The poem Carmen de Hastigae Proelio (The Song of the Battle of Hastings) is only 835 verses long, but contains some important clues as to what happened before and at the Battle of Hastings. The poem is attributed to Guy of Amiens and was likely written within one or two years after the Battle of 1066. Both the author and the date are keys to this poem’s importance. The author was someone who personally knew William the Conqueror, but was not a Norman, and was not prone to pander to William, as other contemporary authors, such as Normans William of Jumièges and William of Poitiers, were. The Carmen, as it is often referred to, is accepted as the most complete and vivid account of the times leading up to the battle, the battle itself, and immediately after the battle.
Credit for the rescue of the Carmen from obscurity and a cloud of doubt as to its authenticity goes to Catherine Morton and Hope Muntz, who, in 1972, published one of the most highly regarded texts about the background, translation and interpretation of the poem. I will add that their book was refreshing and, for such a scholarly effort, easy to read.
None of the sources written at or near the time of the battle can be taken at face value. Everyone had an agenda. The Norman priest, William of Poitiers, who was Duke William’s confessor, aimed to glorify William, as did the less known writer William of Jumièges. The Anglo Saxon Chronicles were written by English monks. Daily entries are brief and cryptic, as if the monks feared for their livelihood, and maybe even for their lives, if they said too much. The monks were silent for an entire year, 1064, and I wonder if they burned the pages documenting that year. It was a key period, in which the Normans attest that Earl Harold visited Normandy and vowed on holy relics to support Duke William, a Norman with only a limited claim to the English throne, in his efforts to succeed King Edward in England.
Another important document of the times is the Bayeux Tapestry (which is an embroidery, not a real tapestry). The Tapestry is 50 cm wide and 70 meters long, and shows a series of scenes leading up to and including the Battle at Hastings. Besides controversy regarding who ordered the tapestry made and who actually embroidered the elaborate scenes, the tapestry is hard to interpret. Whether on purpose or inadvertently, the events depicted can be interpreted numerous ways, and the few captions included are not all that helpful.
There are other contemporary sources for this pivotal period in England’s history, but of all of them, the Carmen stands out as authoritative, original, and vivid.