Battle of Hastings: Epic Clash That Altered History

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The Norman Conquest by Marc Morris
The Norman Conquest by Marc Morris
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Battle of Hastings

The Battle of Hastings: A Turning Point in English History

In the southeastern region of England, on the fateful day of October 14, 1066, a momentous event unfolded: the Battle of Hastings. This clash witnessed the decisive defeat of Anglo-Saxon King Harold II, who had reigned for a mere nine months, at the hands of the invading Norman army led by William, the Duke of Normandy.

A Confrontation of Strength and Strategy

As the sun rose on that historic day, both sides prepared for what would become a grueling struggle for power. The Norman cavalry and the Anglo-Saxon infantry faced each other on the battlefield, their hopes and ambitions entwined in a clash that would shape the destiny of England.

The Triumph of the Norman Cavaliers

After a day of relentless fighting, a pattern emerged—a testament to the superior tactics and skill of the Norman forces. The Norman cavalry, in particular, proved formidable, outmaneuvering and overpowering the Anglo-Saxon infantry. Their disciplined charge and relentless attacks gradually tilted the balance in favor of Duke William’s army.

A Claim to the Throne

Motivated by a belief in his rightful claim to the English throne, Duke William embarked on this audacious invasion. He contended that Harold’s predecessor, Edward the Confessor, had promised him the crown. Determined to seize what he believed was his birthright, William led his troops across the English Channel, prepared to assert his authority through force.

The Fate of Harold II

Tragically, the Battle of Hastings would mark the end of King Harold II’s reign. According to tradition, an arrow found its mark, striking Harold in the eye and felling him. The final blow came as he lay on the battlefield, his life abruptly cut short. With Harold’s demise, the path was paved for William’s ascension to the English throne.

The Birth of a Conqueror

Christmas Day of the same year witnessed the crowning of William as the king of England—a fitting conclusion to his hard-fought victory. Over the subsequent five years, William’s conquest of England earned him the enduring moniker of William the Conqueror, solidifying his place in history.

End of an Era: Anglo-Saxon Rule

The Battle of Hastings not only marked the end of Harold’s reign but also brought a definitive close to 500 years of Anglo-Saxon rule. The repercussions of this pivotal clash reverberated across the land, triggering a wave of political, religious, and cultural transformations. The Norman elite swiftly established their presence, constructing castles and introducing innovative endeavors like the Domesday Book.

A New Era Begins

Hastings heralded the dawn of a new era, one characterized by the Norman elite’s ascent to power. As they embedded themselves firmly within their newfound kingdom, England would witness sweeping changes that would reshape its destiny for generations to come. The echoes of the Battle of Hastings would resonate through the annals of history, forever etching its significance in the tapestry of England’s past.

Harold Godwinson

Harold II

Harold II

The Ascension of Harold Godwinson

In the pivotal year of 1066, England stood at the precipice of momentous change. It was a year that would etch its name indelibly in the annals of history. At the helm of this unfolding saga was Harold Godwinson, a man whose journey to the throne would shape the course of England’s destiny.

A Crown Amidst Uncertainty

Harold, once the Earl of Wessex, had ascended to the title of King of England. This newfound sovereignty was not the result of a smooth and straightforward succession, but rather a tapestry woven with intrigue and uncertainty. The stage was set on January 6th when Harold was crowned, following the passing of Edward the Confessor, who left no clear heir to the throne.

Edward’s Fateful Nomination

As the frail threads of Edward’s life unraveled, he found himself at the crossroads of succession. With no direct heir to pass the mantle of power, Edward faced a daunting decision. In a moment of clarity, on his deathbed, he personally nominated Harold as his successor—a choice that would send ripples through the corridors of history. The circumstances surrounding Harold’s acquisition of the throne would forever be the subject of debate and speculation.

A Warrior’s Rise to Prominence

While the intricacies of succession swirled in the background, Harold had already carved his name in the annals of military prowess. Throughout the kingdom, he was renowned as the foremost military leader—a warrior whose strategic brilliance was forged in the crucible of Wales. The echoes of his triumphs in the Welsh campaigns of 1063-1064 reverberated across the land, elevating his reputation to unparalleled heights.

A Nation in Transition: The Dawn of Harold’s Reign

As the crown settled upon Harold’s brow, England found itself on the cusp of a new era. The weight of leadership rested upon his shoulders, and the nation looked to him with hope and anticipation. The realm braced itself for the transformative winds of change, aware that Harold’s reign would leave an indelible mark on the tapestry of English history.

In the pages that followed, Harold’s mettle would be tested as he navigated the treacherous currents of politics, warfare, and the ceaseless demands of kingship. His actions would shape the very fabric of England’s future, determining the course of events that would unfold in the year 1066 and beyond.

As the story of Harold Godwinson unfolded, the fate of a nation hung in the balance. With each step he took, history itself was in motion, and the echoes of his decisions would reverberate through the ages. The story of Harold, his ascent to the throne, and the challenges he faced would forever be etched in the annals of English history, a testament to the enduring spirit and resilience of a kingdom in transition.

William of Normandy

King William I ('The Conqueror')

King William I (‘The Conqueror’)

William of Normandy’s Ambitious Designs

Across the vast expanse of the English Channel, William, the Duke of Normandy, was crafting his own grand plans. Driven by a belief in his rightful claim to the English throne, William’s narrative unfolded, laden with promises and fateful encounters. From his perspective, events leading up to 1066 painted a compelling picture.

The Norman Claim: Edward’s Alleged Promise

William asserted that as early as 1051, Edward had promised him the coveted throne. This claim laid the foundation for his audacious bid for power. Additionally, William contended that Harold’s visit to Normandy in 1064 had either reaffirmed Edward’s offer or, perhaps influenced by William securing his release from the clutches of Count Guy of Ponthieu, had resulted in Harold pledging his vassalage and his acceptance of William’s ascension unobstructed. This perspective formed the core of the Norman viewpoint.

The Anglo-Saxon Counter-narrative

In stark contrast, the Anglo-Saxon sources wove a different tapestry, presenting alternative scenarios to challenge William’s assertions. According to these accounts, Harold’s voyage to Normandy never transpired. If it did, it was simply an incidental consequence of unpredictable weather conditions. Alternatively, it was proposed that Harold journeyed to Normandy solely to secure the release of Anglo-Saxon prisoners, refuting any claims of negotiations regarding the throne.

The Invalidity of Vassalage and Captivity

Crucially, the English maintained that even if the Normans’ claims were valid and Harold had indeed pledged vassalage to William, the circumstances of his captivity rendered such a promise null and void. Held against his will, Harold’s purported allegiance carried no weight in the eyes of the English. The modern scholarly consensus supports this perspective, acknowledging William’s tenuous claim to the English throne. Yet, history has often shown that such intricacies as promises and oaths pale in comparison to the ultimate arbiter of power—victory on the battlefield.

William’s Intent and Preparations

Amidst the dueling narratives and conflicting viewpoints, William’s resolve remained unyielding. Regardless of the validity of his self-justification, he was resolute in his determination to invade England. The summer of 1066 witnessed extensive preparations taking shape, as the Duke of Normandy readied his forces for the imminent campaign. The wheels of fate were set in motion, as the stage was meticulously prepared for the dramatic showdown that would reshape the course of English history.

As the forces of destiny gathered momentum, the clash between William and Harold drew ever closer. The narratives of ambition, promises, and claims to the throne converged upon the inevitable collision that would determine the fate of nations. The saga of 1066 unfolded, and the echoes of this pivotal year would resonate throughout the ages, forever etching their mark on the historical tapestry of England.

Harald Hardrada

Harald Hardrada

Harald Hardrada
Image Credit: Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons; History Hit

Harald Hardrada: The Third Player in the Battle for England

In the intricate tale of 1066, a third protagonist emerged, further entangling the fate of the kingdom of England. Harald Hardrada, also known as Harald III of Norway, stepped onto the stage with a claim to Harold Godwinson’s crown as dubious as William’s. Recognizing the power of a formidable army, Hardrada aimed to compensate for the fragility of his legal rights.

Tostig: An Ally with a Score to Settle

Assisting Hardrada was Tostig, the Earl of Northumbria and a brother locked in bitter rivalry with Harold II. Tostig’s oppressive rule sparked a rebellion in Northumbria in 1065, leading to his removal from power and exile to Flanders. The disgraced earl harbored deep resentment and sought retribution. His ships, becoming a menacing force, raided the shores of southern and eastern England. Seeking refuge in Scotland, Tostig eventually found his way to Norway, where he saw in Hardrada the opportunity to seize the throne from his own brother.

The Gathering Storm: Hardrada’s Invasion Fleet

Hardrada assembled an invasion fleet, rumored to comprise anywhere from 300 to as many as 500 ships. Accompanied by a formidable army of around 12,000 warriors, he set sail, making landfall off the northeast coast of England near the mouth of the River Tyne on September 8th. There, Tostig’s modest fleet of approximately 12 ships joined forces with Hardrada’s armada. Together, they embarked on a southward journey, eventually arriving at Ricall, a mere 16 km (10 miles) from the strategic city of York.

A Looming Threat: Harold’s Crown in Jeopardy

The peril to Harold Godwinson became apparent as Hardrada and Tostig positioned themselves near York. The timing of this Norwegian incursion, coinciding with William’s planned invasion from the south, cast a dark shadow over the Anglo-Saxon king’s crown. The convergence of these dual threats intensified the danger, placing the very sovereignty of England at stake.

The stage was now set for a dramatic clash—a tripartite struggle where each contender sought to assert their right to the English throne. As the tides of destiny shifted, the destinies of Harold Godwinson, Harald Hardrada, and William of Normandy became intricately intertwined. The echoes of their ambitions, alliances, and military might resonate across the battlefield of 1066, leaving an indelible mark on the course of English history.

Battle of Stamford Bridge

A 19th century CE painting by Peter Nicolai Arbo (1831-1892 CE) depicting the Battle of Stamford Bridge on 25 September 1066 CE

A 19th century CE painting by Peter Nicolai Arbo (1831-1892 CE) depicting the Battle of Stamford Bridge on 25 September 1066 CE

Fulford Gate: The Opening Clash of 1066

Amidst the tumultuous events of 1066, the stage was set for the first of three pivotal battles—Fulford Gate. Though the exact location remains uncertain, it unfolded somewhere in the vicinity of York. On September 20th, an Anglo-Saxon army, led by Eadwine, Earl of Mercia, and Morcar, Earl of Northumbria, clashed with Harald Hardrada’s formidable forces.

The Triumph of Hardrada

In the fields of Fulford Gate, the forces of Hardrada emerged victorious, securing an early advantage in the struggle for power. Yet, unbeknownst to Hardrada, another challenger had already set his sights on the north. Harold Godwinson, with his elite force of housecarls—armored professional troops numbering up to 3,000—was marching to confront the Norwegian invader.

Stamford Bridge: A Surprising Encounter

On September 25th, Harold’s army converged with Hardrada’s forces at Stamford Bridge, a sprawling meadow situated east of the River Derwent. Caught off guard, Hardrada’s men anticipated negotiations for the release of hostages from York after the city’s recent capitulation. Bereft of their mail armor coats, which had been left behind in the camp following the jubilant celebrations of their victory at Fulford Gate, the invaders faced a distinct disadvantage.

The Fateful Day

The clash on the meadow commenced, and within a single day, the battle’s outcome was decided. Harold’s tactical acumen and the relentless charge of his troops proved insurmountable. Hardrada and Tostig, once allies in their quest for the English throne, fell on the battlefield. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle chronicled the extent of Harold’s triumph, noting that the invading army suffered such devastating losses that only enough survivors remained to fill a mere 24 ships. Under the leadership of Hardrada’s son, Olaf, they retreated, setting sail for home.

A Fierce Victory, Yet a Greater Challenge Looms

Harold had successfully repelled one contender for his crown, but a far more formidable adversary awaited him in the south. As the dust settled on Stamford Bridge, the perilous reality remained—the dangerous William of Normandy now demanded Harold’s undivided attention. The shifting tides of destiny had yet to reveal their final verdict, as the fate of England continued to hang precariously in the balance.

The echoes of Fulford Gate and Stamford Bridge would reverberate through the annals of history, marking the opening chapters of a turbulent year—a year where battles would decide the fate of nations and kings would rise and fall amidst the relentless march of destiny.

The Gathering Storm at Hastings

William’s Grand Fleet Takes Shape

Amidst the summer’s ebb and flow, William of Normandy orchestrated a meticulous undertaking. On the northern coast of France, near Saint-Valéry-sur-Somme, the foundations of his invasion fleet were laid. While a contemporary Norman source suggests an inflated number of 776 ships, the true count likely fell short of this figure. The allure of plunder and newfound lands in the conquered territory motivated the Norman warriors, who were further incentivized by William’s monetary compensation during the summer preparations. The total size of the force remains uncertain, with historians approximating a range of 5,000 to 8,000 men, including a contingent of 1,000 to 2,000 cavalry.

Harold’s Fragmented Defenses

Harold Godwinson, ever watchful of the impending Norman invasion, had diligently readied his forces. However, he faced a challenge in maintaining cohesion within his own army. Having already spent over three months in the field, the English troops were compelled to return to their farms for the harvest season—each hand vital in ensuring an ample corn harvest for the coming year. As fortune would have it, inclement weather hampered William’s plans, potentially affording him a shrewd advantage by allowing his opponents’ forces to disperse. In the first week of September, Harold, aware of the mounting perils, withdrew to London.

A Two-Act Tragedy Unfolds

News soon arrived of Harald Hardrada’s audacious invasion in the north and the English defeat at Fulford Gate. Harold, undeterred, embarked on a march to face the Norwegian onslaught, emerging triumphant at the Battle of Stamford Bridge. Yet, this victory marked only the first act of a gripping tragedy for the English king. On September 28th, 1066, William and his invasion army made landfall at Pevensey in the southern English county of Sussex. There, the army found refuge in a well-suited harbor, fortified by the remnants of an ancient Roman fort—a strategic advantage in their favor. The Normans possessed knowledge of Hardrada’s incursion but remained unaware of the outcome of the battle or the identity of their ultimate adversary.

The Convergence of Forces

Finally, news reached William—a harbinger of both triumph and peril. Reports confirmed Harold’s victory at Stamford Bridge and his subsequent march southward. The English king arrived in London on October 6th, mustering his forces and convening at Caldebec Hill, located 13 km (8 miles) north of Hastings, on the 13th. Harold’s army comprised his formidable housecarls, an elite corps, as well as the general levy or fyrd—a collection of less-seasoned troops drawn from each shire across the kingdom. Disparate accounts from medieval chroniclers attempt to rationalize either victory or defeat based on their loyalties, with some asserting that the Anglo-Saxon army was smaller due to Harold’s limited time for troop mobilization. Conversely, other sources claim the English force outnumbered the Normans. Given the closely contested nature of the battle, it is likely that both sides were relatively equal in size.

The Haste of Mobilization

Among the criticisms leveled by medieval chroniclers, a persistent claim is that Harold mobilized prematurely, potentially lured into action by William’s orders to ravage the territories along the southeast coast—territories that happened to be Harold’s personal estates. The timing of Harold’s response to William’s provocations would prove pivotal, setting the stage for the climactic clash that would determine the destiny of England.

As the stage was set at Hastings, the forces of William and Harold stood poised for a confrontation that would shape the course of history. The imminent battle would transcend mere numbers, as the fates of nations hung in the balance. The echoes of past decisions and the consequences of hasty actions would reverberate through the tapestry of 1066, forever altering the destiny of England.

The Battle

The Battle of Hastings: Shadows and Uncertainties

In the annals of history, the Battle of Hastings stands as a pivotal event, yet the narratives that surround it weave a tapestry of contradictions. Primary accounts diverge, rendering an authoritative description an elusive pursuit. Amidst the fog of differing testimonies, a few indisputable facts emerge: the clash commenced on Saturday, October 14, 1066, commencing at 9 am and persevering until dusk.

A Battle Enveloped in Darkness

As the sun set on that fateful day, darkness descended upon the battlefield. Sunset was recorded at 4:54 pm, plunging the terrain into shadows by 5:54 pm, and complete darkness shrouded the scene by 6:24 pm. Moonrise, a faint glimmer of illumination, was not witnessed until 11:12 pm, leaving the battlefield bereft of light. Duke William, cognizant of the potential for surprise attacks, ensured his army remained vigilant throughout the preceding night, as recounted by William of Jumièges.

The Enigmatic Setting

The stage upon which this momentous clash unfolded lay 7 miles (11 km) north of Hastings, at what is now the town of Battle. Two hills flanked the battleground—the northern Caldbec Hill and the southern Telham Hill. The area boasted dense woodland, with a nearby marsh adding an additional layer of complexity. Curiously, the battle’s traditional name, “at the hoary apple tree,” defied proximity, as there were settlements much closer to the actual site. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle later referred to it as “Senlac,” an adaptation of the Old English term “Sandlacu,” meaning “sandy water.” This may have been in reference to the stream that traversed the battlefield. By 1086, the battle had already come to be known as “bellum Haestingas” or the “Battle of Hastings,” as documented in the Domesday Book.

The Sunrise and the Mysterious Route

On the morning of the battle, the sun rose at 6:48 am, casting an unusually bright radiance upon the unfolding events. Regrettably, historical records leave the weather conditions unrecorded, shrouding this aspect of the battle in perpetual ambiguity. The exact path of the English army’s journey southward to the battlefield remains a subject of speculation. Several potential routes exist, with one prominent theory suggesting an old Roman road connecting Rochester to Hastings. This hypothesis gains support from the discovery of a significant coin hoard in the vicinity in 1876. Another possibility involves a Roman road linking London and Lewes, leading to local tracks guiding the troops to the battlefront. While some accounts hint at the Normans advancing from Hastings to the battlefield, William of Jumièges’s contemporary account places the Normans at the battle site the night before. The majority of historians lean toward the former perspective, yet M. K. Lawson argues in favor of William of Jumièges’s account.

As the mists of time envelop the details, the Battle of Hastings stands as a convergence of shadows and uncertainties. Within this enigmatic setting, the destinies of nations would be decided, forever altering the course of history.

The English Shield Wall: A Fortress atop the Slope

As the decisive moment approached, Harold’s forces meticulously deployed on a small yet strategic terrain. Positioned at the pinnacle of a steep slope, they formed a dense formation, ensconced within the protective embrace of woods and marshy terrain before them. It is believed that their flanks found solace in the natural fortifications provided by these features, perhaps even securing an anchor on a nearby stream. The English rank formed an impregnable shield wall, with front-line soldiers interlocking their shields or holding them close together, forging a formidable barrier against imminent attacks. While historical sources differ on the precise location of the English defensive line, some suggest it was situated near the abbey, while newer research leans towards Caldbec Hill.

Norman Forces Unveiled: Three Battalions Stand United

Contrasting with the veil of uncertainty surrounding the English deployment, more is known about the organization of the Norman forces. Duke William adroitly arranged his troops into three distinct groups, aptly termed “battles,” reflecting their regional origins. The left flank comprised Breton units, joined by contingents from Anjou, Poitou, and Maine. This contingent was under the leadership of Alan the Red, a relative of the Breton Count. The center was occupied by the formidable Normans themselves, with the duke personally commanding their ranks, surrounded by a cohort of his close kin and loyal companions. The final division, positioned on the right, consisted of French soldiers, accompanied by men hailing from Picardy, Boulogne, and Flanders. William fitzOsbern and Count Eustace II of Boulogne commanded this contingent. Archers formed the foremost line of defense, supported by foot soldiers equipped with spears just behind them. Alongside the archers, a few crossbowmen and slingers likely bolstered the ranks. The cavalry, held in reserve, awaited their moment to charge, while a select group of clergymen and servants positioned themselves at the base of Telham Hill, their role confined to support rather than active engagement.

William’s Stratagem: A Calculated Battle Plan

William’s strategic arrangement of his forces unveiled a calculated battle plan. Archers assumed the vanguard, their rain of arrows poised to weaken the enemy’s resolve. Following this ranged assault, infantry units would engage in close-quarters combat, endeavoring to breach the English lines. The infantry’s goal was to create openings through which the cavalry could charge, breaking the enemy’s formation and pursuing fleeing soldiers. This coordinated sequence aimed to exploit the vulnerabilities within the English ranks, ensuring the success of William’s audacious campaign.

As the sun cast its radiant glow upon the battlefield, the stage was set for the ultimate clash between Harold’s stalwart shield wall and William’s meticulously orchestrated assault. The looming confrontation would be defined by the interplay of tactics, resilience, and unwavering determination. The echoes of this fateful encounter would resound through the ages, etching their mark on the pages of history.

The Opening Gambit: Arrows Against the Shield Wall

The pivotal clash commenced with a flurry of Norman arrows, ascending the steep incline towards the steadfast English shield wall. Yet, the uphill trajectory proved to be a disadvantage, as the arrows either ricocheted harmlessly off the resilient shields or overshot their targets, soaring over the crest of the hill. The scarcity of English archers presented a challenge for the Normans, as there were few arrows to be retrieved and redeployed. The initial assault from the archers failed to make a significant impact, leaving the Norman forces in search of an alternative strategy.

The Perilous Advance: Spears and Barrage of Missiles

Undeterred by their initial setback, William ordered his spearmen to advance, aiming to breach the English defenses. As they pressed forward, a deluge of projectiles rained upon them—spear thrusts, axes swung with fervor, and stones hurled with defiance. The English infantry steadfastly held their ground, their impenetrable shield wall denying the Normans any significant breakthrough. Realizing the need for additional support, the cavalry surged forward, hoping to turn the tide in their favor.

A Momentary Retreat and the Duke’s Defiance

The cavalry charge, intended to bolster the faltering Norman position, encountered its own stumbling block. Progress was elusive, and a sense of retreat permeated the ranks, with the blame falling upon the Breton division positioned on William’s left flank. Amidst the chaos, a disquieting rumor spread—the duke himself had fallen in battle. The ensuing confusion contributed to a general retreat. Sensing the urgency, William galloped through his forces, revealing his face and vehemently declaring his survival. This rallying cry reignited the spirits of the Norman troops, instigating a spirited counter-attack against the pursuing English forces. Some English fighters, finding refuge atop a hillock, briefly resisted the onslaught before being overwhelmed.

Gyrth and his brother's death at the Battle of Hastings, scene 52 of the Bayeux Tapestry.

Gyrth and his brother’s death at the Battle of Hastings, scene 52 of the Bayeux Tapestry.

The Mysteries of Pursuit and the Fate of Harold’s Brothers

The circumstances surrounding the English pursuit remain shrouded in uncertainty. It is unclear whether Harold himself ordered his men to give chase or if it was an impulsive response from the ranks. Wace suggests that Harold commanded his soldiers to maintain their formations, yet other accounts omit this detail. The Bayeux Tapestry depicts the demise of Harold’s brothers, Gyrth and Leofwine, occurring just prior to the conflict near the hillock. This imagery suggests that the brothers may have led the pursuit. However, the Carmen de Hastingae Proelio presents an alternate account, proposing that the duke personally slew Gyrth in combat, possibly mistaking him for Harold. Meanwhile, William of Poitiers asserts that the bodies of Gyrth and Leofwine were discovered in close proximity to Harold, implying that their demise transpired later in the battle. It is conceivable that if the two brothers perished early in the fray, their bodies may have been brought to Harold’s side, explaining their proximity to the battle’s conclusion. Military historian Peter Marren speculates that the early deaths of Gyrth and Leofwine might have influenced Harold’s resolve to stand resolute until the bitter end, knowing that his beloved kin had already paid the ultimate price.

As the echoes of battle subsided, the fate of Harold and the English crown hung in the balance. The tumultuous events that unfolded would reverberate through the corridors of time, etching their mark on the collective memory of generations to come. The legacy of the Battle of Hastings was poised to reshape the course of history, casting its indelible shadow across the realm of England.

The Calm Before the Storm: A Respite Amidst the Fray

Amidst the relentless tumult of battle, a lull descended upon the battlefield, likely occurring in the early afternoon. The combatants, weary and in need of sustenance, sought a momentary respite. This intermission provided an opportunity for William to devise a new strategy, one that would exploit the lessons gleaned from the English pursuit and subsequent rout at the hands of the Normans. If the cavalry charge could be employed to draw the English into further pursuits, ruptures within the English line might emerge. The aim was clear—to create openings amidst the steadfast shield wall.

Feigned Flight: A Tactical Maneuver

William of Poitiers attests that the Normans executed their plan, utilizing feigned flights on two occasions. While some have argued that chroniclers employed this account as a means to justify the retreat of the Norman troops, such a conjecture is unlikely, as previous instances of flight were not glossed over. The feigned flight was a stratagem employed by other Norman armies during the period, lending credence to its occurrence at Hastings. The tactic aimed to unsettle the English ranks, thinning out the formidable housecarls within the shield wall. In their stead, members of the fyrd were called upon to fill the void, ensuring the resilience of the defense.

Archers, Cavalry, and Infantry Unleashed

Archers once again assumed their positions, releasing volleys of arrows, both before and during the ensuing assault by the combined might of the Norman cavalry and infantry, led by the indomitable duke himself. It is worth noting that while 12th-century sources claim the archers were instructed to shoot at a high angle, aiming over the front of the shield wall, such actions find little corroboration in contemporaneous accounts. The exact number of assaults launched against the English lines remains uncertain. Various sources recount skirmishes and clashes between Normans and Englishmen that punctuated the afternoon’s tumultuous fighting. The Carmen de Hastingae Proelio asserts that Duke William had two horses felled beneath him during the fierce combat, while William of Poitiers’s narrative states that the number reached three. These details bear testament to the intensity and relentless nature of the engagement.

In the midst of the unyielding clash, the shield wall held steadfast, withstanding the Norman onslaught. Though the feigned flights failed to rupture the English ranks, they took their toll, depleting the housecarls who valiantly defended the front lines. Yet, the unwavering resolve of the English army remained unbroken. As the afternoon pressed on, a cascade of assaults and counterattacks unfolded, etching their marks upon the battlefield. Horses galloped, swords clashed, and the cries of warriors echoed through the air. Amidst this chaos, the destiny of nations and the fate of kings hung precariously, awaiting the decisive turning point that would forever alter the course of history.

The Elusive Fate: Contradictory Accounts of Harold’s Demise

As the tumult of battle raged on, Harold’s ultimate fate remained shrouded in ambiguity, obscured by conflicting narratives in the annals of history. William of Poitiers, our primary source, briefly notes Harold’s death without divulging any specific details regarding its circumstances. The Bayeux Tapestry, though a valuable record of the events, offers little clarity, depicting a figure with an arrow protruding from the eye alongside a falling combatant struck by a sword, accompanied by the caption “Here King Harold has been killed.” However, the identity of the depicted figures—whether one or both represent Harold—remains uncertain. Scholarly interpretations diverge, and the sources do little to resolve the enigma.

The earliest written mention of the traditional account, attributing Harold’s demise to an arrow piercing his eye, dates back to the 1080s in the works of Italian monk Amatus of Montecassino, chronicling the history of the Normans. William of Malmesbury adds further detail, asserting that the arrow penetrated Harold’s eye, reaching his brain, while simultaneously claiming that a knight wounded him. Wace echoes the arrow-to-the-eye narrative. The Carmen de Hastingae Proelio contends that Duke William himself dealt the fatal blow to Harold, although such a remarkable feat would likely have been recorded elsewhere. William of Jumièges’s account, proposing Harold’s death occurring in the morning during the initial skirmish, is regarded as even more dubious. The Chronicle of Battle Abbey laments the unknown assailant, as Harold’s demise took place amid the chaos of the battlefield. Modern biographers such as Ian Walker suggest that Harold’s demise was likely a result of an arrow striking his eye, though they acknowledge the possibility of a Norman knight dealing the fatal blow to an already mortally wounded Harold. After careful consideration of these disparate accounts, historian Peter Rex concludes that it is impossible to definitively ascertain the manner of Harold’s death.

Harold's death depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry

Harold’s death depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry

A Leader’s Fall: The Collapse of English Forces

Harold’s untimely demise left the English forces bereft of leadership, plunging them into disarray. In the face of this sudden loss, many soldiers sought escape, scattering from the battlefield. However, amidst the turmoil, a steadfast contingent comprising the soldiers of the royal household rallied around Harold’s lifeless body, resolute in their determination to fight until the bitter end. The Normans, seizing the advantage, embarked on a relentless pursuit of the retreating English troops. With the exception of a rearguard action at a site known as the “Malfosse” or “Evil Ditch,” the battle neared its conclusion.

The Malfosse Stand: A Defiant Last Stand

The precise nature and location of the Malfosse, where a valiant group of Englishmen staged a rearguard defense, remain veiled in uncertainty. This last bastion of resistance materialized as a small fortification or system of trenches, serving as a rallying point for beleaguered English fighters. Amidst their fervent determination, they inflicted serious wounds upon Eustace of Boulogne before ultimately succumbing to the superior might of the Normans. The details surrounding this climactic clash elude us, leaving behind a legacy of mystery and valor, forever etched upon the annals of the Battle of Hastings.

The Confluence of Circumstances: Factors Contributing to Harold’s Defeat

Harold’s defeat at the Battle of Hastings can be attributed to a confluence of circumstances that hampered the English forces. One crucial factor was the arduous task of defending against two nearly simultaneous invasions—an overwhelming challenge for any army. Furthermore, Harold’s decision to dismiss his forces in southern England on 8 September proved detrimental to their readiness for the ensuing conflict. While historians have criticized Harold for hastily marching south without gathering additional forces, it remains uncertain whether the English army was truly ill-equipped to face William’s troops. The battle’s duration, lasting an entire day, serves as evidence that the English forces were not exhausted from their arduous journey. Additionally, Harold’s swift advance to Hastings raises the possibility that he harbored reservations about Earls Edwin of Mercia and Morcar of Northumbria, considering their loyalties once their shared adversary Tostig had been defeated. Consequently, Harold may have opted not to enlist their support, limiting his available forces. It is worth noting that Harold’s hastened response aimed to contain William’s encroachment and prevent his liberation from the beachhead.

The Battle Unfolds: The Decisive Events

The events that transpired on the battlefield bear the primary responsibility for Harold’s ultimate downfall. William, an accomplished military leader, possessed greater tactical prowess, aided by the English army’s lack of cavalry, which significantly curtailed Harold’s strategic options. Some critics have chastised Harold for not exploiting the rumored death of William early in the conflict. The English also erred in failing to maintain a strictly defensive stance, as their pursuit of the retreating Normans exposed their vulnerable flanks to counterattacks. Whether this misjudgment stemmed from the inexperience of the English commanders or the indiscipline of the soldiers remains unclear. Ultimately, Harold’s demise proved pivotal, signaling the disintegration of the already fragmented English forces. As historian David Nicolle succinctly observed, the Battle of Hastings underscored the Norman-French army’s adeptness in employing a combination of cavalry and infantry tactics, surpassing the Germanic-Scandinavian infantry traditions of the Anglo-Saxons.

Aftermath

Honoring the Fallen: Aftermath and Final Resting Places

Following the Battle of Hastings, the identification of Harold’s lifeless body was accomplished by either recognizing his armor or identifying specific markings on his body. As a symbol of victory, Harold’s personal standard was presented to William and later sent to the papacy. The bodies of fallen English soldiers, including Harold’s brothers and housecarls, were left on the battlefield, although some were later retrieved by their grieving relatives. On the Norman side, a communal grave was prepared for their deceased soldiers, yet its exact location remains undiscovered. The precise number of casualties remains unknown. Estimates indicate that around half of the engaged English forces perished, while one in seven named Normans met their demise. Nevertheless, these figures primarily pertain to noblemen, and it is plausible that the common soldiers suffered even higher mortality rates. While Orderic Vitalis’s figures are inflated, his estimation of one in four casualties may hold some accuracy. Scholars have long believed that the acidic soil made the recovery of remains impossible. However, recent discoveries have challenged this assumption, as evidenced by a skeleton initially associated with the Battle of Lewes but now believed to be connected to the events at Hastings.

Legends and Legacies: Harold’s Fate and William’s Triumph

Legends surrounding Harold’s fate abound, adding intrigue to his post-battle narrative. According to one account, Gytha, Harold’s mother, offered a substantial amount of gold equivalent to her son’s weight in exchange for custody of his body, but her request was denied. Another story suggests that Harold’s remains were buried atop a cliff. Waltham Abbey, which Harold had established, later asserted that his body had been discreetly interred within its grounds. Contradictory tales even propose that Harold survived the battle and sought refuge as a hermit in Chester. Meanwhile, William expected the remaining English leaders to submit to his authority following his victory. Surprisingly, Edgar the Ætheling was proclaimed king by the Witenagemot, supported by Earls Edwin and Morcar, Archbishop Stigand of Canterbury, and Archbishop Ealdred of York. This prompted William’s advance on London, whereby he encountered resistance at Southwark but failed to storm London Bridge. Consequently, William had to find an alternate route to the capital, circumventing Kent’s coastal areas.

William’s subsequent progress led him to Wallingford, where he received the submission of Stigand before venturing northeast along the Chilterns. From this vantage point, he advanced towards London from the northwest, engaging with various forces from the city along the way. Eventually, the English leaders surrendered to William at Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire. On 25 December 1066, William was hailed as the King of England and received his coronation by Archbishop Ealdred in Westminster Abbey.

Lingering Resistance and Remembrance

Although the English nobles submitted to William’s rule, pockets of resistance persisted for several years. The rebellion erupted in Exeter in late 1067, followed by an invasion by Harold’s sons in mid-1068, and an uprising in Northumbria in 1068. William faced further challenges from Northumbrian rebels, an invading Danish fleet, and additional uprisings across the southern and western regions of England in 1069. He employed ruthless tactics to suppress these revolts, culminating in the devastating Harrying of the North, which ravaged parts of northern England. In 1070, another rebellion led by Hereward the Wake was quelled by the king at Ely.

The site of the battle became home to Battle Abbey, founded by William. While some accounts attribute the abbey’s creation to William’s personal vow, it is more likely that its establishment was enforced by papal legates in 1070. Construction and subsequent alterations to the abbey have modified the topography of the battlefield, with the once-steep slope defended by the English now less pronounced. After the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the abbey’s lands passed into secular hands, serving as a residence or country house. In 1976, the estate was acquired by the government with the assistance of American donors commemorating the bicentennial of American independence. Presently, the battlefield and abbey grounds are owned and maintained by English Heritage, offering public access.

The Bayeux Tapestry, an embroidered narrative commissioned by Odo of Bayeux soon after the battle, chronicles the events leading up to the Battle of Hastings. Its original purpose may have been to adorn the bishop’s palace in Bayeux. Today, annual reenactments of the Battle of Hastings draw countless participants and spectators to the hallowed grounds of the original conflict.

Notably, some English veterans of the battle joined the Varangian Guard in Constantinople, where they confronted the Normans once again at the Battle of Dyrrhachium in 1081, albeit suffering a similar fate.

Featured Image

Tapisserie de Bayeux - Scène 51 (partielle) : la bataille d'Hastings, chevaliers et archers normands.

Tapisserie de Bayeux – Scène 51 (partielle) : la bataille d’Hastings, chevaliers et archers normands.

Scene 51 of the Bayeux Tapestry depicts a pivotal moment during the Battle of Hastings. The intricately embroidered panel showcases the Norman knights and archers in action on the battlefield.

In the foreground, we see Norman knights clad in chainmail armor, mounted on horseback, and brandishing their swords. Their faces display determination as they charge forward, ready to engage the English forces. The knights’ horses exhibit strength and power, depicted with vibrant colors and meticulous detailing.

Behind the knights, Norman archers draw their bows, preparing to unleash a deadly rain of arrows upon the enemy. With focused expressions, they take aim at their targets, showcasing their skill and precision in archery. The archers wear distinctive Norman helmets and carry quivers filled with arrows on their backs.

The scene captures the intense and chaotic nature of battle, with warriors from both sides locked in combat. The intricate stitching and vivid colors of the tapestry bring the scene to life, depicting the clash of arms and the tension of the moment.

This partial section of the Bayeux Tapestry offers a glimpse into the skillful artistry and historical narrative of this remarkable medieval artwork, providing a visual account of the Battle of Hastings and the role played by the Norman knights and archers in shaping the course of history.

Sources

  • Morris, M. (2014). The Norman Conquest. December 15, 2014. Paperback.
  • Brown, R. A. (1995). The Norman Conquest of England. Boydell.
  • Bennett, M. (2001). Campaigns of the Norman Conquest. Osprey Publishing.
  • Cartwright, M. (2019, January 11). Battle of Hastings. World History Encyclopedia. https://www.worldhistory.org/Battle_of_Hastings/
  • Wikipedia Contributors. (2023, May 23). Harald Hardrada. Wikipedia; Wikimedia Foundation. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harald_Hardrada
  • Wikipedia Contributors. (2023, July 4). William the Conqueror. Wikipedia; Wikimedia Foundation. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_the_Conqueror
  • Neill, C. (2018). Who Was Harald Hardrada? The Norwegian Claimant to the English Throne in 1066. History Hit; History Hit. https://www.historyhit.com/1066-harald-hardraada-lands-england/
  • Wikipedia Contributors. (2023, June 21). Battle of Stamford Bridge. Wikipedia; Wikimedia Foundation. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Stamford_Bridge

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