Today in Military History - Battle of Hastings

« Previous story
Next story »
Hastings Image from the Bayeux Tapestry of Harold Dying One of the few dates that every historian or student of history knows by heart – October 14, 1066. So, what started it, what happened that autumn day in southern England? Early in 1066, King Edward the Confessor was dying. According to some chronicles, he was such a pious man that he spent most of his time praying and founding churches and monasteries, and very little time with his wife. Edward had no direct heir, which greatly worried the Ango-Saxon nobility, who hoped to avoid a dynastic struggle or even a possible civil war. In his last hours, Edward called to his deathbed Harold Godwinson, one of the leading nobles of the land, and nominated Harold as his successor. The witenagemot – a council of leading nobles of the land – confirmed Godwinson as the new king of England, and Harold was crowned on January 6th. Word of the events in England quickly reached the ears of William, Duke of Normandy. William (often surnamed “the Bastard” for…obvious reasons) claimed that he had been promised the throne of England by Edward, whose mother Emma was William’s great-aunt, while Edward was in exile in Normandy during the Danish “occupation” of England (c. 1016-1042). William also said that in 1064, Godwinson had sworn loyalty to him and promised to support his claim to the English throne. Almost immediately, Duke William began construction of a fleet of transport ships, and began gathering troops from Normandy, France, and other nearby nations (perhaps even as far away as Sicily and southern Italy). He even sent an emissary to Pope Alexander II, stating his case. Alexander agreed with William, sent his support and a banner consecrated by the pope as a material sign of the pope’s blessing. William then settled down, waiting for Mother Nature to send a favorable wind to allow him to cross the English Channel to begin “The Conquest.” 417px-Battle_of_Hastings_map As William was making these preparations, King Harald Siggurdsson (aka Hardraada “the Ruthless”) of Norway launched his own invasion of England, believing his own claim to the English throne was valid. Unfortunately, Harald and his army came to grief on September 25, 1066 on the speartips and axes-blades of an English army led by Harold Godwinson at Stamford Bridge near York in northern England. Historians have long speculated whether William of Normandy and Harald of Norway were working together or not. However, soon after his great victory over the Vikings, King Harold of England was informed that favorable winds had allowed Duke William and his invasion fleet to sail and land in southern England. King Harold then marched south again to meet this second attack on his kingdom. He gathered more troops as he marched south, arriving in London about October 10 or 11. His brother Gyrth urged him to wait a few days to gather more troops, but Harold wanted to end the Norman invasion as quickly as possible. He left London on October 12, arriving near the Norman camp on the evening of October 13. Arriving near the Norman camp with an army numbering around 7500 men (ancient histories are next to useless for accurate figures), Harold established his line of battle on Senlac Hill, a prominent ridge near the Norman base near Pevensey. Receiving intelligence about Harold’s troop movements, William and his army left their camp early on the morning of October 14 and prepared to meet the Saxons. The Saxon army was drawn up on Senlac Hill in a line several hundred yards long and as many as 10 or 12 ranks deep. The first 2 or 3 ranks consisted of housecarls, the well-equipped, well-disciplined personal bodyguard of King Harold. Their most feared weapons was the two-handed Danish axe, which is believed to have been capable of decapitating a horse with a single blow. With a conical metal helm, chain mail and kite shield, the housecarls were the backbone of King Harold’s force. The rest of his army consisted of the fyrd, part-time soldiers consisting of the minor landowning nobility of England. Though not as well equipped or disciplined as Harold’s housecarls, the fyrd supplied their own armor and weapons, and were determined to defend their island kingdom. Some of the fyrd had javelins and a few slings; some chronicles even said the Saxons used clubs with rocks attached to them as missile weapons. The Norman army consisted of about 8000-8400 men; it is estimated that its compositions was about 55 percent medium infantry, 25 percent cavalry and 20 percent archers. The Norman cavalry was among the most feared troops in Europe. Even at this early date, Norman cavalry were hiring themselves out as mercenaries to other monarchs all over Europe. The Norman army was a perfect early example of the use of combined arms on the battlefield: the archers would soften up the enemy, the infantry would exploit any weaknesses, and the cavalry would make the final hammer-blow to break the enemy’s formations and follow-up during the enemy’s rout. The battle began about 9:00 am, and lasted until just after sunset (which at this time of year is 6:09 pm), making Hastings one of the longest medieval battles at about nine hours. Obviously, Duke William was bound and determined to win his kingdom this day or die trying; there were also indications that King Harold was going to receive reinforcements the next day. After an initial missile attack by the Norman bowmen (some who were equipped with crossbows, the first time these weapons were seen in England), the infantry made little headway against the Saxon shieldwall. Cavalry attacks fared no better. During one such attack, Duke William himself charged the Saxon line. After the attack was repelled, a rumor began among the Normans that their William was dead. To quell the rumor, William took off his helmet and said, “I’m not dead yet!” [Well, it was something like that…] The Norman then began a series of cavalry attacks and feigned withdrawals, which resulted in some Saxons leaving the shieldwall in pursuit. Reacting quickly, the Norman cavalry then turned on their pursuers and wiped them out. In the late afternoon, William realized that the Saxon ranks were dwindling, so he directed his archers to shoot into the milling masses of the fyrd. As a result, King Harold was struck in the eye by a Norman arrow. Word soon spread that the king was down, and panic gripped the English army. At the same time, William launched a final, desperate cavalry charge. As the sun was setting, the Saxon lines broke. One of the medieval chronicles states that four Norman knights personally attacked the wounded and dying King Harold and administered the coup de grace. Duke William spent the next 10 weeks consolidating his position, and was crowned king of England on Christmas Day, 1066. Thus finally ended the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of England… Harold-battle
Posted in Uncategorized, top stories | 1 comment
« Previous story
Next story »


* To comment without a Facebook account, please scroll to the bottom.


I have to do an essay on the battle of hastings! And you can find me here

Add new comment

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
Have a tip for us? A link that should appear here? Contact us.
News from the World of Military and Veterans Issues. Iraq and A-Stan in parenthesis reflects that the author is currently deployed to that theater.