Harold at Hastings
(14 October 1066)
Harald Hardraada, King of Norway, dead
With traitor Tostig (Earl Northumberland
Before his baser nature had been known),
Caught by surprise at Yorkshire’s Stamford Bridge
By England’s king as they invaded there
To steal his crown away; now that same king,
Harold, feasted his victory in York.
Into his happy celebrations came
A travel-weary messenger to say:
“The Norman Duke has landed in the South
And with brought him a mighty force of knights.
Already he holds Hastings and gives threat
To fearful Sussex with his mounted host!”.
Those present were aghast at this grave news
Except the king himself, who merely said,
In accents calm and low: “It had to be!.
This was the meaning of the Flaming Star
Which lit the sky by day as well as night
Four months ago to everyone’s amaze!”.
Then, rising to his feet, he spoke aloud
To that dismayed assembly: “Do not fear
Bastard Duke William of Normandy!.
What we have done at Stamford Bridge so short
A time ago to Viking plunderers —
Than whom few are more skilled in warlike arts —
We shall again at Hastings newly do!.
We Saxons can drink blood as well as beer
And carve flesh-meat with sword and axe no less
Effectively than with a knife. So drink
A Health to Harold, your true king, before
Tomorrow morning’s start to our campaign
To drive those Normans back into the sea
As recently we drove the Berserk horde!”.
All drank and shouted: “Harold!. Health to you!.
Long may you reign, our freely-chosen King,
As steadfast guarantor of English rule!”.
But many there who gave their lord his due
Were doubtful whether it was possible,
(With their fight-weakened army, which must march
Without respite the long land’s length from York
To Hastings and at once give battle there),
To find strength to defeat the Norman force
Established firmly on the Sussex coast.
(Though many thought, not one would voice his doubts).
It was not three weeks later that the king,
With his bone-weary men-at-arms, approached
To Hastings from the North. At Senlac Hill
He saw the Norman host, down in the vale.
Strongly entrenched and waiting for him there.
At once the Saxon King of England saw
With his war-practiced, expert soldier’s eyes
That, for each of his men, the Normans owned
Six mounted knights, two archers and two pikes.
Such overwhelming odds were better played
As fisherman with guile than bull-at-gate!.
Defences he prepared upon the crest
Of Senlac and disposed his fighting men,
Before the sun went down, to best effect;
Then waited, both to rest his weary troops
And to permit the reinforcements called
To arms, from London and the Western shires),
To rally to his flag. His simple plan
To stay just where he was and to avoid
The fight as long as possible . If he,
(The Norman duke), onset Harold would try
To hold him all next day — behind a wall
Of shielded pikemen and axe-wielding carls —
Trusting that night would bring him fresh support
To turn the battle and force victory.
Duke William well understood that he
Must overthrow the Saxon king before
Fresh strength could muster to his side and while
His present force — still wearied from their fight
At Stamford and the subsequent march South —
Might not acquit themselves to best effect:
Although he did not doubt their stubbornness.
He knew that Harold would not risk attack
Until his men were rested and reserves
Could reinforce his strength; but it was now
Too late this day to launch his own assaults —
The gloom of dusk would handicap his knights
And make his archers ineffectual —
So serious hostilities must wait
Until the morrow’s dawn. Then he would send
His cavalry against the Saxon lines
And by sheer numbers overwhelm the foe
As quickly as they might. He feared that, should
The English army hold out all the day,
(As they were capable, if their shield-wall —
Protected by long pikes — held firm), his own
Chance of success would be at risk as more
Combatants rallied to defend their land
And king from his intrusive presence there.
So, after giving orders to his chiefs
On how the battle should be fought, he went
Into his tent to pray before he slept
The night away. Before sleep came he mused
Upon the reason for the fateful day
That would decide the destinies of both
Himself and Harold, erstwhile guest now foe.
He well recalled how Harold had agreed
With solemn oath a few short years ago,
(Misled by clever artifice and threats),
To cede the precedence of England’s crown
To William when Edward — reigning then —
Should die. Then Harold had forsworn that oath
And taken for himself the governance
Promised to William himself, and dared
Him to take the crown by force from him
If he maintained his claim to it. And so
It was that now they met in warlike state
Upon prophetic Senlac — ‘Lake of Blood’
Translated from the Norman dialect —
To settle their dispute. Though Harold was
Elected to the crown by Saxon Law,
The Duke had Papal judgement for his cause
So lost no sleep; the Church was on his side!.
Next morning early was the struggle joined.
Time after time the mounted mass of knights
Surged stormily against the rigid ranks
Of pike-fringed shields backed by the tireless arms
Of stalwart axe-men who would not yield ground
Nor break their disciplined defensive lines.
Time after time they were repulsed with wrath
As lethal axes sheared through mail and men
And steeds with relentless efficiency.
Time after time loud metal moans ached ears
As arcing axes amputated limbs
And clove helms with dreadful dexterity.
The rival leaders were exemplary
In all they did that day to win the fight.
Though thrice dismounted by dour dints, (twice thought
Dragged deathward by his horse), the Duke fought on —
No weak-willed courage his! — harangued his troops
Incessantly and led his noble knights
Time after time against the enemy.
But always stood the Saxon king, bravely
With shield and axe, where danger menaced most,
To link a broken line or break the brunt
Of boldly-led, fierce foes; his stalwart form,
Untiring strength and awesome axe repelled
Each threat wherever it appeared. He seemed
A superhuman warrior who wore
The Saxon cause upon his shoulders like
A scarlet cloak for everyone to see.
The struggle raged daylong, until it seemed
The stern defenders would survive the strife
As Normans feared that reinforcements would,
Beneath night’s cover, group themselves to strike
Their weakly-guarded backs and pin
The fatally against this hard-rimmed hill.
The Duke, despairing, tried a double ploy;
He feigned retreat covered by archery.
Some Saxons, sensing victory —
And irked by rains of arrows beating down
About their heads as rain on wooden roofs
Or spray from stormy waves on coastal cliffs
Is thrown — forgot their orders and broke out
From their defensive wall to chase their foes.
It was a fatal thing to do.
Rallying his knights, led a final charge
Into the breached defensive wall before
It could be closed. The mounted phalanx rode
Through the weakly-protected barricade
Towards the Saxon Standard where the king
Was organising his depleted force.
Somehow a solid line was formed to block
The inrush and diffuse its impetus.
Once more, so near success, the knights were pushed
Out of the Saxon lines. Once more a rain
Of arrows covered their enforced retreat.
Slowly the scarlet sun waned in the West
To touch the far horizon there with hope
For Harold, still encouraging his men
To maintain, (for a little longer), their
Defence. Darkness would bring rest as the fight
Ceased for the day and, if his planned reserves
Arrived, daylight would find him better placed
To beat the Normans back into the sea
Whence they had come with such temerity.
But then Harold looked up, as though he’d heard
Something compelling pass above his head.
At once he dropped his shield and bloodied axe
To clutch his upturned face with trembling hands
Begored!. Then those about him saw a shaft
Feathered between his fingers. Backwards then
He staggered with unsteady steps and fell
Beneath the Standard. From his bright blond head
The useless helmet rolled. His anguished hands
Snapped off the arrow’s length, leaving its barb
Deep-buried in his peerless eye. He heaved
A heavy breath and sorely sighed,
Then said: ” Fight on brave Saxons!. Do not let
My death be England’s loss but, rather, make
It reason for renewed defiance. Hold
The ring, under my brother’s leadership
Till darkness falls. Tomorrow you can end
The work you have begun with me today.
Do not despair!. One man, though king, is not
The kingdom’s all!”. He sighed once more and then
His breath was blown.
A hollow groan rang out
Around the hill. so profound and anguished
It tore the hearts of all who heard — Norman
And Saxon both — its utter bitterness;
And for a while the fighting ceased, as though
Commanded by some unseen arbiter.
As that great groan’s significant import
Was understood, Saxons revengefully,
Normans remorselessly, each other slew;
And in the space of scarcely half-an-hour
The last of those disheartened Saxons who
Remained upon the battlefield were dead
Around the body of their luckless king
Or taken prisoner by Norman troops.
As darkness slowly dropped its sable drapes
Over that stubborn hill, the Norman Duke,
(By conquest King of England from that day),
Declared before the barons of his host:
“Upon this spot I will endow a church,
Luxurious and large, to consecrate
Not our success on this, my natal day,
(For it was Harold’s birth-date too, I know),
But valour of the Saxon King and all
His loyal henchmen who, outranked, defied
Our chivalry with courage unsurpassed
In all recorded history of war.
Ten times did we outnumber their array —
And we were fresh for battle and prepared —
But these stout-hearted soldiers, with their king,
Two weeks ago destroyed the Viking horde
Far North of this red field; then straightway marched
To meet us here and fought so doggedly
I feared lest we should not prevail!. (But God
Gave us the victory. To Him be praise!).
So let us pay the honour due to those
Who for their country’s cause did such great deeds.
And let us reverence the memory
Of Harold, King of England, who inspired
Such sacrificial, whole-hearted loyalty!.
Happy the land which has such noble sons!.
When we have taught their sturdy strength and skills —
Their independent natures — to assume
The civilising gloss of cultured arts,
Then England will breed such a race of men
As will astound the peoples of the world
By their achievements and their character!.
Today we won a kingdom; from now on
We must win hearts to make this dream come true
And build a better nation than these two”.