‘I see you brandishing the downfall of my country’: Halley’s Comet in 1066.
In the early months of 1066, and almost certainly before the 25th of March, Halley’s Comet was seen circling the Earth as a part of its regular orbit. The last time it had been observed, by most estimates, was in September of 989, nearly 77 years earlier. At the time of its spotting, England had recently lost its much-beloved King, Edward the Confessor, and seen the crown fall into the hands of Harold Godwinson, a member of the powerful Wessex family and holder of the Earldom of Wessex. Yet, in the space of less than a year, Harold would be dead, along with most of his family, the English aristocracy — those that were still alive — plunged into insecurity and chaos, and the English people made prisoners under a ‘Norman Yoke’. The sighting of the comet, seen by many as a bad omen, in addition to the prophetic visions of Edward on his deathbed, and the inevitable culmination of international tension decades in the making was to foreshadow one of England’s most notable and turbulent periods, feared by many to be the end of their way of life.
To fully understand the impact of the Norman Conquest, it’s worth taking a look back at the situation in England which preceded it. Under Edward the Confessor, England had seen relative stability and experienced prosperity. Of course, this must be seen through the prism of 11th-century England, where feudalism was in full force and around 10% of the population were essentially slaves. Nonetheless, Edward’s reign — which began in 1042 — had ended two years of Danish reign under Harthacnut and was the longest reign by an English monarch after the reign of Cnut the Great, who had ruled over England from 1016 until 1035 and made it a part of his North Sea Empire. Edward had also been successful, throughout much of his reign, in diminishing the power of the Godwins — who posed a threat to his reign. Now that Edward was dead, Harold Godwinson had been controversially crowned, and the future of England stood on the brink of a potentially devastating precipice. Worse yet, shortly before his death, Edward had allegedly had visions of the future. He claimed that he’d seen two monks in a dream who’d warned him that ‘devils shall come through this land with fire, sword and war’ a year after his death. The people of England, and especially those who held positions of power had good reason to fear for the future and the sighting of the comet only made things worse.
Scientifically magnificent and a natural wonder unrivalled in their grandeur, comets have never been scientifically linked to evil happenings in the way that past civilizations have thought they might. Indeed, the regularity of the comets alone should dispel such a possibility. The lack of scientific consensus around them, in addition to the strong religious beliefs of the path, has, however, allowed for many people throughout history to indulge in unfounded superstition. As far back as The Sibylline Oracles, comets are referred to as a ‘great conflagration from the sky’ and a biography from 1475 claims that Pope Callixtus III excommunicated Halley’s Comet when it appeared in 1456, fearing that it was a bad omen for the Christians defending Belgrade from the Ottomans at the time. Even as late as the early 20th century, Halley’s Comet was seen as a sign of impending doom, with charlatans profiting off of ‘comet pills’. 1066 was no different; a contemporary chronicler, Eilmer of Malmesbury, may have seen the comet during its last appearance in 989. He wrote that ‘You’ve come, have you? […] You’ve come, you source of tears to many mothers, you evil. I hate you! It is long since I saw you; but as I see you now you are much more terrible, for I see you brandishing the downfall of my country. I hate you!’ The Bayeux Tapestry also records the Comet’s passing. Eilmer, clearly, feared that the comet might be a bad omen, a warning from God that England was about to be plunged into chaos and dark times. Later that year, he would arguably be proved right.
William the Conqueror and his army landed at Pevensey in Sussex on the 28th of September 1066. He quickly fortified the area and after two of his fleet (which had incorrectly landed at Romney in East Anglia) had been assaulted violently by the local people, William launched an attack on the area in return, burning down houses and killing the occupants. This was William’s first act of tyranny over the people of England, however, much worse was yet to come. It came in the form of the Harrying of the North. Most likely the single largest massacre in the history of the British Isles, it came as a response to Anglo-Danish resistance in the North of England, where Edgar Atheling had settled. William’s brutal, arguably tyrannical, response to this is very similar to the Confessor’s warnings of fiery destruction coming to England. William used scorched earth tactics, razing and plundering, to suppress the resistance. In doing so, he undoubtedly killed tens of thousands of people. The highest estimate goes as high as 100,000, although the real figure is likely to be significantly lower. The Domesday Book of 1086, which acted as a general survey of the value and ownership of English land, records in shocking detail the devastation caused by these actions. Even the most prosperous of areas affected by the harrying lost up to 60% of their value. Many areas did not recover until well into the 12th century and families were ripped apart. It is this destruction which led Orderic Vitalis, a notable if somewhat unreliable 11th-century monk and chronicler, to claim that ‘the English groaned aloud for their lost liberty and plotted ceaselessly’ and suffered under a ‘Norman Yoke’. This is an idea that remained pervasive in nationalist English rhetoric until as late as the 17th century. In reality, apart from the Harrying of the North, the English people saw no such ‘Yoke’ under the Normans. In fact, their civil rights (if such a term can be ascribed to a feudal society) slowly improved under the Normans — for example, rates of slavery were in decline throughout the period.
Overall, upon the sighting of Halley’s Comet in early 1066, there were fears that it was the end of the world as the English people knew it. If the Normans successfully invaded, warned many, the people would be enslaved by a devilish and foreign force. Although many of the fears turned out to be untrue and the Comet didn’t have any actual connection with the successful invasion of England, its effects could be felt throughout the entire country and mark a dark moment in the history of England.