Heritage > 'British Battles'

The Battle of Hastings

14th October 1066

A Norman Knight ready for the battle
The crown of England was in dispute. William of Normandy had claimed the right to the throne after a pledge made by the Saxon King Edward 'the Confessor' while living in exile in Normandy.

Upon Edward's death the Saxons found a new king in Harold. England was a flourishing kingdom and it was William of Normandy's intent to take this as his own.

These were turbulent days when a king may find enemies at every turn and Harold found that it was not only William who was lustful of his crown, to the north King Harald and the Norwegians were invading.

The Norwegians were the primary concern of Harold as they had reached into North Yorkshire. It was just outside the city of York that Harold met with the Viking invaders.

The battle was as harsh as one may expect although the Saxons had caught the Vikings off-guard. Despite some legendary feats, one Viking warrior apparently accounting for some 40 Saxons before being overwhelmed, Harold's army won the day. Imagine Harold's horror as he heard of William's landing many miles to the south. His weary army were to fight another mighty battle within just days of the Battle of Stamford Bridge.

William had left St Valery on 28th September with a relatively small force of some 10,000 men. These were largely Norman but Bretons and Flemings also made up the force. The reason for William's relatively small force is unclear though it is thought that he had hoped for public support upon reaching England and perhaps, and more likely, that he knew of Harald of Norway's invasion in the north.

If William had marched on as soon as he had landed in Sussex it is probable that the majority of the south eastern part of England would have been in Norman hands before he met with Harold on the battlefield. William did not march on though and stood on the defensive for two weeks. Enough time for Harold to march his Saxon army south to meet him at Hastings.

A Saxon Warrior
Harold had called for his shire levies (bodies of men we would know better today as militiamen) to meet with his army at London. This they did and the refreshed force marched towards the Norman army in Sussex.

It is said that the Saxon English were unready when the Norman attack came. Harold may well have pressed the march too ardently for the whole army to arrive at the same time. William merely responded to Harold's rush onto the offensive and many conclude that this was down to Harold's impetuous nature more than to any great masterplan.

Senlac Hill proved to be the Saxon command post as the battle began in earnest on 14th October.

The terrain was perfect for defence against cavalry, which the Normans had but the Saxons had not. The Saxon Huscarls formed a 'shield-wall' along the frontage of the Saxon army with their preferred weapon, the battle-axe, at the ready.

The battle opened at around 9.30 in the morning. The Norman archers and cross-bowmen advanced to a range where their arrows would fly into the Saxon ranks. The Saxons had few archers and this was ultimately in their favour against the Norman archers. Arrows fired from opposing forces were often a 'fresh' source of ammunition for the receiving army thus the Normans found their supply of arrows diminishing.

The Saxon shield-wall was left intact and the terrain favoured the defenders.

The quality of the Bretons is questioned as they were quick to turn and flee following a severe mauling at the hands of the Huscarls. Harold had ordered his men to stand their ground and not to follow any fleeing enemies as their nature may demand. This disciplined approach was maintained by many excepting the majority of the shire levies. These 'part-time' troops could not resist the temptation to pursue their beaten enemies. It was their downfall as the Norman horsemen smashed into them from the flanks.

Part of William's army
This opening gambit by both sides preceded a pause which lasted about an hour.

Both leaders wished to see the effect the skirmishes had had upon both their own men and their opponents.

The Normans then attacked the Saxon line again. The lesson of the morning had not been learned by all the defenders and as the heavily battered Normans retreated they were pursued by the impetuous Saxons.

It was a virtual replay of the morning's skirmishes with William now making more capital from the Saxons error. He had used his three arms, cavalry, infantry and archers independently and now decided to use them in close co-operation with each other.

The archers used volley fire into the air with their arrows landing indiscriminately into the Saxon army. This tactic led to both fear and confusion in the defending army. The shield-wall had been eroded with each and every skirmish and arrow-fall and it was through the gaps that had been left that the Norman foot soldiers made incursions behind the original defensive lines. Most troubling for Harold was the fact that he was now virtually caught in a pincer movement, with both his left and right flanks infiltrated by the Norman soldiers.

The Saxon army now looked to be overrun. It was at this point that one of the indiscriminate arrows hit Harold in the eye. It is said that Harold pulled the arrow from his eye and remained standing. Weakened by the injury his army was now in further disarray as rumours spread that he had been killed.

The last stand of Harold is said to have been one of an increasingly small number of Saxon warriors, mostly Huscarls, fighting to the death around their battered and bloodied king. Harold is said to have died after being hacked at with a Norman axe and stabbed by swords. Many Huscarls were fortunate enough to fight their way until darkness could cover their retreat from the field but with their king dead the battle had been lost.

William the Conqueror
Whatever the legitimacy of William's claim to the throne the battle of Hastings holds an undeniable place in English history. The reign of the Saxon kings had come to a bloody end and the reign of those from Norman lineage had begun.

The year 1066 marks a watershed in the history of England, thus Britain and ergo the world, as it was the last time that the nation ever suffered an invasion by a foreign power.

The Normans went on to rule England, with a variance of success, for some decades and left their permanent mark on the landscape and richness of the English nation.

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