Northern Lights on the Battle of Hastings
By Kari Ellen Gade
Viator: Medieval and Renaissance Studies, Vol.28 (1997)
Introduction: The earliest sagas of the Norwegian kings are in general sparse in their comments on episodes and events taking place abroad and involving non-Scandinavian participants. Whereas Haraldr harðraði’s (Hardrule’s) invasion of England in 1066 and the battle of Stamford Bridge are documented in detail, little attention is paid to the Battle of Hastings and the Norman Conquest of England the same year. Neither Theodoricus nor Agrip mentions the Battle of Hastings, but in Heimskringla (ca.1230-1235) Snorri Sturluson gives the following account:
But Harold then marched with his army to southern England because he had just learned that William the Bastard had invaded England from the south and subjugated the country. Harold’s brothers Swegn, Gyrth, and Waltheof accompanied him. The meeting between King Harold and Earl William took place south in England near Hastings. There was a great battle. There King Harold fell, together with his brother, Earl Gyrth, and a large part of their army. That was nineteen nights after the fall of King Haraldr Sigurðarson.
Similarly, the author of Fagrskinna (ca. 1225), one of Snorri’s sources, has little to say about Harold Godwinson’s last battle:
Nineteen nights after the fall of King Haraldr Sigurðarson, King Harold Godwinson and William the Bastard fought in southern England. There fell King Harold and his brother Earl Gyrth, and the greater part of his army. Harold had then been king for nine and a half months.
In another of Snorri’s sources, Morkinskinna, we find the following curious account of the Battle of Hastings and last dealings between Harold Godwinson and William the Conqueror:
Now we pick up the story at the moment when William had arrived in southern England and was subjugating the country wherever he went …. He let the relics of Odmarus be tied to his standard, those very relics on which Harold had sworn. King Harold and William fought a great battle when they met. That was twelve months after the fall of King Haraldr Sigurðarson. The battle did not go in Harold’s favor. Then he said: “What is tied to William’s standard?” And he was told. “Then it may be,” said King Harold, “that there will be no escape.” There fell King Harold Godwinson and his brother Gyrth.
Although the texts of Heimskringla, Fagrskinna, and Morkinskinna differ somewhat in their length and sequence of events, the wording of the three versions is sufficiently similar to posit a common exemplar, namely the Oldest Morkinskinna (ÆMsk), which was available to both Snorri and the author of Fagrskinna. However, the extant version of Morkinskinna (MskMS) contains information which is not found in any other version, and which raises the following questions: Who was the obscure Odmarus and why did William amble onto the field of battle with Odmarus’s relics tied to his standard? And, more importantly, what was the source this information in Morkinskinna? In the following I shall discuss the historical background for the Battle of Hastings as it emerges from Old Norse, English, Norman, and Anglo-Norman sources, and attempt to shed some light on these questions.