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Matilda’s gift, from Barfleur

Barfleur harbour, match!
Barfleur harbour, match! One of medieval France’s main ports for travel to England and the best ship building town in Normandy.

In 1066 Matilda, wife of William, Duke of Normandy, commissioned a ship for a king. Her husband was still a Duke but she knew he would conquer that muddy country to the north. The ship was built in Barfleur and named Mora.

Drakar ship
Drakar ship

Ship building for the invasion had started in the spring with every great man and wealthy abbot in Normandy given a quota; from a single ship paid for by an Abby to a hundred or more ships from the richest barons. These would be Drakar style longships, like the ships that first bought the Vikings to France.

Drakar construction
Drakar construction

To build a fleet of 700 ships for 3000 men, thousands of trees were cut down across Normandy. The Bayeux Tapestry shows trees being felled with long-handled axes then split and shaped with short handled side axes. The ships were formed from timber frames around 25 meters in length, 5 meters wide. Ribs spread out from the keel and posts formed the bow and stern. Planks were then pegged or nailed to the ribs ‘clinker’ style, overlapping. On the Tapestry a carpenter drills oar-ports with each ship boasting 12 or 16 to a side.

Reconstructed Viking longship Havhingsten fra Glendalough under construction.
Reconstructed Viking longship Havhingsten fra Glendalough under construction.


Mora was special, a Drakar construction but at least five meters longer than the other ships with 19 oars to a side and sleek. Her central square sail was red and gold and her hull graceful. Along with William she would carry his most trusted knights, their horses, equipment and entourages.

More than just her size made Mora stand out. Medieval writer Oderic Vitalis describes her has having ‘for its figurehead the image of a child, gilt, pointing with its right hand towards England, and having in its mouth a trumpet of ivory’. The Bayeux tapestry confirms this and adds a royal lion aft, its tongue sticking firmly out.

A lantern was attached to her mast so she could be seen through the night by the fleet (they needed to land in the morning, with the early tide), a horn was added to blast signals and guide their way in case of fog. The 700 longships were accompanied by skiffs and small boats that carried more supplies and would ferry men and their equipment from the longships to land.

Memorial to the Mora in Barfleur harbour

Be prepared

The invaders were leaving nothing to chance. They carried everything they might need in the first few days; mail shirts, swords, lances and helmets. Wood for at least two forts. Food that would last like salted pork and beef, cheese, dried beans and hard bread. As much food again was carried for their 2000 horses, all trained to carry a knight in full armour. Carrying horses by ship was a new skill for the Normans, bought back by those who served in the East. The Emperors of Constantinople had transported their cavalry by ship for years.

Managing the horses was probably easier than managing the army. As well as loyal well trained troops from Normandy and William’s lands in Maine, were a large number of mercenaries, allies, and volunteers. They came from north east France, Brittany, Flanders with a smattering from other European countries. There were huge organisational challenges, language barriers and strange customs, but they all saw a future with William. They were also hopeful for generous rewards and all ready for a fight, some were keen to practice before they got to England.

Go with God, and 7000 men

Delighted with Mora, William claimed to be completely surprised by his gift. He topped the main sail with a papal banner. The banner was unmistakable; white, charged with a gold cross and edged with a blue border. Sent to William by Pope Alexander II, it proclaimed to all God’s support in his fight for England’s crown. He also carried a papal ring and had close to hand an edict from the Pope guiding English clergy to submit to his regime. Unknowingly, the English church was toppled before the Norman army arrived.

Mora was captained by a young man, Airard Fitz Stephen. He would stay on as the ship’s captain until William’s death. As thanks for his service Airard was given lands in Hampshire, Berkshire and Warwickshire. Sincere thanks indeed but the Mora did require expert skills to sail her.

She was fast. Possibly the fastest ship to sail the seas between England, France and Viking lands to the north. Just how fast would be revealed as she finally led William’s fleet across the channel that mild September evening in 1066, some weeks later than hoped.

Mora on the Bayeux tapestry
Mora on the Bayeux tapestry

A difficult start

Although some historians now suggest William held off his own invasion until Tostig landed in the north of England and depleted Harold’s army, many still believe the weather was the problem.

William of Poitiers, the Duke’s chaplain and a trained soldier, is later reported to have said (his original papers are lost) the crossing started very badly:

Presently the whole fleet, equipped with such great foresight, was blown from the mouth of the Dives and the neighbouring ports, where they had long waited for a south wind to carry them across, was driven by the breath of the west wind to moorings in Saint-Valery. There too the leader, whom neither the delay and the contrary wind nor the terrible shipwrecks nor the craven flight of many who had pledged their faith to him could shake, committed himself with the utmost confidence by prayers, gifts and vows, to the protection of heaven.  

Indeed, meeting adversity with good counsel, he concealed (as far as he could) the loss of those who had drowned, by burying them in secret; and by daily increasing supplies he alleviated want.

By diverse encouragements he retained the terrified and put heart into the fearful. He strove with holy prayers to such a point that he had the body of Valery, a confessor most acceptable to God, carried out of the basilica to quell the contrary wind and bring a favourable one; all the assembled men-at-arms who were to set out with him shared in taking up the same arms of humility.’

A rich breakfast of wine

They finally set sail on the evening of 27 September 1066. As the sun rose William saw Mora was alone in the middle of the channel. She was so fast the fleet was miles behind. William settled to a rich breakfast with wine, while waiting for them to catch up.

It must have been a remarkable sight for those on board the Mora, as the fleet appeared over the horizon that morning  The skyline as far as the eye could see would have been a forest of sails, with shields and armaments glinting in the early sunlight. Soon the Normans were skimming along the coast of England.

Once they arrived at Pevensey thousands of troops tried to catch a glimpse of their Duke who promptly stumbled and fell onto English soil. Shrewdly aware this could appear a moment of weakness he swiftly grabbed handfuls of earth, stood up and is reported to have roared “See, my lords, by the splendour of God, I have taken possession of England with both my hands. It is now mine, and what is mine is yours”.  His army erupted into to wild cheers and, of course, he was right. In just days England would be his.

More about William’s preparations to invade England in our post here: How to invade England.

View from Barfleur harbour
View from beautiful Barfleur harbour


Barfleur harbour
Barfleur harbour


The lighthouse at Barfleur
The lighthouse at Barfleur


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