to London, taking with him such of his house-carles as were still fit for service. And as he journeyed he sent messengers to gather fresh soldiers to his standard. Few, indeed, came from the earldoms of the north, but from the shires of the south there was gathered together to London, as the writers of the time tell us, "an innumerable multitude of Englishmen." With these he marched to meet the army of the Normans, and pitched his camp on a hill that was then called Senlac, but now Battle, in memory of the great fight that was then fought. As for the Normans, they lay at Hastings, which was about six miles distant from Senlac Hill.

But first it should be told what the King's brothers, Gurth and Leofwine, would have had him do, and how he answered them. "Let us go," they said, "and meet Duke William: we have made no promise and taken no oath to him, and can therefore fight with a free conscience. And if we are beaten, then he will have to deal with you, so that all will not be lost by one battle. Also you should lay waste all the country between the sea and London, that the Normans may find nothing wherewith to feed themselves and their horses." But Harold refused their counsel. "I myself will meet William of Normandy," he said; "and I will not lay waste any fields of Englishmen."

On the fourteenth day of October, about nine o'clock in the morning, the great battle began. King Harold had made his post on Senlac Hill as strong as he could, with a ditch and a triple palisade. In the middle of the line he and his two brothers with the house-carles took their place round the Royal Standard. These were armed with helmets and coats of mail, and had for weapon the Danish battle-axe. On either wing were the men who had come in from the southern shires, leaving the plough or the forge to fight for King and country. Some had swords and shields, but many were but ill armed, carrying but pikes and bill-hooks and scythes.

Before the first line of the Normans rode a champion, Taillefer by name, who was both a minstrel and a skilful man-at-arms. As he rode he sang the song of Roland, and threw up his lance in the air and caught it again. He came close to the English lines, and struck down first one champion that came out against him, and then another, but was himself struck down by a third.

The Normans were ranged in three divisions. William with his knights being in the middle of the line, advanced, as being themselves the strongest part of the army, against King Harold and his chosen men. On the left wing were the Bretons and the men of Poitou; on the right the French and others. And in each division there were knights, and heavy-armed foot-soldiers, and archers.

First of all the archers came forward, and shot a volley against the English line. This done, they fell back, not being armed for close combat. After these the foot-soldiers came up to the palisade, and sought to break through it, but in vain. And when these could do nothing, the Norman knights themselves charged but could not break the English line, for this fought behind a defence. Man for man, too the Englishmen were taller and stronger than their enemies.

The first loss that the English suffered was from their own fault. The Bretons, coming against them on the left, turned and fled, and King Harold's men, seeing this, charged from out their defences, and pursued them down the hill. They slew, indeed, many, and, so fierce was their charge, drove back even the Norman knights. And when there went abroad a rumour that Duke William himself had fallen, there were some that thought that the battle was won. But when the Duke, uncovering his head, rode through the ranks, showing that he was yet alive, and the knights recovering themselves, rode forward, and the Bretons took courage again and ceased from flight, then the English suffered in their turn, losing many before they could get back to their defences.

After this Duke William himself, with his brothers Robert and Bishop Odo—a stout fighter for all that he was a bishop—and a great company of his knights, charged against the middle of the English line. Then great deeds of arms were done, for Gurth, thrusting with his spear at the Duke, wounded his horse, and was himself struck to the ground by a blow of the Duke's iron mace. Leofwine also was slain by a Norman knight. But the Englishmen, though troubled at the loss of these brave champions, still held their ground.

Then the Normans feigned to flee, and the Englishmen left their defences to pursue them. Again, as before, when they had rushed out after the Bretons, they suffered great loss, the enemy falling upon them as they were scattered. And, besides this, the palisade being left without defenders, the Normans were able to get within. Yet even then King Harold and his men stood firm. So close was their array, that though a man was slain, his dead body could not fall to the ground, but was kept up by the living.

So the battle might even then have been won, or at least ended on equal terms for both, but that King Harold himself was slain. The Norman archers, by command of the Duke, shot a flight of arrows into the air, and one of these as it fell wounded the King in the eye. He fell at the foot of the Royal Standard, and there, for the life was still in him, the Norman knights battered him to death with many blows. The men that had come from the shires fled from the field, but the house-carles still fought where they stood, not asking for quarter, till all were slain. That day well-nigh all the nobles of the southern shires that were able to bear arms fell with their King, and many priests also of high and low degree, for when they came to count up the slain they found not a few tonsured heads among the English. The number of them that fell has never been known. Of the Normans there were slain fifteen thousand, that is, a fourth part of their whole army: of the English, doubtless, many more. The body of the King was buried on the sea-shore. "He guarded the coast while he lived," said Duke William, "let him guard it still, now that he is dead." But afterwards it was taken away and laid in the church of the abbey which he had founded at Waltham in Essex.

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