Gesta Regum Anglorum

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164.

The Battle of Hastings

1

In the meantime Harold returned from the battle with the Norwegians,2 happy at having conquered. . . . When the news of the arrival of the Normans reached him, he proceeded to Hastings, though accompanied by very few forces. No doubt the fates urged him on, as he neither summoned his troops, nor, had he been willing to do so, would he have found many ready to obey his call; so hostile were all to him, because he had appropriated the northern spoils entirely to himself. He sent out some persons, however, to reconnoiter the number and strength of the enemy. When these were captured and taken within the camp, William ordered them to be led among the tents, and after feasting them plentifully, to be sent back uninjured to their lord.

On their return, Harold inquired what news they brought. After relating what had befallen them, they added that almost all of William’s army had the appearance of priests, as they had the whole face, with both lips, shaven. For the English leave the upper lip unshorn, suffering the hair continually to increase; which Julius Cæsar, in his treatise on the Gallic War, affirms to have been a national custom with the ancient inhabitants of Britain. Harold smiled at the simplicity of the relators, observing, with a pleasant laugh, that they were not priests, but soldiers, strong in arms and invincible in spirit.

Harold’s brother, Girth, a youth on the verge of manhood, and of knowledge and valor surpassing his years, caught up his words: "Since," said he, "you extol so much the valor of the Norman, I think it ill-advised for you, who are his inferior in strength, to contend with him. Nor can you deny being bound to him by oath, either willingly or by compulsion. Wherefore you will act wisely, if you withdraw from this pressing emergency and allow us to try the issue of a battle. We, who are free from all obligation, shall justly draw the sword in defense of our country. If you engage, it is to be feared that you will be either subjected to flight or to death. If we alone fight, your cause will be safe at all events, for you will be able both to rally the fugitives and to avenge the dead."

The unbridled rashness of Harold yielded no placid ear to the words of his adviser. He thought it base, and a reproach to his past life, to turn his back on danger of any kind. With similar impudence, or to speak more favorably, imprudence, he drove away a monk, the messenger of William, not deigning him even a complacent look and swearing that God would decide between himself and the duke. The monk was the bearer of three propositions: either that Harold should relinquish the kingdom, according to his agreement; or hold it of William; or decide the matter by single combat in the sight of either army. For William claimed the kingdom on the ground that King Edward, by the advice of Stigand the archbishop and of the earls Godwin and Siward, had granted it to him, and had sent the son and nephew of Godwin to Normandy as sureties of the grant. If Harold should deny this, he would abide by the judgment of the pope, or by battle. William’s messenger, being frustrated by the single answer to all of these propositions, returned and communicated to his party fresh spirit for the conflict.

The courageous leaders prepared for battle, each according to his national custom. The English passed the night1 without sleep, in drinking and singing; and in the morning proceeded without delay against the enemy. All were on foot and were armed with battle-axes. Covering themselves in front by the junction of their shields, they formed an impenetrable body. They would have secured their safety that day had not the Normans, by a pretended flight, induced them to open their ranks. . . . King Harold himself stood with his brothers near the standard, in order that, while all shared equal danger, none might think of retreating. This same standard William sent, after his victory, to the pope. . . .

The Normans passed the whole night in confessing their sins and received the sacrament in the morning. Their infantry, with bows and arrows, formed the vanguard, while their cavalry occupied the rear. Duke William, declaring that God would favor his side, called for his arms. When, through the haste of his attendants, he had put on his hauberk1 the rear part before, he corrected the mistake with a laugh, saying, "My dukedom shall be turned into a kingdom." Then, beginning to chant the Song of Roland,2 and calling on God for assistance, the Normans engaged their foes.

They fought with ardor, neither side yielding ground, for the great part of the day. William now gave a signal to his troops that, by pretending flight, they should retreat. Through this device the close body of the English, opening for the purpose of cutting down the straggling enemy, brought upon itself swift destruction. For the Normans, facing about, attacked them, thus disordered, and compelled them to flee. In this manner, deceived by a stratagem, they met an honorable death in avenging their country; nor indeed were they at all without their own revenge, since, by frequently making a stand, they slaughtered their pursuers in heaps. . . . This alternation of first one party conquering, and then the other, prevailed as long as the life of Harold continued, but when he fell, his brain having been pierced with an arrow, the flight of the English ceased not until night.

In this battle the valor of both leaders was eminently conspicuous. Harold, not content with the duty of a general in exhorting others, diligently assumed every duty of a soldier. He would often strike the enemy when coming to close quarters, so that none would approach him with impunity; for immediately the same blow leveled both horse and rider. But, as I have related, after receiving the fatal arrow from a distance, he yielded to death. One of the Normans gashed his thigh with a sword, as he lay prostrate; for which shameful and cowardly action the Norman was branded with ignominy by William and dismissed from the army. William was equally ready to encourage his soldiers by his voice and by his presence, and to be the first to rush forward to attack where the foe was thickest. Three choice horses were that day killed under him. The dauntless spirit and vigor of the intrepid leader still persisted, however, . . . till approaching night crowned him with complete victory. No doubt the hand of God so protected him, that the enemy should draw no blood from his person, though they aimed many javelins at him.

1 William of Malmesbury, , bk. iii.

2 This was the battle of Stamford Bridge in Yorkshire.

1 Friday night, October 13, 1066.

1 A coat of mail made of interwoven metal rings.

2 See page 428.

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Chicago: "The Battle of Hastings," Gesta Regum Anglorum in Readings in Early European History, ed. Webster, Hutton (Boston: Ginn and Company, 1926), 343–345. Original Sources, accessed May 24, 2019, http://omegasources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=A8L1NFP71CERG8I.

MLA: . "The Battle of Hastings." Gesta Regum Anglorum, Vol. iii, in Readings in Early European History, edited by Webster, Hutton, Boston, Ginn and Company, 1926, pp. 343–345. Original Sources. 24 May. 2019. omegasources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=A8L1NFP71CERG8I.

Harvard: , 'The Battle of Hastings' in Gesta Regum Anglorum. cited in 1926, Readings in Early European History, ed. , Ginn and Company, Boston, pp.343–345. Original Sources, retrieved 24 May 2019, from http://omegasources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=A8L1NFP71CERG8I.