“On this day in 1066, King Harold II died valiantly defending our Saxon rights.”
Today is Hastings Day. The Battle of Hastings, arguably the most decisive battle in world history, was fought 953 years ago today, on October 14, 1066.
I promised my brother, the historian, several years ago that I would celebrate it appropriately. According to him, and he knows these things, it was long the custom of an anonymous British patriot to take out a full page advertisement in one of the London papers (I can’t remember which one, and keep forgetting to ask him), which announced “On this day in 1066 King Harold II died valiantly defending our Saxon rights.” Unfortunately, I was unable to find documentary evidence of this practice, or a facsimile of the communication, so I am compelled to improvise (see above).
Interestingly, the Battle of Hastings seems to be yet another example of the constant linkage of politics and religion, both in popular imagination and public discourse. The wonderful Encyclopedia Romana records this excerpt from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the only surviving Saxon account of the battle, in its entry on the Battle of Hastings:
Then King William came from Normandy into Pevensey, on the eve of the Feast of St. Michael, and as soon as they were fit, made a castle at Hastings market-town. Then this became known to King Harold and he gathered a great raiding-army, and came against him at the grey apple-tree. And William came upon him by surprise before his people were marshalled. Nevertheless the king fought very hard against him with those men who wanted to support him, and there was a great slaughter on either side. There were killed King Harold, and Earl Leofwine his brother, and Earl Gyrth his brother, and many good men. And the French had possession of the place of slaughter, just as God granted them because of the people’s sins.
This is presumably the “contemporary” source cited in Matthew Strickland’s Oxford Companion to Military History‘s somewhat tragic historical summation, shared by the OUP blog:
Hastings was by no means the inevitable triumph of feudal heavy cavalry over ‘outmoded’ Germanic infantry; the battle raged from dawn to dusk, the Normans came close to complete disaster, and it was chance alone that Harold, not William, was slain. Contemporaries regarded the battle as so closely fought that only divine intervention could explain William’s eventual victory.
The Battle of Hastings is also an instance of the ex post facto interpretation of cosmic events by historical ones, specifically the re-appearance of Halley’s Comet in the spring of the fateful year. [Ian Ridpath’s A Comet Called Halley gives more astronomical information, but Alasdair Wilkins at Gizmodo cites Eilmer of Malmesbury’s bitter reading of the comet’s political significance – to my way of thinking, also attributing to it the recent predations of the Vikings, who had finally suffered defeat by Harold at the Battle of Stamford Bridge just days earlier.]
The small as well as great people who made this history could have had no idea that it would change the character of the English language forever, or deeply influence British Common Law, or do any of the other things that depend on this event and that are part of our lives every day. Just as we can have no clear picture of the legacy we are leaving to the distant future. Today of all days, that’s worth remembering, and appreciating.