History of the Norman invasion of England



IT was in the year 1051 that the influence of strangers reached its height. During the first nine years of Edward's reign we find no signs of any open warfare between the national and the Normanising parties. The course of events shows that Godwin's power was being practically undermined, but the great earl was still outwardly in the enjoyment of royal favour, and his vast possessions were still being added to by royal grants. But soon England began to feel how great is the evil when a king and those immediately around him are estranged from the mass of his people in feeling.

To the French favourites who gradually crowded the court of Edward the name, the speech and the laws of England were things on which their ignorant pride looked with utter contempt.

Count Eustace of Boulogne, now brother-in-law of the King of the English, presently came, like the rest of the world, to the English court. The king was spending the autumn at Gloucester. Thither came Count Eustace, and after his satisfactory interview with the king he turned his face homewards. When a few miles from Dover he felt himself, in a region specially devoted to Godwin, to be still more thoroughly in an enemy's country than in other parts of England, and he and all his company took the precaution of putting on their coats of mail.

The proud Frenchmen expected to find free quarters at Dover, and they attempted to lodge themselves at their pleasure in the houses of the burghers. One Englishman resisted, and was struck dead on the spot. The count's party then rode through the town, cutting and slaying at pleasure. In a skirmish which quickly ensued twenty Englishmen and nineteen Frenchmen were slain.

Count Eustace and the remnant of the party hastened back to Gloucester, and told the story after their own fashion. On the mere accusation of a stranger, the English King condemned his own subjects without a hearing. He sent for Godwin, as earl of the district in which lay the offending town, and commanded him to inflict chastisement on Dover. The English champion was then in the midst of a domestic rejoicing. He, like the king, had been strengthening himself by a foreign alliance, and had just connected his house with that of a foreign prince. Tostig, his third son, had married Judith, the daughter of Baldwin of Flanders.

Godwin bidden, without the least legal proof of offence, to visit Dover with all the horrors of fire and sword, was not long in choosing his course.

But there were influences about Edward which cut off all hope of a peaceful settlement of the matter. Eustace probably still lingered about the king, and there was another voice ever at the royal ear, ever ready to poison the royal mind against the people of England and their leader. It was the voice of a foreign monk, Archbishop Robert. Godwin and three other earls summoned their followers and demanded the surrender of Eustace, but the frightened king sent for the northern earls Siward, Leofric and Ralph, bidding them bring a force strong enough to keep Godwin in check. Thus the northern and southern sections were arrayed against each other.

There were, however, on the king's side men who were not willing to see the country involved in civil war. Leofric, the good Earl of Mercia, stood forth as the champion of compromise and peace, and it was agreed that hostilities should be avoided and that the Witanagemot should assemble at Michaelmas in London.

Of this truce King Edward and his foreign advisers took advantage to collect an army, at the head of which they appeared in London. Godwin and his son Harold were summoned to the gemot, but refused to appear without a security for a safe-conduct. The hostages and safe-conduct were refused.

The refusal was announced by Bishop Stigand to the earl as he sat at his evening meal. The bishop wept; the earl sprang to his feet, overthrew the table, leaped on his horse and, with his sons, rode for his life all that night. In the morning the king held his Witanagemot, and Godwin and his sons were declared outlaws, but five days were allowed them to get out of the land. Godwin, Sweyn, Tostig and Gyrth, with Gytha and Judith, the newly-married wife of Tostig, set sail for Bruges in a ship laden with as much treasure as it would hold.

Two of Godwin's sons, however, sought another refuge. Harold and his younger brother Leofwine determined on resistance, and resolved to seek shelter among the Danish settlers in Ireland, where they were cordially received by King Diarmid. For a moment the overthrow of the patriotic leaders in England was complete, and the dominion of foreigners over the feeble mind of the king was complete.

Stirring events followed in quick succession. General regret was felt among all patriotic Englishmen at the absence of Godwin. The common voice of England soon began to call for the return of the banished earl, who was looked to by all men as the father of his country. England now knew that in his fall a fatal blow had been dealt to her own welfare and freedom. And Godwin, after sending many petitions to the king, vainly petitioning for a reconciliation, determined to return by force, satisfied that the great majority of Englishmen would be less likely to resist him than to join his banners.

Harold sailed from Ireland to meet his father by way of the English Channel. Godwin sailed up the Thames, and London declared for him. Panic reigned among the favourites of King Edward. The foreigners took to flight, among the fugitives being Archbishop Robert and Bishop Ulf. The gemot decreed the restoration of the earl and the outlawry of many Normans. The king yielded, and accorded to Godwin the kiss of peace, and a revolution was accomplished of which England may well be proud.

But a tragedy soon followed, in the death of the most renowned Englishman of that generation. During a meal at the Easter festival Godwin fell from his seat, and died after lying insensible for three days. Great was the grief of the nation.

Harold, in the years that followed the death of Godwin, became so increasingly popular that he was virtually chief ruler of England, even before the death of Edward, which happened on January 5, 1066. His burial was followed by the coronation of Harold. But the moment of struggle was now come. The English throne had become vacant, and the Norman duke knew how to represent himself as its lawful heir and to brand the king of the nation's choice as a usurper.

William found one Englishman willing to help him in all his schemes, in the person of Tostig, Harold's brother, who had been outlawed at the demand of the nation, owing to his unfitness to rule his province as earl of Northumberland. He had sunk from bad to worse, Harold had done all he could for his fallen brother, but to restore him was impossible. Tostig was at the Norman court, urging William to the invasion of England. At his own risk, he was allowed to make an incursion on the English coast. Entering the Humber, he burnt several towns and slew many men. But after these ravages Tostig repaired to ask help of Harold Haardraade, whom he induced to prepare a great expedition.

Harold Haardraade and Tostig landed and marched towards York. A battle was fought between the Mercians and Norwegians at Fulford, in which the former were worsted, but Harold was marching northward. In the fearful battle of Stamford Bridge both Harold Haardraade and Tostig were slain, and the Viking host was shattered. The victorious English king was banqueting in celebration of the great victory, when a messenger appeared who had come from the distant coast of Sussex.

One blow had been warded off, but another still more terrible had fallen. Three days after the fight at Stamford Bridge, William, duke of the Normans, once the peaceful guest of Edward, had again, but in quite another guise, made good his landing on the shores of England. It was in August 1066 that the Norman fleet had set sail on its great enterprise. For several weeks a south wind had been waited for at the mouth of the River Dive, prayers and sacred rites of every kind being employed to move Heaven to send the propitious breeze. On September 28 the landing was effected at Pevensey, the ancient Anderida. There were neither ships nor men to resist the landing.

The first armed man who set foot on English ground was Duke William himself, whose foot slipped, so that he fell with both hands on the ground. A loud cry of grief was raised at the evil omen. But the ready wit of William failed him not. "By the splendour of God," he cried, "I have taken seizin of my kingdom; the earth of England is in my hands." The whole army landed in order, but only one day was spent at Pevensey. On the next day the army marched on eastward to Hastings, which was fixed on as the centre of the operations of the whole campaign.

It was a hard lot for the English king to be compelled to hasten southward to dislodge the new enemy, after scarcely a moment's rest from the toils and glories of Stamford Bridge. But the heart of Harold failed him not, and the heart of England beat in unison with the heart of her king. As soon as the news came, King Harold held a council of the leaders of Stamford Bridge, or perhaps an armed gemot. He told them of the landing of the enemy; he set before them the horrors which would come upon the land if the invader succeeded in his enterprise. A loud shout of assent rose from the whole assembly. Every man pledged his faith rather to die in arms than to acknowledge any king but Harold.

The king thanked his loyal followers, and at once ordered an immediate march to the south, and an immediate muster of the forces of his kingdom. London was the trysting-place. He himself pressed on at once with his immediate following. And throughout the land awoke a spirit in every English heart which has never died out to this day. The men from various shires flocked eagerly to the standard of their glorious king. Harold seems to have reached London on October 5, about ten days after the fight at Stamford Bridge, and a week after the Norman landing at Pevensey. Though his royal home was now at Westminster, he went, in order to seek divine help and succour, to pray at Waltham, the home of his earlier days, devoting one day to a pilgrimage to the Holy Cross which gave England her war-cry.

Harold and William were now both eager for the battle. The king set out from London on October 12. His consummate generalship is nowhere more plainly shown than in this memorable campaign.

William constrained Harold to fight, but Harold, in his turn, constrained William to fight on ground of Harold's own choosing. The latter halted at a point distant about seven miles from the headquarters of the invaders, and pitched his camp upon the ever-memorable heights of Senlac. It was his policy not to attack. He occupied and fortified a post of great natural strength, which he speedily made into what is distinctly spoken of as a castle.

The hill of Senlac, now occupied by the town of Battle, commemorates in its later name the great event of which it was the scene.

[OCTOBER 14, 1066]

THE morning of the decisive day, Saturday, October 14, at last had come. The duke of the Normans heard mass, and drew forth his troops for their march against the English post. Then in full armour, and seated on his Spanish war-horse, William led his host forth in three divisions. The Normans from the hill of Telham first caught sight of the English encamped on the opposite height of Senlac.

First in each of the three Norman divisions marched the archers, slingers and cross-bow men, then the more heavily armed infantry, lastly the horsemen. The reason of this arrangement is clear. The light-armed were to do what they could with their missiles to annoy the English; the heavy infantry were to strive to break down the palisades of the English camp, and so to make ready the way for the charge of the horse.

Like the Normans, the English had risen early. The king, after exhorting his troops to stand firm, rode to the royal post; he there dismounted, took his place on foot, and prayed to God for help. The battle began at nine in the morning. The trumpet sounded and a flight of arrows from all three Norman divisions was the prelude to the onslaught of the heavy-armed foot. The French infantry had to toil up the hill, and to break down the palisade while a shower of stones and javelins disordered their approach, and while club, sword and axe greeted all who came within the reach of hand-strokes.

Both sides fought with unyielding valour. The war-cries rose on either side. The Normans shouted 'God help us!' The English called on the 'Holy Cross.' The Norman infantry had soon done its best, but that best had been in vain. The choicest chivalry of Europe now pressed on to the attack. The knights of Normandy and of all lands from which men had flocked to William's standard now pressed on, striving to make what impression they could with the whole strength of themselves and their horses on the impenetrable fortress of timbershields and living warriors.

But all was in vain. The English had thus far stood their ground well and wisely, and the tactics of Harold had so far completely answered. Not only had every attack failed, but the great mass of the French army altogether lost heart. The Britons and the other auxiliaries on the left were the first to give way. The whole of William's left wing was thrown into utter confusion.

The strong heart of William, however, failed him not, and by his single prowess and presence of mind he recalled the fleeing troops. Order was soon restored, and the Norman host pressed on to a second and more terrible attack. The duke himself, his relics round his neck, sought out Harold. A few moments more, and the two might have come face to face, but Gyrth, the noble brother of the English king, hurled a spear at William. The missile narrowly missed the duke, but slew the Spanish steed. But William could fight on foot as well as on horseback. He rose to his feet, pressed straight to seek the man who had so nearly slain him, and the earl fell, crushed beneath the blow of William's mace.

The second attack, however, failed, for the English lines were as unyielding as ever. Direct attack was unavailing. In the Norman character fox and lion were equally blended, as William now showed. He ventured on the daring stratagem of ordering a pretended flight, and the unwary English rushed down the slope, pursuing the fugitives with shouts of delight.

The error was fatal to England. The tide was turned; the duke's object was now gained. The English were no longer entrenched and the battle fell into a series of single combats. As twilight was coming on an arrow, falling like a bolt from heaven, pierced Harold's right eye, and he sank in agony at the foot of the standard. Round that standard the fight still raged, till the highest nobility, the most valiant solidery of England were slaughtered to a man.

Had Harold lived, had another like him been ready to take his place, we may well doubt whether, even after Senlac, England would have been conquered at all. As it was, from this moment her complete conquest was only a matter of time. From that day forward the Normans began to work the will of God upon the folk of England, till there were left in England no chiefs of the land of English blood, till all were brought down to bondage and sorrow, till it was a shame to be called an Englishman, and the men of England were no more a people.





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