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The Battle of Hastings – 14 October 1066

On the 5 January 1066 King Edward the Confessor of England died. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, on his deathbed Edward had named Earl Harold Godwinson of Wessex as his chosen successor. Having received the approval of the Witan, England’s ruling council of nobles and clergy, on the 6 January 1066 Harold Godwinson was crowned King Harold II of England.

King Harold was the head of one of the most powerful families in England, the Godwins.  As Earl of Wessex he had held a position of great influence during Edward’s reign and was described as being second to the king. He was a proven military leader who had fought successfully against the King of Wales Gryffud ap Llewellyn. After becoming king, Harold married Ealdgyth the sister of Earls Edwin of Mercia and Morcar of Northumbria, thereby creating an important alliance with the northern earls.

RIVALS FOR THE THRONE

One rival for the English throne was Duke William of Normandy. He was the illegitimate son of Duke Robert I of Normandy and a tanner’s daughter Herleva, hence his contemporaries called him William the Bastard. William became Duke of Normandy when he was about 7 or 8 years old, after his father died while on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. The duchy was plunged into near anarchy as the leading nobles fought amongst themselves to gain control over the young duke.  

William spent much of his rule trying to assert his authority, putting down revolts and dealing with threats from neighbouring provinces. By the time of King Edward’s death in January 1066, William had consolidated his power over Normandy and the threat to its borders had diminished giving William the opportunity to invade England.

According to Norman sources the childless King Edward had promised the throne to Duke William. Furthermore in 1064 while in Normandy as a ‘guest’ of the Duke, Earl Harold of Wessex is alleged to have sworn an oath on holy relics that he would uphold William’s claim to the English throne. The Bayeux Tapestry depicts Harold swearing an oath to William although the details of what Harold actually swore are a matter of debate. These accounts were written after the Conquest and sought to justify the invasion of England by portraying Harold as an oath-breaker.

In May 1066 Harold’s exiled brother Tostig had sailed from Flanders and raided along the south and east coasts of England before being defeated by the armies of the northern earls at Lindsey, Lincolnshire. Tostig had retreated north and sought refuge with the Scottish king for the summer before joining forces with the King of Norway Harald Sigurdsson (Harald Hardrada).

King Harold was fully aware of the threat posed by Duke William. Probably believing Tostig’s raids to be the prelude to a Norman invasion, Harold had raised the largest army England had ever seen and mobilised the fleet. Harold assembled his army along the south coast and sailed the fleet to the Isle of Wight ready to defend England from Norman attack. But by the 8 September the expected invasion had not materialised and Harold was forced to disband the fyrd, who were running low on supplies, and send the fleet back to London.

Not long after Harald Hardrada’s invasion force of over 300 ships landed at Riccall on the River Ouse. They defeated the armies of the northern earls at the Battle of Fulford on the 20 September and received the surrender of York. King Harold had quickly headed north with his housecarls and called out the fyrd when he learned of the Norwegian fleet. Taking Hardrada by surprise, King Harold soundly defeated the Norwegians at the Battle of Stamford Bridge on the 25 September.

At the beginning of October while still in York, Harold received the news that the Norman invasion fleet had landed at Pevensey.

NORMAN INVASION

The invasion of England was a risky undertaking and William had to persuade his leading nobles to support his plan. William promised them land in England as a reward for their services. To boost his numbers William also hired mercenaries from outside the duchy, particularly from Flanders, Brittany and France.

An envoy was sent to Rome to gain the support of Pope Alexander II who, according to the Norman chronicler William of Poitiers, gave his blessing to the Norman invasion and sent Duke William a papal banner to carry into battle.

William did not have a fleet to transport his invasion force, so he set about building one. Over seven hundred ships were available by the beginning of August. The fleet assembled at the River Dives but did not sail until early September. Unfavourable winds were blamed but it is also possible that William was waiting in the hope that Harold would disband his forces stationed on the south coast.

When the Norman fleet did sail they were caught in a storm in the Channel and were blown off course to St Valery sur Somme. William tried to conceal the damage the storm had caused by burying in secret the bodies of those men who had drowned and subsequently washed up onshore. The English fleet sailing back to London had also been caught in a storm and lost ships. There is the possibility that the Norman and English fleets may have crossed paths in the Channel and that some form of sea battle took place. At St Valery, William was again forced to wait for the wind to change direction.

The wind finally did change and William landed at Pevensey at daybreak on the 28 September. With King Harold and his army in the north, the Norman fleet was able to land unopposed. They set about constructing a wooden castle inside the remains of the Roman fort at Pevensey. A couple of days later William moved his base to the port of Hastings, where another wooden castle was built. Strategically Hastings was better placed as it was located on a narrow peninsula that could be defended more easily and, in case of retreat, was near to his ships.

Duke William’s men set about laying waste to the surrounding countryside. Foraging parties were sent out to gather supplies. They attacked the local inhabitants and pillaged and looted anything of value before setting fire to the farms and villages. The effects of the Norman army’s trail of destruction were still in evidence twenty years later, recorded in the Domesday Book.

HAROLD’S MARCH SOUTH

On receiving word of Duke William’s landing at Pevensey, King Harold and his housecarls left York and set out for London. Harold called out the fyrd from the shires as he travelled south. Men from East Anglia, Berkshire and Hampshire are recorded in the Domesday Book as having died at Hastings. Harold was also joined by his brothers Earl Gyrth and Earl Leofwine who would have brought their own housecarls with them. Harold was able to assemble yet another large army, evidence of the efficiency of the English military system of this time and perhaps also indicating popular approval for Harold as England’s king.

Harold remained in London for one or two days while he waited for reinforcements to arrive and probably left for Sussex on the 11 October. Harold had also ordered the English fleet into the Channel to cut off William’s retreat. The northern earls, Edwin and Morcar would not reach London until soon after the Battle of Hastings. Their departure was most likely delayed as they would have been forced to call out more men to replace those lost fighting the Norwegians at the Battle of Fulford.

Norman sources suggest that Harold left in haste to surprise William, as he had the Norwegians at Stamford Bridge. However these same sources also state that Harold sent messengers to William before the battle. King Harold was an experienced military commander and he had witnessed Norman battle tactics first hand while on campaign with Duke William in Brittany in 1064. Harold’s swift response may have been to prevent William from exploiting the mobility of the Norman cavalry and stop him from advancing further inland. Blocked in at Hastings the Norman army would soon run out of supplies, while Harold could wait for the reinforcements he knew were coming.

The meeting place for Harold’s army was at the hoary apple tree, which is thought to have been on the summit of Caldbec Hill and marked the place where the boundaries of three hundreds met. King Harold reached Caldbec Hill on the evening of the 13 October. The Duke’s scouts reported their arrival and William ordered his men to stand armed and ready in case Harold attacked during the night.

THE BATTLE OF HASTINGS- Saturday 14 October 1066

The Battle of Hastings is believed to have been fought on the site of Battle Abbey. According to the Chronicle of Battle Abbey, William ordered it to be built on the site of his victory and the high altar placed where Harold fell. Orderic Vitalis names the place where the English army gathered as Senlac, which translates as ‘sandy stream’. Different interpretations of the sources and the lack of archaeological finds from the Battle Abbey site have led some historians to suggest alternative locations for the battle.

Early on the morning of Saturday 14 October, the English army moved out from Caldbec Hill and assembled half a mile away on the summit of Senlac Ridge. Here they formed a shield wall around King Harold’s battle standards of his own personal banner of the Fighting Man and possibly the Wessex Wyvern (dragon).

King Harold owned estates nearby and the site was most likely chosen deliberately. The English army held a strong defensive position and blocked the road to London. There was a steep slope up to the summit of the hill where the shield wall stood and the valley below was rough, uncultivated marshland. The Norman army could not outflank the English and William’s cavalry would be forced to charge uphill over rough ground.

Duke William and his men had moved out from Hastings early on the morning of the 14 October and formed up near the base of Telham Hill, about half a mile south of Harold’s position. Both sides were evenly matched with maybe about 7000 men each, although estimates vary widely. They did differ in their composition. The English army fought on foot and was mainly infantry with a few archers. The Norman army in contrast was a mixture of infantry, cavalry and archers with some sources also mentioning the presence of crossbowmen.

Duke William placed his archers and light infantry in the front row, with more heavily armoured infantry behind. The mounted cavalry were in the rear, which included William himself who commanded from the centre. The Breton troops were on the left wing, the mercenaries from France and Flanders were on the right wing and the Normans were in the centre.

The fighting started at 9am when Duke William ordered his archers followed by his infantry to attack the English shield wall. The English retaliated by throwing various missiles, such as spears and rocks, at the oncoming Normans. Hand to hand fighting ensued as the lines of infantry met. The chronicler William of Poitiers makes reference to the effectiveness of the English battle-axe which could easily slice through shields and armour. The infantry attack faltered and the shield wall held.  William then ordered his cavalry to charge at the English line.

The ferocity and strength of the English defence caused the Bretons on the left wing to fall back in a panicked retreat. A general rout began to ensue amongst the whole of the Norman army and rumours circulated that Duke William had been killed. Facing disaster, William lifted his helmet and rode amongst his own troops to show that he was still alive. Rallying his men William led a charge against those soldiers on the English right wing that had broken formation to pursue the fleeing Bretons. The English soldiers, fighting on foot, were no match for the Norman cavalry who cut them down.

It is unknown if this was a deliberate counter attack by the English. Harold is alleged to have told his men before the battle not to leave the shield wall. The Bayeux Tapestry depicts the death of Harold’s brothers Gyrth and Leofwine, possibly at this point in the battle, which could suggest that they led this counter attack. However, another source tells that Gyrth and Leofwine’s bodies were found close to Harold’s at the end of the battle.

There was a lull in the fighting early in the afternoon and both sides used the time to re-group before the Norman’s resumed their assaults on the English shield wall.

According to William of Poitiers, Duke William ordered two ‘feigned flights’ to try and break the shield wall. The Norman cavalry would feign a retreat before turning to encircle and kill those English soldiers that had pursued them. There is some debate over whether such a manoeuvre could be carried out in the midst of battle, but whether feigned or genuine by late afternoon the shield wall still held.

There is always an element of luck on the battlefield (Duke William is said to have had three horses killed under him during the course of the battle). Towards the end of the day the English defence suddenly weakened as a rumour spread that King Harold had been killed. He is traditionally held to have been killed by an arrow to the eye, although some accounts have Harold being wounded by an arrow before being struck down by Norman knights. With the death of King Harold the English defence collapsed and the Normans finally broke through the shield wall.

Most of the fyrd turned and ran, pursued by the Normans. Harold’s housecarls are said to have remained, fighting to the death, while some of the English soldiers made a futile last stand at a site known as the ‘Malfosse’ (evil ditch).

The battle had lasted some 8 to 9 hours and King Harold had almost succeeded in holding the field. Although the end result was a resounding Norman victory, the Battle of Hastings was a close run thing. It was the death of King Harold which turned the battle and broke the English defence.