1066 – Hastings

 

Sources:
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle – a History of England written by English monks at the time.
Gesta Normannorum Ducum – a history of the Normans written by William of Jumièges, c1070.
Gesta Willelmi – a history of 1066 written by William’s own chaplain, William of Poitiers, c1075.
Carmen de Hastingae Proelio – a history of 1066 written by Guy, bishop of Amiens, about 1067
(Some historians think this document was written much later than 1067)
The Bayeux Tapestry – a pictorial history of the invasion of 1066, embroidered about 1080.
Chronicon ex Chronicis – a history of 1066 written by Florence, a monk of Worcester, in  1118.

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At York, on 1 October, while celebrating his victory, Harold received news that William had landed at Pevensey in Sussex,  nearly 300 miles to the south.  The next morning, he immediately set off back down the old Roman Road, Ermine Street, with his tired and battered Housecarles and such of the ‘fyrd’ who could or would keep up with him. By 5 or 6 October, marching  40 miles a day, he was back in London. He had already sent out word that the men of the southern counties should muster again, and join him either in London, or at a meeting point not far from Hastings itself.

Harold and William had met before – in 1064. William had apparently rescued Harold from a prison in Ponthieu where Harold had been shipwrecked. It’s uncertain quite what Harold was doing in the Channel, but he stayed as William’s ‘guest’ for a time, went on campaign with him, apparently swore loyalty to him and confirmed William’s claim to the throne of England whenever old king Edward might die. Edward had spent his younger years in Normandy, and had often expressed a wish that the young William should one day succeed him as king of England. Falling suddenly ill at Christmas 1065, Edward on his deathbed seemed to change his mind, and bequeathed his crown instead to Harold.  He died on 5 January 1066, at his new Abbey at Westminster, where he still lies.

Harold was duly elected king, and realized immediately that he might have to fight off an invasion by William. However, as things turned out, he was busy all summer with his troublesome brother Tostig, and then with Harald of Norway. Now at last, with both of these enemies out of the way, William had come to deprive him of any rest he might have hoped for. 

William had been building his invasion fleet all year and gathering his army of Normans, French, Breton, Flemmings and mercenaries. When he was finally ready to sail, the wind prevented him, and he had to wait until almost the end of the campaigning season – 27 September – before the wind changed and he was finally able to set sail for England. Although he didn’t realize it, it was a stroke of luck, because most of the English fleet had been disbanded, and what was left of the army was way up in the north. When William landed at Pevensey in Sussex, there was no-one to fight him.

He marched to Hastings, assembled a pre-made wooden fort, and ravaged the countryside. His scouts,  looking for the English army, found nothing.

After 5 or 6 days rest, Harold meanwhile, had once again struck out from London on 11 October with his Housecarles and a steadily growing army of fyrdmen.  He headed straight down the road to Hastings. He must have been dismayed to learn that Duke William had with him a banner from the Pope himself: God, it seemed, was on the side of the Normans.

The road to Hastings wound through a huge forest – the Andredeswald. Harold’s chosen meeting-point for the men of Kent and Sussex to join him was just where the forest opened out into rolling countryside again. He may have planned another surprise attack, as at Stamfordbridge. It was, however, dangerously close to William’s army to attempt such a trick.

Harold spent the evening of 13 October organizing his freshly-arrived troops. William, however, was on the march himself. Accounts are a little unclear, but it may be that it was Harold who was surprised on the morning of 14th.

Harold drew up his army on a ridge called Sandlach, blocking William’s way any further north. He probably had about six or seven thousand men with him. He would have gathered his Housecarles  around him in the centre, with the banner of Wessex and his personal standard ‘The Fighting Man’. To left and right, the ‘fyrd’ , some well-armoured, others less so, all several ranks deep.  Only a handful, it seems, of archers, and the whole army on foot, horses having been taken to the fear. Perhaps  the archers were still on their way? Some fyrdmen may even have left Harold’s army according to the English Chronicle, for reasons unknown. Gyrth and Leofwine, two more of Harold’s brothers, possibly took command of the left and right of the army.

They watched William’s army wind towards them over the crest of Telham Hill in the distance, and then deploy to left and right. In the centre, William himself, with his Papal Banner. On the left, the Bretons, on the right the French and Flemmings. Each section, or ‘battle’, was divided into three lines. In front, a large number of archers, and possibly slingers and crossbow-men too. Behind them, armoured warriors on foot.  In the third line, the mounted knights. The size of William’s army is unknown, but it was probably about the same as Harold’s – six or seven thousand.

The archers seem to have opened the battle, closing to within a hundred yards or so of the English shield-wall and showering them with arrows. Against armoured men, uphill and tightly shielded, they apparently had little effect, however.

The heavy foot-men next advanced to the attack, and the battle became a slugging-match. The horrific nature of this kind of fighting made it impossible for men to endure it for any length of time, but the shield-wall held. On the Norman left, the Bretons gave way, and the English there, with or without orders, flooded down the hill after them. Some of the Normans were carried away in the retreat, and for a few moments, it seemed that William’s whole army would crumble away.

The highly-trained, fast and manoeuvrable mounted knights in their tightly controlled squadrons, however, proved decisive. William himself led the counter-attack, removing his helmet to assure his men that he was still in control. His knights struck at the gap between the pursuing English and the main position on the hill, cut the pursuers off and surrounded them. A small but significant slice of the English line was annihilated.

The battle then resumed its course – relentless uphill attacks, the shield-wall holding firm, the English slowly being worn down.

William may have tempted more English from their ridge with ‘feigned retreats’, but whatever the truth of this, it seems that as casualties mounted on the English side, the line shrank in length. The flanks now hung in the open, and mounted knights began to work their way around them.

The Norman archers, now re-supplied, harassed the English between attacks. At some time in the afternoon, both Harold’s brothers were killed. No account of the battle says a single word about the king’s leadership: Harold seems simply to have stood grimly on his hill and fought on to the death.

The end may have come as Norman knights broke through the shield-wall and hacked Harold down. Or perhaps he was already on the ground, dying from a chance arrow which had struck him in the face. Accounts differ,  or are silent, although the image on the Bayeux Tapestry of Harold apparently trying to pull an arrow from his eye remains the most famous.

Once news of Harold’s death spread through the already outflanked, pierced and wavering English battle-line, morale finally collapsed.  Encouraged  by the safety of the approaching dusk, the shield-wall dissolved.

William’s men were probably too exhausted to pursue for any distance, especially as night was falling. There are some possibly confused accounts of pursuing knights tumbling into a ditch and being set upon by a die-hard band of English warriors, of Harold’s Housecarles fighting to the last man around the mangled body of their lord, and even of Harold surviving the battle, slipping away into the night, and living as a hermit for many years afterwards.

William made for Dover after the battle, and then marched west, feeling towards London, but not willing to risk an assault across the City’s single bridge. Instead, he continued west as far as Winchester, receiving reinforcements on the way, then eventually struck north, crossing the Thames at Wallingford. Now north of the Thames, he circled back eastwards, and at Berkhamstead, north of London, received the submission of the most powerful surviving earls and churchmen.

The city was now his for the taking, and on Christmas Day, 1066, he was crowned William 1st,King of England.