Many a pathetic legend was told in after years respecting the discovery and the burial of the corpse of our last Saxon King.
Today’s installment concludes Normans Conquer England
our selection from Historical and Critical Account of the Several Invasions of England by Sir Edward Creasy published in 1852. The selection is serialized in eleven installments for daily reading. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages.
Previously in Normans Conquer England.
Time: October 15, 1066
“Thus they lauded and extolled him greatly and rejoiced in what they saw, but grieving also for their friends who were slain in the battle. And the Duke stood meanwhile among them, of noble stature and mien, and rendered thanks to the King of Glory, through whom he had the victory, and thanked the knights around him, mourning also frequently for the dead. And he ate and drank among the dead, and made his bed that night upon the field.
“The morrow was Sunday; and those who had slept upon the field of battle, keeping watch around and suffering great fatigue, bestirred themselves at break of day and sought out and buried such of the bodies of their dead friends as they might find. The noble ladies of the land also came, some to seek their husbands, and others their fathers, sons, or brothers. They bore the bodies to their villages and interred them at the churches; and the clerks and priests of the country were ready, and at the request of their friends took the bodies that were found, and prepared graves and lay them therein.
“King Harold was carried and buried at Varham; but I know not who it was that bore him thither, neither do I know who buried him. Many remained on the field, and many had fled in the night.”
Such is a Norman account of the battle of Hastings, which does full justice to the valor of the Saxons as well as to the skill and bravery of the victors. It is indeed evident that the loss of the battle by the English was owing to the wound which Harold received in the afternoon, and which must have incapacitated him from effective command. When we remember that he had himself just won the battle of Stamford Bridge over Harald Hardrada by the maneuver of a feigned flight, it is impossible to suppose that he could be deceived by the same stratagem on the part of the Normans at Hastings. But his men, when deprived of his control, would very naturally be led by their inconsiderate ardor into the pursuit that proved so fatal to them. All the narratives of the battle, however much they vary as to the precise time and manner of Harold’s fall, eulogize the generalship and the personal prowess which he displayed until the fatal arrow struck him. The skill with which he had posted his army was proved both by the slaughter which it cost the Normans to force the position, and also by the desperate rally which some of the Saxons made after the battle in the forest in the rear, in which they cut off a large number of the pursuing Normans. This circumstance is particularly mentioned by William of Poictiers, the Conqueror’s own chaplain. Indeed, if Harold or either of his brothers had survived, the remains of the English army might have formed again in the wood, and could at least have effected an orderly retreat and prolonged the war. But both Gurth and Leofwine, and all the bravest thanes of Southern England, lay dead on Senlac, around their fallen King and the fallen standard of their country. The exact number that perished on the Saxons’ side is unknown; but we read that, on the side of the victors, out of sixty thousand men who had been engaged, no less than a fourth perished; so well had the English billmen “plyed the ghastly blow,” and so sternly had the Saxon battle-axe cloven Norman’s casque and mail. The old historian Daniel justly as well as forcibly remarks: “Thus was tried, by the great assize of God’s judgment in battle, the right of power between the English and Norman nations; a battle the most memorable of all others, and, however miserably lost, yet most nobly fought on the part of England.”
Many a pathetic legend was told in after years respecting the discovery and the burial of the corpse of our last Saxon King. The main circumstances, though they seem to vary, are perhaps reconcilable. Two of the monks of Waltham Abbey, which Harold had founded a little time before his election to the throne, had accompanied him to the battle. On the morning after the slaughter they begged and gained permission of the Conqueror to search for the body of their benefactor. The Norman soldiery and camp followers had stripped and gashed the slain, and the two monks vainly strove to recognize from among the mutilated and gory heaps around them the features of their former King. They sent for Harold’s mistress, Edith, surnamed “the Fair,” and “the Swan-necked,” to aid them. The eye of love proved keener than the eye of gratitude, and the Saxon lady even in that Aceldama knew her Harold.
The King’s mother now sought the victorious Norman, and begged the dead body of her son. But William at first answered, in his wrath and the hardness of his heart, that a man who had been false to his word and his religion should have no other sepulcher than the sand of the shore. He added, with a sneer: “Harold mounted guard on the coast while he was alive; he may continue his guard now he is dead.” The taunt was an unintentional eulogy; and a grave washed by the spray of the Sussex waves would have been the noblest burial-place for the martyr of Saxon freedom. But Harold’s mother was urgent in her lamentations and her prayers; the Conqueror relented: like Achilles, he gave up the dead body of his fallen foe to a parent’s supplications, and the remains of King Harold were deposited with regal honors in Waltham Abbey.
On Christmas Day in the same year William the Conqueror was crowned, at London, King of England.
This ends our series of passages on Normans Conquer England by Sir Edward Creasy from his book Historical and Critical Account of the Several Invasions of England published in 1852. This blog features short and lengthy pieces on all aspects of our shared past. Here are selections from the great historians who may be forgotten (and whose work have fallen into public domain) as well as links to the most up-to-date developments in the field of history and of course, original material from yours truly, Jack Le Moine. – A little bit of everything historical is here.
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