Hastings: The Battle that Changed the Western Europe



The year 1066 is the most celebrated in English history. To every English schoolchild it evokes a Saxon hero, Harold, and a French villain, William, who met and fought at the battle of Hastings. The outcome was decided by an arrow in Harold’s eye. But history is seldom as commonly related. Harold, son of Godwin, was no Saxon and had no claim to the throne beyond Edward’s deathbed blessing. William was no Frenchman but descended from the Norse warrior Rollo, granted Normandy by the French king Charles the Simple in 911. He too had no claim beyond Edward’s apparent, but earlier, blessing. Both Harold and William were of the direct Viking descent.

Hastings news

Hastings news

William was a cunning, ambitious man capable of extreme violence. He ruled a dukedom smaller than Yorkshire for which he paid homage to the French king. His regime was based on feudal ownership of land, which he granted to his barons in return for service in war. In the spring of 1066 William summoned these barons to tell them he meant to claim the English crown and expected their support. Most refused, saying their oath of loyalty did not extend to foreign wars or personal vendettas. William did not control Calais and would have to sail from Normandy across the wider part of the Channel. He would need heavy ships for his horses and a tail wind. On landing, he would face a mature warrior fighting on his own soil. The whole venture was unwise. William was unmoved, but this opposition meant that what began as a bid for a crown and homage mutated into something more embracing. William had to bribe his barons with the promise of land in England, and recruit mercenaries from elsewhere who would need reward. His one tactical advantage was the blessing of Pope Alexander II, angry at Godwin’s appointment of Stigand as archbishop of Canterbury. A relic of St Peter was sent for William to carry into battle.

Harold Godwinson swearing fidelity to Duke William

Harold Godwinson swearing fidelity to Duke William

Harold responded by gathering a navy off the Isle of Wight and summoning a fyrd, or Saxon militia, which he deployed along the south coast. This supplemented the king’s own corps of ‘house ceorls’, 2,000 full-time soldiers of his personal guard. Such a defence should have been sufficient, but the first requirement for William’s invasion, a sout-west wind, failed to materialise. This meant trouble for both leaders. William had to keep a ramshackle and its transport ships together on the Normandy coast while Harold’s forces became desperate to return to their harvest. Harold also now received devastating news. His rebellious brother, Tostig of Northumbria, had travelled to Norway to encourage the Norse warlord Harald Hardrada in his distant claim to the English crown. Hardrada was a blond giant in his fifties who had spent his life fighting and looting his way across the continent, traversing Russia and reaching Constantinople and Sicily. He readily agreed to Tostig’s suggestion and in August landed at Scarborough with a fleet of 200 longships. From there he overwhelmed a Northumbrian army at Fulford and accepted the surrender of York.

The Battle of Stamford Bridge (pictured with Harald Hardrada in the middle wielding a battle-axe) was fought on foot with swords, spears and axes.

In the English Channel a storm further imprisoned William’s impatient fleet in Normandy, while convincing Harold’s commanders that there would be no invasion that year. Harold duly left his home at Bosham near Chichester and headed for London, where he learned of Hardrada’s landing in Northumbria. Within twenty-four hours he gathered his army and headed north, reaching York in just four days, one of the greatest forced marches in English history. Here he found that Hardrada had retired from York to Stamford Bridge, seven miles to the east, leaving a third of his army with his ships. Hardrada was surprised by the sudden arrival of the English force. Realising Hardrada was unprepared, Harold’s forces immediately charged and, in a fierce encounter, killed both Hardrada and Tostig. The surviving Norwegians were sent home humiliated. The death of Hardrada, ‘the last of the Vikings’, greatly lessened the threat from that quarter to the English throne.

Harold had spent just a week securing York when he was told the desperate news that William has sailed from France after all, and landed on 28 September at Pevensey. He now had to bring his exhausted army back south to London, where he received a message from William, now camped outside Hastings, restating his claim to the throne. Harold retorted that this was overridden by Edward’s bequest to him, by the witan’s decision and by his subsequent anointment. The matter was clearly to be settled by arms. Harold left London and reached Hastings on 13 October.

Anglo-Saxon warrior equipment Photo by Thom Atkinson

Anglo-Saxon warrior equipment Photo by Thom Atkinson

The field of the battle, which can be studied today, comprises a ridge and valley and was so confined that probably no more than 8,000 men could fight on either side. William is believed to have had 3,000 cavalry, grouped in platoons, supported by archers and infantry, which he could manoeuvre across the field. Harold’s troops fought on foot. They formed into a tight shell of shields on the crest of the ridge, which was defensively strong but hard to discipline or redeploy once it had broken for attack. Such an army lacked any divisional structure, fighting as Saxons (and Vikings) customarily did, with every man for himself and with the king surrounded only by his bodyguards.

On the morning of 14 October the Norman cavalry attacked the Saxon shields, but suffered severe damage to their horses from Saxon axes and spears. The Normans withdrew and regrouped while the Saxons recovered their missiles and cleared their dead. The Norman attack resumed and was again repulsed, but each time the Saxon numbers were reduced, mostly by Norman archers firing from a distance of 100 yards.

Harold's death at Hastings

Harold’s death at Hastings

A feigned retreat appears to have led the Saxons to break from their shield shell and charge downhill, at which point they became vulnerable to the Norman cavalry. The turning point came, according to the most accounts, when an arrow hit Harold in the eye. Seeing their chance, four Norman knights fought their way to him and hacked him to pieces. With the death of their leader, the Saxon fled to the surrounding woods. Harold’s body was so mutilated in the melee that his mistress, the charmingly named Edith Swan-Neck, had to be summoned to identify its parts. Harold was buried at Waltham Abbey, north of London.

Edith Swan-Neck discovering King Harold's corpse on the battle field of Hastings by Horace Vernet

Edith Swan-Neck discovering King Harold’s corpse on the battle field of Hastings by Horace Vernet

The narrative of Hastings was recorded in a tapestry commissioned probably from English needleworkers by Bishop Odo, William’s half-brother. Still hanging in Bayeux, it is one of the most vivid depictions of war in medieval history. Although victorious, William had lost a third of his army and many of his battle horses. He had neither reserves nor reinforcements and was alone in a hostile country, whose earls would surely resist when they learned that their land was promised to William’s supporters. William ordered an abbey to be founded on the site of the battle and determined to be crowned at the tomb of his claimed patron, Edward the Confessor, in London.

Two decades later, the Domesday Book was to chart a corridor of villages ‘wasted’ by the Norman army as it progressed from Sussex towards London. It did not test its formidable walls but marched up the Thames and round through Middlesex, waiting until the London bishops and burghers ‘submitted from necessity’. William confirmed the liberties granted them by Edward, claiming, ‘I will not suffer that any man offer you any wrong.’ London was left untouched and William’s coronation took place in Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day 1066, by Saxon bishops under the Saxon rite, but with a sullen citizenry outside.

Coronation of William the Conqueror

Coronation of William the Conqueror

from Simon Jenkins’ book “A Short History of England”

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