© Michael Leete 2005
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Just as it is immensely helpful to view the Tapestry as a continuous narrative, so it is simpler to have the history, unburdened with copious notes and arguments, presented in a single, brief summary.
Early in the year 1064, Harold Godwinson sought an audience with king Edward the Confessor (Panel 1) to ask if he may go to Normandy to help his friend rescue Ælfgyva from whatever difficulties she was in and, while there, to solicit the release of his brother Wulfnoth and his nephew, Hakon, both of whom had been surrendered as hostages to king Edward in 1051 prior to the exile of earl Godwine. King Edward had sent the hostages to Normandy, probably in the company of Robert of Jumièges, who was then on his way to Rome to collect his pallium as archbishop of Canterbury. At the same time, Edward had certainly communicated some injudicious hints of promises to William to the effect that William was to be his heir to the Crown of England. The promises were never made formally in accordance with the customs of the time and there can be little doubt that neither party counted upon them being redeemed. In Edward's case, for whom the succession can hardly have been a favourite subject of conversation, his designated heir soon became Edgar the Æthling. Edward the Exile, a son of Edmund Ironside, had been persuaded to return to England from Hungary in 1057 but had died before he had seen the king. His son Edgar, born in 1052 or a little later, had an impeccable lineage and could be expected to grow into an heir who would be wholly acceptable to the Witan. From king Edward's point of view, the succession was settled but he may have felt that, by 1064, he should put an end to any international speculation arising from earlier diplomatic games of ducks and drakes with both Normandy and Scandinavia. In a nutshell, therefore, king Edward commanded Harold to speak to duke William to clear up any misunderstanding about the Crown of England and was probably delighted that the primary excuse for the embassy, the rescue of Ælfgyva, should preserve the informality of Harold's mission.
Harold and his friend rode to Bosham, as if going on a hunting excursion (Panels 2 & 3). On the following day, after visiting the church (Panel 4), they took a final meal (Panel 5) before sailing in the evening (Panels 6-10). Probably because of nothing more serious than faulty navigation, they arrived at the French coast somewhere near the Somme estuary where they encountered thick fog. Advancing cautiously (Panel 11), they made a safe landfall (Panel 12) only to be captured by Guy of Ponthieu (Panels 13, 14 & 15) and carried off, up the river Canche, to Beaurain (Panels 16-18). Harold, of course, played his strongest card to negotiate his release. He claimed that he was an ambassador of king Edward of England with an important diplomatic message for William, duke of Normandy (Panel 20). We cannot know how successful he would have been because an Anglo-Saxon slipped away during this discussion and, in the course of some three weeks (Panels 21 & 22, bottom), made his way into Normandy and had his news conveyed to the duke, and, soon afterwards, was himself taken to Rouen (Panel 28) to report in person to William (Panel 27). Meanwhile, messengers galloped back and forth (Panels 22-26) and, eventually, Guy escorted his prisoners to meet William (Panels 29-33).
Meanwhile, news has reached William that count Conan, the nominal overlord of Brittany, is besieging his principal opponent, Riwallon, in Dol. If Conan should be successful in neutralizing Riwallon he would be free to turn his attention to his border with Normandy. Accordingly, William planned a swift raid into Brittany to aid Riwallon and keep the pot of internal discord boiling. For some reason, Harold also went on the expedition. Rather than march openly along the former Roman road into Brittany, William's force hugged the coastline (Panel 40-43). Crossing the ford over the river Couesnon, two Normans got into difficulties and Harold dragged them out of the quicksand (Panel 44 & 45). The significance of this incident is not at all clear but it is possible that William had gone to visit his old friend, Ranulphe, the abbott of Mont St Michel (Panel 44, top), and that the pictures imply that Harold had been given a temporary commission as acting-C-in-C.
The Norman expeditionary force reached Dol and attacked without delay (Panel 46). Count Conan was surprised in his siege tower but escaped (Panel 47) and fled towards Rennes (Panel 48 & 49). As soon as he was sure that he was not being pursued, he turned for Dinan where he was again attacked (Panel 50 & 51) and forced to surrender (Panel 52-54). William, well pleased with the results of his campaign, rewarded Harold with some gifts of arms, being implements of battle (Panel 55), and the whole party returned to Normandy (Panel 56), where Harold swore his famous oath. The Tapestry is not particularly helpful about the oath but the distinguished witnesses that the Norman versions of the event describe are conspicuous only by their absence (Panel 58-60). On the other hand, the Tapestry is helpful with the timing of events. The negotiations with Guy of Ponthieu will have taken three or four weeks and we know from William of Poitiers that the Breton expedition was about June, the corn being green in the ear. That is to say, Harold must have been in Normandy before the Breton campaign, probably in Rouen, for most of April and May.
The Tapestry then shows Harold swearing his oath at Bayeux (Panel 59) in the presence of William, two Normans (Panel 58) and two Anglo-Saxons (Panel 60). This pictorial version of the event does not have a company of distinguished witnesses, that must have included the bishop of Bayeux if it were as significant as was later claimed in the Norman accounts of it, and no version tells of reciprocal oaths by William that something as important as the bestowing and acceptance of the succession in England would have demanded. Visually, the oath is serious and genuine but, obviously, the Tapestry cannot indicate its content. The oath appears to have been necessary before Harold was allowed to leave Normandy but, sworn under duress or not, it was more likely to have concerned some military or maritime matter that William wished to extract from England than the promise of the Crown.
Earl Harold returned home (Panel 61-63) and reported to king Edward (Panel 65 & 65), whose last project, the building of the West Minster is next shown nearing completion (Panel 66). We know, of course, that some time separated Harold's return and the topping-off of the new Minster, during which the Northumbrians rebelled and, to avoid Civil War, Harold's brother Tostig was exiled. The consequences both provoked and aggravated the events of 1066. Tostig's attempts to return from exile by force misled Harold into thinking that he was the van of a major invasion. The fyrd and shipmen were called out and, under their terms of service, were later disbanded shortly before duke William launched his invasion so that all the forces in the south of England had to be re-mobilised to repel him. Also, during the rebellion, king Edward evidently suffered a heart attack and took no further part in the government of the country. Harold was described as sub regulus.
The Tapestry, being concerned with the relationship between William and Harold, portrays none of this and immediately following Harold's audience with king Edward, the completion of the West Minster is shown and its consecration by the Hand of God on the Festival of Holy Innocents, 28th December 1065 (Panel 66). Edward was too ill to attend and he died a week later. The Tapestry shows Edward on his deathbed, holding out his hand to a man identified as Harold (Panel 70). The later report is: Then, offering his hand to Harold, he said, "I commend this woman (queen Edith) and all the kingdom to your protection ..."1 So the king died and was buried on Thursday, 6th January 1066 (Panel 69). On the same day, it seems, Harold was offered the Crown (Panel 71), which he accepted and was duly acclaimed by a representative crowd of five men (Panel 73).
Time in the Tapestry is again foreshortened as the Comet appears (Panel 75, top), on or after 24th April, and a watcher on the shore (Panel 76, top) saw a ship leave England on its way to Normandy (Panel 77 & 78). Meanwhile, king Harold, completely clean shaven, has been told of the potential invasion fleet being collected by William (Panel 75). The Tapestry cannot tell us what news the English ship carried but it has a decorative tree both before and after so the news was not necessarily connected directly with William's council with his two half-brothers (Panel 80). As a result of the council, more ships were built because, evidently, William's propaganda campaign was proving successful and the ranks of his supporters were swelling (Panels 81-86). After a pause until the ships were ready (Panel 87), arms and supplies were carried aboard (Panels 88-90) and, according to the Tapestry, the men and horses were embarked and the army sailed for Pevensey (Panels 91-98). And so, eventually, they did after a sojourn in the Somme estuary. Having reached Pevensey on 28th September, more ships are shown at sea (Panels 99 & 100) before the horses are taken from them (Panels 101 & 102) and the ships were beached (Panel 103). The men rushed into Hastings (Panel 104) to quell any opposition; to secure food and do a little looting (Panel 105-108); and to be fed a full, cooked meal (Panel 109-112) on the principal later voiced by Napoleon, that an army marches on its stomach. That is to say, William probably remained some time at Pevensey while the rest of his fleet sailed towards Hastings and disembarked near the town. William and his ship, the Mora, probably joined the army on the following day. The brothers held a council of war (Panel 113 and arranged for a castle to be constructed at Hastings (Panel 114-116).
We know from other sources that William first sailed to the river Somme. There he practised a landing and waited impatiently for the wind to come into the south. Meanwhile, Harald Hardraada, finding the north wind favourable for his purposes, joined up with Tostig and his rather inefficient raiding and fought the battle of Gate Fulford against the northern earls and the northern fyrd, and the battle of Stamford Bridge against king Harold, his mounted housecarls and thegns, the shipmen from the river Wharfe at Tadcaster and such remnants of the northern fyrd as were available. The Norwegians and their Northumbrian allies were cut to pieces at Stamford Bridge and it was while Harold was resting his men in York after their titanic ride north and their success against the considerable forces of Hardraada, that he learnt that duke William had landed at Hastings.
William's plan was clearly to entice Harold into a pitched battle within range of Hastings. He could not afford a prolonged siege because his lines of supply across the winter seas would be too erratic, particularly when the English ships came into action. For about a fortnight, William's men looted and pillaged within range of Hastings and supplies were stored there. They can be seen in one of the buildings in the Tapestry (Panel 119). Nevertheless, a blockade of just two or three weeks would be disastrous for him. It would be equally disastrous to stretch his lines of communication by marching too far inland and risking the loss in condition of his horses. It seems improbable that he could have captured any major town before a full-scale army could be brought against him. It was therefore vital to him to goad Harold into attacking. At this point he had a great stroke of luck. Robert son of Guimora, a Norman expatriate, told William that Harold's former consort, Edith of the Swan Neck, was living with one of their sons named Ulf at Crowhurst manor (Panel 117). A mounted party was sent immediately to capture Edith and Ulf, which they did. They then set fire to the manor (Panel 118).
The Norman kidnappers had probably been driven off by a party of Anglo-Saxons. This led them to believe that the English army was on the move, which they reported to William, who ordered his men to arm themselves and prepare for battle (Panels 120 & 121). The Anglo-Saxons, meanwhile, sent word to Harold in London of all they had seen. Because the battle is known to have begun about 9 o'clock on the morning of Saturday, 14th October, it follows that the Normans left Hastings on the Friday (Panels 122 & 126) and, eager to come to grips with the English, failed to find them for the simple reason that the Anglo-Saxons were still grouped around what is now Caldbec Windmill and were not known to be there by the Normans until Vital (Panels 127 & 128) and his scouts located them - probably towards the late afternoon of Friday or even, not until first thing on the Saturday morning. The Normans camped for an uncomfortable night at Crowhurst Park, where the duke, according to William of Jumièges, took precautions against night attacks by the enemy and, as the darkness approached he ordered his men to stand-to until dawn. At first light, having disposed his troops in three lines of battle, he advanced undaunted against the terrible enemy (Panels 129 & 130).
Harold was surely both angered and made fearful by the news of the capture of Edith Swan Neck and little Ulf. He and his mounted men rode through the night from London to join his infantry at the hoary-apple-tree site. What he intended to do is not, of course, known. What he did do was to order the infantry out of the woods onto the open Downs so that he could review them and set them in order. It was too late. As the first men emerged from the trees they saw the weak sunlight glinting on Norman arms (Panels 131 & 132) and very soon after, battle was joined.
The Anglo-Saxon position ran approximately due east and west, stretching from the present main road along the line of Battle Abbey terrace - or a little to the north of it - to some rough ground to the west. To their south-east lay an isthmus of land, about three hundred yards wide at its narrowest point, which presented a fairly level approach except for the final hundred yards or so of Battle Hill itself. To the front of their centre and away to the south-west, ran Asten Brook and softer ground.
William's army was divided into three divisions, each of three echelons. On the left were the Bretons under the command of Alan of Brittany. On the right were the other mercenaries under Eustace of Boulogne and in the centre, personally commanded by duke William, were the Normans. Each division had archers in the van followed by heavier infantry. The cavalry were in the rear. The fall of the ground became steeper as the enemy closed to the base of Battle Hill. At this point, the archer echelons probably divided, fanning out to the right and left of their division's line of advance and, therefore, still shooting uphill with little or no effect. Then the infantry engaged and the Norman cavalry ran about in small groups trying to breach the unbroken shield wall. This was not the sort of fighting that William's men were used to and they were all, apparently, badly mauled. In particular, the Breton division, which had probably been partly enfiladed as they moved to their left to prolong the front, met more opposition than they expected and fell back, disconcerted by the violence of the defence. Evidently, the English extreme right had not been engaged and had curled round the Bretons to attack them on two sides. The archers ran into their infantry and the infantry ran into the cavalry, thus upsetting the whole formation. Then, due to difficulties with the soft ground to their rear around Asten Brook, the Bretons angled towards the Norman centre, who were not only caught up in the confusion but were left with their flank unprotected.
This was the moment when Harold should have advanced his men to take advantage of the general confusion among the Normans. If his attack had been successful he might have won the day.
The victory would have been Harold's and it might well have been decisive enough to have compelled William to re-embark and abandon the campaign.
As it happened, as soon as the panic on the Norman left wing began to affect the morale of the centre, a fortuitous event occurred which would have gone far to crown a general counter-attack on Harold's part with success.
During the initial attack William was in the rear and, it seems, when the front of his central division broke back, in the resulting confusion he was unhorsed, and the cry went up that he had fallen. For him this must have been the most critical moment in the battle; for in classical and mediæval warfare the loss of the general-in-chief, which carried with it the loss of the entire command, as often as not led to immediate defeat. It was as if in a modern battle the whole of an army's general staff were suddenly eliminated. In the present case, the danger, though critical, was momentary for William mounted another horse, pushed back his helmet so that he might be recognised by all (Panel 160), and stayed the panic in the centre by shouting out, 'Look at me well. I am still alive and by the grace of God I shall yet prove the victor.' Meanwhile, on the left, presumably around Asten Brook, the English counter-attackers had got into difficulty, and when the Norman centre turned about a general rally followed, and some of the pursuers were cut off and slaughtered. William of Poitiers mentions 'several thousands', but immediately qualifies this estimate by informing us, even after this loss, the English 'scarcely seemed diminished in number2.'
Thus the shield wall had held firmly during the first, long phase of the battle and we may assume that there was then quite a lull in the fighting while both sides reorganised and William's army re-formed. The next phase under William's personal direction, was solely a cavalry action. That is the famous feigned retreat, which must have been staged towards the Anglo-Saxon left. Quite possibly it was an accidental stratagem and may actually have been occasioned by the Normans running away in genuine panic - another of the facts suppressed by the Norman historians. The English left ran down the slope in pursuit of the fleeing Normans and the Bretons wheeled to their right and cut off their retreat.
Harold has been blamed for falling into this trap, but probably the discipline of his troops was such that they acted on their own initiative and wrongly, because the tactical situation was very different from the one which led to the initial counter-attack. Then they were faced by foot but now by horse, therefore they could not possibly hope to outpace them.
This was the situation at Stamford Bridge in reverse. Meanwhile, the Norman archers who had not been engaged in this phase of the battle, carrying barrels of arrows clearly intended for use from fixed positions (Panel 164), began to fire at a high angle to drop their arrows into the English ranks from the sky. This led to the final phase of the battle.
Harold had probably moved his own Standard to the left of his line to encourage those who had taken the brunt of the slaughter in the 'retreat' phase and to prevent them from making further charges. At this time he was hit by an arrow in, or near, his eye (Panel 169).
Before a determined charge led by Eustace, the weakened English left, no longer under command, gave way and retreated into their comrades to the west. As with the earlier Breton retreat, this led to disintegration and once the shield wall was breached, the English were at the mercy of the enemy cavalry. The whole Anglo-Saxon army withdrew in considerable disorder and Battle Hill was over-run by William's troops. Darkness was now falling and we know that Eustace called off the pursuit and was hit from behind. He survived the blow and William countermanded the order which led to further Norman losses in the Malfosse, where some of the Anglo-Saxons appear to have rallied.
The Norman victory, however, was complete and William spent the night on Battle Hill. There they found Harold's mangled body and Edith Swan Neck was brought up from Hastings to identify it. The body, wrapped in a cloak, was quietly buried the next day near the sea shore by William Malet and so ended, as far as concerns the Tapestry, the most pivotal year in English history. William was crowned king of England on Christmas Day, 1066 but this event is now missing from the Tapestry although it seems inevitable that it was once its glorious finale.
1 Edward the Confessor (1979), Frank Barlow, quoting his own translation of Vita Ædwardi Regis.
2 The Decisive Battles of the Western World 480BC-1757 (1972), General J F C Fuller.