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The Battle of Hastings
October 14, 1066
by Steve Beck
Prelude to Battle
January 5th, 1066 saw the death of Edward the Confessor, setting in motion the
chain of events that was to culminate in the Battle of Hastings on 14th October
1066. As Edward had left no heir, Harold Godwine, the Earl of Wessex, was
chosen by the Witan to be his successor. Harold, the first English monarch to
be crowned in Westminster Cathedral, was also to become the only English
monarch to die defending his country.
While lawfully elected and enjoying the popular support of his subjects,
Harold's position was far from secure. His two main rivals for the English
crown were Harald Hardraade of Norway and Duke William of Normandy. His
immediate concern, therefore, was to strengthen his defenses. Having inherited
a navy from Edward, he stationed his ships to patrol the approaches to
Southampton and Winchester in order to block any crossing by William. The Fyrd,
part time soldiers who served for two months each year, were also mobilized to
protect southeast England. The defense of the north, the direction from which
Harald Hardraade could be expected to attack, was left to Edwin and Morcar, the
earls of Mercia and Northumbria.
William in particular was outraged by Harold's coronation, having been promised
the crown by Edward the Confessor in 1051. By dying without an heir, however,
Edward in reality had no legal right to make such a promise. The issue of
succession was a matter to be decided by the Witan. They based their decision
on ensuring continuity of rule and Edward's dying wish that Harold succeed him.
William's second grievance, and one which aggravated him the, was the fact that
Harold had broken an oath of allegiance made to him in 1064. Having been
captured by the Count of Punthieu when traveling to Normandy, he was handed
over to William on payment of a ransom. In order to gain his freedom, Harold
was forced to make the oath on the bones of the British saints Ravennus and
Rasyphus. Harold knowing that this oath was invalid, having been made under
duress, never let it bother him and never sought a papal dispensation for it.
William, however, cleverly used it to gain support and a papal blessing for his
right to the English crown.
By offering the promise of lands in the event of a successful invasion, William
purchased support for his planned invasion. Ordering 752 ships be built to
transport his army, around 500 were estimated to have been delivered.. All
was ready by 12th August when his fleet assembled at the mouth of the Dives but
was delayed by unfavorable weather. On the 12th September, possibly running
short of food, the fleet moved north to St-Valery at the mouth of the Somme,
closer to the English coast. The fleet was lashed by storms and some ships were
lost. With Harold's navy patrolling to block an invasion, the actual crossing
would be a risky undertaking.
A storm had, however, forced Harold's ships to return to port for repairs,
leaving the channel open. Believing that there would be no invasion that year,
Harold disbanded the Fyrd on 6 September in time for the harvest.
The Battle of Stamford Bridge
The exact date that Harald Hardraade landed is unknown but Harold had learned
of it by 15th September. On the 20th, while marching on York, the Viking army
was met by Edwin and Morcar at Fulford who were only defeated after a hard
fight which left many dead on both sides. The city of York, now defenseless,
surrendered without resistance. Harold quickly assembled his army and left
London between 18-20th, marching 180 miles in only five days!
On 25th, Harold marched through York to the Viking camp at Stamford Bridge,
eight miles to the east. Achieving complete surprise, the first indication the
Vikings had that the Saxon army was in the area was when they appeared on the
crest of the hill above their camp at around midday.
At the time, up to one third of the Viking army was at Riccall, returning
wounded and plunder to their ships. The initial Saxon attack was beaten off but
Harald Hardraade was killed. Rallying, the Vikings fought bravely until the
rest of their army returned from Riccall. Late in the afternoon, the Saxons
finally overcame the Vikings. The Vikings sustained in the region of 5000
casualties and the Saxons around 2000. Showing great magnanimity, Harold
allowed the survivors to return home.
After his lengthy delay, William finally landed at Pevensy on 28th September
with news reaching Harold by 1st October. With Harold elsewhere, William was
free to form a beachhead and set about the usual Norman "terror campaign" aimed
not only at cowering the local population into submission but to provoke Harold
into an early conflict before he was fully ready.
Harold may have been already returning to London when he heard the news and was
back by the 6th after another lightning march. With the Normans devastating the
local countryside, Harold paused only five days to assemble his army before
marching on Hastings. Hoping to surprise William as he had Harald, he quickly
covered the 58 miles to his assembly point at the "hoary apple tree", a
well-known local landmark. Exhausted, his army arrived on the evening of the
13th with troops filtering into camp throughout the night. Surprise, however
was not to be with William's scouts keeping him well informed of Harold's
The Norman Army
The size of William's army has been the subject of much conjecture but has been
most reliably estimated as around 2000 cavalry, 800 archers and 3000 infantry
Norman archers were lightly clothed to allow rapid movement on the battlefield
and easy use of the bow. The standard weapon used was the short bow, about four
feet in length and drawn to the body rather than the ear as with later, more
effective longbows. Against chain mail, its effective range was only about 50
yards. The Normans were also recorded to have used the crossbow, lethal at over
300 yards, but none are depicted in the Beaux Tapestry and it is unclear if any
were used in the battle.
Infantry wore chain mail hauberks, (loose fitting knee length mail shirts split
at the front and rear for ease of movement with elbow length sleeves), leather
hauberks or no amour at all. Not all had access to mail which was expensive and
time consuming to make and hence, was much prized. Helmets were of a conical
design with a nose guard riveted to the front to provide facial protection. The
basic weapon was the spear and sword.
The cavalry were the elite of the Norman army, equipped with mail hauberks.
Like the infantry, their main weapons were the spear (a lighter version), and
the sword for closer fighting. Similar to the Viking sword, it was made for
cutting rather than thrusting. Blunt instruments such as the battle mace were
also used. Infantry and cavalry were both equipped with the kite shaped shield,
measuring about 36 by 15 inches constructed from wood and leather with metal
reinforcements. Its longer length provided much more protection to the
vulnerable leg area than the round shield, particularly for mounted troops. The
horses, however, were not armored. This made them especially vulnerable when
attacking a shield wall, as the Saxons were to employ. The rider was forced to
turn his mount side on to be able to use his sword effectively. As a result,
the flank of the horse was open to attack by his opponent, a role for which the
Saxon axe was well suited. If his horse was cut from under him, a Norman knight
in his heavy hauberk was defenseless until he could regain his footing.
The Saxon Army
The elite of the Saxon army was made up of the housecarls (the king's
bodyguard), formed by King Cnut 50 years earlier. In normal circumstances,
Harold would have had around 3000 to call on but after Stamford Bridge, just
weeks earlier, would be closer to 2000. His brothers Leofwin and Gyrth were
estimated to have command of about 1000 each. This gives Harold around 4000
highly trained and armed troops, possibly the best fighting men in Europe.
While mounted troops, they fought on foot and were slow moving and vulnerable
to missiles on the battlefield.
Their armor was chain mail, similar to that used by the Normans. While
expensive and prized, there was likely to be a substantial supply available
from the plunder of Stamford Bridge so most would have been similarly
protected. The Saxon housecarls, therefore could expect to be better protected
than the Norman infantry. Each would also wear a helmet, possibly similar to
the Norman style with a nose guard. The Beaux tapestry shows a mixture of
shield types, the Norman kite design and the traditional round shield. Captured
round shields of the Norse may well have replaced kite shields broken during
the battle at Stamford Bridge.
The main weapon was the great two handed axe of Viking origin - a sharp curved
blade of one foot diameter on a handle over three feet in length. This weapon
could deliver a devastating blow which no shield or armor of its day could
withstand. As a two handed weapon, the user would have wedged their shield into
the ground before them for protection while wielding their weapon. Many were
also armed with lances and swords similar to the Normans.
The rest of Harold's army was made up of fyrdsmen, part time soldiers who were
called up for two months a year to defend their land. Under the Saxon system,
each five hides of land were to provide a man and 20 shillings for his wages
for defense of the realm.. This compares to the feudal system employed by
the Normans who could call on full time professional soldiers. Theoretically,
up to 15-20,000 of these part time soldiers could be called on but it is
unlikely that anywhere near this were present at the battle. It is estimated
that around 4000 made the field giving Harold an army of around 8000, larger
than Williams but with a lower percentage of full time professionals. These
fyrdsmen were less well armed than the housecarls, few possessed chainmail with
most wearing hardened leather and carrying a range of weapons from spears,
short axes, homemade swords and farm implements. Shields would have been round
shields or whatever could be improvised.
Few archers were available to the Saxons at Hastings. While present as Stamford
Bridge, the lightning rush south meant that few made it to the battle. Even in
the latter Middle Ages when the English archer ruled supreme, they were rarely
wealthy with access to horses. In his haste to meet William in battle, Harold
was forced to leave them behind and didn't delay in London long enough for
others to be raised. As a result, the Normans were strongest where the Saxons
were weakest, in mobile cavalry and archers.
The Battle Formations
Just after daybreak on the 14th, at around 6:00, William's army broke camp and
headed to battle. The Bretons took the lead, followed by the Franco Flemish and
the Normans brought up the rear. The march to Senlac Ridge would have taken
until around 7:30. Just out of sight of the Saxon position, they would have put
on their armor and mounted their horses. William initially put on his armor
back to front, seen as a bad omen, which he laughed off and also hung the bones
of the English saints Harold had sworn on around his neck. When all was ready,
William moved his army onto the field.
Harold positioned his army atop the ridge behind a wall of shields
approximately 700 yards in length.. The heavily armed housecarls were placed
to the front while the less well-armed fyrdsmen were placed to their rear. The
densely packed formation would have been seven or eight ranks deep. Their
position was ideally suited to defense, unable to be outflanked due to the
steep, uneven ground on either side - any assault had to be frontal. To the
front, the ground sloped from 1/35 to the west, 1/15 at the center and about
1/22 to the east. This compared to around 1/4-6 to the flanks. Harold raised
his standards, the Wyvern of Wessex and his personal banner, The Fighting Man
on a slight rise near the center of the line. While there is no evidence of any
barricades being erected before their position, it is likely that a small
nearby stream was blocked to turn the ground at the base of the ridge into a
William formed his army about 150 yards away on slightly lower ground from the
Saxon position, just out of range of the few Saxon archers. The right division
was made up of approximately 1600 French and Flemish troops under the command
of Eustace of Boulogne. They straddled the London-Hastings road facing Harold's
left. William's left, on flat and boggy ground was made up of about 2100
Bretons from Maire and Anjou commanded by Alan Fergent, the Count of Brittany.
The center, twice the size of the flanks, numbering 4300, was made up of the
Normans under the delegated command of William's half brothers Odo and Robert,
Count of Mortain. It was here that William raised his personal standard and the
Each division was divided into three sections of similar composition. The first
rank was of archers, slingers and spearmen, the second of infantry, and the
As they formed, the Flemish and French had to march before the Saxon line and
perform a sharp right turn to take up their position. Luckily for them, Harold
made no attempt to harass them. If he had attacked at this point, he could have
caused havoc but would have taken heavy losses from the Norman cavalry as he
regained his position on the ridge.
Williams plan was for a new type of mobile warfare. His archers were to shower
the Saxon line with arrows before falling back. His dismounted men at arms were
to move forward and clash with the Saxon line before the cavalry followed to
exploit any gaps created by the fighting. This was to be repeated until the
Saxon line broke.
Harold's plan was simpler - to remain in a defensive line which favored his
housecarls and fight a battle of attrition. The longer he held, the more
reinforcements he could expect to filter onto the battlefield. William, on the
other hand, on a foreign shore, could expect none. If the Saxon line held,
victory would be theirs.
At around 9.00, William's three divisions began their slow advance up the ridge
towards the Saxon line. As the thin line of archers came within range, they
loosed their volleys of arrows until their supply was exhausted. This attack
was ineffectual in thinning the Saxon line as hoped as firing uphill, most
arrows were expended on the shield wall or sailed harmlessly overhead. This
attack may have been over quicker than William had intended. There would have
been few arrows to be reused as the Saxons had few archers with which to reply.
Once their quivers were emptied, the Norman archers would have to wait for new
supplies to be brought up from the rear.
As they fell to the rear, the infantry began their struggle up the slope.
Coming within range, they were met by a murderous assault of spears, axes and
stones tied to sticks causing numerous casualties. Due to the shallower slope
they faced, the Bretons arrived at the Saxon line before the other divisions,
unsupported on their flanks and closely followed by an uncoordinated attack by
their cavalry. As they came against the intact shield wall, the Saxons threw
themselves forward and broke the Breton attack, routing them. As they fled, the
Norman center division was attacked on its now open flank forcing a disorderly
A section of the Saxon line pursued the Bretons, probably against Harold's
orders. It is likely that the less disciplined fyrdsmen did so, the Beaux
tapestry showing them as unarmored. It is often said that if Harold had ordered
an all out attack at this stage, he may have routed the Normans from the field
entirely but this is unlikely. His only advantage was in static defense behind
his shield wall. Attacking cavalry was forced to turn the unprotected flanks of
their horses towards the wall in order for the riders to bring their swords to
bear. This in turn opened them up to the Saxon axe men. If the slow moving
infantry were caught on open by cavalry with room to maneuver, particularly on
the marshy ground at the base of the ridge, they would throw away all their
advantages. As it was, William was able to rally his cavalry to counter the
partial Saxon advance. Forced to form a defensive cluster on a small mound at
the base of the ridge, the unarmored fyrdsmen were defenseless and were quickly
dispatched with no survivors.
A small break in the fighting followed as William rallied his army's flagging
morale and the dead and wounded were seen to. The Beaux Tapestry shows hauberks
being removed from the dead for reuse in the next attack.
The Saxons meanwhile, plugged up any gaps in their defenses, moved their dead
and wounded to the rear and piled up any dead horses in front as an added
The second phase of the battle, beginning around 10:30 to 11:00., was slower
and much better coordinated. Again, it began with an ineffectual archery
barrage. Lasting up to two hours, attack after attack was repulsed by the
Saxons with the dead of both sides piling up before them causing a further
obstacle to the attackers. As casualties mounted, gaps began to appear in the
shield wall but were quickly filled. At around 1:00pm, the Franco-Flemish
division began to falter. William and Eustace of Boulogne holding the papal
banner managed to halt a rout and the flank division was reinforced with Norman
knights from the center. William, having been dehorsed, removed his helmet to
show his face in order to counter the rumor that he had been killed. During the
battle, he had three horses cut from under him.
William of Poitiers, chronicling the battle has described William as ordering
two feigned retreats to encourage the Saxons to break ranks. Given the
difficulty in coordinating such a tactic without causing a wholesale rout, this
is highly unlikely. It is more likely that as each attack was repulsed,
William's army broke ranks to be rallied by their leaders. A feigned retreat
was the victor's way of favorably describing the fact that their army ran away!
It was only the strength and ability of their leaders who were able to rally
them to counterattack any Saxons foolish to break ranks that prevented a
wholesale rout. At this point, William ordered another withdrawal, covered by
Another lull followed as William and his commanders discussed a change in
tactics that might bring success. At this point, they would have been getting
desperate with up to one quarter of their force either killed or wounded. After
five hours of fighting, with losses mounting and the Saxon line still intact,
the Norman position was looking precarious. If the next attack failed, it was
likely to be the last. In a foreign land, defeat would mean almost certain
death for the invaders.
Changes were also being made in the Saxon position. Due to their casualties,
the line was now too thin to adequately defend the entire ridgeline. As a
result, it was concentrated to the slightly higher positions to the center and
east. While this allowed the Normans to attack from even ground from the west,
it would still be no easy task.
Forming a single group of infantry interspersed with cavalry and the archers
placed to the rear, they slowly approached the Saxon line for a third time.
Just before contact, the archers let loose volleys of arrows angled upwards as
to fall on the middle and rear ranks of the Saxon line from above. Earlier
volleys had hit the shield wall or simply sailed overhead. This provided the
distraction and confusion desired just as the two forces met.
This wave of assaults was the fiercest of the day, each preceded by arrows. At
around 4:00pm, weaknesses began to appear in the Saxon line, which the Normans
began to exploit. In a final assault on the weakened left flank, they broke
through and possibly did so on the other flank, It may have been at this point
that Harold's brothers, Leofwin and Gyrth were killed, defending their brother.
The Saxon line broke and became a series of isolated groups fighting for
survival. As the light faded, fyrdsmen and some housecarls made off to escape
while others fought to the death.
Tradition has it that an arrow through the eye killed Harold but this is more a
misinterpretation of the Beaux Tapestry than fact. A group of 20 knights
broke through in an attempt to kill Harold, four reaching him: Hugh of
Montford, Walter Giffard, Eustace of Boulogne and Ivo, the heir to the Count of
Ponthieu. Ivo was later sent home by William for mutilating Harold's body after
With the news of Harold's death, the Saxon army disintegrated. After a day of
fierce fighting, the Normans showed no mercy to the dying and wounded,
slaughtering them were they lay. Those unable to escape and hide in the forests
were pursued and cut down by cavalry.
One group fled towards Malhosse pursued by Eustace of Boulogne and 50 cavalry
in the fading light. In near darkness and unfamiliar with the terrain, they
rode straight into a steep gully and Saxon ambush. Eustace, uninjured in the
initial attack, was about to order a retreat when struck by an axe between the
shoulder blades, unable to see his attacker. He died shortly after being taken
back to the battlefield. William himself arrived to take command of the
situation and beat off the attack before returning to the battlefield. This
action, however, took place too late to change the course of the battle, which
had already been won.
Sunrise on the 15th was to find Senlac Ridge littered with broken and discarded
weapons together with the bodies of around 2000 Normans, up to 4000 Saxons and
6-700 horses. The battle had been of a length and ferocity unheard of in
medieval warfare. Normally battles were over quickly as morale and discipline
failed on one side or the other. The evenness of the battle was shown by its
duration, fought on a knifes edge all day.
With around 30 percent losses, William was unable to march directly on London.
After withdrawing to Hastings for five days, William set about subduing the
surrounding countryside. As the significance of Hastings began to be
appreciated, other areas submitted to his rule without resistance. By November,
he had subdued south eastern England and was eventually crowned king on
Christmas Day, 1066.
. Poyntz Wright P. Hastings, The Windrush Press, Gloucestershire, 1996,
. Whitelock D. et.al. The Norman Conquest: Its Setting and Impact, Eyre
& Spottiswoode, London, 1966, pp.93-3.
. Hastings, p.85.
. ibid., p.89.
. ibid., p.99.
Butler D. 1066: The Story of a Year , Anthony Blond Ltd., London, 1966.
Douglas D. C. William the Conqueror: The Norman Impact Upon England ,
Eyre & Spottiswoode, London, 1966.
Golding B. Conquest and Colonisation: The Normans in Britain, 1066-1100 ,
Macmillan, Houndmills, 1994.
Oman C.W.C. The Art of War in the Middle Ages AD 378-1515 (revised edition)
, Great Serial Books, London, 1963.
Poyntz Wright P. Hastings , The Windrush Press, Gloucestershire, 1996.
Tetlow E. The Enigma of Hastings , Peter Owen Ltd., London, 1974.
Whitelock D. et.al. The Norman Conquest: Its Setting and Impact , Eyre
& Spottiswoode, London, 1966.
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Copyright © 2005 Steve Beck.
Written by Steve Beck If
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Published online: 07/21/2005.