The End of the Battle of Hastings




Part of the fascination of the battle of Hastings is that it was such a close-fought thing. For all that the Normans had mounted cavalry and a stronger force of archers, for all that forces which relied on heavy infantry alone were to go out of fashion, these two very different armies had fought almost the whole day and the outcome was not by any means certain. The hill had blunted the impact of the cavalry and had made it more difficult for archers to shoot with effect. The shield-wall manned by heavy infantry, well-armed and well disciplined, proved a match for the Norman cavalry as well as their infantry.

With hindsight we see the key moments. The repeated feigned flights had resulted in some deaths and gaps; the repeated cavalry attacks had gradually reduced the shield-wall. But now came the two killer punches. At some point, probably before Harold’s death, his two younger brothers who had fought alongside him, Leofwin and Gyrth, were killed. William of Poitiers simply makes a statement that many English leaders were killed: ‘their king was dead and his brothers with him’.

The death of the younger brothers is presented on the Tapestry at an early point in the battle, before William has shown his face: both killed by lances, Leofwin probably the figure wielding a battleaxe, Gyrth a spear. Recently, it has been suggested that they may have fallen in an English advance. There very probably was such an attempt to win the battle, but there is no evidence of who was involved in it, or even what happened, except that clearly in the last resort it failed. Again the elaboration by the Carmen does not carry conviction, with William killing Gyrth in hand-to-hand conflict while on foot.57 No one else noticed that either.

The first killer punch was the death of Harold. The fact that his brothers had also been killed meant that the English lacked a commander. Before we look at the method of Harold’s demise, let us briefly determine at what stage in the battle it occurred. All sources except one suggest or fit with a death towards the end of the battle, including our best source, Poitiers. The fly in the ointment is William of Jumièges, who states: ‘Harold himself was slain, pierced with mortal wounds during the first assault.’

There is no getting round the meaning of the words, but we cannot take this one comment against the weight of all the other evidence, though at least one later source does follow Jumièges. Suggestions have been made that the chronicler originally said something else, such as ‘in the first rank’, and there is a copyist’s error, or that he meant ‘the first attack in the final assault’ – all the usual excuses when evidence does not fit. We can only say that Jumièges seems to have got this wrong, but his is a brief account, which goes straight on to the final stages of the fight and says that it was the death which led to the flight at nightfall.

William’s last effort was an all-out one, involving every section of his force. We have seen that the Normans had both crossbowmen and archers with ordinary bows, and have argued elsewhere that the latter were in effect longbows. The events which now occurred help to support that argument, since the archery from some distance had the desired effect. William of Poitiers does not say much about this attack, just that ‘the Normans shot arrows, hit and pierced the enemy’. But the Tapestry at this point in the margin shows one archer after the other in a prolonged frieze aiming their weapons upwards: nineteen figures without a break, and then more a little further on.

I have also argued elsewhere against the idea that the arrows were shot high up into the air to come down again on the English heads, largely because it would have been ineffective, the arrows would have lost their force. This does not mean that they would not adjust their shooting to cope with the higher position of the enemy. Some of the English on the Tapestry catch the arrows in their shields, clearly shot with force since they become embedded. Harold was not the only one to suffer; a nameless Norman falls to the ground with an arrow in his head. For the first time the English line was seriously weakened, and some of the main front-line troops were killed, including Harold himself.

Some, generally more ‘popular’ works, still repeat the old chestnut that Harold was not killed by an arrow in the eye. This was an idea that stemmed from historians criticising the evidence. A number of late sources spoke of Harold being cut down with swords; the early works did not describe at all the manner of his death. Our conclusions depend largely on how we interpret two sources in particular.

The first to consider is the Carmen. Those who accept its account have no arrow in the eye. But it is surely an incredible account, which none of the early sources confirm in any way. By it, the duke sees Harold fighting bravely. He summons to himself a little gang of three, like the magnificent seven: Eustace of Boulogne, whose actions are cowardly in other sources; Hugh the heir of Ponthieu, who is otherwise unknown and who did not succeed to Ponthieu; and ‘Gilfardus’, who is usually identified as Walter Giffard, he of the white hair and bald head according to Wace, another identification which has caused some problems.

The four, including the Conqueror, attack Harold: the first (none are named in this section of the poem) cleaves through his shield with a sword, drawing blood; the second smites off his head; the third pierces his belly with a lance; the fourth hacks off his leg and carries it away. There was then a ‘rumour’ that Harold was dead. Presumably after all that he was.

William of Malmesbury, possibly following the Tapestry, does have an unnamed knight maiming Harold after he was killed by an arrow; the knight in question is disgraced by the Conqueror for this deed, but this does not support the Carmen version in which William himself was one of the four attackers. This incident in the poem really does seem more incredible than any of its other incredible stories. Can one believe that William himself took part in the killing of Harold and no one else apart from the poet recorded the fact? Davis is surely right that this is a later legendary elaboration. It seems unlikely that the Conqueror took any part at all in Harold’s killing. He could not even recognise him after the battle without help.

The second and the most important source here is the Bayeux Tapestry. The anti-arrow school argued that the figure dying with an arrow in the eye or head was not Harold. The following figure, under the words ‘interfectus est’ [was killed], is Harold, being hacked down by a rider with his sword. Again, this cannot be verified. But knowledge of the Tapestry’s way of pointing out its facts would suggest that the lettering of the name ‘Harold’ above and around the first figure was meant to show that this was the king. A number of people have argued that both figures are Harold and it is a sort of cartoon strip representation of him being first hit by an arrow and secondly being finished off by a cavalryman.

This view has been enhanced by the keen eye of a modern historian, David Bernstein. In a paper given to the Anglo-Norman Studies conference, he pointed out that if one looks carefully at the Tapestry, there are visible stitch marks by the head of the second figure; and the obvious interpretation is that they originally represented the shaft of an arrow in the eye of the second, falling figure too.

This seems to settle the issue. In the view of the Tapestry at least, Harold Godwinson was hit by an arrow in the head, whether either or both of the figures were meant to be the king. The likely view is that both are Harold. Some later chroniclers give such an account: they may have followed the Tapestry, but even if their facts were not independent, at least they believed the Tapestry meant both figures to be Harold and that he was hit by an arrow.

The archery had achieved the first major blow of the battle, and one that was fatal to English hopes as well as to their king. The loss of a commander in a medieval battle was very rarely followed by anything but defeat for the side which suffered the loss, and Hastings was no exception. If the English fought on it was from training and discipline, and because the best hope of survival was to slog out the final minutes of daylight and hope to retreat under cover of dark. They did not manage it.

Wace, for all our doubts, is a useful source for quotes, partly because his military knowledge was good even if his particular knowledge of Hastings was less so. He speaks of the lengthy battle, suggesting that the crisis came at about 3 p.m., after a long day when ‘the battle was up and down, this way and that’. William of Poitiers says that the remaining English were exhausted and at the end of their tether, which is not difficult to believe.

The Normans began to sense victory: ‘the longer they fought the stronger they seemed to be; and their onslaught was even fiercer now than it had been at the beginning’. The duke fought in their midst, sparing none who crossed his path. In other words, after the infantry attack the cavalry made a final charge, and this time it worked. The shield-wall, which had withstood such a battering all day, finally broke and once that had happened there was no hope.

The English forces broke and fled. The Tapestry’s final scene shows a miscellaneous band of Normans in pursuit, three wielding swords, one a spear and one carrying a bow ready to shoot. A small and rather forlorn group of Englishmen are the last figures to survive on the Tapestry, some on horses, some on foot. One may have an arrow in his head, since the context does not seem to fit with him raising a spear. In the lower margin by this point the bodies have been stripped of their armour and lie naked, some without heads, one with a severed arm. The only hope of survival for those who remained was to reach the cover of the woods to the rear. Some ran on foot, some were able to ride. According to Poitiers this was on ‘horses which they had seized’ rather than their own, though there is no reason why others were not able to reclaim the mounts they had left behind earlier in the day. Poitiers says they went by roads and by places where there were none. Many, of course, were wounded and escape was difficult or impossible. ‘Many died where they fell in the deep cover of the woods’, others dropped exhausted along the way. There was a Norman pursuit. Some were cut down from behind, some were trampled under the horses’ hoofs.

We shall again rely primarily on William of Poitiers for an account of the Malfosse incident. He does not give it a name or a clear location, though he describes the natural feature. In Poitiers, it clearly happens after the English had broken in flight. He has no tale of a hillock in the middle of the battlefield. According to him, there was a last ditch defence made by a considerable force of English. They had taken up a good defensive position which the Normans approached during the pursuit.

The reason this is called the Malfosse incident is that our old friend the Battle Abbey chronicler identified it as such. His modern editor queries what is meant, and suggests that it is possible that the name came later. Malfosse means ‘evil ditch’. It could have been named for a variety of reasons: a description of its nature, a burial ditch. Everyone has assumed it was the site of this last resistance, and that is possible – but not certain.

Orderic Vitalis has two versions of the incident. The first is an interpolation in William of Jumièges. He also places the incident during the pursuit. In this account, the event could have occurred anywhere as he speaks of a pursuit that continued into Sunday, and an incident that was on ‘the following night’ – though he probably means Saturday night. He wrote: ‘for high grass concealed an ancient rampart’ into which ‘abyss of destruction’ the Normans rode ‘crushing each other to death’. He says 15,000 died here, a figure we need not take seriously. Orderic’s second account, in Ecclesiastical History, is similar, though the feature becomes a ‘broken rampart and labyrinth of ditches’, and the victim Engenulf de Laigle is named. This revised account also makes it clear that he is speaking of Saturday night for the incident.

The Battle Abbey chronicler gives more space to the Malfosse incident than to the rest of the battle, which is very odd and seems to require some explanation. It does not add to our confidence in him. He seems to have picked up some vivid tale, perhaps from local gossip, and tied it in with an account of the battle which is brief and largely uninformative. He says:

… a final disaster was revealed to all. Lamentable, just where the fighting was going on, and stretching for a considerable distance, an immense ditch yawned. It may have been a natural cleft in the earth or perhaps it had been hollowed out by storms. But in this waste ground it was overgrown with brambles and thistles, and could hardly be seen in time; and it swallowed great numbers, especially of Normans in pursuit of the English.

He says that they galloped unawares into the chasm and were killed: ‘This deep pit has been named for the accident, and today it is called Malfosse.’ What we seem to have here is an original incident after the battle recorded by Poitiers, turned into something different in a rather confused manner by Orderic, and then a century after the event latched on to by the Battle Abbey chronicler for a local site, though he does not tell us where it is.

It seems ironic that the source which claims Battle Hill for the site of the battle is the one which also says the Malfosse was ‘just where the battle was going on’. The Malfosse has been identified on the ground with reasonable certainty, and is just to the rear of Caldbec Hill, exactly where one might expect a last ditch resistance after the army had been forced to leave its first line of defence on the hill. It is quite a way back from Battle Hill – though it could be a last ditch defence after flight from there.

The identification of the site depends primarily on a series of medieval records, including several thirteenth-century charters which refer clearly to the same name as ‘Maufosse’. It is to be placed to the north of Caldbec Hill, behind Virgin’s Lane and very close to the pool (which might be Senlac). Here, 600 yards north of Caldbec Hill, is to be found the natural feature known as Oakwood Gill, which is the natural feature most close to the chronicle descriptions: with a gully which Chevallier calls ‘a deep ravine’, with steep banks, brambles and undergrowth, a stream, just on the edge of Duniford Wood.

The Conqueror was surprised to find this defended position, and wondered if these were reinforcements, which is possible. It may also have been a deliberate English plan to give some cover in the case of a retreat. At any rate, Poitiers says there were ‘battalions’ of men, making use of ‘a deep gully and a series of ditches’. Eustace of Boulogne with fifty knights was intending to return, in Orderic it is in flight, preferring not to attack this tough position. The Conqueror ordered him forward, but at that moment Eustace was hit between the shoulders, the blood spurted from nose and mouth. The Conqueror himself led an attack and the last resistance was crushed. William then returned to the battlefield. The day was his. One of the greatest battles in the history of England had come to its conclusion.

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