Decades before the Battle of Hastings, the English and the Normans were uneasy neighbours.The Vikings were at the height of their raids, robbing the rich monasteries and murdering the monks and priests. And the Normans were helping them.
They assisted by opening their ports to the Viking longships, therefore enabling them easy access to England. It was unlikely that the Normans were allowing the Vikings this privilege out of the goodness of their hearts, there was probably some type of reward or profit. The king of England,Ethelred II or the Unready, decided that he has to put a stop to this Norman leniency. So he launched a major naval attack in 1001, intending to destroy the Norman villages including the folk living in them.
While he was at it, it seemed like a good idea to take capital of Normandy, Rouen, and take the Duke of Normandy, Richard, prisoner. Normandy would then become part of his English kingdom. Given that the Viking Danes were all over England, he needed all the territory and resources he could get.
Seemed like a simple plan. The nobles and ordinary folk were in favour of retribution and Ethelred would gain more respect for doing so. Plus, the Duke of Normandy was only a boy and would not be able to organise a suitable defence. Piece of cake.
Ethelred mustered the best of the warriors England had and their ships landed Val de Saire at the Cotentin Peninsula. This was the least protected part of Normandy's coast because it was quite a way from Normandy's own naval base. Then they massacred and pillaged the village, just like Vikings.
But what Ethelred didn't account for was the response by the remaining villagers. As the English armies moved towards Rouen, the peasants grouped enthusiastically to fight back. The Normans were on their own ground and knew the terrain, importantly realising that they were fighting on a peninsula. There was only one bridge joining the mainland that was suitable for an army to cross. They knew where the Anglo-Saxon English camp would be.
The Normans attacked the English camp at dawn. They fought with such anger and fury that the English were demolished and had no way of escape. King Ethelred's defeat was total and humiliating. The following year, 1002, he ordered the mass killing of all Danish people in England. That didn't go down too well either...
The legacy of the Battle at Val-de-Saire was that it did nothing for international relations except boost the morale of the Normans. Sixty-four years later it was the Normans' turn to invade England. They won again...at Hastings.
The Normans in Europe
by Elisabeth van Houts
(Manchester University Press)
Aethelred the Unready
by Levi Roach
(Yale University Press)