The Battle of Hastings occurred on Saturday 14th October 1066, during the failed Norman invasion of the same year, between the Norman-French army of Duke William II of Normandy and the English army under King Harold II. The battle took place at Senlac Hill, near Hastings, and was a decisive English victory.
Duke William himself was crushed under his horse and died sometime in the evening after the Norman attacks had failed. Although there was some local resistance from the remnants of the Norman army that escaped, this battle is seen as the point where Norman power waned and eventually collapsed on the continent.
The battle was very well documented in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles and King Harold went on to found the House of Godwinson that ruled England until 1209 AD. The battle marked the last great invasion of medieval England, but also the beginning of the slow revolution of cavalry and archery integration into the English military culture that would come to fruition under King Harold's immediate successors.
Harold Godwinson had claimed the throne of England after the death of King Edward the Confessor, on January 6th 1066. Although the sources are unclear as to whether the Confessor had verbally appointed Harold his favoured successor, the Witenagemot (the assembly of English nobles) accepted his claim.
At this time there were various claims to the English throne, including that of Duke William II of Normandy. The dead King's great nephew Edgar probably had the greatest pedigree among the contenders, however, he was viewed as too young. Others claims included those of the Norwegian and Swedish Kings (derived from King Cnut).
Duke William II of Normandy claimed that King Edward had appointed him his successor. More seriously for Harold Godwinson, the Duke furthermore claimed that in 1064 AD the then Earl of Wessex has sworn an oath to uphold William's claim to the English throne when the time came. However, others have speculated that Harold would never have sworn such an oath and that even if he had it was under duress and thus void.
The Norman Invasion of England was precipitated by Harold's coronation on the 6th January 1066 AD. Amassing a Norman-French army of approximately 7-8000 men, the Duke landed at Pevensey Bay on the 28th September, facing no opposition.
Meanwhile, King Harold had been dealing with a Viking invasion in the north. Had King Harald Haardrada not invaded England and forced an English march north, the English King would have in all likelihood have remained in the south and met Duke William earlier on the field of battle.
The English Army
The English army consisted almost entirely of infantry. The nobles usually rode to battle but dismounted to fight. It must also be noted that in the earlier Battle of Stamford Bridge (25th September, 1066 AD) the Norwegian King, Harald Haardrada, had been killed with an arrow in the throat, which may suggest some use of the bow in the English ranks.
Concerning Stamford Bridge, the English King and his nobles had already fought a ferocious battle in the north, sustaining heavy casualties. Almost as important, although there is speculation as to how many of the Fyrd came back southwards with the King, Harold himself must have been exhausted, along with his professional Housecarl units that accompanied him.
The Housecarls were the elite core of the English army, wielding Danish battleaxes, a shield and wearing a mail hauberk and helmet. The Fyrd were a part-time force of men required to serve their lord in war for a set time. They provided their own weapons and armour and formed the majority of the English force that day.
The English commander: King Harold was already a famed and victorious general before Hastings. As the right-hand man of King Edward the Confessor he had subdued the Welsh in 1062-63 by compelling them to present the head of their leader to him, following a two-pronged land and sea campaign against them. Furthermore, Harold Godwinson was even respected by his adversaries, with accounts of his deeds in Normandy indicating that Duke William even made him a knight on campaign with him. Finally, Harold's daring march and surprise attack at Stamford Bridge must be acknowledged as the actions of an organised and brilliant commander.
The Norman-French Army
The invading army was made up of men from across and beyond what is now modern-day France. Normans made up about half of the force, with men also hailing from Flanders, Brittany and the Ile-de-France region. Many minor nobles and mercenaries joined the ranks following the Pope's recognition and support of William's claim. Modern historians speculate that the invasion was viewed as a crusade against a purgered usurper, as well as a chance for land and booty.
Unlike the English army, the invading force was composed of infantry, archers and cavalry. The Norman knights were reckoned the best cavalry of Europe, utilising a lance and sword. Some accounts also indicate use of throwing javelins as an initial weapon. Infantry were somewhat similar to their English counterparts, most probably wielding spears and swords and wearing mail armour.
The battle was unusually long for medieval battles. William began by using his archers in the front rank to ‘soften up’ the English ranks. He then ordered infantry charges, before finally allowing his cavalry to attack the weakened English lines. These tactics were not successful, however, given the shield wall formation and the elevated ground the English were deployed on. The archers failed to have a significant impact on the English front line and the Norman infantry suffered sever losses under barrage of English missiles.
The two lines of infantry met with a clash of arms in bloody hand-to-hand combat. The English stood firm behind their shield wall and the Normans began to falter. Even the powerful Norman cavalry could not break the English lines, and after a time it became clear that the Bretons that comprised the left flank of Duke William’s forces were breaking. Seeing themselves as exposed the Norman and Flemish contingents similarly fled with the Bretons down the hill. Some undisciplined English followed, but not many, as Harold’s brothers Leofwine and Gyrth were able to hold the line and resist pursuit.
In the confusion and chaos of the retreat, the Norman Duke apparently lost control of his steed and was crushed under it as it fell dead. A rumour quickly spread that the Duke was lost and although William’s half-brother Bishop Odo of Bayeux attempted to rally the disheartened men the rout spread as loyal retainers retrieved the bloody Duke from the hill-side. Anglo-Saxon accounts state that the English shouts of ‘Out!’ pierced the air as the invaders scrambled for the bottom of the hill in confusion. Duke William himself was taken to the rear and played no further active role in the fighting.
Meanwhile, Bishop Odo managed to rally the Norman division, as well as remnants of the Flemish men and mounted various charges against the stubborn English ranks. Later in the day, as dusk approached, much of the invading army had either fled or fallen. Odo, with most of the Norman men still present, pressed on defiantly again and again, but was finally cloven in two by an anonymous Housecarl as he led a desperate charge towards King Harold’s banner. Many crossbowmen remained and had been redirected by Odo to fire straight upwards to hit the interior ranks of the English.
Most sources record the famous arrow strike. The King, standing defiant below the Dragon of Wessex, was apparently struck by an arrow as the Normans readied another infantry charge; however, a brave companion had apparently been struck dead in the eye with an arrow while the King was struck in the shoulder close-by. Defiantly raising his sword, the Norman charge faltered as it clashed with the English axes, a clear battle-cry of ‘Holy Cross’ filling the air in response to the arrow that missed.
As night fell the Normans retreated. King Harold had been aware that all he had to do was hold the ridge until night-fall. Through the night hundreds and then thousands of reinforcements arrived, swelling the English ranks with fresh men. Meanwhile, Duke William breathed his last around this time and his broken body was spirited away with riders towards the coast. Legend later has it that Matilda, the Duchess of Normandy, awaited her husband’s remains by pacing the coastline. It was around midnight that the King was informed of the wholesale retreat of the invaders. Victory belonged to the Godwinsons.
Only a remnant of the invading army ever made it back to the continent. The mercenary contingents of the Ducal forces were either cut down by pursuing English, killed by hostile locals who thirsted for revenge following the Norman desolation of their lands, or subsequently died of disease as desperate fugitives. The largest remnant, made up primarily of Normans and led by Roger de Beaumont, formally surrendered to Harold on the 16th October, with the promise that they would never set foot on English soil again.
In Normandy: the invaders suffered near annihilation, with the ranks of the Norman nobility being hit disproportionately hard and most of the Ducal companions slain. Following the failed invasion, the Duchess Matilda ruled uneasily as regent in the name of her son Robert. However, the young Duke was assassinated in 1072 AD which prompted the Great Anarchy period and the eventual collapse of the Duchy in 1079 AD and invasion by the forces of the King of France in the same year.
In England: once he received the surrender of the Norman remnant, King Harold disbanded the Fyrd and headed for London where he was hailed as ‘the greatest king who ever ruled’. A special ceremony was held to reconfirm his kingship on Christmas Day, 1066 AD. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Stigand, apparently declared that no man now stood that could challenge King Harold and that God had decisively chosen the House of Godwinson to rule the realm.
The Battle of Hastings was a defining moment in English history for several reasons. Firstly, it cemented the rule of the Godwinsons over England and provided a stabilising effect that eventually enabled King Harold’s successors to fully subjugate Wales and begin colonising Ireland with the powerful English navy in the mid-1100s.
Secondly, Hastings has come to be known as a symbol of stubbornness and bravery against overwhelming odds. King Harold is consistently voted among the greatest English monarchs, chiefly due to his victory on what the French sources bitterly called ‘Senlac’ hill (or ‘the lake of blood’). That he achieved this without archers or cavalry - and after fighting a previous bloody battle at Stamford Bridge just 19 days before - also adds to King Harold’s prestige and legend.
Third and finally, the Battle of Hastings was a shock to the English elite. Almost immediately afterwards the King began ‘modernising’ the professional English army, using Norman exiles to train the first contingents of English knights that began to be seen by the 1090s. Indeed, Harold’s time in Normandy as one of Duke William’s knights exposed him to Norman military culture and tactics, experience which he was able to act upon once his kingdom was secure.