CHAPTER VIII. THE BATTLE OF HASTINGS, 1066.
The foundation-stones of the high altar of Battle Abbey have, during late years, been discovered; and we may place our feet on the very spot where Harold stood with England's banner waving over him; where, when the battle was joined, he defended himself to the utmost; where the fatal arrow came down on him; where he "leaned in agony on his shield;" and where at last he was beaten to the earth, and with him the Saxon banner was beaten down, like him never to rise again. The ruins of the altar are a little to the west of the high road, which leads from Hastings along the neck of hills already described, across the valley, and through the modern town of Battle, towards London. Before a railway was made along this valley, some of the old local features were more easy than now to recognise. The eye then at once saw that the ascent from the valley was least steep at the point which Harold selected for his own post in the engagement. But this is still sufficiently discernible; and we can fix the spot, a little lower down the slope, immediately in front of the high altar, where the brave Kentish men stood, "whose right it was to strike first when ever the king went to battle," and who, therefore, were placed where the Normans would be most likely to make their first charge. Round Harold himself, and where the plantations wave which now surround the high altar's ruins, stood the men of London, "whose privilege it was to guard the king's body, to place themselves around it, and to guard his standard." On the right and left were ranged the other warriors of central and southern England, whose shires the old Norman chronicler distorts in his French nomenclature. Looking thence in the direction of Hastings, we can distinguish the "ridge of the rising ground over which the Normans appeared advancing." It is the nearest of the neck of hills. It is along that hill that Harold and his brothers saw approach in succession the three divisions of the Norman army. The Normans came down that slope, and then formed in the valley, so as to assault the whole front of the English position. Duke William's own division, with "the best men and greatest strength of the army, made the Norman centre, and charged the English immediately in front of Harold's banner, as the nature of the ground had led the Saxon king to anticipate.
There are few battles the localities of which can be more completely traced; and the whole scene is fraught with associations of deep interest: but the spot which, most of all, awakens our sympathy and excites our feelings, is that where Harold himself fought and fell. The crumbling fragments of the grey altar-stones, with the wild flowers that cling around their base, seem fitting memorials of the brave Saxon who there bowed his head in death; while the laurel-trees that are planted near, and wave over the ruins, remind us of the Conqueror, who there, at the close of that dreadful day, reared his victorious standard high over the trampled banner of the Saxon, and held his triumphant carousal amid the corses of the slain, with his Norman chivalry exulting around him.
When it was known in the invaders' camp at Hastings that King Harold had marched southward with his power, but a brief interval ensued before the two hosts met in decisive encounter.
William's only chance of safety lay in bringing on a general engagement; and he joyfully advanced his army from their camp on the hill over Hastings, nearer to the Saxon position. But he neglected no means of weakening his opponent, and renewed his summonses and demands on Harold with an ostentatious air of sanctity and moderation.
"A monk named Hugues Maigrot came in William's name to call upon the Saxon king to do one of three things - either to resign his royalty in favour of William, or to refer it to the arbitration of the Pope to decide which of the two ought to be king, or to let it be determined by the issue of a single combat. Harold abruptly replied, 'I will not resign my title, I will not refer it to the Pope, nor will I accept the single combat.' He was far from being deficient in bravery; but he was no more at liberty to stake the crown which he had received from a whole people on the chance of a duel, than to deposit it in the hands of an Italian priest. William was not at all ruffled by the Saxon's refusal, but steadily pursuing the course of his calculated measures, sent the Norman monk again, after giving him these instructions: - 'Go and tell Harold, that if he will keep his former compact with me, I will leave to him all the country which is beyond the Humber, and will give his brother Gurth all the lands which Godwin held. If he still persist in refusing my offers, then thou shalt tell him, before all his people, that he is a perjurer and a liar; that he, and all who shall support him, are excommunicated by the mouth of the Pope; and that the bull to that effect is in my hands.'