Excerpt from Gesta regum Anglorum
Published in Readings in European History, 1904
"This was a fatal day to England, and melancholy havoc was wrought in our dear country during the change of its lords."
In 793, a terrifying force swept out of northern Europe: a group of invaders known as Vikings, Northmen, or Norsemen. Whatever their name, they spread death and destruction throughout the continent for the next two centuries. By the late 900s, however, Vikings had settled in various areas, including a region in the north of France. This area, settled in 911, came to be known as Normandy. Like their forefathers the Vikings, the Normans—their name was a version of "Northmen"—were a restless people, eager for conquest. Early in the eleventh century, a new opportunity appeared for them when Emma, daughter of Duke Richard I of Normandy, married Ethelred the Unready (ruled 978–1016), king of England.
Ethelred was a descendant of invaders from Germany who in the 400s had taken Britain from the Celts, who had controlled the island for a thousand years. Unable to defend themselves after soldiers from the declining Roman Empire departed in 410, the Britons (as the British Celts were called) had actually invited the German tribes—known as the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes—to help them defend their island. But the Germans conquered it instead, and as a result the land took their name. The main part of Britain came to be known as England after the Angles, and to this day people of English descent are known as Anglo-Saxons.
By 1042, when Ethelred's and Emma's son Edward the Confessor became king, the stage was being set for another takeover, this time by the Normans. Edward, who died in 1066, placed a great deal of trust in Norman advisors; meanwhile, more and more settlers came from Normandy to England. After 1053, the most influential figure in Edward's court was his son Harold (c. 1022–1066), who assumed the throne after his father's death. Harold reigned for less than a year: on October 14, 1066, he died in a battle against an invading Norman force, led by a duke named William (c. 1028–1087)—better known as William the Conqueror. The two armies met on a beach near the town of Hastings, and the victory of the Normans would become one of the most important events in the history of the English-speaking world.
Things to remember while reading the excerpt from Gesta regum Anglorum
- The following account comes from the historian William of Malmesbury (MAWMS-bur-ee; c. 1090–c. 1143). His Gesta regum Anglorum—like most educated Western Europeans of the Middle Ages, Malmesbury wrote in Latin—is a chronicle of the kings of England, written in about 1125. By that time, Henry I, son of William the Conqueror, ruled England, and the authority of the Normans had been firmly established.
- Malmesbury portrayed both William and Harold as great and brave leaders; however, he was also clear that the English were not prepared for the invasion. In Malmesbury's view, they had grown soft while the Normans kept their minds on their objective: victory. Describing the two armies' preparations for battle, Malmesbury noted that the Normans took communion, a Christian celebration commemorating Jesus' Last Supper before his crucifixion. He used this fact to point out that the Normans were preparing for the upcoming battle, while the English wasted their energies partying. Some medieval historians might have claimed that the Normans won because God was on their side; Malmesbury, by contrast, suggested that the Normans won because of their serious attitude. His discussion of the cause-and-effect relations governing the outcome of the battle reveals the mind of a serious historian.
- The Song of Roland (roh-LAHND) is a great tale, not so different from the stories of King Arthur, that concerns a battle in Spain that took place in 778. Roland was a fabled knight serving under Charlemagne (SHAHR-luh-main; ruled 768–814), emperor of what is now France and Germany, in his campaign to repel Muslim invaders. The actual conflict with the Muslims was uneventful; but as with the story of King Arthur, based on real events during the time of the German invasion of the 400s, later poets created an inspiring romantic tale out of these occurrences.
Excerpt from Gesta regum Anglorum
The courageous leaders mutually prepared for battle, each according to his national custom. The English, as we have heard, passed the night without sleep, in drinking and singing, and in the morning proceeded without delay against the enemy. All on foot, armed with battle-axes, and covering themselves in front by the juncture of their shields, they formed an impenetrable body which would assuredly have secured their safety that day had not the Normans, by a feigned flight, induced them to open their ranks, which till that time, according to their custom, had been closely compacted. King Harold himself, on foot, stood with his brothers near the standard in order that, so long as all shared equal danger, none could think of retreating. This same standard William sent, after his victory, to the pope; it was sumptuously embroidered with gold and precious stones, and represented the figure of a man fighting.
On the other hand, the Normans passed the whole night in confessing their sins, and received the communion of the Lord's body in the morning. Their infantry, with bows and arrows, formed the vanguard, while their cavalry, divided into wings, was placed in the rear. The duke [William], with serene countenance, declaring aloud that God would favor his as being the righteous side, called for his arms; and when, through the haste of his attendants, he had put on his hauberk the hind part before, he corrected the mistake with a laugh, saying "The power of my dukedom shall be turned into a kingdom." Then starting the Song of Roland, in order that the warlike example of that hero might stimulate the soldiers, and calling on God for assistance, the battle commenced on both sides, and was fought with great ardor, neither side giving ground during the greater part of the day.
Observing this, William gave a signal to his troops, that, feigning flight, they should withdraw from the field. By means of this device the solid phalanx of the English opened for the purpose of cutting down the fleeing enemy and thus brought upon itself swift destruction; for the Normans, facing about, attacked them, thus disordered, and compelled them to fly. In this manner, deceived by a stratagem, they met an honorable death in avenging their enemy; nor indeed were they at all without their own revenge, for, by frequently making a stand, they slaughtered their pursuers in heaps. Getting possession of an eminence, they drove back the Normans, who in the heat of pursuit were struggling up the slope, into the valley beneath, where, by hurling their javelins and rolling down stones on them as they stood below, the English easily destroyed them to a man. Besides, by a short passage with which they were acquainted, they avoided a deep ditch and trod underfoot such a multitude of their enemies in that place that the heaps of bodies made the hollow level with the plain. This alternating victory, first of one side and then of the other, continued so long as Harold lived to check the retreat; but when he fell, his brain pierced by an arrow, the flight of the English ceased not until night.
… This was a fatal day to England, and melancholy havoc was wrought in our dear country during the change of its lords. For it had long adopted the manners of the Angles, which had indeed altered with the times; for in the first years of their arrival they were barbarians in their look and manner, warlike in their usages, heathens in their rights. After embracing the faith of Christ, by degrees and, in process of time, in consequence of the peace which they enjoyed, they relegated arms to a secondary place and gave their whole attention to religion.
… Nevertheless, the attention to literature and religion had gradually decreased for several years before the arrival of the Normans. The clergy, contented with a little confused learning, could scarcely stammer out the words of the sacraments; and a person who understood grammar was an object of wonder and astonishment. The monks mocked the rule of their order by fine vestments and the use of every kind of food. The nobility, given up to luxury and wantonness, went not to church in the morning after the manner of Christians, but merely, in a careless manner, heard matins and masses from a hurrying priest in their chambers, amid the blandishments of their wives. The commonalty, left unprotected, became a prey to the most powerful, who amassed fortunes, either by seizing on their property or by selling their persons into foreign countries; although it is characteristic of this people to be more inclined to reveling than to the accumulation of wealth….
Drinking in parties was a universal practice, in which occupation they passed entire nights as well as days. They consumed their whole substance in mean and despicable houses, unlike the Normans and French, who live frugally in noble and splendid mansions. The vices attendant on drunkenness, which enervate the human mind, followed; hence it came about that when they engaged William, with more rashness and precipitate fury than military skill, they doomed themselves and their country to slavery by a single, and [at] that an easy, victory. For nothing is less effective than rashness; and what begins with violence quickly ceases or is repelled.
What happened next …
The Norman Conquest proved to be an event of enormous significance, with a vast impact on the law, culture, and especially the language of England. The Normans spoke French, and this added a Latin-based influence to the Germanic language of England. Thus today English has at its disposal a huge array of words, many rooted in Latin and others in German.
In the short run, the invasion led to the crowning of William the Conqueror as William I, king of England. Kings of England after William also held the title "duke of Normandy"; and after 1154, an English king was also count or ruler of Anjou (ahn-ZHOO), a French province. Thus the English kings had their eye on France, just as the Normans had once had their eye on England, and this would lead to a series of conflicts between the English and the French. These tensions would explode in the Hundred Years' War (1337–1453), and ill-will between Britain and France would continue into the modern era, until British forces defeated the French armies under Napoleon in 1815.
Did you know …
- During World War II (1939–45), Normandy itself was the site of an invasion by a much larger force than the one the Normans had sent to England nine centuries before. On "D-Day," June 6, 1944, American, British, and other Allied armies landed on the beaches of Normandy. This invasion of the European continent marked the beginning of the end for Nazi Germany.
- A 231-foot-long scroll called the Bayeux (bah-YOH) Tapestry, created during the Middle Ages, provides a visual record of the Norman Conquest.
- The present royal family of England can trace their ancestry back to William the Conqueror.
For More Information
May, Robin. William the Conqueror and the Normans. Illustrations by Gerry Wood. New York: Bookwright Press, 1985.
Robinson, James Harvey, editor. Readings in European History, Volume I: From the Breakup of the Roman Empire to the Protestant Revolt. Boston: Ginn & Co., 1904.
Severy, Merle, editor. The Age of Chivalry. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 1969.
"HWC, William the Conqueror." [Online] Available (last accessed July 28, 2000).
"Medieval Sourcebook: William of Malmesbury: The Battle of Hastings." Medieval Sourcebook. [Online] Available http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/1066malmesbury.html (last accessed July 28, 2000).