The morning of the battle dawned.
William took mass and hung saintly relics around his neck – the very same relics
over which Harold had sworn, two years previously, to be his liegeman.
Next, he donned his armour, only to discover it was back to front.
Some may have taken this to be a bad omen, remembering, perhaps,
the flight of the comet, but the Duke laughed, had his servants turn it around and said:
«Today everything will be turned around and I will no longer be merely a Duke,
I will be a King». And with that, he walked out to meet his troops.
Many remember the speech he made. They endowed it with beautiful words
and lofty concepts. But William said just two things to his men: to show the enemy no pity
because they themselves would receive none, and that at the end of the day
they would either be dead or victorious, in which case honour and riches awaited them. His speech over, he led his men to meet the enemy.
Harold appeared from the north, emerging from a wood.
An old Grey Apple tree bore witness to his coming, as he rode
just behind his own personal standard that portrayed the magnificent figure of a fighting man embroidered in gold and precious stones. There was also a second flag,
portraying a dragon, symbol of Wessex, and two of the King’s brothers,
Gyrth and Leofwine. With them, the King’s household guard (almost 1,000 fighters),
along with a further 6-7,000 men of the fyrd, the national militia, from Sussex, Kent, London, Wessex, Suffolk, Norfolk, Canterbury, Stamford, Northampton, Winchester,
and other counties too.
These men carried long axes and large shields, their clothes to their knees
and their arms covered in golden bracelets and tattoos. There were only a few archers and no one, having dismounted earlier, was on horseback. This was how Anglo-Saxons fought in those days – at the height of their power and the moment of their ruin.
They occupied a ridge that overlooked a vast depression with trees on the right
and an incline to the left – an ideal position.
Standing, they waited as one man for the enemy, a solid mass of men and shields.
Had anyone thrown an apple into their midst, it would not have fallen to the ground.
From the other side, the sound of singing voices grew nearer and ever louder.
They sang of the feats of Roland and Charlemagne, of paladins and ancient heroes.
It swelled the hearts of the men as they marched forward to battle.
Then the flag of St. Peter appeared and, behind it, William’s troops.
They were divided into three bodies: the Bretons on the left,
Normans in the centre – under the Duke’s personal command –
and the men from France and Flanders on the right.
Each sector was organised into three: the archers and crossbowmen at the front tasked with opening the hostilities; next came the infantrymen better protected and armed
for close-contact fighting; and finally the cavalry, armed with lances and swords.
All was ready.
At that point, a sole horseman pushed through the Norman lines and made his way
to the centre of the field. Everyone looked at him and a few recognised him:
it was Tailefer («Cut Iron»), the minstrel.
Completely alone, he rode towards the enemy, singing.
A single Anglo-Saxon broke ranks, moving out to meet him.
They exchanged blows.
Tailefer remained standing.
Shouts of victory bellowed forth from the Normans to celebrate that they had struck
the first blow: Deus aïe, Deus aïe!, «God help us» was the cry
that went up from William’s men.
Above them, on the top of the hill, a deep guttural sound was heard: Ut, ut!, «Out, out!». And as the jester met his end, the battle began.
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