Let us therefore suffer the old Norman chronicler to transport our imaginations to the fair Sussex scenery northwest of Hastings, as it appeared on that October morning.
Continuing 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 presented in eleven easy 5 minute installments. 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 13, 1066
“A monk, named Hugues Maigrot, came in William’s name to call upon the Saxon King to do one of three things — either to resign his royalty in favor of William, or to refer it to the arbitration of the pope to decide which of the two ought to be king, or let it be determined by the issue of a single combat. Harold abruptly replied, ‘I will not resign my title, I will not refer it to the pope, nor will I accept the single combat.’ He was far from being deficient in bravery; but he was no more at liberty to stake the crown which he had received from a whole people in the chance of a duel than to deposit it in the hands of an Italian priest. William, not at all ruffled by the Saxon’s refusal, but steadily pursuing the course of his calculated measures, sent the Norman monk again, after giving him these instructions: ‘Go and tell Harold that if he will keep his former compact with me, I will leave to him all the country which is beyond the Humber, and will give his brother Gurth all the lands which Godwin held. If he still persist in refusing my offers, then thou shalt tell him, before all his people, that he is a perjurer and a liar; that he and all who shall support him are excommunicated by the mouth of the Pope, and that the bull to that effect is in my hands.’
“Hugues Maigrot delivered this message in a solemn tone; and the Norman chronicle says that at the word excommunication the English chiefs looked at one another as if some great danger were impending. One of them then spoke as follows: ‘We must fight, whatever may be the danger to us; for what we have to consider is not whether we shall accept and receive a new lord, as if our king were dead; the case is quite otherwise. The Norman has given our lands to his captains, to his knights, to all his people, the greater part of whom have already done homage to him for them: they will all look for their gift if their duke become our king; and he himself is bound to deliver up to them our goods, our wives, and our daughters: all is promised to them beforehand. They come, not only to ruin us, but to ruin our descendants also, and to take from us the country of our ancestors. And what shall we do — whither shall we go, when we have no longer a country?’ The English promised, by a unanimous oath, to make neither peace nor truce nor treaty with the invader, but to die or drive away the Normans.”
The 13th of October was occupied in these negotiations, and at night the Duke announced to his men that the next day would be the day of battle. That night is said to have been passed by the two armies in very different manners. The Saxon soldiers spent it in joviality, singing their national songs, and draining huge horns of ale and wine round their campfires. The Normans, when they had looked to their arms and horses, confessed themselves to the priests, with whom their camp was thronged, and received the sacrament by thousands at a time.
On Saturday, the 14th of October, was fought the great battle.
It is not difficult to compose a narrative of its principal incidents from the historical information which we possess, especially if aided by an examination of the ground. But it is far better to adopt the spirit-stirring words of the old chroniclers, who wrote while the recollections of the battle were yet fresh, and while the feelings and prejudices of the combatants yet glowed in the bosoms of living men.
Robert Wace, the Norman poet, who presented his Roman de Rou to Henry II, is the most picturesque and animated of the old writers, and from him we can obtain a more vivid and full description of the conflict than even the most brilliant romance-writer of the present time can supply. We have also an antique memorial of the battle more to be relied on than either chronicler or poet (and which confirms Wace’s narrative remarkably) in the celebrated Bayeux tapestry, which represents the principal scenes of Duke William’s expedition and of the circumstances connected with it, in minute though occasionally grotesque details, and which was undoubtedly the production of the same age in which the battle took place, whether we admit or reject the legend that Queen Matilda and the ladies of her court wrought it with their own hands in honor of the royal Conqueror.
Let us therefore suffer the old Norman chronicler to transport our imaginations to the fair Sussex scenery northwest of Hastings, as it appeared on that October morning. The Norman host is pouring forth from its tents, and each troop and each company is forming fast under the banner of its leader. The masses have been sung, which were finished betimes in the morning; the barons have all assembled round Duke William; and the Duke has ordered that the army shall be formed in three divisions, so as to make the attack upon the Saxon position in three places.
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