1066 And All That Redux Part III - The Battle of Hastings

Battle of Hastings: Winner Takes All 
1066 And All That Redux Part Three 

“This was a fatal day to England, and melancholy havoc was wrought in our dear country during the change of its lords.” -William of Malmesbury, The Battle of Hastings, 12th Century

Normans knights crash into the English Shieldwall at the Battle of Hastings

At the beginning of October 1066, King Harold Godwinson of England was sitting pretty. Through dedicated vigilance, he had successfully defended his kingdom from would-be invaders. He had kept the national militia, the fyrd, in service much longer than any king before him. He had turned the military world on its ear with his epic dash from London to York in just four days with an army in tow. He had completely destroyed a large Viking army led by one of the most fearsome warlords of the day. 

A Saxon Spearman Awaits the Norman Conquest

It would seem that nothing was beyond this resourceful man’s capabilities. Then news came as he was celebrating his victory in York that the man Harold had been preparing for all year finally arrived. Duke William of Normandy had come to claim the crown that he thought rightfully his.

The elite housecarles swing their long axes in eager anticipation

1066 was a year of great feats by great men. William was not to be undone by the accomplishments of Harold and the late King Hardrada. He maintained a large army through long weeks of inaction while waiting for favorable winds. In a brilliant bit of propaganda coup-de-grace, William had acquired support from the Pope and was given a Papal banner to carry into battle.
William had the Papal Banner carried into battle to inspire his men and cow the English 

When the winds finally blew in his favor, William crossed the Channel with a remarkable collection of knights, archers, foot-soldiers, pre-fabricated castles, and most impressively horses.

William’s channel crossing still astounds military historians to this day. Just getting horses onto a wooden boat and keeping them calm throughout the journey (a day and a night) was a great accomplishment.

The Norman Army
The Wave of the (medieval) Future 

The Normans were the descendants of Viking adventurers but they lost their sea legs during their settled stay in Normandy. They traded ships for horses and became just as lethal on land as their Viking brethren were on the sea. Warfare was a way of life. The Norman dukes were constantly fighting to increase their territory, defend their border, or quell rebellious subjects.

Rollo who founded the Normandy Dukedom was a Viking Raider

The Norman army which followed William the Conqueror across the English Channel in 1066 was the wave of the future, medievally-speaking. It was well-organized and divided into separate sections: archers, foot soldiers, and most notably cavalry. The mounted soldiers were the precursors of the knight in shining armor on horseback. They trained in groups known as conroys. This allowed them to act in cohesion which added to their overall effectiveness. At this time, however, the fierceness of a medieval charge on horseback with couched lances had not yet been fully developed. On the Bayeux Tapestry, many of the horseback knights carry their spears overhand for the purpose of throwing or stabbing. Their mobility was their chief strength which they used to deadly effect at Hastings by feigning retreats then cutting down pursuing enemy. Mobility also greatly added to William’s ability to control his army and issue orders. He was able to turn around a near-rout by riding around showing his demoralized army that he was not dead.
Along with the Normans, marched warriors from France, Flanders, and Breton. The Bretons were renowned for making use of feigned retreats on horseback to draw out the enemy then wheeling back and destroying them.

Harold Godwinson's Banner

William landed horses and all on September 29 near the city of Hastings. William boldly leapt the first man from his ship onto the shores of his future kingdom. And he fell flat on his face. Not the stuff of stirring legends. It could have become an ominous omen in those superstitious times but William (or someone) turned it into a jest — saying “Behold, I have grabbed England with both hands!” Everybody laughed then got on with the business of conquering.

Norman archers opened the battle at nine 

When Harold got wind of William’s arrival, he repeated his record-setting dash and set off for London. Many soldiers were left behind as there was no time for all of them to make the rapid journey. Harold spent a week in London to raise another army of fyrd then set off to meet William.

The English Shieldwall holds firm against the arrow assault

His army was not the same one that had destroyed Hardrada at Stamford. Many of the fyrd of the north were hard-bitten veterans unlike those of the south but they couldn’t all make the journey. Harold’s elite soldiers, the ax-wielding housecarles, suffered from depletetions of their ranks at Stamford Bridge. In addition, a number of good men had been killed throughout the year fighting first Harold’s estranged brother Tostig and then later the Norse invasion of Hardrada. William was not facing a country at its full strength.

William the Conqueror
A rough upbringing produces a hard, hard man 

William the Conqueror riding through the carnage of battle

“King William…was a very wise and great man, and more honored and more powerful than any of his predecessors. He was mild to those good men who loved God, but severe beyond measure to those who withstood his will.He caused castles to be built and oppressed the poor. The king was also of great sterness, and he took from his subjects many marks of gold, and many hundred pounds of silver, and this, either with or without right, and with little need. He was given to avarice and greedily loved gain.”
-Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

William the Conqueror was not always known by his lofty title William the Conqueror. Prior to 1066, he was known as William the Bastard. He was not called this for his surely disposition but for his parentage. His father Robert, the former Duke of Normandy, became utterly smitten with a tanner’s daughter (tanners worked with animal skins). She gave birth to William out of wedlock and thus he was technically-speaking a bastard in the medieval sense. Robert made the boy his heir nonetheless. While on a pilgrimage to the Holy Lands, Robert grew sick and died leaving the very young William at the tender mercies of his relations. It was all around a rough upbringing. His guardians were murdered and William had to spend years fighting rebellious subjects while avoiding attempts on his life. He was quite sensitive about his parentage. At one battle, a besieged city beat upon animal skins to mock William’s origins. When he took the city, William had the hands and feet of the survivors hacked off.
William was a cunning and capable leader in both the arts of war and administration. His presence alone often served to cow opposition to his rule. He was fierce man to cross but he could also be generous to his defeated enemies. The northern part of England though saw his darker side in the post-1066 years when he ravaged the countryside to punish rebellion. Even some his staunchest admirers were critical of his behavior there.
His coronation at Westminster Abbey in London following his defeat of Harold was something of a fiasco. This normally solemn occasion was marred by the panicky reactions of Norman soldiers. When the customary shout to acclaim the new king was made, Norman soldiers positioned outside the Abbey panicked thinking there was riot so they began burning some of the nearby buildings. The subsequent smoke led to a hasty ending to the ceremony now robbed of its dignity.
William’s end was not very dignified either. He died in 1087 fighting his elder son in France. His funeral bier was robbed by his servants and when he was placed in the crypt of the church, his swollen belly burst causing everyone who was left to flee the stench. Not the most gracious way for the first king of a long line of monarchs to have been treated.
The Norman Army Approaches the English Army

In hindsight, Harold should have hung back and gathered his forces but he wanted to be done with William quickly. He marched south rapidly gathering troops as he went but also leaving them trailing behind — most regrettably archers.

On the morning of October 14th, Harold assembled his soldiers atop of Senlac Hill some miles north of Hastings. The professional soldiers lined up with the militia and formed a shield wall. The Normans had their cavalry and archers but the English had their stout shields and their long battle ax capable of bringing down horse and rider.

The foot soldiers close-in together

The English Army
The Best of the Best in the Dark Ages 

The fyrd - the national militia

 The Professional Housecarles
The English army at Hastings was interesting composite of elements descended from both the Saxons and Scandinavians. The fyrd system of local militia had been set up in the time of Alfred the Great (839-899) to defend against Viking incursions. They were used in a variety of functions from building and repairing defense works, dealing with bandits and raiders, and doing garrison duty. The frydmen were not conscripted peasants and thus cannon fodder but freedman supported by their local communities. They often had a stake in the fight they were participating in. Their weapons and training varied on an individual level. They were led by local lords called thegns who were better equipped and trained.The elite fighting force of the English at Hastings, the housecarle, was a creation of the Danish kings (1016-1040). They were well-armed, well-trained, and fiercely loyal. They served as bodyguard troops for the kings and earls.
The English army used horses mainly for getting to the battle where they would fight on foot. There was long held this notion by historians of the past that the English’s lack of a mobile fighting force at Hastings led to their downfall. If that had been the case, the Battle of Hastings would have been over and done with by lunchtime. The fact is the housecarle had in his possession a great equalizer in the form of a long handle ax called the Dane Ax. Properly used, the Dane Ax could bring down horse and rider with one blow. It apparently left such an impact on the mounted Norman knights, that William had the Dane Ax banned in England once he became king.

The Norman Cavalry Advances

The Battle of Hastings was a 9 to 5 battle literally. The action started at 9 when a Norman minstrel with a head full of old epic songs charged wildly at the English shield wall in a bit of dashing heroics. This would-be Lancelot was quickly cut down and the professionals got down to the grim business of killing.

Archers attacked first raining arrows down on the English. It was more of a drizzle than a rain of arrows. This was not Agincourt where archers won the day. Also the Norman archers had the disadvantage of shooting uphill. French sources though claim shields were shattered and bodies transfixed but more than likely this description was a bit of artistic license.

A charging Norman knight is checked by a spear

The infantry charged in next. First both sides exchanged javelins and the like before rushing together. The Norman infantry failed to make a dint in the English shield wall. Next the famed Norman cavalry, the wave of the future, crashed into the shield wall with all its might then broke and ran.

The English had too few archers at the battle

It was only a little after 9:30 and already the well-organized Normans were in big trouble. Many of the English broke ranks to slaughter the retreating Normans. A rumor went up that William himself was dead. The Battle of Hastings was suddenly in danger of becoming a minor footnote in British history when William removed his helmet to show rumors of his death had been greatly exaggerated if not outright fabricated. He got his demoralized army back in order with grim predictions of the death that awaited everyone in this foreign sea-locked land if they did not unite and fight on.

Some over-eager English rush down the hill after the fleeing Normans

At this point Harold almost won the Battle of Hastings but things went to hell quickly. It’s believed by some scholars that the English were on the verge of a massive charge when Harold’s two brothers who were at the front center of the charge were cut down. The charge collapsed and the Normans counterattacked killing many of the English who had broken ranks to pursue them. They surrounded a group of English on a small hill and slaughter every one of them while the rest of the English looked on helplessly.

A group of cut-off English are cut down

The climatic moment was over. The rest of the day was one of grueling attrition — attack, attack, attack. William used feigned retreats to pull the eager but inexperienced fryd members out of their ranks before cutting them down. The English were being slowly whittled down. They were also becoming exhausted. The Norman army could be rotated and rested whereas many of the English fought from morning till evening (if they survived).

Still the English shield wall stood damnably firm. As the afternoon wore on, a 20-man kamikaze cavalry squad made a mad dash to seize the English banner and to cut down Harold if they could. They failed and their leader was killed.

Normans finish off a poor Englishman

What is amazing about the whole affair is not that William won the Battle of Hastings but that the English survived as long as they did. They lacked archers, they lacked mobility, they lacked rest. Many of them were not professional fighters. Others still carried wounds from Stamford Bridge. Yet despite all this, the weary English fended off one of the most professional armies of the day for hours and they almost won. Had William landed before Hardrada, chances are England and her present day former colonies would probably be speaking either Norwegian or a form of Old English today.

The English Army remained defiant to the bitter end

William was probably fretting as the afternoon wore on. If he did not finish off the English before nightfall, they could regroup and fight another day. The conquest of England could takes weeks, months, or years and by then many of William’s army would have been dead or probably would have deserted a perceived losing cause. Then Harold was killed.

The Norman infantry coming at the formidable English shieldwall again

What the highborn knights failed to do, some anonymous lowly underpaid archer accomplished by firing an arrow high into the sky and by sheer luck landing it in Harold’s eye. Four knights then rushed in to finish off the wounded king. Actually there is still academic debate as to whether or not Harold was killed by an arrow or if he was cut down by Norman knights or if it was a combination of both. What is certain is that Harold was indeed killed. The English army disintegrated and the Battle of Hastings was assured its rightful place in British history as the stepping stone towards greater and bigger things (from a Norman perspective).

The Battle of Hastings was one of those rare battles in which the fate of an entire nation is decided. Although there was still resistance to the Normans, many of England’s leaders had fallen at Hastings so the resistance lacked a centralizing element to be effective.

A priest surveys the carnage

History students may recall what followed the brief lecture of the Battle of Hastings was the Domesday Book — a book of invaluable information to historians today. The Domesday Book wrapped up the whole realm of England into a taxable entity from the most luxurious of manor homes to the ricketiest of peasant huts. It was basically just one huge shakedown designed to fill the coffers of the king and his nobles.

William comes a little too close for comfort

It might seem the English took their defeat to heart and simply rolled over for William. Even William thought the English would easily take to his rule and this is also the impression left in many school history lectures whose instructors are probably impatient to move onto more important things like the Magna Carta. This was not the case and William was sadly delusional in this matter. 

Despite losing so many men in the fighting of 1066, the English of Northumbria rebelled just a few years later. This prompted William to ravage the northern area of England so badly that even he, hard-bitten warrior that he was, felt guilty on his deathbed for what he had done there.

Normans close in to finish off the English

The Norman conquest changed the course of British history, culture, and language. The next century saw castles built all over England in order control the population. The ruling class was predominantly French-speaking Normans while the Saxon English became second-class citizens in their own country. England became an occupied land and it was a considerable amount of time before the Norman-ruling class became Anglo-sized enough to consider themselves English. The official language of the royal court remained French until the 14th Century. Several kings after William died and/or were buried in France not England.

Probably the reason for the lack of a good novel, or Shakespeare play, or Hollywood film on the Battle of Hastings is the confusion on how to present the outcome of the battle. Was it a victory or a defeat? Was Harold a tragic hero or an incompetent usurper? Was William the Conqueror a bold leader bringing civilization and culture to backwater England or a greedy grasping insecure invader?

Mounted Normans run down an English soldier

One prevalent way in which the Battle of Hastings over the course of the centuries has been depicted as that on one hand it was a tragic defeat for the English people but on the other that a greater nation was destined to rise from the aftermath of the battle. As retired Field Marshal Montgomery, a descendant of Norman invaders himself, was keen to put it to a young pro-Harold scholar: “You see, my boy, the greatness of England would have never been possible without the Normans.” - Michael Wood, In Search of England: Journeys Into the English Past, 1999.

When nationalism dominated the mindset of the day it was felt prudent to create a sense of historical unity and downplay the Norman Frenchness of the Post-Conquest Monarchs. This can be seen in the later Robin Hood myths some of which have a Saxon vs Norman theme but Richard the Lionheart and his scheming brother Prince John are presented as English speakers and the realm of England is seen as paramount when actually it was just part of a vast possession of land. 

Also downplayed was William's ravaging of the country before and after the Battle of Hastings. The Domesday Book leaves stark evidence though that in an age of ravagers William ravaged amongst the hardest. Twenty years later the Domesday Book showed that a number of places William raided were still in some form of ruin.

Norman and Allied Infantry are practically left out of the Bayeux Tapestry

When 1066 drew to a close, one world had ended and another had begun. Two kings were dead along with tens of thousands of soldiers and common people. The Saxons had survived but now they were occupied by a French-speaking upper class who built a slew of castles throughout the land to control the populace.

Replica of the famed Bayeux Tapestry

In the end, the true tragedy of the 1066 and the Battle of Hastings must be the fate of Harold Godwinson. Too much is made of his loss and not what he had accomplished and could have accomplished had he lived. The year 1066 really belongs to him not William although he lost and William won.

By maintaining his country throughout the year in the face of a potential invasion then defeating another invasion which came completely out of the blue, Harold showed his quality. Had he lived and defeated the Normans at Hastings, England might have had one of its greatest kings. Harold might have led his country to a greater destiny than we will ever know.

What is rather interesting is to look at the deaths of the three great men of 1066 and how those deaths matched their character. Harald Hardrada, last of the Vikings and a legend in his own time, was killed on a Viking adventure boldly grasping for a great prize. Hardrada crushed one enemy and soon after died a warrior's death in battle. If he had died safe in bed, chances are Hardrada would have been greatly annoyed.

Harold Godwinson died fighting to protect not so much his kingship but his land and his people. The fact that so many of his men were willing to fight to the death alongside him shows how much he was loved. If he had been this profane unscrupulous oath-breaker the Normans painted him to be, he would have fled the moment the battle went array or not been there to begin with. 

Harold choose wrongly but for the right reasons to fight a battle that would cost him his life. William had been burning and ravaging the countryside to draw Harold into a fight. The longer Harold waited more people would have died and others would lose their homes to the fires of William's raiders. Harold's death is a tragedy and while some will damn him for being foolish his death had a noble quality to it.

William the Conqueror lived another 21 years and died doing what he was good at - ravaging. His years after 1066 had not been peaceful. He had to continue fighting off numerous rebellions in England and Normandy. 

William the Conqueror's tomb in Caen

William spent his whole life fighting to gain loyalty and respect then fighting to retain it. By the time of his death, he was at odds with some of his closest allies. His half-brother who had ridden with him at the Battle of Hastings and commissioned the famous Bayeux Tapestry of the battle was imprisoned for being a corrupt untrustworthy malcontent. 

William was also at war with his own son and it was while on campaign against this son that William was mortally wounded. He had been razing a town to the ground in a particularly brutal fashion when his horse became spooked by the burning embers and threw William hard against the pommel of the saddle. William had grown fairly stout in his later years and this accident caused a rupture which became fatal. 

When William died some days later, his followers deserted him. His servants robbed his chamber and body. When he was to buried a commotion broke out during the funeral with a man claiming the ground William would be buried in had been unfairly taken from him. Ironically, even in death William the Conqueror was taking other people's land. When his corpulent body was forced into a coffin too small for it, the body burst creating a stench which made the people hastily conclude the services. A rather ignoble farcical end for someone who has come down in history as "The Conqueror."

Harold Godwinson
The What-Could-Have-Been King 

Harold's Banner in the hands of the victorious Normans

“On taking the helm of the kingdom, [Harold] immediately began to abolish unjust laws and make good ones; … to show himself pious, humble, and affable to all good men: but he treated malefactors with the utmost severity, … and he himself laboured by sea and by land for the protection of his country.”
-John of Worcester, Chronicon ex chronicis, 12th Century
Harold Godwinson was a literate man in a vastly illiterate world. He was known to own several books – again another medieval rarity. His father Godwin was cunning political survivor who raised himself and his family to the heights of power in England. Godwin secured for his sons the powerful position of Earl of the various sections of England. After his death, Harold was the strongest earl in the kingdom. As brother-in-law to the king he had tremendous influence.
Several years before the Battle of Hastings, Harold won military renown for defeating the Welsh in a series of lightening-quick campaigns. Speed and surprise was his favorite tactic which he employed so successfully at the Battle of Stamford Bridge. It would not avail him at the Hastings where an expectant William awaited.
Harold didn’t really have to win the Battle of Hastings. All he had to do was fend off the Normans till nightfall. By that time more English would have arrived and more importantly the English navy would be in position to block the Normans’ retreat. Harold’s death threw all of that into disarray. It’s believed he is buried at Waltham Abbey. Another version is that in the form of an ironic jest, William had his body buried on a hill near Hastings so as to forever guard England’s shore from invasion.
Harold was a shrewd and able leader in both administration and war. He practically ran the country during the declining years of Edward the Confessor’s reign. He apparently possessed foresight and a good sense of national duty. He sided against his own brother for the good of the kingdom when his brother’s subjects rebelled against his earldom. His downfall was that he may have been too overconfident and too rash in meeting the Normans in battle so soon after fighting a major battle in the north. However, he almost won and had he done so, he might very well have gone down in history as one of England’s mightiest kings.

1066 And All That Redux Part I
1066 And All That Redux Part II


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