The comedy of man survives the tragedy of man. — G. K. Chesterton

Historical Tales: 4—English - Charles Morris




The End of Saxon England

We have two pictures to draw, preliminary scenes to the fatal battle of Hastings Hill. The first belongs to the morning of September 25, 1066. At Stamford Bridge, on the Derwent River, lay encamped a stalwart host, that of Harold Hardrada, king of Norway. With him was Tostig, rebel brother of King Harold of England, who had brought this army of strangers into the land. On the river near by lay their ships.

Here Harold found them, a formidable force, drawn up in a circle, the line marked out by shining spears. The English king had marched hither in all haste from the coast, where he had been awaiting the coming of William of Normandy. Tostig, the rebel son of Godwin, had brought ruin upon the land.

Before the battle commenced, twenty horsemen rode out from Harold's vanguard and moved towards the foe. Harold, the king, rode at their head. As they drew near they saw a leader of the opposing host, clad in a blue mantle and wearing a shining helmet, fall to the earth through the stumbling of his horse.

"Who is the man that fell?" asked Harold.

"The king of Norway," answered one of his companions.

"He is a tall and stately warrior," answered Harold, "but his end is near."

Then, under command of the king, one of his noble followers rode up to the opposing line and called out,—

"Is Tostig, the son of Godwin, here?"

"It would be wrong to say he is not," answered the rebel Englishman, stepping into view. The herald then begged him to make peace with his brother, saying that it was dreadful that two men, sons of the same mother, should be in arms against each other.

"What will Harold give me if I make peace with him?" asked Tostig.

"He will give you a brother's love and make you earl of Northumberland."

"And what will he give to my friend, the king of Norway?"

"Seven feet of earth for a grave," was the grim answer of the envoy; "or, as he seems a very tall man, perhaps a foot or two more."

"Ride back, then," said Tostig, "and bid Harold make ready for battle. Whatever happens, it shall never be said of Tostig that he basely gave up the friend who had helped him in time of need."

The fight began,—and quickly ended. Hardrada fought like a giant, but an arrow in his throat brought him dead to the ground. Tostig fell also, and many other chiefs. The Northmen, disheartened, yielded. Harold gave them easy terms, bidding them take their ships and sail again to the land whence they had come.

This warlike picture on the land may be matched by one upon the sea. Over the waves of the English Channel moved a single ship, such a one as had rarely been seen upon those waters. Its sails were of different bright colors; the vanes at the mast-heads were gilded; the three lions of Normandy were painted here and there; the figure-head was a child with a bent bow, its arrow pointed towards the land of England. At the main mast-head floated a consecrated banner, which had been sent from Rome.

It was the ship of William of Normandy, alone upon the waves. Three thousand vessels in all had left with it the shores of France, six or seven hundred of them large in size. Now, day was breaking, and the king's ship was alone. The others had vanished in the night.

William ordered a sailor to the mast-head to report on what he could see.

"I see nothing but the water and the sky," came the lookout's cry from above.

"We have outsailed them; we must lay to," said the duke.

Breakfast was served, with warm spiced wine, to keep the crew in good heart. After it was over the sailor was again sent aloft.

"I can see four ships, low down in the offing," he proclaimed.

A third time he was sent to the mast-head. His voice now came to those on deck filled with merry cheer.

"Now I see a forest of masts and sails," he cried.

Within a few hours afterwards the Normans were landing in Pevensey Bay, on the Sussex coast. Harold had been drawn off by the invasion in the north, and the new invaders were free to land. Duke William was among the first. As he set foot on shore he stumbled and fell. The hearts of his knights fell with him, for they deemed this an unlucky sign. But William had that ready wit which turns ill into good fortune. Grasping two handfuls of the soil, he hastily rose, saying, cheerily, "Thus do I seize upon the land of England."

Meanwhile, Harold was feasting, after his victory at York. As he sat there with his captains, a stir was heard at the doors, and in rushed a messenger, booted and spurred, and covered with dust from riding fast and far.

"The Normans have come!" was his cry. "They have landed at Pevensey Bay. They are out already, harrying the land. Smoke and fire are the beacons of their march."

That feast came to a sudden end. Soon Harold and his men were in full march for London. Here recruits were gathered in all haste. Within a week the English king was marching towards where the Normans lay encamped. He was counselled to remain and gather more men, leaving some one else to lead his army.

"Not so," he replied; "an English king must never turn his back to the enemy."

We have now a third picture to draw, and a great one,—that of the mighty and momentous conflict which ended in the death of the last of the Saxon kings, and the Norman conquest of England.

The force of William greatly outnumbered that of Harold. It comprised about sixty thousand men, while Harold had but twenty or thirty thousand. And the Normans were more powerfully armed, the English having few archers, while many of them were hasty recruits who bore only pitchforks and other tools of their daily toil. The English king, therefore, did not dare to meet the heavily-armed and mail-clad Normans in the open field. Wisely he led his men to the hill of Senlac, near Hastings, a spot now occupied by the small town of Battle, so named in memory of the great fight. Here he built intrenchments of earth, stones, and tree-trunks, behind which he waited the Norman assault. Marshy ground covered the English right. In front, at the most exposed position, stood the "huscarls," or body-guard, of Harold, men clad in mail and armed with great battle-axes, their habit being to interlock their shields like a wall. In their midst stood the standard of Harold,—with the figure of a warrior worked in gold and gems,—and beside it the Golden Dragon of Wessex, a banner of ancient fame. Back of them were crowded the half armed rustics who made up the remainder of the army.

Duke William had sought, by ravaging the land, to bring Harold to an engagement. He had until now subsisted by plunder. He was now obliged to concentrate his forces. A concentrated army cannot feed by pillage. There was but one thing for the Norman leader to do. He must attack the foe in his strong position, with victory or ruin as his only alternatives.

The night before the battle was differently passed by the two armies. The Normans spent the hours in prayer and confession to their priests. Bishop Odo celebrated mass on the field as day dawned, his white episcopal vestment covering a coat of mail, while war-horse and battle-axe awaited him when the benediction should be spoken. The English, on their side, sat round their watch-fires, drinking great horns of ale, and singing warlike lays, as their custom for centuries had been.

Day had not dawned on that memorable 14th of October, of the year 1066, when both sides were in arms and busily preparing for battle. William and Harold alike harangued their men and bade them do their utmost for victory. Ruin awaited the one side, slavery the other, if defeat fell upon their banners.

William rode a fine Spanish horse, which a Norman had brought from Galicia, whither he had gone on a pilgrimage to the shrine of St. Iago. The consecrated standard was borne by his side by one Tonstain, "the White," two barons having declined the dangerous honor. Behind him rode the pride of the Norman nobility.

On the hill-side before them stood Harold and his stout body-guard, trenches and earthworks in their front, their shields locked into a wall of iron. In the first line stood the men of Kent, this being their ancient privilege. Behind them were ranged the burgesses of London, the royal standard in their midst. Beside the standard stood Harold himself, his brothers Gurth and Leofwin by his side, and around them a group of England's noblest thanes and warriors.

On came the Norman column. Steadily awaited them the English phalanx. "Dieu aide!" or "God is our help!" shouted the assailing knights. "Christ's rood! the holy rood!" roared back the English warriors. Nearer they came, till they looked in each other's eyes, and the battle was ready to begin.

And now, from the van of the Norman host, rode a man of renown, the minstrel Taillefer. A gigantic man he was, singer, juggler, and champion combined. As he rode fearlessly forward he chanted in a loud voice the ancient "Song of Roland," flinging his sword in the air with one hand as he sang, and catching it as it fell with the other. As he sang, the Normans took up the refrain of his song, or shouted their battle cry of "Dieu aide."

Onward he rode, thrusting his blade through the body of the first Englishman he met. The second he encountered was flung wounded to the ground. With the third the "Song of Roland" ended; the giant minstrel was hurled from his horse pierced with a mortal wound. He had sung his last song. He crossed himself and was at rest.

On came the Normans, the band of knights led by William assailing Harold's centre, the mercenary host of French and Bretons attacking his flanks. The Norman foot led the van, seeking to force a passage across the English stockade. "Out, out!" fiercely shouted the men of gent, as they plied axe and javelin with busy hands. The footmen were driven back. The Norman horse in turn were repulsed. Again and again the duke rallied and led his knights to the fatal stockade; again and again he and his men were driven back. The blood of the Norseman in his veins burned with all the old Viking battle-thirst. The headlong valor which he had often shown on Norman plains now impelled him relentlessly forward. Yet his coolness and readiness never forsook him. The course of the battle ever lay before his eyes, its reins in his grasp. At one time during the combat the choicest of the Norman cavalry were driven upon a deep trench which the English had dug and artfully concealed. In they went in numbers, men and horses falling and perishing. Disaster threatened Duke William's army. The Bretons, checked by the marshes on the right broke in disorder. Panic threatened to spread through the whole array, and a wild cry arose that the duke was slain. Men in numbers turned their backs upon the foe; a head-long flight was begun.

At this almost fatal moment Duke William's power as a leader revealed itself. His horse had been killed, but no harm had come to him. Springing to the back of a fresh steed, he spurred before the fugitives, and bade them halt, threatened them, struck them with his spear. When the cry was repeated that the duke was dead, he tore off his helmet and showed his face to the flying host. "Here I am!" he cried, in a stentorian voice. "Look at me! I live, and by God's help will conquer yet!"

Their leader's voice gave new courage to the Norman host, the flight ceased; they rallied, and, following the headlong charge of the duke, attacked the English with renewed fierceness and vigor. William fought like an aroused lion. Horse after horse was killed under him, but he still appeared at the head of his men, shouting his terrible war-cry, striking down a foeman with every swing of his mighty iron club.

He broke through the stockade; he spurred furiously on those who guarded the king's standard; down went Gurth, the king's brother, before a blow of that terrible mace; down went Leofwin, a second brother of the king; William's horse fell dead under him, a rider refused to lend him his horse, but a blow from that strong mailed hand emptied the saddle, and William was again horsed and using his mighty weapon with deadly effect.

Yet despite all his efforts the English line of defence remained unbroken. That linked wall of shields stood intact. From behind it the terrible battle-axes of Harold's men swung like flails, making crimson gaps in the crowded ranks before them. Hours had passed in this conflict. It began with day-dawn; the day was waning, yet still the English held their own; the fate of England hung in the scale; it began to look as if Harold would win.

But Duke William was a man of resources. That wall of shields must be rent asunder, or the battle was lost. If it could not be broken by assault, it might by retreat. He bade the men around him to feign a disorderly flight. The trick succeeded; many of the English leaped the stockade and pursued their flying foes. The crafty duke waited until the eager pursuers were scattered confusedly down the hill. Then, heading a body of horse which he had kept in reserve, he rushed upon the disordered mass, cutting them down in multitudes, strewing the hill-side with English slain.

Through the abandoned works the duke led his knights, and gained the central plateau. On the flanks the French and Bretons poured over the stockade and drove back its poorly armed defenders. It was mid-afternoon, and the field already seemed won. Yet when the sunset hour came on that red October day the battle still raged. Harold had lost his works of defence, yet his huscarls stood stubbornly around him, and with unyielding obstinacy fought for their standard and their king. The spot on which they made their last fight was that marked afterwards by the high altar of Battle Abbey.

The sun was sinking. The battle, was not yet decided. For nine hours it had raged. Dead bodies by thousands clogged the field. The living fought from a platform of the dead. At length, as the sun was nearing the horizon, Duke William brought up his archers and bade them pour their arrows upon the dense masses crowded around the standard of the English king. He ordered them to shoot into the air, that the descending shafts might fall upon the faces of the foe.

Victory followed the flight of those plumed shafts. As the sun went down one of them pierced Harold's right eye. When they saw him fall the Normans rushed like a torrent forward, and a desperate conflict ensued over the fallen king. The Saxon standard still waved over the serried English ranks. Robert Fitz Ernest, a Norman knight, fought his way to the staff. His outstretched hand had nearly grasped it when an English battle-axe laid him low. Twenty knights, grouped in mass, followed him through the English phalanx. Down they went till ten of them lay stretched in death. The other ten reached the spot, tore down the English flag, and in a few minutes more the consecrated banner of Normandy was flying in its stead.

The conflict was at an end. As darkness came the surviving English fled into the woods in their rear. The Normans remained masters of the field. Harold, the king, was dead, and all his brothers had fallen; Duke William was England's lord. On the very spot where Harold had fallen the conqueror pitched his tent, and as darkness settled over vanquished England he "sate down to eat and drink among the dead."

No braver fight had ever been made than that which Harold made for England. The loss of the Normans had been enormous. On the day after the battle the survivors of William's army were drawn up in line, and the muster-roll called. To a fourth of the names no answer was returned. Among the dead were many of the noblest lords and bravest knights of Normandy. Yet there were hungry nobles enough left to absorb all the fairest domains of Saxon England, and they crowded eagerly around the duke, pressing on him their claims. A new roll was prepared, containing the names of the noblemen and gentlemen who had survived the bloody fight. This was afterwards deposited in Battle Abbey, which William had built upon the hill where Harold made his gallant stand.

The body of the slain king was not easily to be found. Harold's aged mother, who had lost three brave sons in the battle, offered Duke William its weight in gold for the body of the king. Two monks sought for it, but in vain. The Norman soldiers had despoiled the dead, and the body of a king could not be told among that heap of naked corpses. In the end the monks sent for Editha, a beautiful maiden to whom Harold had been warmly attached, and begged her to search for her slain lover.

Editha, the "swan necked," as some chroniclers term her, groped, with eyes half-blinded with tears, through that heap of mutilated dead, her soul filled with horror, yet seeking on and on until at length her love-true eyes saw and knew the face of the king. Harold's body was taken to Waltham Abbey, on the river Lea, a place he had loved when alive. Here he was interred, his tomb bearing the simple inscription, placed there by the monks of Waltham, "Here lies the unfortunate Harold!"