© Michael Leete 2005

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CHAPTER XI

THE BATTLE

Once battle is joined the Tapestry action is fast and furious but proceeds, on the whole, much in accordance with the written accounts. Perhaps the Tapestry informed the written accounts but, at all events, it does not tell us anything surprising. The military historians have dissected every available detail and, bearing in mind that even the supreme commanders do not see all of a battle, have arrived at acceptable sequences of events even though they are not identical. Observers of a battle are like witnesses to a motor accident, whose evidence, all to often, begins, "I heard the crash, and turned and saw …" The effects of incident may be seen clearly but, very often, the incident itself and the events leading up to it are missed and, therefore, assumed.

There is also a general misunderstanding that William had the balance of luck on his side. He was, above all, a brilliant commander who was always quick to see an opportunity and to exploit it. We may say that he was lucky to have heard that Edith Swan Neck was close to Hastings but he saw immediately how to use the knowledge. Otherwise, Harold might have allowed the general pillaging of his lands around Hastings to continue until his forces were all assembled and organised. If the positions had been reversed, and William had been in Harold's shoes, William would have had no hesitation in letting the foraging take its course. However, William's action in seizing Edith Swan Neck and their youngest son caused Harold to let his heart rule his head. When he rushed into Sussex, Harold certainly had some idea of attacking the Normans ― either at Hastings itself or as they foraged in small groups. Instead, within hours of his arrival at the Caldbec Windmill site, he was forced onto the defensive and could not see how to break out of it. Harold's skills as a commander had been tested in attack. In defence, his imagination atrophied. He had no overall plan. He did not deploy his bowmen and, above all, he did not attack when he had the chance. By standing bovinely in defence he could not win the battle although the outcome, had his defence lasted for about another hour, until nightfall, is not easy to decide.

'William of Poitiers tells us that "the foot-soldiers and the Breton knights, panic-stricken by the violence of the assault, broke in flight before the English" and that soon "the whole army of the duke was in danger of retreat." This suggests that when it mounted the slope the Norman left wing got into difficulties, and that the English right, or part of it, suddenly counter-attacked, and swept the Breton archers and infantry down the slope so that they carried away with them in their flight the knights in the rear. Next, William's central division found its left flank uncovered and began to fall back, as did his right division. Now was Harold's chance and he failed to seize it. He has often been blamed for not having rigidly maintained his shield-wall throughout the battle. Though to have done so might have saved him from defeat, it could not have gained a victory. Had he now seized his chance, he would have ordered a general advance, and pouring down the slope on both sides of the Hastings road would, almost certainly, have annihilated the Norman archers and infantry. True, the Norman cavalry would have got away, but bereft of their infantry, in all probability they would not have drawn rein until they found security behind their stockade at Hastings.1'

Nothing, of course, can affect the result of the battle but there are two small illustrations that seem to require elucidation. The first is the weedy little bowman, shooting almost between the legs of the tall, standing Anglo-Saxons in the shield wall (Panel 145). The second is an unarmed man with a moustache and an Anglo-Saxon hairstyle (Panel 166), who, according to the lower border, had his head cut off a few seconds after the main picture. No satisfactory explanation has been offered for this item and the allegorical parallels do not carry much conviction. His executioner has a sword in his hand and a sword in his belt. He is on foot - probably because his horse has been killed - and is wearing spurs. The axiom that a picture is worth a thousand words only applies if you speak the same language and the picture triggers memories of information that have already been learnt. Otherwise, pictures convey very little information because people read them in different ways that are semantically equivocal2. In this case, the picture does not seem to convey any message, apart from the obvious, although it is possible that the incident was better known at the time and did trigger the memories of its the viewers.

The single bowman, coupled with the comment by Henry of Huntingdon, 'this people which has come here without even a quiverful of arrows' has led historians to offer fantastic reasons why there were no bowmen in Harold's force to match William's fine troop of archers. The most absurd being that all the bowmen had been left behind in Northumbria. If Harold had taken bowmen north in a matter of two days, they had had nearly two weeks to return to the south! Furthermore, had there been bowmen at Stamford Bridge, the heroic Viking who defended the bridge and resisted the English advance alone, like Macauley's Horatius and his two friends, would have been picked off comfortably with a few accurate arrows.

From the Tapestry illustration, there is perhaps one fact to be gleaned that is not particularly contentious. The smallness of the bowman will be another example of rank, the unarmoured conscript being compared with the socially superior mailed thegns and housecarls, rather than a statement about the insignificance of the presence of Anglo-Saxon bowmen. Having said that, the performance of the Anglo-Saxon bowmen was insignificant. There must have been several of them because in a medieval battle of this sort, the usual way of replenishing arrows was to pick them up off the ground and shoot them back at the enemy. By all accounts, the Norman archers kept up a steady fire for most of the day and the shields of the Anglo-Saxons, bristling with arrows, are a testimony to their fire-power3. There is no picture of any Norman with an arrow in his shield. It is therefore fair comment that, whatever their number, the bowmen had not been organised into a cohesive arm and that they did little more than help the Normans to recover some of their arrows. Properly protected, units of bowmen placed at, perhaps, three points along the Anglo-Saxon front would have made it uncomfortable, if not impossible, for groups of Norman horsemen to charge repeatedly uphill.

The home of the great longbow that was later so decisive at Crécy, Poitiers and, superbly, at Agincourt, was in Wales. Gerald of Wales, writing of an attack on Abergavenny Castle in 1182, mentioned that the bowmen of Gwent shot arrows that penetrated the oak doorway of the tower, which was almost as thick as a man's palm. The use of this formidable, infantry weapon by the English in war was far into the future in 1066 but bows some 170-185 centimetres long have been found in Denmark dating from the third or fourth centuries. Finds of bows and arrows in England are rare because wooden artefacts are not likely to survive in English soils. Finds of arrowheads are fairly common and the Anglo-Saxons evidently had a barbed variety (probably used for hunting); a bodkin variety that would easily have penetrated chain mail and a leaf shaped variety4. It seems likely that powerful bows and skilled bowmen will have been most common in the Danelaw, among the Viking descendants, and in the Welsh Marches, where the men will have learnt from the Welsh. Fyrdmen from both these distant areas may not have had time to reach the hoary apple tree rendezvous before the battle.

Before crossing to Pevensey, the Norman ships were loaded with a quantity of arms and supplies (Panels 88-90). It is certain that huge numbers of expendable missiles, arrows and javelins, will have been included. Probably the majority of these will have been left behind in Hastings with the garrison there. The troops taking with them whatever they could carry and what they expected to use in a day. Nobody can have anticipated that the forthcoming battle would be both so long and so important when they set out. As the day of the battle wore on, William will have noted and identified the Anglo-Saxon leaders, particularly those from the house of Godwin who had already fallen, and have come to realise that if earl Harold could be killed or captured the hierarchy of leadership in England would have a significant void at its head. The strategy of shooting arrows high into the air, though doubted by some historians, would seem to have been directed specifically at Harold's command post. The lower border at this stage in the battle certainly indicates renewed activity by the archers and the vast quivers (Panel 164) have the appearance of barrels of arrows. It is possible that these had just arrived from Hastings, having been sent for and brought up because the numbers of arrows being shot back at the Normans were not nearly enough to keep the archers busy. With the new supplies, the archers were collectively brought back into action and William ordered them, his artillery so to speak, to change from field guns to mortars. By tradition, a falling arrow hit Harold, in or near his right eye, and soon afterwards the Anglo-Saxon defence disintegrated.

There is considerable argument about the apparent arrow in Harold's eye in the Tapestry, not the least being that it may not be Harold at all. Even if it is accepted that Harold is shown twice in a scene that comprises a single horseman breaking through the last stand by the diminished Anglo-Saxons, it is widely claimed that the 'shaft' in Harold's eye represents a repair to the original embroidery. However, on the grounds that Baudri of Bourgeuil certainly saw the Tapestry and drew upon it for his imaginary tapestry in the apartments of Adèla of Blois, daughter of Queen Matilda, the matter may be resolved. Baudri's descriptions parallel the pictures in the Tapestry at Bayeux so closely that when he wrote 'a shaft pierces Harold with deadly doom' we may rely on it being an accurate description of an illustration that was then only a few years old even though Harold's eye is not mentioned. If Harold was hit by an arrow and incapacitated at, or very close to, the place where he died, then it is possible to say that the arrow would have been loosed from near the upper gate on the private road which leads from the lower lodge to the Abbey terrace5. Having said that, the angle of the arrow in the Tapestry is all wrong. An arrow entering the eye at that angle would have gone straight through the eyeball and into the brain. Also, the arrows were supposed to be falling from high in the sky at that point. In this case, an arrow entering the eye with full force would probably pierce the cheek bone and go on into the mouth and, probably, out through the jaw. If the angle of the arrow, as shown in the Tapestry, is correct it would seem that some of the Norman archers did not participate in the high angle volley but waited until the Anglo-Saxons raised their shields and then shot below them. If Harold had been hit directly by an arrow on this lower trajectory, the chances are that he would have been dead long before he could raise a hand to pull out the arrow. The only alternative is that Harold deflected the arrow, whether on a high or low trajectory, with the metal rim of his shield causing a ricochet into his eye. Some of the force of the arrow would have been dissipated by hitting the shield, which at least accounts for a very nasty, painful wound that was not immediately fatal.6

Harold had moved his own position towards his left. At the same time, William probably moved to his right, causing the Norman and Flemish cavalry to merge into a single force for the final charge. A cavalry charge at that time was not the disciplined affair, such as we may read about in The Charge of the Light Brigade, with men riding knee to knee. However, with both William and Eustace charging together, all the horsemen will have arrived at the weakened Anglo-Saxon line more or less simultaneously and the shock will have been tremendous. Inevitably, some broke through.

In the next scene, Harold is apparently shown again, falling this time from a blow to the thigh. If Guy of Amiens wrote the Carmen then the Tapestry portrays a very much diluted version of his bloody story. The Carmen tells of duke William seeing king Harold at the top of the hill fiercely cutting down those who were attacking him. William calls up Eustace of Boulogne, Hugh of Ponthieu and Gifard, known by his father's surname. These four broke through to Harold, The first … piercing the king's shield and breast with his lance … the second with his sword cut off his head below the protection of his helm. The third liquefied his entrails with his spear. And the fourth cut off his thigh and carried it some distance away. Nothing in Guy's version stands up to examination and it seems improbable that a sword could cut off a leg at the thigh, through its protective chain mail, without hacking at it several times7. Also, if William had participated personally in killing Harold, it is not credible that no other early historian mentioned it. More significantly, from our point of view, the patron of the Tapestry, who was interested from the beginning in the changing relationship between duke William and earl Harold, must have portrayed both William and Harold in such an important scene without any room for misunderstanding. It would have been the turning point in the whole narrative, the triumph of good over evil in Norman eyes, with the Tapestry, as we see it, starting with king Edward in its first scene and showing the transition to, as we suppose, king William in its last. The patron of the Tapestry, whoever it was, has been shown time and again to have been too well informed to have failed to obtain the best available details of the king's death. One suggestion has been that there were two versions of Harold's death current at the time the Tapestry was made. On the whole, it seems more probable that Harold was wounded before the horsemen, who had penetrated the Anglo-Saxon defence, killed him.

Legends of Harold's survival grew up after the battle but William of Poitiers, at least, was in no doubt that he had been killed. He wrote, Harold was recognized, not by any insignia which he wore and certainly not from his features, but by certain distinguishing marks. They carried his body to William's camp and it was handed over for burial to William, surnamed Malet. The duke refused to give the corpse to Harold's mother, although she offered an equal weight of gold for the remains of her son whom she loved so much. He fully realised how unseemly it would have been to have accepted gold in exchange in this way.

Poor Gytha! Four sons killed in less than three weeks and a grandson kidnapped! Furthermore, this is the only recorded instance of William regarding the acceptance of gold to be unseemly. But William must never be underestimated. Straight after the battle, having spent the night among the carnage, William returned to Hastings and waited there for five days in the expectation of receiving submissions from the remaining magnates or, possibly, a further attack from a second wave of Anglo-Saxons. It was several weeks before he can have realised that there were to be no more pitched battles. Had he immediately released Harold's body to his mother, the resulting tomb might have served as a rallying point for the Anglo-Saxons. Therefore, a decent but unceremonious burial by William Malet, in an unmarked grave by the sea shore, was a wise precaution.

It is significant, however, that the body was recognized by certain distinguishing marks, which would hardly have been known to any of the Normans. Similarly, the two canons from Harold's foundation at Waltham, who feature in another version of the story, would have been unlikely to have been able to perform this recognition, and were not claimed to have done so. There can be little doubt that the final rush of Normans, which carried most of their army across Battle Hill and away to the west in pursuit of the Anglo-Saxons will have caused considerable mutilation, mainly accidental, to the corpses in their path. By the time that they were trying to sort out the bodies it was fully dark. Thus, if recognition was as William of Poitiers says and common sense suggests, someone who was intimate with Harold has to be introduced into the story. His mother is a possible candidate although the inference seems to be that she did not come onto the scene until either after Harold's burial or, at the very earliest, the following day. The other ideal person to have recognized Harold's mutilated remains was Edith Swan Neck, who was actually introduced in the Waltham story.

It is possible to reconcile a burial by the sea shore with a later re-burial at Waltham but, one hundred and forty years later, when all the survival legends had done the rounds and lost nothing in the telling, Harold's biographer had the difficult task of forcing the legend of Harold's escape into agreement with the fact that Harold's tomb existed at Waltham Minster, and with the local tradition of finding the body by Edith. If it is accepted that Edith Swan Neck and her son Ulf were kidnapped by William's men before the battle, the essential backbone of this second Waltham account is not so far fetched as it previously appeared to be. Edith certainly owed William no favours. She may well have reasoned that if Harold had not been killed outright in the battle, his best hopes for survival lay in being just one of the many wounded on the field or struggling to make their way into the anonymous countryside. Therefore, if the Normans believed that they already had Harold's body, the hunt for it would stop. Just possibly, Edith lied to William for Harold's sake, not knowing him to be alive or dead. The canons, who later led the solemn ceremony of reburial at Waltham, could have been as convinced as William that they had the right corpse.

Rumours of Harold's survival do seem to have been widespread. The legends have him nursed in Winchester, living in a cave at Dover, buried in London or living as a hermit in Canterbury. One legend, repeated and augmented in more than one source, has him finish up in Chester as a monk, either at St James' or St John's. How this particular legend grew cannot be explained other than by admitting that it might be true! The distance from the battle and from Harold's former earldom perhaps adds, rather than detracts from its credibility. Florence of Worcester thought it worth mentioning that Harold's wife was sent to Chester by her brothers after the battle. Perhaps Harold and Edith were reunited there. Alternatively, the legend might have grown from nothing more substantial than Florence's remark coupled with a deep, popular yearning for a folk-hero against the Norman rule. Wherever the truth may lie, Harold's wound, either from a steeply falling arrow or from a ricochet, was not necessarily fatal on its own. His escape from Battle, with or without assistance, was theoretically possible even though the balance of probability is, surely, that he was killed there.

The Tapestry story now ends with the Anglo-Saxons fleeing into the country and trying to hide from the pursuing Normans. It is entirely logical that, in its original state, the Tapestry ended with William's triumphal coronation. This was the ending envisaged by Jan Messent in her beautifully executed finale8. It was also the ending reported by Baudri of Bourgeuil. William rested five days at Hastings before marching out to sack Romney and accept the surrender of Dover and Canterbury. Then dysentery struck him and most of his troops. It was nearly a month before he could move on but, as soon as he could, he isolated London by a brutal march9 from Southwark to Berhampstead. There the northern earls, Edgar the Æthling and all the chief men of London submitted to him. Some of this was certainly recorded in the Tapestry and the descriptions of Baudri, stripped of their poetic fervour, are the best indication that we have of the final content. Before the coronation, we would now expect scenes showing the surrender of Dover or Canterbury; the submission of the magnates and the citizens of London opening their gates to welcome the duke. A blind eye might have been turned to the savage destruction of Romney and laying waste the country round London.

1 The Decisive Battles of the Western World (1981), Maj. Gen. J F C Fuller, CB, CBE, DSO.

2 The Image and the Eye(1982), Ernst H Gombrich.

3 Scoring hits against the massed ranks of the Anglo-Saxons was certainly easier than hitting the more dispersed Normans.

4 Anglo-Saxon Weapons and Warfare (1999), Richard Underwood, p.29

5 The Field of Hastings (1957), Lt.Col. Charles H Lemmon, DSO (late Royal Artillery).

6 Anglo-Saxon Weapons and Warfare ((1999), Richard Underwood, quotes Procopius: 'One of the guards of Belesarius was hit by one of the Gothic archers between the nose and the right eye. And the point of the arrow penetrated as far as the neck behind …and the rest of the shaft projected from his face and shook as the man rode ...' The physician was able to draw the barbed head from behind the man's neck and the man lived.

7 William of Malmesbury, quoted in The Medieval Archer (1985), Jim Bradbury, wrote of Harold, receiving the fatal arrow from a distance, then yielding to death. One of the soldiers with a sword gashed his thigh, as he lay prostrate; for which shameful and cowardly action, he was branded with ignominy by William, and lost his knighthood.

8 Completed 1997.

9 A phrase borrowed from William the Conqueror (1964), David C Douglas.