Location of major events during the Norman conquest of England in 1066
In retrospect the Battle of Hastings was a decisive battle, but on the day after the battle and for weeks, maybe months, afterwards it did not seem so to the victors. We can forget all about them being a race of supermen, they did not possess magical powers, they were ordinary human beings and their horses were (for all their expense) ordinary horses. They had fought a battle which lasted four times as long as it should have done and won it by a fluke just as the sun was going down. Nor should we ignore the English ethic of dying with one’s lord so that in the darkness, with all men so resembling one another, the confusion must have been considerable. Even the fortunate survivors finally lay, like the dead, next to them on the ground.
Somehow they had survived the night free from surprise attack, clustered together in tight, comrade groups for security, probably with little if any food and certainly no clean water. Adrenalin-fuelled by the prospect of death and then by the massacre of their enemies, exhausted by unremitting exertions, sound and wounded alike would have been choking mad with thirst. If there was any beer in the English camp lines of the night before it would have gone to their leaders. For the majority of the dazed survivors the only liquid available was in watercourses running with mud, blood, faeces and urine from men and beasts; the same was true for their mounts. By dawn they would be able to ascertain that no English force remained nearby and so they could safely forage and disperse. By mid-morning large numbers of horses and men would have been far from well.
For the men it would be vomiting and diarrhoea to add to the misery of walking wounded and the bone-weary soldiers, then there were the seriously wounded to attend to and there were thousands of corpses attracting flies, kites, crows and ravens. For the horses their ‘standdown’, even if attended by superhuman handlers, would have brought on azoturia, serious ‘Monday morning sickness’ (ERS) with staggers, blowing and sweating and ‘boarding’ of the big muscles in loins and quarters. Colic would be another major problem, especially if they had been poisoned by water crowfoot, while the shock and stress could well engender incipient strangles, which then becomes contagious. It is doubtful they had anything like the 10 gallons of water required either the day before or the morning after and water shortage and faulty feeding themselves cause ‘unthriftiness’. Many would have wounds and lameness and sprains would have been commonplace. Horsemanship takes second place in a fight for survival and the veterinary ‘bill’ has to be paid after a battle. At least five days of intensive treatment would be required for azoturia, and that is what William allowed.
Nor were the essential heavy horse the only arm incapacitated, the archers and especially the crossbowmen would also have been temporarily out of action. For at least a day there would have been a grisly search among the corpses to retrieve as many missiles as possible, all the more difficult with crossbow bolts (quarrels) because of their high impact. Then would follow the task of creating new ammunition from any heads available. No doubt scouts were desperately seeking news of any enemy, though careful not to get caught in the broken country of the Weald, others would be requisitioning or bringing up supplies from Pevensey. Everyone would be apprehensive: surely if other troops had been marching to join Harold’s army they would now be out there, waiting for the right moment, and they had the advantage of knowing the terrain. Now without sufficient heavy horse or crossbowmen the Norman-French infantry, already badly mauled, would need to face English infantry on their own. Gallopers must have been sent back to the royal stud at Eastbourne for remounts, though they could hardly take the place of the lost and disabled destriers and they would have taken two or three days to come up.
Miraculously no army came, but neither did anyone sue for peace or offer ‘tribute’. What could it mean? Remember, the story that Duke William was seeking his rightful inheritance and that thousands of men joined his cause in righteous indignation is no more than a story. It is a later justification and an invention and, albeit an invention which can be made to fit the events apparently shown on the Bayeux Tapestry, a source that actually has nothing to say about promises of kingship and makes no reference at all to a ‘King William’, remarkable omissions had these been the real causus belli. The truth is that this invasion was a joint-stock venture by avaricious French super-rich lords and it is more than likely that they would have accepted, at this stage, some sort of tribute payment if it was at least the size of the one formerly offered to Cnut. In the absence of either an enemy or an embassy, the expedition was faced with the problem of what to do next.
Duke William of Normandy, Odo of Bayeux (his half-brother bishop) and Count Eustace II of Boulogne were undoubtedly the chief stockholders, the wealthiest among the leaders. Eustace seems happy to have passed all risks over to William together with overall command, the bishop could not challenge either his ‘cloth’ or his brother for command, but between the three of them they seem to have received some critical intelligences. The first of these had been the availability of Pevensey, an impregnable fortress with a port, wharves and harbour roads: we will see as the campaign unfolds just what the other intelligences may have been. Once the surviving destriers had been nursed back to effective strength and remounts brought up the intervening 25 to 30 miles (by circumferential roadways), after five days, the field force moved out eastwards to round up other ports and make for Canterbury. Dover, with its ‘castle’, and Canterbury, with its archbishop, were essential key points by which to threaten London and any remaining English unity of command. Surely there were other English leaders eager to take on this now battered and depleted expedition? One battle does not win a campaign and William, unlike his enemies, had no reinforcements. Therefore he needed to enforce payment through panic.
Should the Franco-Norman-Breton expeditionary force take the risk of advancing, attempting to force a payment of tribute? If so, where should they aim for, London or Winchester? Should they move back to the safety of Pevensey and wait for an embassy? It would be foolhardy indeed to presume a power vacuum with such a rich prize at stake. What William, as the apparent commander-in-chief, required most of all was time, time for his men and mounts to recover, time to begin training the most promising of the remounts. Time would make his forces stronger so the longer the English vacillated, the better. For perhaps a fortnight William garnered his resources in the Hastings district (later renamed as the ‘Rape of Hastings’) of East Sussex, an area replete with supplies not only because of the season (and all harvests now gathered in) but also because it supplied the industrial workforce in the Weald with provisions. However, when they then decided that it had become time to act it also became necessary for them to commit an act of terror, the customary prelude to a territorial campaign. The choice William now made seems instructive.
The invaders actually marched on Romney, just over the border in Kent. We do not know whether some of the force had originally landed there by mistake or whether it had resisted requisitioning but the panegyrist, William of Poitiers, tells us that such was the excuse for making an example of the port. Burning it out also made sure that there was no local chandlery or harbour facility to challenge Pevensey or Rye. Then the question remains, how did Rye escape a similar fate, situated as it then was on the Sussex side of the same lagoon and wetlands ecology occupied by Romney on the Kent (north) side? It looks as though there was an element of reward involved: Rye had perhaps co-operated with the invaders, Romney had not. Strategically, with Romney destroyed, Rye would then have dominated this lagoon just as Pevensey dominated its lagoon. It is therefore not impossible that the men of the Hastings/ Pevensey (Sussex) district had an ancient grudge to settle and so cooperated in this naval attack. Kent now knew what to expect if it opposed the expeditionary army.
Dover was a formidable natural obstacle strengthened by its ‘castle’, which was probably focused on the old Roman Pharos, and we are told that it had a strong garrison but William’s advance now put them into a panic and so this port also capitulated. The army halted and there was looting and burning, there was also a serious outbreak of dysentery, meaning that the sickness had reached crisis point. William’s army had now secured the Channel coastline, a further incentive for reinforcements to join the expedition. Now (if not before) it seems a plan of conquest began to form as an alternative to tribute. It was obviously a plan based not only on strategic acumen but also on reliable intelligences. If Muhammad would not come to the mountain then the mountain must go to Muhammad.
Romney had provided a positive example, Dover an equivocal one (the damage was blamed not on policy but on indiscipline), so when Duke William’s forces moved on Canterbury, the Ecclesiastical heart of England, the citizens sent out an embassy and wisely submitted. The Archdiocese and the Archbishop’s caput were thus secured and the next move was to send a strong flying column to Winchester, now the seat of the dowager Queen Edith. Immediately she and the city’s fathers also submitted, thus providing William with the most eligible pawn in the political power game, one he could set alongside control of the spiritual focus of England and one who had perhaps been the cause of Harold’s visit to France in 1064, Edith. It also provided him with some highly restricted information which was held in this ancient English capital. Who gave this intelligence to him, that we do not know. What was it? It was that Winchester was the heart of the English administration, what we would call the civil service: here at Winchester were the ancient royal records including the fiscal and territorial records of that unique English specie-taxation, the geld. We will discuss this at length later, but I doubt that William or his fellow stock-holders really knew what a treasure they had just secured or the part it was destined to play in William’s lasting achievement. I doubt it because English administration and surveying were pre-eminent and unique in Europe and so not something any Frenchman could possibly comprehend. Once we have dealt with the invasion we will return to this secret information but, for the moment, I suggest William’s concern was for money, tribute from the legendary geld. He had a mercenary army to reward.
The next thrust had to be and was a big one. Leaving the sick and dying to fend for themselves (under the tender mercies of English citizens), the army made for London, the commercial heart of the kingdom. Here was money indeed: when England had paid tribute with geld of £72,000, London had paid a further £10,500. A mere square mile called London was as valuable as 14–15 per cent of England. The Franco-Norman army entered Southwark, then separated from London proper, only to find that the citizens of the city had destroyed London Bridge. Here were the ‘horns of a dilemma’: London must be secured but London must not be destroyed. Its wealth was critical to both sides. Moreover the heart of the City still lay behind massive, ancient walls, impregnable if defended. William pulled back and moved on westwards leaving Southwark in flames. The Southwark Strand, its wharves and warehouses were lost, but the value goods and bullion lay secured within the City. It only remained to arrange the capitulation of the City with its treasures intact.
The Ætheling Edgar had by now been elected by many of the Witan but only a weak sortie was made before the bridge was destroyed. So William had now secured the south coast, contained the Weald and its armaments industry, divorced the Archbishop from his See and from his power and confined Edith so that she could not offer marriage to any challenger. With the ruthlessness of the age, William set about a reign of terror ravaging parts of Sussex and Kent, Hampshire, Berkshire, Hertfordshire and Middlesex in order to ‘make the pips squeak’. He stopped briefly at Wallingford, no doubt strengthening that ancient fortress, larger than nearby Oxford and so the key to the river crossing, which in the Burghal Hidage had contained a circuit of 3,300 yards and so 140 acres (by its formula). Here Archbishop Stigand came to make his peace and to renounce any allegiance to the Ætheling. One wonders what was passing through the minds of the expedition’s leaders now, William, Odo, maybe Robert, certainly Eustace? In the words of the Afghan proverb, ‘me and my clan against the tribe, me and my family against the clan, me and my brothers against the family, me against my brothers’.
Swinging north-east, the army now continued with a secure flank to Berkhamsted where there was an English burgh or ‘castle’, probably on the site now covered by the later Norman motte. The Earls Eadwine and Morcar, who should have led the English, apparently deserted London for their own lands in the north of England leaving the citizens and English refugees to defend the boy-king Edgar and their city against this terrifyingly vengeful alliance army. Accepting necessity ‘after most damage had been done’, a delegation of English magnates escorted Edgar to Berkhamstead to submit to Duke William, the French army’s supreme commander. This was a Witan, though never named. What had started as a joint-stock venture, almost certainly for tribute and loot, had become a conquest of a kingdom by default. And so there arose a problem. Edgar had not been crowned and so, in French (though not in English) eyes, could not be King yet there was a kingdom and it required to be governed, defended and administered. It required a ‘strong’ man. Norman sources tell us that the English magnates begged William to become King, the obvious source of stability, but he was not the best, the pre-eminent, candidate in French eyes. Count Eustace II of Boulogne, of the Carolingian line and dynasty, married to the late King Edward’s sister Godgifu, was the man on the ground, King Philip of France, the nominal (if juvenile) overlord to all the joint stock-holders, was the theoretical ‘loyal’ choice.
There clearly followed considerable discussion, William (we are told) hanging back, Eustace in a weak position when faced with Bishop Odo of Bayeux and by Robert of Mortain, both of them William’s brothers. The subordinate commanders and the soldiery wanted their rewards, traditionally handed out by the supreme commander as ‘gold-giver’, so wasn’t a big chief and gold-giver ‘the King’? It would have been foolish for Eustace to protest (especially if his son was Odo’s hostage) but, no doubt, he was given promises of extensive estates and ample treasure. For the English magnates and Witan it was essential to stop the devastation and restore some sort of order and William was the only power, or the only one as yet. Given the recent problems in the north of England, in Harold’s reign and before that in Edward’s, the English needed a protecting army. Quite accidentally, William had pulled out the plum, now he needed to find a good reason to accede to the Crown. Meanwhile he had a major problem: the mercenaries who comprised a good part of his joint forces had to be brought under some sort of control and that required cash.
William’s advance guard seems to have run into resistance from some of the survivors from Hastings who had filled the City, though the ensuing conflict does not appear to have had disastrous results. Immediately the invaders set about building a secure fortification, a ‘castle’, outside the city walls on the east side. William himself seems to have felt secure and to have taken up his residence in Edward’s new palace at Westminster, so his forces were controlling both ends of the City and no doubt his ships were in control on the river. The City was now ‘battened down’ and we have no evidence that William feared its citizens. This last point has relevance to what followed.
On Christmas Day Duke William went to the new Westminster Abbey (St Peter’s) to be crowned by Archbishop Ealdred of York. He went wearing his helmet and a mounted escort stood outside but there does not appear to have been a major military parade, so no especial security against an English attack was deemed necessary. Rather, one suspects, William was taking precautions against his own followers when he wore his helmet? Herein, it seems, lay the root of the trouble that followed for while he was within some of his soldiers began looting and burning the City, which quickly dispersed the crowds in terror. If it seemed a bad omen to all who remained, including King William, what was notable was his respect for and adherence to the traditional and legal ceremony: he took the English Coronation Oath and was acclaimed by all. Now he was not only elected by some sort of field Witan, he was also crowned. God had sanctioned his nomination and succession.
What are we to conclude from the evidence before us? Well the pronationalists have spent two centuries repeating that a shout of acclamation within the Abbey Church caused William’s troops outside to conclude that maquisards were attacking him so, rather than entering and clearing the church, they began to burn down the houses around it, just to teach the English a lesson. Is this logical? Well, fortunately they did not set the City on fire. Let us instead place our evidence together piece by piece. The English had already offered William the Crown so this Coronation ceremony was just that, a ceremony, one designed to impress William’s followers with the fact of kingship. In spite of the City being filled with Englishmen, William had chosen to take up residence at the western end (Westminster Palace) while his troops built a ‘castle’ at the east end of the City. This was not evidence of insecurity. On the river was his fleet. On the south bank Southwark was destroyed. Next, William went to his Coronation wearing a helmet but we are not told of any great assemblage of his forces either inside or outside the Abbey, we are just told there was an escort waiting outside. We should remember that William was a vassal of the King of France and not a free agent and that he had taken some time before accepting the Crown from the English delegation. Maybe his brothers were loyal to him, as yet, but Eustace of Boulogne himself had a better claim to the throne of England and he was also a partner in this enterprise which should have been on behalf of the King of France.
It sounds as though William was apprehensive that someone among his own coterie might attempt to sabotage his coronation, this being rather more likely than an English suicide squad breaking into the Abbey. If such a group of zealots had been feared, where then were the security forces and why did no one clear the Abbey? Let us instead consider that William’s polyglot and heterogeneous army had been in cantonments, in transit and in the field (now) for four months or more and, as yet, remained unrewarded, unpaid. The majority of them were not his tenants, only his hirelings. The royal escort would have been derelict in their duty if they had left the Abbey when William was supposedly under threat and still inside, so we should assume that they held their ground, on parade, ready for action if required. That only leaves us with renegades, mercenaries, ‘making hay while the sun shone’, indulging in the fruits of victory, in looting, murder, rape and arson, now that their commander had been installed as King. One way or another, William’s dangers lay within his own forces, either among dissident elements, envious plotters or, most likely, the presence of too many mercenaries.
Quickly he took steps to pay off his uncertain soldiery and to assure his new subjects of his respect for their laws. Always canny, he took immediate steps to bestow treasure (no doubt from English sources) upon French monasteries and upon the Papacy. In English eyes the fact of victory was confirmation that God had willed it, yet the added confirmation of such piety and gratitude ensured that Mother Church would also discern the hand of the Lord at work in his victory. As for the English, this was the price of peace: they paid a heavy tribute, made their peace and then had to buy back their lands. Eadwine and Morcar made their peace. From the vast real-estate forfeited by landholders who had died at Battle William distributed vast estates, particularly ensuring that Odo of Bayeux and William fitzOsbern held the vulnerable coast and hinterlands from Kent to Hampshire. It reads as though King William was reassured by the quiescence of his new subjects and by their native fatalism and now wished to pay off and disperse his less trustworthy followers.
What of Eustace of Boulogne? He is one of the prominent figures on the Bayeux Tapestry, though apparently libelled by the panegyrists. A very rich man and principal stockholder, controller of much of the cross-Channel trade, he had undoubtedly hoped for at least the Earldom of Kent as recompense for not being King, yet this plum went to Bishop Odo. Eustace was left with extensive estates, probably in Wiltshire, Gloucestershire and Surrey, and he apparently cared little for them. Keeping a low profile, he waited for King William to go to Pevensey in March; there William discharged many of his ‘knights’ to enjoy their rewards and himself departed for Normandy with a vast treasure and all the suspect English notables as ‘guests’. The kingdom was now left to Odo of Bayeux (at Dover) and William fitzOsbern (in Winchester) and either they were complicit in Eustace’s schemes or they were plain negligent, for Eustace slipped away back home by himself and there he began plotting and preparing.