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This map shows the position of locations containing 'AD1066, anderida' centered on Battle in Sussex.
Map Logic
This map shows the area around Battle and Hastings in 1066.

Roman roads are shown as black lines, red lines show old Roman Ridge trackways and purple lines show theoretical Roman roads implied by village and road names.

The thickness of the road implies the width of the Roman metalled surface.

The sea level is shown raised by 5 metres to accomodate the high tide level changes since 1066 see our Sea Level page.

The green shaded area shows what we believe is the area of the impassible Forest of Andredsweald.
 
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Roman Major Fort
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Earthworks
Battle Site

Battle of Hastings AD1066 - Evidence for the Malfosse

 

Battle of Hastings AD1066 - Evidence for the Malfosse

The Malfosse(Evil Ditch), did it exist and what details do we have of it?

From the documentation it would seem that there could have been two malfosse's, one during the battle and a second while chasing the retreating Saxons.

A military defininition of Foss (Fr.) is an exterior ditch fronting a rampart or curtain.

Orderic Vitalis records that the malfosse was after the battle and that (The Normans, finding the English completely routed, pursued them vigorously all Sunday night, but not without suffering a great loss ; for, galloping onward in hot pursuit, they fell unawares, horses and armour, into an ancient trench, overgrown and concealed by rank grass, and men in their armour and horses rolling over each other, were crushed and smothered. This accident restored confidence to the routed English, for, perceiving the advantage given them by the mouldering rampart and a succession of ditches, they rallied in a body, and, making a sudden stand, caused the Normans severe loss. ) the second part of this account could apply to the battle and not the rout as routing soldiers do not usually reform as their units are broken up and spread out by the rout.

Henry of Huntingdon and Master Wace both talk about a ditch during the battle, with Master Wace claiming that this was a Saxon made defence (and they had moreover made a fosse, which went across the field), this is a possibility if the Normans broke through the Shield Wall and hence into the Saxon lines, but were then pushed back into the ditch(fosse) great losses would have occurred. Before the battle Master Wace also describes Saxon defences( There he said he would defend himself against whoever should seek him ; and he had the place well examined, and surrounded it by a good fosse, leaving an entrance on each of three sides, which were ordered to be all well guarded.), this potentially explains the battle ditch description.

The Chronicles of Battle Abbey also appear to record that the Malfosse was in the Battlefield, however it could be read as after the battle. (here lay between the hostile armies a certain dreadful precipice, caused either by a natural chasm of the earth, or by some convulsion of the elements. It was of considerable extent, and being overgrown with bushes or brambles was not very easily seen, and great numbers of men principally Normans in pursuit of the English were suffocated in it.

The Bayeux Tapestry has a scene where horses are seen vertically and a very rough piece of ground goes up to the Saxon positions, this could also be interpreted as a ditch in front of the Saxon lines with men and horses falling into it. A further interesting part of this image is that the legs of the Saxons at the top of the hill are behind the hilltop which could be interpreted as defensive shieldwall above the fosse.


There are a few very important facts that need to be looked at:
 
  • Harolds army was in the majority the Fyr who were mostly farm laborers used to digging and fence laying.
  • The Fyr would not have had training or experience against cavalry.
  • Fighting against a large force of cavalry is difficult without physical defenses.
  • Breton Cavalry were looked on at the time as the best cavalry in Europe.
  • A shield wall requires little training to ensure solidity but easily breaks once a gap appears.
  • In an open battle cavalry generally massacre infantry due to their mobility.
  • Cavalry attacking a shield wall would attack a single point and break through.
  • The battle took place from morning till dusk and would appear to be stalemate until afternoon.
  • A number of the reports say that the malfosse was hidden or concealed
    - routing troops dont usually have time or energy to prepare traps implying the ditch was in place before the battle.


Let us for a moment assume that Master Wace's descriptions was accurate, then we would have a ditch dug around the Saxon camp with the soil thrown up on the Saxon side, wattles, wood and branches would be woven along the top and the shieldwall stood behind the wattle fence, this would make it difficult for the cavalry to cross the ditch and attack the shieldwall, so negating the cavalry's mobility advantage.

Breton Cavalry tactics:
In the Battle of Jengland 851AD King Charles of the Franks arranged his troops in two lines: at the rear were the Franks; in front were Saxon mercenaries whose role was to break the assault of the Breton cavalry, which was known for its mobility and tenacity. In the initial engagement, a javelin assault forced Saxons to retreat behind the more heavily armoured Frankish line. Rather than engage in a mele, the Bretons harassed the heavily armed Franks from a distance, in a manner comparable to Parthian tactics, but with javelins rather than archers. They alternated furious charges, feints, and sudden withdrawals, drawing out the Franks and encircling over-extended groups, needlesss to say the Franks were defeated.
If the Bretons could defeat the Franks on flat land where the Franks were well armoured, why couldnt they easily defeat the Saxon Fyr who were much more lightly armoured unless they were behind defensive works.

the malfossesaxon shield wall
Fosse constructionFyr behind shieldwall


What effect could a shield wall like this have on the battle:
 
  • The Normans would be forced to attack
    (The Normans attacked the Saxons)
     
  • The shieldwall would last a long time and only break with weight of numbers in one place
    (The Shieldwall appeared to stay formed until the afternoon)
     
  • The Norman archers would have to fire high in the air to hit the Saxons
    (The reports are that William ordered the archers to fire high up)
     
  • The Norman cavalry would have to throw spears until the infantry broke through
    (The Shieldwall appeared to stay formed until the afternoon)
     
  • If the Normans broke through then were pushed back large number would be killed in the Fosse
    (The Normans appeared to break through the Saxon lines but were pushed back)
     
  • If the Normans were pushed back a rout was likely
    (The Normans routed but William rallied the troops)
     
  • If the Saxons followed up the rout then the wall would be weakend
    (The Saxons followed up, were cut down then the Normans started to break the shieldwall)
     
  • The malfosse could be concealed by branches etc from the wood used to build the wattle fence
    (The Normans lost cavalry in the Malfosse which could have been concealed)
     
  • The Breton cavalry couldn't break through the shieldwall
    (If they had been able to use their normal tactics the Saxon Fyr would have been cut down)
     

A friend of mine has asked if the Saxons had time to prepare these earthworks prior to the Battle so I will investigate
 
Firstly we need to know how long it takes to build a defensive fosse:

There is evidence from the Roman army, of building marching camp ditches 2 mtr in length x 1 mtr deep x 2.5 mtr wide with a 1 metre tall wall/fence on top of the spoil of taking about 3 hours with 8 builders, so a 100 metre defence would take 400 men about 3 hours to build, and this would have to be during daylight which in October 1066 was sunrise 05:56 and sunset 17:51, hence would need to be started about 14:00. Please refer to the following Early Imperial Roman army campaigning: the building of marching camps.
If you look at the spreadsheet the caculations show that a 5000 marching Roman force, if all men help out, can dig a rectangular surrounding defense in 3 hours that would enclose the whole unit, this caculation allows for different arrival times of the troops as they reach the campsite.

The Saxon Fyr would not have been so well trained so would take longer and would need more supervision probably from Thegn's and Huscarls, but even so may not have taken more than about 4 hours for defences on three sides to be created, whatever the size of the force.

Did the Saxons arrive in time to build a fosse:

Anglo Saxon Chronicles -William, however, came against him unawares, ere his army was collected; but the king, nevertheless, very hardly encountered him with the men that would support him: and there was a great slaughter made on either side.

Battle Abbey Chronicles - Harold, the usurper of the kingdom, hearing of his arrival, quickly collected his army, resolved upon driving out the duke, or rather upon utterly destroying him and his, and marched forward, with great boldness and expedition, to the place which is now called Battel, where the duke, surrounded by his battalions of cavalry, met him courageously. The duke, then, by his heralds, thrice offered conditions of peace, which were thrice refused by the enemy; and at length, conformably to the prophecy of Merlin a Norman race in iron coats boldly cast down the pride of the English.

Master Wace - states that Harold arrived and setup the base, then the following day reconnoitered the Norman camp, so had time to build the defences.

 

Conclusion:
 
If Master Wace's description of the Malfosse is correct then the battle reports would fit and we should be looking for filled ditches in the landscape to help us identify the location of the battle.

 

This page shows the documentary evidence from translated original documents


Anglo Saxon Chronicles

No reference to this subject in this document.

Battle Abbey Chronicles

There lay between the hostile armies a certain dreadful precipice, caused either by a natural chasm of the earth, or by some convulsion of the elements. It was of considerable extent, and being overgrown with bushes or brambles was not very easily seen, and great numbers of men principally Normans in pursuit of the English were suffocated in it. Eor, ignorant of the danger, as they were running in a dis-orderly manner, they fell into the chasm and were fearfully dashed to pieces and slain. And the pit from this deplorable accident is still called Malfosse.

Bayeux_Tapestry

If you look at the center of this image you can see horses falling and the Saxons higher up on a hill, this part of the tapestry is in the middle of the battle. It is possible that this was showing the Malfosse event and if this is the case then the Malfosse was during the battle and would be a further confirmation of Henry of Huntingdon and Master Wace's description. A further interesting part of this image is that the legs of the Saxons at the top of the hill are behind the hilltop which could be interpreted as defensive shieldwall above the fosse.


Carmen de Triumpho Normannico

No reference to this subject in this document.

Florence of Worcester

No reference to this subject in this document.

Henry of Huntingdon

Duke William, therefore, commanded his troops to make a feigned retreat. In their flight they happened unawares on a deep trench, which was treacherously covered, into which numbers fell and perished.

While the English were engaged in pursuit the main body of the Normans broke the centre of the enemy's line, which being perceived by those in pursuit over the concealed trench, when they were consequently recalled most of them fell there.

Master Wace

Harold knew that the Normans would come and attack him hand to hand : so he had early enclosed the field in which he placed his men.

The English stood in close ranks, ready and eager for the fight; and they had moreover made a fosse, which went across the field, guarding one side of their army.

In the plain was a fosse, which the Normans had now behind them, having passed it in the fight without regarding it. But the English charged and drove the Normans before them, till they made them fall back upon this fosse, overthrowing into it horses and men. Many were to be seen falling therein, rolling one over the other, with their faces to the earth, and unable to rise. Many of the English also, whom the Normans drew down along with them, died there. At no time during the day's battle did so many Normans die, as perished in that fosse. So those said who saw the dead.

William of Jumièges/Orderic Vitalis(Gesta)

Various were the fortunes which attended their retreat ; some recovering their horses, some on foot, attempted to escape by the highways ; more sought to save themselves by striking across the country.
The Normans, finding the English completely routed, pursued them vigorously all Sunday night, but not without suffering a great loss ; for, galloping onward in hot pursuit, they fell unawares, horses and armour, into an ancient trench, overgrown and concealed by rank grass, and men in their armour and horses rolling over each other, were crushed and smothered. This accident restored confidence to the routed English, for, perceiving the advantage given them by the mouldering rampart and a succession of ditches, they rallied in a body, and, making a sudden stand, caused the Normans severe loss. At this place Eugenulf, lord of Laigle, and many others fell, the number of the Normans who perished being, as reported by some who were present, nearly fifteen thousand.

Thus did Almighty God, on the eve of the ides [14th] of October, punish in various ways the innumerable sinners in both armies. For, on this Saturday, the Normans butchered with remorseless cruelty thousands of the English, who long before had murdered the innocent prince Alfred and his attendants ; and, on the Saturday before the present battle, had massacred without pity King Harold and Earl Tostig, with multitudes of Norwegians. The righteous Judge avenged the English on Sunday night, when the furious Normans were precipitated into the concealed trench ; for they had broken the divine law by their boundless covetous- ness ; and, as the Psalmist says : 'Their feet were swift to shed blood,' whereupon, ' sorrow and unhappiness was in their ways.

William of Malmesbury

No reference to this subject in this document.

Quedam Exceptiones de Historia Normannorum et Anglorum

No reference to this subject in this document.



External References in no particular order :-
Original Manuscripts of the Anglo Saxon Chronicles
Online Anglo Saxon dictionary
Online Etymology dictionary
Open Domesday Book - The first free online copy of the Domesday Book
The Ermine Street Guard Roman re-enactment and research Society
The "Kent A" cadastre - page 5 - Peterson 2002
Archaeologia Cantiana Online
Romney Marsh Research Trust
Romney Marsh the Fifth Continent
VillageNet the reference guide to villages in Kent & Sussex
Global warming Flood Maps
The Anglo Saxon Chronicles
Google Maps - the core of the system
GeoPlaner - Useful site for plotting map data
Julius Caesar's Gallic Wars 55BC(Books 4 & 5)
Wikipedia - Caesar's invasions of Britain
Wikipedia - Portus Istus
The Geography of Claudius Ptolemy (Bill Thayers)
Roman Britain.org
Runetree Beowulf
Bayeux Tapestry Online
The Secrets of the Norman Invasion
Chronicles of John of Worcester
Battle Historic Society
Binsted village website(Mearcredesburnan Steðe)
The Spears of Andred
Find British Archaelogical Sites
Wealden Iron Research Group
Topographic Map of the UK

 

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Author: Simon M - Last Updated: 25/02/2021 09:07
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