The Conqueror and the Comet

bayeux tapestryWe know as Halley’s Comet the “long-haired star” that is pictured on the Bayeux Tapestry. Visible over England in the spring of 1066, it was widely regarded as an omen, though whether it was thought to predict approaching disaster or forthcoming good fortune depended on who was doing the regarding.

Duke William of Normandy landed at Pevensey in September of that year, commenced the Norman Conquest of England by winning the Battle of Hastings on October 14, and was crowned king in Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day. King Harold II of England was killed at the Battle of Hastings, a fact scarcely mentioned in English without also quoting:

When beggars die there are no comets seen;
 The heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes.
Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, Act 2, Scene 2

Astronomer Edmond Halley (born 1658) predicted in 1705 that a comet that had appeared in 1531, 1607 and 1682 would reappear in 1758. Although he didn’t live to see it, he was correct and this, probably the most famous of all comets, was named after him. It reappears every 75 to 77 years; the earliest recorded sightings go back to about 269 B.C.E.––but here’s an interesting thing about the records: for the last appearance prior to 1066, they seem to be off by six years. Given the supernatural significance attributed to comets at the time (and for that matter, much later), it’s interesting to follow this thread:

A number of monastic histories reported a comet in 995.

The authors of a research paper, “The Eleven Observations of Comets between 678 AD and 1114 AD Recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle,” give the following quotation and translation for the year 995: “HER ON ISSUM GEARE AETEWDE COMETA SE STEORRA. In this year appeared the comet or star.”

Although they do not say which manuscript they rely on (of which the quoted portion as it appears in the original is reproduced), by implication it is the Land Chronicle [E], since they say “This manuscript was found to be the most readable for a non Anglo Saxon scholar. The Old English text can be understood if read very slowly with a completely open mind [with regard to] the spelling of words and the use of gender endings.” E.G. Mardon, A.A. Mardon, J. Williams, in Asteroids, Comets, Meteors, 1991, Lunar and Planetary Institute, Houston, pp 385-391.

About the comet as portent, E.G. Mardon comments, albeit in the paragraphs relating to the year 975 AD, not a Halley’s year, “In my father’s lifetime (1909) [sic] when Halley’s Comet appeared, many predicted awful consequences. The Great War started 5 years later.” Halley’s Comet appeared in 1910 and the Great War (World War I) began in 1914.

“Hepidannus [a monk of St. Gall] wrote Annales in 1022 and for 995 he said, ‘a bright comet was seen on St. Lawrence’s day [August 10th].’ . . . The Canterbury edition of the English text Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (1154) says, ‘ Here the star comet, that is the “haired”, appeared; and Archbishop Sigeric passed away.’ The Peterborough edition says, ‘Here in this year the star comet appeared; and Archbishop Sigeric passed away.’ Additional details were given by the Chronicon ex Chronica (1118). The details of this comet are similar to those reported for Halley’s Comet in 989. Even more interesting is the fact that none of these texts record the appearance of a comet in 989. Robert R. Newton (1972) has said, ‘A large block of annals starting about 975 is uniformly dated 6 years too late for some reason.’ Therefore, based on Newton’s
comment, it seems likely the comet of 995 is actually the appearance of Halley’s Comet in 989.” Gary W. Kronk, Cometography: Ancient – 1799; a Catalog of Comets, Cambridge University Press, 1999, 164-65, accessed online.

Robert R. Newton (1918 – 1991), an American physicist, astronomer, and historian of science, was Supervisor of the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University. The stated main purpose of his book, Medieval Chronicles and the Rotation of the Earth (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. 1972) was “to obtain and assess a large body of observations of solar eclipses from medieval records, and to use the observations in improving our knowledge of the motion of the solar system.” However, realizing that he was encountering other data as well that might be useful to, among others, students of medieval history, he included as Appendix II a catalog of observations of comets. For the years 995 and 1066 he cites the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and a number of sources other than British. For 989, “Sangallenses says on S. Lawrence’s Day;” otherwise none. (Incidentally, he also gives a table of “Unusual or Fanciful Events” including an entry for the year 1277 AD from Rampona to the effect that “a woman from Modena named Antonia had 42 children, including quintuplets, triplets, and 11 sets of twins. She was exiled from Modena.”)

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