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Chapter XXVI, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 1


Landing of the Normans - The Battle of Hastings - Death of Harold - Accession of William.
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Immediately after his victory, Harold directed his march to York, which city he entered in triumph, being hailed by the inhabitants as their deliverer from an enemy whom they had so many causes both to fear and hate. Here the king intended to remain for some time, not only to recruit his army, but to give himself an opportunity of getting cured of a wound he had received in the late battle.

The joy of victory was destined, however, to receive a speedy check, for whilst Harold was at a banquet with his thanes and captains, a messenger arrived with the intelligence that the Normans had landed at Pevensey, on September 29th. The king, nothing daunted, gave orders for his march at an early hour the following day.

The Norman fleet had been assembled, as we have already related, in the summer at the mouth of the river Dive, and all the troops embarked; but the winds proved long contrary, and detained them in that harbour. The authority, however, of the duke, the good discipline maintained among the seamen and soldiers, and the great care in supplying them with provisions, had prevented any disorder. At last the wind became favourable, and enabled them to sail along the coast, till they reached St. Valari. There were, however, several vessels lost in this short passage; and as the wind again proved contrary, the army began to imagine that Heaven had declared against them, and that, notwithstanding the Pope's benediction, they were destined to certain destruction. These bold warriors, who despised real dangers, were very subject to the dread of imaginary ones; and many of them began to mutiny, some of them even to desert their colours; when the duke, in order to support their drooping hopes, ordered a procession to be made with the relics of St. Valari, and prayers to be said for more favourable weather. The wind instantly changed; and as this incident happened on the eve of the feast of St. Michael, the tutelar saint of Normandy, the soldiers, fancying they saw the hand of Heaven in all these concurring circumstances, set out with the greatest alacrity. They met with no opposition on their passage. A great fleet, which Harold had assembled, and which had cruised all the summer off the Isle of Wight, had been dismissed on his receiving false intelligence that William, discouraged by contrary winds and other accidents, had laid aside his preparations. The Norman armament, proceeding in great order, arrived, without any material toss, at Pevensey, in Sussex, and the array quietly disembarked. The duke himself, as he leaped on shore, happened to stumble and fall; but had the presence of mind, it is said, to turn the omen to his advantage, by declaring aloud that he had taken possession of the country; and a soldier, running to a neighbouring cottage, plucked a handful of thatch, and brought it to his leader.

"What is this?" demanded William, for the moment not comprehending the meaning of the man. "Seizin," was the reply.

It was received with a loud shout by the army - seizin being the act by which, according to the feudal laws, a tenant paid homage to his sovereign for his fief.

The joy and alacrity of the duke and his soldiers were so great, that even the intelligence of Harold's victory over the Norwegians, and the death of Tostig, did not dismay them; they seemed rather to entertain greater confidence in a speedy conquest.

The victory of Harold, though great and honourable, had proved in the main prejudicial to his interests, and may be regarded as the immediate cause of his ruin. He lost many of his bravest officers and soldiers in the action; and he disgusted the rest by refusing to distribute the Norwegian spoils among them - a conduct which was little agreeable to his usual generosity of temper, but which his desire of sparing the people, in the war that impended over him from the Duke of Normandy, had probably occasioned. He hastened, by quick marches, to reach this new invader; but though he was reinforced at London and other places with fresh troops, he found himself also weakened by the desertion of his old soldiers, who, from fatigue and discontent, secretly withdrew from their colours. His brother Gurth, a man of no less bravery and of more discretion than Harold, urged upon him that it would be better policy to prolong the war, or, at all events, for the king not to expose himself in the battle.

To these remonstrances Harold, flushed with the pride of recent victory, and listening only to his natural courage, turned a decided refusal. He was resolved, he said, to show to the nation who had elected him that he was worthy of their choice, and knew how to defend the crown he had won.

With this intention he gave orders to advance to meet the Normans, who by this time had removed their camp to Hastings, where they had erected fortifications,

So confident did the English monarch feel of success, that he sent a messenger to William, offering him a sum of money to quit the kingdom; not that, he said, he feared him, or aught that he and his army could do; but simply to avoid the effusion of blood, and spare the lives of their followers on either side. The offer was rejected with disdain. The Duke of Normandy possessed a courage as ardent as, and an ambition equal to, his own; added to which he was further excited by the personal hatred he bore to Harold, whose oath to assist William to the English throne and marry his daughter had been broken on both points.

Not to appear behindhand with his enemy in boasting, William despatched a counter proposition by a monk of Fescamp, named Hugues Margot, whose office secured him against any violence at the hands of the incensed Saxons. He haughtily called upon Harold either to resign his crown, hold it in fealty to him, submit their difference to the arbitration of the Pope, or decide their claims in single combat.

To this, Harold replied that the God of battles would soon decide between them.

Both parties now prepared for the contest which was to decide the possession of the kingdom; and the manner in which the night preceding the battle was passed, in either camp, illustrated the character of the two nations. The Saxons spent the hours in rioting and feasting, song and wassail; the Normans in silence and prayer.

On the morning of the 14th of October, 1066, the Duke of Normandy called to his tent the principal leaders and officers of his army, and addressed to them a discourse suited to the occasion.

He represented to them that the event which they and he had so long looked forward to was at hand, and that the fortune of the war now hung upon their swords; that a single action, in all probability, would decide it; that never army had greater motives for exerting a vigorous courage, whether they considered the prize that would attend their victory, or the inevitable destruction which must ensue in the event of their being discomfited; that if their veteran bands could once break the lines of the raw soldiers who had rashly dared to approach them, they could conquer a Kingdom at one blow, and be justly entitled to the possession of it as the reward of their valour.

On the contrary, he pointed out the result in the event of a defeat - an enraged and merciless enemy in their rear, the sea to bar their retreat, and an ignominious death as the reward of their cowardice. "By collecting so numerous and brave a host," he added, "I have done all that is possible, humanly speaking, to ensure conquest; and the sacrilegious conduct of Harold, in breaking his oath to me, gives me just reason to believe that Heaven, and the saints who are witnesses to his perjury, will smile upon my endeavours."

This address was received with loud cheers; the duke commanded the signal to be given, and the entire army advanced, singing, according to William of Malmesbury, the war song, or hymn of Roland.

Harold, in the meanwhile, had not been idle, but had taken advantage of some rising ground to post his army, and dug trenches to secure his plans; it being his intention to stand on the defensive, and avoid, if possible, all action with the enemy's cavalry, to which his own was inferior, The Kentish men he placed in the van - a post they claimed as their right; whilst the king himself, accompanied by his two valiant brothers, Gurth and Leofwin, dismounting, placed himself at the head of the infantry, and expressed his resolution to conquer or to perish in the action. The first attack of the Normans was desperate, but was received with equal "firmness by the English; and after a furious combat, the assailants, overcome by the difficulty of the ground, and hard pressed by the enemy, began first to relax their vigour, then to retreat; and confusion was spreading among the ranks, when William, who found himself on the brink of destruction, hastened with a select band to the relief of his dismayed forces. His presence revived their courage; the English were obliged to retire with loss; and the duke, ordering his second line to advance, renewed the attack with fresh forces and with redoubled vigour. Finding that the enemy, aided by the advantage of ground, and animated by the example of their prince, still made an obstinate resistance, he tried a stratagem, which was very delicate in its management, but which seemed advisable in his desperate situation, where, if he gained not a decisive victory, he was totally undone. He commanded his troops to make a hasty retreat, and to allure the enemy from their ground by the appearance of flight. The artifice succeeded; and the English, heated by the action, and sanguine in their hopes of victory, followed the Normans into the plain. William gave orders that at once the infantry should faco about on their pursuers, and the cavalry make an assault on their wings; and both of them pursue the advantage which the surprise and terror of the enemy must give them in that critical moment. The English were repulsed with great slaughter, and driven back to the hill, where, being rallied by the bravery of Harold, they were able, notwithstanding their loss, to maintain their ground and continue the combat. The duke tried the same stratagem a second time with the same success; but, even after this double advantage, ho still found a great body of the English, who, maintaining themselves in firm array, determined to dispute the battle to the last extremity. He ordered his heavy-armed infantry to make an assault on them; while his archers, placed behind, should gall those who were exposed by the situation of the ground, or who were intent on defending themselves against the swords and spears of the assailants. By this disposition he at last prevailed: Harold was slain by an arrow, while he was combating with great bravery at the head of his men, and his two brothers shared his fate.

The English, dismayed by the fall of their king, and having no one to lead them, gave way, and were pursued by the victorious Normans with great slaughter, till night put an cud to the horrors of the scene.

Thus did William of Normandy gain the great and decisive battle of Hastings, which lasted from sunrise to sunset, and which, from the valour displayed by both armies and their leaders, was worthy to decide the contest for a crown. "William, in the course of the battle, had three horses killed under him, and lost nearly fifteen thousand of his followers. The loss of the English was never exactly known, but it must have been even more considerable. The darkness of the night, however, saved a good part of the English army, who retreated under the conduct of Morcar and Edwin. These two thanes, who had firmly adhered to Harold, seeing he was slain, as well as Gurth and Leofwin, his brothers, submitted at length to circumstances, and retreated, having given undoubted proofs of valour during the day.

William, at the height of his wishes, gave orders for the whole army to fall on their knees, and return God thanks for so signal a victory; after which he caused his tent to be pitched in the field of battle, and spent the residue of the night among the slain. Nor less perhaps in gratitude for the past, than in the hope that such a work would procure him heavenly favour for the future, he solemnly vowed that he would erect a splendid abbey on the scene of this his first victory; and when this vow was accomplished, the altar of the abbey church stood on the spot where the standard of Harold had been planted. The holy house thus founded was called Battle Abbey.

On the morrow, he ordered his own dead to be buried, and gave the English peasants leave to do the same office for the others; and the bodies of the king and his brothers being found, he sent them to Githa, their mother, who gave them as honourable a burial as the circumstances of the time would permit, in Waltham Abbey, founded by Harold before he was king.

Most of the English historians say that the body was given to his mother without ransom. An ancient manuscript in the Cottonian library, apparently written at Waltham Abbey about a hundred years after the battle, relates that two monks were deputed by William to search for the body of the king. Unable to distinguish it among the nameless dead by which it was surrounded, they sent for Harold's mistress, Editha, called "the swan-necked," whose eye of affection was not to be deceived.

There is a story related by Giraldus Cambrensis, that Harold, after receiving his wound, escaped from the field, and lived several years an anchorite in a cell near St. John's Church, in Chester. This account is, however, in the highest degree improbable, and there is no reason to doubt that the last of the Saxon kings died a soldier's death on the field of Hastings.


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Pictures for Chapter XXVI, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 1

Harold
Harold >>>>
Ruins of Hastings Castle
Ruins of Hastings Castle >>>>
Death of Harold
Death of Harold >>>>
The Norman Thanksgiving
The Norman Thanksgiving >>>>

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