14 October 2016 marks the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings. It is sometimes said that ‘winners write the history books’. However, some recently digitised accounts of the Battle of Hastings held at the British Library show that this was not always the case.
Count William came from Normandy to Pevensey on Michaelmas Eve, and as soon as they were able to move on they built a castle at Hastings… There King Harold was killed… and always after that it grew much worse. (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle D, 1066).
Detail of the final lines of version D of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (‘… from England. And Bishop Odo and Earl William stayed behind and built castles far and wide throughout this country, and distressed the wretched folk, and always after that it grew much worse. May the end be good when God wills!’): Cotton MS Tiberius B IV, f. 80v
950 years ago, King Edward the Confessor (1042–1066) died, sparking a contest for the throne of England. Edward was succeeded by his brother-in-law Harold Godwinson, a member of an ambitious political family. King Harold’s rule was soon challenged by the Scandinavian leader Harold Hardrada, who was supported by Harold Godwinson’s own brother Tostig, and William, duke of Normandy. Harold Godwinson defeated Tostig and Harold Hardrada at Stamford Bridge in September 1066, but he was defeated and killed in turn by William at the Battle of Hastings. William took the crown of England and became known as King William I, or William the Conqueror (1066–1087).
Left: seal of Edward the Confessor, from a partially rewritten writ pertaining to the jurisdiction and lordship of Archbishop Stigand and Christ Church Canterbury, allegedly 1052 x 1066 with later interventions, Lord Frederick Campbell Charter XXI 5; Right: seal of William the Conqueror, from a confirmation to St Mary’s Coventry, allegedly 1070, Add Ch 11205
The Battle of Hastings and the Norman Conquest inspired a great deal of historical writing. Over a dozen writers recounted the battle and its aftermath within a century of those events taking place, and the British Library holds manuscripts of many of these texts. These manuscripts represent a variety of perspectives, from an account closely based on the work of William the Conqueror’s personal chaplain, William of Poitiers (Cotton MS Nero A XI); to chronicles from Battle Abbey (Cotton MS Domitian A II), built near the site of the battle; to much later, fanciful legends which claimed Harold survived the battle and went on to live as a hermit on the Welsh border. The British Library has recently digitised several manuscripts composed by writers who identified with the losing, Anglo-Saxon side.
Opening of second part of the Vita Ædwardi Regis, England (Christ Church, Canterbury?), c. 1100, Harley MS 526, f. 52r
Early references to the Battle of Hastings can be found in an anonymous Life of Edward the Confessor known as the the Vita Ædwardi Regis. This Life was written for Edward’s queen, Edith, in two parts: the second part, which laments the battle of Hastings and the Norman Conquest, may have been finished by 1067 and certainly by Edith’s death in 1075. This second part begins: ‘Amid the many graves, hurt by the death of kings, what, Clio [muse], are you writing now?’ (translated by F. Barlow, The Life of King Edward who Rests at Westminster (London: Thomas Nelson, 1962), p. 56.) Edith was Harold II’s sister and, unsurprisingly, the account written for her praises Harold in exaggerated terms, as the best soldier ever and Edward’s chosen heir. The sole copy of the Life is preserved at the British Library (Harley MS 526, ff. 38r-57v).
Other Anglo-Saxon perspectives on the battle can be found in the series of related Old English annals known as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Of the six surviving versions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, four cover the year 1066. Of these four, the two most extensive accounts for the year 1066 (in the C and D recensions of the Chronicle) are held by the British Library and are also now available online. The C version (Cotton MS Tiberius B I), probably compiled somewhere in southern England, offers a lot of detail about the earlier invasions, but frustratingly it cuts off just before the Battle of Hastings.
By contrast, the D version of the chronicle (Cotton MS Tiberius B IV) offers an early account of the Battle of Hastings. This chronicler claimed that William built a ‘castel’ at Hastings before Harold arrived. Harold then gathered a large army, but, according to the chronicler, William attacked before Harold could organise his troops:
Description of the Battle of Hastings, Cotton MS Tiberius B IV, f. 80r
King Harold… assembled a large army and came against him at the hoary apple tree. And William came against him by surprise before his army was drawn up in battle array. But the king nevertheless fought hard against him, with the men who were willing to support him, and there were heavy casualties on both sides. There King Harold was killed and Earl Leofwine his brother, and Earl Gyth his brother, and many good men, and the French remained masters of the field, even as God granted it to them because of the sins of the people… (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle D, 1066)
It is not clear how accurate this description of the battle is: there are a mass of contradictory accounts about Hastings, and there is no particular reason to believe this Anglo-Saxon chronicler was an eyewitness. The compilers of this version of the chronicle have been associated with a northern monastery, such as York, or a monastery with northern connections, such as Worcester, and this manuscript may have been written more than a decade after the battle. Nevertheless, this account is witness to the beliefs held by at least one Old English speaker within living memory of the battle.
The compiler(s) of Anglo-Saxon Chronicle D blamed the defeat of Harold’s forces on ‘the sins of the [Anglo-Saxon] people’. However, this Old English chronicler (or chroniclers) was also uncomplimentary about the next regime, concluding the entry for 1066 with the famously pessimistic assessment:
[O]n Christmas Day, Archbishop Aldred consecrated [William] king at Westminster. And… he swore (before Aldred would place the crown on his head) that he would rule all this people as well as the best of the kings before him, if they were loyal to him. All the same he laid taxes on people very severely… And Bishop Odo and Earl William… built castles far and wide throughout this country, and distressed the wretched folk, and always after that it grew much worse. (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle D, 1066).
End of the entry for 1066, from Anglo-Saxon Chronicle D, England (?Worcester or ?York), Cotton MS Tiberius B IV, f. 80v
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle D is the longest Old English account of the battle. By contrast, Anglo-Saxon Chronicle A (now Cambridge, Corpus Christi College MS 173), sums up the whole year in only two sentences:
In this year King Edward died and Earl Harold succeeded to the kingdom, and held it 40 weeks and one day; and in this year William came and conquered England. And in this year Christ Church was burnt and a comet appeared on 18 April. (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle A, 1066).
This chronicle was probably being compiled at Canterbury in the mid- and late 11th century, hence the reference to Christ Church.
The version of the battle found in Anglo-Saxon Chronicle E (Oxford, Bodleian Library, Laud Misc. 636) is also brief:
Count William landed at Hastings on Michaelmas Day, and Harold came from the north and fought with him before all the army had come, and there he fell and his two brothers Gyrth and Leofwine; and William conquered this country… (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle E, 1066).
This manuscript was made at Peterborough in the 12th century. It was probably copied from a Canterbury manuscript to replace a manuscript lost in a fire in Peterborough’s library in 1116.
These two accounts were not, however, the shortest descriptions of the Norman Conquest in the Old English annals. One set of Easter table annals, also kept at Canterbury in the mid- and late 11th century, did not even mention the Norman Conquest. The lines adjacent to the entry for the date of Easter in 1066 and 1067 simply say, ‘Here King Edward died. Here, in this year, Christ Church burned.’ A later hand has added ‘At this time came William’ (‘her co[m] Willehm’) to the side. One wonders why the original annalist, who wrote the annals up to 1073, did not think the Battle of Hastings was worth mentioning. Equally, why did the later hand amend the entry for 1066?
Detail from Easter Table Annals, England (Canterbury), late 11th century-12th century, Cotton MS Caligula A XV, f. 135r
Between the time the Christ Church Easter table annals were being compiled, the only surviving copy of Vita Ædwardi Regis was copied around 1100, possibly at Christ Church. Meanwhile, the monks at the nearby monastery of St Augustine, Canterbury, also remembered the Battle of Hastings in their martyrology. Under 14 October in this martyrology made at St Augustine’s in the late 11th century, someone noted the deaths of ‘Harold, king of the English, and many of our brothers.’ The entry for each day in the martyrology was supposed to be read out in the daily chapter meeting of the monastery, and so the Battle of Hastings may have been commemorated there every year.
Entry for 14 October with addition mentioning the death of ‘Harold king of the English and many of our brothers’, from Usuard’s Martyrology, Canterbury (St Augustine’s), c. 1075–1125 with later additions, Cotton MS Vitellius C XII/1, f. 145v
All these accounts of 1066 imply that the fallout from the Norman Conquest was not a simple, clear-cut story of ‘winners’ and ‘losers’. The complexity of the situation is revealed by the abundance of differences in their accounts, even though they all identified with or primarily remembered the losing side. While one Old English speaker recorded details like the type of tree near where Harold assembled his troops, others were more concerned with the burning of Christ Church than with the Battle of Hastings, while others did not even mention the battle at all. Moreover, the extent to which any of these writers can be considered ‘losers’ is debatable. The scribes of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles portrayed themselves as ‘wretched’ following the conquest, but they belonged to institutions which still had substantial resources. The martyrology which records the deaths of ‘King Harold and our brothers’ from St Augustine’s Abbey contains finely decorated initials, belying the community’s wealth and cultural creativity in the decades immediately after the Conquest.
Detail of initial for the month of October, Cotton MS Vitellius C XII/1, f. 143v
These manuscripts disprove the view that only winners write history. The views of people who identified with the losing side at the Battle of Hastings can still be read today, thanks to these British Library manuscripts. This abundance of perspectives on the battle and its aftermath may be one of the reasons the Norman Conquest still continues to fascinate us, 950 years after the sun set on the battlefield.
Sympathy for the losing side at Hastings continued long after the Conquest. In the early 13th century, an account of Harold’s life was produced for Waltham Abbey. If you are interested in learning more about this alternative perspective on the Norman Conquest, you can visit Epping Forest District Museum in Waltham Abbey, which has an exhibition on Harold II: The Life, Legend and Legacy of the Last Anglo-Saxon King of England until 24 December 2016. The British Library is delighted to have loaned the Vita Haroldi (Harley MS 3776) to this exhibition.
All translations of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle are taken from D. Whitelock and others, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (London: Eyre and Spottiswode, 1961).