14 October 1066

The most famous battle in all English history is undoubtedly the bloody daylong struggle between the Anglo-Saxon forces of the English king, Harold II, and the invading army of William, Duke of Normandy. It has been known for centuries as the Battle of Hastings, but it was fought on a narrow slope leading up to what is now the small Sussex town of Battle, halfway between Pevensey and Hastings, a short distance from the English Channel. With around 7,000 men apiece, William and Harold battled for the future history of England.

Battle Abbey, near the site of the Battle of Hastings on the Sussex coast, was begun by William the Conqueror after the Pope had told him in 1070 to do penance for all the English he had killed. It was completed after his death. The actual battlefield can still be seen on a sloping field below the abbey.

The cause of the battle was the straightforward prospect of ruling a prosperous and fertile country. English territory was divided between areas of Viking and Anglo-Saxon settlement, and for several centuries had been the object of the ambitions of Scandinavian rulers. The throne of England was an unstable inheritance, and when King Edward, known as the Confessor, died on 5 January 1066 without an heir, there were a number of claimants to the English throne. The English earls elected Harold Godwinson, Earl of Wessex (in southwest England), who had no direct blood ties to the royal line, but was a tough and successful warrior. In the space of less than a year, he faced two separate invasions by claimants who did have royal blood, and believed that the throne belonged to them. In September 1066, the king of Norway, Harald Hardrada (‘hard ruler’), invaded northeast England with a large Viking army, determined to wrest control of the kingdom; less than a month later, a Norman army under William landed in the south, driven by the same ambition.

Politics in early medieval England was decided by the sword. William had been promised the throne of England not only by Edward the Confessor, but, or so the Normans claimed, by Harold Godwinson himself. An ambitious and violent soldier, descended from Viking settlers, Duke William had already subjugated much of the area around his duchy of Normandy. In the summer of 1066, he summoned his own levies and those of his allies and vassals to mount an invasion of England. He had 700 boats built in a short space of time, but he still needed favourable winds. His army of 2,500 horsemen (with 2,000 horses), 1,000 archers and 3,000 infantry was forced to sit on the coast for 45 days before the wind finally changed. At dawn on 28 September, the army disembarked on the coast at Pevensey and awaited the English. The strength of William’s invasion force lay in the body of heavily armoured cavalry, by then commonly used in battles in France but rare in England, and also the archers, whose longbows and crossbows could rain arrows down on the enemy infantry. Almost all his men were trained soldiers rather than conscripted militia, with experience in using the bows, javelins and swords with which they were armed.

One of fifty scenes from the Bayeux Tapestry, woven at Bayeux Cathedral in the late eleventh century on orders from William the Conqueror’s brother, Bishop Odo, depicts the Norman soldiers with their cavalry mounts. Hundreds of horses were transported across the English Channel from Normandy, but Duke William had to be sure of victory since there was no way to resupply his knights with mounts if the war became drawn out.

Harold was on the other side of England. On 20 September at Fulford, near York, an army of 10,000 Vikings under Harald Hardrada and Harold’s brother, Tostig Godwinson, annihilated a force of perhaps 6,000 under earls Edwin and Morcar. Collecting levies from the south, Harold rode north from London, moving so quickly that his 5,000 men found the Viking invaders unprepared on both sides of the River Derwent, near a small village at Stamford Bridge. Charging the forces on one side of the river, the English soldiers slaughtered them all before crossing the narrow bridge and falling on the rest of the invasion force. Some 7,000 corpses littered the battlefield. Only 24 out of the 500 ships that had carried the Vikings to England were needed to take the survivors home.


Harold’s victory ended any prospect in the near future of Scandinavian intervention in English affairs. If Hardrada’s invasion had been his only problem, the battle would be hailed as the start of a different English history. But messengers told Harold that another enemy awaited him in Sussex, ravaging the countryside, burning villages and towns and seizing their goods. He rode south with his tired and battered army and arrived at London on 6 October, where he was joined by other levies and his brothers Gyrth and Leofwine. Harold had at his command a mixed army of Anglo-Saxon nobility, their ‘housecarles’ or professional soldiers, and the trained militia, the fyrd. He was joined by a number of Danish mercenaries, or lithsmen. The housecarles and nobility wore long protective mail coats or ‘hauberks’ and carried spears, daggers and the deadly double-handed battleaxes that could cleave a man and horse in two. The fyrd were more lightly armed, and wore only thick leather jerkins. The principal tactic of Harold’s army was the shield wall, composed of lines of housecarles with heavy shields, forming a solid barrier of the toughest soldiery against which enemy attacks were designed to be broken by sheer physical power and the courage of the defending fighters.

Harold moved south, arriving opposite William’s army on 13 October, and camped near the shallow Caldbec Hill. His army left their horses and proceeded early on the morning of 14 October to take up position at the top of a long but shallow slope, protected on both sides by swampy ground, where Harold set up a solid shield wall some ten or twelve men deep and perhaps 7,000-strong in total. Although he had successfully used a cavalry charge at Stamford Bridge, Harold chose to fight without cavalry and with very few archers. The shield wall, in contrast, was a primitive tactic to choose against William and left very little flexibility. The Norman army was drawn up in the early morning in a way that made the most of the mixed force William had brought with him. There were three sections: Flemish allies on the right, a Breton force on the left, and 3,500 cavalry and heavy infantry in the centre led by William. Throughout the day the Norman duke displayed a shrewd tactical judgement, making the most of his cavalry and his archers, probing to find a way to wear down the shield wall. Occasionally, as the legend of Hastings has it, his cavalry made feints as if to retreat, tempting Harold’s soldiers to run after them, only for the Anglo-Saxons to suddenly be surrounded and cut down.

Battle was joined at around 9 a.m. Since the Normans were attacking up a slope, Harold had some advantages. His spearmen could throw more powerfully downwards, while William’s archers had to fire uphill, and his cavalry were forced to charge against the gradient. Most medieval battles were over in a couple of hours, but Hastings, contested by two battle-hardened and professional forces, lasted the whole day, at a terrible cost to both sides. At one point, the ferocity of the English stand broke the left flank of William’s force and threatened a more general retreat, rather than a ruse to lure the enemy into pursuit. Accounts of the battle have William removing his helmet to show he had not been slain and shouting to his men to hold firm and rally. They did so, just as a large group of English militia chased after them, thinking the whole army was in flight. The Anglo-Saxons were surrounded on a hillock and, despite a desperate effort to save themselves, each one was bludgeoned or speared to death where he stood.

William then opted for attrition. Small groups of horsemen and heavy infantry attacked, taking casualties but also eating into the shield wall. Hour after hour of gory combat left all the men exhausted, desperate with thirst, and covered in wounds, great and small. The corpses were so many that it proved hard at times to fight on the slope made slippery with their blood. After six hours of slaughter, William could see that attrition was taking a greater toll of the enemy. He ordered a charge against the shield wall by all his surviving army. The Anglo-Saxon line gave way, and small groups of housecarles rallied round their lords as the Norman wave washed over them. Harold and his brothers were killed, the king so mutilated by the hacking Norman swords that his body could only be identified later by his mistress.

There was no concept of surrender and Harold’s surviving men could be butchered where they were found. Some 4,000 of the Anglo-Saxon army died at Hastings, 2,000 of William’s men. William marched north to London, where he was crowned king in Westminster Abbey. England became a Norman province, united under one monarch. It is easy to be sentimental about Harold’s defeat, but he, like William, was just one of a long line of warrior noblemen, with Norse blood in their veins, who fought to the death for land and wealth. What made William different was his sharp military mind, shown in his ability to ‘manage’ the battlefield in an age of primitive combat. Crude though the fighting was, William’s victory rested on solid military understanding and bold leadership.