Battle of Hastings

On 14th October, 1066, the armies of King Harold II and William of Normandy fought the Battle of Hastings. The day long battle is one of the most significant turning points in English History. William’s Invasion Force faced a smaller but well trained Saxon army on Senlac Hill, near Hastings. Here they fought out a long and bloody battle. The day was won by the Normans. King Harold II was killed in the fighting. The Saxon army scattered. The Battle was a pivotal moment in the Norman Invasion.

After his victory over Harold Hardrada at Stamford Bridge, Harold Godwinson discovered that the Norman army had landed on the south coast. Setting off on October 1st, he reached London on the 6th. Here he made a call for men to join the fyrd. With the Normans laying waste to the countryside, Harold set off to face the invaders on 11th October. By the 13th his army was on the South Coast. He and his men make camp on Caldbec Hill, near Hastings.

Due to the haste of his journey South and from London, Harold’s army was not as large a force as he had planned for the defence of the South Coast. In Spring he had militia available along the coast. Now, these men were at home for the harvest. With a force of 7-8000 men he opted to move to the smaller, Senlac Hill, nearby. Here his men could form a tight defensive wall with less chance of being outflanked by the Normans. *Not all historians are in agreement on the location, see notes.

Then came William duke of Normandy into Pevensey… This was then made known to King Harold, and he then gathered a great force, and came to meet him at the estuary of Appledore; and William came against him unawares before his people were assembled. But the king nevertheless strenuously fought against him with those men who would follow him; and there was great slaughter made on either hand. There was slain King Harold and Leofwine the earl… and the Frenchman had possession of the place of carnage, all as God granted them for the people’s sins. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

William’s scouts discovered Harold’s camp. On the morning of 14th October he marched his army to Senlac Hill. The Saxon force was mainly infantry. William’s Norman army was roughly 50% infantry with 25% Cavalry and 25% Archers. The Saxons consisted of Housecarls who were professional soldiers and the fyrd who were ordinary men called into duty. These would form a shield wall. Behind the wall the housecarls would be armed with axes, swords and javelins. This method of fighting was well practised. It was a very difficult defense to break down.

The Saxons are believed to have formed this type of shield wall at the top of Senlac Hill. The Normans were in 3 units. The centre commanded by William of Normandy, the left were Bretons and the right was a combination of men from Flanders, Breton and Boulogne.

The first attacks were made by the Norman archers. However the steep hill meant that few arrows got beyond the shields. Infantry followed, but were beaten back by missiles. When the Cavalry also failed to break the shield wall a retreat began by some of the Normans. At this some of the Saxon shield wall broke formation and gave chase. Accounts show that the Normans feigned several attacks during the day. Each time some men broke formation, the weaker the wall became.

The vast forces of English had come from all regions. Harold took up position on higher ground, on a hill by a forest through which they had just come. They abandoned their horses and drew themselves up in close order.

The duke placed his infantry in front armed with bows and crossbows and behind them other infantry more heavily armed with mail tunics; in the rear came the mounted knights.

The terrible sound of trumpets on both sides announced the opening of the battle. The Norman foot soldiers… challenged the English, raining wounds and death upon them with their missiles. The English… threw spears and weapons of every kind, murderous axes and stones tied to sticks.

William of Poitiers, 1071

At some point the brothers of Harold Godwinson and Harold himself were killed in the fighting. Accounts give different times and explanations for each death. It is known that once the lack of leader became known the wall broke. The Normans gave chase to the fleeing Saxons but stopped due to ambushes.

Harold's death as depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry

The fighting lasted throughout the daylight hours. This makes the battle one of the longest to have taken place in Medieval Europe. The reasons for the Norman victory are varied. The availability of cavalry provided extra tactics. The Norman commanders were more experienced. The Saxons are deemed by some to have been too cautious, or inexperienced.

Notes:
  • The exact site of the Battle of Hastings is disputed. This is because the source material relating to the Battle is not consistent and much of it was written years after the event. Historians tend to be split into two groups on the location: one view is that Battle Abbey was built upon the spot where Harold was killed; another view is that the Battle actually took place on the neighby Caldbec Hill. More depth can be found by looking at the various sources on the Battle such as the different forms of the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, William of Poitiers, William of Malmesbury or Orderlic Vitalis.
  • The exact cause of King Harold’s death is also disputed. The section of the Bayeux Tapestry is the famous scene showing an arrow in the eye. The same scene also shows a man who has been slain. Accounts vary on the nature of his demise but it is quite possible that he could have been hit by an arrow; quite possible that he was killed in close combat and also possible that he was struck by an arrow and killed after being wounded.
Links

Who were the claimants to the English throne upon Edward the Confessors death in 1066?

History of War – An Encyclopedia of Military History

The Normans



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Harold's death as depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry
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