When it came to the sighting of comets and meteors, experienced as eerie apparitions in the sky, ancient cultures understood them as omens sent by the gods. Without the benefits of modern-day science and space exploration, superstition was rife and all kinds of celestial events were viewed with fascination and fear. Comets were particularly disruptive, and so the apparition of Halley’s Comet in 1066, ahead of the Norman Invasion of England was seen by William of Normandy as a positive sign from Heaven. On the other side of the English Channel the comet was however believed to predict the dire fate of his adversary, the Anglo-Saxon King Harold.
Halley’s Comet was believed to have predicted the outcome of the Battle of Hastings and the death of the Anglo-Saxon King Harold. Edith finding Harold’s body after the Battle of Hastings, by Horace Vernet. ( Public domain )
Scientists believe that Halley’s Comet has been around for over 200,000 years. Scholars have identified many of its apparitions within the historic archives around the world. One 2010 article in the Journal of Cosmology argued that the ancient Greeks were the first to have recorded seeing Halley’s Comet in 466 BC, even though most academics believe the comet was first recorded by Han Dynasty astronomers in 239 BC.
The most famous comet in history, Halley’s Comet is a periodic comet which orbits the Sun and visits Earth every 75 to 79 years. But it was only in 1705 that Edmond Halley “intellectually tamed” the mysteries of comets. Based on the teachings of Isaac Newton and his theory of gravity, Halley reviewed archival evidence of comets in 1531, 1607 and 1682 and concluded they were one in the same. He predicted that the comet would return in 1759 and was posthumously proved correct. That’s the reason why it was later called Halley’s Comet.
But back in 1066, comets were still viewed as harbingers of bad fortune. Eilmer of Malmesbury, the 11th century Benedictine monk who witnessed Halley’s Comet that year, was recorded by the Deeds of English Kings to have said: “You’ve come, have you? – You’ve come, you source of tears to many mothers. It is long since I saw you; but as I see you now you are much more terrible, for I see you brandishing the downfall of my country.”
Section of the Bayeux Tapestry which depicts men staring at Halley’s Comet on the left, with Harold’s coronation taking place to the right. ( Public domain )
Stellarium has estimated that Halley’s Comet was visible from London in May 1066. When the Battle of Hastings was fought in October the same year, the Norman troops, motivated by the sighting of Halley’s Comet months before, shouted Nova stella, novus rex , which meant “a new star, a new king.” These events are detailed in the famed Bayeux Tapestry , which in one section depicts the fated King Harold surrounded by petrified Englishmen as they watch Halley’s Comet , the “long-haired star,” flaming through the sky. By the time the battle was over, Harold was dead and the Norman leader had earned his nickname William the Conqueror , becoming the first Norman king of England.
Top image: Halley’s Comet was seen as a harbinger of doom for the English subjects of Harold II, the last Anglo-Saxon king of England. This watercolor is entitled The Comet of 1532. Source: Science Museum / CC BY-NC-SA 4.0
By Cecilia Bogaard