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Battle of Hastings

Battle of Hastings

The Battle of Hastings was the decisive Norman victory in the Norman Conquest of England. The battle took place at Senlac Hill, approximately north-west of Hastings, on which an abbey was subsequently built.

The battle took place on 14 October 1066, between the Norman army of Duke William of Normandy from France, and the English army led by King Harold II. Harold was killed during the battle; traditionally, it is believed he was shot through the eye with an arrow. Although there was further English resistance for some time to come, this battle is seen as the point at which William gained control of England.

The famous Bayeux Tapestry depicts the events before and during the battle.

Background

Harold, next to King Edward the Confessor, was the most powerful man in England; he claimed the throne of England for himself in January 1066, soon after Edward died. He secured the support of the Witenagemot for his accession. Some sources say that while Edward had promised the throne to his cousin William, on his deathbed he decided to confer it to Harold instead.

Duke William of Normandy held fast to his claim to the throne. He took Harold's crowning as a declaration of war. William had been establishing policy in England for over 15 years, and was not ready to give up his position so easily. William planned to invade England, and take the crown for himself. The initial difficulty was that the Norman army was not powerful enough, so nobles as far as southern Italy were called to convene at Caen, in Normandy. There, William promised land and titles to his followers and that the voyage was secured by the Pope himself. William assembled a fleet of around 700 ships - a staggering logistical feat - and sailed for England.

On 28 September 1066 William, after being delayed by a storm in the English Channel, asserted his claim to the English crown by military force, landing unopposed at a marshy, tidal inlet at Bulverhythe, between what are now the modern towns of Hastings and Bexhill-on-Sea. The beachhead is within two miles (3 km) of the Senlac battlefield, is sheltered, and has access to high ground, whilst Pevensey, which had long been held to be the Duke's landing place, is marsh-bound—presenting problems for landing troops, horses and stores, and remote from the road to London.

Upon hearing the news of the landing of the Duke's forces, the English King, Harold II, who had just annihilated an invading Norwegian Viking army under King Harald Hardråda and Tostig Godwinson (Harold's brother) at the Battle of Stamford Bridge, near York, hurried southward to meet the invaders. His brother, Earl Gyrth urged a delay while more men could be assembled, but Harold was determined to show his people that he could defend his new kingdom decisively against every invader. He departed London on the morning of 12 October, gathering what available forces he could on the way. After camping at Long Bennington, he arrived at Senlac Hill the night of 13 October.

Harold deployed his force, astride the road from Hastings to London, on Senlac Hill some six miles (10 km) inland north-west of Hastings. Behind him was the great forest of Anderida (the Weald), and in front, the ground fell away in a long glacis-like slope, which at the bottom rose again as the opposing slope of Telham Hill.

The English army

The English army is usually thought to be around 7,500 strong, and consisted entirely of infantry. It is most probable that all the members of the army rode to battle, but once at the appointed place they dismounted to fight on foot.

The core of the English army was made up of full-time professional soldiers called Housecarls. They had a long-standing dedication to the King, and would fight to the last man if necessary. Their armour consisted of a conical helmet, a chain mail hauberk, and they carried a kite -shaped shield. Their primary weapon was the Danish battleaxes which they wielded with two hands, although every man would have carried a sword as well.

The bulk of the army, called the fyrd, comprised part-time soldiers drawn from the landowning minor nobility. These thegns were the land-holding aristocracy of pre-conquest England and were required to serve with their own armour and weapons for a certain number of days each year. The Victorian concept of the Noble Peasant defending his lands with a pitchfork has been relentlessly quashed by modern archaeological research.

The most formidable defence of the English was the shield wall, in which all the men on the front ranks locked their shields together. In the early stages of the battle, the shield wall was very effective at defending against the Norman archery barrages. The entire army took up position along the ridge-line; as casualties fell in the front lines the rear ranks would move forward to fill the gaps.

The Norman army

The Norman army was estimated to be as high as 8,400 strong and consisted of, at the most, 2,200 cavalry, 4,500 infantry and 1,700 missile troops (archers and crossbowmen). William's strategy relied on archers to soften the enemy, followed by a general advance of the infantry and then a cavalry charge. The Norman army was made up of nobles, mercenaries, and troops from France, to as far as southern Italy.

The Norman army's power derived from its cavalry which were reckoned amongst the best in Europe. They were heavily armoured, and usually had a lance and a sword. As with all cavalry, they were generally at their most effective against troops whose formation had begun to break up.

Apart from the missile troops, the Norman infantry were probably protected by chain mail and armed with spear, sword and shield, like their English counterparts.

The inclusion of large numbers of missile troops in William's army reflected the trend in other European armies for composite forces who combined on the battlefield. The bow was a relatively short weapon with a short draw, but was effective on the battlefield at this time. Hastings also marks the first known use of the crossbow in English history.

Prelude

On the morning of Saturday, 14 October 1066, Duke William of Normandy arrived, flying the Papal banner, and gathered his army below the English position. The Norman army was of comparable size to the English force and was composed of William's Norman, Breton, and Flemish vassals and allies along with their retainers, and freebooters from as far away as Norman Italy. The nobles had been promised English lands and titles in return for their material support, but the common troopers were to be paid with the spoils and "cash", and hoped for land when English fiefs were handed out. Many had also come because they considered it a holy crusade, because the Pope had decided to bless the invasion. The army was deployed in the classic medieval fashion of three divisions, or "battles"—the Normans taking the centre, the Bretons on the left wing and the Franco-Flemish on right wing. Each battle comprised infantry, cavalry and archers along with crossbowmen. The archers and crossbowmen stood to the front for the start of the battle.

William's minstrel and knight, Ivo Taillefer, begged his master for permission to strike the first blows of the battle. Permission was granted, and Taillefer rode before the English alone, tossing his sword and lance in the air and catching them while he sang an early version of The Song of Roland. The earliest account of this tale (in The Carmen de Hastingae Proelio) says that an English champion came from the ranks, and Taillefer quickly slew him, taking his head as a trophy to show that God favoured the invaders. Later 12th century sources say that Taillefer charged into the English ranks and killed one to three men before being killed.

The Battle

William relied on a basic strategy with archers in the front rank weakening the enemy with arrows, followed by infantry which would engage in close combat, and finally culminating in a cavalry charge that would break through the English forces. However, his strategy did not work as well as planned. William's army attacked the English as soon as they were ready and formed up. The Norman archers opened fire with several volleys, but many of the arrows hit the shield wall and had very little effect. Believing the English to have been softened up, William ordered his infantry to attack. As the Normans charged up the hill, the English threw down whatever they could find, stones, javelins, maces. The barrage inflicted heavy casualties amongst the Norman ranks, causing the lines to break up.

The infantry charge reached the English lines, where hand-to-hand fighting of very heavy ferocity took place. William had expected the English to be faltering, but something was going wrong. The arrow barrage had little to no effect, and nearly all the English troops still stood, their shield wall intact. As a result, William had to order his cavalry charge far sooner than expected. Despite their careful breeding and training, faced with a wall of axes, spears and swords, many of the horses simply shied away. After about an hour of fighting, the Breton division on William's left faltered and broke completely, fleeing down the hill. Suffering heavy casualties, and realising they would be quickly outflanked, the Norman and Flemish divisions retreated along with the Bretons. Unable to resist the temptation, many of the English broke ranks, including hundreds of fyrdmen and Harold's brothers, Leofwyne and Gyrthe. In the following confused fighting, William's horse was killed from underneath him, and he toppled to the ground. Witnessing the apparent death of their leader, the Normans panicked and took to flight. However, William took off his helmet to show he was alive and rallied his army.

William and a group of knights attacked the pursuing, now dispersed English, who were no longer protected by the shield wall, and cut down large numbers of fyrdmen. Many did not recognise the Norman counter-attack until it was too late, but some did manage to scramble back up the hill to the safety of the huscarls; others, including Harold's brothers, were not so fortunate. The two armies formed up, and a temporary lull fell over the battle. William took advantage of this lull to ponder a new strategy. The Normans' near-rout had turned to William's advantage, since the English lost much of the protection provided by the shield wall. Without the cohesion of a disciplined, strong formation, the individual English were easy targets. Keeping this in mind, William launched his army at the strong English position yet again. What happened next is open to debate. Some historians state that the Normans attempted several feint retreats, but this seems unlikely, as it would have inflicted too heavy casualties and would have been very complicated to carry out. The strategy worked either way, and many of the English housecarls were killed.

With a large number of English fyrdmen now holding the front rank, the disciplined shield wall that the housecarls had maintained began to falter and this presented an interesting opportunity to William. At the start of the battle, William's bowmen had fired directly into the English force, and the hail of arrows was thus ineffective because of their shields. Though many on the front ranks still had shields, William ordered his archers to fire directly over the shield wall, so their arrows landed in the clustered rear ranks of the English army. The archers did this, and with great success. Legend states that it was at this point that Harold was hit in the eye by an arrow, though that is speculated from a scene in the Bayeux Tapestry. Many of the English were now weary, and lost the discipline of the shield wall. William's army attacked again, and managed to make small chinks in the shield wall. They were able to exploit these gaps, and the English army began to fragment. William and a handful of knights broke through the wall, and struck down the English king. Without their leader, and many of the nobles now killed, hundreds of fyrdmen fled the field. The housecarls kept their oath of loyalty to the king, and fought bravely until they were all killed.

The bodies were cleared from the battlefield, William's tent pitched and a celebratory dinner held. Though casualties are entirely speculative, it seems likely that around 5,000 English and 3,000 Normans were killed during the battle.

Aftermath

Only a remnant of the defenders made their way back to the forest. Some of the Norman forces pursued the English but were ambushed and destroyed in the dusk when they ran afoul of steep ground, called, in later (12th century) sources, "the Malfosse", or "bad ditch". William rested his army for two weeks near Hastings, waiting for the English lords to come and submit to him. Then, after he realised his hopes of submission at that point were in vain, he began his advance on London. His army was seriously reduced in November by dysentery, and William himself was gravely ill. However, he was reinforced by fresh troops crossing the English Channel. After being thwarted in an attempt to cross London Bridge, he approached the city by a circuitous route, crossing the Thames at Wallingford and advancing on London from the north-west.

The northern earls, Edwin and Morcar, Esegar the sheriff of London, and Edgar the Atheling, who had been elected king in the wake of Harold's death, all came out and submitted to the Norman duke before he reached London. William was crowned king on Christmas Day, 1066 at Westminster Abbey.

Legacy

See also: Norman conquest of England#Significance.

Battle Abbey was built on the site of the battle. A plaque marks the place where Harold is believed to have fallen and the location where the high altar of the church once stood. The settlement of Battle, East Sussex, grew up around the abbey and is now a small market town.

The Bayeux Tapestry depicts the events before, during, and after the Battle of Hastings.

The Battle of Hastings is an excellent example of the application of the theory of combined arms. The Norman bowmen, cavalry and infantry cooperated together to deny the English the initiative, and gave the homogeneous English army few tactical options except defence.

However, it is quite likely that this tactical sophistication existed primarily in the minds of the Norman chroniclers. The account of the battle given in the earliest source, the Carmen de Hastingae Proelio, is one where the Norman advance surprises the English, who manage to gain the top of Senlac Hill before the Normans. The Norman light infantry is sent in while the English are forming their shield wall (to no avail) and then the main force was sent in (no distinction being made between infantry and cavalry).

Succeeding sources include (in chronological order) William of Poitiers's Gesta Guillelmi (written between 1071 and 1077), The Bayeux Tapestry (created between 1070 and 1077), and the much later Chronicle of Battle Abbey, the chronicles written by William of Malmesbury, Florence of Worcester, and Eadmer's Historia Novorum in Anglia embellishes the story further, with the final result being a William whose tactical genius was at a high level—a level that he failed to display in any other battle.

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