William the Conqueror - Jacob Abbott

Crossing The Channel

The place for the final assembling of the fleet which was to convey the expedition across the Channel was the mouth of a small river called the Dive, which will be seen upon the following map, flowing from the neighborhood of the castle of Falaise northward into the sea. The grand gathering took place in the beginning of the month of September, in the year 1066. This date, which marks the era of the Norman Conquest, is one of the dates which students of history fix indelibly in the memory.

[Illustration] from William the Conqueror by Jacob Abbott


The gathering of the fleet in the estuary of the Dive, and the assembling of the troops on the beach along its shores, formed a very grand and imposing spectacle. The fleets of galleys, ships, boats, and barges covering the surface of the water—the long lines of tents under the cliffs on the land—the horsemen, splendidly mounted, and glittering with steel—the groups of soldiers, all busily engaged in transporting provisions and stores to and fro, or making the preliminary arrangements for the embarkation—the thousands of spectators who came and went incessantly, and the duke himself, gorgeously dressed, and mounted on his war-horse, with the guards and officers that attended him—these, and the various other elements of martial parade and display usually witnessed on such occasions, conspired to produce a very gay and brilliant, as well as magnificent scene.

Of course, the assembling of so large a force of men and of vessels, and the various preparations for the embarkation, consumed some time, and when at length all was ready—which was early in September—the equinoctial gales came and it was found impossible to leave the port. There was, in fact, a continuance of heavy winds and seas, and stormy skies, for several weeks. Short intervals, from time to time, occurred, when the clouds would break away, and the sun appear; but these intervals did not liberate the fleet from its confinement, for they wore not long enough in duration to allow the sea to go down. The surf continued to come rolling and thundering in upon the shore, and over the sand-bars at the mouth of the river, making destruction the almost inevitable destiny of any ship which should undertake to brave its fury. The state of the skies gradually robbed the scene of the gay and brilliant colors which first it wore. The vessels furled their sails, and drew in their banners, and rode at anchor, presenting their heads doggedly to the storm. The men on the shore sought shelter in their tents. The spectators retired to their homes, while the duke and his officers watched the scudding clouds in the sky, day after day, with great and increasing anxiety.

In fact, William had very serious cause for apprehension in respect to the effect which this long-continued storm was to have on the success of his enterprise. The delay was a very serious consideration in itself, for the winter would soon be drawing near. In one month more it would seem to be out of the question for such a vast armament to cross the Channel at all. Then, when men are embarking in such dark and hazardous undertakings as that in which William was now engaged, their spirits and their energy rise and sink in great fluctuations, under the influence of very slight and inadequate causes; and nothing has greater influence over them at such times than the aspect of the skies. William found that the ardor and enthusiasm of his army were fast disappearing under the effects of chilling winds and driving rain. The feelings of discontent and depression which the frowning expression of the heavens awakened in their minds, were deepened and spread by the influence of sympathy. The men had nothing to do, during the long and dreary hours of the day, but to anticipate hardships and dangers, and to entertain one another, as they watched the clouds driving along the cliffs, and the rolling of the surges in the offing, with anticipations of shipwrecks, battles, and defeats, and all the other gloomy forebodings which haunt the imagination of a discouraged and discontented soldier.

Nor were these ideas of wrecks and destruction wholly imaginary. Although the body of the fleet remained in the river, where it was sheltered from the winds, yet there were many cases of single ships that were from time to time exposed to them. These were detached vessels coming in late to the rendezvous, or small squadrons sent out to some neighboring port under some necessity connected with the preparations, or strong galleys, whose commanders, more bold than the rest, were willing, in cases not  of absolute necessity, to brave the danger. Many of these vessels were wrecked. The fragments of them, with the bodies of the drowned mariners, were driven to the shore. The ghastly spectacles presented by these dead bodies, swollen and mangled, and half buried in the sand, as if the sea had been endeavoring to hide the mischief it had done, shocked and terrified the spectators who saw them. William gave orders to have all these bodies gathered up and interred secretly, as fast as they were found; still, exaggerated rumors of the number and magnitude of these disasters were circulated in the camp, and the discontent and apprehensions grew every day more and more alarming.

William resolved that he must put to sea at the very first possible opportunity. The favorable occasion was not long wanting. The wind changed. The storm appeared to cease. A breeze sprang up from the south, which headed back the surges from the French shore. William gave orders to embark. The tents were struck. The baggage of the soldiers was sent on board the transport vessels. The men themselves, crowded into great flat-bottomed boats, passed in masses to the ships from the shore. The spectators reappeared, and covered the cliffs and promontories near, to witness the final scene. The sails were hoisted, and the vast armament moved out upon the sea.

The appearance of a favorable change in the weather proved fallacious after all, for the clouds and storm returned, and after being driven, in apprehension and danger, about a hundred miles to the northeast along the coast, the fleet was compelled to seek refuge again in a harbor. The port which received them was St. Valery, near Dieppe. The duke was greatly disappointed at being obliged thus again to take the land. Still, the attempt to advance had not been a labor wholly lost; for as the French coast here trends to the northward, they had been gradually narrowing the channel as they proceeded, and were, in fact, so far on the way toward the English shores. Then there were, besides, some reasons for touching here, before the final departure, to receive some last re-enforcements and supplies. William had also one more opportunity of communicating with his capital and with Matilda.

These delays, disastrous as they seemed to be, and ominous of evil, were nevertheless attended with one good effect, of which, however, William at the time was not aware. They led Harold, in England, to imagine that the enterprise was abandoned, and so put him off his guard. There were in those days, as has already been remarked, no regular and public modes of intercommunication, by which intelligence of important movements and events was spread every where, as now, with promptness and certainty. Governments were obliged, accordingly, to rely for information, in respect to what their enemies were doing, on rumors, or on the reports of spies. Rumors had gone to England in August that William was meditating an invasion, and Harold had made some extensive preparations to meet and oppose him; but, finding that he did not come—that week after week of September passed away, and no signs of an enemy appeared, and gaining no certain information of the causes of the delay, he concluded that the enterprise was abandoned; or else, perhaps, postponed to the ensuing spring. Accordingly, as the winter was coming on, he deemed it best to commence his preparations for sending his troops to their winter quarters. He disbanded some of them, and sent others away, distributing them in various castles and fortified towns, where they would be sheltered from the rigors of the season, and saved from the exposure and hardships of the camp, and yet, at the same time, remain within reach of a summons in case of any sudden emergency which might call for them. They were soon summoned, though not, in the first instance, to meet Harold, as will presently appear.

While adopting these measures, however, which he thought the comfort and safety of his army required, Harold did not relax his vigilance in watching, as well as he could, the designs and movements of his enemy. He kept his secret agents on the southern coast, ordering them to observe closely every thing that transpired, and to gather and send to him every item of intelligence which should find its way by any means across the Channel. Of course, William would do all in his power to intercept and cut all communication, and he was, at this time, very much aided in these efforts by the prevalence of the storms, which made it almost impossible for the fishing and trading vessels of the coast to venture out to sea, or attempt to cross the Channel. The agents of Harold, therefore, on the southern coast of England, found that they could obtain but very little information.

At length the king, unwilling to remain any longer so entirely in the dark, resolved on sending some messengers across the sea into Normandy itself, to learn positively what the true state of the case might be. Messengers going thus secretly into the enemy's territory, or into the enemy's camp, become, by so doing, in martial law, spies, and incur, if they are taken, the penalty of death. The undertaking, therefore, is extremely hazardous; and as the death which is inflicted in cases of detection is an ignominious one—spies being hung, not shot—most men are very averse to encountering the danger. Still, desperate characters are always to be found in camps and armies, who are ready to undertake it on being promised very extraordinary pay.

Harold's spies contrived to make their way across the Channel, probably at some point far to the east of Normandy, where the passage is narrow. They then came along the shore, disguised as peasants of the country, and they arrived at St. Valery while William's fleets were there. Here they began to make their observations, scrutinizing every thing with close attention and care, and yet studiously endeavoring to conceal their interest in what they saw, Notwithstanding all their vigilance, however they were discovered, proved to be spies, and taken before William to receive their sentence.

Instead of condemning them to death, which they undoubtedly supposed would be their inevitable fate, William ordered them to be set at liberty. "Go back," said he, "to King Harold, and tell him he might have saved himself the expense of sending spies into Normandy to learn what I am preparing for him. He will soon know by other means—much sooner, in fact, than he imagines. Go and tell him from me that he may put himself, if he pleases, in the safest place he can find in all his dominions, and if he does not find my hand upon him before the year is out, he never need fear me again as long as he lives."

Nor was this expression of confidence in the success of the measures which he was taking a mere empty boast. William knew the power of Harold, and he knew his own. The enterprise in which he had embarked was not a rash adventure. It was a cool, deliberate, well-considered plan. It appeared doubtful and dangerous in the eyes of mankind, for to mere superficial observers it seemed simply an aggressive war waged by a duke of Normandy, the ruler of a comparatively small and insignificant province, against a king of England, the monarch of one of the greatest and most powerful realms in the world. William, on the other hand, regarded it as an effort on the part of the rightful heir to a throne to dispossess a usurper. He felt confident of having the sympathy and co-operation of a great part of the community, even in England, the moment he could show them that he was able to maintain his rights; and that he could show them that, by a very decisive demonstration, was evident, visibly, before him, in the vast fleet which was riding at anchor in the harbor, and in the long lines of tents, filled with soldiery, which covered the land.

On one occasion, when some of his officers were expressing apprehensions of Harold's power, and their fears in respect to their being able successfully to cope with it, William replied, that the more formidable Harold's power should prove to be, the better he should be pleased, as the glory would be all the greater for them in having overcome it. "I have no objection," said he, "that you should entertain exalted ideas of his strength, though I wonder a little that you do not better appreciate our own. I need be under no concern lest he, at such a distance, should learn too much, by his spies, about the force which I am bringing against him, when you, who are so near me, seem to know so little about it. But do not give yourselves any concern. Trust to the justice of your cause and to my foresight. Perform your parts like men, and you will find that the result which I feel sure of, and you hope for, will certainly be attained."

The storm at length entirely cleared away, and the army and the fleet commenced their preparations for the final departure. In the midst of this closing scene, the attention of all the vast crowds assembled on board the ships and on the shores was one morning attracted by a beautiful ship which came sailing into the harbor. It proved to be a large and splendid vessel which the Duchess Matilda had built, at her own expense, and was now bringing in, to offer to her husband as her parting gift. She was herself on board, with her officers and attendants, having come to witness her husband's departure, and to bid him farewell. Her arrival, of course, under such circumstances, produced universal excitement and enthusiasm. The ships in harbor and the shores resounded with acclamations as the new arrival came gallantly in.

Matilda's vessel was finely built and splendidly decorated. The sails were of different colors, which gave it a very gay appearance. Upon them were painted, in various places, the three lions, which was the device of the Norman ensign. At the bows of the ship was an effigy, or figure-head, representing William and Matilda's second son shooting with a bow. This was the accomplishment which, of all others, his father took most interest in seeing his little son acquire. The arrow was drawn nearly to its head, indicating great strength in the little arms which were guiding it, and it was just ready to fly. The name of this vessel was the Mira. William made it his flag ship. He hoisted upon its mast head the consecrated banner which had been sent to him from Rome, and went on board accompanied by his officers and guards, and with great ceremony and parade.

At length the squadron was ready to put to sea. At a given signal the sails were hoisted, and the whole fleet began to move slowly out of the harbor. There were four hundred ships of large size, if we may believe the chronicles of the times, and more than a thousand transports. The decks of all these vessels were covered with men; banners were streaming from every mast and spar; and every salient point of the shore was crowded with spectators. The sea was calm, the air serene, and the mighty cloud of canvas which whitened the surface of the water moved slowly on over the gentle swell of the waves, forming a spectacle which, as a picture merely for the eye, was magnificent and grand, and, when regarded in connection with the vast results to the human race which were to flow from the success of the enterprise, must have been considered sublime.

The splendidly decorated ship which Matilda had presented to her husband proved itself, on trial, to be something more than a mere toy. It led the van at the commencement, of course; and as all eyes watched its progress, it soon became evident that it was slowly gaining upon the rest of the squadron, so as continually to increase its distance from those that were following it. William, pleased with the success of its performance, ordered the sailing master to keep on, without regard to those who were behind; and thus it happened that, when night came on, the fleet was at very considerable distance in rear of the flag ship. Of course, under these circumstances, the fleet disappeared from sight when the sun went down, but all expected that it would come into view again in the morning. When the morning came, however, to the surprise and disappointment of every one on board the flag ship, no signs of the fleet were to be seen. The seamen, and the officers on the deck, gazed long and intently into the southern horizon as the increasing light of the morning brought it gradually into view, but there was not a speck to break its smooth and even line.

They felt anxious and uneasy, but William seemed to experience no concern. He ordered the sails to be furled, and then sent a man the mast head to look out there. Nothing was to be seen. William, still apparently unconcerned, ordered breakfast to be prepared in a very sumptuous manner, loading the tables with wine and other delicacies, that the minds of all on board might be cheered by the exhilarating influence of a feast. At length the look-out was sent to the mast head again. "What do you see now?" said William. "I see," said the man, gazing very intently all the while toward the south, "four very small specks  just in the horizon." The intense interest which this announcement awakened on the deck was soon at the same time heightened  and relieved  by the cry, "I can see more and more—they are the ships—yes, the whole squadron is coming into view."

The advancing fleet soon came up with the Mira, when the latter spread her sails again, and all moved slowly on together toward the coast of England.

The ships had directed their course so much to the eastward, that when they made the land they were not very far from the Straits of Dover. As they drew near to the English shore, they watched very narrowly for the appearance of Harold's cruisers, which they naturally expected would have been stationed at various points, to guard the coast; but none were to be seen. There had been such cruisers, and there still were such off the other harbors; but it happened, very fortunately for William, that those which had been stationed to guard this part of the island had been withdrawn a few days before, on account of their provisions being exhausted. Thus, when William's fleet arrived, there was no enemy to oppose their landing. There was a large and open bay, called the Bay of Pevensey, which lay smiling before them, extending its arms as if inviting them in. The fleet advanced to within the proper distance from the land, and there the seamen cast their anchors, and all began to prepare for the work of disembarkation.

A strong body of soldiery is of course landed first on such occasions. In this instance the archers, William's favorite corps, were selected to take the lead. William accompanied them. In his eagerness to get to the shore, as he leaped from the boat, his foot slipped, and he fell. The officers and men around him would have considered this an evil omen; but he had presence of mind enough to extend his arms and grasp the ground, pretending that his prostration was designed, and saying at the same time, "Thus I seize this land; from this moment it is mine." As he arose, one of his officers ran to a neighboring hut which stood near by upon the shore, and breaking off a little of the thatch, carried it to William, and, putting it into his hand, said that he thus gave him seizin  of his new possessions. This was a customary form, in those times, of putting a new owner into possession of lands which he had purchased or acquired in any other way. The new proprietor would repair to the ground, where the party whose province it was to deliver the property would detach something from it, such as a piece of turf from a bank, or a little of the thatch from a cottage, and offering it to him, would say, "Thus I deliver thee seizin," that is, possession, "of this land." This ceremony was necessary to complete the conveyance of the estate.

The soldiers, as soon as they were landed, began immediately to form an encampment, and to make such military arrangements as were necessary to guard against an attack, or the sudden appearance of an enemy. While this was going on, the boats continued to pass to and fro, accomplishing, as fast as possible, the work of disembarkation. In addition to those regularly attached to the army, there was a vast company of workmen of all kinds, engineers, pioneers, carpenters, masons, and laborers, to be landed; and there were three towers, or rather forts, built of timber, which had been framed and fashioned in Normandy, ready to be put up on arriving: these had now to be landed, piece by piece, on the strand. These forts were to be erected as soon as the army should have chosen a position for a permanent encampment, and were intended as a means of protection for the provisions and stores. The circumstance shows that the plan of transporting buildings ready made, across the seas, has not been invented anew by our emigrants to California.

While these operations were going on, William dispatched small squadrons of horse as reconnoitering parties, to explore the country around, to see if there were any indications that Harold was near. These parties returned, one after another, after having gone some miles into the country in all directions, and reported that there were no signs of an enemy to be seen. Things were now getting settled, too, in the camp, and William gave directions that the army should kindle their camp fires for the night, and prepare and eat their suppers. His own supper, or dinner, as perhaps it might be called, was also served, which he partook, with his officers, in his own tent. His mind was in a state of great contentment and satisfaction at the successful accomplishment of the landing, and at finding himself thus safely established, at the head of a vast force, within the realm of England.

Every circumstance of the transit had been favorable excepting one, and that was, that two of the ships belonging to the fleet were missing. William inquired at supper if any tidings of them had been received. They told him, in reply, that the missing vessels had been heard from; they had, in some way or other, been run upon the rocks and lost. There was a certain astrologer, who had made a great parade, before the expedition left Normandy, of predicting its result. He had found, by consulting the stars, that William would be successful, and would meet with no opposition from Harold. This astrologer had been on board one of the missing ships, and was drowned. William remarked, on receiving this information, "What an idiot a man must be, to think that he can predict, by means of the stars, the future fate of others, when it is so plain that he can not foresee his own!"

It is said that William's dinner on this occasion was served on a large stone instead of a table. The stone still remains on the spot, and is called "the Conqueror's Stone" to this day.

The next day after the landing, the army was put in motion, and advanced along the coast toward the eastward. There was no armed enemy to contend against them there or to oppose their march; the people of the country, through which the army moved, far from attempting to resist them, were filled with terror and dismay. This terror was heightened, in fact, by some excesses of which some parties of the soldiers were guilty. The inhabitants of the hamlets and villages, overwhelmed with consternation at the sudden descent upon their shores of such a vast horde of wild and desperate foreigners, fled in all directions. Some made their escape into the interior; others, taking with them the helpless members of their households, and such valuables as they could carry, sought refuge in monasteries and churches, supposing that such sanctuaries as those, not even soldiers, unless they were pagans, would dare to violate. Others, still, attempted to conceal themselves in thickets and fens till the vast throng which was sweeping onward like a tornado should have passed. Though William afterward always evinced a decided disposition to protect the peaceful inhabitants of the country from all aggressions on the part of his troops, he had no time to attend to that subject now. He was intent on pressing forward to a place of safety.

William reached at length a position which seemed to him suitable for a permanent encampment. It was an elevated land, near the sea. To the westward of it was a valley formed by a sort of recess opened in the range of chalky cliffs which here form the shore of England. In the bottom of this valley, down upon the beach, was a small town, then of no great consequence or power, but whose name, which was Hastings, has since been immortalized by the battle which was fought in its vicinity a few days after William's arrival. The position which William selected for his encampment was on high land in the vicinity of the town. The lines of the encampment were marked out, and the forts or castles which had been brought from Normandy were set up within the inclosures. Vast multitudes of laborers were soon at work, throwing up embankments, and building redoubts and bastions, while others were transporting the arms, the provisions, and the munitions of war, and storing them in security within the lines. The encampment was soon completed, and the long line of tents were set up in streets and squares within it. By the time, however, that the work was done, some of William's agents and spies came into camp from the north, saying that in four days Harold would be upon him at the head of a hundred thousand men.