William the Conqueror - Jacob Abbott

The Battle Of Hastings

The reader will doubtless recollect that the tidings which William first received of the accession of King Harold were brought to him by Tostig, Harold's brother, on the day when he was trying his bow and arrows in the park at Rouen. Tostig was his brother's most inveterate foe. He had been, during the reign of Edward, a great chieftain, ruling over the north of England. The city of York was then his capital. He had been expelled from these his dominions, and had quarreled with his brother Harold in respect to his right to be restored to them. In the course of this quarrel he was driven from the country altogether, and went to the Continent, burning with rage and resentment against his brother; and when he came to inform William of Harold's usurpation, his object was not merely to arouse William  to action—he wished to act himself. He told William that he himself had more influence in England still than his brother, and that if William would supply him with a small fleet and a moderate number of men, he would make a descent upon the coast and show what he could do.

William acceded to his proposal, and furnished him with the force which he required, and Tostig set sail. William had not, apparently, much confidence in the power of Tostig to produce any great effect, but his efforts, he thought, might cause some alarm in England, and occasion sudden and fatiguing marches to the troops, and thus distract and weaken King Harold's forces. William would not, therefore, accompany Tostig himself, but, dismissing him with such force as he could readily raise on so sudden a call, he remained himself in Normandy, and commenced in earnest his own grand preparations, as is described in the last chapter.

Tostig did not think it prudent to attempt a landing on English shores until he had obtained some accession to the force which William had given him. He accordingly passed through the Straits of Dover, and then turning northward, he sailed along the eastern shores of the German Ocean in search of allies. He came, at length, to Norway. He entered into negotiations there with the Norwegian king, whose name, too, was Harold. This northern Harold was a wild and adventurous soldier and sailor, a sort of sea king, who had spent a considerable portion of his life in marauding excursions upon the seas. He readily entered into Tostig's views. An arrangement was soon concluded, and Tostig set sail again to cross the German Ocean toward the British shores, while Harold promised to collect and equip his own fleet as soon as possible, and follow him. All this took place early in September; so that, at the same time that William's threatened invasion was gathering strength and menacing Harold's southern frontier, a cloud equally dark and gloomy, and quite as threatening in its aspect, was rising and swelling in the north; while King Harold himself, though full of vague uneasiness and alarm, could gain no certain information in respect to either of these dangers.

The Norwegian fleet assembled at the port appointed for the rendezvous of it, but, as the season was advanced and the weather stormy, the soldiers there, like William's soldiers on the coast of France, were afraid to put to sea. Some of them had dreams which they considered as bad omens; and so much superstitious importance was attached to such ideas in those times that these dreams were gravely recorded by the writers of the ancient chronicles, and have come down to us as part of the regular and sober history of the times. One soldier dreamed that the expedition had sailed and landed on the English coast, and that there the English army came out to meet them. Before the front of the army rode a woman of gigantic stature, mounted on a wolf. The wolf had in his jaws a human body, dripping with blood, which he was engaged in devouring as he came along. The woman gave the wolf another victim after he had devoured the first.

Another of these ominous dreams was the following: Just as the fleet was about setting sail, the dreamer saw a crowd of ravenous vultures and birds of prey come and alight every where upon the sails and rigging of the ships, as if they were going to accompany the expedition. Upon the summit of a rock near the shore there sat the figure of a female, with a stern and ferocious countenance, and a drawn sword in her hand. She was busy counting the ships, pointing at them, as she counted, with her sword. She seemed a sort of fiend of destruction, and she called out to the birds, to encourage them to go. "Go!" said she, "without fear; you shall have abundance of prey. I am going too."

It is obvious that these dreams might as easily have been interpreted to portend death and destruction to their English foes as to the dreamers themselves. The soldiers were, however, inclined—in the state of mind which the season of the year, the threatening aspect of the skies, and the certain dangers of their distant expedition, produced—to apply the gloomy predictions which they imagined these dreams expressed, to themselves. Their chief, however, was of too desperate and determined a character to pay any regard to such influences. He set sail, His armament crossed the German Sea in safety, and joined Tostig on the coast of Scotland. The combined fleet moved slowly southward, along the shore, watching for an opportunity to land.

[Illustration] from William the Conqueror by Jacob Abbott


They reached, at length, the town of Scarborough, and landed to attack it. The inhabitants retired within the walls, shut the gates, and bid the invaders defiance. The town was situated under a hill, which rose in a steep acclivity upon one side. The story is, that the Norwegians went upon this hill, where they piled up an enormous heap of trunks and branches of trees, with the interstices filled with stubble, dried bark, and roots, and other such combustibles, and then setting the whole mass on fire, they rolled it down into the town—a vast ball of fire, roaring and crackling more and more, by the fanning of ifs flames in the wind, as it bounded along. The intelligent reader will, of course, pause and hesitate, in considering how far to credit such a story. It is obviously impossible that any mere pile, however closely packed, could be made to roll. But it is, perhaps, not absolutely impossible that trunks of trees might be framed together, or fastened with wet thongs or iron chains, after being made in the form of a rude cylinder or ball, and filled with combustibles within, so as to retain its integrity in such a descent.

The account states that this strange method of bombardment was successful. The town was set on fire; the people surrendered. Tostig and the Norwegians plundered it, and then, embarking again in their ships, they continued their voyage.

The intelligence of this descent upon his northern coasts reached Harold in London toward the close of September, just as he was withdrawing his forces from the southern frontier, as was related in the last chapter, under the idea that the Norman invasion would probably be postponed until the spring; so that, instead of sending his troops into their winter quarters, he had to concentrate them again with all dispatch, and march at the head of them to the north, to avert this new and unexpected danger.

While King Harold was thus advancing to meet them, Tostig and his Norwegian allies entered the River Humber. Their object was to reach the city of York, which had been Tostig's former capital, and which was situated near the River Ouse, a branch of the Humber. They accordingly ascended the Humber to the mouth of the Ouse, and thence up the latter river to a suitable point of debarkation not far from York. Here they landed and formed a great encampment. From this encampment they advanced to the siege of the city. The inhabitants made some resistance at first; but, finding that their cause was hopeless, they offered to surrender, and a treaty of surrender was finally concluded. This negotiation was closed toward the evening of the day, and Tostig and his confederate forces were to be admitted on the morrow. They therefore, feeling that their prize was secure, withdrew to their encampment for the night, and left the city to its repose.

It so happened that King Harold arrived that very night, coming to the rescue of the city. He expected to have found an army of besiegers around the walls, but, instead of that, there was nothing to intercept his progress up to the very gates of the city. The inhabitants opened the gates to receive him, and the whole detachment which was marching under his command passed in, while Tostig and his Norwegian allies were sleeping quietly in their camp, wholly unconscious of the great change which had thus taken place in the situation of their affairs.

The next morning Tostig drew out a large portion of the army, and formed them in array, for the purpose of advancing to take possession of the city. Although it was September, and the weather had been cold and stormy, it happened that, on that morning, the sun came out bright, and the air was calm, giving promise of a warm day; and as the movement into the city was to be a peaceful one—a procession, as it were, and not a hostile march—the men were ordered to leave their coats of mail and all their heavy armor in camp, that they might march the more unencumbered. While they were advancing in this unconcerned and almost defenseless condition, they saw before them, on the road leading to the city, a great cloud of dust arising. It was a strong body of King Harold's troops coming out to attack them. At first, Tostig and the Norwegians were completely lost and bewildered at the appearance of so unexpected a spectacle. Very soon they could see weapons glittering here and there, and banners flying. A cry of "The enemy! the enemy!" arose, and passed along their ranks, producing universal alarm. Tostig and the Norwegian Harold halted their men, and marshaled them hastily in battle array. The English Harold did the same, when he had drawn up near to the front of the enemy; both parties then paused, and stood surveying one another.

Presently there was seen advancing from the English side a squadron of twenty horsemen, splendidly armed, and bearing a flag of truce. They approached to within a short distance of the Norwegian lines, when a herald, who was among them, called out aloud for Tostig. Tostig came forward in answer to the summons. The herald then proclaimed to Tostig that his brother did not wish to contend with him, but desired, on the contrary, that they should live together in harmony. He offered him peace, therefore, if he would lay down his arms, and he promised to restore him his former possessions and honors.

Tostig seemed very much inclined to receive this proposition favorably. He paused and hesitated. At length he asked the messenger what terms King Harold would make with his friend and ally, the Norwegian Harold. "He shall have," replied the messenger, "seven feet of English ground for a grave. He shall have a little more than that, for he is taller than common men." "Then," replied Tostig, "tell my brother to prepare for battle. It shall never be said that I abandoned and betrayed my ally and friend."

The troop returned with Tostig's answer to Harold's lines, and the battle almost immediately began. Of course the most eager and inveterate hostility of the English army would be directed against the Norwegians and their king, whom they considered as foreign intruders, without any excuse or pretext for their aggression. It accordingly happened that, very soon after the commencement of the conflict, Harold the Norwegian fell, mortally wounded by an arrow in his throat. The English king then made new proposals to Tostig to cease the combat, and come to some terms of accommodation. But, in the mean time, Tostig had become himself incensed, and would listen to no overtures of peace. He continued the combat until he was himself killed. The remaining combatants in his army had now no longer any motive for resistance. Harold offered them a free passage to their ships, that they might return home in peace, if they would lay down their arms. They accepted the offer, retired on board their ships, and set sail. Harold then, having, in the mean time, heard of William's landing on the southern coast, set out on his return to the southward, to meet the more formidable enemy that menaced him there.

His army, though victorious, was weakened by the fatigues of the march, and by the losses suffered in the battle. Harold himself had been wounded, though not so severely as to prevent his continuing to exercise the command. He pressed on toward the south with great energy, sending messages on every side, into the surrounding country, on his line of march, calling upon the chieftains to arm themselves and their followers, and to come on with all possible dispatch, and join him. He hoped to advance so rapidly to the southern coast as to surprise William before he should have fully intrenched himself in his camp, and without his being aware of his enemy's approach. But William, in order to guard effectually against surprise, had sent out small reconnoitering parties of horsemen on all the roads leading northward, that they might bring him in intelligence of the first approach of the enemy. Harold's advanced guard met these parties, and saw them as they drove rapidly back to the camp to give the alarm. Thus the hope of surprising William was disappointed. Harold found, too, by his spies, as he drew near, to his utter dismay, that William's forces were four times as numerous as his own. It would, of course, be madness for him to think of attacking an enemy in his entrenchments with such an inferior force. The only alternative left him was either to retreat, or else to take some strong position and fortify himself there, in the hope of being able to resist the invaders and arrest their advance, though he was not strong enough to attack them.

Some of his counselors advised him not to hazard a battle at all, but to fall back toward London, carrying with him or destroying every thing which could afford sustenance to William's army from the whole breadth of the land. This would soon, they said, reduce William's army to great distress for want of food, since it would be impossible for him to transport supplies across the Channel for so vast a multitude. Besides, they said, this plan would compel William, in the extremity to which be would be reduced, to make so many predatory excursions among the more distant villages and towns, as would exasperate the inhabitants, and induce them to join Harold's army in great numbers to repel the invasion. Harold listened to these counsels, but said, after consideration, that he could never adopt such a plan. He could not be so derelict to his duty as to lay waste a country which he was under obligations to protect and save, or compel his people to come to his aid by exposing them, designedly, to the excesses and cruelties of so ferocious an enemy.

Harold determined, therefore, on giving William battle. It was not necessary, however, for him to attack the invader. He perceived at once that if he should take a strong position and fortify himself in it, William must necessarily attack him, since a foreign army, just landed in the country, could not long remain inactive on the shore. Harold accordingly chose a position six or seven miles from William's camp, and fortified himself strongly there. Of course neither army was in sight of the other, or knew the numbers, disposition, or plans of the enemy. The country between them was, so far as the inhabitants were concerned, a scene of consternation and terror. No one knew at what point the two vast clouds of danger and destruction which were hovering near them would meet, or over what regions the terrible storm which was to burst forth when the hour of that meeting should come, would sweep in its destructive fury. The inhabitants, therefore, were every where flying in dismay, conveying away the aged and the helpless by any means which came most readily to hand; taking with them, too, such treasures as they could carry, and hiding, in rude and uncertain places of concealment, those which they were compelled to leave behind. The region, thus, which lay between the two encampments was rapidly becoming a solitude and a desolation, across which no communication was made, and no tidings passed to give the armies at the encampments intelligence of each other.

Harold had two brothers among the officers of his army, Gurth and Leofwin. Their conduct toward the king seems to have been of a more fraternal character than that of Tostig, who had acted the part of a rebel and an enemy. Gurth and Leofwin, on the contrary, adhered to his cause, and, as the hour of danger and the great crisis which was to decide their fate drew nigh, they kept close to his side, and evinced a truly fraternal solicitude for his safety. It was they, specially, who had recommended to Harold to fall back on London, and not risk his life, and the fate of his kingdom, on the uncertain event of a battle.

As soon as Harold had completed his encampment, he expressed a desire to Gurth to ride across the intermediate country and take a view of William's lines. Such an undertaking was less dangerous then than it would be at the present day; for now, such a reconnoitering party would be discovered from the enemy's encampment, at a great distance, by means of spy-glasses, and a twenty-four-pound shot or a shell would be sent from a battery to blow the party to pieces or drive them away. The only danger then  was of being pursued by a detachment of horsemen from the camp, or surrounded by an ambuscade. To guard against these dangers, Harold and Gurth took the most powerful and fleetest horses in the camp, and they called out a small but strong guard of well-selected men to escort them. Thus provided and attended, they rode over to the enemy's lines, and advanced so near that, from a small eminence to which they ascended, they could survey the whole scene of William's encampment: the palisades and embankments with which it was guarded, which extended for miles; the long lines of tents within; the vast multitude of soldiers; the knights and officers riding to and fro, glittering with steel; and the grand pavilion of the duke himself, with the consecrated banner of the cross floating above it. Harold was very much impressed with the grandeur of the spectacle.

After gazing on this scene for some time in silence, Harold said to Gurth that perhaps, after all, the policy of falling back would have been the wisest for them to adopt, rather than to risk a battle with so overwhelming a force as they saw before them. He did not know, he added, but that it would be best for them to change their plan, and adopt that policy now. Gurth said that it was too late. They had taken their stand, and now for them to break up their encampment and retire would be considered a retreat and not a maneuver, and it would discourage and dishearten the whole realm.

After surveying thus, as long as they desired to do so, the situation and extent of William's encampment, Harold's party returned to their own lines, still determined to make a stand there against the invaders, but feeling great doubt and despondency in respect to the result. Harold sent over, too, in the course of the day, some spies. The men whom he employed for this purpose were Normans by birth, and they could speak the French language. There were many Normans in England, who had come over in King Edward's time. These Norman spies could, of course, disguise themselves, and mingle, without attracting attention, among the thousands of workmen and camp followers that were going and coming continually around the grounds which William's army occupied. They did this so effectually, that they penetrated within the encampment without difficulty, examined every thing, and, in due time, returned to Harold with their report. They gave a formidable account of the numbers and condition of William's troops. There was a large corps of bowmen in the army, which had adopted a fashion of being shaven and shorn in such a manner that the spies mistook them for priests. They told Harold, accordingly, on their return, that there were more priests  in William's camp than there were soldiers in all his army.

During this eventful day, William too sent a body of horsemen across the country which separated the two encampments, though his emissaries were not spies, but embassadors, with propositions for peace. William had no wish to fight a battle, if what he considered as rightfully his kingdom could be delivered to him without it; and he determined to make one final effort to obtain a peaceable surrender of it, before coming to the dreadful resort of an appeal to arms. He accordingly sent his embassy with three  propositions to make to the English king. The principal messenger in this company was a monk, whose name was Maigrot. He rode, with a proper escort and a flag of truce, to Harold's lines. The propositions were these, by accepting either of which the monk said that Harold might avoid a battle. 1. That Harold should surrender the kingdom to William, as he had solemnly sworn to do over the sacred relics in Normandy. 2. That they should both agree to refer the whole subject of controversy between them to the pope, and abide by his decision. 3. That they should settle the dispute by single combat, the two claimants to the crown to fight a duel on the plain, in presence of their respective armies.

It is obvious that Harold could not accept either of these propositions. The first was to give up the whole point at issue. As for the second, the pope had already prejudged the case, and if it were to be referred to him there could be no doubt that he would simply reaffirm his former decision. And in respect to single combat, the disadvantage on Harold's part would be as great in such a contest as it would be in the proposed arbitration. He was himself a man of comparatively slender form and of little bodily strength. William, on the other hand, was distinguished for his size, and for his extraordinary muscular energy. In a modern combat with fire-arms these personal advantages would be of no avail, but in those days, when the weapons were battle-axes, lances, and swords, they were almost decisive of the result. Harold therefore declined all William's propositions, and the monk returned.

William seems not to have been wholly discouraged by this failure of his first attempt at negotiation, for he sent his embassage a second time to make one more proposal. It was, that if Harold would consent to acknowledge William as King of England, William would assign the whole territory to him and to his brother Gurth, to hold as provinces, under William's general sway. Under this arrangement William would himself return to Normandy, making the city of Rouen, which was his capital there, the capital of the whole united realm. To this proposal Harold replied, that he could not, on any terms, give up his rights as sovereign of England. He therefore declined this proposal also. He, however, now made a proposition in his turn. He was willing, he said, to compromise the dispute, so far as it could be, done by the payment of money. If William would abandon his invasion and return to Normandy, giving up his claims to the English crown, he would pay him, he said, any sum of money that he would name.

William could not accept this proposal. He was, as he believed, the true and rightful heir to the throne of England, and there was a point of honor involved, as well as a dictate of ambition to be obeyed, in insisting on the claim. In the mean time, the day had passed, while these fruitless negotiations had been pending. Night was coming on. William's officers and counselors began to be uneasy at the delay. They said that every hour new re-enforcements were coming into Harold's camp, while they themselves were gaining no advantage, and, consequently, the longer the battle was delayed, the less was the certainty of victory. So William promised them that he would attack King Harold in his camp the very next morning.

As the time for the great final struggle drew near, Harold's mind was oppressed more and more with a sense of anxiety and with foreboding fears. His brothers, too, were ill at ease. Their solicitude was increased by the recollection of Harold's oath, and of the awful sanctions with which they feared the sacred relics might have invested it. They were not sure that their brother's excuse for setting it aside would save him from the guilt and curse of perjury in the sight of Heaven. So they proposed, on the eve of the battle, that Harold himself should retire, and leave them to conduct the defense. "We can not deny," they said, "that you did take the oath; and, notwithstanding the circumstances which seem to absolve you from the obligation, it is best to avoid, if possible, the open violation of it. It will be better, on the whole, for you to leave the army and go to London. You can aid very effectually in the defense of the kingdom by raising re-enforcements there. We will stay and encounter the actual battle. Heaven can not be displeased with us for so doing, for we shall be only discharging the duty incumbent on all, of defending their native land from foreign invasion."

Harold would not consent to adopt this plan. He could not retire himself, he said, at the hour of approaching danger, and leave his brothers and his friends exposed, when it was his  crown for which they were contending.

Such were the circumstances of the two armies on the evening before the battle; and, of course, in such a state of things, the tendency of the minds of men would be, in Harold's camp, to gloom and despondency, and in William's, to confidence and exultation. Harold undertook, as men in his circumstances often do, to lighten the load which weighed upon his own heart and oppressed the spirits of his men, by feasting and wine. He ordered a plentiful supper to be served, and supplied his soldiers with abundance of drink; and it is said that his whole camp exhibited, during the whole night, one wide-spread scene of carousing and revelry, the troops being gathered every where in groups around their camp fires, some half stupefied, others quarreling, and others still singing national songs, and dancing with wild excitement, according to the various effects produced upon different constitutions by the intoxicating influence of beer and wine.

In William's camp there were witnessed very different scenes. There were a great many monks and ecclesiastics in the train of his army, and, on the night before the battle, they spent the time in saying masses, reading litanies and prayers, chanting anthems, and in other similar acts of worship, assisted by the soldiers, who gathered, in great congregations, for this wild worship, in the open spaces among the tents and around the camp fires. At length they all retired to rest, feeling an additional sense of safety in respect to the work of the morrow by having, as they supposed, entitled themselves, by their piety, to the protection of Heaven.

In the morning, too, in William's camp, the first thing done was to convene the army for a grand celebration of mass. It is a curious illustration of the mingling of the religious, or, perhaps, we ought rather to say, the superstitious sentiment of the times, with the spirit of war, that the bishop who officiated in this solemn service of the mass wore a coat of mail under his pontifical attire, and an attendant stood by his side, while he was offering his prayers, with a steel-pointed spear in his hand, ready for the martial prelate to assume as soon as the service should be ended. Accordingly, when the religious duty was performed, the bishop threw off his surplice, took his spear, and mounting his white charger, which was also all saddled and bridled beside him, he headed a brigade of horse, and rode on to the assault of the enemy.

William himself mounted a very magnificent war-horse from Spain, a present which he had formerly received from one of his wealthy barons. The name of the horse was Bayard. From William's neck were suspended some of the most sacred of the relics over which Harold had taken his false oath. He imagined that there would be some sort of charm in them, to protect his life, and to make the judgment of Heaven more sure against the perjurer. The standard which the pope had blessed was borne by his side by a young standard bearer, who was very proud of the honor. An older soldier, however, on whom the care of this standard officially devolved, had asked to be excused from carrying it. He wished, he said, to do his work that day with the sword. While making these preliminary arrangements for going into battle, William, with the party around him, stood upon a gentle eminence in the middle of the camp, and in sight of the whole army. Every one was struck with admiration at the splendid figure which their commander made—his large and well-formed limbs covered with steel, and his horse, whose form was as noble as that of his master, prancing restlessly, as if impatient for the battle to begin.

When all were ready, the Norman army advanced gayly and joyously to attack the English lines; but the gayety and joyousness of the scene soon disappeared, as corps after corps got fairly engaged in the awful work of the day. For ten long hours there reigned over the whole field one wide-spread scene of havoc and death—every soul among all those countless thousands delivered up to the supreme dominion of the most dreadful passions, excited to a perfect phrensy of hatred, rage, and revenge, and all either mercilessly killing others, or dying themselves in agony and despair. When night came, the Normans were every where victorious. They were in full possession of the field, and they rode triumphantly to and fro through Harold's camp, leaping their horses over the bodies of the dead and dying which covered the ground. Those of King Harold's followers that had escaped the slaughter of the day fled in hopeless confusion toward the north, where the flying masses strewed the roads for miles with the bodies of men who sank down on the way, spent with wounds or exhausted by fatigue.

In the morning, William marshaled his men on the field, and called over the names of the officers and men, as they had been registered in Normandy, for the purpose of ascertaining who were killed. While this melancholy ceremony was going on, two monks came in, sent from the remains of the English army, and saying that King Harold was missing, and that it was rumored that he had been slain. If so, his body must be lying somewhere, they said, upon the field, and they wished for permission to make search for it. The permission was granted. With the aid of some soldiers they began to explore the ground, turning over and examining every lifeless form which, by the dress or the armor, might seem to be possibly the king's. Their search was for a long time vain; the ghastly faces of the dead were so mutilated and, changed that nobody could be identified. At length, however, a woman who had been Harold's family, and knew his person more intimately than they, found and recognized the body, and the monks and the soldiers carried it away.

The battle of Hastings sealed and settled the controversy in respect to the English crown. It is true that the adherents of Harold, and also those of Edgar Atheling, made afterward various efforts to rally their forces and recover the kingdom, but in vain. William advanced to London, fortified himself there, and made excursions from that city as a centre until he reduced the island to his sway. He was crowned at length, at Westminster Abbey, with great pomp and parade. He sent for Matilda to come and join him, and instated her in his palace as Queen of England. He confiscated the property of all the English nobles who had fought against him, and divided it among the Norman chieftains who had aided him in the invasion. He made various excursions to and from Normandy himself, being received every where throughout his dominions, on both sides of the Channel, with the most distinguished honors. In word, he became, in the course of a few years after he landed, one of the greatest and most powerful potentates on the globe. How far all his riches and grandeur were from making him happy, will appear in the following chapter.