Battle of Hastings
Norman conquest of England
The Battle of Hastings occurred on 14 October 1066 during the Norman conquest of England, between the Norman-French army of Duke William II of Normandy and the English army under King Harold II.[a] It took place at Senlac Hill, approximately 10 km (61⁄4 miles) northwest of Hastings, close to the present-day town of Battle, East Sussex, and was a decisive Norman victory.
Harold II was killed in the battle—legend has it that he was shot through the eye with an arrow. Although there was further English resistance, this battle is seen as the point at which William gained control of England, becoming its first Norman ruler as King William I.
The battle also established the superiority of the combined arms attack over an army predominately composed of infantry, demonstrating the effectiveness of archers, cavalry and infantry working cooperatively. The dominance of cavalry forces over infantry would continue until the emergence of the longbow, and battles such as Crecy, Poitiers and Agincourt in the Hundred Years War.
The famous Bayeux Tapestry depicts the events before and during the battle. Battle Abbey marks the site where it is believed that the battle was fought. Founded by King William "the Conqueror" (as he became known), it serves as a memorial to the dead and may have been an act of penance for the bloodshed. The site is open to the public and is the location of annual re-enactments of the battle.
In 911, the French Carolingian ruler Charles the Simple allowed a group of Vikings under their leader Rollo to settle in Normandy. Their settlement proved successful,[b] and quickly adapted to the indigenous culture, renouncing paganism and converting to Christianity. They further blended into the culture by intermarrying with the local population. Over time, the frontiers of the duchy expanded to the west.
In 1002 King Æthelred II of England married Emma, the sister of Richard II, Duke of Normandy. Their son Edward the Confessor, who spent many years in exile in Normandy, succeeded to the English throne in 1042. This led to the establishment of a powerful Norman interest in English politics, as Edward drew heavily on his former hosts for support, bringing in Norman courtiers, soldiers, and clerics and appointing them to positions of power, particularly in the Church. Childless and embroiled in conflict with the formidable Godwin, Earl of Wessex and his sons, Edward may also have encouraged Duke William of Normandy's ambitions for the English throne.
Succession crisis in England
When King Edward died at the beginning of 1066, the lack of a clear heir led to a disputed succession in which several contenders laid claim to the throne of England. Edward's immediate successor was the Earl of Wessex, Harold Godwinson, the richest and most powerful of the English aristocrats, who was elected king by the Witenagemot of England and crowned by the Archbishop of York, Ealdred, although Norman propaganda claimed the ceremony was performed by Stigand, the uncanonically elected Archbishop of Canterbury. However, Harold was at once challenged by two powerful neighbouring rulers. Duke William claimed that he had been promised the throne by King Edward and that Harold had sworn agreement to this. Harald III of Norway, commonly known as Harald Hardrada, also contested the succession. His claim to the throne was based on an agreement between his predecessor Magnus I of Norway, and the earlier King of England Harthacanute, whereby if either died without heir, the other would inherit both England and Norway. Both William and Harald at once set about assembling troops and ships for an invasion.[c]
In early 1066, Harold's exiled brother Tostig Godwinson raided southeastern England with a fleet he had recruited in Flanders, later joined by other ships from Orkney. Threatened by Harold's fleet, Tostig moved north and raided in East Anglia and Lincolnshire, but he was driven back to his ships by the brothers Edwin, Earl of Mercia, and Morcar, Earl of Northumbria. Deserted by most of his followers, he withdrew to Scotland, where he spent the summer recruiting fresh forces. King Harald III of Norway invaded northern England in early September, leading a fleet of over 300 ships carrying perhaps 15,000 men. Harald's army was further augmented by the forces of Tostig, who threw his support behind the Norwegian king's bid for the throne. Advancing on York, the Norwegians occupied the city after defeating a northern English army under Edwin and Morcar on 20 September at the Battle of Fulford.
Harold's preparations and the English army
Harold had spent the summer on the south coast with a large army and fleet waiting for William to invade, but the bulk of his forces were militia that needed to harvest their crops, so on 8 September Harold dismissed them. Learning of the Norwegian invasion, he rushed north, gathering forces as he went, and took the Norwegians by surprise, defeating them at the Battle of Stamford Bridge on 25 September. Harald of Norway and Tostig were killed, and the Norwegians suffered such horrific losses that only 24 of the original 300 ships were required to carry away the survivors. The English victory came at great cost, however, as Harold's army was left in a battered and weakened state.
The army was organized along regional lines, with the fyrd, or local levy, serving under a local magnate - whether an earl, bishop, or sheriff. The fyrd was composed of men who owned their own land, and who were equipped by their community to fulfill the demands of the king for military forces. For every five hides, one man was supposed to serve in the fyrd. It appears that the hundred was the main organizing unit for the fyrd. As a whole, the whole of England could furnish about 14,000 men for the fyrd, when it was called out. The fyrd usually served for 2 months, except in emergencies. It was rare for the whole national fyrd to be called out - between 1046 and 1065 it was only done a total of three times - in 1051, 1052, and 1065. The king also had a group of personal armsmen, known as the housecarls, who formed the backbone of the royal forces. Some earls also had their own forces of housecarls. Thegns, who were the local landowning elites, either fought with the royal housecarls or would attach themselves to the forces of an earl or other magnate. Both the fyrd and the housecarls would have fought on foot. The main difference between the two types was the armour, with the housecarls using better protecting armour than that of the fyrd. The English army does not appear to have had significant numbers of archers, although some were present.
William's preparations and landing
Meanwhile William assembled a large invasion fleet and an army gathered not only from Normandy but from all over France, including large contingents from Brittany and Flanders. William spent almost months on his preparations, as he had to construct a fleet from nothing. According to some Norman chronicles, he also secured diplomatic support, although how likely some of the reports are accurate has been a matter of historical debate. The most famous claim is that Pope Alexander II gave a papal banner as a token of support, which only appears in William of Poitiers account, and not in more contemporary narratives. William mustered his forces at Saint-Valery-sur-Somme. The army was ready to cross by about 12 August. However, the crossing was delayed, either because of unfavourable weather or because of the desire to avoid being intercepted by the powerful English fleet. The Normans did not in fact cross to England until a few days after Harold's victory over the Norwegians, following the dispersal of Harold's naval force. They landed at Pevensey in Sussex on 28 September and erected a wooden castle at Hastings, from which they raided the surrounding area.
Norman forces at Hastings
The exact numbers and composition of William's force is unknown. A contemporary document claims that William had 726 ships, but this may be an inflated figure. Figures given by contemporary writers are highly exaggerated, varying from 14,000 to 150,000. Modern historians have offered a range of estimates for the size of William's forces: 7000–8000 men, 1000–2000 of them cavalry; 10,000–12,000 men; 10,000 men, 3000 of them cavalry; or 7500 men. The army would have consisted of a mix of cavalry, infantry, and archers or crossbowmen, with about equal numbers of cavalry and archers and the foot soldiers equal in number to the other two types combined. Although later lists of companions of William the Conqueror are extant, most are padded with extra names; only about 35 individuals can be reliably claimed to have been with William at Hastings.[d]
The main armour was chain-mail hauberks, usually knee-length, with slits to allow riding, some with sleeves to the elbows. Some hauberks may have been made of scales attached to a tunic, with the scales made of metal, horn or hardened leather. Headgear was usually a conical metal helmet with a band of metal extending down to protect the nose. Shields were carried by both horsemen and infantry. The infantryman's shield was usually round and made of wood with reinforcement of metal. Horsemen had switched to a kite-shaped shield and were usually armed with a lance. The couched lance, carried tucked against the body under the right arm, was a relatively new refinement and likely did not happen at Hastings, due to the unfavourable terrain for long cavalry charges. Both the infantry and cavalry usually fought with a straight sword, long and double-edged. The infantry could also use javelins and long spears. Some of the cavalry may have used a mace instead of the sword. Archers would have used a selfbow or a crossbow. Most archers would not have had armour.
Harold moves south
Harold, after defeating his brother Tostig and Harald Hardrada in the north, left much of his forces in the north, including Morcar and Edwin, and marched the rest of his army south to deal with the threatened Norman invasion. It is unclear when Harold learned of William's landing, but it was probably while he was travelling south. Harold stopped in London, and was there for about a week before Hastings, so it is likely that he spent about a week on his march south, averaging about 27 miles (43 kilometres) per day, for the approximately 200 miles (320 kilometres) distance. Although Harold attempted to surprise the Normans, William's scouts reported the English arrival to the duke. The exact events preceding the battle are obscure, with contradictory accounts in the sources, but all agree that William led his army from his castle and advanced towards the enemy. Harold had taken a defensive position at the top of Senlac Hill (present-day Battle, East Sussex), about 6 miles (9.7 kilometres) from William's castle at Hastings.
English forces at Hastings
The exact number of soldiers in Harold's army is unknown. The contemporary records do not give reliable figures, with some Norman sources giving 400,000 to 1,200,000 men on Harold's side.[e] The English sources generally give very low figures for Harold's army, perhaps to make the English defeat feel less devastating in its impact. Recent historians have suggested figures of between 5000 and 13,000 for Harold's army at Hastings, and most modern historians argue for a figure of 7000–8000 English troops. These men would have been a mix of the fyrd and the housecarls. Few individual Englishmen are known to have been at Hastings, with the most important ones being Harold's brothers Gyrth and Leofwine. About 20 named individuals can be reasonably assumed to have fought with Harold at Hastings, including Harold's two brothers and two other relatives.[f]
The English army consisted entirely of infantry. It is possible that some of the higher class members of the army rode to battle, but when battle was joined they dismounted to fight on foot.[g] The core of the army was made up the housecarls, who were full-time professional soldiers. Their armour consisted of a conical helmet, a mail hauberk, and a shield, which might be either kite-shaped or round. Most housecarls fought with the two-handed Danish battleaxe, but they could also carry a sword as well. The rest of the army was made up of infantry, with some archers and perhaps lightly armoured troops as well. Most of the infantry would have formed part of the shield wall, in which all the men on the front ranks locked their shields together. Behind the front rank would have been axemen and men with javelins as well as archers.
The battle occurred on Saturday 14 October 1066. William relied on basic tactics with archers in the front rank weakening the enemy with arrows, followed by infantry which would engage in close combat, culminating in a cavalry charge that would break through the English forces. However, his tactics did not work as well as planned. William's army attacked the English as soon as they were ready and formed up. Norman archers shot several volleys but many of the arrows hit the shield wall and had very little effect. Believing the English to have been softened up, William ordered his infantry to attack. As the Normans charged up the hill, the English threw down whatever they could find: stones, javelins, and maces. The barrage inflicted heavy casualties among the Norman ranks, causing the lines to break up.
In the early stages of the battle, the shield wall was very effective at defending against the Norman archery barrages. The entire army took up position along the ridge-line; as casualties fell in the front lines the rear ranks would move forward to fill the gaps.
The infantry charge reached the English lines, where ferocious hand-to-hand fighting took place. William had expected the English to falter, but the arrow barrage had little effect and nearly all the English troops still stood, their shield wall intact. As a result William ordered his cavalry to charge far sooner than planned. Faced with a wall of axes, spears and swords, many of the horses shied away despite their careful breeding and training. After an hour of fighting, the Breton division on William's left faltered and broke completely, fleeing down the hill. Suffering heavy casualties and realising they would be quickly outflanked, the Norman and Flemish divisions retreated with the Bretons. Unable to resist the temptation, many of the English broke ranks, including hundreds of fyrdmen and Harold's brothers, Leofwyne and Gyrthe. In the following confused fighting, William's horse was killed from underneath him, and he toppled to the ground. Initially, many of William's soldiers thought that he had been killed, and an even greater rout ensued. It was only after he stood up and threw off his helmet that William was able to rally his fleeing troops.
William and a group of his knights successfully counter-attacked the pursuing English, who were no longer protected by the shield wall, and cut down large numbers of fyrdmen. Many did not recognise the Norman counter-attack until it was too late, but some managed to scramble back up the hill to the safety of the housecarls. Harold's brothers were not so fortunate—their deaths deprived the English of an alternative leader after the death of Harold. The two armies formed up, and a temporary lull fell over the battle. The battle had turned to William's advantage, since the English had lost much of the protection provided by the shield wall. Without the cohesion of a disciplined, strong formation, the individual English were easy targets. William launched his army at the strong English position again and many of the English housecarls were killed.
With such a large number of English fyrdmen now holding the front rank, the disciplined shield wall that the housecarls had maintained began to falter, presenting an opportunity to William. At the start of the battle the hail of arrows fired at the English by William's bowmen was ineffective because of the English shields. Though many on the front ranks still had shields, William ordered his archers to fire over the shield wall so that the arrows landed in the clustered rear ranks of the English army. The archers did this with great success. Legend states that it was at this point that Harold was hit in the eye by an arrow. Many of the English were now weary. William's army attacked again, and managed to make small chinks in the shield wall. They were able to exploit these gaps, and the English army began to fragment. William and a handful of knights broke through the wall, and struck down the English king. Without their leader and with many nobles dead, hundreds of fyrdmen fled the field. The housecarls kept their oath of loyalty to the king, and fought bravely until they were all killed.
Only a remnant of the defenders made their way back to the forest. Some of the Norman forces pursued the English but were ambushed and destroyed in the dusk when they ran afoul of steep ground, called, in later (12th century) sources, "the Malfosse", or "bad ditch". The most likely site of Malfosse can be identified today as Oakwood Gill a deep ditch now traversed by the A2100 road, north of Battle. William rested his army for two weeks near Hastings, waiting for the English lords to come and submit to him. Then, after he realised his hopes of submission at that point were in vain, he began his advance on London. His army was seriously reduced in November by dysentery, and William himself was gravely ill. However, he was reinforced by fresh troops crossing the English Channel.
Meanwhile in London the remnants of the English government had assembled and hastily chosen the young and inexperienced Edgar as king. It has been said that they chose him because a weak king was better than no king at all and in the absence of any of the Godwinson family he was now the only viable candidate. It is not known if he was crowned. It would have made sense to have him crowned as soon as possible as his predecessor Harold had been, but there is no record to support this. Not long after the election of Edgar, the northern earls, Edwin and Morcar left the city and returned with their forces to their respective earldoms. It has been speculated that they regarded the war with William as a dispute between him and the Godwinson family and hoped to make their own peace. Other members of the English establishment such as Edgar's sisters Margaret and Cristina hastily decamped with their retinues to Chester for safety.
William advanced through Kent devastating Romney and receiving the submission of Dover and its important castle. At Dover he paused for a week receiving the submission of Canterbury on October 29. He sent messengers to Winchester who received the submission of that city from the widowed Queen Edith. From Canterbury William advanced to Southwark. After being thwarted in an attempt to cross London Bridge he destroyed the town. He now approached the city by a circuitous route crossing the Thames at Wallingford ravaging the land as he went. The Norman forces advanced on London from the north-west eventually reaching Berkhampstead in late November 1066.
Messages were relayed between William's forces and the beleaguered authorities in London. Eventually it was agreed that the city would be spared further carnage if Edgar abdicated and William was recognised as king. This agreement seems to have been imposed on the young Edgar. In early December, Ansgar the Sheriff of Middlesex, the archbishops of York and Canterbury and the deposed Edgar the Atheling came out and submitted to the Norman duke. William received them graciously and accepted their submission. From here he relocated his forces to Romford taking with him appropriate hostages.
Battle Abbey was built on the site of the battle. A plaque marks the place where Harold is believed to have fallen and the location where the high altar of the church once stood. The settlement of Battle, East Sussex, grew up around the abbey and is now a small market town.
The Bayeux Tapestry depicts the events before, during, and after the Battle of Hastings.
The Battle of Hastings is an example of the theory of combined arms. The Norman bowmen, cavalry and infantry cooperated to deny the English the initiative and gave the homogeneous English army few tactical options except defence.
It is possible that this tactical sophistication existed primarily in the minds of the Norman chroniclers. The account of the battle given in the earliest source, the Carmen de Hastingae Proelio, is one where the Norman advance surprises the English, who manage to gain the top of Senlac Hill before the Normans. The Norman light infantry is sent in while the English are forming their shield wall (to no avail) and then the main force was sent in (no distinction being made between infantry and cavalry).
Succeeding sources include (in chronological order) William of Poitiers's Gesta Guillelmi (written between 1071 and 1077), The Bayeux Tapestry (created between 1070 and 1077), and the much later Chronicle of Battle Abbey, the chronicles written by William of Malmesbury, Florence of Worcester, and Eadmer's Historia Novorum in Anglia embellishes the story further, with the final result being a William whose tactical genius was at a high level that he failed to display in any other battle.
The Battle of Hastings had a tremendous influence on the English language. The Normans were French-speaking, and as a result of their rule, they introduced many French words that started in the nobility and eventually became part of the English language itself.
- In this article dates before 14 September 1752 are in the Julian calendar, later dates are in the Gregorian calendar.
- The Vikings in the region became known as the "Northmen" from which "Normandy" and "Normans" are derived.
- Other contenders later came to the fore. The first was Edgar Ætheling, Edward the Confessor's great nephew who was of direct descent from King Edmund Ironside. He was the son of Edward the Exile, son of Edmund Ironside, and was born in Hungary, where his father had fled after the conquest of England by Cnut. After his family's eventual return to England and his father's death in 1057, Edgar had by far the strongest hereditary claim to the throne. Unfortunately for Edgar, he was only about thirteen or fourteen at the time of Edward the Confessor's death and with little family to support him, his claim was passed over by the Witan. Another contender was Sweyn II of Denmark, who had a claim to the throne as the grandson of Sweyn Forkbeard and nephew of Cnut, but he did not make his bid for the throne until 1069. Tostig Godwinson's attacks in early 1066 may have been the beginning of a bid for the throne, but after defeat at the hands of Edwin and Morcar and the desertion of most of his followers he threw his lot in with Harald Hardrada.
- Of those 35, 5 are known to have died in the battle – Robert of Vitot, Engenulf of Laigle, Robert fitzErneis, Roger son of Turold, and Taillefer.
- The 400,000 figure is given in Wace's Romance de Rou and the 1,200,000 figure coming from the Carmen de Hastingae Proelio.
- Of these named persons, eight died in the battle – Harold, Gyrth, Leofwine, Godric the sheriff, Thurkill of Berkshire, Breme, and someone known only as "son of Helloc".
- Some historians have argued, based on comments by Snorri Sturlson made in the 13th century, that the English army did occasionally fight as cavalry. Contemporary accounts however, such as in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle record that when English soldiers were forced to fight on horseback, they were usually routed, as happend in 1055 near Hereford.
- Lawson "Observations upon a scene in the Bayeux Tapestry" Medieval State pp. 75–85
- Bates Normandy Before 1066 pp. 8–10
- Crouch Normans pp. 15–16
- Bates Normandy Before 1066 p. 12
- Bates Normandy Before 1066 pp. 20–21
- Hallam and Everard Capetian France p. 53
- Williams Æthelred the Unready p. 54
- Huscroft Ruling England p. 3
- Stafford Unification and Conquest pp. 86–99
- Higham Death of Anglo-Saxon England pp. 167–181
- Walker Harold pp. 136–138
- Bates William the Conqueror pp. 73–77
- Higham Death of Anglo-Saxon England pp. 188–190
- Huscroft Ruling England pp. 12–14
- Walker Harold pp. 144–145
- Walker Harold pp. 154–158
- Walker Harold pp. 144–150
- Walker Harold pp. 158–165
- Nicholle Medieval Warfare Sourcebook pp. 69–71
- Marren 1066 pp. 55–57
- Gravett Hastings pp. 28–29
- Bates William the Conqueror pp. 79–89
- Huscroft Norman Conquest pp. 120-122
- Douglas William the Conqueror p. 192
- Gravett Hastings pp. 20–21
- Bennett Campaigns of the Norman Conquest p. 25
- Lawson Hastings pp. 163–164
- Bennett Campaigns of the Norman Conquest p. 26
- Marren 1066 pp. 89–90
- Gravett Hastings p. 27
- Marren 1066 pp. 108–109
- Marren 1066 pp. 107–108
- Gravett Hastings pp. 15–19
- Gravett Hastings p. 22
- Gravett Hastings pp. 24–25
- Carpenter Struggle for Mastery p. 72
- Marren 1066 p. 93
- Huscroft Norman Conquest p. 124
- Lawson Battle of Hastings pp. 180–182
- Marren 1066 pp. 99–100
- Lawson Battle of Hastings p. 128 footnote 32
- Lawson Battle of Hastings p. 128 and footnote 32
- Lawson Hastings pp. 130–133
- Marren 1066 p. 105
- Gravett Hastings pp. 29–31
- Marren 1066 p. 52
- Bennett, et al. Fighting Techniques pp. 21–22
- Huscroft Norman Conquest pp. 125–126
- Howarth 1066 p. 165
- Oakwood Gill by C. T. Chevallier (1963) therein citing deeds of Battle Abbey and Manorial maps of 1724 and 1811. Also William Dugdale's Monasticon 1538. And Four Deeds c. 1240, c. 1245, 1279 and 1302. 
- The 1066 Malfosse Walk by Neil Clephane-Cameron, Joanne Lawrence and David Sawyer, Battle and District Historical Society (2000) ISBN 1-903099-00-5, p.15
- The History of the Norman Conquest of England, Edward A. Freemand, Volume III, p.532–7
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- Higham, Nick (2000). The Death of Anglo-Saxon England. Stroud, UK: Sutton. ISBN 0-7509-2469-1. Unknown parameter
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- Huscroft, Richard (2005). Ruling England 1042–1217. London: Pearson/Longman. ISBN 0-582-84882-2.
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- Lawson, M. K. (2000). "Observations Upon a Scene in the Bayeux Tapestry". The Medieval State: Essays Presented to James Campbell. London: Hambledon Press. pp. 73–92.
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to: Battle of Hastings|
- Official English Heritage site
- Origins of the conflict, the battle itself and its aftermath BBC History website
- William of Malmesbury's Account