The Battle of Hastings


Geoff Boxell

Following his overwhelming victory on 25 September 1066 over Harald Haradrada at Stamford Bridge, King Harold assembled his battered army in and around York. Whilst celebrating the victory feast the news arrived that William the Bastard, Duke of Normandy, had landed near Pevensey in Sussex.

Harold departed York early on 1 October 1066. Leaving behind those unfit to travel and the northern earls to gather reinforcements, he rode back to London as quickly as possible and arrived in London on 05 October. He left the northern earls to call in fresh troops with the help of a newly appointed royal staller, Marlswein. In London King Harold and his brothers Gryth, Earl of East Anglia, who had been with him at Stamford Bridge, and Leofwine, Earl of East Mercia, who had been overseeing the south of the country in the king's absence, began to make plans for their campaign against the Normans.

To London were summoned those elements of the East Anglian and Mercian Fyrds not taken north to Stamford Bridge. Refreshed and reinforced Harold, Gyrth and Leofwine took their Huscarls and those Fyrdmen they had with them through the Sussex Weald to the Hoar Apple Tree on the Sussex downs. There they waited, blocking the road to London, the principle port of the land, and Winchester, where the royal treasury was kept. Harold needed to contain the Normans, to prevent their horsemen gathering supplies, to stop them moving inland to build castles from which they could raid. All the while men from the Wessex Fyrd flocked to join him.

Meanwhile Harold called the fleet out. The southern ships were to be joined by a number of the captured Viking fleet and Earl Morcar Northumberland. Together they would be used to blockade the Norman fleet in Hastings' harbour.

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With the English army blocking them in and effectively stopping their foraging raids the Normans sat with their backs to the sea. Harold sent a messenger to William offering him the choice of either sailing away unmolested, or being destroyed. With an army of mercenaries for whom he had no money, only promises of future plunder, William rejected the offer. He had no option but to fight, and he needed to do so before Harold had gathered enough men to put the stop in the bottle.

On 13 October William heard that the English army was at the Hoar Apple Tree on Caldbec Hill and stood his men to arms in case of a night attack. At first light he moved his already armed army forward whilst the English slept, tired from their journeys to the assembly point. Watchers soon alerted King Harold of the Normans' move and he advanced his men to Senlac Ridge, about 800 metres south. Senlac Ridge is approximately 1,000 metres long and flanked on both sides by woods and marshes. William's only exit from the peninsula to the mainland was now blocked. Here, on the best possible defensive ground in the area, the English gathered around the dragon banner of Wessex and Harold's personal banner, 'The Fighting Man', woven for him by Edith Swan neck. The mail coated Huscarls and Thegns formed the shield wall with the more lightly armed Fyrdmen behind. The strength of the army is estimated to be between 7,000 and 8,500. Facing them, downhill, was William's mixed force of infantry and cavalry of about the same strength.

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The armies were drawn up by 09:00 and the battle proper began about 10:00, after William's archer's had advanced to within 100 yards of the English. Having laid down covering fire, the archers then retired as the infantry moved forward to assault the shield-wall in hand-to-hand combat. As they got within range of the English, a rain of thrown spears, arrows, maces, sling shot and arrows struck them. Those who made it to the shield-wall found the Huscarls and Fyrdmen to be more than a match and quickly retreated.

The cavalry replaced them. The slope of Senlac is too steep, even now after years of landscaping by the monks of Battle Abbey and weathering to allow a charge. Rather the mounted men used the extra height gained by being on horseback to stab over the shield wall with their spears. They were no match for the English, especially those wielding long axes, a weapon that could cut down both horse and rider with one blow.

This first attack almost ended in disaster for William. The unexpectedly high rate of casualties, coupled with the ensuing confusion and noise came close to causing a general panic throughout his army. The left-hand division, which comprised of Bretons, was overwhelmed. The defeated infantry's palace was taken cavalry, which was also quickly beaten off and galloped back to their starting position to regroup. This was taken as a retreat and the confusion soon deteriorated into panic. The Breton division disintegrated into complete disorder and crashed into the men of the Norman centre.

No one is sure if what happened next was planned or not, but many English, possibly led by Earls Gryth and Leofwine, followed the fleeing Bretons, slaughtering as they went. The Norman flank was beginning to fold. Before the advantage could be exploited however, William rallied the cavalry and charged those of the English who had left the safety of the shield wall. The English counter attack faltered and then failed as the horsemen cut them to pieces.

There was now a pause in the battle.

During this lull in the battle, William set his attention to regrouping the Breton division. William admonished their commander to ensure that, during the next attack, his division should stay on line with the central division during the advance; not to get ahead of it or behind it. This cohesion between the two divisions would serve to protect the Breton division.

King Harold used the lull to shorten the shield wall and bring into it some of the men who were still arriving.

Duke William commenced his second attack shortly before noon. It was a repeat of the first attack; first archers firing their arrows straight at the shield-wall, followed by the infantrymen slogging up the hill to fight hand-to-hand with the English, then the cavalry in an attempt to break through the shield-wall with their sheer weight and superior stance. This time, however, the Breton division did not break, but nor did the shield wall!

William maintained this rhythm through the early afternoon. The repeated attacks were causing him a great number of casualties but the English were also taking losses, especially amongst the Huscarls, whose ranks had already been thinned at Stamford Bridge.

It was during one of these attacks that William was unhorsed when a Huscarl axed his mount. The rumour that he had been killed spread along the ranks and the Normans started to waiver. To counter this William took of his helmet and hauberk and rode along the lines to shew that he still lived.

As the day progressed, all of the combatants were becoming exhausted. With dusk due around 18:00, Harold knew that all he and the English had to do was hang on. The Normans were reaching the point where they were exhausted and had still to penetrate the shield wall.

William made a last throw of the dice. Whilst his archers fired on a high trajectory so that their arrows would arc over the shield-wall and plunge into the ranks behind them, he mounted a final assault.

At about 17:00 the English faltered. A chance arrow had struck King Harold in the eye and laid him low. The English reeled as the news spread. The Norman horsemen pressed the attack, striking the line where Harold's banners flew. The shield wall collapsed and there they stuck down and killed Harold Godwinson, the last King of the English.

One of the Normans, Ivo of Ponthieu, went so far as to mutilate King Harold's body by hacking off his limbs. As a reward, William sent him back to Ponthieu in disgrace.

Although Harold was dead, many of his men continued to fight. The Huscarls and royal thegns died to a man to protect the body of their lord. The Fyrdmen, on the other hand, took to flight. The Normans started in pursuit down the northern slope of Caldbec Hill. There the fleeing English and possibly newly arriving troops, lured the Norman horsemen into a deep fosse. The trapped Normans tried to manoeuvre their panicking horses out of the closed valley whilst the English tormented them with a hail of missiles before descending to the floor of the fosse and finishing them off. There they slew as many of the invaders as has fallen in the main battle. William called off the pursuit, and returned to the ridge, where he remained for the night.

Duke William sent his trusted companion, and friend of Harold to find the dead king's body. In his search he was aided by Harold's hand fast wife, who recognised the mutilated body by marks, possibly tattoos which many of the English at the time bore. William had it buried under a cairn on the cliffs overlooking the sea. Later tradition tells us it was taken and interred before the high altar of Harold's foundation of Watham Holy Cross.

The Norman writer, William of Poitiers, says that that the English army that day consisted of '…a vast force of English who had come in from all regions. Some were drawn by their love of Harold, all by their love of their country, which they, albeit misguidedly, wished to defend against the aliens'. Indeed, during all the fighting that year the English had shewn themselves united in their desire to protect their homeland from the invaders.

At the battle of Fulford, elements of the Northumberland Fyrd, lead by Morcar Earl of Northumberland, had been joined by parts of the Mercian Fyrd lead by Morcar's brother, Edwin Earl of Mercia. Also there were some of the Northampton Fyrd headed by Earl Waltheof of Northampton. Waltheof as the son of Siward, the Danish Earl of Northumberland under Knute and Edward the Confessor, and Ælfed who was descended from earlier Earls and kings of Northumberland and could well have claimed a greater right to the earldom. Instead, he joined the army fighting Harald Hardrada.

The remains of the army that was defeated by Hardrada at Fulford joined King Harold and his brother, Earl Gryth of East Anglia. They had brought with them their own Huscarls and parts of the Mercian and East Anglian Fyrd to fight and beat the Vikings at Stamford Bridge.

At Hastings were men of the Wessex, East Anglian and Mercian Fyrd. One source says that Earl Waltheof and men of Northampton arrived too late to take part, but fought in the fight at the fosse. Earls Edwin and Morcar had been gathering the men of Northumberland to join Harold, though they arrived in London only after the defeat on Senlac Ridge.

William the Bastard became king of England, but he spent the rest of his reign trying to hang onto it. The English only accepted the twisted tangled web of Wyrd that God had cast over them when William's English born son, Henry, married Edith of Scotland. For in that lady the ancient blood of the royal house of Wessex flowed. Only then were the descendants of William the Conqueror truly heirs to the throne which William had stolen.

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