© Michael Leete 2005

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CHAPTER X

THE BURNING HOUSE

On Thursday, 28th September 10661, William arrived at Pevensey (Panel 98), formerly the old Roman fort of Anderida2. His ship named Mora3, a gift from Matilda, is depicted, recognisable from the lantern at her masthead and the pointing boy (in the stern rather than the prow but this detail suggests that Matilda might have been the designer's informant). Here the Tapestry system of punctuation falls down, since trees cannot be planted in the sea, but the overlapping ships might indicate that the rest of the fleet passed the Mora and headed towards Hastings. Because only two ships in the fleet have shields along the gunwale, it could be that both represent the Mora and that she also joined them. The most likely reconstruction is that William landed at Pevensey with a small force to test the defences (and, perhaps, his navigation) but the southern fyrd had been dismissed nearly three weeks earlier. He landed without opposition and, leaving a party consisting mainly of 'sappers' to erect a pre-fabricated fort, he re-embarked after a brief reconnaissance and sailed on with the main fleet towards Hastings. At that time, Anderida was the southern extremity of a lagoon and was, by an indifferent road over the undrained flats, about twenty-seven miles from Hastings. The idea of marching his whole army, a straggling column some four miles long, when he could more safely sail there, would have been against the military instincts of his most junior officer! The fleet, therefore, headed to Bulverhythe (roughly ten miles away by sea) and on the beaches between there and Hastings4 the troops were disembarked and the horses unloaded by tilting the boats in shallow water until the horses could step over the gunwales5 (Panels 101-102). Historians have worried about the transport of horses, right back into the earliest Anglo-Saxon adventures. Whatever we may think of the problems, the Normans knew how to do it without making any particular fuss. After all, more than a thousand years earlier, the Emperor Claudius had crossed the English Channel with elephants! Loading horses off low ramps into deep straw should not have been particularly difficult. They were then tied facing in the same direction, as is illustrated in the Tapestry. This was not merely because the designer preferred to draw the heads of horses rather than their rumps, but because it was the only sensible thing to do. Not only could they all be unloaded from the same side, when the ship was tilted, but also a trained ostler would think twice about passing along the rear of a dozen unhappy horses and the sailors, having to work the ship by passing from end to end, would have been kicked to death! As it was, the sailors could pass the horses' heads and the ostlers could provide feed and water a little more safely. It is also the case that the Tapestry is surely, once more, exactly correct in showing all the horses peering over the starboard sides of the ships. The wind was reported to have been from the south but the prevailing wind in the Channel is westerly. Had the wind veered and increased, the horses would be more comfortable (and therefore less troublesome) with their tails to the wind.

The Tapestry now takes up the story as the troops hurry from the beaches into Hastings to seize food. William's plan was clear, simple and realised. He planned to entice Harold into attacking him as soon as possible. Obviously, William could neither withstand a long siege nor dare he advance far into England and risk attack from all sides in hostile country. Apart from any other consideration, his horses would lose condition and his armour, the cavalry, would diminish in effectiveness. Meanwhile, Pevensey was his bolt-hole in case of defeat. Being caught with his back to the sea at Hastings would have spelt disaster6. Loading his ships within the Roman curtain wall at Anderida, which is still a formidable structure, would provide some chance for an orderly withdrawal. Loading his ships under fire at Hastings would have been hazardous, to say the least, and he would surely lose all his horses. Much later, at the time of the First Crusade, Anna Comnena wrote, 'A mounted knight is irresistible; he would bore his way through the walls of Babylon.' This applied only if the horse did not do something unpredictable in the heat of battle and unseat the rider. If William had been defeated, and he knew that defeat was one realistic outcome to the venture, then not only would his invasion fail and his personal reputation be damaged but replacing the trained war horses in Normandy would have been a slow process, leaving him at the mercy of his neighbours, who would have been quick to discover his military impotence and would have invaded the duchy on all sides to dismember it and pick over the bones. It was the horses that won the day for the Normans at the battle of Hastings. If the cavalry had not opened the conflict by charging the unbroken Anglo-Saxon infantry7, the battle might well have been over much earlier. As it was, as the duke of Wellington commented after the battle of Waterloo, 'It was a damned close run thing!'

The foraging area around Hastings will have been a semi-circle with a radius of about 15 miles. It is in the nature of armies that they destroy more than they save and, quite apart from the troops, some 2000 horses would be eating their heads off! The foraging area would soon be stripped bare. Supplies were stored in Hastings (Panel 119) but replacements shipped from Normandy over the winter seas, particularly when the Anglo-Saxon shipmen had been mobilised, would have been less than certain. Time was on Harold's side and, to be fair, he certainly knew it. William's men committed what the late Winston Churchill termed 'frightfulness' with a view to goading Harold into a precipitate attack. On the face of it, the plan did not work until William had an amazing piece of luck.

In laying waste the Sussex countryside, scores of houses will have been destroyed by the Norman troops but surely not many with two floors and a reason to be included in the Tapestry. We may not understand everything in the Tapestry but it is absolutely safe to say that it does not contain useless or redundant information. So, while a castle was being erected at Hastings, parties of foragers were daily scouring the country for supplies and plunder. Then someone, probably Robert son of Guimora8, one of the Norman immigrants living in England, brings news to William (Panel 117). The Tapestry does not say what the news is although most commentators seem to think that it was news of Harold and his success at Stamford Bridge but DE HAROLD does not say this in latin. If we translate DE as if it were French, perhaps as concerning Harold it might still mean concerning, for instance, his movements or his victory in Yorkshire. On the other hand, it might mean something else entirely. DE in latin sometimes denotes a whole collection or body, from which a part is taken. Suppose that the news was that Edith Swan Neck, Harold's first partner, was living in the vicinity. The body language of the informer is that of a seller of dirty postcards in Port Said. He is imparting something which he feels is dishonourable but which, as a good Norman who does not want his own estates ransacked, he feels he ought to tell his duke. This would indeed be news concerning Harold but not of him (in French) or from the property of Harold (in latin). In the symbolism of the Tapestry, William points towards both Robert and the next scene, the burning house, to indicate continuity.

It happens that Harold owned the manor at Crowhurst9, now in a village some four miles north-west of Hastings and something over two miles from Battle. The Domesday Survey10 is clear that it was laid waste. Hope Muntz wrote, 'Harold's fair manor at Crowhurst was burnt and the Reeve hanged from the great yew tree in the churchyard because he refused to tell where the treasure was hidden.' This, from The Golden Warrior, was fiction but the great yew tree, with a girth measured at 42 feet in 1938, is still there. For all that, the manor was destroyed, probably by burning, and was rebuilt in the twelfth century by Walter de Scotney11. Today, it is again in ruins and little remains except the shell of a porch of two storeys and traces of the outline of part the rest. It is clear, however, that the porch stands at a corner of the rectangle that made up the rest of the house, and appears quite detached from it in the sense that it does not seem to fit (Figure 14). Opposite the great front door of the porch there is an inner door that goes just nowhere! It is wholly probable that the porch belonged to the earlier structure and is, perhaps, that portrayed in the Tapestry. The suggestion is that Edith Swan Neck was living there at the time of the invasion with her son Ulf. And that was the news imparted by the shifty son of Guimora; accounting, in addition, for Edith Swan Neck being conveniently available immediately after the battle to identify Harold's body and Ulf being in the Conqueror's hands in 1087.

William would have lost no time in ordering some soldiers to go immediately to Crowhurst and kidnap Edith Swan Neck as part of his policy of frightfulness. While they were at it, the soldiers burnt the manor and kidnapped the boy that Edith was trying to protect (Panel 118). It does not take much of a leap in imagination to envisage a party of Anglo-Saxons, making their way to the rendezvous and happily thinking the Normans were six or seven miles away in Hastings (if they knew of their presence at all!) being attracted to the smoke. Evidently, they saw what had happened and, when they later described what they had seen to local people in the camp and it was realised who the captives were, a messenger will have been dispatched to Harold in London without delay. The chances are that the Anglo-Saxon party actually drove off the Normans from Crowhurst because that would best explain what happened next.

As soon as the news reached Harold that his son and Edith had been kidnapped, he rode through the night with all his mounted force to the rendezvous at the hoary apple tree, where he arrived very early in the morning12. We cannot know what he had in mind to do, although a lightning attack on Hastings seems to be the least probable since he knew William better than to suppose that he could take him unawares. It is enough to suppose that he wanted his forces under his personal command to see what he could achieve.

William of Poitiers, returning to rationality after his flights of fancy into imaginary direct speech, wrote that the experienced knights sent out as scouts at the duke's order reported that the enemy was approaching … Without losing a moment, the duke ordered all those in the camp to arm themselves, although that day a large section of his troops had gone off foraging. In the traditional reconstruction of events, William left Hastings early in the morning of 14th October, marched up Telham Hill, deployed on the march and began the battle at about nine o'clock. General Fuller13 calculated that he must have left Hastings about 04.30am - more than an hour before first light. That is to say, about two hours before horsemen could safely negotiate woodland. That men had already departed to forage at that hour must be nonsense but if William of Poitiers is right in reporting that day a large section of his troops had gone off foraging, William can only have marched out of Hastings, in full daylight, on the day before the battle. The Tapestry hints at this by having a group of three trees (Panel 122) punctuating the scene where William is about to mount his war-horse before leaving Hastings and the army advancing towards the coming battle. Reverting, therefore, to our speculative scenario, the soldiers bringing in Edith Swan Neck and her young son, Ulf, will have been hyper-excited after their first brush with the enemy. Because of their captives, they will have gone straight to William and blurted out that the Anglo-Saxon army was coming. William issued the general order to arm and march and Odo, if he were the patron of the Tapestry, missed another chance either to be shown in it as he and the bishop of Coutances administered Mass to William or, at least, to portray William in a Christian context.

Edith Swan Neck, of course, remained under guard in the camp at Hastings from where she would be available to identify Harold's mangled body in the trampled blood-bath around what was later the site of the high altar of Battle Abbey. Ulf was subsequently transferred to Normandy where he was named as a hostage, whose acquisition was never recorded, and ordered to be released by the dying king William in 1087. Of course, this is only a theory but what Charles Darwin14 said of his own famous theory I believe in the truth of the theory, because it collects under one point of view, and gives a rational explanation of many independent classes of facts may apply here. So many independent and apparently unconnected facts are gathered under one hypothesis into a single event.

Before going further, we should be clear about the date of the battle. In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII had ordered alterations to the calendar. The changes were essentially mathematical although protestant countries resisted the changes for many years in the mistaken belief that they were part of a cunning plot by the Pope to dominate their church. It was decreed in the Council of Nicea in 325AD that Easter was to be celebrated on the first Sunday after the spring full moon - defined as the full moon next after the spring equinox. The difficulty was that the date of the equinox had retrograded from 21st March to 11th March because the tropical year used by Julius Caesar was 11 minutes too long, which works out at one day every 128 years. In other words, ten days had to be omitted from the calendar to correct the past error. John Dee, mathematician to Elizabeth I of England, had calculated that the error was eleven days so the Queen had another ready-made excuse not to adopt the papal calendar.

The omission of ten days from the year was based upon the mathematics but was really to do with the calculation of the date of Easter. This was a serious preoccupation of the medieval church. The wonderful Anglo Saxon Chronicles evolved from the marginal notes in the monastic Easter Tables and the Venerable Bede, who gave us the Years of Grace as an historical measure, disapproved of the Irish church chiefly because their method of computing the date of Easter had diverged from calculations of the Church of Rome. The arithmetic of the calendar reform was blurred by the religious implications until the protestant astronomer Johann Kepler made his famous statement at the Diet of Regensburg in 1613, 'Easter is a feast and not a planet …'

Pope Gregory XIII chose October 1582 to implement his reform because October has relatively few Saints Days that might be upset by the changes. In effect, 5th October was designated as 15th October. The other Gregorian reform was that Leap Years should not occur in centenary years excepting those divisible by 400. That is, as far as we are concerned, 1600 and 2000 were Leap Years but, since the reform, the years 1700, 1800 and 1900 were not.

England adopted the Gregorian Calendar in 175115 (1752 being the first year in which the changes took effect), by which time the Roman Catholic countries who had adopted the reform in 1582 had not had a Leap Year in 1700 but England had. The different dates in most of the Continent were becoming inconvenient to English traders. By pretending to adopt the recommendations of John Dee, the English calendar was synchronised with the Gregorian calendar when the day following 2nd September 1752 was designated 14th September. At the same time, the official year was decreed to begin on 1st January rather than 25th March to agree with what had become popular usage. Samuel Pepys, for example, named January 1st as New Year's Day in his diaries.

The battle of Hastings was fought on 14th October 1066. By 1751, the anniversary of the battle had come to fall on 9th October, which is explained by some muddled thinking that 1100, 1300, 1400, 1500 and 170016 had had intercalations that the Gregorian calendar did not. In other words, England was using the Julian calendar but, in this instance, making Gregorian corrections. When the calendar was altered by eleven days in 1752, the anniversary was taken to be 20th October by simply adding eleven days to 9th October. In fact, of course, the eleven day correction already took into account the English intercalation in 1700 and Pope Gregory had effectively taken into account the centennial intercalations before 1582 and put the tropical year back where it was in 325. The true explanation surely is that the calendar date of 14th October 1066 had been artificially brought forward by the Julian intercalations in 500, 600, 700, 900 and 1000. This gives the same anniversary of 9th October, as in 1751, and the same tropical anniversary today, 20th October, but by a different route. The idea was to get the vernal equinox back to where it was in the year of the Council of Nicea. The same applied, of course, to the autumnal equinox on 29th September - the date of William's arrival at Hastings.

Meanwhile, the Normans advanced towards Battle (for want of a better name) but will not have been able to deploy into their three divisions in the wooded country on either side of the Hastings road until Crowhurst Park, which would be good cavalry country today and was surely much the same in 1066. When it became evident that they were not going to be attacked, they probably camped in the 'park' and the troops passed an uncomfortable night confessing their sins and receiving the sacrament17 and expecting an attack at any minute. In the deep silence of a medieval night, such as we can rarely experience in modern times, the sounds of the Anglo-Saxons 'drinking and singing' will have reached them.

We can never be certain that William had left Hastings on Friday, 13th October but the balance of probability is in favour of it. The Tapestry is clear that there was a pause between leaving Hastings and coming to the battle. The written history is also clear on two points. William is said to have mobilised his army as soon as he heard that the Anglo-Saxons were in the vicinity even though many of his men were already out foraging. Had this been the Saturday when William must have left Hastings no later than 04.30am, it is not credible that the foragers had set out over two hours before daylight. The other point is that the Normans spent the night before the battle in a state of nervous anxiety. That is to say, they anticipated the conflict as soon as it became light. In other words, they were informed of the proximity of their enemy on the Friday and, again, it is obvious that no foragers would have set out on the morning of a major engagement.

Very early on the Saturday morning, while it was still dark, the commotion of Harold's arrival with a large party of mounted men will have sounded as if the whole army was on the move. The Normans formed up, stood to their arms until first light and then advanced at a walk and, as the caption says, they came to the battle against Harold. But they didn't! At least, not until Vital had returned with his scouts and was able to tell William the exact position of Harold's army. Again, William advanced his men cautiously with scouts out in front scanning the irksome woods until an Anglo-Saxon, squinting into the sun (Panel 132), spotted their shining armour and weapons.

Harold has been universally blamed for rushing into Sussex before his full army had been assembled. In the eyes of historians, his folly might be equated to the Trojans taking the wooden horse within their walls or the Japanese attacking Pearl Harbour. The ultimate outcome might have been different had he remained in London but October 14th would still have been a catastrophic day for the Anglo-Saxons. Once William left his stockade at Hastings, his only option was to go forward. Having spent the night within earshot of the enemy, William deployed his troops and advanced. If the housecarls and the majority of the mounted thegns had still been in London with Harold, the battle of Hastings would have been an instant massacre. The lightly armed fyrd, without overall command, would have been taken by surprise and cut to pieces within a very short time. What would William have done next? To win the war, he had to take London which, with its defences stiffened by Harold and the battle-hardened nucleus of his army sitting behind the formidable walls, might not have been possible. The chances are that William would have moved towards Dover, relying on his full dress rehearsal at Dinan to take the town. Even so, he would have been little better off. He was still situated on the coast with winter coming on and his supplies dwindling. It has been calculated that Harold could call on some 48,000 men in defence of the kingdom. It is probable that less than a tenth of the militia had been engaged at Hastings so an overwhelmingly superior force was still available to him. Ultimately, William must have been driven into the sea

We can have no idea what plan Harold may have had in mind when he joined the army. He possibly intended to make a swift attack on Hastings. This action has been compared with his plan at Stamford Bridge but the circumstances, as Harold well knew, were quite different. William was prepared and waiting to be attacked. Harald Hardraada was not expecting any further opposition until he began to march south. More simply, and more probably, Harold intended to contain the foraging until the Normans were virtually starved into submission. As it was, Harold now had no choice but to bundle his troops onto the ridge to his front, and leave them to arrange themselves as best they could before they had been set in order. Two or three hours earlier, the Anglo-Saxons were not under command and the nearest prospect of a battle was miles away in Hastings. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof. They were enjoying themselves and renewing old acquaintanceships from the summer vigil along the seashore. Suddenly, they came under the king's command and the battle was just minutes away. What were their orders? They had none! Their job was simply to get out there and beat off the attack by the foreign invaders. They certainly did not realise that the most momentous day in English history had begun and that on that day the kingdom would be won and lost. Admittedly, William had several years of fights to secure the kingdom completely but William, being William, could not lose after the battle of Hastings. Neither he nor the Anglo-Saxons can have imagined the decisive result of that one day.

1 G N Garmonsway, ASC D: Then duke William came from Normandy to Pevensey on the eve of Michaelmas (28th September). As soon as his men were fit for service (sea-sickness?), they constructed a castle at Hastings. ASC E: Meanwhile duke William landed at Hastings on Saint Michael's Day (29th September).

2 The arrival at Pevensey was reported to have been 'at the third hour'. First light at sea was something after five o'clock at the earliest so this hardly reconciles with his fleet being out of sight when he anchored in mid-Channel (probably on the Bassurelle sand bank).

3 The word Mora in Greek or Latin would not be suitable for a ship. Perhaps the name had been revived from the ancestral Flemish roots of Matilda or the Scandinavian roots of William. 'Either at its prow or its stern it bore the likeness of a boy wrought in gold blowing an ivory horn pointing towards England.' The Norman Conquest (1875), E A Freeman, who quotes Lyttleton and Wace.

4 J M Baines, former curator of Hastings Museum, agreed (with reservations) with my reconstruction in correspondence in 1988. The correspondence arose from an article about his theories; Sunday Times, 15 November 1987.

5 This picture represents both tilting the ship with a rope from the mast head and then unstepping the mast before drawing the ship onto the beach. The ships on the beach have also had their prow and stern decorations removed, probably to protect the intricate carving from damage by clumsy matelots!

6 As it was at Dover in 1067 for the men with Eustace of Boulogne after their abortive attack on Dover castle.

7 Feudal England (1909), J H Round, p.371

8 William of Poitiers named Robert but became more than fanciful in the words he attributed to Robert, William and a monk sent as a messenger from Harold.

9 The Parish Register records another visit by a comet (extracted by Madge E Newman, headmistress of Crowhurst Village School 1947-1966 and printed in Some Notes on the Church and Manor of Crowhurst, 1971): A blaseing star appeared in this kingdom in the year 1680, it did first show itself 10th December that year 1680 which did stream from the south-west to the middle of the heaven, broader than a Rainbow by farre, and continued till the latter end of February. It was in this year that Isaac Newton observed the Great Comet and calculated its parabolic motion. Edmund Halley deduced that the 'parabola' was really the end of an ellipse and observed in 1682 the comet that later bore his name. Halley correctly predicted the 'return' of his comet in 1757/8.

10 Domesday, Sussex: Earl Harold held CROWHURST. Then it was assessed at 6 hides; now at 3 hides. There is land for 22 ploughs. Walter fitzLambert holds it of the count (count of Eu), and has 2 ploughs in demesne; and 12 villans and 6 cottars have 12 ploughs. There are 15 acres of meadow, and woodland for 4 pigs. A certain Walo holds half a hide and 2 virgates. There are 3 villans with 1 plough. TRE it was worth 8, now 100s. It was laid waste.

11 Some Notes on the Church and Manor of Crowhurst (1971), Madge E Newman: In 1259, a Walter de Scotney was executed for the attempted murder by poison of the earl of Gloucester and his brother, William de Clare.

12 William of Jumièges.

13 The Decisive Battles of the Western World (1970), Major-General J F C Fuller, CB, CBE, DSO.

14 Variations of Animals and Plants under Domestication.

15 By Act of Parliament in 1750.

16 The Field of Hastings, Lt Col C H Lemmon, DSO.

17 William of Malmesbury and Roman de Rou.