© Michael Leete 2005
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Count Conan II of Brittany was besieging the city of Dol. Duke William took an expeditionary force of Normans into Brittany in June 10641 to relieve the city because the rebel Riwallon of Dol was a loose cannon who, at liberty, would help to foment confusion in Brittany and give count Conan more to think about than attacking Normandy. In other words, it would help to secure the Norman border. According to the Tapestry, earl Harold accompanied the Normans. The written details of William's Breton campaign are highly obscure2. It could be that the Tapestry is the best account of it that there is. The Tapestry version begins with William and his army heading towards, and passing, Mont Saint Michel (Panel 43). This means that they were close to the coast. They did not then march south to the bridge at Pontorson but crossed the estuary of the Cuesnon at the Gué de l'épine, where two soldiers got into difficulties in the notorious quicksand and were saved by Harold (Panel 45). This was not something that commanders should do and, possibly because of its unusual nature, the scene was included in the Tapestry. More probably, the personal risk to Harold could have embarrassed William because, if Harold had drowned, William would have had a hard time explaining the circumstances to the satisfaction of the Anglo-Saxons.
Keeping to the coast, the Normans arrived at Dol by the back door, so to speak, much to the surprise of Conan, count of Brittany. The usual interpretation of the Tapestry illustration at this point (Panel 47) is that Conan escaped from Dol by a curiously bent rope and fled. Since Conan had Dol under siege, and therefore was not inside the town, the Tapestry has been assumed to be in error. More probably, the Tapestry is exactly right. The illustration is not of the town of Dol but of a siege tower. Not only does it not look anything like a town3 but the billowing material to the left of the structure was surely the wet cloths and rawhides that were draped on such towers to protect them from being set alight by missiles carrying fire. Perhaps the bent rope was part of a guy rope system to give the structure stability.
Conan turned in flight, presumably southwards towards Rennes as the Normans had attacked from the north, and that, historically, should be the last we hear of him as far as concerns the usual history, except that he surely doubled back to Dinan. There is no suggestion in the Tapestry that the Normans went anywhere near Rennes (Panel 49). The town has its gate open, nobody is in sight and animals are grazing peacefully on the hillside4. Four horsemen gallop in the direction of Rennes and the rather depressed-looking individual (top-right) might be Conan himself (Panel 48). For what it is worth, he has a moustache, as does the picture of Conan on the rope, and the pennant on his lance appears to be the same as the pennant on the lance that passes over the keys at Dinan (Panel 52). That is where the Normans went next5. Once again, they must have approached from the north because an assault above the river Rance would be virtually impossible. The stone ramparts you may see today were not commenced until about 1283 but even a wooden palisade would have been a formidable obstacle at the top of the cliffs. The attack was successful and the city handed over its keys. Here the Tapestry has been thought to be wrong. The inscription says: ET: CVNAN: CLAVES: PORREXIT although the earlier scenes seem to show Conan heading for Rennes. Unless, of course, Conan had circled back into Dinan as the evidence of the gonfanon suggests.
The scene of firing the palisade at Dinan might represent an interesting change from William's usual technique for attacking a fortified town. It seems that his normal practice was to blockade a town until the defenders weakened. In the case of Dinan, however, he had no wish to remain long in Brittany for the simple reason that feeding an army in that season was precarious. In fact, it seems odd at first sight, that he should have gone to Dinan at all. Riwallon was free to harass Conan and Conan had fled. William had thus achieved his more obvious military objective. It happens, however, that the military geography of Dinan is very similar to that of Dover. The town nestled along the water beneath steep cliffs on which the defensive castle was built. The attack on Dinan might have represented a rehearsal for the anticipated attack on Dover. The only successful invasion and occupation of England, without internal support, before 1066 was that of Claudius and he had copied Caesar methods of invasion, making sure that he was not there himself during the rough stuff. Invasion by others had proceeded differently. The initial Anglo-Saxon bridgehead had been established by the invitation of Vortigern and the Vikings tended to storm ashore in remote areas before settling into routine rape and pillage. Even king Sweyn Forkbeard of Denmark had the ground prepared for him by Thorkell the Tall, the famous Jóms-viking so that, in spite of Thorkell changing sides, Sweyn landed his army where many of the people were largely sympathetic. Caesar, on the other hand, wanted to observe an assault from the sea.
Once ashore, the invasion proceeded just like any other land-based campaign. It was only the initial landing that held exceptional dangers that were difficult, or impossible, to forecast. The attacks by Julius Caesar are often considered to be failures until it is realised that Caesar was not attempting a conquest but was only rehearsing his Legions for any sea-based assault that might become necessary in his imminent confrontation with Pompey. In the first assault, Caesar kept his ships off-shore, in full view of the gathering Britons, until he judged that the resistance on the beaches would be strong enough for him to learn from it and construct future tactics. Then, he ran the ships ashore and the Legions fought their way up the beaches and drove off the Britons. By using his ships as mini-fortifications, the landing was wholly successful and it was only the weather - the famous equinoctial gales - that upset his calculations. Having lost ships at his first attempt, Caesar mounted a second invasion in the following year and, with incredible labour, dug his ships into the sand. In this way he created strong little forts and protected his ships against anything that the weather may have in store. Having done that, Caesar advanced inland (more for the look of the thing than anything else) and assured himself that there were no more unforeseen surprises.
In the same way that both the late Napoleon Boneparte and Adolph Hitler studied the Bayeux Tapestry when they were contemplating the invasion of England, so duke William will have consulted the history of invasion. He will have been quick to see the value of a full-scale dress rehearsal. In the time-span covered by the Tapestry it is difficult not to take sides in the conflict but even the most strenuously pro-Harold supporters would agree that William was a brilliant commander. He certainly rehearsed his ship-handling and disembarking at St Valéry. He probably rehearsed his future attack on Dover at Dinan. The Tapestry shows Norman soldiers setting light to the palisades, possibly from a mine. If the Normans had mined and ignited the palisades above the cliffs at the same time as the main force crashed into the other side of the town, it is not surprising that Conan lost no time in surrendering. The feint against the strongest natural defences with the main attack on the more level ground might have worked just as well at Dover after the battle of Hastings except that, in the event, Dover surrendered without offering any resistance.
Before the expedition returned to Normandy, the Tapestry has a small scene which has been blown up out of all proportion by subsequent commentators. The caption is: HIC: WILLELM: DEDIT: HAROLDO: ARMA. The scene has been interpreted as William knighting Harold and presenting him with Arms in an anachronistic and heraldic sense (Panel 55). But ARMA meant no more in this epoch than personal implements of war and, occasionally, the shield alone6. Implements of war, swords in particular, had been suitable gifts between equals for generations. It was not until near the end of the fifteenth century that the College of Arms was founded in England and the Tapestry is sure evidence for non-heraldry among either the Normans or the Anglo-Saxons7. All the same, emblems were beginning to be carried at Hastings on some of the shields in the Tapestry, presumably by William's continental allies, although they do not seem to have been blazoned consistently. There is certainly no clear sight on the Anglo-Saxon side of the dragon of Wessex or the raven of East Anglia on the shields although the dragon of Wessex does appear as a banner (Panel 168). Count Eustace of Boulogne, however, does carry a recognizable emblem of Boulogne on his chest8 in the scene where he is pointing to William to show that he is still alive. In the same scene, his banner, that invades the upper border9, was the same as that later used by his sons in Jerusalem (Panel 161). Also, two other scenes in the battle show the Boulogne banner. Firstly when the army is moving 'wisely' against the Anglo-Saxons (Panel 140), where the tip of the lance again penetrates the border, and secondly, a rider with a very clearly drawn gonfanon displaying the three red roundels of Boulogne on a gold ground10 leads the initial charge against the shield wall (Panel 144). This could well be Eustace himself.
Eustace of Boulogne had married king Edward's sister, the widowed Goda (or Godgifu). He had visited England in 1051 and caused an affray in Dover for which we have no satisfactory explanation. This, in turn, sparked off the rebellion by Earl Godwin resulting, among other things, in the acquisition by duke William of the hostages, Wulfnoth and Hakon. It could be that this particular emblem is so clearly shown because the notoriety that Eustace had attracted in the south-east may have extended to his emblem. In any event, in peaceful times, Anglo-Saxon traders will have sailed frequently into Wissant and Boulogne11 and many of them would have seen the emblem many times on pennants flown by the ships; as a badge carried by port officials; as a stamp of authenticity on the weights and measures and on the money. The family of Eustace was also related to William through his sister, Adelaide, who married secondly Lambert of Lens, the younger brother of Eustace. In other words, the emblem of Boulogne would be familiar to many men on both sides of the Channel where the emblems of William's other continental allies, in so far as they had any emblems at all, might not.
In the Battle of Hastings, Eustace commanded the division on the right, consisting of most of the non-Norman allies apart from the Bretons, who were placed on the left under the command of Alan of Brittany. Eustace was, therefore, apparently dedicated to William's cause. It is generally believed that Eustace and Godgifu had no surviving children12. This means that Eustace had no direct interest in the English throne in 1066, and in 1051 the primary reason for Eustace visiting his brother-in-law was more likely to have had something to do with maritime matters between them. In particular, the fishing fleet at Boulogne had been organised into a navy by Charlemagne as a defence for his northern shores. Eustace had further reorganised the navy into an Admiralty in 1050 so matters of mutual defence might have been a primary reason for the visit in 1051. This would not have prevented Eustace from feathering another personal nest if there were an opportunity. If Eustace were guardian to a girl of marriageable age at that time, for instance, an Anglo-Saxon alliance would be seen as advantageous, especially if he could contrive to receive Dover as part of the marriage settlement. Eustace had a personal interest in Dover that acted as a magnet to him. His influence covered the whole of Flanders, stretching to Antwerp in the east, and to the conté of Ponthieu in the south. His own possessions included both Boulogne and Wissant13. It does not take much imagination to see that if he held Dover he could control virtually all the cross-Channel trade - with all its attendant harbour dues, taxes and duties. In the event, through bad judgement or bad temper, Eustace acted as if he were already lord of Dover and king Edward's foreign policy with regard to Eustace (whatever it may have been), coming on top of his pro-Norman appointments, exasperated Earl Godwin beyond endurance.
The Tapestry depicts the emblem of Boulogne three times on pennants. It is also certain that such badges would not - indeed could not - be discarded at the death of the reigning count. In other words, for the head of this family and its heirs the devices were hereditary. What is also sure is that, Boulogne being only one (though undoubtedly the richest and probably the most lively) of a series of north Gaul territories, all ruled by men who were kinsmen, all involved with inter-border traffic of one kind or another, its manner of identifying itself would not have been carried on in isolation; and I think it indisputable that by the start of the 11th century, if not long before, counts of Flanders, Hainaut, Louvain, Alost, Ponthieu, Guines, Hesdin, Lens and St Pol - to take only the most prominent examples - would also have employed devices of territorial recognition which, likewise, must have passed from father to son as unquestionably as their countships14.
Perhaps count Conan of Brittany had copied his betters and taken an hereditary, 'heraldic' device. As for the others, Baldwin of Flanders did not join the invasion of England for political reasons involving the Emperor but Baldwin of Alost and his brother, Gilbert of Ghent, both fought at Hastings. Arnulf of Hesdin, ancestor of the royal Stewarts of Scotland, was there too, as was his cousin William de Comines (St Pol). There were plenty of opportunities to display the emblems of these families in the Tapestry but the whole idea was still foreign to both the Anglo-Saxons and the Normans.
1 The corn was green in the ear. Institut Technique des Céréales et des Fourrages confirmed this state in June.
2 William the Conqueror (1969), David Douglas
3 Nor do the towns, to be fair! But where are all the citizens, applauding the lifting of the seige? William the Conqueror (1969), David C Douglas, p.66: in connection with the castle at Arques, William determined to besiege it, and following his earlier practice, he erected a large wooden tower by means of which he might threaten the defenders from outside. William had no monopoly on siege towers.
4 The Normans could not afford to have a long campaign. William of Poitiers said that the corn was green and still stood in the ear. In other words, it was not a good time to feed an army off the land! The Institut Technique des Céréales et des Fourrages, Paris, confirmed the month as June in a normal season.
5 David Douglas, William the Conqueror, p.178 wrote Dinant but this was, surely, a misprint.
6 For example: se in sua colligit arma from Virgil, meaning covered his whole person with his shield.
7 This section draws heavily on Origins of Heraldry (1980), Beryl Platts.
8 Origins of Heraldry (1980), Beryl Platts: p40; the named Eustace, wearing what appear to be the Advocate's mascles on his breast, holds a version of the banner which his sons were later to fly over Jerusalem.
9 The upper border has been badly torn at this point and some historians argue that this figure may not be Eustace. The device on the pennant appears to settle the matter.
10 The heraldic name for the roundels was torteaux. A name which, unusually, denotes its own colour of red. The emblem of the count of Boulogne was three torteaux on a gold ground. The Arms of the comté and of the town of Boulogne was, and still is, a swan placed centrally between the three torteaux.
11 Although the wool used in the Tapestry was probably from England, the dyes are thought to have been Flemish. Wissant was the chief port for English wool destined for the Flemish weavers.
12 Edward the Confessor (1979), Frank Barlow. p.307. He goes on to propose the possibility of a surviving daughter, born about 1037, and a possible nepos (grandson in this case) to Eustace captured at Dover in 1067.
13 King Stephen 1135-1154 (1967), R H C Davis: The rival ports of Calais, Dunkirk and Ostend had not yet come into existence, being little more than sandbanks in the great Gulf of Itius which stretched northwards from cap Gris-Nez and extended inland almost as far as Saint-Omer.
14 Origins of Heraldry (1980), Beryl Platts.