LANCES, AXES, AND NEEDLES
Bad news reached Duke William of Normandy on the evening of October 13, 1066. In the two weeks since his spectacular crossing of the Channel in a thousand boats, he had pillaged freely in the English countryside between the old Roman ports of Pevensey and Hastings. Now word came that King Harold had defeated Scandinavian invaders near the town of York and was advancing rapidly from the North. By nightfall, Anglo-Saxons appeared along Senlac ridge, the high ground above the Norman camp. Harold held a strategic advantage over William, who was on unfamiliar terrain. He would be even stronger if reinforcements arrived from London.
William ordered his troops on high alert. Many did not sleep at all that night. Others awoke with the first light, which appeared at 5:20 on the morning of October 14. Sunrise at 6:28 brought an ominous sign. As William dressed for battle surrounded by his most trusted advisers—his half-brothers, Bishop Odo of Bayeux and Count Robert of Mortain, and a company of great Norman and Breton lords—his squires put on his corselet the wrong way around. It was a small thing, but William had confessed his sins the night before and made Communion at the first hour. In a world that believed in dialogue between the human and the divine, it seemed a sign from God. As his attendants struggled to turn the padding beneath his finely woven chain mail and breast armor, William made light of the situation. “We shall turn the strength of my duchy,” he joked, “into a kingdom.” He lifted the little sack of relics from Odo’s extended hand and placed them around his neck, and before Odo had finished praying for victory, William ordered the battle ranks. The duke was steady in the face of unpredictable events. In the crossing of the Channel on the night of September 27, William’s ship had arrived before the rest of the fleet. An oarsman reported that “as far as he could see there was nothing but sea and sky.” The Norman leader, certain that “all the others would arrive before long,” sat down to “an abundant meal, accompanied by spiced wine, as if we were in his hall at home.”
The French from France would be on the left, the Bretons on the right, William and the Normans in the center. The archers on foot would open the battle. Set crossbowmen would “pierce the faces of the English with their speeding shafts.” The knights on horse would be to the rear of the foot. William pronounced what he knew might be his final words: “Raise your standards, men, and let there be no measure or moderation to your righteous anger. Let the lightning of your glory be seen from the east to the west, let the thunder of your charge be heard, and may you be the avengers of most noble blood.”
Great shouting could be heard, the clinking of lifted helmets and mail, the clatter of horses’ hooves, and the harsh bray of trumpets on both sides. Dragons could be seen everywhere, on shields and on the banners that caught the wind, as William’s army began to array itself as he had ordered. The horsemen and infantry followed the banners to join their battalion; the archers observed them to know by the angle of their flutter how high and in what direction to shoot. The English could not be far off. Through the dust rising from the Norman camp, the forest glittered, full of spears.
Suddenly, one of William’s men rode out before the rest. He was not a knight, but a poet by the name of Taillefer, one of the jongleurs the duke had brought with him to entertain the troops. He tossed his sword in the air and began to twirl it in front of the enemy line. Heedless of death, he pricked his horse, which began to charge. He lowered his lance, which pierced an Anglo-Saxon shield, knocking the ax bearer lifeless to the ground. The jongleur severed the head from the prostrate body and, holding it in the air for the Normans to see, began to sing. “The Norman army,” in the words of a later chronicler, “struck up the song of Roland to fire them into battle with the example of a heroic warrior.” As Taillefer fell, the missiles of war began to fly overhead—arrows, javelins, axes, stones tied to sticks, the square bolts from the crossbows that no shield could resist.
The fighting did not at first go as William planned. The suddenness of the attack left no time for those on foot to place themselves in advance of the mounted knights. Norman archers could not soften Harold’s ax-bearing housecarls, the king’s personal guard. The knights with lances couched under their arms failed to penetrate the Anglo-Saxon shield wall. In the chaos of the first clash, the rumor circulated that William had been killed. His men broke rank. William quickly decided that he must turn the situation as he had turned his corselet earlier that morning. Drawing upon a tactic that had worked in the past and was well known to the knights who had traveled all the way from southern Italy for the campaign against Harold, the Norman chief joined his fleeing troops until he seemed to be leading the rout. Then, wheeling in his tracks, William raised his visor and showed his face. “Look at me,” he cried. “I am alive, and with the aid of God I will conquer. What madness is persuading you to flee? What way is open to escape? The sea lies behind. You will fight to conquer, if you want only to live!” Odo, armed with a club to respect the Christian prohibition against ecclesiastics shedding blood, “rallied the young men.”
The Anglo-Saxons rejoiced to see the Normans flee, and, as William had gambled that he would, Harold charged. The Normans drew the enemy from the high ground. Fanning out and doubling back, they caught the Anglo-Saxon army in a pincer maneuver like that by which Allied forces would trap the German Seventh Army in the Falaise Pocket in August 1944. And the fighting, as in the Battle of Normandy of World War II, was close and fierce. “The dead by falling seemed to move more than the living,” recalled one eyewitness. “It was not possible for the lightly wounded to escape, for they were crushed to death by the serried ranks of their companions.” William lost three mounts, killed from under him as he fought on horseback and hand-to-hand among his troops. “With his angry blade he tirelessly pierced shields, helmets, and hauberks,” writes William’s chaplain and biographer, William of Poitiers. “Utterly disdaining fear and dishonor, the Duke charged his enemies and laid them low.”
The sun set at 5:04 on October 14, 1066, and at the end of the day, six thousand human corpses, half of those who had ridden, sailed, or walked to Hastings, littered the field alongside six hundred horses. “The mangled bodies that had been the flower of the English nobility and youth covered the ground as far as the eye could see,” laments the twelfth-century historian Orderic Vitalis. Harold was dead, so mutilated that his wife was brought to identify his body by “certain marks.” Anglo-Saxons who survived their leader made a last stand along a trench known in the eleventh century as the malfosse, “bad ditch,” into which many Normans, not knowing the terrain, fell and perished without realizing they had won the day. “Many left their corpses in deep woods, many who had collapsed on the routes blocked the way for those who came after. Even the hooves of the horses inflicted punishment on the dead.” As the last of Harold’s followers vanished into the night, William’s army, exhausted, made camp among the fallen of both sides over which he now ruled as king. Having awakened that morning still burdened by the title by which he had always been known, “the Bastard,” Duke William went to sleep that night having earned the name history would accord him—“the Conqueror.”
The meeting of Normans and Anglo-Saxons at Hastings was the most decisive battle of the Middle Ages and one of the determining days in the making of the West. Hastings changed Britain, which had been dominated since the end of Roman rule by invading tribes from the Continent and the North—Angles, Saxons, and Vikings. This day more than any other turned Britain away from its Scandinavian past and toward Europe. Hastings inaugurated the era of the knight, the social dominance of those who fought with lance on horseback. With the watershed of 1066 came the beginning of the end of the chaos and darkness—the political disintegration and the lack of learning— between the collapse of Charlemagne’s empire after his death in the early ninth century and the flowering of state institutions and culture of the Anglo-Norman world. How fitting that the Norman army should enter battle singing of the heroic deeds of Charlemagne’s nephew Roland, as if William would begin where the emperor of the Franks had left off. William had himself crowned king of England on Christmas day 1066, just as Charlemagne had been crowned in Rome on Christmas day 800.
If the Battle of Hastings began with poetry, it ended in the realm of the visual arts. The Norman Conquest of England produced the world’s most famous textile, the Bayeux Tapestry, a 230-foot-long-by-20-inch- high running embroidered account of the events leading to Hastings and of the battle itself. Made in the decades following the Conquest by those who were party to it, the Tapestry, which contains both images and Latin inscriptions, is a principal source of knowledge about the day that shaped England out of the remains of Anglo-Saxon culture and the Normans, who were themselves relatively recent settlers along the northwest coast of France and the bed of the Seine. William, only the sixth generation of the Dukes of Normandy, was the descendant of another bold adventurer, the Viking leader Rollo, who in 911 struck a treaty of peace with the French king Charles the Simple by which the old Carolingian territory of Neustria, now weak and ripe for raiding, would be his.
The Tapestry is unique.
Pieces of cloth from the ancient world give some indication of what appealed to the eyes of ancient Persians, Egyptians, and Greeks. Pile carpets from southern Siberia and Turkey, silks from Constantinople, Syria, and China, are dazzling reminders of the riches of the Middle and Far East. Weavings from the bogs of Switzerland, Scandinavia, and East Anglia reveal much about the making of worsteds and tabby beginning with the Celts. Church garments such as the gold- and silk- embroidered handiwork of Saints Herlindis and Relindis, who founded the Abbey of Aldeneik in the eighth century; the stole and girdle that once belonged to the tenth-century saint Cuthbert; and a silk twill coronation robe made for King Roger of Sicily in the 1130s are miraculous survivors of the medieval textile arts. None, however, is on the scale of the Bayeux Tapestry. None possesses its sustained aesthetic quality. None tells a story in images and words. None, in short, captures the essence of an age as vividly as the Bayeux Tapestry, which is for the High Middle Ages what the friezes of Nineveh are for ancient Assyria, the Elgin Marbles are for Greece of the city-state, or the Lady with Unicorn Tapestry is for Renaissance Europe. The only piece of cloth comparable in celebrity to the Bayeux Tapestry is the Shroud of Turin, whose authenticity has been thrown into doubt by radiocarbon dating that suggests it is not the image of a Jewish man crucified in the first century, but a fourteenth-century fabrication.
The Tapestry opens a precious window upon feudalism and knighthood in England and France, political norms and military weaponry and tactics, nautical technique, shipbuilding, and the maritime culture of the North Sea and the English Channel. Its embroidered tableaux reveal much about relations among secular government, ecclesiastical hierarchy, and the papacy; local, baronial, castle, and church architecture; rituals of death, burial, and coronation; hunting and agriculture; customs of eating, cooking, and dress; the material world of sacred and sumptuous objects; and the means of communication and transportation in England, Normandy, and Brittany at the dawn of what Charles Homer Haskins calls the “Renaissance of the Middle Ages.”
The story that the Tapestry tells takes place over a period of two years leading up to the Conquest. At its left or beginning edge, we see the ailing king Edward the Confessor (ruled 1042–1066) in counsel with Harold Godwineson, Earl of Wessex and the man who would be king. The interior space may be the royal seat at Winchester, since Westminster Abbey, shown later in the Tapestry, had not yet been consecrated. We know that Edward is frail because of his bodily posture, drooping shoulders, and eyes, and because he has never been well. The Confessor, son of Emma of Normandy and her first husband, King Æthelred II (ruled 978–1016), “the Unready,” was a pious man, and things might have gone differently for England if some of the energy he spent praying had been reserved for reproduction. Edward, married to Harold’s sister, Edith, was childless, and his bearing at the beginning of the Bayeux Tapestry bespeaks the looming crisis for Anglo-Saxon England. We shall never know the exact nature of Edward’s initial exchange with Harold, yet it is hard not to infer that something must have been said about royal succession.
Leaving the audience with Edward, Harold rides to the Godwine ancestral lands in Bosham, where he feasts in the company of retainers. As the feast ends, the Tapestry shows the earl and his men boarding ships for what remains a mysterious trip to the Continent.
Was the purpose of Harold’s crossing of the Channel to discuss succession with Duke William of Normandy? A medieval biography of Edward speaks of Harold’s traveling abroad “in order to study the French princes.” Did Harold visit Normandy to arrange a marriage? His younger brother Tostig had married the sister of Baldwin V of Flanders, father of Duke William’s wife, Mathilda, and the twelfth- century historian Orderic Vitalis maintains that Harold, who had married not in church, but only more danico (“in the Danish custom”), by cohabitation, sought the hand of one of William and Mathilda’s daughters. Orderic’s contemporary Eadmer of Canterbury states that Harold sought the release of members of his own family, his brother Wulfnoth and his nephew Hakon, Anglo-Saxon hostages sent to the Norman court at the time of Harold’s father’s own troubles with King Edward (see p. 16). Still others suggest that Harold did not intend to visit Normandy at all but was en route to Hungary to bring back the most legitimate candidate for kingship, the Æthling Edgar, son of Æthelred II by his first wife, Ælfgyfu of Northampton. The historian William of Malmesbury argues implausibly that Harold was on a fishing expedition when his ship was “blown off-course by a bad wind.” Harold was known as a great hunter, and the Tapestry portrays him repeatedly with a falcon on his arm, but fishing was not a noble pursuit in eleventh-century England.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from A Needle in the Right Hand of God by R. Howard Bloch. Copyright © 2006 by R. Howard Bloch. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.