"Indeed!" replied the duke, when he heard the purport of the messenger; “ tell your good master, I did not visit England to change my crowns for his shillings, but to claim this realm, which is mine by the gift of Edward the Confessor, and the solemn oath of Harold himself."
"Pardon me, your grace," replied the envoy, "but my lord has not yet found the crown of England so troublesome that he desires to part with it. However, as his late victory over Tostig and the King of Norway was so signal and profitable, he will, as a peaceoffering, willingly share tin; spoil with you as the price of your departure."
"And what if I refuse this cowardly bribe?" demanded William.
"Harold will then deem you an invading foe, and, with God's permission, scourge you from the land, on Saturday next, should you be in the field on that day." answered the envoy.
" Bе it so," exclaimed William scornfully. "Tell the Saxon usurper that I accept his challenge, and defy his power, for God and the saints are with me, and will permit no such devil's son as he to do me wrong."
The envoy departed, much dispirited at having failed to bring about a friendly arrangement between his royal master and the invader; and he had scarcely left the camp, when William, who was nothing daunted by the disagreeable intelligence of the death of his allies, turned to his nobles and said,—
"See, my brave lieges, what a pathway of honour lies before us. Our northern' friends, from whom we expected such great help, have already been routed and put to the sword; therefore, we must fight the brave Saxons, who defy us to battle, without their aid. And oh, should we succeed, how great will be our glory —how lasting the fame of that battle day! Doubtless the struggle will be fierce and terrible, but heaven is with us; and I vow to God, should the victory be mine, that in whatever spot it shall happen, there will I erect a church to the Blessed Trinity, and to St. .Martin, where masses shall he daily said for the sins of Edward the Confessor, those of myself and Matilda, and all who fight or fall in the glorious engagement."
This vow greatly reencouraged his followers, who, in that dark age, believed that by such an arrangement they provided a passport and a comfortable passage for their souls to heaven.
The warriors now busily prepared for the important battle, which at one blow was to decide the fate of the rival claimants to King Edward's crown, and lay the foundation of England's future greatness. On the night preceding the engagement, the opposing camps presented a singular and striking contrast. The Normans were brave, enduring, strong in will, and patient in adversity. With hearts deeply imbued with religious chivalry, they made war their trade, and victory their joy. Ignorant and superstitious they were, "but their martyr like spirit gave them courage cheerfully to die for their religion and rights. Backed by a holy bull, and over their heads floating a consecrated banner, a gift from the pope himself, with swords girded on for the morrow's struggle, they passed the night in prayers and confessions, and with one accord vowed, if God granted them the victory, to evermore fast on that day of the week; a vow so religiously kept, that from that time till within the last few years, the Catholics of England always observed Saturday — the day on which the battle was fought—as a fast day.
The Anglo-Saxons, according to the evidence of their own Chroniclers, had, at this period, miserably degenerated in character. They tattooed their bodies, dressed in short garments, and bedecked themselves with gaudy rings and bracelets. They ate and drank to excess, neglected commerce and the arts, and, to the exclusion of every ennobling sentiment, indulged in all kinds of vices and luxuries. fully did the conduct of Harold's men accord with this doleful picture of the English at that period.
Unlike their Norman foes, they on that anxious night uttered no prayers to heaven for their safety in the morrow's bloody contest. No priests were busy in their camps, speaking comfort and peace to the contrite and afflicted. Only in boosing and licentiousness did they pass the hours, Drink heal and Wassail echoing from mouth to mouth, till the welkin rung with their mad revels.
At the peep of day, on October the fourteenth, 1066, both armies met in full array, at a place called Heathfield, about seven miles from Hastings ; and it being Harold's birthday, his army, flushed with the recent victory over Testig and the king of Norway, made sure of beating the Normans from the field. Not so, however, with Harold himself, who, well knowing the powerful foe he was about to encounter, and too late perceiving the, rashness of risking all in a single battle, would gladly have retreated, had the measure been possible.
The Anglo-Saxons were arrayed on wellchosen ground, with their flanks secured against cavalry by deep trenches. Harold, and his brothers, Gurth and Leofwin, commanded the infantry, in whose front ranks stood the Kentish men of invincible renown. And the cavalry was headed by the Earls Morcar and Edwin.
The Normans were drawn up in three bodies. The first was commanded by Montgomery and Fitz-Osborn; the second by Geoffrey Martel; and the third, the flower of the troops, was headed by William himself, and kept back as a reserve to act at the decisive moment.
The action continued till nightfall, and was well sustained on both sides. The Saxons fought with their accustomed bravery. More than once they were on the point of driving their better-disciplined foemen from the field, and although again and again repulsed, as often did they vigorously return to the charge. The God of battle, however, was against them. Eventide was fast approaching—the strife yet raged hot and furious. The Norman Duke, although not himself wounded, had already had three horses slain under him, and his intrepid bowmen had repeatedly showered clouds of arrows thick as hail 'on the heads of the Saxon infantry without breaking their ranks. But perceiving that the Saxons had possession of a hill which would cover their retreat, by favour of the night, William made a desperate effort to drive them hence. The onslaught was furious, and Harold, whilst courageously leading on his men to an attack in the thickest of the fray, was slain by a stray arrow, which entered his eye and pierced his brain.