Observations upon a Scene in the Bayeux Tapestry, the Battle of Hastings and the Military System of the Late Anglo-Saxon State

Observations upon a Scene in the Bayeux Tapestry, the Battle of Hastings and the Military System of the Late Anglo-Saxon State

By M.K. Lawson

The Medieval State: Essays Presented to James Campbell, edited John Robert Maddicott, David Michael Palliser (Continuum International Publishing Group, 2000)

Introduction: f a relative plethora of sources provides more evidence on the battle of Hastings than any other event in Anglo-Saxon history, there is surprisingly little of which we can be certain. The numbers involved, the extent of the initial deployment, the tactics employed and the course of the fighting are all to a greater or lesser degree unclear, and much more debatable than the secondary literature has often been prepared to admit. As a depiction of a conflict which lasted for most of a mid–October day, for example, the Bayeux Tapestry is an inadequate record. Probably inclined to overstress the role of cavalry, it does not show the French mailed infantry mentioned by William of Poitiers, and offers only a limited range of scenes: Duke William’s horsemen charge the English shield-wall, other infantry fighting in loose order (including King Harold’s brothers), and a third group defending a hillock; William proves that he is still alive while his archers advance in the lower border, where, as the dead are stripped, further attacks on scattered Englishmen in the scenes above precede the death of Harold and the pursuit of his defeated army. Nevertheless, the Tapestry is a fascinating source: almost certainly seen by, and probably produced for, participants in the battle, such details as it offers of the fighting and of military methods and equipment seem likely to be reasonably accurate. Indeed, the scene in which the French attack English infantry on a hillock is vital. It both casts doubt on views about the scale of the battle which have prevailed for the last century, and suggests (with other evidence) that Anglo-Saxon armies fought in varied and reasonably complex ways which have never been properly acknowledged. It is true that there is much about Hastings that we can never know, and that many views of it are possible; and it is equally true that this should encourage the most open-minded of approaches. Or one might say that the battle and the capacities of the Anglo-Saxons’ military machine should be considered, like other of their activities, according to the dictum of the philosopher whose nearest approach to a positive statement was: `Not but what it may not have been, perhaps it was’.


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