CHAPTER VIII. THE BATTLE OF HASTINGS, 1066.
Harold's brothers, Gurth and Leofwine, were with him in the camp, and Gurth endeavoured to persuade him to absent himself from the battle. The incident shows how well devised had been William's scheme of binding Harold by the oath on the holy relics. "My brother", said the young Saxon prince, "thou canst not deny that either by force or free-will thou hast made Duke William an oath on the bodies of saints. Why then risk thyself in the battle with a perjury upon thee? To us, who have sworn nothing, this is a holy and a just war, for we are fighting for our country. Leave us then, alone to fight this battle, and he who has the right will win." Harold replied that he would not look on while others risked their lives for him. Men would hold him a coward, and blame him for sending his best friends where he dared not go himself. He resolved, therefore, to fight, and to fight in person: but he was still too good a general to be the assailant in the action. He strengthened his position on the hill where he had halted, by a palisade of stakes interlaced with osier hurdles, and there, he said, he would defend himself against whoever should seek him.
The ruins of Battle Abbey at this hour attest the place where Harold's army was posted. The high altar of the abbey stood on the very spot where Harold's own standard was planted during the fight, and where the carnage was the thickest. Immediately after his victory William vowed to build an abbey on the site; and a fair and stately pile soon rose there, where for many ages the monks prayed, and said masses for the souls of those who were slain in the battle, whence the abbey took its name. Before that time the place was called Senlac. Little of the ancient edifice now remains: but it is easy to trace among its relics and in the neighbourhood the scenes of the chief incidents in the action; and it is impossible to deny the generalship shown by Harold in stationing his men; especially when we bear in mind that he was deficient in cavalry, the arm in which his adversary's main strength consisted.
A neck of hills trends inwards for nearly seven miles from the high ground immediately to the north-east of Hastings. The line of this neck of hills is from south-east to north-west, and the usual route from Hastings to London must, in ancient as in modern times, have been along its summits. At the distance from Hastings which has been mentioned, the continuous chain of hills ceases. A valley must be crossed, and on the other side of it, opposite to the last of the neck of hills, rises a high ground of some extent, facing to the south-east. This high ground, then termed Senlac, was occupied by Harold's army. It could not be attacked in front without considerable disadvantage to the assailants, and could hardly be turned without those engaged in the manoeuvre exposing themselves to a fatal charge in flank, while they wound round the base of the height, and underneath the ridges which project from it on either side. There was a rough and thickly-wooded district in the rear, which seemed to offer Harold great facilities for rallying his men, and checking the progress of the enemy, if they should succeed in forcing him back from his post. And it seemed scarcely possible that the Normans, if they met with any repulse, could save themselves from utter destruction. With such hopes and expectations (which cannot be termed unreasonable, though "Successum Dea dira negavit,") King Harold bade his standard be set up a little way down the slope of Senlac-hill, at the point where the ascent from the valley was least steep, and on which the fiercest attacks of the advancing enemy were sure to be directed.