The Royal Navy, a History from the Earliest Times to the Present/Volume 1/Chapter 5

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The Norman Conquest—William crosses the Channel—Harold's energy and gallantry—The battle of Senlac—Descents by the sons of Harold—Danish attempts on England—William improves his fleet—Operations against Scotland and Maine—William's naval prestige—Success of William Rufus—Robert's mismanagement of the fleet—Success of Magnus—Robert's claim to the crown—His good fortune and his weakness—Stephen remits the Danegeld to the prejudice of the navy.

WHEN William, Duke of Normandy, had determined to invade England, with the view to secure for himself the crown of Edward the Confessor, he found himself face to face with great difficulties,[1] which he overcame only by convincing his rather reluctant followers that the spoils of the island, in the shape of lands, wealth, preferment, and well-dowered heiresses,[2] would amply repay them for the trouble and expense incurred. But, having appealed to them on these grounds, and on the ground of religious duty, he quickly secured general support, and gradually assembled the necessary transports and war vessels in the mouth of the little River Dives, near the modern Trouville, where also he collected his army.

There the armada was delayed by contrary winds for about a month, but at length weighing, it made its way north-eastward, along the coast, suffering from continued foul weather on the passage, and losing several ships, with their crews, until it dropped anchor off Saint Valery-en-Caux, a few miles westward of Dieppe. The summer seems to have been an unusually wet and rough one. Rain and unfavourable winds succeeded one another, trying the patience of all concerned, and imperilling the venture; and William found it expedient to keep up the enthusiasm of his followers with frequent religious services, and their spirits with drink.[3] Even these resources were, however, beginning to fail him, and a conviction that Heaven itself was opposing the design was rapidly taking possession of the superstitious Normans, when, in the night following a specially ornate and impressive service,[4] in the presence of the holy relics of Saint Valery, wind and weather moderated. Next morning the troops were again embarked, and before sunset on September 27th, 1066, the entire force was under weigh.

The duke himself led the fleet in the Mora, which, by dawn, had so far outsailed her consorts that not one of them was visible, even from the masthead. The ship was therefore anchored, and the people went to breakfast, spiced wines, among other things, being

The Royal Navy, a History from the Earliest Times to Present Volume 1 - Chapter 5 -HAROLD'S SHIP.jpg

(From the Bayeux Tapestry.)

served. After breakfast, first four and then numerous vessels were sighted,[5] and when the major part of the fleet had come up, the duke weighed again and proceeded. A few hours later, on September 28th, he effected an unopposed landing in Pevensey Bay, and, according to Wace, destroyed his fleet as soon as he had thrown his army on shore.

William remained for a time on the coast, expecting reinforcements, while Harold hurried across England, to make a concentration of his forces at London. Speaking generally, the south flocked to him, while the north held aloof. Harold was counselled to send one army forward to strike at the invader, and to himself remain in London, to organise another as a second line of defence; but the advice did not agree with his brave and impetuous nature. He pressed south, with all men whom he had managed to draw to his standard, and, on October 13th, encamped on Senlac Hill, which he fortified with a ditch and a palisade.

In the meanwhile, William's reinforcements miscarried. They, too, were probably to have landed at Pevensey, but they went further to the eastward, disembarked at Romney, and were attacked and routed by the inhabitants.

The Normans spent the night in confession and prayer, and in the morning advanced over the high ground of Telham to the valley at the foot of Senlac.[6] The invaders were in three main divisions. On their right were mercenaries under Roger Montgomery and William FitzOsbern, afterwards Earl of Hereford; on the left were the Poitevins and Bretons, under Alan of Bretagne; and in the centre were the archers and men-at-arms of Normandy, under the duke himself. In each division, archers were in the van, footmen in the centre or main body, and cavalry in the rear.

As for the English, who were behind their palisade, the Huscarls, or Thingamen, regular troops of the king, held the centre, while the wings were formed, inefficiently enough, of raw and ill-armed country levies.

The Norman attack was prefaced at nine o'clock by heavy arrow-fire, under cover of which the infantry presently assaulted, but could make no impression. Indeed, the Norman left broke and fled, and the English right got out of hand, in spite of Harold's orders, and pursued. William personally drove back his fleeing Bretons, who, as soon as they had re-formed, easily routed their pursuers, and forced the remnant of them again within the enclosure. But the English held their own on the hill, though whenever they sallied forth they were repulsed. At length the Norman right scaled the slope on the English left; and, seeing all ready for the final onslaught, William bade his archers fire high, so as to drop their arrows over the palisade upon the heads of the defenders. This greatly annoyed the English, who, in addition, were beginning to feel the effects of their prolonged exertions. At the critical moment Harold, the soul of his army, fell, struck by an arrow in the eye. The Huscarls ranged themselves around their fallen leader, and prepared to sell their lives as dearly as possible; the country levies took to flight; and, as the night gathered, ever smaller grew the knot of stern men swinging their Danish axes on the Hill of Senlac, until the last went down, and the battle was lost. Harold fell at six in the evening, after the fight had raged for nine hours. The slaughter and pursuit continued until far into the hours of darkness, and until 60,000 Englishmen had perished.

Instead of at once marching upon London, the conqueror waited on the south coast until he had burnt Romney,[7] by way of chastisement to its inhabitants for having interfered with his reinforcements, and until he had besieged and taken Dover.

The story of how William completed his conquest needs telling here only so far as it falls directly within the limits of naval history. He had not been a year upon the throne ere one of the three sons of Harold, who had sought refuge in Ireland, and who, after the fall of their father, behaved much as Prince Rupert behaved after the fall of Charles I., undertook a piratical expedition into the Bristol Channel. At Bristol he was beaten back to his ships, but in Somersetshire he landed, and fought an indecisive battle, in which he killed, among others, Ednoth, William's Master of the Horse. He does not seem, however, to have been very successful, and he returned to Ireland without having accomplished much.[8] The exiled princes made another descent in the following year, when they landed in the Tavy with sixty-four vessels, but were so badly used by the Devonshire people, that scarcely two ships' crews escaped to sea.[9]

Far more formidable was an attempt made, in 1069, to disturb the new order of things in England. Sweyn, King of Denmark, conceiving himself to have inherited some right to the crown, and being encouraged by the Dano-Saxon party in England, as well, apparently, as by the sons of Harold, who had again sought refuge in Ireland, equipped a great fleet of two hundred and forty ships,[10] and put it under the command of his brother Osbern and his sons Harold and Canute.[11] Edgar Atheling, grandson of Edmund Ironside, who, after the Conquest, had been kindly received at the court of William, had already been removed thence by his friends to Scotland, where one of his sisters, Margaret, presently married King Malcolm III. (Canmore). Edgar was only eleven years of age, but was useful as a puppet. It was arranged that he, with three Saxon earls of influence, at the head of the Northumbrians, should join the Danes on their arrival; and although it is not now clear what advantage the Saxon royal family hoped to derive from the venture, it is plain that the combination promised to be exceedingly advantageous to the Danes. The latter entered the Humber without opposition about August, pushed up the Ouse, landed, were joined by the northern insurgents, and, after a brief and bloody campaign, stormed York, and massacred the Norman garrison.[12]

In the meantime, William, with a considerable army, was advancing from the south, and the Danes, always more anxious about booty than territory, and always desirous of being within touch of the sea, left York to the care of the Northumbrians, and withdrew with their plunder and their prisoners to the head of the Humber, where they encamped for the winter in sight of their ships. William seems to have temporised with Osbern, while devoting all his energy to the punishment of the rebels, whom he completely scattered.

In the spring Sweyn in person arrived in the Humber, raided the valleys of the Nen and Great Ouse, and established himself at Ely, whence he attacked and plundered Peterborough. William, still without a fleet of sufficient force, appears to have distrusted his ability to deal with the maurauders and to have at length bribed them to depart with their spoils. They sailed; but their return voyage was not a fortunate one, for they were overtaken by a storm, and lost many of their ships and much of their treasure. A few Danish vessels, probably separated by the storm from the main body, made their appearance, towards the end of the year, in the Thames, but remained only a very short time, and retired without accomplishing anything of importance.[13]

William had by that time made some progress in the direction of supplying himself with a fleet. In 1071 he was able to send ships, as well as land forces, against Earl Morkere, who had rebelled, and who was crushed; and in 1079, he penetrated into Scotland, as far as Fife, with the co-operation of a squadron, and at Abernethy obliged Malcolm III. to swear fealty to him,[14] and to surrender Duncan, subsequently Duncan II., as a hostage. In 1073, again, William utilised his fleet for the recovery of Maine,[15] which had rebelled; and in 1075, when no fewer than two hundred sail, under Canute, son of Sweyn, and Earl Hakon, left Denmark to attack England, the Conqueror's prestige was so great that the enemy, upon reflection, saw fit to retire without risking a combat.[16]

A few years later, in 1083 or 1085, an invasion from Denmark was once more threatened by Canute, aided by Olaf of Norway, with sixty ships, and by Robert, Count of Flanders, with six hundred,[17] but either spontaneous dissensions among the confederates, or disagreements judiciously fomented by the money and influence of William, caused the project to miscarry.[18] Indeed, the Conqueror, although generally successful in his naval undertakings, had little respite during his reign from the machinations of his enemies abroad, and of his rebellious subjects on the continent, and at the very time of his death he was engaged in a war with France. But of the naval features of these campaigns few details have been preserved.

William Rufus, in 1087, seized the crown of England in defiance of the rights of his elder brother Robert, and in consequence, he had to keep his acquisition by means of the sword. Robert's chief supporter in England was the Conqueror's half-brother Odo, Bishop of Bayeux and Earl of Kent, the most notable of the many fighting prelates of the age. Odo occupied and fortified some of the Kentish ports, while Robert collected a naval and military force in Normandy; but the co-operation of the two leaders was ill managed, and after a first brief blush of success, Robert's straggling vessels and reinforcements destined for Odo were over and over again cut off by the squadrons of William, until, when the latter had turned the tables and assumed the offensive, the elder brother was glad to make peace.

Robert, thus reduced to inactivity, sought employment, and was entrusted in 1091 with the conduct of a considerable naval expedition against Scotland, Malcolm having re-espoused the cause of Edgar Atheling and invaded England. William, with the army, met the Scots at Leeds, and Canmore was induced to again swear fealty; but in the meantime the English fleet fared almost as badly as would have been the case had the Scots fought and fought successfully, for it was overtaken by a storm, and many of its vessels were lost.[19]

William always cherished designs for the conquest of Wales, and pending the day when he should have leisure to turn the whole forces of his kingdom against that principality, he allowed, and probably encouraged, the border nobles to make war on their own account with the unreduced west. Numerous small wars, or freebooting raids resulted. One of these campaigns, undertaken in 1098-99 by Hugh, Earl of Shrewsbury, and Hugh, Earl of Chester, serves, as Campbell points out, as an illustration of "how imprudent a thing it is to depend on armies without fleets,"[20] or in more modern phrase, of the importance of sea power. The Earls invaded Anglesey, where they met with little resistance, and wrung a great amount of plunder from the inhabitants; but while they were in the full tide of their success, Magnus, a northern adventurer, swooped down from the Orkneys with a small squadron, and not only took from the invaders all the spoil which they had collected, but killed Hugh of Shrewsbury.[21]

In the last year of his reign, William betrayed extraordinary energy in repressing a rebellion in Maine, of which, with Normandy, he had taken charge in pursuance of an agreement with his brother Robert, who had gone on the First Crusade. The king was hunting in England when he learnt that Le Mans, the capital of the province, was besieged by the insurgents. Without dismounting he rode on to the nearest seaport, and hurrying on board a small vessel, obliged the master to put to sea, in spite of the prevalent bad weather. Reminded that he was alone, he said, "I shall see who will follow me, and if I understand the youth of this kingdom, I shall have people enough." Remonstrated with on the danger of crossing the Channel with a foul wind and a heavy sea, he exclaimed, "I never heard of a king that was shipwrecked. Weigh anchor, and you will see that the wind will be with us."[22] He landed safely at Barfleur, and relieved Le Mans with the troops already in Normandy. After his return he was preparing a fleet for operations beyond sea, when on August 2nd, 1100, he was accidentally killed.

Robert had shortly before returned from his crusade, and when he learnt that his youngest brother Henry had assumed the crown, he assembled a fleet at Tréport. Henry made corresponding preparations, issuing orders to the butescarles along the coasts for a rigorous observation of persons coming from Normandy,[23] and to the fleet, to be prepared to put to sea. But the position of Henry was very precarious. He had not only a bad title but also a reputation for energetic strictness, whereas Robert had a good title, had much distinguished himself in the East, and was popular on account of his good nature and easy-going ways. Desertions from Henry reinforced Robert both by sea and by land.

The king, awaiting the expected invasion at Pevensey, dispatched his fleet to meet that of his brother as soon as he learnt that the latter had sailed. Several ships went over to the foe. The body of the fleet missed the hostile squadron, which, keeping somewhat down Channel, effected a landing at Portsmouth. Henry, after concentrating at Hastings, moved to Winchester, many of his followers quitting him, and Robert advanced, and by a courageous blow might have gained the kingdom, but that, giving way to the influence of the nobles, and of Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury, he suffered himself to be persuaded to treat.[24] In the event, Henry was recognised as King of England, and Robert received a pension and certain territorial concessions on the continent. Robert did not long adhere to his bargain, and in 1106 Henry crossed, unopposed by sea, to Normandy, won the battle of Tenchebrai, took Robert prisoner, and kept him captive at Cardiff until his death. William Clito, Robert's eldest son, maintained for some time his father's pretensions, and obliged Henry to make frequent expeditions to the continent, and also to keep a considerable fleet in readiness, until 1124, when William abandoned the struggle and retired to Flanders.

Stephen's title to the crown, like that of Henry I., was a bad one. He claimed as a son of Adela, a daughter of William the Conqueror, who had married Stephen, Count of Blois; but he was a younger son at best, and there were, moreover, much nearer heirs, the nearest of all to the late king being Matilda, or Maud, only daughter of Henry I., and widow of the Emperor Henry V. Her second husband, Geoffrey of Anjou, was unpopular in England, and although homage had been done to Maud as the future Queen of England, in 1126, the new alliance contracted in 1128 antagonised so many of the nobles, that Stephen secured the succession without much difficulty. To reconcile his subjects to his rule, he remitted the tax knowm as the Danegeld or Heregeld, and thus deprived himself of large part of the supplies out of which a fleet could be maintained; yet in 1137 he was able to invade Normandy[25] with an army and a considerable squadron, and in spite of the resistance of Geoffrey of Anjou, to temporarily restore the province to the English crown.

But his success was short lived. The Empress Maud, accompanied by her bastard brother Robert, Earl of Gloucester,[26] invaded England; and for several years afterwards the country, owing to the varying fortunes of the combatants, was in a complete state of anarchy, during which the navy was almost entirely neglected. From 1145 to 1152 the empress withdrew, and left Stephen master of England; but in the latter year the war was renewed by Maud's son Henry, then an able and popular lad of nineteen. The struggle was terminated in 1153 by the treaty which, though known as that of Wallingford, was actually concluded at Westminster, and which stipulated that Stephen should retain the kingdom during his lifetime, and should then be succeeded by Henry. Stephen profited little by this arrangement, dying on October 8th in the following year.


  1. 'Chron. de Norm.' xiii. 235.
  2. Will. of Malmes.; 'De Gest. Pont. Angl.' 290; Ord. Vit., p. 494; Eadmer, i. 7.
  3. Will. of Poit. 198.
  4. Wace, 146.
  5. Will. of Poit. 199.
  6. For the Battle of Hastings, see Freeman's 'Norman Conquest,' iii.; William of Poitiers's 'Gesta Gulielmi'; Wace's 'Roman de Rou'; and the Bayeux Tapestry.
  7. Will. of Poit. 204.
  8. Sax. Chron., 269 (Ingram).
  9. Ib., 270.
  10. As Sim. of Durham says; but Will. of Hunt., and Matt. Paris say three hundred.
  11. Sax. Chron. 270 (Ingram) says that three sons of Sweyn took part.
  12. Three thousand are said to have been killed.
  13. Sax. Chron. 276 (Ingram).
  14. Ib., 277, 278.
  15. Ib., 278.
  16. Sax. Chron., 282 (Ingram).
  17. Will. of Malmes. ii. 437; Sax. Chron., 288 (Ingram); Pontanus, 197.
  18. Flor. of Worc., 641.
  19. Hoveden, 265 (Savile); Bromton, 987.
  20. Campbell, i., 103 (ed. 1817).
  21. Sax. Chron., 317 (Ingram).
  22. Will. of Malmes. ii. 502; Alf. of Beverley, ix.
  23. Hoveden, 268; Flor. of Worc., 650.
  24. Sax. Chron., 322 (Ingram); Bromton, 998; Hoveden, 268 (Savile).
  25. Bromton, 1026.
  26. Ib., 1029; Robt. of Glouc., 460.