Nonfiction > Henry Craik, ed. > English Prose > Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
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Henry Craik, ed.  English Prose.  1916.
Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
 
The Night before the Battle of Hastings
By Edward Augustus Freeman (1823–1892)
 
From The History of the Norman Conquest

AND now the night came on, the night of Friday the thirteenth of October, the night which was to usher in the ever memorable morn of Saint Calixtus. Very different, according to our Norman informants, was the way in which that night was spent by the two armies. The English spent the night in drinking and singing, the Normans in prayer and confession of their sins. Among the crowds of clergy in William’s host were two prelates of all but the highest rank in the Norman Church. One was Geoffrey, Bishop of Coutances, who in his temporal character was soon to have so large a share of the spoils of England. The other was the Duke’s own half-brother, the famous Odo, who, to his bishop’s seat at Bayeux, was soon to add the temporal cares of the Kentish Earldom. And with them was one not yet their equal in ecclesiastical rank, but who was, unlike them, to leave an abiding name in English ecclesiastical history. Remigius the Almoner of Fécamp, in after days the first Bishop of Lincoln, was the leader of the knights whom his Abbot had sent under his orders. Under the pious care of the two bishops and of the other clergy, the Norman host seems to have been wrought up to a kind of paroxysm of devotion. Odo received from every man a special vow, that those who outlived the struggle of the coming Saturday would never again eat flesh on any Saturday that was to come. Tales like these are the standing accusations which the victors always bring against the vanquished. The reproach which is cast on the English host on the night before the battle of Senlac is also cast on the French host on the night before the fight of Azincourt. And yet there may well be some ground-work of truth in these stories. The English were not, like the Normans, fighting under the influence of that strange spiritual excitement which had persuaded men that an unprovoked aggression on an unoffending nation was in truth a war of religion, a crusade for the good of the souls of Normans and English alike. It may therefore well be that there was more of ceremonial devotion in the camp of William than in the camp of Harold. And yet even a Norman legend gives us a picture of the English king bending before the body of his Lord, and Englishmen may deem that the prayers and blessings of Ælfwig and Leofric were at least as holy and acceptable as the prayers and blessings of Geoffrey and Odo. And we must not forget that the devotions of William and his followers are recorded by William’s own chaplain and flatterer, while we have no narrative of that night’s doings from the pen of any canon of Waltham or any monk of the New Minster. And we shall hardly deem the worse of our countrymen, if that evening’s supper by the camp fires was enlivened by the spirit-stirring strains of old Teutonic minstrelsy. Never again were those ancient songs to be uttered by the mouth of English warriors in the air of a free and pure Teutonic England. They sang, we well may deem, the song of Brunanburh and the song of Maldon; they sang how Æthelstan conquered and how Brihtnoth fell; and they sang, it well may be, in still louder notes, the new song which the last English gleeman had put into their mouths,
        How the wise King
Made fast his realm
To a high-born man,
Harold himself,
The noble Earl.
  1
  And thoughts and words like these may have been as good a preparation for the day of battle as all the pious oratory with which the warlike prelate of Bayeux could hound on the spoilers on their prey.  2
 
 
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