October 14th, 1066.
A seminal day in the history of Western civilization, 944 years ago this day. At one time, a date whose events were known to every school boy and girl who spoke English or French.
On that bright October Morning, England rushed to bring to bear all of her military power to defeat massive forces from across the water whose had come in the name of their God in a Holy War for the conquest and subjugation of the Island Nation.
King Harold Godwinson’s predecessor on England’s throne, Edward the Confessor, had disdained building a large number of warships, dismantling the significant force that had been built and maintained since the reign of King Canute. England remained powerless to stop the invaders, Viking or Norman, from reaching her shores.
England’s armies had to be cobbled together and rushed to the shores of England twice in the Autumn of 1066, including this October day. Three weeks earlier, in late-September, England’s housecarls had fought and defeated another strong invasion in the north. After they had originally been called to service of the King, Harold Godwinson’s Englishmen had been encamped along the southeastern coast, awaiting the ships that were expected to bear the armies of Duke William of Normandy.
But after a Viking landing near York, and after the English under Earl Morcar were defeated in a bloody battle at Fulford, King Harold Godwinson was forced to rush his army north to face the Nordic invasion by Harald Hardraade, who had claims to the English throne. At Stamford Bridge, on the 25th of September 1066, Harold Godwinson’s armies defeated those of the Viking Hardraade, whose ranks included Godwinson’s brother, Tostig. However, two days after the seemingly momentous English victory, Duke William (“William the Bastard”) found favorable winds and put to sea from the Norman coast.
Two days later, William’s army was ashore, and had occupied Hastings. Godwinson, hurriedly re-assembling his army to meet William, arrived to repel the invader.
On October 14th, 1066, the two armies, the Englishmen under King Harold Godwinson, and the Norman invaders under William, clashed on the fields before Hastings. The accounts of the battle are myriad in Medieval European literature. The tide of combat ebbed and flowed throughout the day, until an ill-advised advance by a portion of the English line and the Norman arrows and heavy cavalry took their decisive toll. As the sun was beginning to drop in the western sky, the fighting came to an end. The final result of the Battle of Hastings was a catastrophic defeat of the English at the hands of Duke William, and the death of the English King.
William became known to history as “William the Conqueror”. He was crowned King of England on Christmas Day, 1066, in Westminster Abbey. His rule, until his death in 1087, altered England forever. The events of leading up to, during, and after the epic battle are captured on the magnificent Bayeux Tapestry.
Like its King Harold, Anglo-Saxon England was dead. Killed by a Norman invader from across the Channel, for lack of a navy to defend its shores. A Norman invader who came across the sea in the hulls of ships capable of projecting power into the very heart of its enemy.
We would do well to remember, as the Royal Navy is facing near-extinction, and our own Navy’s ability to project meaningful power across the world’s oceans shrinks, the hard lessons that put the bones under the grass of that meadow on England’s southern coast. What is written on the tapestry of the Twenty-First Century is in the balance.