Gateway to the Classics: The Boy's Book of Battles by Eric Wood
The Boy's Book of Battles by  Eric Wood


Where the Last Saxon King Fought—and Lost

By the battle of Hastings England lost her last Saxon king and obtained her first Norman sovereign.

Harold, a prisoner to William the Norman, had some time before the death of Edward the Confessor vowed over the relics of the saints to do his utmost to secure the English throne for William. The Saxon took his oath under compulsion, and, what is more, it was not until afterwards that he was told he had sworn upon the saints' relics. Wherefore Harold considered himself free to do as he wished, and when Edward the Confessor shuffled off the mortal coil Harold stepped on to his throne. William was angry.

He made mighty preparations for an invasion of England, gathering men from various parts of Europe who hastened to his standard full of joy at the prospect of pillaging England. Adventurers, rogues, gallant knights, all hankered for a share in the work, especially as it had received the blessing of the Pope, who had consecrated and sent a banner to Duke William. By receiving the Pope's blessing and laying emphasis upon the fact that he was going forth to punish a man who had violated a solemn and binding oath, William really proclaimed a Holy War—a Crusade, in fact.

In due course the Norman had round him an army of sixty thousand men, a fleet of four hundred sailing ships, and over a thousand (some say three thousand) transport boats in which his warriors were to cross the Channel, on the other side of which Harold, well knowing that William was bent on trying to wrest his throne away, had mustered a fleet larger than England had ever had before.

William had intended to sail in the middle of August, 1066, but contrary winds and many other things delayed him until the beginning of September. It was a good thing for William, but a bad thing for Harold; the latter's fleet was not sufficiently well provided with food to daily about so long, while away in the North another fierce enemy had landed, and when he could ill afford to leave the South Harold had to march off to the North.

Harold of Norway was a claimant for the throne, and had been urged to press his claims by Earl Tostig, Harold's renegade brother. Harold did not need much urging, and with five hundred vessels and the best and fiercest Norsemen he could get, he sailed across the North Sea, looked in at the Orkneys, enlisted many of the islanders in his army, and then sailed down the coast to Yorkshire. Marching inland, he routed Earls Edwin and Morcar near York, entered York, and subdued the country from the Tyne to the Humber.

It was too much for a valiant Saxon king to stand. By a forced march he reached Yorkshire in four days, took the Norsemen by surprise, met them and beat them at Stamford Bridge on September 24th, killed their king and his own traitor brother, retook his captured country, and then prepared to march southward again to match his strength with the Norman invader.

Stamford Bridge had cost him dearly; hundreds of his best and bravest soldiers had fallen, and William had been able to land without opposition.

It is time to return to William.

When the wind changed in his favour he had embarked his army, and set off for England. A gale broke upon them, forced them down the French coast to St. Valery, casting many of the vessels upon the rocks, and wrecking them.

For a time this misfortune damped the ardour of the adventurers, most of whom were imbued with the superstition of their age and argued that so bad a beginning augured a bad ending.

William persuaded them otherwise, and as a matter of fact the gale had befriended them, for it had delayed them so long that by the time they were finally able to start Harold was away in the North.

At last the winds changed, and the Normans embarked, hoisted their sails, and sped across the Channel, reaching Pevensey Bay, Sussex, between the castle of Pevensey and Hastings, late in September.

Running their ships on the beach, the archers disembarked first, bows ready lest the enemy should be hiding; then the knights, who at once mounted and lined up on shore, all accoutred and ready—a gallant-looking host, with pennons flying and armour glistening; then the carpenters who had brought, piecemeal, three wooden castles, one of which they put together.

As William stepped ashore he slipped and fell on his hands.

"An evil sign!" the army cried.

William was cunning; he knew what faith his men put in such little things, and picking himself up, holding two handfuls of English soil, he cried:

"See, my lords! By the splendour of God I have taken seizin of England with both my hands. It is now mine; and what is mine is yours."

During the next few days William busied himself with reconnoitring the country, massacring the Saxons who were unlucky enough to get in the way of his marauding bands, and setting up his other two castles.

Moreover, squadrons of cavalry were dispatched into the country to see where Harold was. Very soon they fell back on camp, reporting that the Saxon was hastening from York as quickly as he could, and that ere long he would be within sight of Hastings.

It was true. Harold was at York when the news of William's landing was brought him, and though his soldiers were weary from their long march and fierce fighting, he determined to go south at once.

At almost every mile he was reinforced by men willing to fight for their country, and at London he received a large body of fresh troops. His brothers, Earls Gurth and Leofwin, urged him to delay meeting the Norman, advising him to remain in London, and lay waste the country round about, so that William, finding his provisions gone, and being unable to receive supplies from Normandy owing to the presence of the English fleet, which had once more put out to sea, should be at a disadvantage when he marched on London.

Even if the battle must be fought at once, they endeavoured to persuade him not to be present on the field, fearing that his breaking of the oath to William would bring down the vengeance of Heaven. As for themselves, they said, they were fighting justly for their country. "Leave us alone to fight this battle, and he who has the right will win."

Harold scorned the idea. Fresh from his victory at Stamford, he vowed that "he would give battle in person, and convince his subjects that he was worthy of the crown they had set upon his head."

When they found that he would not agree to their course, they followed him into Sussex, where, on the heights of Senlac, the Saxon camp was pitched.

On October 13th the two armies were almost face to face, waiting for the morrow to come when each side knew the battle for the English throne would take place.

Presently a messenger, Hugh Margot, came from the Norman camp, summoning Harold either to resign in favour of William, or to refer the matter to the Pope for arbitration, or else to settle it by single combat in front of the assembled armies.

Harold refused to do either. William sent the monk again, this time promising that if Harold would keep his oath, the Norman would give him the country beyond the Humber, and his brother Gurth the lands previously held by Earl Godwin. Harold refused again.

Whereupon the monk, in William's name, called him a perjurer and a liar, and told him that he and all who aided him were excommunicated by the Pope.

Harold didn't mind being called a liar; but some of his chiefs disliked the thought of excommunication. At last, however, one of them spoke up saying that they must fight. The Norman had already given their lands to his captains, and promised them their goods, and all else in England, as soon as he should become king. What, then, were the English to do? But one thing; to fight, and fight they would.

The monk returned to camp and reported to William, who decided to begin the battle next day.

That night the Saxons spent in feasting; the Normans in prayers.

October 14th dawned.

William divided his army into three divisions, harangued them in inspiring words, and told them to strike hard and spare not, neither to ask nor give quarter.

Then the Duke went to his tent to gird himself for the fray, put his chain shirt on the wrong way about, reversed it with a laugh and said:

"A good sign, and a lucky one; you shall see the name of duke changed into king."

Then, having finished his war toilet, the Norman mounted his Spanish charger and rode out to his men.

Harold was ready, knowing the battle was at hand. A motley crowd his army was; peasants with forks and stakes, clubs and picks for weapons; archers and chain-clad soldiers. He had taken up a position on the hill of Senlac, commanding the broken ground between itself and the sea. "The hill itself is of a peninsular shape, stretching from the east to the south-west, and is united by a narrow isthmus to the great mass of the high road to the north . . . a sort of ravine at the base of the hill cuts off the south-western end of the battle-ground from the isthmus and the ground connected with it. The steepness of the ground here is considerable, at the extreme south-east end the . . . ascent is gentler. Turning the eastern end of the hill, which here takes a slightly forked shape, the ground on the north side . . . is exceedingly steep, almost precipitous. Along the south front of the hill, that most directly in the teeth of the invaders, the degree of height and steepness varies a good deal. The highest and steepest is the central point occupied with the buildings of the Battle Abbey. Some way westward from the abbey is the point where the slope is greatest of all, and here the access to the natural citadel is least difficult. But here a low detached broken hill, a sort of small island in advance of the larger peninsula, stands out as an outpost in front of the main mass of high ground, and as we shall see, it played a most important part in the battle."

Harold had it strongly protected by trenches and palisades, behind which his engines for casting stones were placed. In the midst of all was the royal standard, round which Harold and his brothers and the Londoners gathered. The first line consisted of the men of Kent, mailed, armed with javelins, battle-axes and swords. Harold, mounted on his charger, surveyed his army and exhorted it; then dismounted and took his place beneath the standard, and the dragon of Wessex. Thus they stood waiting.

They did not wait long. At nine o'clock the Normans advanced, three long lines. The first consisted of the archers and light infantry, led by Roger de Montgomery; the second, made up of the men-at-arms, was commanded by Martel; the third, composed entirely of cavalry, was led by William himself, attended by Friar Toustain, carrying the Pope's banner.

On came the Normans to the sound of their battle song, sung by Taillefer, the minstrel, who as they drew near the English, received permission from William to strike the first blow.

Setting his horse at the gallop, the minstrel dashed at the English, thrust his lance into an Englishman's breast—and the battle had begun.

Drawing his sword and crying:

"Come on, come on! What do ye, sirs? Lay on, lay on!" he made for another Saxon. Taillefer fell, wounded to death, but as he dropped from his horse the Normans flung themselves at the English position crying "God is our help," as they clambered up the hill, and tried to tear down the palisades.

Firmly the English withstood the assault. Arrows and stones fell thick and fast among the Normans, many a Saxon javelin found entry between chain-mail, axes fell on Norman heads, cleaving helmets of steel, or crushed through hauberk. Norman arrows found many a billet, lances pierced many a leathern tunic; the Norman infantry made no headway.

True to their orders, the English stood their ground, sallying not forth lest the foe should get behind them. At last the Normans passed the fosse which Harold had made to protect one side of his army. Seeing the danger, the English charged furiously, hurling the Normans, horses and men, into it, many a Saxon being dragged in, and being done to death beneath the weight of falling bodies.

Dismayed at seeing some of their friends driven back, and, moreover, losing sight of their Duke, who, during that awful day had three horses shot under him, many of the Frenchmen began to turn back.

Aided by his half-brother Odo, Bishop of Bayeux, William rallied his men, crying:

"I live! I live! Death is behind you, victory is before you! By God's help we shall conquer!"

"Stand fast! Stand fast!" cried the bishop, mace in hand.

The Normans rallied, returned to the charge more furiously than ever; and the battle went on for six long hours, neither side seeming to gain the advantage. Now this side and then that achieved some little victory, only to be robbed of the gain. Once it seemed that William and Harold would come face to face; spurring his horse through the fighting throng the Duke made for Harold, reached the barricades, when, crash! his horse had gone under, pierced by a spear hurled by the strong hand of Gurth. Springing to his feet, William faced the Earl, engaged him hand to hand, and felled him with a mighty blow. Harold's first brother had died! Leofwin fell soon after, and of the sons of Godwin Harold alone remained.

William now ordered his archers to shoot into the air, so that the arrows would fall upon English heads.

"Thicker than rain before the wind, the arrows flew," and one of them struck Harold above the right eye. Half mad with agony, the Saxon king drew the arrow out, broke it, and threw it away, and leant upon his shield for support. Although filled with dismay at seeing their hero wounded, the English fought on with renewed vigour. William had at last to resort to a stratagem to draw them from behind their barricades.

When the fight was at its fiercest and yet the foe were unconquered, the Normans were ordered to fall back as if defeated. William had seen how, when his army had broken some time before, the English had rushed out after them, and he now thought that if he could induce them to leave their barricade, he might throw them into confusion. Little by little the Normans drew off; caught in the trap the English issued forth from their strong and well-defended palisades. Filled with joy, they pursued the Frenchmen, laying many a foeman low, taunting them, jeering at them, calling them cowards, vowing that not a Norman should return to the land whence he had come.

At last the Normans turned, and to their dismay the English found they had left the safety of their barricades. Inch by inch they fell back, followed hard by their foes, who passed with them through the now broken-down palisades.

Back, back, back, they were driven, gathering round the last Saxon king and his standard, still proudly flying in the breeze. William now sent his cavalry at the charge, and the Norman knights sought the Saxon king.

Eager to come into mortal combat with Harold, William pressed his charger into the thick of the fight, striving to reach the standard, followed hard by his knights.

In all that day of valiant fighting, no fight was so terrible as that round the standard. Men fell in scores on both sides. Englishmen fought and died to guard their king; Normans fought as bravely to bring him to the ground. Time after time did the men of Kent and Essex force the Normans back, and had not William rallied them they must have fled the field.

Rising in his stirrups, he called on them to return; then, surrounded by a thousand men, he rushed at the English. The force of the impact broke the English ranks, though here and there fierce duels raged. Then yet again did the Saxons rally round their king, seeking in turn to kill the Norman Duke. One, a veritable giant, famed for his wrestling, attacked William with his hatchet; William spurred on his horse, aimed a terrific blow at the Saxon, and missed. Jumping aside, the giant lifted his hatchet high, and before the Duke could recover from striking the blow which had missed its mark, brought his great hatchet down on the Norman's head, beating in his helmet. Reeling from the shock, William yet pulled himself together for another blow; but the giant had gone, pursued by a score of Normans who pierced him through and through with their lances.

"Loud was the clamour and great the slaughter; many a soul then quitted the body it inhabited. The living marched over the heaps of dead, and each side was weary of striking. . . . The strong struggled with the strong; some failed, others triumphed." And now the Normans pressed so far that at last they had reached the standard. There Harold had remained, defending himself to the utmost; but he was sorely wounded.

Pressing through the stabbing, maddened throng, came a Norman knight. He reached Harold and struck him a mighty blow which brought him to his knees. Writhing with agony, the king struggled to rise, but in vain; another knight hurled himself upon him, struck him on the thigh with a great sword, and Harold, cut to the bone, fell to rue no more.

Still the fight went on; the standard still floated above that field of carnage, and twenty Norman knights vowed to take it or die. They charged; at the first onslaught ten bit the dust; at the second, the standard fell, and in its place there floated the banner of the Pope, and beneath it lay the mutilated body of the last of the Saxon kings. For four Norman knights had brutally hacked the wounded king to death.

The battle was lost and won, yet did the English keep up the fight till the shades of evening fell, fought with the recklessness of despair, with the courage born of vengeance; and then, kingless, leaderless—for their great chiefs had every one of them been killed—they turned and fled from the scene, pursued by the victorious Normans.

William had won; the Norman conquest had begun.

That night William ate and drank on the battlefield, gave thanks for the victory, and then in a tent pitched in the midst of the dead and dying, slept—a king but for the crowning.

The crowning came on Christmas Day, for William, after a triumphant march through the south of England, arrived in London in December, and there in Westminster Abbey, amid the noise of strife without and the acclamations of his knights within, the Conqueror had the crown of England placed upon his head.

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