The Battle Of Hastings:1066
The Bayeux Tapestry
A Full Length Battle Of Hastings Documentary From The BBC
In traditional accounts Harold Godwinson’s reputation was blackened as an oath breaker, while others viewed William as the villain. It is probably safe to say that both of these remarkably able and ruthless men had their good and bad sides. William was the illegitimate son of the Duke of Normandy and he had to defend his position as Duke, from 1035 onwards, against all comers and by the time he wished to invade England had carved out the most powerful duchy in France and north-western Europe, reducing both Brittany and Maine to vassal states. His influence was also predominant in Paris, where he dominated the young King Philip, and he had created a crucial ally in Flanders by marrying Matilda, the daughter of Duke Baldwin IV.
William’s claim to the English throne was very tenuous and lacked solid legal foundations. William had forced his rival, Harold Godwinson, in 1064 to swear an oath to leave Edward the Confessor’s throne to him. But Harold had no intention of honouring an oath forced upon him through blackmail and threats. As the Earl of Wessex, vice-regent under Edward since 1064, the elderly King’s brother in law, and with undoubted ability and good character, no man had a stronger or more legitimate claim to the throne of England. As a consequence when Edward died on the 5th January 1066, Harold was crowned in Westminster Abbey.
Commemorating Stamford Bridge
Harold was no fool and he knew that the ruthlessly ambitious William would use his ‘breaking’ of the ‘oath’ as a spurious excuse to invade. Until May there was no threat of invasion but during the early summer William unleashed an ambitious naval building programme to create an armada of 500 ships to carry his 6000 strong army (of Normans, Bretons, French and Flemings) across the Channel.
In response Harold mobilised his 4000 strong Royal Guard, known by their Scandinavian name of huscarls, and the territorial Saxon militia, the fyrd. The fyrd could, in theory and given time, resources and money, mobilise 15,000-20,000 men but during the summer of 1066 it probably numbered no more than 4000. Harold strung out his army of 8000 men along the south coast waiting for the Normans. Harold ordered the fyrd to be disbanded on the 8th September so that these men could return to their farms and gather in the all-important harvest. Unfortunately Harold had acted precipitously since news arrived that his brother, Earl Tostig, had joined forces with King Harald Hardrada of Norway and had invaded northern England. As Harold gathered his men and rushed north, the Saxon army of the north, led by the Earl of Northumbria were defeated on the 20th September at Fulford Gate. Five days later Harold surprised and annihilated the Norwegian invaders, slaying Tostig and Harald in the process, at Stamford Bridge.
A Full Length Documentary On William The Conqueror
Back in France, William had been kept in Normandy by contrary winds. It was only on the 12th September that his armada could sail to St. Valery on the Somme River from where he intended to invade England. It was only a short day’s sailing across the Channel to England from this small port. The winds proved fickle and it was not until the 27th September that a southerly wind allowed William’s fleet to set sail northwards. He made landfall at Pevensey Bay the following morning and immediately set about gathering supplies, erecting his wooden forts (portable ones brought from Normandy in sections) and plundering the surrounding countryside for intelligence, food and fodder for his horses.
News that William had finally landed reached Harold at York on the 1st October amidst celebrations following Stamford Bridge. Harold rushed south picking up the fyrd and other troops along the way back to London. He left the capital on the 11th October heading south with an army of 6000-7000 troops. Many of his men rode to the battle on horses but would fight on foot. It was late in the afternoon on the 13th October that Harold reached Senlac Ridge, a location that he had, during the summer’s idleness, chosen as a possible battleground. His choice was based on his experience fighting the Welsh in 1064 and his familiarity with the Hastings region.
Senlac was a gently sloped ridge with a marsh area to the south around the Asten brook with its western and eastern flanks protected by deep ravines covered by thick brushwood. An even steeper ridge protected the northern side and would thus prevent the Normans attacking Harold’s army in the rear. William was rapidly informed about Harold’s movement and the arrival of his army. As the Saxons had arrived late in the day they would opt to rest and then make a lightning attack in the morning. But William would himself make the first move. His men were roused little after five in the morning and by 6 am the Normans were marching northwards to face Harold’s host. Before they set off William spoke to them telling them ‘You fight not merely for victory but also for survival.’
William’s claim may seem melodramatic but it was the naked truth; if they failed to defeat the Saxons on hostile English soil then they would probably not escape home to Normandy alive. William divided his army into three divisions that marched off with the Bretons as the vanguard, followed by the Franco-Flemish troops and then finally William leading his own Normans. William had chosen as the assembly point the Blackhorse Hill, on the Hastings to London road, where the Bretons arrived by 7:30 am. Here, out of sight of the Saxons, William left his baggage train and ordered his men to put on their chain mail hauberk armour which they had slung across the back of their horses. Unfortunately William put his hauberk on back to front, viewed by his superstitious men as a bad omen, but one that the cynical William simply laughed off. The Norman army marched north to take up position opposite the Saxons.
The Battlefield Today
The Flemish Contingent
William remained on a small knoll out of the way under the Papal banner and his own Norman leopard standards. From this position he could give orders and had a good view of the battlefield. He could observe how the Bretons under Count Alan of Brittany followed the Asten brook to take up position opposite Harold’s right flank. On William’s left, Count Eustace of Boulogne led his French and Flemish mercenaries to the bottom of Senlac Ridge facing the Saxon left. In the middle now stood the largest and most formidable of the divisions: William’s own Normans with auxiliaries from Anjou and Main. The archers and crossbowmen were at the front, then came the more heavily armed infantry and finally William’s mounted men-at-arms.
For his part, Harold had been aware that the invaders were on the move since 8 am when scouts reported that the Normans had left Blackhorse Hill. If the weather had been wetter, forcing William to postpone his attack for a few crucial hours, Harold might have had time to erect proper defences atop Senlac Ridge but there was no rain and the ground was firm. Harold’s army was roused and began to deploy along the ridge in a shield wall that stretched for 600 yards from the Asten brook to the junction of the roads to Hastings and Seddlescombe. The Saxon phalanx was 10 ranks deep with 2 feet of frontage for each of his warriors meaning that he had about 6300 men under his command. As William had placed his strongest division in the centre, so Harold followed suit, placing his more experienced huscarls in the centre. He placed his lighter armed and armoured men in the fyrd on the flanks, reinforced by a line of sharpened wooden stakes in front.
Reenacting The Battle
The Battle Begins
The 14th October, the Feast of St. Calixtus, dawned with brightening skies, a thin cloud cover and no indication of rain. 44 year old Harold faced 38 year old William. They were both gifted and experienced commanders in their prime leading two of the best armies in Western Europe, whose morale was superb: the Normans because of the prospect of conquest and loot, the Saxons because of the need to defend their homeland and their recent spectacular victory at Stamford Bridge. The Normans, who would have to make the first move, were 150 yards from, and 50 feet below, the Saxon shield wall. The Bretons were the least experienced of William’s troops and the weak link in his army. Harold’s equivalent were the fyrd and he trusted his shield wall to hold back the onrush of Norman cavalry, it was the first time a predominantly cavalry army was fighting infantry in this fashion. The outcome would decide the nature of medieval warfare thereafter.
Sharp trumpet blasts at 9am announced the beginning of the battle as William’s three divisions advanced up the slope of Senlac Ridge. The archers at the front showered the Saxons with arrows but to little effect- these either overshot their intended target or got lodged in the shield wall. The Saxon response with javelins, spears and axes proved far more effective against the onrushing Normans. As they had the gentler slope, the jittery Bretons were the first to smash into the shield wall and be repelled by the fierce resistance of the Saxons. Unnerved by this and the failure of the archers’ fire to make any impact upon the shield wall, the Bretons retreated by 10:30am. The retreat turned into a rout when the undisciplined fyrd militia left the safety of the shield wall to pursue the fleeing Bretons.
- Internet History Sourcebooks Project
An interesting account of the battle written by Medieval scribe William of Malmesbury.
- BBC - History: Normans
The BBC website that offers details about the battle and much more including what happened next.
- 1066 Battle of Hastings, Abbey and Battlefield | English Heritage
The official website of English Heritage, a non-profit company that looks after the battle site along with many other historically significant sites in England.
From his vantage point, William saw what was happening and with a curse he gathered part of the advancing Norman cavalry to assist the hard pressed Bretons. Riding into the fyrd with a charge of armoured knights, the Saxons were taken by surprise and, as lightly armoured infantry on open ground, they were cut down to the last man. William’s timely and ferocious cavalry charge had saved his army from disaster. Undoubtedly morale, especially among the defeated Bretons, was low. William recalled his other two divisions, halted for half an hour to regroup for another attack. This time the advance would be slower and more deliberate with the cavalry at the helm supported by archers and infantry following behind. William, taking personal charge, began the second attack at 11am. As the ground was slippery from the previous attack and littered with dead men and horses, progress was slow and hesitant.
Waves of attacks were launched against the shield wall for two hours. The Normans managed to make a few, small holes in the line but Harold and his commanders, including his brothers Gyrth (Earl of East Anglia) and Leofwine (Earl of Kent), steadied their men, plugged the gaps and showered the enemy with missiles. Harold’s Fighting Men standard and the Dragon Pennant of Wessex had been placed at the centre of the Saxon lines to encourage the defenders.
Finally, by 1 pm, even the tough Flemish and French troops had had enough; they broke and began to flee from the ridge. Their commander Eustace grabbed the Papal standard, rallied his fleeing men and admonished them to return to the fight. William had already lost his Spanish charger and was fighting on foot when a rumour reached him that he was dead. Eustace gave the Duke a horse to mount and show himself to his men. William tore off his helmet so that his troops could recognise him and shouted: ‘Look at me well. I am still alive and by the grace of God shall yet prove victor!’ In reality William was losing the battle and he stared defeat in the face. Should the Saxons hold their line indefinitely then he would have been forced to retreat back to Hastings and return across the English Channel.
At 2 pm William called his men and returned them to his own lines below the ridge to re-group, rest and feed his hungry men. Harold used this respite to shorten his thinning line since Saxon losses, whatever the Normans may have thought, had been considerable and Harold was worried that he would run out of men to plug the ever rising number of holes in the line. But at least his men were more rested than the Normans who faced an ever more debris-ridden and cluttered slope as they prepared for a renewed attack.
Having lost a quarter of his army, or around 1800-1900 men, in five hours of almost continuous fighting, as well as a horrendous number of horses, cut down by the axe wielding Saxons, William saw that many of his men at arms were now fighting on foot. He decided that the whole army would attack in a single formation of all arms combined.
The third and final attack saw the entire army advance with archers at the back, from around 3pm, at a slow pace. It took the Normans an agonising half hour to reach the Saxon line. William had ordered the archers to shoot as high as possible while the infantry, dismounted knights and still mounted cavalry gave their utmost in attacking the shield wall. Finally the shield wall began to waver, break in places and then come apart under the Norman onslaught. Once a hole had been created in the wall the Norman cavalry poured through and, with their lances, swords and spears tore at the soft underbelly of the Saxon army. After 4 pm the breach became unstoppable and the fighting degenerated into group actions and hand to hand combat. This fighting went on until 5:30pm with undiminished ferocity as men fought for their lives. Then the fyrd began to retreat, fleeing into the woods while the huscarls fought on until they were overwhelmed and killed. A large group rallied around Harold’s standard as William joined his men on the ridge and had his third and final horse killed under him. Harold led his men with customary tenacity and courage, setting a personal example for his huscarls. But there were not enough of them to fight back the Normans. Gyrth and Leofwine, leading their own huscarls, were killed.
The final straw was the death of Harold himself. He was cut down by the Normans leading his few remaining huscarls. As darkness closed in on the battlefield, small groups of Saxons continued fighting until they could slip away into the surrounding countryside. They rallied and ambushed the pursuing Normans at Oakwood Gill, a small stream north of Senlac Ridge, and managed to cut down Eustace of Boulogne. That was small consolation for the death of Harold.
A Norman Monument To Harold
Both sides had lost more than 2000 men, the Normans well over a third of their army. For William, it was a triumph against the odds that paved the way for him being crowned as King of England on the 25th December 1066. The Saxons would continue to resist their Norman invaders for decades after their defeat at Hastings, but were eventually subdued.