Battle of Hastings; William of Normandy Beats Harold Godwinson & Saxons

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Battle of Hastings; William of Normandy Beats Harold Godwinson & Saxons

Scene 52a, Bayeux Tapestry, battle of Hastings; Saxon housecarles in center
Image from Bayeux Tapestry, on display at Musée de la Tapisserie de Bayeux, France
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are courtesy of Wikipedia)

Today in Military History – October 14, 1066

[Today's post is an update to one originally published in 2009]

For today's stroll through military history, we will be concerned with 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 Anglo-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 6.

Word of the events in England quickly reached the ears of William, Duke of Normandy. William (at the time 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 Holy Father 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."

King Harold of England, hearing of William's invasion preparations, called out the fyrd, the national militia, as a precaution. Not knowing when the Normans would arrive, the fyrd was kept on duty from the spring through the summer of 1066. When William of Norman did not show up by the beginning of September, Harold was forced to send the militia home so they could bring in the harvest.

Prelude to the Battle

As William was making these preparations, King Harald Siggurdsson (aka Hardrada "the Ruthless") of Norway launched his own invasion of England, believing his own claim to the English throne was as valid as Duke William's. Unfortunately, Harald and his army came to grief on September 25, 1066 on the spear tips 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. [Readers interested in more details on this battle are urged to read my BurnPit post from September of 2013 entitled: Battle of Stamford Bridge: Saxon King Harold Godwinson Defeats Invading Norwegians.]

However, soon after his great victory over the Vikings, King Harold of England received news that favorable winds had allowed Duke William and his invasion fleet to sail and land in southern England on September 28 (a mere two or three weeks after the fyrd was dismissed). 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 soldiers, but with foreign invaders harrying his land, 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.

Saxon Army

The Saxon army numbered around 7500 men (ancient chronicles are next to useless for accurate figures), Harold established his battle line on Senlac Hill, a prominent ridge near the Norman base at Pevensey.

The Saxon army was drawn up on Senlac Hill in an area of heavy forest and boggy ground. The Saxon army was arrayed 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 and his nobles. Their most feared weapon 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 helmet, 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, and their personal retinues. 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, or even just large stones.

Norman Army

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.

Duke William appears to have arranged his forces in three groups, or "battles", which roughly corresponded to their origins. The left units were the Bretons, along with those from Anjou, Poitou, and Maine. This division was led by Alan the Red, a relative of the Breton count. The center was held by the Normans, under the direct command of the duke and with many of his relatives and kinsmen grouped around the ducal party. The right division consisted of the Frenchmen, along with some men from Picardy, Boulogne, and Flanders. The right was commanded by William fitzOsbern and Count Eustace II of Boulogne. The front lines were archers with a line of foot soldiers armed with spears behind. There were probably a few crossbowmen and slingers in with the archers. The cavalry was held in reserve.

Even at this early date, Norman cavalrymen 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.

Battle of Hastings

Battle of Hastings, Saturday, October 14, 1066; Image courtesy of
Battle of Hastings, Saturday, October 14, 1066
Image courtesy of

The battle began about 9:00 am, and lasted until just after sunset (which at this time of year is 4:54 pm with full darkness occurring by 6:24 pm), making Hastings one of the longest medieval battles at about eight 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. William and his army left their camp around dawn on the morning of October 14 (about 6:48 am) and prepared to meet the Saxons.

After an initial missile attack by the Norman bowmen, 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 to circulate among the Normans that 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 Normans 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.

Scene #57, the Bayeux Tapestry, Saxon King Harold (on right, falling) is killed [Some historians believe the Saxon figure on the immediate left is also the monarch]; Bayeux Tapestry on display in the Musée de la Tapisserie de Bayeux, France
Scene #57, the Bayeux Tapestry, Saxon King Harold (on right, falling) is killed
[Some historians believe the Saxon figure on the immediate left is also the monarch]
Bayeux Tapestry on display in the Musée de la Tapisserie de Bayeux, France

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 may have been 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 near to setting, the Saxon lines broke. During the resulting confusion, one of the medieval chronicles states that four Norman knights broke through the waver Saxon battle line, and personally attacked the wounded and dying King Harold administering the coup de grace. [The same chronicle claims one of the four knights was Duke William himself, but modern historians are doubtful.]

With the Saxon army demoralized and routing, the battle of Hastings ended.


In keeping with most battles of the Dark Ages, casualty figures for Hastings are non-existent and rife with educated guesswork. One modern historian speculated the Normans lost some 2000 men (about a quarter of their total strength) and the Saxons about 4000 (perhaps half of their army). The Normans buried their dead in mass graves; Saxon bodies were left on the battlefield to rot or to be food for predators. Many families came to Hastings in search of their relatives' remains. In fact, King Harold Godwinson's body was only identified when his queen – and common-law wife – Edith Swannesha ("swan-neck") identified his body from certain marks only she knew.

Edith Swannesha, discovery the body of Harold Godwinson; Artist unknown; from A Popular History of France, vol. I, by François Guizot
Edith Swannesha, discovery the body of Harold Godwinson
Artist unknown; from A Popular History of France, vol. I, by François Guizot

Footnote #1: The Normans camped on the battlefield that night. Duke William spent the next 10 weeks consolidating his position, fighting smaller engagements with Saxon militia from London. Finally, the Saxon people and most nobility submitted to the Norman duke, and he was crowned king of England on Christmas Day, 1066 in Westminster Abbey. Over the next 5-10 years, William put down a number of Saxon revolts, and met a Danish raid in northern England in 1070.

Footnote #2: The biggest changes wrought to England were: introduction of large numbers of castles to provide the Normans with strongholds to oppose revolts; administrative changes to English laws; reorganization of local governments into shires; and the introduction of Anglo-Norman as the language of government, which led to the rise of Middle English.

Footnote #3: After 1072, King William spent most of his time in Normandy – his original power base – resisting attempts by rebels and the King of France to take his duchy from him. France finally succeeded in conquering Normandy in 1204.

Footnote #4: In 1070, Pope Alexander ordered King William to do penance for killing so many Saxons during the subjugation of England. William began construction of an abbey on the site of the battle – supposedly the high altar was placed at the spot that Harold Godwinson died. The abbey was dedicated in 1094 – after William's death. It stood until 1538, when King Henry VIII ordered the destruction of all Catholic abbeys and monasteries. It passed into private hands almost immediately, but in 1976 the property was sold to the British government; the abbey is now administered by the English Heritage Trust (a group roughly equivalent to our National Park Service).

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