Medieval historian Hazel Blair analyses one of the most decisive battles in British history
In April 1066, ‘a portent such as men had never seen before’ was observed in the sky above England. The sign was Halley’s Comet and contemporaries believed it heralded great change. In medieval accounts of the Battle of Hastings, the omen foreshadows Harold’s downfall. But was the English king really destined for defeat?
The best-known date in English history may be 1066, but we know surprisingly little about the battle that destroyed Anglo-Saxon England. When it comes to the Norman Conquest, myth and history often seem inseparable.
Duke William of Normandy’s knights, for instance, have become synonymous with his victory, and the Bayeux Tapestry is packed full of mounted warriors charging towards Harold’s line. By comparison, the English foot soldiers seem small and insignificant – as if doomed to die beneath the horses’ hooves.
But despite the starry omen and William’s eventual triumph, Hastings was an exceptionally close-run battle. The duke’s mail-clad horsemen may have been a spectacle, but the strength of the Anglo-Saxons’ defence against the Norman invaders deserves wider recognition.
Harold: successor or usurper?
England’s economy in the 11th century was strong, but even prosperous countries are not immune to political infighting. Although Edward the Confessor led a relatively peaceful life, he was childless and his death plunged the kingdom into turmoil as rival parties vied for the English throne. The king’s closest blood relative was Edgar the Aethling, a 14-year-old boy unable to muster the strength required to fight his illness, let alone fight for the crown.
The Witenagemot (an assembly of Anglo-Saxon nobles) thus elected Harold Godwinson as Edward’s successor. His kingly qualities had shone through during his campaigns against Gruffydd ap Llywelyn, King of Wales, in the early 1060s, and, having held the earldoms of East Anglia, Wessex, and Hereford at various times, he was considered the man best qualified to lead the country. Some Anglo-Saxons even maintained that, with his dying breath, Edward granted Harold his kingdom.
To the Normans, however, Harold was nothing but a covetous usurper. They claimed Duke William was bestowed Edward’s blessing, marked for kingship because of familial ties to the House of Wessex through his great-aunt Emma, Edward’s mother. But William’s fight for England might also have been personal: Harold, the Norman chroniclers and the Bayeux Tapestry stress, had broken a sacred oath.
While visiting Normandy in 1064/1065, Harold had accompanied William in his pursuit and defeat of the Duke of Brittany during the Breton-Norman War (1064-1065). He was thanked for his services in the campaign, and it was then, the Normans claimed, that he promised to support William should the bastard duke make a bid for the English throne.
Trouble was also stirring to the east, as King Harald Hardrada of Norway made ready to seize Harold’s crown. Harald’s predecessor Cnut had subjugated England half a century earlier, and this, Hardrada claimed, made him Edward’s rightful heir.
Normans and Norsemen
King Harold’s men gazed across the Channel throughout the summer and autumn of 1066. The King had come to Kent from London to quash raids led by his unscrupulous brother Tostig, and, once his sibling had fled, turned his attention to the looming threat from Normandy.
According to one Anglo-Saxon chronicler, he marshalled land and naval forces ‘larger than any king had assembled before in this country’. In full anticipation of Duke William’s invasion (though, seemingly, not Hardrada’s), he had men keep watch from the Isle of Wight and stationed others along the chalky southern coastline.
Having suffered two centuries of Viking raids, the Anglo-Saxons were a battle-hardened people. The King was vigilant; his troops were ready – but the Normans did not come.
On 8 September, believing the campaigning season over, Harold dispersed his navy and withdrew his men from their watch along the Kentish coast. They had been alert for months but had run out of provisions. And, although the King knew his rivals were still out there, probably plotting his demise, he assumed that, with winter approaching, their fervour would have cooled.
He was mistaken. That day, Hardrada came ashore near York to contest Harold’s crown. With Tostig’s support, the Norwegian king harried the east coast demanding surrender, punishing anyone who dared resist.
The army Harold had at his disposal in 1066 proved itself at the Battle of Stamford Bridge, fought against the Norwegian invaders three weeks before Hastings. There, the Anglo-Saxons won a decisive victory.
Hardrada – his name means ‘hard ruler’ – was a warrior-king with a fearsome reputation. Already, in the two weeks since his landing, he had massacred Mercians and Northumbrians at the Battle of Fulford – an initial challenge to his invasion, led by Harold’s northern earls Edwin and Morcar.
But the English military system was robust, and Harold’s army was tough and well disciplined. Learning of the Norwegian advance and the crumbling Anglo-Saxon resistance, Harold and his men travelled north in just five days to rout the invaders, picking up further troops from the shires along the way.
Having rapidly assembled, the Anglo-Saxons delivered a crushing defeat to the Norwegians on 25 September. Along with several thousand warriors, both Hardrada and Tostig were slain.
Few reliable details of the engagement survive. The Norwegians are said to have fought without their armour, having been taken by surprise. Some 13th-century Icelandic sagas state that the English fought with cavalry, but there is little evidence to support this and, for the most part, the historical record suggests Harold’s men fought on foot.
The exact number of casualties is unknown, but both sides battled hard and the fighting lasted several hours. In the end, of the 200-300 warships with which the invaders had come to England, fewer than 25 returned to Norway.
Harold’s imminent defeat in the south must not obscure the scale of his achievement in Yorkshire. Indeed, his victory in the north is testament to the might of the force he could muster at short notice. Having extinguished the Viking threat, his position was much stronger. The reign of England’s last Anglo-Saxon king, though volatile, was at its zenith.
The Normans set sail for England two days later. William made the voyage from St-Valery-sur-Somme with a fleet of 700 newly built ships loaded with soldiers, horses, provisions, and weapons. Crossing the water, propelled by a favourable wind, his men landed at Pevensey Bay on 28 September.
When Harold, in York, received news of William’s landing, he promptly made for London with those infantrymen who were able to make the journey south. There, he gathered more levies, raised from neighbouring shires, and installed a fleet of ships in the Channel to stop the Normans retreating.
William sought combat and a quick victory. Assembling his troops, he led them northwards to present-day Battle, where the armies converged on Saturday 14 October. The precise location of the battlefield has not been convincingly located, but William founded Battle Abbey near the site four years later.
Emerging from dense forest, their spears glistening in the morning sunlight, Harold’s men arrayed in a strong defensive position. Whether or not Harold picked the location of the fighting in advance has been the subject of much debate, but, regardless, we know that his foot soldiers benefitted from being stationed uphill.
The Normans approached the battlefield from the south, with an integrated force of archers, infantry, and cavalry, arranged in three groups, one behind the other. The duke rode in the centre-rear, surrounded by his knights, his left wing manned by Bretons and his right wing by Franco-Flemish mercenaries. Trumpets were sounded at 9am. The battle commenced.
It may have been William of Normandy’s finest achievement, but, while decisive, his victory at Hastings was not inevitable. The Anglo-Saxons employed a practised and effective method of defence that was hundreds of years old: atop Battle ridge, they stood many ranks deep, rooted to the ground, shoulder-to-shoulder behind a wall of overlapping shields.
Armoured thegns (nobles who owed military service to the king) and housecarls (royal and noble household troops) manned the front-line and flanks, with the weight of several thousand levies packed behind them.
The Normans advanced. Proceeding up the slope, the Norman archers and infantry inflicted some casualties on their enemies early in the day: ‘On both sides the foemen raged with brandished spears,’ wrote the author of The Song of the Battle of Hastings (a controversial, but recently rehabilitated 11th-century source). But although some Norman arrows and javelins found their way behind the shield-wall, the Anglo-Saxons remained close-packed and unyielding:
They [the Anglo-Saxons] met missile with missile, sword-stroke with sword-stroke… each corpse, though lifeless, stood as if unharmed and held its post.
The Norman foot soldiers had little impact. Comparing the eventual outcome of the battle with that of Stamford Bridge, one might be inclined to attribute the Anglo-Saxons’ defeat at Hastings to the might of William’s cavalry. But that would be too hasty a conclusion: the reality was that the Normans continued to struggle uphill for most of the day, on a field that was uncultivated and difficult for their horses.
And once in combat, the cavalry had just as great difficulty overcoming the English as their infantry. Charging with lance and sword, they would have found the Anglo-Saxon shield-wall impenetrable as long as Harold’s infantry maintained their formation and kept their nerve.
Horsemen cannot break determined infantry in frontal collision. Horses will not ride into a solid barrier, especially one fronted by a hedge of blades. Each horseman is separated from his enemy by the head and neck of his mount. And each faces half a dozen opponents among the far more closely packed infantry opposite.
The fighting lasted until dusk, the Anglo-Saxon line still unbroken. Why, then, does the myth of all-conquering Norman cavalry persist?
Romance of the mounted Warrior
In The Western Way of War, Victor Davis Hanson makes two points especially relevant to this question. The first is that medieval nobles were proud of their role as cavalry. Knights were trained, high-status fighters, recruited from a political and social elite, and keen to assert their superiority over lower-class infantry.
Horses, especially warhorses, were expensive to maintain, which made them suitable symbols of aristocratic power. For evidence, one need look no further then William I’s own royal seal, produced soon after the Conquest – its obverse depicts the King as a warlord: mounted, in mail, as if riding into battle.
Hanson’s second point is that the romance of the mounted warrior was compounded when European kings and nobles battled Muslims in the Middle East with a view to recovering the Holy Land. There, heavily armoured Crusader cavalrymen led a number of successful shock charges against Saracen horsemen and archers.
Lightly armed Saracens were often overwhelmed by their metal-clad opponents. The chronicler Fulcher of Chartres described Eustace Grenier’s decisive rout of the Fatmids at Yibneh in 1123 in some detail:
this battle did not last long because when our foes saw our armed men advance in excellent order against them their horsemen immediately took flight as if completely bewitched, going into a panic instead of using good sense. Their foot soldiers were massacred.
Saladin’s army was similarly defeated in the Crusader counterattack at Arsuf in 1191. Despite the importance of infantry during the Crusades, noble, armoured knights became increasingly linked with Christian victories. This general association, in turn, has contributed to the conventional wisdom that William’s cavalry must have trumped Harold’s shield-wall at Hastings.
So why did Harold lose the Battle of Hastings? Contemporary sources report that he was forced to begin fighting before all his men had arrived on the field, but, even if this is true, the fighting lasted several hours, so it probably had little impact.
Some historians have cited Harold’s recent losses at Stamford Bridge as a key reason for his downfall. But there is no evidence that his professional core was significantly depleted in this battle, and the bulk of his line at Hastings was, in any case, formed of militia raised in the southern counties. Others have questioned the adequacy of his position – although, as noted, the debate over the battle’s precise location still rages on.
The problem with these explanations is that they presuppose an English defeat, when, in fact, William’s army was not invincible and Harold’s troops defended themselves successfully for most of the day. The king’s men, though wearied and somewhat diminished, were not broken. In fact, having already withstood several hours of Norman cavalry assaults, close-quarters fighting, and relentless showers of arrows, it seemed as though they were set to win.
Their defence was such that the troops on William’s left flank began to peel away: ‘frightened by such ferocity, the infantry and Breton mounted warriors both retreated, with all the auxiliary troops who formed the left wing. Almost the whole of the duke’s army yielded’, believing ‘their duke and lord had been slain,’ wrote Poitiers.
Thinking they were victorious, some of the Anglo-Saxons broke ranks and rushed forward in hot pursuit of the fleeing Normans. This was a costly error. William lifted his helmet to prove he was still alive, and led a fresh charge against his enemies, slaughtering those who had descended from the hill.
The English reformed their line to prevent further breaches in their shield-wall, but, on reaching the Anglo-Saxons, the Normans began to inflict heavy casualties on a line now somewhat disordered and demoralised.
‘An unusual kind of combat’
Even now the Normans struggled to break through. And they could not continue to fight at close-quarters without sustaining heavy losses. Their mighty warhorses were no match for the English shield-wall, which resisted the onslaught of the Norman heavy horse just as the Swabians had done 13 years earlier at Civitate in southern Italy.
But because they had made small inroads against the Anglo-Saxons by retreating, the Normans decided to repeat this manoeuvre. Turning on their heels once more, they pretended to withdraw, enticing yet another wave of English foot soldiers down the hillside.
Then, wheeling their horses, the Norman cavalry charged across the battlefield and butchered those who had run after them. Poitiers says they repeated the move twice, killing ‘thousands’ of Anglo-Saxons.
The feigned retreat has been heavily scrutinised by historians, with some rejecting the veracity of the incident because of the intricate organisation required to carry out the operation. But given that the Normans had already used the trick at Arques in 1053, and at Messina in 1060, there is little reason to doubt the ability of William’s cavalry to employ this tactic at Hastings.
Nevertheless, the Anglo-Saxons continued to hold firm. According to Poitiers, ‘an unusual kind of combat ensued, one side attacking in bursts and in a variety of movements, the other rooted to the ground, putting up with the assault.’
The day was drawing to a close when news spread that Harold, his brothers, and other leading nobles had been killed. Believing they had almost routed the Normans earlier in the day, the Anglo-Saxons’ morale must have plummeted. Their defence faltered. In the context of an uncertain royal succession, without their king, they were thrown into confusion.
William seized his chance and charged forward with fury; the Anglo-Saxons finally gave way. Spent, they turned on their heels and fled into the trees behind them, but the Norman cavalry gave chase and cut them down. Some Englishmen staged a last-gasp defence, but they too were slaughtered.
It was, then, William’s combined-arms force that led him to victory: his army was more than the sum of its parts, and the ‘variety of movements’ employed by the Normans in their final assault was the key to their success.
Archers shot arrows, further weakening the Anglo-Saxon mass, which had been reduced by the wily cavalry. And greater credit should surely be accorded to the Norman heavy infantry, who are only briefly mentioned in the sources and are not represented on the Bayeux Tapestry at all: presumably they contributed to this final assault, just as they did in the opening stages of the conflict, fighting at close range with spears and swords.
Hastings has inspired more questions than it has provided answers. One thing, however, is certain: Harold, whatever his order of battle, defended himself successfully for almost nine hours against his attackers. Positioned uphill, he built around him a fortress of men who thwarted each of the Normans’ attempts to breach his shield-wall, which maintained its structural integrity for the best part of the battle. Not even the cavalry could break through.
In fact, the Anglo-Saxons defended themselves so well that they began to think they had won. Perhaps they would have, had they not broken ranks to give chase. In doing so, they gave William the opening he needed to unleash the full force of his combined-arms professional army. Without realising, they ushered in the end of the Anglo-Saxon age.
This is an article from the October 2016 issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about the magazine and how to subscribe, click here.