Carmen de Hastingae Proelio

(Song of the Battle of Hastings)

In his Historia Ecclesiastica, Orderic Vitalis notes:

Guy bishop of Amiens also wrote a poem describing the battle of Senlac in imitation of the epics of Virgil and Statius, abusing and condemning Harold but praising and exalting William.[*]
Book III (ii, 158)

Later, Orderic writes:

In the year of Our Lord 1068 King William sent ambassadors to Normandy to summon his wife Matilda to join him. At once she gladly obeyed her husband’s commands, and crossed with a great company of vassals and noble women. Among the clergy who ministered to her spiritual needs the most eminent was Guy bishop of Amiens, who had already celebrated the battle between Harold and William in verse.
Book IV (ii, 181)

In 1826 a 12th century manuscript of an untitled Latin poem, on the subject of Duke William of Normandy’s conquest of England, was discovered.[*] (A second manuscript – a copy of the first sixty-six lines of the other – was also found). The manuscripts’ discoverer, Georg Heinrich Pertz, identified the poem, which has since become known as the Carmen de Hastingae Proelio, as the work of Bishop Guy mentioned by Orderic. There have, however, been challenges to this identification. Most seriously, in 1978, R.H.C Davis denounced the Carmen:

What we can say with confidence is that the Carmen is neither an original source nor the poem by Guy of Amiens which was used by Orderic Vitalis… it seems to have been composed as a literary exercise in one of the schools of northern France or southern Flanders between 1125 and 1135 or 1125 and 1140… as a source for the history of the Norman Conquest it is simply ridiculous.
‘The Carmen de Hastingae Proelio’, The English Historical Review Vol. 93 Issue 367

Consequently, in The Norman Conquest of England: Sources and Documents (1984), R. Allen Brown wrote:

Though at one time generally regarded as probably written by Guy, bishop of Amiens, before 1068, and thus both very early and of automatic importance, this work has recently and convincingly been dismissed as a mere literary exercise of much later date and no historical value.
Chapter 1 (p.1)

But this has never been the unanimous view, and it seems that most scholars today support the Carmen. In The Godwins (2002), Frank Barlow (whose edition/translation of the Carmen was published in 1999) asserts that it is:

… now securely identified as the work of the non-Norman, Guy, bishop of Amiens,[*] produced almost immediately after the battle of Hastings, probably in 1067.
Sources (p.10)

As it now exists, the poem is 835 lines long. The action begins with Duke William’s fleet arriving at Saint-Valery-sur-Somme, and comes to a truncated end during his coronation ceremony. There are some similarities, both in content and wording, between the Carmen and the History of William the Conqueror by William of Poitiers. If it is accepted (as generally seems to be the case) that the Carmen is indeed Bishop Guy’s poem, then it would appear that William of Poitiers borrowed from it, but made modifications to show his hero in the best possible light.

Orderic Vitalis Historia Ecclesiastica translation by Marjorie Chibnall

The name ‘battle of Senlac’ is peculiar to Orderic. He had previously noted that the battle was at “the place whose early name was Senlac”.  Senlac is a Frenchified form of the Old English Sandlacu (Sand-stream). The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (MS D) says the battle took place at “the hoary apple-tree”.  In the Domesday Book the encounter is called the “battle of Hastings”.
Book III (ii, 147).
The manuscript (Bibliothèque Royale de Belgique MS 10615–729) has been variously placed within the 12th century. In the Introduction to his 1999 edition/translation of the poem (p.xix), Frank Barlow comments: “c.1125 x c.1135 seems to be the favourite.”
Guy, bishop of Amiens, belonged to the ruling family of, Normandy’s neighbour, Ponthieu. The bishop’s nephew, also called Guy, count of Ponthieu, had been captured by Duke William at the battle of Mortemer in 1054, and was released two years later after swearing fealty to the duke.
Volume and page of Augustus Le Prevost’s five volume edition of the Historia Ecclesiastica (1838–1855).