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Battle of Hastings 1066AD - The Norman route across the Channel
 

Documentary Evidence
 

The documents that give us any information for the journey from St Valerie to Hastings/Pevensey are as follows.

Bayeux Tapestry- 'to(towards) Pevensey'
William Sails from Normandy in 1066AD


The big ships are loaded with fighting troops and the smaller ones carry provisions, horses etc


The armada sails towards modern Pevensey(Pevenesæ)

please click here to visit Reading Museum for further details of Britains Bayeux Tapestry.


The Carmen de Triumpho Normannico
(usually known as the Carmen - this extract comes from Kathleen Tyson's translation)

You give the order and they strike for the greater depths of the sea,
Hitherto confined, the ships spread along the coast evenly,
And form themselves into a tidy fleet,
The days already short, the setting sun now inclines,
When your flagship sets the course,
When the dark night's gloomy shadows overspread the sky,
And the veiled moon refuses you service,
You fill the waves otherwise with torches reddish glow,
Just as the stars fill the sky in place of the fallen sun.
As many are the ships, so many lights you disperse.
The sails rule a straight course through the sea.
But cautious lest dark imposes losses,
And contrary wind and current disturb the sea,
You order the fleet to halt course, form up and drop anchor.

On the open sea you moor offshore.
And as the sun casts its rays over the horizon,
You order the sails set to the wind to make way
While the ships raise anchor.
The third hour of the day overspreads the earth
Since leaving the sea behind when you seize a sheltered strand.
The land belonging to you had been stripped of terrified tenants.
You rejoice as you and yours seize a peaceful arc of strand.


The Ecclesiastical History of Orderic Vitalis
(this extract comes from Marjorie Chibnall's translation)

When at last by Gods grace the favorable wind sprang up in answer to so many prayers, the duke, impatient to set out, called all his men forthwith to the ships and commanded them to set sail with courage.
So the Norman army crossed the sea on 29th September, the night when the universal church celebrates the feast of St Michael the archangel, and reaching the coast of England where they met no opposition, gladly came ashore.
They took possession of Pevensey and Hastings and gave them into the charge of chosen soldiers as a base for the army and shelter to the fleet.


Roman de Rou - Master Wace
(this extract comes from Edgar taylor's translation)

The duke placed a lantern on the mast of his ship, that the other ships might see it, and hold their course after it. The ships sailed to one port; all arrived and reached the shore together; together cast anchor, and ran on dry land; and together discharged themselves. They arrived near Hastings, and their each ship ranged by the other's side.

Chronicle of Florence of Worcester

and he had moored his fleet at a place called Pevensey.

Chronicle of Henry of Huntingdon

William Duke of Normandy, had landed on the south coast, and had built a fort at Hastings.

Anglo Saxon Chronicles – A,B,C,D,E and H

A.D. 1066.(Version D)
Meantime Earl William came up from Normandy into Pevensey on the eve of St. Michael's mass; and soon after his landing was effected, they constructed a castle at the port of Hastings.


Chronicles of Battle Abbey

The duke, therefore, with a prodigious army, and attended by the divine favour, arrived safely near the castle called Pevensey. The soldiers leaped joyfully upon English ground at intervals along the shore.


Not a lot to go on - The Carmen

It looks like the Carmen gives the only detailed report, so lets use that

The days already short, the setting sun now inclines,
(So they are starting to sail after 12:00)
When the dark night's gloomy shadows overspread the sky,
(and they sail until the sun sets - sunrise 05:56 ->sunset 17:51 in Sept 1066)
And the veiled moon refuses you service,
(no moon so very dark)
You fill the waves otherwise with torches reddish glow,
Just as the stars fill the sky in place of the fallen sun.
(So navigation by the stars may have been possible)
As many are the ships, so many lights you disperse.
The sails rule a straight course through the sea.
But cautious lest dark imposes losses,
And contrary wind and current disturb the sea,
(This may imply that the fleet moved over a shoal with the current changing and lapping around the ships)
You order the fleet to halt course, form up and drop anchor.
(So they anchor up not too late so lets assume no more than about 20:00)

On the open sea you moor offshore.
(Mooring offshore in the Channel is a bit awkward as the anchor lines for Viking vessels would not have been more than about 11 metres)

A Viking age anchor has been found in Ladby(Denmark) the anchor is 1.26 m long and 0.83 m wide is made mostly of iron and equipped with an iron anchor chain which is estimated to have been ca. 11 m long. The original Ladby anchor can still be seen today in situ – in its original resting place – in the remains of the ship-grave at Vikingemuseet Ladby.

The majority of the sea in the channel is deeper than 11 metres, and as the sea was probably about 4 metres higher in Norman times then the only places they could anchor were the few banks and shoals in the Channel that are currently no more than 7 metres deep.


Continuing to England

And as the sun casts its rays over the horizon,
(up and sailing before sunrise, so possibly 05:00)

You order the sails set to the wind to make way

While the ships raise anchor.

The third hour of the day overspreads the earth

Since leaving the sea behind when you seize a sheltered strand.
(so about 4 hours sailing and arrive about 09:00)

The land belonging to you had been stripped of terrified tenants.

You rejoice as you and yours seize a peaceful arc of strand.
 
Overall Journey Time

The Fleet leaves after midday, so assume 12:00 and anchors up at about 20:00 which means they sail for about 8 hours.

They weigh anchor at about 05:00 and arrive by 10:00 so another 5 hours sailing.

Their overall sailing time is from 12:00 to the following 10:00 about 22 hours overall.

Viking ships could sail at an average of about 7 mph, which would give an overall distance of 56 miles(90 km) from St Valerie to the anchor point, then a further 35 miles(56 km) to Pevensey. So the overall journey would be a maximum of 91 miles(146 km).

As an aside, when a fleet in the middle ages anchored in the sea, all the ships were tied together, with a few throwing out anchors, this made a large platform that people could walk across, and in the case of the Norman Invasion probably allowed the horses to be fed and watered while at anchor.(sorry cant find any images to illustrate this).

Map showing the Shoals and Sandbanks in the English Channel

So we are looking for areas which are no more than 7 metres down for anchorage points.

The bathymetry map shown below shows the depth of the sea and all the sandbanks and shoals in the English Channel today(2024) together with their shallowest depth in metres.

Yellow is deepest, with the shading going to red for the shallower water.

This may have been different in Norman times, but the changes would probably be minimal, rather than completely different.

The modern names of these shallow areas in the Channel are shown to the left of the map.

a – Basurelle (7mtr)

b – Vergoyer (4.2mtr)

c – Les Ridens (13mtr)

d – The Varne (3mtr)

e – Colbart Ridge (1.5mtr)

f – Bullock Bank (14mtr)

g – Royal Sovereign Shoal (5mtr)











The banks and shoals that are currently less than 7 metres down are a-Basurelle, b-Vergoyer, d-The Varne, e-Colbart Ridge and the g-Royal Sovereign shoal. The first four of these are sand and shingle banks, so are the most likely.

The Royal Sovereign shoal consists of rocky outcrops, so is much more dangerous to anchor over and is less likely to be the anchorage point.
The Basurelle is also probably unlikely as the anchor chains would have been at full stretch to hold the fleet.

The Vergoyer which is just under half way across the channel and as the fleet sailed for about 7 or 8 hours untill they anchored and only 4 hours after then this would be unlikely to be the anchor point.

This just leaves d the Varne and the e Colbart Ridge as potential anchorages.

The Varne is further up the channel than the Colbart Ridge so would have taken more time to get to or from so it was probably not here either.

This just leaves the Colbart Ridge as the most likely anchor point.
Routes to cross the Channel

To see how they could sail across channel we need firstly to look at the tides that flow through the Channel, these maps have been extracted from pages provided by VisitMyHarbour.com. The red dot shows the invasion starting point at St Valerie sur Sommme, the blue dot shows the approximate landing point at Hastings.
 
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The slideshow above shows the tides as they rotate from 2 hours before high tide at Dover for 24 hours.

The map slides show deep water in blue, which is at least 50 metres deep so unsuitable for anchoring a fleet.

As you go through the slides which are 1 hourly intervals based around the high tide at Dover you will see the plots extending as the fleet moves. the distances shown are based on a viking ship sailing at 7mph + or - the tidal flows. The numbers against each segment of the plot show the time in hours using a 24 hour clock.

There are four plots to show potential differing routes from St Valerie to Hastings, the red dot is St Valerie, the blue dot Hastings and the green dot shows where the fleet would need to anchor overnight, they are all set to leave St Valerie at 13.00, sail until 18.00 then anchor, these are numbered on the slides.

  • Green plot showing the most likely route as this matches with the Carmen time description.
  • Orange plot showing a second route which stays nearer to land, which makes it more likely the ships will be blown onto the French Cliffs between St Valerie and Boulogne, but will not have time to get to Hastings/Pevensey within the time available.
  • The red plot is a theoretical route across the Channel, but the vessels arrive too early for the Carmen Description and anchoring in the open sea would be impossible.
  • The purple plot is based on an article by Christine and Gerald Grainge in which they describes a direct route across the Channel to Beachy Head(our thanks to Johnathan Starkey who brought this to our attention), this does however show the fleet arriving about 7am which appears too soon according to the Carmen.

Please Note tide tables for 1066 are unknown, but the flows imply the only likely routes.

Conclusion

The Carmen provides the only details of the journey

From the Carmen the only logical route is from St Valerie to the Colbart Ridge off the coast at New Romney to anchor till dawn, then sail along the coast towards the west, this measures approximately 140Km which is not far off the green route which is about 146km.

Footnote

There are reports of Romney being destroyed after William defeats Harold that may also have some bearing on the route.

Master Wace

The Duke placed a guard in Hastings, from the best of his knights, so as to garrison the castle well, and went thence to Romenel, to destroy it utterly, because some of his people had arrived there , I know not by what accident, and the false and traitorous had killed them by felony. On that account he was very wroth against them and grievously punished them for it.

Orderic Vitalis

When his own dead had been given honorable burial he advanced to Romney, defeated the garrison and avenged the slaughter of some of his men. They had landed there in error and had been routed in the ensuing battle by the fierce defenders, with terrible losses on both sides.

My Comments

It seems unlikely they would have landed in Romney by error as 700 ships were sailing together, it is much more likely that the vessels were taking on water and they needed to reach the nearest shore, and if the route went from the Colbart Ridge to Pevensey, then Romney would have been the nearest shore line.




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Author Simon M - Last updated - 2024-07-05 07:38:15
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