William of Malmesbury, d. 1143?:
The Battle of Hastings, 1066
The courageous leaders mutually prepared for battle, each according to his national
custom. The English, as we have heard, passed the night without sleep, in drinking and
singing, and in the morning proceeded without delay against the enemy. All on foot, armed
with battle-axes, and covering themselves in front by the juncture of their shields, they
formed an impenetrable body which would assuredly have secured their safety that day had
not the Normans, by a feigned flight, induced them to open their ranks, which till that
time, according to their custom, had been closely compacted. King Harold himself, on foot,
stood with his brothers near the standard in order that, so long as all shared equal
danger, none could think of retreating. This same standard William sent, after his
victory, to the pope; it was sumptuously embroidered with gold and precious stones, and
represented the figure of a man fighting.
On the other hand, the Normans passed the whole night in confessing their sins, and
received the communion of the Lord=s body in the
morning. Their infantry, with bows and arrows, formed the vanguard, while their cavalry,
divided into wings, was placed in the rear. The duke, with serene countenance, declaring
aloud that God would favor his as being the righteous side, called for his arms; and when,
through the haste of his attendants, he had put on his hauberk the hind part before, he
corrected the mistake with a laugh, saying "The
power of my dukedom shall be turned into a kingdom." Then starting the Song of Roland, in order that the warlike example of that hero might
stimulate the soldiers, and calling on God for assistance, the battle commenced on both
sides, and was fought with great ardor, neither side giving ground during the greater part
of the day.
Observing this, William gave a signal to his troops, that, feigning flight, they should
withdraw from the field. By means of this device the solid phalanx of the English opened
for the purpose of cutting down the fleeing enemy and thus brought upon itself swift
destruction; for the Normans, facing about, attacked them, thus disordered, and compelled
them to fly. In this manner, deceived by a stratagem, they met an honorable death in
avenging their enemy; nor indeed were they at all without their own revenge, for, by
frequently making a stand, they slaughtered their pursuers in heaps. Getting possession of
an eminence, they drove back the Normans, who in the heat of pursuit were struggling up
the slope, into the valley beneath, where, by hurling their javelins and rolling down
stones on them as they stood below, the English easily destroyed them to a man. Besides,
by a short passage with which they were acquainted, they avoided a deep ditch and trod
underfoot such a multitude of their enemies in that place that the heaps of bodies made
the hollow level with the plain. This alternating victory, first of one side and then of
the other, continued so long as Harold lived to check the retreat; but when he fell, his
brain pierced by an arrow, the flight of the English ceased not until night.
In the battle both leaders distinguished themselves by their bravery. Harold, not
content with the functions of a general and with exhorting others, eagerly assumed himself
the duties of a common soldier. He was constantly striking down the enemy at close
quarters, so that no one could approach him with impunity, for straightway both horse and
rider would be felled by a single blow. So it was at long range, as I have said, that the
enemy=s deadly arrow brought him to his death.
One of the Norman soldiers gashed his thigh with a sword, as he lay prostrate; for which
shameful and cowardly action he was branded with ignominy by William and expelled from the
William, too, was equally ready to encourage his soldiers by his voice and by his
presence, and to be the first to rush forward to attack the thickest of the foe. He was
everywhere fierce and furious; he lost three choice horses, which were that day killed
under him. The dauntless spirit and vigor of the intrepid general, however, still held
out. Though often called back by the kind remonstrance of his bodyguard, he still
persisted until approaching night crowned him with complete victory. And no doubt the hand
of God so protected him that the enemy should draw no blood from his person, though they
aimed so many javelins at him.
This was a fatal day to England, and melancholy havoc was wrought in our dear country
during the change of its lords. For it had long adopted the manners of the Angles, which
had indeed altered with the times; for in the first years of their arrival they were
barbarians in their look and manner, warlike in their usages, heathens in their rights.
After embracing the faith of Christ, by degrees and, in process of time, in consequence of
the peace which they enjoyed, they relegated arms to a secondary place and gave their
whole attention to religion. I am not speaking of the poor, the meanness of whose fortune
often restrains them from overstepping the bound of justice; I omit, too, men of
ecclesiastical rank, whom sometimes respect for their profession and sometimes the fear of
shame suffers not to deviate from the true path; I speak of princes, who from the
greatness of their power might have full liberty to indulge in pleasure. Some of these in
their own country, and others at Rome, changing their habit, obtained a heavenly kingdom
and a saintly intercourse. Many others during their whole lives devoted themselves in
outward appearance to worldly affairs, but in order that they might exhaust their
treasures on the poor or divide them amongst monasteries.
What shall I say of the multitudes of bishops, hermits, and abbots? Does not the whole
island blaze with such numerous relics of its own people that you can scarcely pass a
village of any consequence but you hear the name of some new saint? And of how many more
has all remembrance perished through the want of records?
Nevertheless, the attention to literature and religion had gradually decreased for
several years before the arrival of the Normans. The clergy, contented with a little
confused learning, could scarcely stammer out the words of the sacraments; and a person
who understood grammar was an object of wonder and astonishment. The monks mocked the rule
of their order by fine vestments and the use of every kind of food. The nobility, given up
to luxury and wantonness, went not to church in the morning after the manner of
Christians, but merely, in a careless manner, heard matins and masses from a hurrying
priest in their chambers, amid the blandishments of their wives. The commonalty, left
unprotected, became a prey to the most powerful, who amassed fortunes, either by seizing
on their property or by selling their persons into foreign countries; although it is
characteristic of this people to be more inclined to reveling than to the accumulation of
wealth. . .
Drinking in parties was a universal practice, in which occupation they passed entire
nights as well as days. They consumed their whole substance in mean and despicable houses,
unlike the Normans and French, who live frugally in noble and splendid mansions. The vices
attendant on drunkenness, which enervate the human mind, followed; hence it came about
that when they engaged William, with more rashness and precipitate fury than military
skill, they doomed themselves and their country to slavery by a single, and that an easy,
victory. For nothing is less effective than rashness; and what begins with violence
quickly ceases or is repelled.
The English at that time wore short garments, reaching to the mid-knee; they had their
hair cropped, their beards shaven, their arms laden with gold bracelets, their skin
adorned with tattooed designs. They were accustomed to eat till they became surfeited, and
to drink till they were sick. These latter qualities they imparted to their conquerors; as
to the rest, they adopted their manners. I would not, however, had these bad propensities
ascribed to the English universally; I know that many of the clergy at that day trod the
path of sanctity by a blameless life; I know that many of the laity, of all ranks and
conditions, in this nation were well-pleasing to God. Be injustice far from this account;
the accusation does not involve the whole, indiscriminately; but as in peace the mercy of
God often cherishes the bad and the good together, so, equally, does his severity
sometimes include them both in captivity.
The Normans---that I may speak of them also---were at that time, and are even now,
exceedingly particular in their dress and delicate in their food, but not so to excess.
They are a race inured to war, and can hardly live without it; fierce in rushing against
the enemy, and, where force fails of success, ready to use stratagem or to corrupt by
bribery. As I have said, they live in spacious houses with economy, envy their superiors,
wish to excel their equals, and plunder their subjects, though they defend them from
others; they are faithful to their lords, though a slight offense alienates them. They
weigh treachery by its chance of success, and change their sentiments for money. The most
hospitable, however, of all nations, they esteem strangers worthy of equal honor with
themselves; they also inter-marry with their vassals. They revived, by their arrival, the
rule of religion which had everywhere grown lifeless in England. You might see churches
rise in every village, and monasteries in the towns and cities, built after a style
unknown before; you might behold the country flourishing with renovated rites; so that
each wealthy man accounted that day lost to him which he had neglected to signalize by
some munificent action.
From: James Harvey Robinson, ed., Readings in European History, 2 Vols. (Boston:
Ginn & Co., 1904-06), Vol. I: From the Breaking up of the Roman Empire to the
Protestant Revolt, pp. 224-229
Scanned in and modernized by Dr. Jerome S. Arkenberg, Dept. of History, Cal. State
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© Paul Halsall June 1998