William of Poitiers
The events of the Battle of Hastings have been constructed from a series of primary sources, each of which possess distinct strengths and weaknesses. This series of posts looks at the five most important primary sources and attempts to tease out the 'facts' of the battle.
William of Poitiers' account of the Norman invasion of England, 'The Deeds of William, duke of the Normans and the King of the English', is one of the most important primary sources for the Battle of Hastings. William of Poitiers was a Norman who served under Duke William as a warrior, chaplain and priest. Though he was a military man he wasn't involved in the actual invasion of 1066. He did however, have access to soldiers and leaders who had fought at the battle.
His account was written in 1071.
Here are it's strengths and weaknesses:
- It was written within living memory of the battle and was almost certainly based on first hand accounts.
- It is free from the influence other texts written about the battle, something that no other primary source can claim.
- It is not unbiased and was written by a keen admirer of Duke William.
- It draws on classical writing which William of Poitiers uses as a framework for his work and a comparison for Duke William's deeds.
You can read the full account here.
Below is a list of the keys events and important points as detailed by William of Poitier.
- William advanced to battle under the flag of the pope.
- The Normans deployed as follows:
- Infantry armed with bows and crossbows in the vanguard (front).
- These were followed by infantry 'more steady and armed with hauberks' (suggesting the missiles troops were not wearing armour).
- In the rear were cavalry, amongst which William rode.
- In relation to Harold's army William of Poitiers makes two key points. The first is that it was large, even compared to ancient standards. The second was that 'help had been sent from the land of the Danes.' However, William of Poitiers states that the Danes feared Duke William more than the King of Norway and they 'camped on higher ground. The assumption being that they played no part in the battle.
- William of Poitiers introduces the battle as Duke William's army 'began slowly to climb the steep slope.' There has been a suggestion that the battle may have extended beyond the slope and into the surrounding countryside. This is best explained in this book. However, William of Poitiers gives us no hint that the battle may have raged beyond the slope.
- The battle opens with a Norman missile volley, which William of Poitiers describes as 'provoking the English.' This suggests that the attack may not have intended to disrupt the English shield wall but instead lure them into an attack and off the hill.
- The next phase of the battle is traditionally thought to be an infantry attack, though William of Poitiers makes no reference to this event. Instead he details a cavalry attack explaining that 'disdaining to fight from a distance, they rode into battle using their swords.' To me a clear indication that no infantry melee took place.
- William of Poitiers goes on to detail the fight on the hill. He states that the English were helped by:
- higher ground.
- 'they did not have to march to the attack',
- 'their weapons penetrated without difficulty shields and other pieces of armour'. This statement leaves us with a problem since it is generally thought that both armies were similarly equipped. It may be that William is referring to the large axes of the housecarls, though this is speculation.
- William then tells us that the ferocity of the English resistance drove 'the infantry and Breton mounted warriors' into retreat. He then expands saying 'with all the auxiliary troops who formed the left wing.' What does he mean by auxiliary troops? Is this a reference to the Roman system or does he mean a collection of lesser (non-Norman) troops?
- The author goes on to mention that 'almost the whole of the duke's army yielded.' Stating that they believed the Duke had been killed. Though William of Poitiers is quick to point out that this is nor cowardly rout but instead a 'sorrowful withdrawal.'
- William then describes the Duke's removal of his helmet and inspiring speech.
- The Normans attack once again, though William gives us no insight into the tactics employed. He does, however, explain that the English extraordinary formation meant that those killed hardly had room to fall.' Does the word extraordinary suggest the formation was something unusual? The Normans would have been familiar with the Saxon shield wall, so it may have been something more that than a traditional shield wall that was deployed on the hill top.
- William now introduces the famed faint retreat. His words suggest the tactic was planned, explaining that 'the Normans and their allies turned their backs, pretending to take flight.' This not only suggests the plan was preordained but that it involved the whole force, not just a section of cavalry as has been suggested in modern literature.
- The next section is confusing and is presented here in full. It occurs in the moment after the faint retreat:
- 'As before, several thousand [English] were bold enough to rush forward, as if on wings, to pursue those who they took to be fleeing, when the Normans suddenly turned thier horse's heads, stopped them in their tracks, crushed them completely and massacred them down to the last man.'
- In the opening part of this paragraph William suggest that the whole army retreats. However, by the end he has isolated it to 'Normans' and cavalry.
- William goes on to say 'having twice used this trick with the same success' the army attacked as a whole. Does this mean twice more or twice in total. Two or three faint attacks? He also states that the English army was 'very difficult to surround,' but gives no clue as to why. Size, terrain or something else?
- William of Poitiers then goes on to detail an attack by archers. However, he makes no mention of the famous (mythical?) arrow in the eye incident.
- William's next paragraph seems to be a direct nod of gratitude to William. It explains just how great the leader was (in his eyes), makes classical comparisons and explains how William had three horses killed from under him.
- The battle narrative is drawn to a close by a frustrating paragraph. William of Poitiers says that the English realised that they could no longer resist the Normans, stating that the 'King himself, his brothers, and the leading men of the kingdom had been killed.' And that's it! No details of the Kings death, no arrow in the eye, nothing!
- Well almost nothing. After describing the fleeing troops William talks of some Saxon warriors making a last stand in 'a deep valley' with 'numerous ditches.' Duke William is keen to fight these men though Eustace suggest caution, Duke William ignores him and wins the day. Is this event more a literary vehicle to discredit Eustace then historical fact?
William of Poitiers account contains the bones on which all other accounts are built. However, the most elusive element is the death of Harold. Some historians have suggested William of Poitiers simply didn't know the details, others have suggested that the manner of Harold's death was an embarrassment to Duke William and therefore left from the narrative. Either way, there is no evidence for the whole arrow-in-the-eye debate.