Why did they lose?

Tom Shippey

  • The Battle of Hastings: The Fall of Anglo-Saxon England by Harriet Harvey Wood
    Atlantic, 257 pp, £17.99, November 2008, ISBN 978 1 84354 807 2

It is not only the most familiar date in English history, it also marks in many minds, even educated ones, the start of it. Before 1066 there were just those tedious Anglo-Saxons, whose public image was all too memorably fixed by the minor characters in Ivanhoe: Athelstane, last survivor of the old Anglo-Saxon royal line (fat, bone-idle), its last partisan Cedric (hopelessly conservative, completely out of touch) and Gurth (just a swineherd). No matter what they called themselves, they weren’t really English. The whole period is best forgotten.

One consequence is that popular books about the Anglo-Saxon period concentrate overwhelmingly on its end. Novels especially have the word ‘last’ in their titles, as with Bulwer-Lytton’s Harold, the Last of the Saxon Kings, Charles Kingsley’s Hereward, the Last of the English and Hebe Weenolsen’s The Last Englishman. Henry Treece broke ranks by calling his Hereward novel Man with a Sword, but Julian Rathbone latterly re-established the pattern with his novel The Last English King. Harold and Hereward, and still in a fading sort of way Alfred the Great, are readily fitted into stories of national defiance. Pre-Conquest successes, like Bede and Offa and the highly creditable story of the English conversion and the missions to Germany and Scandinavia – these are no longer part of the national myth.

Harriet Harvey Wood’s book in a sense restates and in a sense tries to counteract that national myth. Her view, expressed with some passion, is that the wrong side won on 14 October 1066: Anglo-Saxon England was more civilised than William’s Normandy. William had no moral or legal claim to the throne. Harold, by contrast, was the last English king for more than 600 years to owe his crown ‘to the will of the people’. William’s victory can be explained only by the ‘incredible luck’ that drew Harold to Yorkshire to fight Haraldr, his Norse namesake, at Stamford Bridge, gave William fair winds at just the right moment, and led Harold to make what seem to be inexplicable errors of tactical judgment. And the result was disastrous: a flourishing civilisation distinguished for its art, literature, prosperity and administrative efficiency was ‘stamped out brutally’ by men who, far from being chivalrous knights in armour, were no better than ‘mounted thugs’.

Wood does not quite put it like this, but she comes close to repeating the claim, made many years ago by R.W. Chambers, that in 1065 England looked as if it would skip the Middle Ages altogether and go straight into a Renaissance. It was after all a strongly centralised state, with very efficient systems – for example, for producing and controlling the coinage. Literacy in English rather than Latin had been proclaimed as a royal policy since the time of Alfred, and was certainly spreading: no one wrote English prose as well and clearly as Ælfric for at least another 500 years, not even Malory, and historians have connected the state’s administrative efficiency with the ability of many laymen to read the royal instructions. While there was admittedly a class system based on wergilds, it was a relatively flat one, with only two main male classes (apart from slaves): the 200-shilling churl and the 1200-shilling thane. It was a fairly porous system: there were established procedures for churls to become thanes, with written laws and a system of open-access courts at every level from the hundred, the unit of local government, upwards. Women were also well protected by medieval standards, with legal rights to a share of the property on divorce, no bar to remarriage, and freedom to own and dispose of land, a situation (Wood claims) not reached again until the passing of the Married Women’s Property Act in 1882. Sentiments in the gnomic poems, she says, ‘were positively advanced even by 20th-century standards’, and she quotes in support the poem Maxims I, with its advice (putting it in 20th-century terms) to encourage the self-esteem of the young. Rich, stable, liberal and progressive: why did they lose to a bunch of pirates? The phenomenon certainly seems to demand an explanation, though there may be more than one.

Wood starts with a broad perspective and narrows down steadily to the events of 14 October itself, though these must remain largely unknowable. She sketches out the history of the earlier 11th century, made confusing above all by the habit of the contending kings of practising serial monogamy. Both Æthelred and Cnut had children by two wives (Emma the Norman married both of them), producing a total of six or seven variously significant brothers and half-brothers. The only 100 per cent Englishmen among them were Edmund Ironside and his brother Edwig, and once they had been eliminated (by 1017), there was only an exiled line whose last representative in 1066 was the boy Edgar, brought back to England from Hungary as the succession crisis deepened. Harold Godwinsson, the king who died at Hastings, had no genetic connection with the old royal dynasty at all, though his sister was the wife of King Edward. William’s dynastic connection was actually slightly stronger, since he was the son of King Edward’s first cousin, but they were only maternal cousins (William’s grandfather was the brother of Edward’s mother, Queen Emma). If you were looking for the bloodline of Alfred the Great, the only candidate in 1066 was young Edgar, and he was only 14.

Harold’s claim was based on being unquestionably English, militarily experienced, and above all on the spot. William’s claim was based on an alleged promise of the throne made by King Edward, and an alleged promise made by Harold on holy relics to support that claim. The Norman view, then, was that Harold was a sacrilegious oath-breaker, and the Norman view dominates ‘the sources’, which Wood itemises in a final chapter. There are 12 main ones, but non-Norman ones are either sketchy, like the D and E versions of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, or tangential, like the ‘Life of King Edward’ or the Canterbury monk Eadmer’s ‘History of Recent Events’. Others were written much later, like the 12th-century accounts of Orderic Vitalis, William of Malmesbury, ‘Florence’ of Worcester and the detailed account of the battle of Stamford Bridge written in the 13th century by the Icelander Snorri Sturluson as part of The Saga of Haraldr Hardrádi; Wood keeps quoting this, though with decent reservations: we now know that its tactical details, at least, were based on descriptions of much later post-Crusader battles. There are, however, three Norman accounts of Hastings that can arguably or positively be dated to within ten years of the battle, and most provocative of all, there is the Bayeux Tapestry, thought to have been commissioned by one of William’s relatives, but almost certainly created by English embroiderers.

What exercises Wood most is the question of Harold’s promise. Several sources agree that some time before the crisis, perhaps in 1064, Harold crossed the Channel, fell into the hands of the wrecker count Guy of Ponthieu, and was rescued by William. He went on campaign with William against the Bretons, and gave him some kind of oath of fealty on holy relics. It was his breach of this oath that gave William the moral high ground and caused Pope Alexander II to grant his expedition the status of a proto-Crusade, complete with appropriately blessed banner. Wood doubts the whole story of papal benediction, which has no non-Norman corroboration. But what was Harold doing across the Channel in any case? The three main early Norman sources all say he had been sent by Edward to confirm Edward’s earlier choice of William as successor (but then they would). Later versions suggest that he was out on a yachting trip which went wrong in bad weather. Eadmer, the Canterbury monk, says that Harold went to try to get William to release his brother and nephew, who had been taken hostage, did so against Edward’s warnings, and was coerced into a promise of support. Interestingly, this seems to be what the Bayeux Tapestry is trying to portray. Its first panel appears to show Edward and Harold before the latter’s departure, but gives no clue as to Harold’s errand – which is odd, if the tapestry is Norman propaganda. In a later panel, though, we see Harold with the king again, and Harold’s posture looks apologetic, while the king is apparently wagging a finger at him: Harold has done something unwise, perhaps sworn an oath to support William’s succession, which Edward, contrary to the Norman authorised version of events, did not approve.

Maybe it hardly mattered anyway, since the issue was settled on the battlefield, and here one can only wonder why things went the way they did. By 1066, the English housecarls, heavily armoured and wielding their two-handed Danish-style battle-axes, were as formidable an infantry as could be found anywhere in Europe. In any other year their total defeat of the Norse invaders under Haraldr Hardrádi, former commander of the Varangian Guard, gigantic in person and victorious (according to his saga) from Jerusalem to Jutland, would have counted as a major historical turning-point on its own: the Vikings never came back. But did it sap the English soldiers’ strength? It seems not unlikely, given the two forced marches, London to Yorkshire done in a week, with battle immediately following on 25 September, and Yorkshire to Hastings in less than three, with all the inevitable complications of casualties (very heavy at Stamford Bridge) and logistics (the forage for all those horses). Should Harold have waited, and why didn’t he, since his position was bound to get stronger and William’s weaker, as the invader ran low on food and was cut off from supplies or reinforcements? Wood suggests that Harold, like Byrhtnoth at Maldon before him, was constrained by his own and his society’s heroic values: refusing battle was not an honourable option. One could put it differently by suggesting that he took on William’s challenge for the same reason that modern rugby captains might kick a penalty into touch in the hope of driving over for seven points instead of taking a more certain three: they reckon they have the momentum and are going for a killer score. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

Another explanation for the unexpected defeat is that the Normans used a combination of archers and cavalry while the English were tactically monolithic. The English axemen could sweep mere archers off the field, but if they broke ranks to do so they became vulnerable to cavalry. If they stood their ground, they could see the cavalry off, but had to endure being shot at – and at short range even moderately effective bows can punch through ring-mail. Was Harold shot in the eye? Can we believe the stories of feigned flight enticing the English to charge downhill? As I’ve said, these matters are now unknowable, but Hastings was for sure replayed, so to speak, 15 years later on the Adriatic, when the Greek emperor’s Varangians (by this time largely exiled Englishmen) fought the Normans under Robert Guiscard, with much the same result: early Varangian success brought to a stand by cavalry charges, followed by withering archery; no survivors. The English had weapons, but the Normans had a weapons system.

Wood’s view, in short, is that the result at Hastings was a mix of good luck for William with some forgivable bad judgment from Harold; but really, the Normans didn’t deserve it. This is a suitably flattering conclusion, but there are reasons to question it. Were there systemic faults in the pre-Conquest kingdom, not just accidental ones? Like so many national narratives, Wood’s is essentially court-centred, and tends to ignore the periphery, but it’s worth considering the battle at Fulford, which preceded Stamford Bridge. If the northern levies had had their hearts in it and the earl of Northumbria known his job, couldn’t they at least have kept Haraldr’s Norsemen occupied, one way or another, until the Norman crisis was settled? Instead, they folded swiftly and completely. One has to ask why.

One might reply that the north had been astonishingly badly handled for years before Hastings. Its basic problem was ethnic hostility between at least four groups: the settler Danes in Yorkshire; the native English beyond the Tees; the Cumbrians in the north-west (speaking a language resembling Welsh but threatened by their fellow Celts from central Scotland); and the incoming Norwegians from Ireland, whose Norse speech didn’t defuse old enmity against the Danes. Earl Siward, famous from Macbeth, seems to have had a plan for bringing the groups together, siring one son, Osbeorn, or Asbjörn, on a Danish wife with Yorkshire connections, another, with the good Old English name of Waltheof, on a lady from the ruling native family of Bamborough, and placating other magnates like Thorfinn Thorsson from Allerdale (‘mac Thore’ as he is revealingly called in a Cumbrian writ). But whatever Shakespeare may say, Siward’s march on Macbeth in 1054 was not a walkover. Siward (in legend a bear’s son himself) defeated Macbeth and his Norman mercenaries on Seven Sleepers’ Day, but he lost his son Osbeorn, and his nephew young Siward, who might have replaced Osbeorn, as well as Thorfinn’s son Dolfin (Norse Dolg-finnr, ‘wound-Finn’, or ‘sorcerer of wounds’). The coming generation of leaders was all but wiped out, Old Siward himself died, and the north went back to its normal habit of internecine feuding (which it kept up until William executed Waltheof years later).

In 1055 the southern government sent in Harold’s brother Tosti to settle things down. It was a disastrous appointment. He had no standing in the area, with a Danish name like Tosti (short for Thorstein) he was bound to antagonise the English, and in the end he antagonised everybody, was driven out, and joined the side of the Norse invaders in 1066, to be killed at Stamford Bridge. The only reason for employing him must have been to find a ‘safe seat’ for someone with important contacts. But it was a contemptuously cynical manoeuvre, and it would be no surprise if many northerners responded less than enthusiastically to the leadership of the next well-connected outsider brought in, the earl of Mercia’s younger brother Morcar, possibly Lady Godiva’s grandson.

It may also be that Harold wasn’t quite the ‘people’s prince’ that Wood claims. In 1052, in the course of the quarrel between Edward and his father, Godwin, he came back from exile in Ireland to raid Somerset and Devon, killing many of the shire-levies who opposed him, and went on to harry the south coast, though rather more gently. On that occasion, very notably, Edward’s supporters and Godwin’s refused to fight each other ‘because there was little else of worth but Englishmen on either side’. Still, appeals to national unity from Harold in 1066 might well have fallen on deaf ears in the south-western counties as well as the north. One could in short charge the entire pre-Conquest ruling class of England with cronyism (quite literally jobs for the boys in the case of Tosti and Morcar); with putting factional politics above national interest; with spreading alienation and disaffection in areas not felt to be important; and for good measure, with determined military conservatism. These things may not matter when times are good, but when the strain comes on, the weak links snap. The accession of Edward after decades of foreign rule showed a deep national attachment to the native royal line. But this loyalty was repaid by a casual squandering of what we now call ‘social capital’. In the end – or so one could argue, against the whole tenor of Wood’s spirited argument – there was not enough left.

William met with surprisingly little resistance after Hastings, considering the circumstances. The Bayeux Tapestry is reckoned to be English work, and the Domesday Book was quite likely written up by English clerks at Durham. When the English monks of Peterborough heard that Hereward was going to raid the abbey with his ‘gang’, they sent the sacristan straight off to the incoming Norman abbot and his 160 bodyguards to appeal for protection – the Normans turned up too late. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle gave William a surprisingly balanced obituary: stern, avaricious, cruel, yes, but wise, kind to ‘good men who loved God’, and no one can say he didn’t know how to keep order. Almost all accounts of 1066 and after – and Wood’s is very much not an exception – see the conflict in national terms, with the Home Guard sadly and disgracefully beaten by foreigners, an event which demands special pleading; and one has to concede that, as the restoration of Edward the Martyr, the armistice of 1052, and the continuing loyalty to young Edgar the Atheling all in their different ways showed, even in the 11th century there was a strong reservoir of English national feeling. But it was the rank and file who felt it, not as far as we can see the rulers or the administrative elite, and it was not inexhaustible.

Wood’s insistence on the virtues of Anglo-Saxon England means that at the end she has to stress both the sadness of the 1066 defeat for civilisation, and the underlying strength that allowed English institutions to survive and eventually shake off what 17th-century reformers called ‘the Norman yoke’. For the female relicts of the dead loyalists at Hastings especially, the aftermath was long. Several generations later someone writing in the dialect of Herefordshire (which one of his fellows significantly called ‘our language, that is ald inglis’) showed unusual sympathy with a whole class of impoverished women, ‘who are poorly provided and beset by evil, like almost all gentlewomen now in the world, who do not have the wherewithal to buy themselves a bridegroom, and give themselves into the service (theowdom) of a wicked man with all that they have’. This must have been a common fate among the female relatives of the English gentry killed at Hastings, or dispossessed after it, and the fate was remembered by their descendants. The real pity is that it was not foreseen by the squabbling self-interested ruling Anglo-Saxon elite, who do not, I think, in the end deserve Wood’s well-intentioned and forcefully argued advocacy.