The Battle of Hastings: The Uncomfortable Truth
John Grehan and Martin Mace
Pen and Sword 180pp £19.99
The Battle of Hastings is the most famous military encounter in English history. This is partly because of the seismic social change that followed William the Conqueror’s decisive victory over his English rival, Harold Godwineson, on October 14th, 1066. It is also because of the quality of the original source material, notably the Bayeux Tapestry. What other medieval battle can we teach to schoolchildren using contemporary pictures?
Despite the quality of the primary sources, almost everything about Hastings is up for debate: the course of the action, the numbers on each side and, famously, whether or not Harold was killed by an arrow in the eye. As one of the foremost experts of the previous century, R. Allen Brown, once ruefully observed, sometimes the only certainty about Hastings seems to be that the Normans won.
The one other fact that has remained certain down the ages is the battle’s location. Until recent times it has been universally accepted that the action took place in the town of Battle, some seven miles north-west of Hastings itself. According to tradition William the Conqueror marked his victory by building a great abbey on the spot where Harold fell. Happily the abbey survives and so enables us to identify the battlefield with some precision.
The authors of the present volume are unhappy with this tradition. The site at Battle, they insist, does not fit with the primary source material. They contend that the fighting in 1066 took place at a different location, not far away, called Caldbec Hill.
It is impossible to catalogue here all the contortions, omissions, misconceptions, mistakes and absurdities required to sustain this view. The argument for Caldbec Hill ultimately rests on the statement of the ‘D version’ of the contemporary Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, that Harold came to oppose William at ‘the grey apple tree’. In the 1960s it was suggested that this long-lost landmark stood on top of Caldbec Hill. This is an unprovable assumption, so the authors settle for repeatedly stating it as fact (‘It is universally accepted’, we are told).
What of the traditional site? The authors assert that the story of the abbey’s altar being erected on the spot where Harold raised his standard occurs only in the Chronicle of Battle Abbey, written a hundred years after the event. On the basis that the same chronicle contains other known distortions, they then rule its testimony out of court. But the Battle Chronicle is far from being the only source of the altar story. Half a century earlier the Anglo-Norman historian William of Malmesbury said exactly the same thing. Even more compelling is the testimony of the ‘E version’ of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, recording William the Conqueror’s death in 1087: ‘On the very spot [On ðam ilcan steode] where God granted him the conquest of England he caused a great abbey to be built.’ Thus an English source, demonstrably written before 1100, confirms what is alleged here to have been a Norman conspiracy.
The authors find no room to mention either of these two sources; in their first chapter, they cheerfully admit to cherry-picking ‘the information which best suits our hypothesis’. That’s the bit that ought to leave readers feeling truly uncomfortable.
Marc Morris is author of The Norman Conquest (Windmill Books, 2013).