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Charles Dickens > A Child's History of England > Chapter VII

A Child's History of England

Chapter VII


HAROLD was crowned King of England on the very day of the maudlin
Confessor's funeral. He had good need to be quick about it. When
the news reached Norman William, hunting in his park at Rouen, he
dropped his bow, returned to his palace, called his nobles to
council, and presently sent ambassadors to Harold, calling on him
to keep his oath and resign the Crown. Harold would do no such
thing. The barons of France leagued together round Duke William
for the invasion of England. Duke William promised freely to
distribute English wealth and English lands among them. The Pope
sent to Normandy a consecrated banner, and a ring containing a hair
which he warranted to have grown on the head of Saint Peter. He
blessed the enterprise; and cursed Harold; and requested that the
Normans would pay 'Peter's Pence' - or a tax to himself of a penny
a year on every house - a little more regularly in future, if they
could make it convenient.

King Harold had a rebel brother in Flanders, who was a vassal of
HAROLD HARDRADA, King of Norway. This brother, and this Norwegian
King, joining their forces against England, with Duke William's
help, won a fight in which the English were commanded by two
nobles; and then besieged York. Harold, who was waiting for the
Normans on the coast at Hastings, with his army, marched to
Stamford Bridge upon the river Derwent to give them instant battle.

He found them drawn up in a hollow circle, marked out by their
shining spears. Riding round this circle at a distance, to survey
it, he saw a brave figure on horseback, in a blue mantle and a
bright helmet, whose horse suddenly stumbled and threw him.

'Who is that man who has fallen?' Harold asked of one of his

'The King of Norway,' he replied.

'He is a tall and stately king,' said Harold, 'but his end is

He added, in a little while, 'Go yonder to my brother, and tell
him, if he withdraw his troops, he shall be Earl of Northumberland,
and rich and powerful in England.'

The captain rode away and gave the message.

'What will he give to my friend the King of Norway?' asked the

'Seven feet of earth for a grave,' replied the captain.

'No more?' returned the brother, with a smile.

'The King of Norway being a tall man, perhaps a little more,'
replied the captain.

'Ride back!' said the brother, 'and tell King Harold to make ready
for the fight!'

He did so, very soon. And such a fight King Harold led against
that force, that his brother, and the Norwegian King, and every
chief of note in all their host, except the Norwegian King's son,
Olave, to whom he gave honourable dismissal, were left dead upon
the field. The victorious army marched to York. As King Harold
sat there at the feast, in the midst of all his company, a stir was
heard at the doors; and messengers all covered with mire from
riding far and fast through broken ground came hurrying in, to
report that the Normans had landed in England.

The intelligence was true. They had been tossed about by contrary
winds, and some of their ships had been wrecked. A part of their
own shore, to which they had been driven back, was strewn with
Norman bodies. But they had once more made sail, led by the Duke's
own galley, a present from his wife, upon the prow whereof the
figure of a golden boy stood pointing towards England. By day, the
banner of the three Lions of Normandy, the diverse coloured sails,
the gilded vans, the many decorations of this gorgeous ship, had
glittered in the sun and sunny water; by night, a light had
sparkled like a star at her mast-head. And now, encamped near
Hastings, with their leader lying in the old Roman castle of
Pevensey, the English retiring in all directions, the land for
miles around scorched and smoking, fired and pillaged, was the
whole Norman power, hopeful and strong on English ground.

Harold broke up the feast and hurried to London. Within a week,
his army was ready. He sent out spies to ascertain the Norman
strength. William took them, caused them to be led through his
whole camp, and then dismissed. 'The Normans,' said these spies to
Harold, 'are not bearded on the upper lip as we English are, but
are shorn. They are priests.' 'My men,' replied Harold, with a
laugh, 'will find those priests good soldiers!'

'The Saxons,' reported Duke William's outposts of Norman soldiers,
who were instructed to retire as King Harold's army advanced, 'rush
on us through their pillaged country with the fury of madmen.'

'Let them come, and come soon!' said Duke William.

Some proposals for a reconciliation were made, but were soon
abandoned. In the middle of the month of October, in the year one
thousand and sixty-six, the Normans and the English came front to
front. All night the armies lay encamped before each other, in a
part of the country then called Senlac, now called (in remembrance
of them) Battle. With the first dawn of day, they arose. There,
in the faint light, were the English on a hill; a wood behind them;
in their midst, the Royal banner, representing a fighting warrior,
woven in gold thread, adorned with precious stones; beneath the
banner, as it rustled in the wind, stood King Harold on foot, with
two of his remaining brothers by his side; around them, still and
silent as the dead, clustered the whole English army - every
soldier covered by his shield, and bearing in his hand his dreaded
English battle-axe.

On an opposite hill, in three lines, archers, foot-soldiers,
horsemen, was the Norman force. Of a sudden, a great battle-cry,
'God help us!' burst from the Norman lines. The English answered
with their own battle-cry, 'God's Rood! Holy Rood!' The Normans
then came sweeping down the hill to attack the English.

There was one tall Norman Knight who rode before the Norman army on
a prancing horse, throwing up his heavy sword and catching it, and
singing of the bravery of his countrymen. An English Knight, who
rode out from the English force to meet him, fell by this Knight's
hand. Another English Knight rode out, and he fell too. But then
a third rode out, and killed the Norman. This was in the first
beginning of the fight. It soon raged everywhere.

The English, keeping side by side in a great mass, cared no more
for the showers of Norman arrows than if they had been showers of
Norman rain. When the Norman horsemen rode against them, with
their battle-axes they cut men and horses down. The Normans gave
way. The English pressed forward. A cry went forth among the
Norman troops that Duke William was killed. Duke William took off
his helmet, in order that his face might be distinctly seen, and
rode along the line before his men. This gave them courage. As
they turned again to face the English, some of their Norman horse
divided the pursuing body of the English from the rest, and thus
all that foremost portion of the English army fell, fighting
bravely. The main body still remaining firm, heedless of the
Norman arrows, and with their battle-axes cutting down the crowds
of horsemen when they rode up, like forests of young trees, Duke
William pretended to retreat. The eager English followed. The
Norman army closed again, and fell upon them with great slaughter.

'Still,' said Duke William, 'there are thousands of the English,
firms as rocks around their King. Shoot upward, Norman archers,
that your arrows may fall down upon their faces!'

The sun rose high, and sank, and the battle still raged. Through
all the wild October day, the clash and din resounded in the air.
In the red sunset, and in the white moonlight, heaps upon heaps of
dead men lay strewn, a dreadful spectacle, all over the ground.

King Harold, wounded with an arrow in the eye, was nearly blind.
His brothers were already killed. Twenty Norman Knights, whose
battered armour had flashed fiery and golden in the sunshine all
day long, and now looked silvery in the moonlight, dashed forward
to seize the Royal banner from the English Knights and soldiers,
still faithfully collected round their blinded King. The King
received a mortal wound, and dropped. The English broke and fled.
The Normans rallied, and the day was lost.

O what a sight beneath the moon and stars, when lights were shining
in the tent of the victorious Duke William, which was pitched near
the spot where Harold fell - and he and his knights were carousing,
within - and soldiers with torches, going slowly to and fro,
without, sought for the corpse of Harold among piles of dead - and
the Warrior, worked in golden thread and precious stones, lay low,
all torn and soiled with blood - and the three Norman Lions kept
watch over the field!

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