WILLIAM OF POITIERS (Gesta Guillelmi 1072 app.)

Part Three

Current historical thinking appears to place particular emphasis on the authenticity of William of Poitiers (14) version of events, as detailed in his manuscript (15) As a result we are taught in schools that William landed at Pevensey and moved down the coast to Hastings, where he camped to wait for Harold to arrive. Poitiers states:

"Thus, with a favourable wind, they all reached Pevensey, and there without opposition they freely disembarked"

Here we have the first of many contentious issues, since Poitiers makes the point that the landing was unopposed. In the following paragraph the point is pushed home by the statement:

"Rejoicing greatly at having secured a safe landing, the Normans seized and fortified Pevensey and then Hastings..."

However Pevensey had a large fortified castle, as we have discussed, which was known to be garrisoned throughout that summer by the local militia (16) , who had been called out by Harold in anticipation of the coming invasion. There is no mention by any chronicler of resistance and Poiters makes the point that none was encountered. This flies in the face of what should have happened if the invasion force had landed at the place where the towns of Pevensey and Hastings stand. The Bayeux Tapestry seem to endorse this, suggesting landing in an agricultural, area rather than a town. The question has therefore to be asked whether Poitiers evidence is really that reliable or are we seeking to match the text to the current site of Pevensey and Hastings towns, with their established castles, when the correct site may have been elsewhere else in the vicinity. I therefore propose that in the interests of prudence and in the absence of any physical remains we can only conclude that Poitiers believed the landing site to be Pevensey, but it may not be the Pevensey as we know it today. There is, as far as I am aware, no actual hard archaeological evidence to substantiate the claim that Pevensey was the landing site and if the rules of trial were to be applied, the evidence, as presented, would be thrown out of court. It is my view that Poitiers and Jumieges both make the same mistake of naming Pevensey, since they were innocently copying down what they had been told. The real error lies with those who accept these written statements in the absence of any scientific verifying data, in an age when the ingenuity of man can send a robot to the remote parts of the solar system. If the Normans had occupied Pevensey and then Hastings, in the manner described, scientific proof would have by now been found. Until now no such scientific evidence has been found and in its absence it beholds the scientist and sceptic to reserve judgement, rather than accept one version of events over another, which may be equally valid.

More information is gained by reading Poitiers text, since he relates the story of William reconnoitring the area with 25 knights. He writes

"Because of the roughness of the ground he (William) had to return on foot."

The consequence of this observation is that having established their beach head, the site where the Normans had built their camp, was of sufficient ruggedness to require the riders to dismount. Having just made the immediate area secure a knight on foot was particularly vulnerable. I must therefore conclude that there must have been no alternative, suggesting very difficult ground. The point of the statement is to advise the reader that whilst it was too difficult for horses, it was still able to be negotiated on foot. I interpret this to include the probability of waterlogged ground, given the nature of the clay subsoil in the area and the fact that most texts note that weather for the previous months had been too poor for William to depart from France.

Further clues concerning the location of the camp and the landing site can be gleaned from the text confirming that the events in question were adjacent to water . Poitiers writes:

"One day then the duke was visiting the guards of his fleet, and was walking about near the ships, he was told that a monk had arrived sent by Harold".

Later further confirmation about the location is made by specific reference to the sea, at the pre-battle pep talk from William to his men, in which he refers to their predicament

"..behind you, there is the sea where an enemy fleet bars your flight."

and after the battle

"His (Harold's) corpse was brought to the duke's camp"

Then in the same paragraph Poitiers claims

"They said in jest that he who had guarded the coast(Harold) with such insensate zeal should be buried by the seashore."

Quite a remarkable claim, since this would not be what you would expect to happen to a vanquished king. A king at this time would be expected to be given the honour of a Christian burial in a holy place. Poitiers text infers that no such honour was granted. Instead he reports the burial to be by the sea shore.

Lastly Poitiers provides us with yet another small clue to the place where these events happened. At the point where Harold commits to take up the fight Poitiers reports

"The King (Harold) was the more furious because he had heard that the Normans had laid waste the neighbourhood of their camp.."

A clear statement by a chronicler of the day that the surrounding area was in his words "laid waste"

In conclusion Poitiers tells us quite a lot, including the fact that like Jumieges Pevensey and Hastings were both possible sites, but this is tempered by the fact that Poitiers may have heard or seen Jumieges slightly earlier account. The reasons for believing that Poitiers may have repeated Jumieges mistake in naming Pevensey are for the same logistical and tactical reasons that I outlined in the Jumieges text. The question marks raised by these issues cannot be simply dismissed. However, I am not suggesting that Poitiers invented what amounts to a remarkable account of events.

He adds some valuable information including the fact that the ground in this locality was rough or impassable on horseback. He tells us that the fleet were nearby. and that the camp was close to the sea. In particular the statement that the surrounding area was "laid waste" by the invading army, has further implications when examined in conjunction with the Domesday Book, examined later. In consequence the Poitiers evidence adds considerably to our knowledge of the landing site, The fact that this does not fit with what we believe to be the Pevensey castle site does not undermine the authority of the account. It simply reinforces the probability that Pevensey castle was probably not where the landing actually took place. In any event, to be fair to Poitiers, it can be argued that so little detail is given in relation to Pevensey that Poitiers reported the matter in a way that suggested little conviction. Taken over all it appears that Poitiers claims Hastings as the centre of activity, yet still accounts for Pevensey in his opening lines, leaving out all the detail which meticulously accompanies the following text. This clever device avoids conflict with the earlier Jumieges text, whilst studiously avoiding any further detail, which might not stand up to scrutiny.