War Classics – 1066: the year of the conquest

The Norman Conquest of England was a violent onslaught by barbaric feudal chivalry on what was, at the time, a sophisticated constitutional monarchy based on the rule of law, under whose authority the common people experienced a fair measure of peace, prosperity, and justice. Anglo-Saxon England was no paradise: but the level of civilisation was far higher than what was to follow under the rule of Norman lords.

There is good reason, then, for 1066 to be the best-known date in English history. What happened in that year really mattered.

Unfortunately, the source material for reconstructing events is limited, and much of it is heavily tainted; in fact, as far as we can tell, much of the Norman material is worse than useless, being outright fabrication to justify the unjustifiable. Even where the contemporary chroniclers are reliable – as the Anglo-Saxon clerics usually are – they offer only the patchiest of narratives.

This, then, is a story perhaps best handled by someone who is both historian and writer – someone who pays the fullest attention to the source material, who is able to evaluate it critically, but who is also intelligent and bold enough to exercise what philosopher of history R G Collingwood once called ‘the historical imagination’.

Herein lies much of the magic of David Howarth’s account of 1066. The author attempts to read the characters of the leading protagonists, to see events from their perspectives, to divine their motives and their reasoning.

Howarth had an extraordinary career. He was a naval officer and boatbuilder as well as a historian and author. He served with the Special Operations Executive (SOE) during the Second World War and was centrally involved in the Shetland Bus – a fleet of Norwegian-operated fishing boats used to carry agents in and out of Norway; to convey arms, radios, and other supplies to the Resistance; and sometimes to bring refugees to safety. His first book, published in 1951, was entitled The Shetland Bus.

David Armine Howarth

Born: 28 July 1912 
Died: 2 July 1991
Nationality: British

A graduate from Cambridge, Howarth worked for the BBC before joining the navy after the fall of France. Along with many books on military and naval history, he edited My Land and My People (1962), the first autobiography of the 14th Dalai Lama. After Howarth’s death, his ashes were scattered over the waters of Lunna Voe, Shetland. This was near Lunna House, the first base of the Shetland Bus operation

More than two dozen books followed, on a wide range of subjects, though naval history was a specialism, with Howarth’s knowledge of boats and seafaring giving him a grasp of fighting at sea – especially in the age of sail – denied to landlubber historians.

A number of his books set out to retell the stories of famous military campaigns – Dawn of D-Day (1959), Waterloo: a near run thing (1968), Trafalgar: the Nelson touch (1969), and The Voyage of the Armada: the Spanish story (1981). In every case, he relied heavily on first-hand testimony, his aim being to place the reader in the thick of the fighting, close-up with those who were there – a relatively innovative approach to military history at the time.

1066: the year of the conquest is somewhat different, for, in the absence of such testimony, we rely on the author to reconstruct imaginatively the lived human experience. He does this with compelling panache. We are there when he describes a typical Anglo-Saxon village, the court of Edward the Confessor, the brooding menace of Duke William, the invasion fleets crossing the North Sea and the English Channel, and of course the ferocious close-quarters fighting at Stamford Bridge and Hastings.

A particular strength of Howarth’s account is the sharp contrast he draws between Anglo-Saxon and Norman society. The former had great social depth, rooted in centuries of development, the institution of kingship the pinnacle of a finely calibrated hierarchy of rights and duties enshrined in law. Harold Godwinson had been the greatest earl in England, the closest advisor of the old king, a man tried and tested in administration and war. That is why he was elected King by the Witan, the aristocratic grand council, following Edward the Confessor’s death.

An army of mercenaries and adventurers

Duke William claimed the English throne on the basis of promises, false claims, and a tenuous family connection. He bolstered his usurpation by presenting fake charges against the Anglo-Saxon King to the Pope and offering to place the English Church under papal authority.

He was the autocratic head of a class of feudal warriors. Two-thirds of his invasion army was not Norman at all, but Breton, Flemish, and French, and his ability to recruit this army of mercenaries and adventurers depended upon the promise of booty and land.

LEFT The book is illustrated with clear, simple maps. This map of the Sussex Coast shows William’s narrow foothold on the former Fécamp peninsula and the blocking position Harold adopted at Hastings.
The book is illustrated with clear, simple maps. This map of the Sussex Coast shows William’s narrow foothold on the former Fécamp peninsula and the blocking position Harold adopted at Hastings.

William of Normandy launched an aggressive war of conquest to dispossess the Anglo-Saxon aristocracy, parcel out English land to his army of freebooters, and thus to impose a new class of foreign overlords, contemptuous of English law and village practice, on the native peasantry. Hastings was a catastrophe for the English people, the impact of which would be felt for centuries.

Howarth provides this essential context. He also – making full use of his mastery of seafaring – underlines how immensely risky the whole enterprise was, how easily it could have failed.

William lost the summer waiting for a favourable wind. When he finally sailed, it was already the season of storms. He could still so easily have been becalmed, blown back to the Norman coast, or even wrecked at sea, had the wind changed again.

He was lucky, too, that King Harald Hardrada of Norway, backed by Harold’s exiled brother Tostig, had decided on an expedition of his own, landing in Yorkshire, forcing the Anglo-Saxon leader to march his military elite – his 3,500 housecarls of the royal bodyguard – to deal with this other threat.

The speed of Harold’s march from London to York – 200 miles in five days – and then of his counter-march at the same pace when news arrived of William’s landing on the South Coast marks him out as a medieval military leader of phenomenal drive. The virtual unanimity of his popular support and the fierce resistance mounted by both housecarls and fyrd (the local shire militia), first at Stamford Bridge, then at Hastings, bear testimony to the confidence his leadership inspired.

As Howarth makes clear, Harold was desperately unlucky. An army of 7 to 8,000 freebooters should not have been able to bring down Anglo-Saxon civilisation. And here hangs a question.

William’s little army had established its base on a narrow coastal peninsula. It could not survive there long. It could only survive at all by plundering the local population and making itself thoroughly hated. William needed to bring on a decisive battle as soon as possible.

Harold offered battle on a hill that blocked egress from the peninsula. His brother Gyrth had suggested that he should take command, so that in the event of defeat the King himself would remain at large, could inspire continuing guerrilla resistance, and meantime raise new armies by reaching into the deep reserves of Anglo-Saxon England.

RIGHT 11th-century fake news. The Bayeux Tapestry depicts the oath sworn by Harold over holy relics that he would back William’s claim to the English throne. If it happened at all, it was essentially meaningless: an English earl had no right to promise the English crown to anyone the decision rested with the King and the Witan.
11th-century fake news. The Bayeux Tapestry depicts the oath sworn by Harold over holy relics that he would back William’s claim to the English throne. If it happened at all, it was essentially meaningless: an English earl had no right to promise the English crown to anyone the decision rested with the King and the Witan.

Harold, as we know, rejected this advice, and his subsequent death on the battlefield seems to have been decisive: centralised command fell apart, and English morale collapsed.

Even so, the battle could so easily have turned out differently. It lasted all day, turning into a long battle of attrition, one which, for all the hype around the supposed dominance of heavy horse in medieval warfare, demonstrated the abiding resilience of solid infantry.

There was nothing backward or amateurish about the Anglo-Saxon way of war. The shield-wall stood firm through long hours of fighting, its front probably formed of a double rank of housecarls, with the fyrd behind, and a reserve of housecarls around the King and the royal banner at the top of Senlac Hill.

Again and again, the Norman charges, by horse and foot, were met with showers of missiles – arrows, javelins, rocks – and then a wall of shields from which sharp blades projected and from which individual warriors would sometimes step forwards to wield the fearsome double-handed Danish axe.

But the line was slowly reduced by casualties, especially in the wake of abortive charges on either flank. (Should Harold have ordered a general charge on either of these occasions? Might that not have swept the Norman host away in a critical moment of uncertainty and demoralisation?) And this seems to have allowed the Normans finally to get a lodgement on the ridge and for elements of their heavy horse to work their way into the Anglo-Saxon rear.

The fall of the King – perhaps blinded by an arrow in the eye and then hacked to death by mounted knights – was the tipping-point, the moment when exhaustion, physical and mental, was transformed into panic and disintegration.

Many escaped into the woods immediately north of the battlefield. Some even rallied and brought down a good number of their pursuers. But the army had been destroyed, and the Anglo-Saxon kingdom decapitated.

Here is Howarth’s summation of the deeper meaning of Hastings:

I have suggested that Horstede [a typical Anglo-Saxon village] was a happy place when the year began because its people felt they could understand their environment and control it: they knew their rights and duties, they knew where they stood. That was the feeling that vanished. The homely village and its fields and woods became a place of doubt and fear and secrecy. Most conquerors deal harshly with the leading men of the countries they dominate and leave the simple people much as they were. But by giving away the land, William brought his conquest to the humblest cottage, and even the children were made to know they were born to a beaten race.

Images: Wikimedia Commons.