The Battle of Hastings

The Battle of Hastings was fought on 14 October 1066, as part of the Norman Conquest of England. It culminated in a decisive win for William of Normandy and marked a turning point in the development of mediaeval English culture and language.

Above: Excerpt from the Bayeux Tapestry

In 1002, King Æthelred II married Emma, the sister of Richard II, Duke of Normandy. Their son Edward the Confessor succeeded to the English throne in 1042. This led to the establishment of a powerful Norman interest in English politics.

King Edward's death on 5 January 1066 left no clear heir, and several contenders laid claim to the throne of England. Edward's immediate successor was the Earl of Wessex, Harold Godwinson, the richest and most powerful of the English aristocrats.

Harold was elected king by the Witenagemot of England and crowned by Ealdred, the Archbishop of York, but he was immediately challenged by two powerful neighbouring rulers. Duke William claimed that he had been promised the throne by King Edward and that Harold had sworn agreement to this.

Harald Hardrada of Norway also contested the succession. William and Harald Hardrada immediately set about assembling troops and ships for separate invasions.

In early 1066, Harold's exiled brother Tostig Godwinson raided south-eastern England with a fleet he had recruited in Flanders, later joined by other ships from Orkney. Threatened by Harold's fleet, Tostig moved north and raided in East Anglia and Lincolnshire.

Hardrada invaded northern England in early September, leading a fleet of more than 300 ships carrying perhaps 15,000 men. Hardrada's army was further augmented by the forces of Tostig, who supported the Norwegian king's bid for the throne.

Advancing on York, the Norwegians occupied the city after defeating a northern English army on 20 September at the Battle of Fulford.

Above: William the Conqueror, Duke of Normandy

Harold had spent mid-1066 on the south coast with a large army and fleet waiting for William to invade. The bulk of his forces were militia who needed to harvest their crops, so on 8 September Harold dismissed the militia and the fleet.

Learning of the Norwegian invasion he rushed north, gathering forces as he went, and took the Norwegians by surprise, defeating them at the Battle of Stamford Bridge on 25 September.

Both Harald Hardrada and Tostig were killed, and the Norwegians suffered such great losses that only 24 of the original 300 ships were required to carry away the survivors. The English victory came at great cost, as Harold's army was left in a battered and weakened state, and far from the south.

In the meantime William had assembled a large invasion fleet and an army gathered from Normandy and the rest of France, including large contingents from Brittany and Flanders. He spent almost nine months on his preparations, as he had to construct a fleet from nothing.

The Normans crossed to England a few days after Harold's victory over the Norwegians, following the dispersal of Harold's naval force, and landed at Pevensey in Sussex on 28 September. After landing, William's forces built a wooden castle at Hastings, and more fortifications were erected at Pevensey.

William's army consisted of cavalry, infantry, and archers or crossbowmen, with about equal numbers of cavalry and archers and the foot soldiers equal in number to the other two types combined. The exact numbers and composition of William's force are unknown, but have been estimated at 10,000 to 12,000 men.

The English army consisted entirely of infantry, although once again, the exact number of soldiers is unknown. Modern historians have suggested figures of between 5,000 and 13,000 men for Harold's army at Hastings.

Above: The Battle of Hastings as depicted by Francis William Wilkin

After defeating his brother Tostig and Harald Hardrada in the north, Harold left much of his forces in the north, and marched the rest of his army south to deal with the threatened Norman invasion. It is unclear when Harold learned of William's landing, but it was probably while he was travelling south.

Harold stopped in London, and was there for about a week before Hastings, so it is likely that he spent about a week on his march south, averaging about 27 miles (43 kilometres) per day, for the approximately 200 miles (320 kilometres).

Although Harold attempted to surprise the Normans, William's scouts reported the English arrival to the duke, and William led his army from his castle and advanced towards the enemy. Harold had taken a defensive position at the top of Senlac Hill (present-day Battle, East Sussex), about 6 miles (9.7 kilometres) from William's castle at Hastings.

Harold's forces deployed in a small, dense formation at the top of steep slope,[84] with their flanks protected by woods and marshy ground in front of them. The English formed a shield wall, with the front ranks holding their shields close together or even overlapping to provide protection from attack.

Duke William arranged his forces in three groups, which roughly corresponded to their origins. The left units were the Bretons, along with those from Anjou, Poitou and Maine. The centre was held by the Normans, under the direct command of the duke, and the final division, on the right, consisted of the Frenchmen, along with some men from Picardy, Boulogne, and Flanders.

The front lines were made up of archers, with a line of foot soldiers armed with spears behind. There were probably a few crossbowmen and slingers in with the archers. The cavalry was held in reserve.

William's disposition of his forces implies that he planned to open the battle with archers in the front rank weakening the enemy with arrows, followed by infantry who would engage in close combat. The infantry would create openings in the English lines that could be exploited by a cavalry charge to break through the English forces and pursue the fleeing soldiers.

Above: The death of Harold as depicted by the Bayeux Tapestry

The battle opened with the Norman archers shooting uphill at the English shield wall, to little effect. The infantry was unable to force openings in the shield wall, and the cavalry also failed to make headway. A general retreat began, blamed on the Breton division on William's left.

The English forces began to pursue the fleeing invaders, but William then led a counter-attack against the pursuing English forces.

It is not known whether the English pursuit was ordered by Harold or if it was spontaneous. The Bayeux Tapestry depicts the death of Harold's brothers Gyrth and Leofwine; this may mean that the two brothers led the pursuit. Historians say that if Gyrth and Leofwine died early in the battle, it may have influenced Harold to stand and fight to the end.

A lull probably occurred early in the afternoon, and a break for rest and food would probably have been needed. William may have also needed time to implement a new strategy, which may have been inspired by the English pursuit and subsequent rout by the Normans.

If the Normans could send their cavalry against the shield wall and then draw the English into more pursuits, breaks in the English line might form. Feigned flight was a tactic used by other Norman armies during the period. Some historians have argued that the story of the use of feigned flight as a deliberate tactic was invented after the battle; however most historians agree that it was used by the Normans at Hastings.

Although the feigned flights did not break the lines, they probably thinned out the English shield wall. Archers appear to have been used again before and during an assault by the cavalry and infantry led by the duke.

Although 12th-century sources state that the archers were ordered to shoot at a high angle to shoot over the front of the shield wall, there is no trace of such an action in the more contemporary accounts and it is not known how many assaults were launched against the English lines. There are claims that Duke William had two or three horses killed under him during the fighting.

Above: One of many more recent depictions of the death of King Harold

Harold appears to have died late in the battle, although accounts in the various sources are contradictory. William of Poitiers only mentions his death, without giving any details on how it occurred. The Bayeux Tapestry is not helpful, as it shows a figure holding an arrow sticking out of his eye next to a falling fighter being hit with a sword.

Over both figures is a statement "Here King Harold has been killed" although it is not clear which figure is meant to be Harold, or if both are meant. The earliest written mention of the traditional account of Harold dying from an arrow to the eye dates to the 1080s from a history of the Normans written by an Italian monk, Amatus of Montecassino.

William of Malmesbury stated that Harold died from an arrow to the eye that went into the brain, and that a knight wounded Harold at the same time. Wace repeats the arrow-to-the-eye account. Some sources state that Duke William himself killed Harold, but this is unlikely, as such a feat would have been recorded elsewhere.

A modern biographer of Harold, Ian Walker, states that Harold probably died from an arrow in the eye, although he also says it is possible that Harold was struck down by a Norman knight while mortally wounded in the eye. 

Harold's death left the English forces leaderless, and they began to collapse. Many of them fled, but the soldiers of the royal household gathered around Harold's body and fought to the end. The Normans began to pursue the fleeing troops, and at that point the battle was effectively over.

Harold's defeat was probably due to several circumstances. One was the need to defend against two almost simultaneous invasions. The fact that Harold had dismissed his forces in southern England on 8 September also contributed to the defeat.

Many historians fault Harold for hurrying south and not gathering more forces before confronting William at Hastings, although it is not clear that the English forces were insufficient to deal with William's forces.

Most of the blame for the defeat probably lies in the events of the battle. William was the more experienced military leader, and in addition the lack of cavalry on the English side allowed Harold fewer tactical options.

Above: the Bayeux Tapestry depicting French cavalry in action

The battle was politically significant, as it led to the oppressive foreign aristocracy characterising Medieval England. The victory of William Normandy marked a turning point for England, as French was adopted as the language of the king’s court, and subsequently merged with the Anglo-Saxon language to give birth to modern English.

Numerous castles were built under the Norman rule, which allowed the Normans to consolidate their power during the process of taking over England, but which now serve as historical and cultural landmarks in modern day UK.

The battle is visually depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry, embroidery that is more than 900 years old. It is considered remarkable as a work of art and important as a source for 11th-century history. The tapestry is a band of linen 231 feet long and 19.5 inches wide, on which are embroidered more than 70 scenes representing the Norman Conquest.

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