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Orderic Vitalis
 Recording the events of September 1066
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Orderic Vitalis

Orderic was born near Shrewsbury in 1075 of Anglo-Norman parents. He was sent at the age of 10 to the monastery of St Evroul. “So, weeping, he gave me, a weeping child, into the care of the monk Reginald, and sent me away into exile for love of thee, and never saw me again.” [i]

Since the narrative of the Conquest is set down in book three of his Ecclesiastical History, by looking at his lifelong corpus, we can estimate that he was writing within 50 years about the events of 1066 making him one of the first historian-chroniclers of the events of 1066.

Orderic had the benefit of seeing many of the writings such as those at Worcester and was already writing by 1109 [ii] Indeed Orderic praises the work of John of Worcester in book III of his own history. Orderic actually visited Worcester in 1137 by which time he had probably recorded the events of 1066 (Orderic died in 1142 ). His visit would have provided a limited opportunity to pick up gossip and Orderic was a shrewd commentator on the events of his own time which covered the rise to supremacy of the Normans in all parts of his native land which, as a patriot, he does not always review the Normans with favour.

There is no indication that Orderic Vitalis was aware of the battle at Fulford. However he does mention Harold's victory and the bones that marked the site of the Stamford Bridge battle. This suggests that he was willing to rely on the reports of others because he never journeyed north. Had he conflated the battles since the campaign ended with King Harold's defeat of the invasion so why mention the setback at Fulford?

Orderic records the Norse invasion in another of his later works so the omission of any mention of Fulford is puzzling. It fits the pattern of chroniclers recording events where they could have some local knowledge although we have just observed that he occasionally included hearsay. The omission might be taken to suggest that 80 years after the battle, Fulford was already a marginal memory.

There are also some inconsistencies in his recording of the northern events. He repeats the identity of the king of Norway as ‘Fairhair’. Perhaps he did not expect his patrons or superiors to study this portion of his work with great care so he simply copied what other texts had reported.[iii]

This is what Orderic writes about 1066 and the battle is clearly Stamford Bridge:

"In the month of August, Harald, king of Norway, and Tostig, with a powerful fleet set sail over the wide sea, and, steering for England with a favourable aparctic [north] wind, landed in Yorkshire, which was the first object of their invasion. Meanwhile, Harold of England, having intelligence of the descent of the Norwegians, withdrew his ships and troops from Hastings and Pevensey, and the other seaports on the coast lying opposite to Neustria [Normandy], which he had carefully guarded with a powerful armament during the whole of the year, and threw himself unexpectedly, with a strong force by hasty marches on his enemies from the north. A hard-fought battle ensued, in which there was great effusion of blood on both sides, vast numbers being slain with brutal rage. At last the furious attacks of the English secured them the victory, and the king of Norway as well as Tostig, with their whole army, were slain. The field of battle may be easily discovered by travelers, as great heaps of the bones of the slain lie there to this day, memorials of the prodigious numbers which fell on both sides."[iv]

The term ‘apartic’ derives from Byzantine references to the north and more specifically the islands at the northern extremity of the British Isles.[v] In the autumn, clear, cold arctic air does often bring clear weather to northern England. Such a wind would have favoured the journey south and made the departure point of The Solunds a sensible one. This pattern of the weather for early autumn persists in Yorkshire and has been noted by several farmers who have joined the walks around the battle site in recent years.[vi]

From Gesta Normanorum Ducum:[vii]

“32 Furthermore, the duke sent earl Tostig to England, but Harold’s fleet forcefully drove him away, so Tostig, prevented from entering England safely or returning to Normandy because of contrary wind, went instead to king Harold Fairhair of Norway and begged him for support as a suppliant[viii]. The king granted Tostig’s request with pleasure….

“34 …Harold was involved in a war against his brother Tostig in which he slew his own brother as well as king Harald of Norway who had come in support of Tostig.”

This passage has Duke William as the commander and suggests that Tostig planned to return to his master in Normandy but ended up in Norway because of the winds. Such a gross failure of navigation is not credible! Attributing Tostig’s actions to the wind might be interpreted as a part of some divine plan and maintain the Dukes of Normandy as the prime movers of the events of 1066. This is not good history and has helped to provide the pro-Norman view of events which pervaded perceptions until recently.  

[i] Ibid Footnote to his XIII book.

[ii] Marjorie Chibnall’s Introduction to Orderic’s Eclesiastical History in Vol I p xxxiv ff

[iii] The inaccurate reporting of some details is mirrored by the Norse account which also gets names and timings wrong when reporting Norman history and suggests that they did not have access to each others written history.

[iv] Orderic Vitalis The Ecclesiastical History of England and Normandy, tr Thomas Forrester, (London: Bohn, 1853)

[v] Byzantine Sources For The History Of Balticum And Scandinavia . An article by Mikhail Bibikov

[vi] No satisfactory method to analyse the metrological data of the last 60 years was found to assess the historic pattern of weather. The hope was to see if a northerly wind, caused by an extensive high pressure area over Scandinavia, would affect the chance of a storm in the English Channel which appears to have upset William’s plans.

[vii] Gesta Normanorum Ducum, Orderic Vitalis, Tranlated Elisabeth Van Houts, Oxford 1995 0198205201

[viii] One who asks humbly and/or earnestly.


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The author of the content is Charles Jones - fulfordthing@gmail.com   Last updated April 2015

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