Hastings

Hastings

The famous Battle of Hastings took place on 14 October 1066 near Battle, East Sussex.

In the Battle’s lead up, William I’s men were responsible for damage around the Hastings area which eventually showed up in the Domesday Book.

William, the Duke of Normandy, was known for being a military leader with both skill and experience, and his infantry and cavalry troops were fearsome and had a lot of respect. William had fought against and defeated the French king in both 1054 and 1057. He was not a believer of showing mercy to those who had been fighting against him.

William’s soldiers had been trained and equipped well, and they wore chain mail armour as protection for themselves. The cavalry rode horses which had been bred specially and had the ability to carry the soldiers weight whilst maintaining a good speed. They had uniquely designed saddles to keep them in position while riding and this also meant their arms were free for fighting. They were looked upon as the elite members in William’s army.

Harold Rex Interfectus Est: "King Harold was killed". Scene from the Bayeux Tapestry depicting the Battle of Hastings and the death of Harold.
Harold Rex Interfectus Est: "King Harold was killed". Scene from the Bayeux Tapestry depicting the Battle of Hastings and the death of Harold.

Harold had his army consist of professional soldiers who also acted as his bodyguards, along with men who had been collected on the Stamford Bridge to Sussex march. Back then, soldiers were not paid well and any object they managed to take in battle could be kept as a token of their payment - ‘spoils of war’. Although a poor peasant was limited, they had a chance to ‘collect’ horses, armour, expensive swords and other items. The peasants felt that fighting against the Normans was a way of increasing their wealth - the fact that William himself was an invader meant fighting them were simply the right approach.

Harold did show signs of being a good leader and soldier - such as commanding Edward the Confessor’s army during Edward’s reign as king, and showing impressive fighting skills towards the Normans after being kept in William’s court against his own will.

In September, William arrived at Pevensey Bay and according to legend he jumped from his boat, slipped and fell onto the beach. Several soldiers thought this was bad luck, however William saw it as a victory - he gathered up a handful of shingle and said, "See!! I have taken England already."

William had a motte and bailey castle built on Pevensey Bay, and hosted a feast in celebration of the Normans’ safe arrival. He headed east and inland after this, which was several miles from Hastings.

Harold launched his Senlac Hill defence after determinedly marching south - this meant he had an advantage over William since the Normans needed to be up a hill in heavy chain mail armour. William’s horses would also need to climb up the same hill bearing a rider’s weight, meaning much valuable speed was lost.

The reason why William positioned his men at the bottom of a hill, or why he let Harold assemble his army on the top of Senlac Hill is unknown. However it is certain that Harold chose a good place to fight from - he had the advantages of height and hill slopes. Harold gave the order for his men to defend themselves against Norman archers in the building of a shield wall around Senlac.

The battle began around 9am, but it is not known exactly what occurred during the actual event. The only story available is from the Normans point of view, because the English were destroyed in the end. Most information available stems from the Bayeux Tapestry - created as a celebration of the victory most likely around 11 years once the battle began in 1077. The tapestry is thought to have possibly been made by nuns for Odo, William’s half brother who was a bishop.

How much accuracy does the tapestry have - does it actually portray what took place or is it just the imagination of those who put it together?

The following events are Definite:

Because of the thick marshland on both sides of the hill, it meant the only way the Normans had the ability to fight was through a small gap up Senlac. Harold could then decide to use his fire power on a particular part of the land, knowing the Normans would have no choice but to use it too.

The Normans launched themselves up the fill but experienced many casualties after English arrows rained down - both their infantry or foot soldiers and cavalry experienced suffering as a result.

It was announced that William was killed, but the Bayeux Tapestry showed that William lifted his helmet as proof he was alive. If Harold had maintained his shield wall in one piece he could have been successful in the battle.

It is known the English broke their shield wall down in order to pursue the Normans who were retreating. This could be because of the men in Harold’s army who were peasants and saw a way of gaining horses and weapons etc. There are historians who believe William forced his men to ‘retreat’ which was an old trick of the Normans to drive enemies out of places which were heavily fortified, meaning the English had to break the shield wall down.

No matter what the real reason was, the shield wall became broken and the Normans were pursued by the English.

The Normans came together again at the base of Senlac Hill and made to charge the English who had no defence without being protected by the shield wall.

Harold made the decision to keep his bodyguards (housecarls) alongside him, though they were not able to prevent the onslaught so the Normans viciously murdered Harold and his men.

The battle went for the entire day, although it should not be assumed the Normans were easily victorious. Firstly, they experienced major losses and were only commanding the battle after Harold’s peasant soldiers managed to break the shield wall down.

William proceeded to march throughout Sussex and Kent and removed anyone who opposed him. He made arrangements to be crowned on Christmas Day as King William I in Westminster Abbey.

MLA Citation/Reference

"Hastings". HistoryLearning.com. 2015. Web.