Battle of Hastings

From Historical Hastings

Many thousands of words have been written about the Battle of Hastings on the 14th of October 1066, in possibly almost as many works, and this history does not intend to fully rehash the tale.

The two invasions of 1066

There were two invasions of England in 1066; the first invasion - to the north-east of the country was by King Harald Hardrada of Norway understudied by Harold of England's traitorous brother, Tostig - this was unsuccessful. Harald of Norway and Tostig were both killed in the Battle of Stamford Bridge. Harold of England retired to York to rest his army when news arrived of the Norman invasion led by Duke William in person. King Harold needed to get his army to the South Coast what must have been a record time to confront a new and even more dangerous enemy. This battle was a close-fought battle, with Harold almost tasting success - indeed without the Norwegian invasion he certainly would have. For that reason the unpleasant Tostig was a very important political and military factor. Unwittingly, he had greatly aided William of Normandy.

William's Camp

Thomas Cole suggests that William camped on the Step Meadow, an area now covered by Redmayne Drive, Holmesdale Gardens and Cornwallis Gardens; Cole claiming that the lines of the encampment were still visible on the ground prior to the development of the area[1].

The Anglo-Saxons

The term Anglo-Saxon as used to describe the tribes that occupied much of England prior to the 1066 invasion would appear to be a foreign invention utilised mainly on the continent where it was used to distinguish between the Germanic Saxons and the English Saxons. Splitting the hyphenated term, the origins of Anglo/Angles or the Anglii, the first mention of this term appears in the writings of the Roman historian Tacitus. The Angles, along with the Frisians, Jutes and other lesser-known tribes were the diaspora that occupied early Britain. Whilst the Saxons became the dominant group in England, the stand alone word Seax in old English was never widely utilised and, if used, only to describe the Saxons - the population mainly being referred to as Englisc[2].

The victor crowned

As the histories record, Harold was killed as were most of his army leaving the ​road​ to London open. William of Normandy was crowned at Westminster on Christmas Day 1066 and began a reign of terror in order to subdue a country which had a severe dislike for him, with excellent reasons for doing so. In January 1066 England had been at peace under the rule of Edward the Confessor; going as far as enjoying the rudiments of constitutional government in the form of a 'parliament' known as the Witangemot, whose members elected Harold Godwineson as Edward's successor. The Church of England went its own way also - with married clergy - special usages inherited from the Celtic Church, and the cult of English saints of whom no-one else had heard. It is no surprise that the Pope supported William's invasion, which promised to bring the Church into line with Rome's rule-book. By the end of 1066, all civil liberties that the population had enjoyed had been wiped out and England was ruled by a tyrant who cared little for his subjects' welfare; the deer in his forests were more important than the occupants of England.

Where was the battle?/Where are the bodies?

The exact location of the battle is contested (although scholars generally agree that it was in the vicinity of today's Battle Abbey), with a number of popular theories as to the landing site of the Normans and subsequent locations being documented. One issue is that with the scale of the battle and number of participants, some remains must still exist of the weaponry and the armies that carried them even with the passage of time, although it has to be said that the acidity of the local soil would tend to leave little remains after this passage of time. Whilst the Saxons utilised individual burials for their dead, the Normans were believed to have used a mass grave for their dead, and one website claims that the remains of a man dating to around the time of the battle who died from sword wounds to his skull had been found[3].

The 19th century newspaper man and historian T. B. Brett gives a possible answer; During the construction of Grand Parade in 1831, which required a certain amount of the cliff to the rear to be removed, a number of stone coffins, bones and weapons were discovered (one of the skulls reportedly being embedded in the walls of one of the ​building​s - possibly to this day). Most of these were dispersed by the land-owner, Col. Jeffries, some being later possessed by Dr. Harwood, and a few made their way to Lewes Castle's museum. He reports that in his childhood, it was related to him that there was a chapel in the vicinity of Goat's Point (possibly Goat Ledge). In the burial grounds of this chapel (Chapel Field) he was told that the warriors were interred; the burial ground surviving long after the chapel's demolition. This field which may have given its name to Chapel Park Road was also adjacent to the Warrior Field (later Warrior Square. A further piece of folk-lore that Brett relates was that the dead of the battle were buried somewhere between the Old Woman's Tap and the Warrior Valley which would put the grave-site slightly further to the west[4].

Why so many Norman Castles?

This evidence is visible to the current day; the surviving Norman castles were put there to dominate a hostile countryside. The Elite of the Anglo-Saxons had no need for such fortresses; they lived in large wooden houses. Twenty years later the Conquest, when the Domesday Book was compiled, there was virtually no land held by Anglo-Saxons. Any Anglo-Saxon nobility had been wiped out or dispossessed and replaced by Normans. The same went for the Church; the bishops and abbots were almost all Norman. Norman-French had become the language of administration, the law and heraldry. Although the English language ultimately won, it was an English heavily influenced by French, as we can see from the Middle-English works of Chaucer and Langland.

The Bayeux Tapestry - a pictorial history

Perhaps one reason why the Norwegian invasion is less well-known than the Norman one is that it did not succeed; the other is that it produced no equivalent of the Bayeux Tapestry nor much in the way of documentary evidence. It is remarkable that this work of embroidery should still survive, with its images giving a surprisingly accurate record of the battle and events leading up to it. It is reputed that during WW2 Heinrich Himmler wanted to acquire it for his collection.

Erroneous Interpretations

Current research would state that Harold was not killed by an arrow to his eye; the 'arrow' is in fact poor 18th century repair-work to the Bayeux Tapestry. Harold is probably a foot soldier nearby, who is being cut down by a mounted knight. This much agrees with contemporary accounts. Neither were the English inferior to the Normans as soldiers: Harold's regular soldiers, the Huscarls, were reckoned to be the best in Europe. The conscripts, the Fyrd, were another matter however. William's army was about one-third Norman; the other two thirds were from Flanders, Brittany and even further afield. Many names that are perhaps now famous in English, and wider British, history, came into Britain around this time, including Percy and Grosvenor (Norman), D'arcy (from Burgundy), Bruce and Ker (from Brittany)[5].

Other details of the Battle

A few lesser-known writings and details of the event may however be permitted to grace the pages of this history. One of which is the fact that a tragedic play was written about the battle by Richard Cumberland in 1778[6].

References & Notes

  1. The Antiquities of Hastings and the Battlefield (Thomas Cole 1864) Pg. 35 Google Books - 1864 ESCC Library. A later edition is also available: ESCC Library - 1884
  2. Smithsonian Magazine: The Many Myths of the Term 'Anglo-Saxon' | History | Smithsonian Magazine, accessdate: 20 July 2021
  3. Ancient Origins
  4. Brett Manuscript Histories Vol. 1 Chap. 5 Pg. 39
  5. 1066, A Guide to the Battles and the Campaigns (Michael Livingstone and Kelly Devries)
  6. Open Library: The Battle of Hastings - a tragedy by Richard Cumberland