Burning Down the House: Scorched Earth Tactics Suggested by Wace and Bayeux Tapestry

Burning Down the House: Scorched Earth Tactics Suggested by Wace and Bayeux Tapestry

By Collin Davey and Monica L. Wright

McNair Research Review, Vol.4 (2006)

Introduction: Edward the Confessor, king of Anglo-Saxon England, died on January 5, 1066. In spite of taking an oath that William, Duke of Normandy, should be king after Edward, Harold Godwineson crowned himself king the next day. Harold’s reign lasted nine tumultuous months during which time he defeated an army led by his own brother, Tostig, who was also contending for the throne. Harold’s reign ended on October 14th when he was killed at Hastings while leading his army against William and the invading Normans. William’s victory and the subsequent establishment of Norman rule is an important watershed in English history for a number of reasons. It tied England more closely to Continental Europe and away from Scandinavian influence, created one of the most powerful monarchies in Europe, created the most sophisticated governmental system in Europe, changed the English language and culture, and set the stage for a long future of English-French conflict. It remains the last successful military invasion of England.

Of the several surviving accounts of the Norman Conquest, Wace’’s Roman de Rou and the Bayeux Tapestry (created by persons unknown) have several interesting connections. The Tapestry was created around 1077, and though Wace’s work was written about 100 years later, probably between 1155 and 1170, both works give similar, if not identical, accounts of the battle of 1066 and the events leading up to it. Wace may, in fact, have used the Tapestry as a source. These two accounts are the only ones to substantiate Harold’s oath that William should follow Edward as king, at Bayeux. One of the most interesting connections between the two, and the focus of this paper, is that both suggest the English may have burned their own homes and fields to prevent the Normans from using their resources. Though Wace claims such scorched-earth tactics were only recommended, not used, the Tapestry appears to show the actual burning taking place. Though a historical precedent or literary source for this idea remains unidentified, that both Wace and the Tapestry allude to this practice suggests such a source existed and was known to both.

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