Mixing Fact with Historical Fiction 3 – My version of the Battle of Hastings

At school my history teacher glossed over the Battle of Hastings. His lesson suggested that the Normans were a superior people who conquered the barbaric Saxons and brought civilisation back to England. I have always inferred that what he meant was that the Romans had civilised Britain originally but that the Saxons had created a period of barbarism, popularly known as the Dark Ages, and that the Normans had returned the country to the social sophistication they already knew in Europe. The victors write the history, as they say, and there was always an air of inevitability about the Norman Conquest of England, as if the Saxons never stood a chance.

The more I read about the period the less I believed what I had been told previously. The Saxon civilisation was different to France and Normandy, but it was no less brilliant. Christianity was more fervently embraced in England, indicated by an extensive programme of church building. The Saxons actually had more churches built of stone than could be found in Normandy. They had also developed a system of laws that allowed women to own wealth and property in their own right, and to divorce their husbands. Saxons could appeal to a system of courts to settle arguments or seek justice. People of ability were valued and promoted accordingly, no matter to which social class they originally belonged. This was not limited to the nobility but applied to all the free Saxon people. Even the Saxon slaves had certain rights enshrined in law. Most of these civil liberties would be lost under the imposed feudal system that was to come.

Today, the term ‘Dark Ages’ is no longer used to refer to the 500-year history of the Anglo-Saxons. It was coined originally simply because of the lack of written historical records. Like their Scandinavian cousins the Saxons embraced an oral tradition with regards to their culture. Scops were people who performed acts of storytelling to entertain others. They recited poems and legends to an entranced audience. This was a form of culture that the Saxons shared with many previous civilisations, not least the Greeks of antiquity.

Another aspect of the Battle of Hastings that seems entirely unjustified is the inevitability of the Norman victory. Past historians have suggested that King Harold arrived at Senlatche Ridge with a tired and dispirited army. This idea has remained popular for several decades, but it is not supported by the facts. The battle began around 9am in the morning and did not conclude until the late evening when darkness made its continuation impractical. How could a tired and dispirited army fight for so long against a supposedly technically superior force?

I have no doubt that Guillaume was under pressure to bring Harold to a decisive battle as soon as possible. His invasion plans had been stalled by months due to the storms that raged through the English Channel. Winter was approaching and the Normans were bottled up in Hastings with only a precarious supply route to the continent that could be cut at any time by the English fleet. His support from Norman nobility was strained. Many had had to provide hostages to ensure their loyalty. The prospect of spending winter in a foreign land, short of resources, was not a pleasant one. There was also the threat of disease, which could thin the Norman ranks much quicker than the enemy. Guillaume wanted a pitched battle. He was frustrated, however, by the absence of Harold and his army. The Normans were ignorant as to the invasion in the north of the country by King Hardrada of Norway. In an attempt to provoke a response from Harold, Guillaume ordered his men to prosecute outrages against the local population, these included murder, rape, and the destruction of settlements. Women and children were not spared.

When King Harold returned south, he went directly to his court in London, probably to gather information on the location and movements of the Normans. He had several options before him. He could offer peace-terms, or he could look to box the Normans in at Hastings and wait until early spring, hoping that deprivation would weaken them, or he could attack. It is probable that he did offer terms, but I think highly unlikely that abdication was ever seriously considered. The idea of waiting until spring must have been attractive. The summer of 1066 had provided a bountiful harvest. The Saxons had plenty of food to see them through winter. The problem was, however, that they would need to lay some form of siege to Hastings to stop the Normans from raiding nearby settlements for supplies. That would be a prolonged and expensive undertaking. It was also not something that they had much experience in either. Attacking the enemy had a lot to recommend it. Harold’s warriors were now veterans of Stamford Bridge. Their spirits were high. The Saxons were a warlike people, it was part of their culture, and they had been fighting their Norse enemies for generations. The recent victory against Harald Hardrada must have impressed upon King Harold the advantages of moving swiftly and striking quickly gave. Of course, if his army was tired and dispirited, he might not have felt so confident, but he did decide to go on the offensive.

Once I started writing the final part of my trilogy it became clear to me that the history of 1066 lacked any kind of inevitability that previous accounts suggested. Guillaume was gambling and he appeared to have taken a longshot. Although he appeared to have seized the initiative in finally invading England his lack of information regarding his enemy effectively lost him that advantage. It was Harold Godwinson who now took the initiative and chose the place of the encounter.

The Saxon form of warfare was essentially defensive. The shield-wall was a barrier. Erected at the top of high-ground it was formidable. The experienced warriors knew to hold this position until they could see and exploit a weakness in their enemy. Once the opportunity presented itself, they would take it with violent fury, using spears, swords, and axes.

For the Normans a more fluid style was preferred. Their infantry used similar weapons to the Saxons, but their formations were looser so that they could move more quickly. They were supported by a larger number of archers too. The mounted knights in their armour were their shock troops. Against the Saxon shield-wall none of this had much of an impact. The arrows of the archers could not pierce the heavy Saxon shields. The Norman infantry were tired by their march uphill and suffered casualties from volleys of throwing spears. The first charge of the Norman knights failed.

Personally, I could see little to support the notion that the Normans were somehow a more superior military force than the Saxons. Indeed, it seemed that King Harold had a serious advantage over Duke Guillaume. I explored this situation by having Guillaume take part in a cavalry charge against the Saxon shield-wall. It gave me an opportunity for Coenred, newly promoted as Eorl of Holderness, to encounter the Norman Duke on the battlefield; it did not go well for the latter. Ironically, it also provided the key to success for the Normans. It is now accepted that the left flank of the Norman army did begin to run from the battle. This led to a large number of Saxons leaving the safety of the shield-wall to pursue their enemy. Using artistic licence, I made Harold’s younger brother, Eorl Leofwine, the villain of the piece. In ‘The Blade’s Fell Blow’ it is he who spurs the men to the attack and dies, along with all of them, as a result.

Despite this disaster the Saxons continue to hold the Normans at bay. The battle continues all day, with perhaps one or two mutually agreed breaks, during which the bodies of personages of note were recovered from the field.

I have always felt that the end of the Saxon civilisation was something to be regretted. They were a vibrant people who fought for their way of life for 500 years. I could not see how a man so inherently Saxon as Coenred could survive the battle, not least because so few did. Certainly, no men of note did. In writing historical fiction, the plot is obviously motivated by actual events. The Saxons lost, the Normans won, and I could not ignore that. I had to write the death scenes of several key characters that I had invented and grown to like. Their demise had to be heroic of course, but realistic. Aethelmaer, Coenred’s young huscarl, proved a bitter-sweet experience when I described his death. I suppose that I used him as a metaphor for the whole Saxon army. He is brave, loyal, obstinate, but ultimately doomed.

The Battle of Hastings was won more through attrition than any kind of imagined superiority of the Normans. Eorl Leofwine’s ill-considered pursuit of fleeing Normans soldiers had not gone unnoticed by Guillaume. It is thought that the Normans actively sought to prompt the Saxons to do the same again at least once or twice more during the course of the battle. It was a dangerous gamble. If they got the timing wrong, then the fleeing Normans might get caught and cut down. Also, if the knights charged too soon then they would only achieve exhausting their already tired horses. I think that at some point Guillaume realised that the Saxon lines had indeed been thinned. Although the shield-wall had maintained its length its breadth had decreased. It seemed logical to me that the Duke would launch one final attack, only targeting his remaining knights at particular points in the Saxon shield-wall instead of charging against its full length. The result was that the Normans penetrated the defence and, as every Saxon and Viking knew, once a shield-wall was broken defeat quickly followed.

There was an incident in this battle that is somewhat speculative. It appears that at a place called Malfosse, or ‘Evil Ditch’. A rearguard of Saxons successfully repelled an attack by Eustace of Boulogne. I had Thrydwulf, a brother huscarl to Coenred, mastermind this action. Of all of Coenred’s company he, a tough, gruff, and very capable warrior, born a peasant but who achieved the high rank of an elite warrior, survives. I had him give a little speech that both sums up the situation and predicts the fate of the Saxons.

It is somewhat regrettable that following on from one of their greatest ever victories the Saxon world should succumb so totally to one of their greatest defeats. I have no doubt that infighting amongst the Saxon nobility kept many away from the battle. Harold Godwinson appears to have been popular amongst the lower classes but was not universally liked amongst his own. I illustrated this fact in his tense relationship with Edwin and Morcar, brothers to his wife. Of course, many a general has been convinced that a lost battle could have been won with more men. I think that in Harold’s case this would have been true. The Norman forces were seriously depleted, exhausted, and probably considering withdrawing from the field. If the Saxons had not left their defensive position at any point during the battle, then I doubt that Guillaume would have found a means of defeating them. It was not until that occurred that the Normans were able to inflict significant casualties on their enemies.

Although I could not change the history of 1066, I hope that in my novels I have presented a fairer and more accurate account of events than I was taught at school. Through the research I conducted I came to greatly admire the Anglo-Saxons. For most of their history they were attacked almost relentlessly, and yet they created a rich culture and a social organisation that can still be admired today. I hope that I have done them justice!

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