William the Conqueror and the Channel Crossing of 1066

The Bayeux Tapestry and the Vikings

Contrary Winds: Theories of History and the Limits of Sachkritik

Paper given by Stephen Morillo

Session: Studies in Medieval Military History in Honor of Bernard S. Bachrach

48th International Congress on Medieval Studies (2013)

The Bayeux Tapestry and the Vikings

William the Conqueror waited several weeks before making his maritime crossing of the English Channel in 1066 – was he hampered by weathered or did the Norman Duke intentionally remain in Normandy, hoping that events in Anglo-Saxon England would turn to his favour?

In his conference paper, ‘Contrary Winds: Theories of History and the Limits of Sachkritik’ Stephen Morillo of Wabash College tackles this question. In 1066, Duke William was preparing his forces for an invasion of England and uphold his claim to the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom.

The Norman invasion fleet was constructed around the mouth of the River Dives and ready by July. The ships were launched, but as William of Poitiers writes in his Gesta Willelmi ducis Normannorum et regis Anglorum, the  voyage did not go well:

Presently the whole fleet, equipped with such great foresight, was blown from the mouth of the Dives and the neighboring ports, where they had long waited for a south wind to carry them across, was driven by the breath of the west wind to moorings in Saint-Valery. There too the leader, whom neither the delay and the contrary wind nor the terrible shipwrecks nor the craven flight of many who had pledged their faith to him could shake, committed himself with the utmost confidence by prayers, gifts and vows, to the protection of heaven. Indeed, meeting adversity with good counsel, he concealed (as far as he could) the loss of those who had drowned, by burying them in secret; and by daily increasing supplies he alleviated want. By divers encouragements he retained the terrified and put heart into the fearful. He strove with holy prayers to such a point that he had the body of Valery, a confessor most acceptable to God, carried out of the basilica to quell the contrary wind and bring a favorable one; all the assembled men-at-arms who were to set out with him shared in taking up the same arms of humility.

Finally, on September 27, the winds shifted and the fleet set sail again. The Normans made landfall on the English coast near Pevensey and marched to Hastings, where they battled the English and killed King Harold Godwinsson, thus paving the way for William seizing the country.

While earlier historians took at face value the claims by Norman sources that William could not sail his fleet because of unfavourable winds, some new interpretations suggest that it was part of the Duke’s ‘master plan’ to wait and let Harold deplete his forces by having to engage with his brother Tostig and his Norwegian allies in the north of England.

Morillo first examines the scientific evidence on whether or not the winds would have kept the Norman fleet stranded. Unfortunately, the results were inconclusive – westerly winds were common enough to be problematic for the Normans, and for medieval ships such a crossing would be dangerous.

He then points to a few further pieces of evidence, such as the fact that another Norman source, Carmen de Hastingae Proelio, also notes the problem with winds. Furthermore, a charter exists in which William grants certain property rights to the Church of St.Valery in thanks for the prayers they said for better winds back in 1066. If the events of the contrary winds did not exist, it would seem then that two chroniclers and the charter are part of a campaign of “elaborate misinformation.”

If so, what would be the purpose of being so misleading, Morillo asks? While he notes that some parts of this story make William look good (ie. the gaining of good winds an indication of God’s favour), other parts casts the Duke in a negative light, such as having many of his soldiers desert him and having to bury other men in secret.

Morillo goes on to suggest that the delay in Normandy did not offer William any strategic advantage. By having his fleet remain on his side of the English channel, the Duke would have run into logistical challenges. Moreover, by not sailing right away the Normans were endangering their chance of having the initiative in this conflict.

While events did turn out in William’s favour, the Duke could not have guessed, let alone planned to capitalize on, that the English would use up much of their strength in defending against the other invasion of the Norwegians. William probably had some knowledge of what was happening in England, which may have allowed him to continue to wait for the winds to blow his way, but historians should avoid believing that the Duke of Normandy had planned to delay his attack for the most opportune time, and then later concocted a story about contrary winds.

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