THE BATTLE OF HASTINGS
A tale of blood, treachery and slaughter
On the eve of Michaelmas 1066, William, Duke of Normandy sailed from France with a mighty army of infantry and horsemen, and made landfall at Pevensey. His army waded ashore on the long shingle beach at the site of Pevensey Castle. William was on a promise, and he had come to claim what he believed was rightfully his – the English throne.
Edward the Confessor had promised the crown to William, but before he died, he reneged on his oath and made Harold his heir. Now William came to fight the bloodiest and most decisive battle in English history. At Pevensey he symbolically burnt his boats. He was now on hostile soil with no hope of reinforcements or resupply. He had gambled everything on one throw of the dice and he had to win. There was no going back. For William it was a one shot deal.
The news of the invasion was taken to Harold at Stamford Bridge where a victorious battle had been fought. The King mustered his army of battle hardened warriors. “He sent far and wide to summon his populace to war”, (Orderic Vitalis) and led a forced march of exhausted men to Senlac Hill in Hastings, where he faced the mighty fighting machine that was the Duke’s army. William was a formidable opponent.
William had the better equipped army consisting of Bretons, men of Flanders, Picardy and Boulogne on the flanks, and a central division under the direct command of Duke William himself, and consisting of his loyal kinsmen. They had archers and cavalry. Harold’s men fought with axes and farm implements.
The battle started at 900 am on the 14th October amidst a blare of trumpets. Harold fought under the banner of the red dragon. William fought under the white papal flag.
The armies were not equally matched. However Harold was the better military strategist and took up a defensive position at the top of the hill. He ordered his men to form an impenetrable wall with their shields. The Normans had to fire up the hill and their arrows were deflected by the shield line. The Normans hurled themselves against the shields to the point of exhaustion in a desperate attempt to break through the line, but to no avail. They faced a fusillade of “Javelins and murderous axes and stones tied to sticks.” (William de Poitiers).
For a while Harold’s strategy paid off but soon the tables were turned. The Normans adopted a tactic of pretending to retreat. The trap was set. The English followed them down the hill fighting valiantly and the shield wall was breached.
A savage battle raged for nine hours. “The ferocious resolution of the English struck terror into the foot soldiers and knights” (Orderis Vitalis)
The battlefield was a “struggling mass of arms and horses.” The wounded were trapped beneath the bodies and “the dead, by falling, seemed to move more than the living.” (William de Poitiers).
Sunset was at 3.34 but the slaughter continued in pitch dark on an unlit battlefield. The hill resounded with the clash of arms and the cries of the wounded lying helplessly in their own blood. Heavy losses were inflicted and both armies were close to exhaustion.
Still the savage fighting continued and at one point the cry went up falsely that William had been killed. Panic ensued, The Duke rallied his troops by lifting his visor and bravely rode bareheaded in front of his men shouting “I live. I live. Fight on.” to urge them to continue. The battle raged. Slowly the Normans gained the upper hand and the English were overwhelmed by the superior military force of William’s army.
Harold fell from his horse, struck dead by an arrow through the eye. The Bayeux Tapestry records “Harold Rex infectus est” (The King is dead). It was a rout. The English troops were in disarray and soon vanquished by the oppressors. The soldiers of the Royal Household, Harold’s elite troops, fought to the bitter end and were slaughtered to the last man. England had been successfully invaded.
Three months later, on Christmas Day, William was crowned King of England.
For England the course of history was irrevocably changed.
THE WHALE AT NORMANS BAY
On the 13th November 1865 a huge finback whale was washed up in Norman’s Bay in front of the Star Inn. It was a magnificent creature, 70 foot long and weighing 50 tons. It was first spotted by the coastguard at Pevensey Sluice who alerted the first officer of the watch.
It immediately attracted a great deal of attention and was claimed by both the town of Hastings under the ancient Cinque Ports Charter and the local Customs Office. An auction was held and it was bought for £38 by 10 local fishermen who had an entrepreneurial streak. They erected a canvas screen around the whale and charged the public 6d for a guided tour. The interest in the whale was phenomenal and people travelled from far and wide to view this curiosity. A temporary station was made at Normans Bay out of old railway sleepers and the Star Inn did such a roaring trade that the ran out of beer.
The skeleton was eventually sold to the Museum of Zoology at Cambridge where it now stands in the entrance and is illuminated at night.
This year is the 150th anniversary of the whale’s arrival in Normans Bay and the it will form the entrance to Whale Hall, a 1.8 million Lottery project set up in Cambridge to celebrate the sounds of Nature. Researchers will be travelling to Pevensey Bay to record the sounds of the ocean to provide an atmospheric sound installation for the Whale. A fitting memorial for a local legend.