Scholarly Criticism

Throughout the text we can identify some declamatory passages which possess a much more exaggerated rhetoric. When, for example, William of Poitiers apostrophizes Harold after his death and burial, and comments that his body lies in a tumulus on the seashore, he seems to forget that he has just expressly said that the proposal to bury Harold on the seashore had been made in jest. Similarly, he reproaches the English for rebelling against their new king in terms that do not quite square with his comments on the justice and moderation of the measures taken by William, and on his warm reception during his progress through the country.

Orderic Vitalis had a complete manuscript of the Gesta Guillelmi, which was his principle source for the campaigns of 1066-1071 and for William’s right to the English throne. He used it with discretion, omitting the long passages of comparison with Caesar and the Vergilian episodes such as the mid-Channel banquet. While he abbreviated the rhetorical passages, he retained many expressions of admiration for William’s courage, leadership, and kingly qualities. But the many passages praising William’s mercy towards the conquered English are either omitted altogether or directly contradicted.

Although the Gesta gives a detailed description of the preparations for the Norman Conquest of England, the Battle of Hastings and its aftermath, historian E. A. Freeman, suggests that “the work is disfigured by his constant spirit of violent partisanship.” 1

William of Poitiers described the Anglo-Saxon line as being ‘on foot and in very close order’, and their ranks during the battle as ‘so closely massed together that even the dead had not space in which to fall’.To the south, William deployed his army at the foot of the slope leading down from the ridge in three main groups.2

The location of an encounter between Norman horsemen and English infantry, supposedly during the latters’ flight from the battlefield, has given rise to considerable speculation. The incident was referred to by William of Poitiers:

But some of those who retreated took courage to renew the struggle on more favourable ground. This was a steep valley intersected with ditches. These people, descended from the ancient Saxons (the fiercest of men), are always by nature eager for battle, and they could only be brought down by the greatest valour. Had they not recently defeated with ease the king of Norway at the head of a fine army? 3

The duke who was following the victorious standards did not turn from his course when he saw these enemy troops rallying. Although he thought that reinforcements had joined his foes he stood firm. Armed only with a broken lance he was more formidable than others who brandished long javelins. With a harsh voice he called to Eustace of Boulogne, who with fifty knights was turning in flight, and was about to give the signal for retreat. This man came up to the duke and said in his ear that he ought to retire since he would court death if he went forward. But at the very moment when he uttered the words Eustace was struck between the shoulders with such force that blood gushed out from mouth and nose, and half dead he only made his escape with the aid of this followers. The duke, however, who was superior to all fear and dishonour, attacked and beat back his enemies. In this dangerous phase of the battle many Norman nobles were killed since the nature of the ground did not permit them to display their prowess to full advantage. English Heritage Historical Report (Battlefield)

The location of this temporary setback for the Normans has become identified as a deep fosse or ravine into which their horsemen rode in the failing light of evening. Although described by the Battle Abbey Chronicle of the late twelfth century as ‘an immense ditch’then known as the Malfosse, the chronicler failed to specify its position in relation to the battlefield. He also appears to have developed an independent detail of the pursuit (supported elsewhere only by the earlier writer Ordericus Vitalis), for William of Poitiers makes no mention of Norman horsemen plunging into a ditch or of the Malfosse.

Footnotes

1. Davis, R. H C & Chibnall, M., The Gesta Guillelmi of William of Poitiers, (Oxford), 1998, pp.xxxiv-xxxv.
2. Davis, R. H C & Chibnall, M., The Gesta Guillelmi of William of Poitiers, (Oxford), 1998, p.131.
3. Davis, R. H C & Chibnall, M., The Gesta Guillelmi of William of Poitiers, (Oxford), 1998, p.137.