William the Conquerer Comes Alive! Interpreting the Bayeux Tapestry from Medieval English to Moder
The Normans in tenth century France offered many ways to command and conquer. Of course, the Vikings were master seafarers and skilled Naval machines all in of themselves. But France had a lot more land and creating a mobile army on longboat wasn’t deemed practical. They would need another way in which to defend the cross and fight for it at the same time. The Normans were about exchange their longboats for horses and become Knights.
The first knights were little better than brutal thugs, but they were given years of training. Being a knight was very expensive. Their horses, their chainmail, helmets, swords, and even their training were all very costly items. As a result, they often had to get sponsored by men of wealth, to whom they would take an oath to.
This is Feudal Europe, a mixture of both Anarchy and Order where there is multiple hierarchies and homage to be paid. A knight was expected to give his life for his master and in exchange he was given a plot of land for he and his family. It was the first pension plan on the planet and it promised stability for generations to come.
Two hundred years beyond Charlemagne came William the Conqueror. 1066 was a momentous turning point in European history. In the years that followed, the Normans transformed the English language and huge towers and cathedrals. It would leave a mark on Europe that would last to this very day. The Normans conquered the South of Europe and onto the Middle-East and Jerusalem. Everywhere they went, they sought spiritual inspiration and changed the way of life for virtually everyone in Europe.
Heleva, (William the Conquerors mother) had been seduced by the younger brother of the Duke of Normandy, and this fact would be instrumental in claiming a rightful place on the English throne.
William the Bastard was born into a world of danger. When his father died in 1035, William was just eight years old. With the duchy in the hands of a child, the Norman aristocracy sought a chance to gain power. His rivals circled, awaiting the chance to assassinate the boy. Every one of William’s guardians, including his tutor Osbourne, were murdered. His childhood was fraught with macabre danger, murder, bloodshed and violence. His upbringing was a matter of scared survival.
Normandy was in turmoil. Plots were hatched and all the duchy was ablaze with fire. Anarchy seemed to rule the day. The young duke held on for another twelve years until he was twenty. Then, in 1047, his cousin Guy, attempted a full-blown revolt. William confronted the rebels at Val-es-Dune, called upon the French King King Henry I for assistance but he didn't need the help. William charged into the battlefield and subdued many of the men by his own hand and relentlessly charged after the men who were in retreat. Nothing could stop his indispensible direction. The battle of Val-ed-Dune was the making of the young Duke.
Once he cemented his authority, he built a new capital at Canne. William needed marriage to secure his dynasty and his bride was a distant cousin and the daughter of the Count of Flanders. Matilda and William had a very happy marriage despite their physical differences. William was well over six feet tall and Matilda was barely 4’3’’. Her gift of penance to the Pope was the Abbey-Au-Damme, a beautiful golden age of Abbey building. William had one built for men as well, Abbey-Au-Homme.
Matilda’s abbey still glistens with white columns and beautiful stained glass. It’s long knave and graceful lines are a high-point of Norman Church building. William asserted his Christian piety and his assertion of power with their beauty. These abbey’s have barrel-vaulted ceilings and sleek lines. The Duke was a fervent Christian but he couldn’t escape his savage childhood. He could be devastatingly brutal in his killing methods.
In 1063, he invaded the county of Maine and added it to his dominion. But he had in his mind a much larger prize – Britain. Eleventh century England was one of the wealthiest and centralized governments in the world. King Edward the Confessor had maintained a relationship with William of Normandy and thought of him as the future heir to England. At one point he developed a sophisticated tax system and a great amount of money was coming in. Yet, England was about to face its gravest challenge. The King was dying without leaving an heir.
Advisors to Edward warned him that his brother-in-law, Harold Godwinsson of Wessex, was planning on claiming the throne once Edward passed. The king however was very deft and cunning, sending Harold on his command to go to Normandy and prepare William to become king of England. For Harold this must have been a devastating setback - but one he reasoned he could deal with at a later time. For now, he would dutifully follow the orders of King Edward, perhaps in an effort to create a positive opinion for himself.
Without the King’s endorsement, William’s claim to the English throne was a dubious one. In France, William was a Duke, but in England, he could be a king. What happened next was something you would expect to see in a Hollywood epic.
Harold is blown off-course and ends up in Flanders, far from his intended landing spot of Normandy. He is instantly taken hostage and brought to William. But instead of punishing Harold, he rewards him and has him take over a significant portion of his infantry. Harold would find that being a subject of Duke William wasn't so bad and while here, he could buy the time necessary while Edward lay ill.
A poor communicator, King Edward the Confessor had left no plan for succession to the throne. The Saxons threw their support behind Godwinson who was pressed into action when the Vikings invaded near the port city of Hull England. But Harold's army was a citizen and rural ragtag bunch. The differences between the two armies couldn't have been greater.
The Norman military system had led to the development of a mounted military élite totally focussed on war, while the Anglo-Saxon system was manned by what was in essence a collection of farmers, who rode to the battlefield but fought on foot. That is not to say that the English fighter was any less formidable than the Norman knight, as Hastings was to show. In the crucial months leading up to the Hastings campaign however, Harold was to be hamstrung by the limitations of his men-at-arms, otherwise known as ''fyrds.'' Service in the fyrd was usually of short duration and participants were expected to provide their own arms and provisions. For the Norman fighter, it was an occupation and a vocation.
On the 14th of October 1066, much of Harold's 7000 forces were made up of the housecarls of his most powerful magnates because the fyrd had been disbanded. The battle of Stamford had depleted Harold's resources and the men were understandably exhausted from an epic march of 60-miles a day for four consecutive days.
His arrival to fend off the Vikings greatly surprised them. In fact, they weren't even wearing their armor when the English attacked. Many of them were split and were also at Stamford - where they kept an eye on their fleet.
Marching 280 miles in just four days, Godwinson successfully repelled the Vikings. But at the same time, William’s luck could not have been better. The weather became favorable for an invasion and it was his good fortune that the Saxons had to march back to the southern border in Hastings. His men were exhausted and arguably unprepared for the battle against William’s troops.
Hastings is in a large open field and the Bayeux tapestry tells us everything that about this moment in riveting detail. Here is the detail of the tapestry that tells the story:
'’With Harold, Duke of the English and his knights ride to Bosham Church!''