There is no reason to suppose that the shire levies were any less well equipped than the Norman infantry they would have encountered at Hastings. There is plenty of evidence that those who served were expected to present themselves with body armour and appropriate weapons. Perhaps the best evidence of this is found in the heriot or tax that was payable on the death of a thegn to his lord; this was, in origin at least, less a tax than a restitution of the arms and equipment with which he had been provided by his lord during his life and which presumably would be passed on to his successor. The word ‘heriot’ itself derives from the term here-geat or war gear. The rules of this are set out in, for example, Cnut’s second code of laws, and are well illustrated in the will of a fairly modest thegn named Ketel (one of the people who made their wills before undertaking a pilgrimage to Rome) in the years shortly before the conquest:
And I grant to Archbishop Stigand, my lord. . .as my heriot a helmet and a coat of mail, and a horse with harness, with a sword and a spear.lvi
This is clearly the average equipment that the shire levies would be expected to turn up with; a nobleman would have been expected to produce more: at least four horses, more armour and a cash payment as well. We cannot now confirm whether or not Stigand had provided Ketel’s equipment in the first place but it is perfectly possible that he did, and it is certain that in most cases it was the lord’s responsibility to ensure that the fighters he was responsible for were properly turned out. It is noticeable that, although the Bayeux Tapestry shows what may be unarmed peasants hurling missiles at the battle, there is no indication that most of the regular English troops were less well equipped than their opponents. If it were not for the lavish English moustaches shown by the embroiderers, and for the battle-axes that Normans did not use, it would frequently be difficult to distinguish one side from the other.
All the evidence suggests that the military duty that the shire levies had to provide included service at sea as well as on land, and there are many indications that the men who were summoned to the king’s standard were able to fight afloat and that their commanders were as experienced at sea as on land. During the wars against Gruffydd ap Llewellyn in 1062, Harold sailed with the English fleet into Cardigan Bay to attack from the sea while his brother Tostig invaded from Northumbria with land forces, and this was a tactic that had also been used by Athelstan in his campaigns against the Scots. In fact the English did not fight on sea often, and in 1062 Harold may have sailed into Cardigan Bay but then disembarked his men to fight on land. The occasions on which King Alfred tackled the Danes on the water were not his most glorious successes. Nevertheless, Harold was more experienced than Duke William in naval matters, and William of Poitiers emphasizes the fear of the Normans at the prospect of encountering Harold by sea:
They said. . .he had numerous ships in his fleet and men skilled in nautical arts and hardened in many dangers and sea-battles; and both in wealth and numbers of soldiers his kingdom was greatly superior to their own land. Who could hope that within the prescribed space of one year a fleet could be built, or that oarsmen could be found to man it when it was built?lvii
There were complicated regulations governing the provision of ships, but it was clearly a duty that, in an island nation, was laid on all landowners, secular or religious, though many of the great bishoprics and abbeys, especially the inland ones, appear to have commuted their obligations for cash payments with which the king could have ships built on the coast. The last recorded instance of a major ship-building exercise before the conquest is found in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (E) in 1009, when Æthelred gave orders for ships to be built all over England, one ship to every 300 hides of land, resulting in a fleet ‘greater than any that had ever been seen before in England in any king’s day’. He was clearly expecting a new invasion since he ordered them to be built quickly, but, according to the Chronicle, he got little benefit from the expenditure. He and his successors had also relied on mercenary ships, although Edward the Confessor paid off most of these to save money in 1051 and 1052.
Despite the supposedly highly organized feudal nature of pre-conquest Normandy, we know much less about how its armed forces were assembled. It is clear that William had no navy; all Norman accounts emphasize that his first action after taking his decision to invade was to order ships to be built, and it is fairly clear that he also hired and commandeered some. The so-called ship list, which gives details of the numbers of vessels to be contributed by his various nobles, indicates that he must have started pretty well from scratch, and we have to assume that the fleet eventually assembled was varied, some large ships, some small, some transports for stores and equipment, others presumably designed for carrying horses. According to the ship list, about a thousand ships were to be contributed by his nobles, apart from any he may have hired or commandeered, though many of the latter may have been transports; the probable total certainly casts some doubt on the figure of 696 that Wace gives in his Roman de Rou, which he tells us he got from his father who was an eyewitness, though Wace is probably nearer the truth than William of Jumièges’s 3,000. It may seem strange that a people so recently descended from sea-pirates should apparently have so completely lost touch with the sea, but by the mid-eleventh century Normandy was to all intents and purposes a French province, happy to accommodate the Viking raiders who visited her harbours with booty gained in England and elsewhere but preoccupied with threats from further inland. In this respect, Harold, as William’s nervous followers pointed out, had a decided advantage in the possession of a fleet manned by an amphibious force that was certainly more experienced than the Normans were in naval warfare.
Much has been written about the army William raised and its training but in fact little is known of the actual contractual arrangements that produced it. It has been too often supposed that to say that the Norman army was feudal and relied heavily on highly trained cavalry (the existence of the latter being regarded as proof of the former) was sufficient to account for their victory and their imposition of the feudal system on England after the conquest. In essence the feudal system meant that a man paid dues, which could be in services or in grain or some other kind of produce or goods, in return for the land with which he was enfeoffed by his lord, and in this sense the Anglo-Saxon system, as we have seen, was as feudal as the Norman. There would have been in Normandy, as in France generally at the time, the custom of arrière-ban by which a ruler could summon his vassals and their own feudatories to battle, but it is uncertain precisely what this meant in pre-conquest Normandy and what it would have produced. There certainly seems to have been some doubt whether it would have obliged vassals to fight overseas. In eleventh-century Normandy, and doubtless in other French provinces, there was a contract between a ruler and his tenants- in-chief by which they would undertake to supply him with a certain number of fighting men when required to do so, but the evidence, pre-1066, for the types of service a tenant was supposed to provide for the ‘feudom’ he held is extremely sparse, and surviving charters give a very varied and (in military terms) unsatisfactory view of the kind of service likely to be required. There is a dangerous tendency to extrapolate from the more formalized and better recorded systems after the conquest (which, in England at least, were much influenced by pre-conquest English customs) to arrangements in Normandy before 1066, which appear to have been vague and indefinite. In practical terms, as far as the battle of Hastings is concerned, the difference between the so-called Norman feudal system and the English five- hide system seems to have been minimal, and it may be fair to say that the average English and Norman men-at-arms at Hastings would probably not have detected much difference in their conditions of service, except that the Englishman might have been better paid. The difference is that, whereas it is possible to make a theoretical calculation from the hidal system of the maximum number of men an English king could have raised in an emergency, no such calculation is possible in Normandy. The development of the feudal system in England after the conquest owed as much to the pre-conquest English system as to the Norman, William and his immediate successors having found a lot in the English tradition that they did not wish to dispense with – as is indicated by the money-raising machinations of William Rufus already referred to.
The biggest difference between the two armies was the heavy Norman use of cavalry. Much has been made of the absence of English cavalry at Hastings, and of this as further proof of an outdated and obsolescent form of warfare. There was certainly no tradition of cavalry charges in the Anglo-Saxon army, though it is clear from the Chronicle that horses were used to get to the battlefield and to pursue the enemy off it, as at Stamford Bridge. It should be noted that Snorre Sturlason’s account of Stamford Bridge in Heimskringla says quite clearly that the English fought on horseback there. Snorre’s account, however, is so late and in many respects so unreliable that no confidence can be built on his report. Harold could hardly have covered the ground between London and Stamford Bridge as fast as he did if he had not had mounted troops (we have seen that Ketel and his colleagues, if Ketel was typical, were equipped with horses), but to what extent he used horses in the battle that followed is another matter and of that we have no firm evidence. Certainly the account of the struggle to take the bridge over the river implies a fight on foot; if the English had been fighting on horseback, they would surely have been able to have ridden down the lone warrior defending it. Byrhtnoth and his followers rode to the battle of Maldon; but when they got there, Byrhtnoth dismounted and commanded his men to drive away the horses and fight on foot, and this seems to have been the routine procedure. J. H. Clapham, in his essay, ‘The Horsing of the Danes’,lviii which gives an interesting summary of what can be gleaned of the extent to which mounted troops were used throughout the Anglo-Saxon period, maintains that the fighting habits that remained so strong in the century before the conquest represent the racial tradition, unaltered to the end. It should be remembered that, for the past century, the enemies the English had usually had to meet in the battlefield were either Welsh (guerrilla foot fighters par excellence, often fighting in hilly country where cavalry would operate at a disadvantage) or Danish or Norwegian raiders who also had the tradition of fighting on foot and certainly did not normally bring warhorses with them, as the Normans did. They helped themselves when they got here when they needed to move fast, as J. H. Clapham points out. If the English had not developed the art of fighting on horseback by 1066, it was largely because they had never needed to.
It should be remembered that when Harold went on campaign with William’s troops in Normandy he would have fought on horseback, like his peers, and apparently acquitted himself with distinction. It was probably his first experience of cavalry in action, and it may have had considerable influence on his tactics at Hastings two years later. Even if, after his return to England, he had wanted to create a corps of cavalry to rival the Norman knights, it would have been difficult, if not impossible, for him to do so in time for the invasion. The Norman knights rode stallions (the Bayeux Tapestry makes this unambiguously clear), specially bred over many years and specially trained for fighting; it is unlikely that many comparably suitable horses existed in England at that date, quite apart from the problems there would have been in training their riders in the time available. None the less, Harold’s first-hand knowledge of the cavalry tactics he knew he would have to face at Hastings may account in part at least for the defensive position he adopted there. Whatever contempt the Norman cavalry may initially have felt for the English infantry at Hastings, it did not last. In many of the most important battles that the Norman kings were to fight after 1066, they fought on foot – as Henry I did at Tinchebrai, as Stephen did at the battle of Lincoln (though with cavalry on the wings). The lesson of the English shield wall had been learned.
There were differences of approach between England and Normandy. All societies in Europe at this time were military to some extent (it was an aggressive and belligerent period) but not all were obsessed with fighting to the degree that the Normans were. It has been said that ‘If not all Norman knights in 1066 were men of substance, it is already true that all great men were knights’.lix The corollary is also true: all great men may have been knights, but all knights were certainly not great men nor men of substance. If ‘substance’ is to be defined here as ‘property’, most of those who enlisted in William’s army, particularly those who were not Norman, certainly weren’t. It was property they were signing up for. Many ‘knights’ were little more than mounted thugs. Precisely how to define the word ‘knight’ in 1066 is controversial – it was certainly not as formalized as it would be by the time of Malory or even Chaucer – but it did indicate a man who fought on horseback and had undergone a long and arduous training to do so. Whether he did so as a condition of the land he held or was a sword for hire was immaterial. Indeed, the very derivation of the word ‘knight’ is suggestive. There seems to have been no precise Norman-French equivalent for it other than the purely descriptive word ‘chevalier’, one who goes on horseback – who need not, of course, be a military man at all. In the Latin chronicles, which are what we have principally to rely on, a knight would frequently simply have been referred to as miles, a word with a wide range of possible applications (William of Poitiers uses miles and equites indifferently). The word ‘knight’, so redolent of chivalry and romance today, derives from the Old English cniht, a serving man or serving boy, possibly because that was how they were seen, post-conquest, by the English in their relationship to the lord who employed them.
Yet, for a people so obsessed by war, the overall picture regarding obligations for military service in Normandy before the conquest does seem to be obscure and messy, by comparison with England. The situation has been summarized by Marjorie Chibnall who, after describing the general arrangements as far as they can be deduced, points out that
there is no clear proof of any general system of military quotas imposed from above; or of an accepted norm for feudal services and obligations, legally enforceable on the initiative of either side in a superior ducal court – and this surely is a necessary corollary for any accepted general norm. It is at least arguable that the services owed were either relics of older, Carolingian obligations, or the outcome of individual life contracts between different lords and their vassals, and that their systematization was the result only of the intense military activity of the period of the conquest, and the very slow development of a common law in the century after it.lx
In other words, the feudal customs to which William’s victory has often been ascribed were the result, not the cause, of the conquest. This makes the calculation of what William might have been able to call on within his own duchy very difficult; that it was insufficient for the enterprise we know, since he advertised widely for mercenaries throughout Europe. It is hardly surprising if one compares the size of Normandy with the size of England: William, the vassal of the King of France, controlled an area only a little larger than the earldom of East Anglia held by Harold, the vassal of the King of England, before the death of his father and smaller than the earldom of Wessex he held after it, let alone the totality of the kingdom of England. In theory, since the size of territory had a direct effect on the number of men who could be expected from it, Harold should have been able to raise an army many times the size of anything William could bring against it from Normandy. In fact, the situation at Hastings was com- plicated by many other factors, as we shall see. One document does give a rough indication of the components of William’s army: this is the penitential code drawn up in 1070 by Bishop Ermenfrid, according to which the sins of those who fought in the Norman army were to be expiated. It distinguishes between those who William had armed, those who had armed themselves, those who owed him military service for the lands they held and those who fought for pay. There is no way now of establishing how many men fell into the various categories; the Bretons seem to have formed a large contingent, presumably fighting for pay, and it is notable that they continued to fight as mercenaries for William in his later career and for his sons.