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On 14 October 1066, arguably the most famous battle in English history was waged - the Battle of Hastings. The great armies of King Harold II of England and Duke William of Normandy clashed as they fought for the throne of England. When the battle was over, a new era of English and European history had been ushered in.
When the childless English King Edward the Confessor passed away in January 1066, a struggle for the throne was ignited. On his deathbed, Edward handed the kingdom over to the Earl of Wessex, Harold Godwinson, who was the most powerful English nobleman at the time. With the backing of the aristocratic elite, Harold was quickly crowned king but it wasn’t long before others laid down their claims to the throne.
First was Harold’s own exiled brother Tostig who began raids on the south and east coasts of England in the spring in 1066. Harold repelled these but a short while later another threat emerged. The last great Viking king, Harald Hardrada of Norway, threw his hat into the ring and joined forces with Tostig. They invaded northern England in September 1066 and Harold marched north to face the incursion. On 25 September 1066, Harold defeated the invading army at the Battle of Stamford Bridge. Both Harald and Tostig were killed during the fight.
Just three days later another invading force landed at Pevensey in Sussex. Some 700 Norman ships had arrived on English soil and the disembarked troops quickly set about devastating the local area, before advancing on Hastings and erecting a wooden castle there. Edward the Confessor’s distant cousin, Duke William of Normandy, was leading the invasion as he vied for the English throne.
William was a direct descendant of the legendary Viking known as Rollo. During the previous century, Rollo and his invading Norsemen had managed to stake a claim to territory in Northern France. The area would become known as Normandy and Rollo would be its first ruler. The Norsemen became known as Normans.
In 1051, William travelled to England and according to Norman historians, had been promised the throne by Edward. The Bayeux Tapestry, a 70 metre long embroidered cloth depicting the Norman conquest of England, even depicts Harold swearing to uphold William’s claim to the throne before Edward had died.
Therefore, believing the throne to be rightfully his, William had spent the summer of 1066 amassing a large invasion force, said to be around 5,000 – 7,000 strong, a significant number for the armies of the day.
When Harold got wind of William’s arrival he immediately turned south, marching his battle-weary army towards another claimant to the throne, gathering reinforcements as he went.
As the sun rose on 14 October 1066, Harold's forces took up defensive positions on top of Senlac Hill (modern-day Battle in East Sussex, approximately seven miles northwest of Hastings). Historians debate over the exact size of Harold’s army but it was likely to be somewhere in the region of 7,000.
The English created a shield wall with soldiers tightly packed together on the ridge top. The line was protected on either side by woods with marshy ground in front of them. Harold’s ace in the hole was his ‘housecarls’, a group of highly trained fighters who wielded fearsome battle-axes to devastating effect. They were perhaps the finest soldiers in all of Europe at the time.
The Normans arranged on the opposing hillside and were likely separated into three groups – the Normans in the centre, the French on the right and the Bretons on the left. The three groups were then separated into three ranks with the archers at the front, infantry armed with spears in the middle and lance-wielding cavalry at the rear. The latter were William’s secret weapon, for the English always fought on foot and had never encountered armoured soldiers (knights) on horseback before.
‘It was a strange kind of battle,’
Harold’s tactics were defensive; he hoped to wear the Normans down after repeated assaults on his shield wall before counter-attacking to finish them off. By contrast, William wanted to break up the English lines with bow attacks, before sending in infantry and cavalry to rout the defenders.
The battle began early in the morning with the sound of trumpets echoing throughout the valley below. The Norman archers advanced and began firing uphill at the defending English. Due to the incline, many of their arrows either hit English shields or flew over the top of them. William ordered the infantry to advance next, with the cavalry right behind them but both failed to penetrate the English lines.
‘It was a strange kind of battle,’ wrote Norman soldier William of Poitiers, ‘one side attacking with all mobility, the other withstanding, as though rooted to the soil.’
The Normans began to fall back to regroup. At that moment a rumour swept through their ranks – William had been killed. In the confusion, their retreat turned into panic. Sensing the moment to strike had come, some of the English broke rank and pursued their fleeing enemies.
To prevent an all-out routing of his forces, William rode through his ranks, raising his helmet and shouting that he still lived. The Duke then led a successful counter-attack on the pursing English and overwhelmed them on a hillock; order had been restored to the Norman ranks.
The annihilation of the pursing English on the hillock may well have inspired a change in tactics by William. As the day went on, the Normans continued their attacks on the English shield wall but twice they feigned retreat in the hope of luring the English to once again break ranks and pursue.
Although the English lines would hold, the feigned retreats managed to pick off some of the defenders. The constant barrage of assaults on the English shield wall began to gradually wear down Harold’s forces. At some point during the battle, both of Harold’s brothers were killed, William was also said to have had up to three horses killed from beneath him.
With daylight beginning to fade, the battle entered its final phase. The Normans attempted one final push and it was during that assault that Harold met his end. Legend has it an arrow struck his right eye, an event possibly depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry. Other historical accounts suggest Norman knights killed him; the truth of Harold’s death remains up for debate.
The leaderless English continued to fight on but it was clear the tide had turned in favour of the Normans. It wasn’t long before the defenders turned in full retreat with the invaders in relentless pursuit. The Norman use of mixed cavalry and infantry tactics had proved the deciding factor, enabling them to proclaim a victory for the ages.
After the daylong battle, William advanced on London and picked off any remaining resistance to his invasion. On Christmas Day 1066, in Westminster Abbey, William was crowned King of England. Over 600 years of Anglo-Saxon rule had come to an end. The Norman era had begun which brought about huge cultural, social and political changes for the country.
Five years after the battle, William founded Battle Abbey on the site of the Battle of Hastings, most likely on the request of the Pope to atone for his Conquest. The Abbey’s high altar was reputedly placed on the spot where Harold fell. Parts of the Abbey still stand to this day.