The Battle of Hastings according to Orderic Vitalis

[From Orderic Vitalis, The Ecclesiastical History of England and Normandy, Thomas Forrester, tr. vol. 2 (London: Bohn, 1853), pp. 275-288.]

The Norman conquest is a watershed in Medieval English history. Below is a description of the Battle of Hastings, which assured the Norman domination, by a Norman church historian, Orderic Vitalis.

In the month of August,1 Harold, king of Norway, and Tostig, with a powerful fleet set sail over the wide sea, and, steering for England with a favourable aparctic, or north wind, landed in Yorkshire, which was the first object of their invasion. Meanwhile, Harold of England, having intelligence of the descent of the Norwegians, withdrew his ships and troops from Hastings and Pevensey, and the other seaports on the coast lying opposite to Neustria, which he had carefully guarded with a powerful armament during the whole of the year, and threw himself unexpectedly, with a strong force by hasty marches on his enemies from the north. A hard-fought battle ensued, in which there was great effusion of blood on both sides, vast numbers being slain with brutal rage. At last the furious attacks of the English secured them the victory, and the king of Norway as well as Tostig, with their whole army, were slain.2 The field of battle may be easily discovered by travellers, as great heaps of the bones of the slain lie there to this day, memorials of the prodigious numbers which fell on both sides.

While however the attention of the English was diverted by the invasion of Yorkshire, and by God's permission they neglected, as I have already mentioned, to guard the coast the Norman fleet which for a whole month had been waiting for a south wind in the mouth of the river Dive and the neighbouring harbours, took advantage of a favourable breeze from the west to gain the roads of St. Valerie3 While it lay there innumerable vows and prayers were offered for the safety of themselves and their friends, and foods of tears were shed. For the intimate friends and relations of those who were to remain at home, witnessing the embarkation of fifty thousand knights and men-at-arms, with a large body of infantry, who had to brave the dangers of the sea, and to attack an unknown people on their own soil, were moved to tears and sighs, and full of anxiety both for themselves and their countrymen, their minds fluctuating between fear and hope. Duke William and the whole army committed themselves to God's protection, with prayers, and offerings, and vows, and accompanied a procession from the church, carrying the relics of St. Valeri, confessor of Christ, to obtain a favourable wind. At last when by God's grace it suddenly came round to the quarter which was the object of so many prayers the duke, full of ardour, lost no time in embarking the troops, and giving the signal for hastening the departure of the fleet. The Norman expedition, therefore, crossed the sea on the night of the third of the Blends of October [29th September], which the Catholic church observes as the feast of St. Michael the archangel, and, meeting with no resistance, and landing safely on the coast of England, took possession of Pevensey and Hastings, the defense of which was entrusted to a chosen body of soldiers, to cover a retreat and guard the fleet.

Meanwhile the English usurper, after having put to the sword his brother Tostig, and his royal enemy, and slaughtered their immense army, returned in triumph to London. As however worldly prosperity soon vanishes like smoke before the wind, Harold's rejoicings for his bloody victory were soon darkened by the threatening clouds of a still heavier storm. Nor was he suffered long to enjoy the security procured by his brother's death; for a hasty messenger brought him the intelligence that the Normans had embarked.4 Learning soon afterwards that they had actually landed, he made preparations for a fresh conflict. For his intrepidity was dauntless, and his conduct of affairs admirable, while his personal strength v as great, his presence commanding, and he had the arts of a persuasive eloquence, and of a courtesy which endeared him to his supporters. Still his mother Githa, who was much afflicted by the death of her son Tostig, and his other faithful friends, dissuaded him from engaging in battle with the Normans; his brother, Earl Gurth, thus addressing him: "It is best, dearest brother and lord, that your courage should be tempered by discretion. You are worn by the conflict with the Norwegians from which you are only just come, and you are in eager haste to give battle to the Normans. Allow yourself, I pray you, some time for rest Reflect also, in your wisdom, on the oath you have taken to the duke of Normandy. Beware of incurring the guilt of perjury, lest by so great a crime you draw ruin on yourself and the forces of this nation, and stain for ever the honour of our own race. For myself; I am bound by no oaths, I am under no obligations to Count William. I am therefore in a position to fight with him undauntedly in defence of our native soil. But do you, my brother, rest awhile in peace, and wait the issue of the contest, that so the liberty which is the glory of England, may not be ruined by your

Harold was very indignant at this speech. Holding in contempt the wholesome advice of his friends, he loaded his brother with reproaches for his faithful counsel, and even forgot himself so far as to kick his mother when she hung about him in her too great anxiety to detain him with her.5 For six days Harold sent forth the summons to call the people to arms from all quarters, and, having assembled vast numbers of the English6 he led them by forced marches against the enemy. It was his design to take them unawares, and crush them at once by a night attack, or, at least, by a sudden onset, and, that they might not escape by sea, he caused a beet of seventy ships, full of soldiers, to guard the coast. Duke William, having intelligence of Harold's approach, ordered his troops to take to their arms on the morning of Saturday.7 He then heard mass, strengthening both body and soul by partaking of the consecrated host; he also reverently suspended from his neck the holy relies on which Harold had sworn. Many of the clergy had followed the Norman army, among whom were two bishops, Odo, of Bayeus, and Geoffrey, of Coutances, with attendant clerks and monks, whose duty it was to aid the war with their gravers and counsels. The battle commenced at the third hour of the ides8 [14th of October] and was fought desperately the whole day, with the loss of many thousand men on both sides. The Norman duke drew up his light troops, consisting of archers and men armed with cross-bows, in the first line, the infantry in armour formed the second rank; and in the third v ere placed the cavalry, in the centre of which the duke stationed himself with the flower of his troops, so as to be able to issue his commands, and give support to every part of the army.

On the other side, the English troops, assembled from all parts of the neighbourhood, took post at a place which v-as anciently called Senlac,9 many of them personally devoted to the cause of Harold, and all to that of their country, which they were resolved to defend against the foreigners. Dismounting from their horses, on which it was determined not to rely, they formed a solid column of infantry, and thus stood firm in the position they had taken.

Turstin, son of Rollo, bore the standard of Normandy.10 The sound of the trumpets in both armies was the terrible signal for beginning the battle. The Normans made the first attack with ardour and gallantry, their infantry rushing forward to provoke the English, and spreading wounds and death through their ranks by showers of arrows and bolts. The English, on their side, made a stout resistance, each man straining his powers to the utmost. The battle raged for some time with the utmost violence between both parties At length the indomitable bravery of the English threw the Bretons, both horse and foot, and the other auxiliary troops composing the left wing, into confusion, and, in their rout, they drew with them almost all the rest of the duke's army, who, in their panic, believed that he was slain. The duke, perceiving that large bodies from the enemy had broken their ranks in pursuit of his flying troops, rode up to the fugitives and checked their retreat, loudly threatening them, and striking with his lance. Taking off his helmet, and exposing his naked head, he shouted: " See, I am here; I am still living, and, by God's help, shall yet have the victory." Suddenly the courage of the fugitives was restored by these bold words of the duke; and, intercepting some thousands of their pursuers, they cut them down in a moment. In this manner, the Normans, twice again pretending to retreat, and when they were followed by the English, suddenly wheeling their horses, cut their pursuers off from the main body, surrounded and slew them. The ranks of the English were much thinned by these dangerous feints, through which they fell separated from each other; so that, when thousands were thus slaughtered, the Normans attacked the survivors with still greater vigour. They were charged home by the troops of Maine, France, Brittany, and Aquitaine, and great numbers of them miserably perished.

Among others present at this battle, were Eustace, Count de Boulogne, William, son of Richard, Count d'Evreus Geoffrey, son of Robert, Count de Mortagne, William FitzOsbern, Robert, son of Robert de Beaumont, a novice in arms, Aimer, Viscount de Thouars, Earl Hugh, the constable, Walter Giffard, and Ralph Toni,11 Hugh de Grant-mesnil, and William de Warenne, with many other knights illustrious for their military achievements, and whose names merit a record in the annals of history amongst the most famous warriors. Duke William surpassed them all in courage and conduct; for he nobly performed the duties of a general, staying the flight of his troops, re-animating their courage, their comrade in the greatest dangers and more frequently calling on them to follow where he led, than commanding them to advance before him. He had three horses killed under him in the battle; thrice he re-mounted, and did not suffer his steeds to be long unavenged. Shields, helmets, and coats of mail were shivered by the furious and impatient thrusts of his sword; some he dashed to the earth with his shield, and was at all times as ready to cover and protect his friends, as to deal death among his foes.

Although the battle was fought with the greatest fury from nine o'clock in the morning, King Harold was slain in the first onset,12 and his brother Earl Ijeofwin fell some time afterwards, with many thousands of the royal army. Towards evening, the English finding that their king and the chief nobles of the realm, with a great part of their army, had fallen, while the Normans still showed a bold front, and made desperate attacks on all who made any resistance, they dad recourse to fight as expeditiously as they could. Various were the fortunes which attended their retreat; some recovering their horses, some on foot, attempted to escape by the highways; more sought to save themselves by striking across the country. The Normans, finding the English completely routed, pursued them vigorously all Sunday night, but not without suffering a great loss; for, galloping onward in hot pursuit, they fell unawares, horses and armour, into an ancient trench, overgrown and concealed by rank grass,13 and men in their armour and horses rolling over each other, were crushed and smothered. This accident restored confidence to the routed English, for, perceiving the advantage given them by the mouldering rampart and a succession of ditches, they rallied in a body, and, making a sudden stand, caused the Normans severe loss. At this place Eugenulf, lord of Waigle, and many others fell, the number of the Normans who perished being, as reported by some who were present, nearly fifteen thousand. Thus did Almighty God, on the eve of the ides [14th] of October, punish in various ways the innumerable simmers in both armies. For, on this Saturday, the Normans butchered with remorseless cruelty thousands of the English, who long before had murdered the innocent prince Alfred and his attendants; l and, on the Saturday before the present battle,14 had massacred without pity King Harold and Earl Tostig, with multitudes of Norwegians. The righteous Judge avenged the English on Sunday night, when the furious Normans were precipitated into the concealed trench; for they had broken the divine law by their boundless covetousness; and, as the Psalmist says: " Their feet were swift to shed blood," whereupon, " sorrow and unhappiness was in their ways."15

Duke William, perceiving the English troops suddenly rally, did not halt; and when he found Count Eustace with fifty men-at-arms retreating, and the count wished him to have the signal sounded for recalling the pursuers, he commanded him with a loud voice to stand firm. The count, however, familiarly approaching the duke, whispered in his ear that it would be safer to retreat, predicting his sudden death if he persisted in the pursuit. While he was saying this, Eustace received a blow between the shoulders, so violent that the noise of the stroke was plainly heard, and it caused blood to flow from his mouth and nostrils, and he vas borne off by his comrades in a dying state.

The victory being secured, the duke returned to the field of battle, where he viewed the dreadful carnage, which could not be seen without commiseration. There the flower of the youth and nobility of England covered the ground far and near stained with blood. Harold could not be discovered by his features, but was recognized by other tokens, and his corpse, being borne to the duke's camp, eras, by order of the conqueror, delivered to William De Seallet for interment near the sea-shore, which had long beet guarded by his arms.16

Inconstant fortune frequently causes adverse and unexpected changes in human affairs, some persons being lifted from the dust to the height of great power, while others, suddenly falling from their high estate, groan in extreme distress. Thus Edith, Earl Godwin's relict, who once enjoyed wealth and influence, was now overwhelmed with grief and a prey to the deepest misfortunes. She had borne seven sons to her husband: Sweyn, Tostig, Harold, Gurth, Alfgar, and Wulnoth. They were all earls, and distinguished for their handsome persons, as well as what the world calls excellence but each of them underwent a different and disastrous fate. Alfgar and Wulnoth, indeed, feared God and lived according to his laws, and both died in the odour of sanctity confessing the true faith, the one a pilgrim and monk at Rheims, the other at Salisbury.17 For the other five, following the career of arms, they met their death in a variety of ways, and on different occasions.

1. This expedition did not sail till the month of September. Tostig arrived first at the rendezvous in the mouth of the Humber with fifty ships but was driven off by Earl Edwin, and being afterwards joined by the king of Norway on the coast of Scotland, the united fleets sailed up the Humber to the neighbourhood of York. Huntington's History, p. 209.

2. The battle of Stamford Bridge, in which Harold of Norway and Tostig fell, was fought on the eve of St. Matthew, 20th of September. The earls Edwin and Morcar had engaged the enemy five days before at Fulford Gate, and were defeated, the invaders retaining possession of the city of York and the neighboring country

3. St. Valeri-sur-Somme. According to Guy of Amiens, the fleet was detained five days by contrary winds, and as it sailed on Michaelmas Dayt 29th of September, it probably assembled at St. Valeri on the 23rd of September.

4. Henry of Huntingdon informs us that Harold received the nesws of the disembarkation of the Norman expedition at Hastings on the same day on which the battle of Stamford Bridge was fought, while he was at dinner.

5. This anecdote is copied almost literally from William de Jumieges, b. va. ah, 3'

6. at York, which was impossible, as the landing was not effected until nine days afterwards. Guy of Amiens says the news was brought by an eyewitness. William of Jumieges agrees with Oldericus Vitalis in stating that Harold received it in London.

7. Hugh de Montfort, the constable- Walter Giffard, count de Longueville; Rollo, or Ralph, lord of Toni and Conches, standard bearer of Normandy

8. Saturday, 14th of October, the day of the feast of St. Calistus.

9. About nine miles from Hastings.

10. See in the Roman de Ron, t. ii. p. I9o, &c, the circumstances which led to this person having the honour of bearing William's standard, According to Nace, it was the consecrated standard sent by the pope.

11. William de Jumieges says that Harold made a night attack on the enemy, having hastened by forced marches to take them by surprise. Our author's statement, that Harold was slain at the first onset, is a gross mistake, it being universally agreed that he fell pierced by an arrow in the eye after sunset. On the whole, this accost of the battle is very unsatisfactory, and far inferior to the picture of it drawn by William of Poitiers, as well as deficient in the circumstantial details given by other historians

12. According to the History of Battle Abbey, it was a ravine or natural hollow, which long preserved the name of Xfalfossed in memory of this event.

13. This frightful massacre was made in 1036, during the reign of Harold Harefoot

14. Our author continues his error about the date of the battle of Stamford Bridge, which, as before remarked, occurred on the 20th of September, nearly a month before.

15. Psalm xiii. 3.

16. There are various accounts of the circumstances attending the finding of the body of Harold, and the treatment of his remains. Guy of Amierls says that it was mutilated, but the fragments were collected after the battle by the dukes order, and conveyed to his camp, wrapped in a purple winding-sheet. Some of these details are evidently inventions of a later period, but the rest of his story agrees with that of Ordericus and William de Poitiers, and the coincidence of two writers so near the time leaves little reason to doubt that our author was right in adopting the* account. It appears from Guy's narrative, that William Mallet was " half Norman, half English," probably one of the Normans already settled in England, and thus better qualified for his melancholy office. A legend entitled The Life of Harold, represents that king as having been found on the field of battle among the dead and doing by a Saracen woman, who concealed him at Winchester for two years. It then sends him on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and brings him hack to England to spend a long life in retirement and austere penitence.

17. Our author has omitted to tell us that Wulnoth passed his whole life in confinement, from the time he was sent to Normandy as a hostage by Edward the Confessor, in 1502, except the short interval between his release by the Conqueror, when on his death-bed, and his being again condemned to imprisonment by one of the first acts of William Rufus.