September 1066

Stormy waves, crashing on rocks.
Stormy waves, crashing on rocks.

 The seventh month of the old Julian Calendar was an auspicious time for William, the duke of Normandy. He was born on September 9th, died on September 9th, and one year between those two events, in September, he boarded a ship and launched his destiny.

September 27, 2016, marked the anniversary of that day 950 years ago when the sun began to set on the shores of Normandy. A typical day to some, but to the thousands of soldiers waiting to sail, the coming night gave credence to the sailors’ maxim: no favorable wind blows after the autumnal equinox.

On a small knoll beside the bay, William waited. He saw the white caps, felt the ocean spray in his face, and tasted the salty air as the wind blew against him as it had for days.

His followers paced along the shore. They watched the pennons, the waves. Searching the cloudy sky, they saw gulls flit through the wind currents, dive and flap their wings hard against the gale. The Narrow Sea undulated in big gray-green waves, a restless sea agitated by the recent storm that crashed some of their ships against rocks, casting men and horses, armor and hopes into the deep.

William had raised gold and silver; his followers had built hundreds of ships, men joined this venture from afar. Even the Pope had blessed the endeavor. Nearby, horses snorted and stomped. They rolled their eyes back, pricked their ears and nipped at each other.

As waves roared and crashed against the shore, the duke searched for, but did not see, the island 30 miles or so away.

Suddenly the wind shifted. The sun had almost set, the clouds raced by, and everyone looked at the duke standing on a rise. He nodded. Horns blasted, called and echoed, startling everyone for a brief moment. Instantly, people began to swarm. Chaos ensued as everyone scrambled to load and board ships tugging against taut ropes. The cacophony of shouts drowned out the horses objecting to the surf, the unsteady ramps, the swaying ships.

Loaded, with little room for rowers, the large square sails would carry them forward into the night. No one knew if the wind would continue to blow in their favor. If not, all would be lost.