This is the second in a series of posts about the storied history of Halley’s Comet (officially designated 1P/Halley). If you missed Part One, you can still read it here.
The 1066 apparition of 1P/Halley was described in contemporary accounts as four times the size of Venus and glowing nearly as brightly as the moon. Irish annals recorded its passing, and it’s even been suggested that petroglyphs left by the Chaco Native Americans marked the apparition. But to truly appreciate the historical significance of this return of the comet to Earth’s sky, one must look to England.
Near the beginning of an uncommonly lengthy entry for the year 1066, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that on the eve of the festival of the Greater Litany (i.e. April 24) there appeared a fexedan steorra (“hairy star”) such as no man had ever seen before. But perhaps one man, at least, had seen it before and was not at all pleased it had returned to hang in the heavens for a week or longer…
Specifically, William of Malmesbury notes in his 12th-century Gesta regum Anglorum that the monk Eilmer of Malmesbury, upon seeing the 1066 apparition, stated: “You’ve come, have you? … You’ve come, you source of tears to many mothers, you evil. I hate you! 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. I hate you!” The Englishmen portrayed on the Bayeux Tapestry, stitched about a decade after 1066, seem nearly as dismayed as they point up at the comet (see above). Though Eilmer’s outburst is somewhat questionable given that the comet’s periodicity was likely not known at the time, his melodramatic chagrin nicely encapsulates the long-standing tradition that the appearance of any comet presaged disaster.
For the English, it would be a disastrous year indeed. Several months later, King Harold was slain at the Battle of Hastings not long after he was forced to kill his own renegade brother Tostig at the Battle of Stamford Bridge. At Tostig’s side, King Harald Hardrada of Norway was also killed with as many as 8,000 of his warriors, a defeat symbolically seen as the end of the Viking age. For the Norsemen, then, the comet was also something of a bad omen…
On the other hand, if you were William the Bastard, Duke of Normandy, the hairy star was anything but an ill portent! Victorious at Hastings, William got Harold’s crown, traded his “Bastard” sobriquet for the much more flattering “Conqueror” and began livin’ large as the first Norman king of England.
Up next in this series: Part 3: 12th – 15th Centuries