The ruins of Battle Abbey at this hour attest the place where Harold’s army was posted; and the high altar of the abbey stood on the very spot where Harold’s own standard was planted during the fight, and where the carnage was the thickest.
Normans Conquer England
is the name of 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.
The next day they marched along the sea-shore to Hastings. Near that place the Duke fortified a camp, and set up the two other wooden castles. The foragers, and those who looked out for booty, seized all the clothing and provisions they could find, lest what had been brought by the ships should fail them. And the English were to be seen fleeing before them, driving off their cattle, and quitting their houses. Many took shelter in burying-places, and even there they were in grievous alarm.
Besides the marauders from the Norman camp, strong bodies of cavalry were detached by William into the country, and these, when Harold and his army made their rapid march from London southward, fell back in good order upon the main body of the Normans, and reported that the Saxon King was rushing on like a madman. But Harold, when he found that his hopes of surprising his adversary were vain, changed his tactics, and halted about seven miles from the Norman lines. He sent some spies, who spoke the French language, to examine the number and preparations of the enemy, who, on their return, related with astonishment that there were more priests in William’s camp than there were fighting men in the English army. They had mistaken for priests all the Norman soldiers who had short hair and shaven chins, for the English laymen were then accustomed to wear long hair and mustaches. Harold, who knew the Norman usages, smiled at their words, and said, “Those whom you have seen in such numbers are not priests, but stout soldiers, as they will soon make us feel.”
Harold’s army was far inferior in number to that of the Normans, and some of his captains advised him to retreat upon London and lay waste the country, so as to starve down the strength of the invaders. The policy thus recommended was unquestionably the wisest, for the Saxon fleet had now reassembled, and intercepted all William’s communications with Normandy; and as soon as his stores of provisions were exhausted, he must have moved forward upon London, where Harold, at the head of the full military strength of the kingdom, could have defied his assault, and probably might have witnessed his rival’s destruction by famine and disease, without having to strike a single blow. But Harold’s bold blood was up, and his kindly heart could not endure to inflict on the South Saxon subjects even the temporary misery of wasting the country. “He would not burn houses and villages, neither would he take away the substance, of his people.”
Harold’s brothers, Gurth and Leofwine, were with him in the camp, and Gurth endeavored to persuade him to absent himself from the battle. The incident shows how well devised had been William’s scheme of binding Harold by the oath on the holy relics.
My brother,” said the young Saxon prince, “thou canst not deny that either by force or free will thou hast made Duke William an oath on the bodies of saints. Why then risk thyself in the battle with a perjury upon thee? To us, who have sworn nothing, this is a holy and a just war, for we are fighting for our country. Leave us then alone to fight this battle, and he who has the right will win.”
Harold replied that he would not look on while others risked their lives for him. Men would hold him a coward, and blame him for sending his best friends where he dared not go himself. He resolved, therefore, to fight, and to fight in person; but he was still too good a general to be the assailant in the action; and he posted his army with great skill along a ridge of rising ground which opened southward, and was covered on the back by an extensive wood. He strengthened his position by a palisade of stakes and osier hurdles, and there he said he would defend himself against whoever should seek him.
The ruins of Battle Abbey at this hour attest the place where Harold’s army was posted; and the high altar of the abbey stood on the very spot where Harold’s own standard was planted during the fight, and where the carnage was the thickest. Immediately after his victory William vowed to build an abbey on the site; and a fair and stately pile soon rose there, where for many ages the monks prayed and said masses for the souls of those who were slain in the battle, whence the abbey took its name. Before that time the place was called Senlac. Little of the ancient edifice now remains; but it is easy to trace in the park and the neighborhood the scenes of the chief incidents in the action; and it is impossible to deny the generalship shown by Harold in stationing his men, especially when we bear in mind that he was deficient in cavalry, the arm in which his adversary’s main strength consisted.
William’s only chance of safety lay in bringing on a general engagement; and he joyfully advanced his army from their camp on the hill over Hastings, nearer to the Saxon position. But he neglected no means of weakening his opponent, and renewed his summonses and demands on Harold with an ostentatious air of sanctity and moderation.
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