The Battle of Hastings
An article by G.L. Williamson
Upon Edward the Confessor's death on January 4th, 1066, William, Duke of Normandy felt assured the English crown would next pass to him. This was due in part to what he believed was promised to him by Edward himself in 1051. According to William, Edward, having no heir and little trust in the English nobility, would rather have had the crown pass to William in order to best protect the country. William also claimed that Harold, Earl of Wessex, commander of the king's army and the most powerful nobleman in England, had promised to offer support for his claim to the throne. Whether Harold ever made the promise (he denied making it) or simply changed his mind, he took the throne for himself within hours of Edward's burial, being styled King Harold II, and set the stage for invasion.
By April, Harold had raised the greatest army and fleet England had yet known. Harold's army consisted of his housecarls (a professional force of household troops and bodyguards), members of his own court and many of his greater nobles, as well as the fyrd, a national militia conscripted in times of great danger. The size of this force likely led Harold to ignore warnings about the portent of a comet, now known as Halley's, showing itself. After first seeing the comet as a young boy in 989, Eilmer of Malmesbury prophetically stated when it showed in 1066, "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."
Throughout July and August, King Harold II kept his troops along the southern coast of England, prepared for an invasion. The wait took its toll on the army, and their provisions ran out on September of that year. The fyrd was disbanded, with its men being allowed to go home, and the fleet was sent around the coast to the Thames. Being late in the season, many of the ships were destroyed in a storm which also cost William some of his invasion fleet. The weather conditions hurting the English fleet and pinning the Normans to their coast were beneficial to someone, however.
William was not the only foreign claimant to the English crown. Harald Hardråde, King of Norway, also planned to take the English throne. His forces took advantage of the strong northerly winds so affecting the English and Normans, crossing the North Sea from Bergen and ravaged Northumbria in September 1066. His destruction of an English army at Fulford on September 20th saw King Harold II of England rushing north to face the unexpected threat. Amazingly, Harold II was able to reach York only 4 days later with a force strengthened by levies picked up along the way. The resulting Battle of Stamford Bridge would see the worst defeat ever handed to a Norse army.
Harold II had no idea that while his men recovered from the march north and the fierce battle there, the very next morning would find the wind shifting to blow steadily from the south for the first time in two months. Unknown to Harold, less than 48 hours later the Normans embarked for England. After guarding the coast for over two months, disbanding the fyrd, then rushing north to fight the bloodiest battle the English had yet known, Harold II was 250 miles away when William's army landed unopposed at Pevensey on September 28th.
Harold deployed his men on high ground along Senlac Hill on the road to London, roughly six miles from Hastings. The thegns and housecarls were primarily armed with swords, spears, and in some cases Danish axes, and were protected by mail and their shields. Having better equipment, training and experience, they took the front ranks and formed a shield wall. Behind them stood the lesser thegns and peasant levies, armed with whatever weapons they had been able to find. Most of these troops were either inexperienced or exhausted from long marches and a recent battle.
On the morning of October 14th William placed his army of about seven thousand, arranged into three divisions, below the English position. The Bretons formed on the left, William and his half-brother Bishop Odo held the center position with the Normans, while Flemish mercenary troops and the French were to the right. Each of these divisions was divided into ranks of archers to the front, and the infantry in the middle, with the cavalry in the rear.
There exists a legend which states that to start the battle William gave permission to his jester and knight, Ivo Taillefer, to ride in front of the English forces to taunt them. He rode along juggling his sword and lance while singing an early version of the Song of Roland until an English soldier ran out to challenge him. Taillefer killed the Englishman, then charged the English line only to be killed himself. Oddly, he is not depicted, at least not by name, on the Bayeux Tapestry, which chronicles the conquest. In any case, the battle had begun.
The Normans opened with an archery attack, but this was not effective. The Norman infantry then charged the English shield wall several times; each time they were repulsed. The attacking cavalry had little luck as well, and the Danish axes wielded by the English began taking their toll on the Norman infantry and knights. After the Bretons in the left wing made contact with the shield wall and seemed to flee in the face of such fierce defense, the rest of the Norman line appeared to falter. According to the Bayeux Tapestry, a cry went up about this time that William had been killed. Seeing the weakening of his lines, William rode into the fray, lifted his helmet to show he was still alive and thus kept his men from retreat.
This may be why the English right wing, possibly commanded by one of Harold's brothers, broke ranks and pursued the Bretons down the hill. Once outside their defensive shield wall, these English were caught on the flat ground, charged by the Norman cavalry and slaughtered. This Breton retreat may have been done on purpose, as William and others on the continent had used this tactic for cavalry prior to their arrival in England. Once it proved valid at Hastings this tactic was used throughout the day with success. With each feigned retreat a group of English would rush out to chase the Normans, only to find themselves ridden down by cavalry.
While the English in the shield wall were so steadfast in their duty that it was described as "standing firmly as if fixed to the ground" it could not hold forever. Finally, the exhaustion, losses and near-constant pressure by the Norman army broke the shield wall. What followed were the deaths of Harold and his brothers, Gyrth and Leofwine, with no hope of relief for those left alive as dusk fell.
As the news of Kind Harold II's death passed through the English ranks, some of his troops began to stream away from the battle while the rest were decimated. As darkness fell, those English defenders who made it to the woods made a last stand in the long grass and on broken ground. They ambushed a group of Normans chasing them, killing them to a man, but the battle was already lost. The Normans, though suffering very heavy casualties, had won the day and thus England itself.
Less than three months after landing his invasion forces, William was crowned King of England on Christmas Day in Westminster Abbey.
The Battle of Hastings is an early, yet prime, example of the value of combined arms warfare. William's resulting conquest and reign over England created such documents as the Domesday Book to aid in the study of English history, made popular the building of castles where previously there had been few, and had such deep societal effects many of them can still be seen today in modern England. Whether these changes, and many more, were for the better or not, they add to the truly rich history of a beautiful land to such a degree their full reach may not ever be fully understood.
About the Author
Geoffrey (G.L.) Williamson is a 12 year combat arms veteran of the U.S. Army, having served twice in Iraq. He is interested in all aspects of historic weapons and armour, their use, and exquisite reproductions of them. He is a published author and is working on a novel between runs to take out his much-loved dog.
1066: The Year of the Conquest, by David Howarth
A History of the English Speaking Peoples, by Winston S. Churchill
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, by Michael Swanton (editor)
Hastings 1066: The Fall of Saxon England (Campaign), by Christopher Gravett
Image copyrights stay with the original copyright holders and include The British Museum. Most images are from The Bayeux Tapestry.