History

Hastings remembered

To mark the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings, here is a poem written on the 800th anniversary in 1866.

‘A Chime from Battle Belfry’
Charles Sumner Harington

The harvest moon rose ruddy o’er the rich and virgin plain,
But ere the busy farming lads could house the gathered grain,
The Norman had run riot on our fair South Saxon soil,
With locust swoop devouring all the fruit of English toil.
The fields looked up for pity, but the waning moon slid past;
King Harold marked her silently as south he travelled fast,
With flower of Middlesex and Kent, to face and flout the foe,
By the fourteenth of October, twice four hundred years ago.

The dying moon waxed pale before the young uncradled sun,
Just waking over Fairlight Down his bloody course to run.
The Norman knelt before his priest, a blessing to receive,
Crowning with mass and litany the shrift of yester-eve.
The Saxon snored beside the fire that long had smouldered out,
In dream still quaffing horns of mead with jest and wassail bout.
Keener his blade who rose and prayed, than his who slumbered so,
On that fourteenth of October, twice four hundred years ago.

Quoth Leof win to King Harold: ‘Now hearken, brother mine;
Nor sword avails, nor sceptre, if from Heaven no blessing shine;
The Norman oath is on thee, withdraw thee from the fray;
But we are quit, and by God’s help, our arm shall win the day.’
Quoth Harold: ‘God forbid! I may not stand and watch the strife,
The oath was no free-uttered oath, but forced at risk of life.
God shall uphold mine honour.’ But his heart still whispered, No,
On that fourteenth of October, twice four hundred years ago.

Now o’er the crest of Standard Hill appear three Norman bands;
The third, of Norman chivalry, the Duke himself commands.
Above the sacred banner floats, with benison from Rome:–
From all such blessing evermore God keep our island home!
Forth from the van spurred Tallifer, ‘Roland’ his martial strain,
Aloft he flung his glittering blade, then caught and flung again;
While to the sky burst forth the cry ‘Dex Aie!’* at every throw,
On that fourteenth of October, twice four hundred years ago.

From nine to three the Norman host with bootless toil essayed
To force a way within the line of trench and palisade:
Like reeds, before the Saxon bills Boulogne’s gay lances shiver,
Vainly on Saxon hides Poitou exhausts her endless quiver;
Till high in air, at William’s word, they wing their barbed showers,
A moment o’er the crouching ranks, the hurtling tempest lowers,
Then downward speed, with hornet sting, those messengers of woe,
On the fourteenth of October, twice four hundred years ago.

Then ill it fared with him who dared forward or up to look;
To see his men so mocked and mauled, brave Harold ill might brook;
One restless glance, and ah! too well that shaft its errand knew,
Art, more than mortal, taught the hand that fated string that drew.
Where now the eye that fondly gazed on Edith’s swan- like grace?
Where the tall form, like oak in storm, pride of the Saxon race?
Better a neat-herd’s son remain,** than soar to stoop so low,
On that fourteenth of October, twice four hundred years ago.

What means the lull? a thousand horse came thundering on amain,
They break, they wheel, they scatter wide, o’er all the cumbered plain!
‘Up, sons of Thor! the day is ours, the cowed invaders flee:
Now leap like lions from your lair, and sweep them to the sea!’
So rings the war-cry; forth they pour along the treacherous track;
Their leader lives, but blind and faint he may not hold them back.
By Norman craft the day was won, but not by Norman bow,
On that fourteenth of October, twice four hundred years ago.

Too late the Saxon footmen learn their error and its cost,
Waking from flush of victory, to find the battle lost;
Like stags at bay they met the fray, their lives right dearly sold,
And many a knight consigned to death, and many a baron bold;
Yet all unequal was the strife; darkness alone could save
The remnant of the Saxon rout; while he, too fond, too brave,
So mangled lay beneath the slain, his features none might know,
On that fourteenth of October, twice four hundred years ago.

Then let us here a backward glance through all the centuries cast,
And hush our tongues, and converse hold with that eventful past,
Which God hath wrought, while men have fought, for England and her weal,
Nor doubt her peace, in coming years, the self-same hand shall seal,
If only pride, and selfish ends, and crime that rots her core,
With all that is of earth alone, be banished from her shore;
‘While each and all, if need should call, bid their best life-blood flow,
As on that great field of Hastings, twice four hundred years ago.’


* God help (us). The Norman battle-cry.
** Harold’s father, Godwin, was a peasant, and had been made an Earl by Canute for his great worth and many services.

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