Autumn 1066 just a few miles north of Hastings, Harold Godwinson formed his shield wall on a rise between the coast and London. His English army was battle weary and foot sore, but with them rested the future of the island kingdom. What happened next is much studied, and in some aspects controversial. Did William of Normandy win the day, or did Harold lose it?
My wife and I have made several trips over the years following the footsteps of William and the Hastings story. These journeys have taken us to Normandy, Yorkshire, and the south coast of England. It has been a great learning experience and one which has enriched my understanding of Medieval history.
Our journey began at William’s castle, Château de Falaise in Normandy. This was the centre of his power and authority as Duke of Normandy. This “Cliff Castle” is impressive, though what is now seen is not William’s motte and bailey structure, but a later stone fortification completed by his heirs.
The village of Falaise has a lot of William touristy venues, but there is a really striking scupture of William in the square which is really worth seeing.
Most of what many people know about the 1066 invasion comes from the pictorial account commissioned by William’s half brother, Bishop Odo. Now known as the Bayeux Tapestry this massive “comic strip” of the events of the invasion is housed in The Museum La Tapisserie de Bayeux in Normandy. It is over 70 metres long, and records the events leading to the conquest up through William’s coronation as King of England. The tapestry is enclosed in glass in subdued light, and a headset is issued which explains each panel as you work your way through the account. There is also a reproduction of a Norman ship (boat) outside the museum.
While not technically in the footsteps of William, Stanford Bridge in Yorkshire was our next destination. This battle between the English and Danish claimants to the throne was pivotal in William’s fortunes. The English army under Harold had been waiting for William’s arrival on the south coast of England when news arrived that the Vikings had invaded in the north. The English marched the length of the country to attack the Danes in Yorkshire on the 25th of September. This was an English victory, but at the cost of good men, and the exhaustion of the army, which then had to make the return trip to meet William’s army.
The Battle of Hasting itself was fought a few miles north of Hastings on the south coast. Battle Abbey is administered by English Heritage and is the site of the famous battle. The Englsih controlled the high ground and had a formidable shield wall. The Normans and their allies made several attempts to break this defensive line, and failed in each. But the untrained English allowed the wall to break in order to chase fleeing Bretons, weakening the position. William capitalised on this, and made it a battle strategy to runaway, then turn on the pursuers. By the end of the day, Harold was dead, and William was on his way to London.
The present abbey grounds are well kept, and again their are several themed souvenir shops and cafes in the area. We did find parking a little tricky, but with some effort spaces can be found.
Our journey then went full circle, and we visited the final venue back in Normandy in the town of Caen and the final resting place of William. He had returned on several occasions to his lands in Normandy, and when he died was buried in the monastery of Abbaye aux Hommes. This is a really splendid building, and there are some nice gardens adjoining it. We were able to finish our journey with a pleasant park visit in a gentle breeze.