Return to The Normans

The Normans
by Sarah Orne Jewett
Chapter XV.

Dukes of the Normans


I see thy glory, like a shooting star,
Fall to the base earth from the firmament!
Thy sun sets weeping in the lowly west."
           -- SHAKESPEARE.

     Early in the summer there was a sound of wood-chopping and a crash of falling trees in the forests of Normandy, and along her shores in the shipyards the noise of shipwrights' mallets began, and the forging of bolts and chains. The hemp-fields enlarge their borders, and catch the eye quickly with their brilliant green leafage. There is no better trade now than that of the armorer's, and many a Norman knight sees to it that the links of his chain-mail jerkin and helmet are strongly sewn, and that he is likely to be well defended by the clanking habit that he must buckle on. Horses and men are drilling in the castle yards, and every baron gathers his troop, and is stern in his orders and authority. The churches are crowded, the priests are urging the holy cause, and war is in everybody's mind. The cherry blossoms whiten and fall, the apple-trees are covered with rosy snow, mid-summer sees the young fruit greaten on the boughs, the sun rides high in the sky, and the soldiers' mail weighs heavy; through the country-lanes go troops of footmen and horsemen. You can see the tips of their unstrung bows moving above the hedges, and their furled banners with heraldic device or pious seal. They are all going toward the sea, toward the mouth of the river Dive. The peasant women and children stand in their cottage doors and watch the straggling processions on their way. It is indeed a cause to aid with one's prayers, this war against the heathen English.

     All summer long, armed men were collecting at William's head-quarters from every part of Normandy, or wherever his summons had wakened a favorable response. If we can believe the chroniclers, the army was well paid and well fed and kept in good order. It became a question which army would hold its ground longest; Harold's, on the Sussex downs, or William's, by the Dive. At last, news was brought that the Englishmen were disbanded, then the Frenchmen -- as we begin to hear our Normans called, -- the Frenchmen begin to make ready for their expedition. There may have been skirmishes by sea in the hot weather, but it was not until early autumn that William gave orders to embark. There are different stories about the magnitude of the force. The defeated party would have us believe that they were enormously overpowered, and so set the numbers very high; the conquerors, on the other hand, insist that they had not quantity so much as quality to serve them in the fight, and that it was not the size of their army but the valor of it that won the day. We are told that there were six hundred and ninety-six ships and fourteen thousand men; we are told also that there were more than three thousand ships and sixty thousand men, all told; and other accounts range between these two extremes.

     For a month the Norman army waited at the mouth of the Dive for a south wind, but no south wind blew, while an adverse storm scattered them and strewed the shore with Norman bodies. At last, the duke took advantage of a westerly breeze and set sail for St. Valery, off the coast of Ponthieu, from whence he hoped to go more easily over to England. At the famous abbey of St. Valery he was saying his prayers and watching the weather-cocks for fifteen days, and he and his captains made generous offerings at the holy shrines. The monks came out at last in solemn procession bearing their sacred relics, and the Norman host knelt devoutly and did homage. At Caen, in June, the two great minsters had been dedicated, and William and Matilda had given their young daughter Cecily to the service of God, together with rich offerings of lands and money. In their own churches, therefore, and at many another Norman altar beside, prayer and praise never ceased in those days while Harold was marching to Stamford Bridge.

     At last, on Wednesday, the twenty-seventh of September, the wind went round to the southward, and the great fleet sailed. The soldiers believed that their prayers had been answered, and that they were the favorites of heaven. They crowded on board the transport-ships, and were heedless of every thing save that they were not left behind, and had their armor and weapons ready for use. The trumpets were playing, their voices cried loud above the music that echoed back in eager strains from the shore. The horsemen shouted at their horses, and the open ships were plainer copies of the dragon-ships of old; they carried gayly dressed gentlemen, and shining gonfanons, and thickets of glittering spears. The shields were rich with heraldic blazoning, and the golden ship, Mora, that the Duchess Matilda had given to the duke, shone splendid on the gray water, as just at evening William himself set sail and turned the gilded figure of a boy blowing an ivory trumpet, like some herald of certain victory, toward the shore of Kent. The Pope's sacred banner was given to the welcome breeze, and William's own standard, figured with the three lions of Normandy, fluttered and spread itself wide. The colored sails looked gay, the soldiers sang and cheered, and away they went without a fear, these blessed Normans of the year 1066. On the Mora's masthead blazed a great lantern when the darkness fell. It was a cloudy night.

     In the early morning, the Mora being lighter-laden than the rest, found herself alone on the sea, out of sight of either land or ships, but presently the loitering forest of masts rose into view. At nine o'clock William had landed at Pevensey on the Sussex shore. As he set foot for the second time on English soil, he tripped and fell, and the bystanders gave a woful groan at such a disastrous omen. "By the splendor of God," cried the duke, in his favorite oath, "I have taken seizin of my kingdom; see the earth of England in my two hands!" at which ready turn of wit a soldier pulled a handful of thatch from a cottage roof and gave it to his master for a further token of proprietorship. This also was seizin of all that England herself embraced.

     There was nobody to hinder the Normans from landing or going where they pleased. At Pevensey they stayed only one day for lack of supplies, and then set out eastward toward Hastings. In the Bayeux tapestry, perhaps the most reliable authority so far as it goes, there is an appealing bit of work that pictures a burning house with a woman and little child making their escape. The only places of safety, we are told elsewhere, were the churchyards and the churches. William's piety could hardly let him destroy even an enemy's sacred places of worship.

     The next few days were filled with uncertainty and excited expectancy. Clearly there was no army in the immediate neighborhood of Hastings; the Normans had that part of the world to themselves apparently, and hours and days went by leaving them undisturbed. Many a voice urged that they might march farther into the country, but their wary leader possessed his soul in patience, and at last came the news of the great battle in the north, of Harold's occupation of York, and the terrible disaster that had befallen the multitude of Harold Hardrada and Tostig, with their allies. Now, too, came a message to the duke from Norman Robert the Staller, who had stood by the Confessor's deathbed, and who kept a warm heart for the country of his birth, though he had become a loyal Englishman in his later years. Twenty thousand men have been slain in the north, he sends word to William; the English were mad with pride and rejoicing. The Normans were not strong enough nor many enough to risk a battle; they would be like dogs among wolves, and would be worse than overthrown. But William was scornful of such advice -- he had come to fight Harold, and he would meet him face to face -- he would risk the battle if he had only a sixth part as many men as followed him, eager as himself for his rights.

     Harold had bestirred his feasting and idle army, and held council of his captains at York. Normans and French and the men of Brittany had landed at Pevensey in numbers like the sand of the sea and the stars of heaven. If only the south wind had blown before, so that he might have met these invaders with his valiant army, too soon dispersed! To have beaten back William and then have marched north to Stamford Bridge, that, indeed, would have been a noble record. Now the Normans were burning and destroying unhindered in the south; what should be done? And every captain-baron of the English gave his word that he would call no man king but Harold the son of Godwine; and with little rest from the battle just fought, they made ready to march to London. They knew well enough what this new invasion meant; a prophetic dread filled their hearts, for it was not alone out of loyalty to Harold, but for love of England, that these men of different speech and instincts must be pushed off the soil to which they had no lawful claim.

     The fame of the northern victory brought crowds of recruits to the two banners, the Dragon of Wessex and Harold's own standard, the Fighting Man, as they were carried south again. Nothing succeeds like success; if Harold could conquer the great Hardrada, it were surely not impossible to defeat the Norman duke. So the thanes and churchmen alike rallied to the Fighting Man. The earls of the north half promised to follow, but they never kept their word; perhaps complete independence might follow now their half-resented southern vassalage. At least they did not mean to fight the battles of Wessex until there was no chance for evasion. But while Harold waited at London, men flocked together from the west and south, and he spent some days in his royal house at Westminster, heavy-hearted and full of care in his great extremity. He was too good a general, he had seen too much of the Norman soldiery already to underrate their prowess in battle; he shook his head gloomily when his officers spoke with scorn of their foes. One day he went on a pilgrimage to his own abbey at Waltham, and the monks' records say that, while he prayed there before the altar and confessed his sins and vowed his fealty to God, who reigns over all the kingdoms of the earth; while he lay face downward on the sacred pavement, the figure of Christ upon the Cross bowed its head, as if to say again, "It is finished." Thurkill, the sacristan, saw this miracle, and knew that all hope must be put aside, and that Harold's cause was already lost.

     Next, the Norman duke sent a message to Westminster by a monk from the abbey of Fécamp, and there was parleying to and fro about Harold's and William's rival claims to the English crown. It was only a formal challenging and a final provocation to the Englishmen to come and fight for their leader, there where the invaders had securely entrenched and established themselves. "Come and drive us home if you dare, if you can!" the Normans seemed to say tauntingly, and Harold saw that he must make haste lest the duke should be strengthened by reinforcements or have time to make himself harder to dislodge. William's demand that he should come down from the throne had been put into insolent words, and the Kentish people were being pitifully distressed and brought to beggary by the host of foreigners. Yet Gyrth, the son of Godwine, begged his royal brother to stay in London; to let him go and fight the Normans; and the people begged Harold, at the last moment, to listen to such good counsel. But Harold refused; he could never play [the] coward's part, or let a man who loved him fight a battle in his stead; and so when six days were spent he marched away to the fight where the two greatest generals the world held must match their strength one against the other, hand to hand. The King of England had a famous kingdom to lose, the Duke of Normandy had a famous kingdom to win.

     On the night before the fourteenth of October, the armies stood before each other near Hastings, on the field of Senlac, now called Battle. They made their camps hastily; for hosts of them the rude shelters were a last earthly dwelling-place and habitation of earthly hopes or fears. Through the Norman encampment went bands of priests, and the Normans prayed and confessed their sins. The Bishop of Coutances and Duke William's half-brother Odo, Bishop of Bayeux, both these high officials of the Church were there to stay the hands of their parishioners, and uphold the devout fighters in this crusade. Odo made the soldiers promise that whoever survived the morrow's battle would never again eat meat on Saturday; by such petty means he hoped to gain success at the hands of God who rules battles on a larger scope, and who, through the quarrels and jealousies of men, brings slowly near the day when justice shall be done on earth as it is in heaven. They sang hymns; the watch-fires flickered and faded; the gray morning dawned, and there in the dim light stood the English on a hillside that jutted like a promontory into the marshy plain. A woodland lay behind them, as if the very trees of the English soil had mustered with the men: in the thickest of the ranks was Harold's royal banner, the Fighting Man, and Harold himself stood close beside it with his brothers. The awful battle-axes, stained yet with the blood of those who died at Stamford Bridge, were in every man's hand, and every man was sheltered by his shield and kept silence. The Normans saw their foes stand waiting all together shoulder to shoulder, yet there was silence -- an awful stillness in which to see so vast a host of men, and yet not hear them speak. The English had feasted that night, and sung their songs, and told the story of the northern fight. How their battle-axes looked gray and cold as the light dawned more and more! The Normans knew that they might feel the bitter edges and the cleaving steel of them ere the day was spent.

     Archers first, behind them the lancers, and behind all, the horsemen; so the Normans were placed, high-hearted and bold with their great errand. To gain is better than to keep; by night this England might be theirs in spite of the battle-axes. While the day was yet young, Taillefer, the minstrel, went riding boldly out from the ranks singing the song of Roland and Charlemagne at Roncesvalles, tossing his sword lightly and fast into the air and catching it deftly as he galloped to the English lines. There sat the duke on his horse that was a present from the king of Spain. His most holy relics were hung about his neck; as he glanced from Taillefer along his army front he could see the Côtentin men, led by Neal of Saint Saviour, and his thoughts may have gone back quickly to the battle of his early youth at Val-ès-dunes. What a mighty host had gathered at his summons! All his Norman enemies were his followers now; he had won great championship, and if this day's fortune did not turn against him, the favor of the Holy Mother Church at Rome, the church of the apostles and martyrs, was won indeed; and no gift in Christendom would be more proudly honored than this kingdom of England made loyal to the papal crown. William the Bastard, the dishonored, insulted grandson of a Falaise tanner, -- William, the Duke of proud Normandy, at the head of a host, knocking at the gates of England; nay, let us set the contrast wider yet, and show Rolf the Ganger, wet by salt spray on the deck of his dragon-ship, steering boldly southward, and William, Duke of the Normans, rich and great, a master of masters, and soon to be king of a wide and noble land, and winner of a great battle, if the saints whom he worshipped would fight upon his side.

     Taillefer has killed his two men, and been killed in his turn; his song has ended, and his sword has dropped from his hand. The Normans cry "Dex aide! Dex aide! Ha Rou!" and rush boldly up the hill to Harold's palisades. The arrows flew in showers, but the English stand solid and hew at the horsemen and footmen from behind their shields. Every man, even the king, was on foot; they shouted "Out! out!" as the Normans came near; they cried "God Almighty!" and "Holy Cross!" and at this sound Harold must have sadly remembered how the crucifix had bowed its head as he lay prone before it. And the fight grew hotter and hotter, the Normans were beaten back, and returned again fiercely to the charge, down the hill, now up the hill over the palisades, like a pouring river of men, dealing stinging sword-thrusts  --  dropping in clumsy heaps of javelin-pricked and axe-smitten lifelessness; from swift, bright-eyed men becoming a bloody mass to stumble over, or feebly crying for mercy at the feet that trampled them; so the fight went on. Harold sent his captains to right and left, and William matched his captains against them valiantly. The Norman arrows were falling blunted and harmless from the English shields, and he told the archers to shoot higher and aim so that the arrows might fall from above into the Englishmen's faces. There was no sound of guns or smoke of powder in that day, only a fearful wrangling and chopping, and a whir of arrow and lance and twang of bowstring. Yes, and a dolorous groaning as closer and closer the armies grappled with each other, hand to hand.

     Hour after hour the day spent itself, and the fight would never be done. There was a cry that the duke was dead, and he pulled off his helmet and hurried along the lines to put new courage into his men. The arrows were dropping like a deadly rain, the axemen and lancers were twisted and twined together like melted rock that burns and writhes its way through widening crack and crevice. The hot flood of Normans in chain-mail and pointed helmets sweeps this way, and the English with their leathern caps and their sturdy shoulders mailed like their enemies, swinging their long-handled weapons, pour back again, and so the day draws near its end, while the races mix in symbolic fashion in the fight as they must mix in government, in blood, in brotherhood, and in ownership of England while England stands.

     Harold has fallen, the gleaming banner of the Fighting Man, with its golden thread and jewelry, is stained with blood and mire. An arrow has gone deep into the king's eye and brain; he has fallen, and his foes strike needless blows at his poor body, lest so valiant a spirit cannot be quieted by simple death. The English have lost the fight, there is a cry that they are flying, and the Normans hear it and gather their courage once more; they rally and give chase. All at once there is a shout that thrills them through and through -- a glorious moment when they discover that the day is won. William the Bastard is William the Conqueror, a sad word for many English ears in days to come; to us the sign of great gain that was and is England's -- of the further advance of a kingdom already noble and strong. The English are strongest, but the Normans are quickest. The battle has been given to Progress, and the Norman, not the Saxon, had the right to lead the way.

     But the field of Senlac makes a sad and sorry sight as the light of the short October day is fading and the pale stars shine dimly through the chilly mist that gathers in from the sea. It is not like the bright Norman weather; the slow breeze carries a faint, heavy odor of fallen leaves, and the very birds give awesome cries as they fly over the battle-field. There are many of the victors who think of the spoils of England, but some better men remember that it is in truth a mighty thing to have conquered such a country. What will it mean in very truth that England is theirs?

     Later, William the Conqueror and his knights are resting and feasting and bragging of their deeds,there where Harold's standards were overthrown and the banner of the Three Lions of Normandy waves in the cool night wind. The living men look like butchers from the shambles, and the dead lie in heavy heaps; here and there a white face catches a ray of light and appeals for pity in its dumb loneliness. There are groans growing ever fainter, and cries for help now and then, from a soldier whose wits have come back to him, though he lay stunned and maimed among those who are forever silent. There go weeping men and women with litters -- they cannot find the king, and they must lead the woman who loved him best of all the earth, Edith the Swan-throated, through this terrible harvest-field to discover his wounded body among the heaps of slain. He must be buried on the sea-shore, the Norman duke gives command to William Malet, and so guard forever the coast he tried to defend.

     The heralds of victory set sail exultantly across the brown water of the Channel; the messengers of defeat go mourning to London and through the sorrowful English towns. Harold the son of Godwine, and his brother, Gyrth the Good -- yes, and the flower of all Southern England; no man of Harold's own noble following lived to tell the. story and to bewail this great defeat. There were some who lived to talk about it in after days; -- and there was one good joy in saying that as the Normans pursued them after the day was lost, they hid in ambush in the fens and routed their pursuers with deadly, unexpected blows. But the country side looked on with dismay while William fought his way to London, not without much toil and opposition, but at last the humbled earldoms willingly or unwillingly received their new lord. Since Eadgar the underwitted Atheling was not fit for the throne, and the house of Godwine had fallen, William the Norman was made monarch of England, and there was a king-crowning in Westminster at Christmas-tide.

  Notes for Chapter 15

ShakespeareRichard II, Act 2, Scene 4.
    [ Back ]
see the earth of England in my two hands:  Freeman reports this event in Volume 3, p. 271.  Usually spelled "seisen," William refers to a legal ceremony in which a new owner takes possession of property, sometimes including placing a part of that property as a symbol into the new owner's hands.  See: A Dictionary of Words and Phrases Used in Ancient and Modern Law, Volume 2, by Arthur English, p. 518.
    [ Back ]

Bayeux tapestry:  See Wikipedia:
    To see images of the tapestry, click here.
                Scene 47 shows a woman leading a child from a burning house.
    [ Back

 "justice shall be done on earth as it is in heaven":  This sentence appears in Shirley Brooks' novel, The Silver Cord (1861), p. 104.  Both allude to "the Lord's Prayer," Matthew 6:9-13.
    [ Back ]

  Edited and annotated by Terry Heller, Coe College, with assistance from Allison Anderson and Gabe Heller.



Return to The Normans