Probus ’83 January 2021 Zoom – Meeting Report

On Thursday 7th January we gathered, courtesy of Zoom, to listen (and watch) Rupert Matthews, our first guest speaker, tell us about: The Battle of Hastings and the Norman Conquest. The era was somewhat chaotic, the subject matter is complex and there is a relative absence of contemporary records. Fortunately Rupert’s grasp of his subject, and its wider historical context, is encyclopaedic. At the end there were many questions, expertly answered, and the session was considered to have been a great success.

 The Battle of Hastings and the Norman Conquest

1066 is one of the best known dates in English history – incidentally the most commonly used banking PIN. The events of that year changed the face of England and Europe and cleared out the English ruling classes in both church and state. The Normans not being keen on industry and trade, those networks were swept away.

In those days royal succession was often open to dispute and Edward the Confessor’s death in January 1066 left a complex situation with several potential claimants. Harold Godwinson, son of Danish kings, was in England at the time and, being well known as a good soldier and administrator, was chosen within 48 hours. This displeased two rivals: Harold Hardrada of Norway and William of Normandy. Both claimed that they had been promised the English throne on Edward’s death. This was when agreements were usually verbal – an A5 sized vellum cost twice a working man’s weekly wage – and might was often right. Both complainants prepared to act.

Harold Hardrada struck first, in alliance with King Harold’s banished brother Tostig, defeating the Northern Earls at Fulford near York before meeting King Harold’s army at Stamford Bridge on 25th Sept 1066. A decisive “home win” left Hardrada and Tostig dead, the visitors leaving in 24 ships, having arrived in 300.

But William had been busy. Initially blockaded by the English fleet and then by storms in the Channel he used a break in the weather to cross to Pevensey before the English could return from shelter in Southampton. Pevensey became insecure because of local militia action, forcing a move to Hastings, then an island surrounded by marsh, since drained. The only access was by a causeway, now the modern main road. Harold arrived at Battle with nine or ten thousand men, including 1,500 housecarls, his best soldiers, blocking the causeway, on October 13th. William’s situation was that storms in the Channel and a renewed blockade prevented re-supply or reinforcement, leaving him two weeks from starvation. Harold was waiting for the rest of his army to arrive south. William had to break out quickly, or else, which he did the next day, the 14th.

William took up position at the bottom of Senlac Hill with marshland to his rear. Rupert guided us through the ebb and flow of the battle and the weapons peculiar to each side. The Normans had cavalry and archers. The English had stout shield walls, six foot stabbing spears and the dreaded “English axe” four or five feet long with a foot wide blade, allegedly capable of decapitating a horse. For much of the day the Normans could not prevail but tactical changes bore fruit. A feigned Norman flight and English pursuit allowed the Norman cavalry to act effectively. Then the Norman archers started aiming high, causing significant casualties, softening up the opposition prior to a Norman cavalry charge at the English centre. This not only broke through but an arrow injured one of Harold’s eyes, though probably not fatally. But the breakthrough routed the English army leaving a third of them, Harold and Harold’s son dead.

The Battle of Hastings was not the end of the story. There were significant rearguard actions as William marched on to London, burning and killing as he went. One ambush cost him 4/500 of his men. Finally William met with the English leaders at Berkhamsted where the Treaty of that name was agreed with Edgar, Harold’s heir. The English nobles were to keep their lands but a quarter of English lands were to be transferred to William’s nobles. Also the English church was to follow Vatican orthodoxy by demanding celibacy of the clergy and payment of the Peter’s Pence church tax.

If the English thought that they had a deal they were sadly mistaken. William used every excuse to renege. Late tax payment resulted in execution and loss of lands. Before long all English lands had been confiscated by a variety of pretexts. Stigand, the English Archbishop of Canterbury was excommunicated, for opposition to the Peter’s Pence payment. The native English clergy were systematically cleared out and replaced by French or German. There was intermittent opposition, by such as Hereward the Wake, but by 1082 the Norman Conquest was complete. England was transformed in thirty years.