Justin Hill on the Unknown Soldiers

Part of the 1066 guide

Unknown Soldiers of 1066

History – like memory – tends to fixate on the principal players, victors and casualties, and glosses over circumstantial details and many events of interest to us remain hidden and mysterious. 

Arthur’s twelve battles are just names without locations, as is Brunanburg; while even the locations of later battles like Bosworth are often sketchy. But the Battle of Hastings is unique in that we have an astonishing amount of detail of this battle, fought 945 years ago. 

We can trace, for example, Harold’s movements from September 8th when his army supplies ran out; almost to the day through to his famous march north to the Battle of Stamford Bridge on 25th September; and then south again, ending up at Hastings, on 14th October. Of the important men who died at the battle there is Harold, of course; his two brothers Leofwine and Gyrth and their friends and cousins and retainers, but we also know the spot – the precise spot – where Harold’s banner flew and where he was killed. 

We know this because William insisted that the high altar of his abbey mark the exact spot, and when the Norman monks started work on a site they thought much more appropriate, William furiously chastised them and ordered them to do his royal will. 

Uniquely we also know some of the common folk who died at Hastings. We know, for example, Abbot Leofric of Peterborough died on campaign but before the battle. (Campaigns in Saxon times were no doubt as unsanitary as they were in Florence Nightingale’s times. ‘Summer sickness’ doubtless thinned both armies). 

Another Abbot, Aelfwig of Winchester’s New Minster died in the battle with twelve of his monks: and the lack of information provokes us to wonder who these monks were. Were they the moustached and warlike monks, like Bishop Leofgar of Hereford, Harold Godwinson’s chaplain, who died in battle with the Welsh? Can we picture these Winchester monks in the heriot – here-geat – wargear of mail, helm and spear, wielding beaded axes and chanting their prayers? Or were they performing a more supporting role – tending, ministering, and caught up in the massacre after the battle? 

We don’t know. It is as the historian Richard Fletcher wrote, that facts seldom speak for themselves and ‘have to be coaxed and entreated into utterance’. The gaps between these facts are fertile ground for the historical novelist, who brings the facts and characters to speak. 

Other names include Godfric, Sheriff of Berkshire, who was no doubt leading the worthies of Berkshire. Imagine those waiting at home, hearing rumours of slaughter. The terrible absence of men who did not return. Their experience must have been like the hometowns of the pals regiments when they began to hear rumours of the Somme. You wonder if any of them really knew what happened to their sons, fathers and husbands. 

Most of these names are gleaned from the Domesday Book: men who were still remembered 20 years after the battle, when the book was composed, and English scribes began to count every ox and cow and pig and hide and yard of land. These missing men were the GPs, vicars, local businessmen, and MPs of their time. They were the local lord of the manor; the self-made farmers and freeman; the lynch pin of their communities; the good and the respected and the resented; that familiar face that rode off to answer King Harold’s fourth summons, and did not return. 

There was Eadric the Deacon. 

Breme, a freemen from Suffolk, who had been one of King Edward’s men. And then there are unnamed men: men from the abbeys of Abingdon, St Benet of Holme, Bury St Edmunds, St Augustine’s, Canterbury were all said to have fought in the battle. Individual men listed in the Domesday Book: one from Cavendish in Suffolk, and two freemen from Tytherley who rode off in September 1066, and did not return: the unknown soldiers of 1066. 

 
Tytherley is now split into two villages, with both with churches dedicated to St Peter. Google the place and you get images of churchyard tombs, bungalows, houses for sale, a black and white picture of a Victorian gentleman fishing in the village pond. It looks much like any other village, really. Green, hedgerows, a church wall war memorial, someone’s photograph of a full English breakfast: rashers, sausages, tomato, both scrambled and one fried egg. 

Both East and West Tytherley are listed on Wikipedia, and neither entry remembers the men of 1066. The earliest mention is for 1335, when the manor, no doubt still part of the royal estate inherited by William from Harold, and so to Edward III, who then gave it to his wife, Queen Philippa. The next entry records that William Fothergill Cooke invented the first commercial electric telegraph whilst living there. 

It’s a fairly typical village. And so it was in 1066. Then three men held it from King Edward, and then King Harold after him. It had land for 6 ploughs, 2 villans, 22 bordars, 7 ½ acres of meadow, and woodland for fencing. The Domesday Book says ‘two of those who held [in 1066] were killed in the Battle of Hastings’. 

Were they brothers? Neighbours? Friends? Begrudging neighbours? We do not know. But there are stories in these scant facts. Ways of coaxing those facts to speak. Their names are like the faces of people standing in the fire lit shadows of a Vermeer painting: just brief and tantalising glimpses of people usually lost to the long dark night of history. 

As with so many of our glimpses into Anglo-Saxon England, the detail about these men is brought to us because of a land dispute. The scribe records that ‘The men of the hundred say that they have never seen the king’s seal, nor his officer who had given seisin of this manor to Alwine Ret…and unless the king were to bear testimony, he [Alwine] has nothing there.’ 

This comment hints at the chaos after Hastings, and no doubt refers to a disputed inheritance; resentment of how the dead men’s families fortunes changed. We are lucky for these flashes of faces from the long dark winter’s night of the past. How the grievances of the men of Tytherley were resolved we cannot tell. Away from the spot lit leads of Harold and William, the light of history only falls so far.  But Hastings still stirs up strong feelings, and we the inheritors of these Tytherley men are still arguing over that battle’s inheritance.  

Find out more about Justin Hill here.