The Reason and People Behind the Battle
In 1051, it is believed that Edward the Confessor, the childless English king, met with his cousin, William, the duke of Normandy, and Harold Godwinson. William claimed that Edward promised to make him his heir and that Harold swore a sacred oath to relinquish the crown to William when Edward died. William carried into battle the holy relics that he claimed Harold had sworn on to cede throne. However, on Edward’s deathbed he made Harold Godwinson his heir and passed him the throne when he died.
Where the Battle of Hastings Took Place
Despite its name, the Battle of Hastings happened on the Sussex coast of England, about 7 miles northwest of Hastings in East Sussex.
The Armament of Both Armies
The trained Saxon soldiers preferred the battle axe. The Saxons had a considerable stockpile of weapons and armour with them at the Battle of Hastings from their battle at Stamford Bridge. After Harold beat his brother Tostig, the Saxon’s were able to loot the battlefield. King Harold II gave the order to collect everything from the battlefield, even though he was not yet aware of William’s proximity at the time.
Both armies would have been wearing similar armour. The hauberk was developed to resist a sword striking the body. It was a leather (sometimes cloth) undershirt with metal rings attached that stretched to beneath the waist or knees. The legs would be protected by leather pants or wrapped in leather to the knees. Shoes were made from leather as well. The head was protected with a metal helmet with a nose guard.
This armour was expensive and often only the wealthiest soldiers and nobility could afford it and the peasants wore regular clothes or leather tunics. However, from the bounty they looted after the Stamford Bridge fight, the entire Saxon army may have been much better armed and protected. For the Norman army, only the knights and noblemen would have been able to afford most of the armour.
Shields were often made circular at the time, but the Saxons preferred kite-shaped shields. These helped create a better shield wall, while also better protecting the shield bearer’s legs. The shield bearers would often carry a battle axe. The rear ranks would often have spears that could reach past the shields or whatever weapon they could find or afford.
Archers were only used by William’s army and they would have worn no armour since they were never expected to see up-close combat and the armour would have prevented the movement necessary to shoot. The archers used a short bow for this battle. The Norman soldiers mostly used swords. The mounted soldiers were often titled or knighted. This meant they could afford better armour and weapons. Their hauberk was split in the middle from the waist down for mounting the horses. The horses were not large and would not have worn armour.
The Strategies and Formations of Both Armies
It is estimated that both armies numbered around 5,000 to 7,500 thousand soldiers each.
The Saxon army was comprised of “fyrds,” men levied by King Harold. Each fyrd was led by the local leaders of their shire. The fyrd was mostly composed of untrained peasants grouped with warriors. They fought in a wedge shape, with the best armed and trained soldiers creating the point. The remaining men formed the rear of the wedge. The front soldiers would be armed with shields and created the shield wall with a row behind them holding shields to take the place of any fallen front soldiers. The army fought on foot, and nobles and mounted soldiers dismounted for battle. Harold was surrounded by his housecarls, soldiers trained to their peak and serving as his bodyguards.
William’s army was composed of Norman, Flemish and Breton soldiers. William’s soldiers, called the Norman army, was composed of multiple, diverse units. This was a new battle technique developing across the mainland of Europe. The army was a mix of archers, foot soldiers and cavalry. The mounted knights played an important role in William’s army, both in strategy and strength. Archers made up a small portion of the army while the foot soldiers would have made up the majority of the soldier count.
The Normans were in the middle of the army formation with the Bretons on the left and the Flemish on the right. The archers made up the first few rows with rows of foot soldiers behind them and the cavalry at the rear. The archers would have stayed behind during the charge and the foot soldiers would have opened a space for the cavalry to ride through, strike the enemy and then retreat behind the foot soldiers to regroup and charge again.
The Days and Weeks Leading up to the Battle
In September 1066, King Harold II’s exiled brother, Tostig, landed in the north of England with his new ally, Harald Hardrada of Norway, and a Norwegian army. Tostig and Hardrada ravaged the countryside and conquered York. They defeated two earls at Fulford but were defeated soundly by Harold at the Battle of Stamford Bridge. Tostig and Hardrada were both killed in battle. The defeat of his earls deprived Harold of two valuable allies for his upcoming battle with William since they declined to fight this battle as well. As soon as the fight was won, Harold turn his soldiers around and marched 250 miles to Senlac Ridge. Harold also recruited more soldiers on his march.
On September 28, 1066, William landed at Pevensy, Britain’s southeast coast with an approximated 7,000 Norman troops and cavalry seized Pevensy. He built fortifications and then moved east. The countryside that William landed in was known to be part of Harold’s personal earldom and William’s soldiers ravaged the countryside. William then began his march on Hastings where Harold’s army was establishing a position, pausing near East Sussex to organize his forces.
The Battle of Hastings
After a night of regrouping, the battle began early in the morning by William’s minstrel named Ivo Taillefer. He charged the Saxon lines on his horse while juggling his sword and singing “The Song of Roland.” He is credited with spilling the first Saxon blood by either killing a soldier that broke rank or by charging the enemy shield wall and killing several Saxons before being overwhelmed and killed himself. William’s archers opened fire on the Saxons but had to husband their arrows since the Saxon army was not returning fire.
Since the archers were shooting uphill at heavily shielded soldiers, the Saxon line was mostly untouched by the arrows. The Saxons retaliated with throwing rocks and using slingshots. Because they were uphill from their enemies, these missiles were very effective against the Norman army. William had his army charge. Despite their exhaustion from the forced march after their earlier battle, the Saxons created a solid traditional shield wall that the Norman infantry and cavalry could not distrupt. The fight carried through the morning with neither army making a headway, though both armies took considerable casualties. In the afternoon, due to heavy casualties and a rumor that William was dead, the Bretons retreated.
Despite Harold’s repeated warnings to never break rank for anything, the fyrd the Bretons had been fighting broke rank and chased them down the hill. When the vulnerable Saxon troops were spotted, the rest of the Norman army attacked them. The Saxons closed their lines quickly to fill the gap but the damage was done. William used this tactic to his advantage again and this started to break up the Saxon shield wall.
Due to the rumors, William fought through the rest of the battle without a helmet to assure his troops that he was alive. As the fight wore on to late afternoon, the Saxon lines were wavering under the continued assaults by the Norman troops. The Saxon downfall came in the form of one of the most famous arrows in English history. It was released by an unknown Norman archer and hit Harold in the eye. To the superstitious it was a sign. Death by an arrow through the eye was the fate of a perjurer, which William’s reason for this battle.
The Normans gave a final push and overwhelmed the area were Harold stood. In the onslaught, Harold and his two brothers, Earl Gurth and Earl Leofwin, were killed along with the remaining housecarls. The Saxons gave ground at Senlac Ridge slowly, but eventually the leaderless army turned and fled the field. The top of Senlac Ridge was cleared and a tent erected for William’s celebration dinner.
It is believed an estimated 10,000 men died in this brief fight. The Normans received heavy casualties, but for the Saxons it was a devastating defeat.
Following the Battle
William marched across the Thames in Oxfordshire and then circled north to London. His army ravaged the countryside on his way. London submitted to William on his arrival. He was crowned on December 25, 1066, as the first Norman king of England in Westminster Abbey by Archbishop Aldred of York. William built the Tower of London to begin his rule and the subjugation of England. He installed his French court, which led to many changes in England.
There are many theories regarding what happened to Harold’s body and it remains in an unknown location to this day. Harold’s mother offered to pay William Harold’s body weight in gold in return for her son’s body but William refused. William had Harold’s body thrown into a pit. Later sources claim Harold’s body was mutilated, later it was identified by his mistress, or his queen, and then buried at Waltham Abbey in Essex. Harold may have also survived the battle and lived out his days in hiding, only confessing his true identity on his death bed.
The Bayeux Tapestry
The Bayeux Tapestry is a medieval embroidery depicting the Battle of Hastings. It Is a remarkable piece of art created on a band of linen 70 meters long and 49.5 cm wide. Age has slightly browned the linen. Eight colours of worsteds were used to create more than 70 scenes of the Norman conquest. It is uncertain where the tapestry originated from. William’s wife Matilda may have created the tapestry or it was created at the direction of Odo the Bishop of Bayeux by an English seamstress.
The tapestry illustrates the various stages leading up to and the Battle of Hastings. It has provided details that were not in written accounts, though some aspects have been proven to be inaccurate. For example, the tapestry depicts archers in full armour, which would not have been possible for numerous reasons.
The top and bottom of the tapestry have a decorative border with scenes from the fables of Aesop and Phaedrus, along with figures of animals and scenes from the main narrative. The story may have gone farther than the flight of the Saxons from the battlefield, but the end of the tapestry has perished. The tapestry was in the custody of the Bayeux cathedral, then exhibited in Paris for Napoleon in 1803-04, and then brought back to the cathedral.
The Results of the Battle
King Harold II was the last Anglo-Saxon king and their history in England came to an end with his death. King William’s court spoke French, which gradually blended with the Anglo-Saxon language to create modern-day English. The influx of French nobility to England also had an impact on England’s culture and politics. Many of the French nobility continued to look towards the mainland for culture and fashion, which filtered down to the peasants.
One of William’s notable achievements was the “Domesday Book.” It was a complete census of the lands and people of England. William also changed the laws and organization of land ownership, tax laws and property rights.
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Link will appear as Hanson, Marilee. "Battle of Hastings 1066" https://englishhistory.net/middle-ages/battle-hastings-1066/, February 16, 2017