This series has eleven easy 5 minute installments. This first installment: Preparations for Invasion.
Upon the death of King Edward the Confessor on January 5, 1066 an assembly of nobles and leading citizens of London declared that Harold should be their king. Across the Channel the William disputed that. Political/genealogical considerations being secondary to military ones, the invasion of England by Normandy, the Battle of Hastings, and the subsequent conquest of England by the William the Conqueror, the Duke of Normandy and then the King of England, is one of the celebrated stories of the Medieval Age.
This selection is from from Historical and Critical Account of the Several Invasions of England by Sir Edward Creasy published in 1852. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages.
Sir Edward Creasy is one of the most famous military historians of all time.
All the adventurous spirits of Christendom flocked to the holy banner, under which Duke William, the most renowned knight and sagest general of the age, promised to lead them to glory and wealth in the fair domains of England. His army was filled with the chivalry of Continental Europe, all eager to save their souls by fighting at the Pope’s bidding, eager to signalize their valor in so great an enterprise, and eager also for the pay and the plunder which William liberally promised. But the Normans themselves were the pith and the flower of the army, and William himself was the strongest, the sagest, and the fiercest spirit of them all.
Throughout the spring and summer of 1066 all the seaports of Normandy, Picardy, and Brittany rang with the busy sound of preparation. On the opposite side of the Channel King Harold collected the army and the fleet with which he hoped to crush the southern invaders. But the unexpected attack of King Harald Hardrada of Norway upon another part of England disconcerted the skilful measures which the Saxon had taken against the menacing armada of Duke William.
Harold’s renegade brother, Earl Tostig, had excited the Norse King to this enterprise, the importance of which has naturally been eclipsed by the superior interest attached to the victorious expedition of Duke William, but which was on a scale of grandeur which the Scandinavian ports had rarely, if ever, before witnessed. Hardrada’s fleet consisted of two hundred warships and three hundred other vessels, and all the best warriors of Norway were in his host. He sailed first to the Orkneys, where many of the islanders joined him, and then to Yorkshire. After a severe conflict near York he completely routed Earls Edwin and Morcar, the governors of Northumbria. The city of York opened its gates, and all the country, from the Tyne to the Humber, submitted to him.
The tidings of the defeat of Edwin and Morcar compelled Harold to leave his position on the southern coast and move instantly against the Norwegians. By a remarkably rapid march he reached Yorkshire in four days, and took the Norse King and his confederates by surprise. Nevertheless, the battle which ensued, and which was fought near Stamford Bridge, was desperate, and was long doubtful. Unable to break the ranks of the Norwegian phalanx by force, Harold at length tempted them to quit their close order by a pretended flight. Then the English columns burst in among them, and a carnage ensued the extent of which may be judged of by the exhaustion and inactivity of Norway for a quarter of a century afterward. King Harald Hardrada and all the flower of his nobility perished on the 25th of September, 1066, at Stamford Bridge, a battle which was a Flodden to Norway.
Harold’s victory was splendid; but he had bought it dearly by the fall of many of his best officers and men, and still more dearly by the opportunity which Duke William had gained of effecting an unopposed landing on the Sussex coast. The whole of William’s shipping had assembled at the mouth of the Dive, a little river between the Seine and the Orne, as early as the middle of August. The army which he had collected amounted to fifty thousand knights and ten thousand soldiers of inferior degree. Many of the knights were mounted, but many must have served on foot, as it is hardly possible to believe that William could have found transports for the conveyance of fifty thousand war-horses across the Channel.
For a long time the winds were adverse, and the Duke employed the interval that passed before he could set sail in completing the organization in and improving the discipline of his army, which he seems to have brought into the same state of perfection as was seven centuries and a half afterward the boast of another army assembled on the same coast, and which Napoleon designed for a similar descent upon England.
It was not till the approach of the equinox that the wind veered from the northeast to the west, and gave the Normans an opportunity of quitting the weary shores of the Dive. They eagerly embarked and set sail, but the wind soon freshened to a gale, and drove them along the French coast to St. Valery, where the greater part of them found shelter; but many of their vessels were wrecked, and the whole coast of Normandy was strewn with the bodies of the drowned. William’s army began to grow discouraged and averse to the enterprise, which the very elements thus seemed to fight against; though, in reality, the northeast wind, which had cooped them so long at the mouth of the Dive, and the western gale, which had forced them into St. Valery, were the best possible friends to the invaders. They prevented the Normans from crossing the Channel until the Saxon King and his army of defense had been called away from the Sussex coast to encounter Harald Hardrada in Yorkshire; and also until a formidable English fleet, which by King Harold’s orders had been cruising in the Channel to intercept the Normans, had been obliged to disperse temporarily for the purpose of refitting and taking in fresh stores of provisions.
Duke William used every expedient to reanimate the drooping spirits of his men at St. Valery; and at last he caused the body of the patron saint of the place to be exhumed and carried in solemn procession, while the whole assemblage of soldiers, mariners, and appurtenant priests implored the saint’s intercession for a change of wind. That very night the wind veered, and enabled the mediaeval Agamemnon to quit his Aulis.
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