Duke William’s land was ruled by powerful lords, who owed him their loyalty. Whenever he needed them, he expected them also to supply varying numbers of mounted warriors – his knights.
These men were trained from an early age to ride and fight together in groups of five or ten, known as ‘conroys’. The rest of the community paid for their upkeep. They learned to carry out complex manoeuvres on horseback, to follow their leader’s orders, and keep concentrated around their conroy’s standard – the ‘gonfanon’.
William’s knights wore mail shirts often reaching as far as the knees, split front and back to allow them to sit astride their horses. They wore iron helmets with noseguards, and carried long kite-shaped shields. They were armed with swords, throwing javelins, and a heavier lance or spear. They used stirrups to keep them steady on horseback while they fought.
They might charge straight at the enemy in the hope that he would turn and run, or rely on the shock of impact to burst through the enemy line. Alternatively, they might approach close enough to throw javelins, or stab at the enemy with their long lances, and then retire out of harm’s way before their opponent, on foot, could strike back.
Normandy was a young land, carved out by Viking adventurer just a few generations previously from the Gallic tribes who owned it before. William’s Norman lords were only just beginning to accept the idea that their land was really his, and they could keep it only if they served him personally in time of war and supplied him with a band of knights as well.
It seems generally accepted that the mounted knights made up only the elite of William’s army, and that the main part of it consisted of armoured foot-soldiers, armed with spear and shield, like their English counterparts. The Bayeux Tapestry, however, shows no Norman warriors fighting on foot. We really don’t know what proportion of William’s army at Hastings was mounted or on foot.
ARCHERS, CROSSBOWMEN, SLINGERS
Both sides used archers, often to open the battle, or to wear down the enemy during pauses between close-quarter fighting. The bows of the time had a range of around a hundred yards or so, and archers carried twenty or more arrows in a ‘quiver’, or arrow-case. Once they ran out of arrows, they would either have to pick up arrows shot at them by the other side, or wait for fresh supplies to be brought up. Archers were not armoured (there’s one exception in the Bayeux Tapestry), and were not expected to fight close up. The Tapestry emphasises the numbers of archers on the Norman side, and the shields of English warriors are shown riddled with arrows. Some accounts mention the use of crossbows, and slingers may also have been present, though neither is shown in the Tapestry.
FOREIGNERS AND MERCENARIES
Mercenaries were warriors who fought for anyone who was prepared to pay them. William wanted the biggest army possible for his invasion, but he didn’t have the money to pay large numbers of mercenaries. And yet they seem to have made up a substantial part of his army.
At Hastings, there were also Breton, French and Flemish contingents. William was not powerful enough to force foreign armies to fight for him, and for their part, none of them particularly wanted to see William’s power grow any further. Yet possibly more than half of William’s army consisted of Bretons, French and Flemish warriors.
They came, the foreigners and mercenaries, because William promised them land in return for their service. William was hungry for new land, and so was his army. As it turned out, they were all richly rewarded.
Norman armies, like others in the early medieval period, occupied their enemies’ land, lived off it, and sometimes devastated it. This clearly showed the weakness of their opponents. If a strong enemy army approached, they would probably withdraw. Battles were risky and costly affairs, and were rare events. William also followed the Norman tradition of building wooden castles as ‘power-bases’. He used both these strategies in the days following the invasion.
Unusually, however, in 1066, he was prepared to risk everything in a pitched battle, after doing everything to ensure the odds were in his favour. Just as the English had surprised the Vikings at Stamford Bridge by rapid marches, so it seems that William may have surprised Harold, at the last moment, in the act of assembling his army.
William’s main advantage was his control of his army. The different parts could be ordered into action or withdrawn at his command. His mounted knights could attack, withdraw or re-group at will, while Harold’s army seemed stuck to its position. William himself, on horseback, was able to direct the battle, move to threatened points, lead attacks in person or rally troops as he chose.
His cavalry weren’t able to punch their way through the English foot, and he probably didn’t expect them to. They simply wore the shield-wall down with constant harrying attacks. Whenever parts of the English line were tempted to follow the Norman cavalry as they withdrew, they were immediately surrounded and cut down. These ‘feigned retreats’ were possibly the decisive element in William’s victory.
The Tapestry seems also to emphasize the importance of archery, especially as the English at Hastings seem not to have had an answer to it, and because, arguably, Harold was finally killed by an arrow in the face.
Finally, William’s success in winning the support of the Pope, and having a Papal Banner to display to all his troops must have been both heartening to his own army, and demoralizing to his enemies.