A Red Dawn Rises - The Battle of Hastings, 1066
As the early morning sun dawned on October 14th, 1066 AD, casting its light on the clustered, eager soldiers, it would herald a new bloody, revolutionary epoch in the history of England. For on this day, at the climax of rapidly changing events, two armies would clash in a fateful confrontation. It would be known as the Battle of Hastings .
Let us retrace the steps of two heroic, unyielding kings: Harald Godwinson and William the Conqueror . We will get to the heart of the matter, re-living this historical battle one step at a time. Hastings awaits, and the fate of England is balanced on the tip of a sword.
The Prelude to the Battle of Hastings
In 1066, Anglo-Saxon England was roughly in its sixth century of existence. Ever since the fifth century AD, when Angles, Jutes, and Saxons set sail from the north of Europe and settled the southern parts of England, it saw the birth and establishment of a strong Anglo-Saxon identity. A new Germanic current that would rise up and overshadow the indigenous Celtic Brythonic populace. Wales and Cornwall persevered and kept their identity, but the strength and the influence of the Angles and Saxons was overwhelming.
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But by the late 10th and early 11th centuries, England grew into a formidable nation, a collection of petty kingdoms that grew wealthy over the centuries. Wessex, Mercia and Northumbria, Kent and Sussex, East Anglia and Essex – all were led by pious and wealthy ealdormen, with the rule from the rich House of Wessex. The wealth of England became known and the island became subject to plunder by the Vikings of the North – starting from the fateful year of 793.
But in the few years before 1066, the people of England lived in relative peace and prosperity, even though the rule of the last king – Edward the Confessor – was far from stable.
Through his weak leadership, the powerful earls of Mercia, Northumbria, and other lands bickered and entered into open rivalry for power. It was this internal crisis and power struggle that would provide the backdrop for what was to come in October 1066.
On January 5, 1066, King Edward the Confessor died without offspring. Without a clear heir, the earls of England entered a power struggle for the vacant throne. But they weren’t the only ones who coveted that seat. From across the channel, the powerful Norman knight , William I, the Duke of Normandy asserted his own claim to the English throne.
Edward's funeral depicted in scene 26 of the Bayeux Tapestry. ( Public Domain )
His claim was valid – the mother of late Edward the Confessor was a Norman princess – and directly related to Duke William. With his claim as an heir to the throne, the Norman duke assembled a vast army roughly 12,000 strong. This army was one of the finest in Western Europe – the Normans gained a reputation as fierce knights that brought innovations into the military sphere of the Middle Ages . And bolstered with reinforcements from Flanders and Bretagne, William prepared his forces to sail across the channel. He was eager and confident.
The rule over England in the meantime fell into the hands of Harold Godwinson –the Earl of Wessex and the richest and most powerful aristocrat in Anglo-Saxon England. But as soon as he acquired the throne, Godwinson was faced with pressure and troubles. He knew of William’s intention to sail, but he also had another enemy to face.
King Harold places the crown on his own head. ( Public Domain )
From the frigid North, another would-be king descended upon England – the king of Norway, Harald Hardrada also claimed his right to the vacant throne. He set sail with an army of more than 10,000 men, and landed at the north of England.
At that time, Harold Godwinson and his Anglo-Saxon army was encamped at the southern English coast, awaiting the invasion of William. But when no invasion came, Godwinson was forced to release a number of his troops –militia-men that were needed for the yearly harvest. But soon after, he heard the news of Harald Hardrada’s landing at the north. In response, Godwinson hastily marched north, re-assembling his troops along the way.
He traveled across the country in only four days. On September 25, 1066, Godwinson managed to take the Norwegian army by surprise, utterly defeating them at the Battle of Stamford Bridge . This vicious and bloody battle resulted in Harald Hardrada dead and the Norwegian army completely butchered, with only a handful of survivors. But it came at a price for the Anglo-Saxons – they suffered many losses and the army was thoroughly battered. This turn of events would prove to be fateful. For William the Bastard had set sail.
The Battle of Stamford Bridge, from ‘The Life of King Edward the Confessor’ by Matthew Paris. 13th century. ( Public Domain )
Between the Hammer and the Anvil: Godwinson Marches Back
In April 1066, just a few months before the Battle of Hastings, Halley’s Comet blazed bright across the skies of Europe. For many it was a critical sign – in Normandy it was the star of William the Bastard and a certain, good omen for his conquests. But for some, it was the portent of bloodshed and war.
William landed at the south of England with his men, promptly erecting a rough wooden castle and defenses at Hastings.
In the meanwhile, the battered army of Harold Godwinson was once again forced into a hasty march, this time south to face the invasion of the Normans. The men were under strain and tired, but it was a risk that Godwinson had to take. He hoped to have similar luck as he did with the Norwegians – he wanted to take the Normans by surprise, arriving unexpectedly and pitching the odds into his favor.
But this did not come to fruition – all elements of surprise were lost once the Anglo-Saxons were reasonably close to Hastings. William’s good scouting parties were an advantage, and the approach of the English army was quickly reported.
This gave the advantage to the Normans. Harold Godwinson was somewhat forced to a pitched battle – he took defensive positions at the top of the Senlac Hill, roughly 10 kilometers (6.21 miles) from the Norman forces at Hastings.
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But William was undeterred – he was eager to meet the Anglo-Saxons in the open field, as well as to strike the first blow. He listened to mass, received the sacrament, and marched his army at dawn’s early light on October 14, 1066 – a Saturday. He would reach the vicinity of Senlac Hill in roughly an hour. The shield wall of the Anglo-Saxons stood massive in front of them, positioned at the top of a gentle slope and completely blocking the route to London.
The Battle of Hastings was fought in 1066 at this location: the English position was on top of the hill where the Abbey later stood, and the Normans approximately where the photographer is standing. (Christopher Hilton/ CC BY SA 2.0 )
In fact, William was taking a slight risk – Godwinson’s army was positioned upslope, and the Normans had to take an uphill frontal assault – no small task.
By all accounts, Duke William split his forces into three segments – the left flank comprised of his Breton men , the right flank of Flanders men, and the central segment of Normans which he led himself. Both forces were at a slight disadvantage at the battle of Hastings. The Anglo-Saxons were defending, with next to no routes for retreat. The Normans on the other hand, were attacking at an upslope at a slight “bottleneck” route. Both armies had limited options for retreat, which heralded a bloody and vicious battle.
At around 09:00, the armies took their preliminary positions. Harold Godwinson placed his battle banner at the highest point of Senlac Hill. His forces were comprised almost solely of infantry, some 8,000 strong, and were set into a single battle line of 10 ranks. The best warriors were in the first line. This whole assembly was typically Anglo-Saxon. They relied on the somewhat outdated shield wall, and their forces resembled a deep phalanx.
Part of scene 52 of the Bayeux Tapestry. This depicts mounted Normans attacking the Anglo-Saxon infantry. ( Public Domain )
William the Bastard’s forces were split into the three mentioned segments. At the western end were the men from Poitou, Anjou, and Bretagne, probably led by Alan Fergant, the IV Duke of Bretagne. At the eastern end were the men from Flanders, Picardy, and Boulogne, led by Eustace, Count of Boulogne, and William fitzOsbern. At the center was Duke William with the Normans. The whole of this army was set into three lines: the first line of archers, behind them the heavy infantry, and behind them the cavalry.
The Battle Begins
William struck the first blow and opened the battle with a barrage of arrow fire from his front rank. His intention was to soften the Anglo-Saxon forces with a devastating rain of arrows, then open up critical gaps with an infantry charge, and lastly finish the enemy with a cavalry charge. But when the arrow barrage proved ineffective due to the slope and the shield wall, he knew that his plan would not work. The arrows did next to nothing.
His next move was to send his heavy infantry in. They advanced under heavy fire from the Anglo-Saxons – javelins, stones, and the occasional arrow were all hurled at them. Nonetheless, the mailed Norman warriors entered into the fray. Their attack was not as critical as William had hoped, and in turn he ordered the attack of his cavalry.
The Norman cavalry was William’s key advantage over the Anglo-Saxons . The latter had only infantry, while the Normans excelled at mounted warfare. Their knights were fearsome and heavily armored and armed with lances, swords, and light maces.
Norman knight on horseback. ( thomas owen /Adobe Stock)
That’s when William would taste his first crisis moment. His western flank, with the men of Bretagne, failed under pressure. The men began retreating and were pursued by a force of Englishmen. This critically exposed William’s western flank. Moreover, a rumor spread through the battle lines – Duke William was dead, it said.
At this critical moment, William showed his skill as a commander. In hopes to quickly counter the rumor of his death and prevent a full scale Norman retreat, he took off his helmet, showing his face. He rallied the men, reminding them that retreat was not an option. He then proceeded to take a 1,000 of his cavalry and swept to his exposed right flank, descending furiously on the pursuing Englishmen, completely wiping them out.
Afterwards, the battle raged on. The lines were reassembled and neither side gained a foothold, with the hours passing. The men were getting tired, the cavalry began losing their mounts, and a stalemate was nearing – the Anglo-Saxons kept their line and held on. William tried his tactic of feigning retreat – his cavalry would falsely begin retreating and then wheeled back to cut down any English pursuers.
‘The Battle of Hastings’ (1868) by Joseph Martin Kronheim. ( Public Domain )
To push the battle to a close, William decided to force all of his troops in one final, concentrated assault against the Anglo-Saxons. His archers moved riskily into range and began showering the English lines with arrows. This, combined with assaults from Norman infantry and cavalry, put the final strain on the forces of Godwinson.
And then it happened. At around 16:00 in the afternoon, during the final Norman assault, Harold Godwinson fell in battle. He was struck by an arrow that went through his eye and into his brain. Sources say that he wasn’t dead at first – he fell and attempted to extract the arrow, but was cut down with a sword by an eager knight. That same knight would later be banished by William for the deed.
Bayeux Tapestry - Scene 57: the death of King Harold at the Battle of Hastings. ( Public Domain )
Either way, it was this crucial event that brought on the final crumbling of the Anglo-Saxon army. They quickly dissipated and their battered remnants reverted to a full-scale retreat. Only the bravest of them all – the royal household guard – fought to their deaths as they defended the body of Harold Godwinson.
And so it was, that after a grueling battle, vicious and bloody, William the Conqueror earned his epithet – his was a decisive victory over the Anglo-Saxons.
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‘The Battle of Hastings in 1066’ by Francois Hippolyte Debon. ( Public Domain )
The Bloody Red Dusk over Senlac Hill
Both sides of the battle suffered immense casualties. One in seven of the engaged Normans fell, and almost 50 percent of the Anglo-Saxon army was left dead on the battlefield. But the Normans were now free to establish their conquest of England. Without a considerable force to oppose him, William was able to subjugate the earls of England. Ultimately, it would take him some 30 years to accomplish this.
In the end, it was a mix of events that led to Harold Godwinson’s defeat. His forced and long marches across England, as well as the overall supremacy of the Norman military doctrine left him at a clear disadvantage. Their defeat was the proof that established the new era of warfare into England and Europe – an era of knights and heavy armor, of cavalry and feudalism.
But the bravery of the Anglo-Saxon defenders, the courage of Harold Godwinson, as well as the daring confidence and skill of the Normans and William the Conqueror, all deserve our respect and eternal remembrance.
Detail of a miniature of the aftermath of the Battle of Hastings, including relatives seeking their dead, four monks carrying Harold's body to Waltham Abbey, and victorious Normans issuing from their pavilions, from the Grande Chronique de Normandie. Image taken from f. 167 of ‘Grande Chronique de Normandie’. Written in French. ( Public Domain )
Top Image: Medieval knights battle. Credit: Nejron Photo / Adobe Stock
Gravett, C. 1992. Hastings 1066 – The Fall of Saxon England. Osprey Publishing.
Hamilton, J. 2014. Battle of Hastings. ABDO Publishing.
Morillo, S. 1999. The Battle of Hastings. The Boydell Press.
Malam, J. 2007. The Battle of Hastings 14 October 1066. Cherrytree books