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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
The Battle of Hastings
By Augustin Thierry (1795–1856)
 
From the ‘History of the Conquest of England by the Normans’

ON the ground which afterwards bore, and still bears, the name of “Battle,” the Anglo-Saxon lines occupied a long chain of hills, fortified with a rampart of stakes and osier hurdles. In the night of the 13th of October, William announced to the Normans that the next day would be the day of battle. The priests and monks, who had followed the invading army in great numbers, being attracted like the soldiers by the hope of booty, assembled together to offer up prayers and sing litanies, while the fighting men were preparing their arms. The soldiery employed the time which remained to them after this first care in confessing their sins and receiving the sacrament. In the other army the night was passed in quite a different manner: the Saxons diverted themselves with great noise, and sung their old national songs round their watch-fires, while they emptied the horns of beer and of wine.  1
  In the morning the bishop of Bayeux, who was a son of William’s mother, celebrated mass in the Norman camp, and gave a blessing to the soldiers; he was armed with a hauberk under his pontifical habit: he then mounted a large white horse, took a baton of command in his hand, and drew up the cavalry into line. The army was divided into three columns of attack: in the first were the soldiers from the county of Boulogne and from Ponthieu, with most of the adventurers who had engaged personally for pay; the second comprised the auxiliaries from Brittany, Maine, and Poitou; William himself commanded the third, composed of the Norman chivalry. At the head and on the flanks of each division marched several ranks of light-armed infantry, clad in quilted cassocks, and carrying long-bows, or arbalets of steel. The duke mounted a Spanish charger which a rich Norman had brought him when he returned from a pilgrimage to St. James of Compostella in Gallicia. From his neck were suspended the most venerated of the relics on which Harold had sworn; and the standard consecrated by the Pope was carried at his side by a young man named Toustain-le-Blanc. At the moment when the troops were about to advance, the duke, raising his voice, thus addressed them:—  2
  “Remember to fight well, and put all to death; for if we conquer we shall all be rich. What I gain, you will gain; if I conquer, you will conquer; if I take this land, you shall have it. Know however that I am not come here only to obtain my right, but also to avenge our whole nation for the felonies, perjuries, and treacheries of these English. They put to death the Danes, men and women, on St. Brice’s night. They decimated the companions of my kinsman Alfred, and took his life. Come on, then; and let us, with God’s help, chastise them for all these misdeeds.”  3
  The army was soon within sight of the Saxon camp, to the northwest of Hastings. The priests and monks then detached themselves from it, and ascended a neighboring height, to pray and to witness the conflict. A Norman named Taillefer spurred his horse forward in front, and began the song—famous throughout Gaul—of the exploits of Charlemagne and Roland. As he sung, he played with his sword; throwing it up with force in the air, and receiving it again in his right hand. The Normans joined in chorus, or cried, “God be our help! God be our help!”  4
  As soon as they came within bowshot, the archers let fly their arrows and the crossbow-men their bolts; but most of the shots were deadened by the high parapet of the Saxon redoubts. The infantry, armed with spears, and the cavalry, then advanced to the entrances of the redoubts, and endeavored to force them. The Anglo-Saxons, all on foot around their standard planted in the ground, and forming behind their redoubts one compact and solid mass, received the assailants with heavy blows of their battle-axes, which, with a back-stroke, broke their spears and clove their coats of mail. The Normans, unable either to penetrate the redoubts or to tear up the palisades, and fatigued with their unsuccessful attack, fell back upon the division commanded by William. The duke then commanded all his archers again to advance, and ordered them not to shoot point-blank, but to discharge their arrows upwards, so that they might fall beyond the rampart of the enemy’s camp. Many of the English were wounded, chiefly in the face, in consequence of this manœuvre; Harold himself lost an eye by an arrow, but he nevertheless continued to command and to fight. The close attack of the foot and horse recommenced, to the cry of “Notre Dame! Dieu aide! Dieu aide!” But the Normans were repulsed at one entrance of the Saxon camp, as far as a great ravine covered with grass and brambles, in which, their horses stumbling, they fell pell-mell, and numbers of them perished. There was now a momentary panic in the army of the invaders: it was rumored that the duke was killed; and at this news they began to fly. William threw himself before the fugitives, and barred their passage, threatening them, and striking them with a lance; then uncovering his head,—“Here I am,” he exclaimed; “look at me: I live, and with God’s help I will conquer!”  5
  The horsemen returned to the redoubts; but as before, they could neither force the entrance nor make a breach. The duke then bethought himself of a stratagem to draw the English out of their position, and make them quit their ranks. He ordered a thousand horse to advance and immediately take to flight. At the sight of this feigned rout, the Saxons were thrown off their guard; and all set off in pursuit, with their axes suspended from their necks. At a certain distance, a body of troops posted there for the purpose joined the fugitives, who then turned round; and the English, surprised in the midst of their disorder, were assailed on all sides with spears and swords, which they could not ward off, both hands being occupied in wielding their heavy axes. When they had lost their ranks the gates of the redoubt were forced, and horse and foot entered together; but the combat was still warmly maintained, pell-mell and hand to hand. William had his horse killed under him. King Harold and his two brothers fell dead at the foot of their standard, which was plucked from the ground, and the banner sent from Rome planted in its stead. The remains of the English army, without a chief and without a standard, prolonged the struggle until the close of day, so that the combatants on each side could recognize one another only by their language.  6
  Having, says an old historian, rendered all which they owed to their country, the remnant of Harold’s companions dispersed; and many died on the roads, in consequence of their wounds and the day’s fatigue. The Norman horse pursued them without relaxation, and gave quarter to no one. They passed the night on the field of battle; and on the morrow, at dawn of day, Duke William drew up his troops, and had all the men who had followed him across the sea called over from the roll which had been prepared before his departure from the port of St. Valery. Of these, a vast number, dead and dying, lay beside the vanquished on the field. The fortunate survivors had, as the first profits of their victory, the spoils of the dead. In turning over the bodies there were found thirteen wearing under their armor the monastic habit: these were the abbot of Hida and his twelve companions; the name of their monastery was the first inscribed in the Black Book of the conquerors.  7
  The mothers and the wives of those who had repaired to the field of battle from the neighboring country to die with the King, came to the field to seek for and to bury the bodies of their sons and husbands. The body of King Harold remained for some time on the battle-field, and no one dared ask for it. At length Godwin’s widow, named Githa, overcoming her anguish, sent a message to Duke William demanding his permission to perform the last rites in honor of her son. She offered, say the Norman historians, to give him the weight of her son’s body in gold. But the duke refused harshly, saying that the man who had belied his faith and his religion should have no sepulture but the sands of the shore. If we may believe an old tradition on this score, however, he eventually became milder in favor of the monks of Waltham, an abbey founded and enriched in his lifetime by Harold. Two Saxon monks, Osgod and Ailrik, deputed by the abbot of Waltham, made request and obtained leave to transport to their church the sad remains of its benefactor. They then proceeded to the heap of slain that had been spoiled of armor and of vestments, and examined them carefully one after another; but he whom they sought for had been so much disfigured by wounds that they could not recognize it. Sorrowing, and despairing of succeeding in their search by themselves, they applied to a woman whom Harold, before he was king, had kept as his mistress; and entreated her to assist them. She was called Edith, and poetically surnamed the Swan-necked. She consented to follow the two monks, and succeeded better than they had done in discovering the corpse of him whom she had loved.  8
  These events are all related by the chroniclers of the Anglo-Saxon race in a tone of dejection which it is difficult to transfuse. They call the day of the battle a day of bitterness, a day of death, a day stained with the blood of the brave. “England, what shall I say of thee?” exclaims the historian of the church of Ely: “what shall I say of thee to our descendants?—That thou hast lost thy national king, and hast fallen under the domination of foreigners; that thy sons have perished miserably; that thy councilors and thy chieftains are vanquished, slain, or disinherited!” Long after the day of this fatal conflict, patriotic superstition believed that the fresh traces of blood were still to be seen on the ground where the battle was. These traces were said to be visible on the heights to the northwest of Hastings whenever a little rain moistened the soil. The conqueror, immediately upon gaining the victory, made a vow to erect on this ground a convent dedicated to the Holy Trinity, and to St. Martin the patron of the soldiers of Gaul. Soon afterwards, when his good fortune permitted him to fulfill this vow, the great altar of the monastery was placed on the spot where the Saxon standard of King Harold had been planted and torn down. The circuit of the exterior walls was traced so as to inclose all the hill which the bravest of the English had covered with their bodies. All the circumjacent land, a league wide, on which the different scenes of the battle had been acted, became the property of this abbey, which in the Norman language was called “l’Abbaye de la Bataille,” or Battle Abbey. Monks from the great convent of Marmoutiers, near Tours, came to establish here their domicile; and they prayed for the repose of the souls of all the combatants who perished on that fatal day.  9
  It is said that when the first stones of the edifice were laid, the architects discovered that there would certainly be a want of water. Being disconcerted, they carried this disagreeable news to William. “Work, work away,” replied the Conqueror jocularly: “if God grant me life, there shall be more wine for the monks of Battle to drink than there now is clear water in the best convent in Christendom.”  10
 
 
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