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Dr Marjorie Chibnall

Letter (undated)1995. Dr Chibnall, Clare Hall, Cambridge, is considered by many to be the world's leading historian with authority on the Battle of Hastings and the Norman Invasion(Author comments in italics)
Dear Mr Austin,

I found your study fascinating, and indeed read it straight through at a sitting, although I ought to have been doing something else. In particular, I was impressed by the arguments for the landing in the Combe Valley and the camp of William at Wilting; I think you have made a case for a serious archaeological investigation there, even if there are some points on which I hesitate to agree. These however relate more to the implications for the site of the battle itself.

As I'm not an archaeologist, most of my comments will be on the documents. I liked the way you tackled them, but clearly you were handicapped by not having access to the most recent and complete editions and to a good deal of recent research about them. Nowadays few if any historians would condemn any narrative source out of hand; one has to look at each on its merits, and consider the author, his purpose, his audience, and his sources. Most of the early chroniclers relied heavily on oral sources from eye-witnesses, some of which were good, but all of which were necessarily incomplete, particularly when they described battles. Even when they knew each other's work they for the most part cited it only for episodes of which they knew nothing. It is pretty clear that William of Poitiers, the Carmen and the Bayeux Tapestry had some oral sources in common, and some that were different. Wace knew WP and the Tapestry, and added some traditions handed down by his father and others. He also, as Matthew Bennett has shown, wished to please some of the magnates in the court of Henry II and gave them ancestors who fought at the Battle of Hastings, even if the evidence for their participation in the actual Battle is slim.

William of Jumieges.You know the first volume of the new edition of E.van Houts; the second will be published some time next year (I've seen the proofs, which she has lent me). But I think you have had to depend on translated selections for the later books, as the edition by Jean Marx isn't very accessible. In spite of the exaggeration about the size of the fleet, and the weakness of much of his account of the events in England, he is a good source generally. But as regards different words for the castles at Pevensey and Hastings you have been misled by the translation. He does not distinguish between "castle" and a "fortress"; the Latin phrases are actually (of Pevensey) "castrum condidit", and of Hastings "ibique cito opere aluid firmavit", which van Houts translated as (of Pevensey) "he built a strongly entrenched fortification" and of Hastings "he quickly raised another one", which I think is more exact than the translation you cite. Having wrestled with the translations of military terms in Orderic Vitalis I can only say that I wish the different words always meant something different; they depend upon all sorts of factors, such as whether the information came from an author who was trained in the classics and used Roman language, or whether he was trying to be literary by varying the terms he used for the same building, or whether he was describing something he had actually seen, and could be specific.

William of Poitiers There is a good critical edition with French translation by Raymonde Foreville, published in 1952. Although it needs updating and is more or less unobtainable, it is full of good critical footnotes and has a perceptive introduction. For instance on the landing "at Pevensey" she cites a paper by Rev.H.Rudkin, "Where did William land?" in the Sussex County Magazine for Feb 1928, and suggests that the landing may have been in harbours near to Pevensey. Apparently Rudkin, whose article I have been unable to see, mentions Bulmer hythe and Hastings Harbour. This must be different from the articles you mention by B.H.Lucas; perhaps there was a series on William's landing in the magazine. I mention this to indicate that historians have not gone blindly for Pevensey. Whether it was named because the Norman writers didn't know much about English topography and went for a name they knew, or whether William spread the rumour that he had Pevensey in mind I couldn't say. I quite like the second suggestion that you make, because it fits nicely with a theory I am floating that William, knowing that Harold's spies were hanging around the camp (he caught one and sent him back to Harold with a probably misleading message) deliberately practised spreading wrong information. John Prestwich has dealt with his use of military intelligence, and this is just one step further. As regards the landing site, I would much like to know whether you have any positive information about the land exactly the monks of Fecamp held in Sussex Before the Conquest; they had been given land in Steyning, Bury and Ramesley, but clearly the first two didn't come into their posession, and the exact location of the third (in the hundred of Guestling) isn't clear. William of Poitiers gives the very interesting information that a monk of Fecamp was with William, and we know that the abbey of Fecamp provided a boat and that William was particularly grateful to the abbey for the help he had received and gave the almoner, Regimus, the first bishopric that fell vacant. I think myself that William probably had in mind a landing somewhere along the coast near Hastings, where the monks knew the terrain, because they had trading contacts and went freely to and fro across the Channel. The monk probably acted as a guide. So my view of William's use of "misinformation" is that he spread rumours widely that he intended to land in the Isle of Wight, to keep Harold's forces alert and stretched, and keep his real plans close to his chest that even his chaplains (and William of Poitiers was a chaplain at some time) didn't know about them. This however is mere speculation but I am very closely involved with all these questions because when Raloph Davis died I was asked by the editors of Oxford Medieval Texts if I would take over the edition of William of Poitiers which he had begun. However I must not be side-tracked into general speculation my immediate points about WP concern the bits that probably you did have a chance to see in the translated extracts. The hauberk story is in William of Poitiers, and Wace certainly got it from him. Its interesting that WP is silent on the death of Harold, and does not try to suggest how or when he was killed. The arrow in the eye version occurs almost simultaneously in the Bayeux Tapestry and the Chronicle of Amatus of Monte Cassino, written in South Italy! So clearly it was an early story circulating among the knights, though I have sometimes thought the truth may be no-one who survived actually knew how or when Harold died; his immediate bodyguard probably went on fighting to the last man, and even if his standard-bearer fell someone else may have taken up the standard. The one point clearly made by early writers is that the body was unrecognisable, which would be consonant with death by an arrow in the eye (although when I pointed this out to Frank Barlow he said that a direct blow with a sword would have had the same effect). I am coming to the conclusion that WP wrote on two levels; his plain st yle, based on classical models, is often very accurate and reliable; but his flights of panegyric cannot be taken at face value; indeed when he tries to explain how merciful and just William was in all his dealings with the English, yet how the English were unhappy and rebelled, he clearly knows that he is contradicting himself; he must have known that although he claimed to write only in accordance with the law of history, avoiding the "law of poetry" which allowed considerable licence, he let himself be carried away by the laws of rhetoric. I have idly wondered if the reference to the "law of poetry" was a dig at the Carmen.

To come to the Carmen de Hastingae proelio attributed to Guy of Amiens; as you know there is much controversy about this. The most recent work has almost all been in favour of an early date, as you know; and I think myself that this is right. Bt it doesn't mean that the information is correct. I think the author was well-informed about conditions in Ponthieu, and about events after the conquest in London; and that for the actual invasion and battle he depended on oral sources, of which some were sound and some were unsound. Some were the same as those used by WP. He clearly certainly allowed himself considerable poetic licence. But I will take merely one point; the burial of Harold. The story of the burial on the sea-shore occurs only in the Norman or French sources; in particular WP and the Carmen and authors such as Orderic and Wace who used WP. There is nothing to corroborate it in English source that I know. William of Malmesbury believed that Harold was buried at Waltham; and naturally this was believed also by the canon who wrote the Waltham Chronicle. Now here I must declare an interest, for I have come down firmly in favour of Waltham in the edition of the Waltham Chronicle which Leslie Watkiss and I have just published in Oxford Medieval Texts. I intend to go into rather more detail in the edition of WP. Now that I have looked closely at what WP wrote, he doesn't exactly say that Harold was buried on the sea-shore; he actually says that it was said in jest that he ought to be buried there. Then he breaks into a rhetorical passage addressed to Harold, asking why he violated his oath and so bought disaster to himself and his men, and caused him to be buried on the sea-shore. The Carmen is more explicit, and goes right into traditional saga to give him a viking type funeral. The only detailed discussion of this that I know is by Karl-Ulrich Jaschke, who describes in detail the development of the literary traditions about scandinavian funerals; I must confess that I'm not quite sure, owing to the imperfections of my German, whether Jaschke himself thinks that the account should be regarded as a poetical flight of fancy or not. But I think the Waltham story convincing; there was a continuous tradition of liturgical commemoration there, and far from trying to attract pilgrims of the tomb the canons did all in their power to prevent the growth of a seditious cult so that they moved the body twice to prevent pilgrims coming to adore the Holy Cross passing by it. The story that the body was not really Harold's was a fabrication of the late twelfth century, invented by the author of the Vita Haroldi to oblige the Augustinian canons of the new foundation of Henry II. Of course there are fictitious elements in the Waltham story too, particularly the Edith Swanneshals story, (I have wondered if William Mallet, Harold's kinsman, was asked to identify the body); but in the main it is convincing. It has been clearly shown by V.H.Galbraith and George Garnett that in the first weeks, perhaps even months, after the Conquest William regarded Harold as king; the story of his unlawful coronation and perjury came later. There is a case for his readiness to allow Harold a Christian burial in the church of his foundation. And if the sea-shore story is true, why did no-one ever, as far as I know, seem to notice the stone when it would have been visible. Although you might well be right in thinking that you have located a stone, only excavation could show (surely?) what inscription was on it. It may have marked the tomb of Norman warriors.

Orderic Vitalis (not, please Oderic) (my mistake on original draft).He was chistened with the good Saxon name of Ordric (Latin, Ordricus), which was the name of the priest who baptized him in Atcham church, near to Shrewsbury. His mother was English, and his father a clerk in the household of Roger of Montgommeny. From the age of five he was learning his letters in the house of the priest Siward (also English) at St Peter's church in Shrewsbury, where the abbey was founded. English was his spoken language until 1085, when his father sent him away at the age of ten to be an oblate monk in Saint-Evroult, a Norman Abbey, and he arrived to find the language around him incomprehensible. The manuscript of his marvelous Ecclesiastical History, which is full of all manner of information about Norman and Anglo-Norman society, survives in his own holograph. I say this because of your rather contemptuous rejection of the name Senlac which he gave to the battle. It was certainly the name he heard in his boyhood, from the Englishmen around him; after all, Hastings is later name. It has been suggested that the word was probably the AS "sandlacu", or "sandy stream". There is no possibility of a corruption of the French word for Sand Rock. Orderic wrote "Senlac" with his own hand; I know, because I have edited it (Oxford Medieval Texts, 6 vols. 1969 -1980).
I make this point because it seems relevant to your suggestion that the battle was not fought on the traditionally accepted site. I can't imagine how you can prove this, in spite of the absence of artefacts; there has never been a systematic excavation on the site. Even though William probably did not make a vow before the battle to found an abbey there, and though the monks certainly forged charters to support their claims to some properties, it is hard to get round the fact the abbey is built on an exceedingly inconvenient site on top of a hill - not the kind of site usually favoured by monks, because of the formidable problems in providing a water supply - and that from a time within living memory of the battle it was believed the reason for this was William's insistence that it must be built on the spot where Harold fell. Before you go any further I do ask you (in view of the derivation you suggest for Sand Rock, which seems to be special pleading) to be sure that you have evidence strong enough to overturn the very, very early tradition about the site of the abbey. You may consider I am biassed - after all I took over the running of the Battle conferences in Anglo Norman Studies when allan Brown died, and ran them for five years, and we met at Pike House on the site of the battlefield. But the volumes of conference papers are full of many valuable contributions by the scholars from all manner of disciplines, and I think you would find them useful.
Incidentally, there are several on the Bayeux Tapestry, which I would like to have discussed, but haven't time now. In particular, I think you would be interested in Arnold Taylor's paper (vol.XIV) on "Belrem", which is chiefly concerned with Beaurain, but has a little on Hastings, because he argues forcefully for the accurate representation of buildings on the Tapestry; and Derek Renn's (XVI) on "Burgheat and gonfanon", similarly concerned with accurate representation; also Nicholas Brooke's general survey in the first volume. I was interested in some of your observations on the possible interpretations of such things as fish on the table and the details of the oath at Bayeux; but want to think more about them.
I have written quickly, because I know too well that unless I reply immediately to letters other things will creep in, and it may be weeks before I get back to them; and I know I have several days in London next week. I will send your volume back shortly, with any further comments that I might usefully make; and of course if you wish to challenge any of this or ask any specific questions do write again.

Finally, I want to stress that I can appreciate the importance of making a case for the historical importance of the site now threatened by a new road; and that I think you have made it, because William's base camp is in itself important, even if (as I firmly believe) the battle was fought a few miles further on, where William had advanced to a temporary camp.

Yours sincerely

Marjorie Chibnall
Clare Hall, Cambridge.(undated)1995


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