Insight into Norman life & warfare
Successful warfare in the eleventh century depended partly on small disciplined troops of mounted men under the command of an experienced leader, and partly on the skilful use of footsoldiers and archers. The duke’s army was made up, not merely of his own well trained household troops, Norman vassals, and auxiliaries like the men of the count of Boulogne, but of adventurers from other regions that had joined the enterprise through hope and gain.
In the Gesta, William of Poitiers makes much of the story of the wind that changed as the results of prayers to Saint-Valery; this was what his master wished to be believed. It would be a sign that God favoured just an enterprise. Winds that yielded to prayers were stock element in miracle stories and added divine justification to the English throne.
As a former knight, William of Poitiers could write of campaigns with authority and credence
William of Poitiers account, regarding the Battle of Hastings and the discourse with which the duke encouraged his troops before the battle, is reliant, as he himself said, on oral evidence, as he himself was not an eye-witness. So it is not surprising to find that some of the closest resemblances to the account in the Carmen (Guy, Bishop of Amiens), also drawn from oral sources, are in the opening stage of the battle. Yet, William of Poitier gives a sober assessment throughout his historical passages, and are worthy of repeating because they offer a precious insight into many topics, particularly the campaigns of the duke and his skill as a military commander. It is also worth mentioning that as a former knight, William of Poitier could write of campaigns with authority and credence.
The narration of the battle is a particularly striking strength of the Gesta because, unlike the Bayeaux Tapestry which offers only a limited amount of scenes, the Gesta narrates the French mailed infantry and their function in battle.
In his article, English Warfare in 1066, Richard Glover draws upon the Gesta Guillelmi to describe and dramatise military tactics employed during the Battle of Hastings:
But Hastings was for Harold a very different affair from Stamford Bridge. At the earlier battle every advantage had been his. He had with him ‘ the whole strength of southern and central England ‘; he caught the Norse of Harald Hardrader divided, surprised, and weakened by the casualties of Fulford. These advantages enabled him to adopt, on ideal ground, the offensive role which has always been the golden opportunity of cavalry. At Hastings the boot was on the other foot. There the Normans, who had fought no battles and made no great marches, were at full strength, while Harold’s force was too largely composed of the scrapings of shires whose best had been expended in the North, of wretchedly armed men whose weapons were the mere ‘ lignis imposita saxa‘ described by William of Poitiers.1
The Gesta portrays the development of the code of chivalry throughout the text, but is especially significant in the first section from ‘the joyful day when William was armed as a knight’, obviously an event of great significance to William of Poitiers who proclaims this to be a great sight with his young lord ‘holding the reins’ with a ‘virile spirit and valour (shining) brilliantly in him’.
William is seen to be consolidating his power amongst the lords of the Normandy by both weeding out ‘those in his entourage who were incompetent or wicked’, and by instilling a sense of loyalty by promising ‘better things to good men who were obedient’. The fostering of the fief and bonds of loyalty to himself are evident in the Gesta’s description of how ‘he for his part strove to the utmost of his ability to be an honour and support to his friends, and he took also that his friends should owe him as much as possible’. Another clear example is in the aftermath of the victorious siege of Le Mans where William’s forces ‘find very rich booty, thoroughbred horses, knightly arms and every kind of equipment.’ The Gesta illustrates well the bonds of loyalty between the lord and his vassals with its depiction of the spoils, like those captured elsewhere, that were ‘intended by the duke, in his moderation and liberality, for his knights rather than himself.’ It appears that to ensure the continuing loyalty of his vassals, William must be able to offer them continuing opportunities for the accumulation of land and plunder.
he for his part strove to the utmost of his ability to be an honour and support to his friends, and he took also that his friends should owe him as much as possible
The rule of law and civic order is reimposed on Norman society after the civil war and feuding of the previous period, ‘for everywhere there were unlawful deeds’ and ‘for a while he was hurrying to avenge the insult to himself, news of the harm done to his province drove him on faster still. He lamented that the goods of churches, the labours of country people, and the profits of merchants, were unjustly made the booty of men-at-arms.’
He ‘began with utmost zeal to protect the Churches of God, to uphold the cause of the weak, to impose laws which would not be burdensome’ by making ‘judgements which never deviate from equity & temperance…’ such as when he ‘especially prohibits fire, slaughter & pillage’. However, it is clear that the tendency to decentralisation and pillage is still a major issue within Normandy from William’s rivals such as Guy of Burgundy ‘who held mighty castles’ and who “preferred to enjoy their accustomed liberty – retaining their own possessions and seizing those of others at their pleasure’.
The developing chivalric code allowed the development of, in the Gesta’s view, a much more peaceable and ordered society, from top to bottom, which enabled ‘The church to celebrate the divine mystery…the merchant to go where he would in safety’ and ‘the farmer to give thanks to plough fields and scatter seeds, instead of hiding from sight of soldiers’.
William’s continuing pursuit of hegemony within Norman society appears, in the Gesta, to include that over the church with him intervening in the legal processes of the church and abbeys and powerfully asserting his right as the Duke of Normandy to be the ultimate source of legal arbitration, even to the extent of severely punishing wayward churchmen:
As the source of authority, though a layman he used to give subtle advice to advice to abbots and bishops on ecclesiastical discipline and encouraging firmly and punishing severely…he wished all to be done in a reasonable and orderly and holy way. If by chance that it came to his ears that a bishop or archdeacon had punished some abominable crime more leniently than was just he ordered the person guilty before the divine majesty to be kept in prison until the lord’s cause had been determined with strict equity.
1. Glover, R., ‘English Warfare in 1066′, English Historical Review (1952), pp.1-18.