Last Updated on 7th June 2021 by Mike@bitaboutbritain
Every action has a reaction, but there are some events that so obviously and profoundly shape the future. One of these was the Battle of Hastings on 14th October 1066*, when heroic Harold, King of England, got beat by wicked William, Duke of Normandy. Of course, nothing’s that simple – but one thing is for sure: things changed forever that day. I venture to suggest that the consequences of this battle, fought almost a thousand years ago on a field in southern England, have touched you in some way – whoever and wherever you are.
Putting aside that thought for a moment, if you get a kick out of walking in history’s footsteps, then traipsing over what remains of the battlefield of Hastings is a very pleasant place to indulge yourself. William ordered an abbey to be built on Senlac Hill, where Harold’s troops made their stand about 6 miles to the north-west of Hastings. The ruins of the abbey adjoining the town of Battle overlook part of the battleground, a mixture of meadow peppered with trees, scrubland and with a couple of small lakes. Guided by helpful information boards, it’s a tranquil place to stroll, where the screams of men, the clash of steel, thundering of hooves – the cacophony of a medieval battle – seem incongruous; yet they persist.
Traditionally, 11th century England – a territory more or less corresponding with the current map – is portrayed as the land of the Anglo-Saxons. These were by heritage Germanic people, including Jutes and Frisians, who comprehensively swept aside the resident Romano-Celts from ‘England’ in the 5th & 6th centuries, settled, became Christianised, were infiltrated and almost overcome by Danish and Norse Vikings in the 8th and 9th centuries, rallied under Alfred the Great of Wessex in the 9th century and whose heirs gradually unified the country. The Anglo-Saxon contribution to English culture is immeasurable and it produced a sophisticated, organised and wealthy state. But the picture of a Saxon idyll, where sleepy shires go about their business in a kind of peaceful hobbit-like utopia might be somewhat of an illusion.
In fact, 11th century England – a name derived from ‘land of the Angles’ – could be more accurately described as Anglo-Scandinavian. About half the Kingdom, in the north and east, had a tradition of Danelaw. From 1016-1042, England was ruled by Danes (Cnut until 1035, followed by his two sons, Harold Harefoot and Harthacanut) and was very much a part of a wider Scandinavian world. The King of England from 1042-1066 was Edward the Confessor; his parents were King Aethelred II of England, (a great-great grandson of Alfred the Great) and his queen, Emma. But Emma was a Viking, daughter of Richard I of Normandy and his Danish mistress, Gunnor.**
Norman means ‘Norsemen’. Queen Emma’s great-grandfather was Rollo, who had plundered his way from Denmark in the early 10th century and was given land by the French king to keep him quiet. By the 11th century, the Normans had adopted the speech of the existing populations and had developed their own distinct culture.
The cause of the Norman invasion in 1066 was a dispute over who should be king of England when Edward the Confessor died. Edward, who had been exiled in Normandy as a young man, had strong Norman sympathies. Chaste (apparently) and childless (certainly), by 1051 he had designated William, Duke of Normandy as his heir – though that wasn’t his decision to make. William, the illegitimate son of Robert, 6th Duke of Normandy, and Herleve, a tanner’s daughter, was Edward’s 2nd cousin and as tough and ambitious as they come. There were others who aspired to the English throne. Chief among the earls who wielded enormous power in pre-Conquest England was the intensely pro-Anglo-Danish Earl Godwin, who held land from Cornwall to Kent. His sons by his Danish wife, Gytha Thorkelsdottir, held other parts of the country; his daughter, Edith, married King Edward. Godwin’s eldest son, Harold, became Earl of Wessex on his father’s death in 1053. Harold was shipwrecked on a mission to Normandy in 1064 and befriended by William. Tradition is that the two hunted – and even fought in Brittany – together. Whilst he was William’s guest, the Normans claimed Harold made a sacred vow to support William’s claim to the English throne. We do not know why Harold took that oath, or whether he did so under duress. In any event, at some point he returned, unharmed, to England.
King Edward died in the abbey he founded, Westminster, on 5th January 1066. The next day, Harold was crowned king. It was declared that, on his deathbed, Edward had placed his kingdom (and his wife) under Harold’s ‘protection’. A meeting of the Witanagemot – the assembly of influential men that advised the king – chose Harold as Edward’s successor. Harold had no blood claim to the throne, but was the powerful leader of the English party opposed to increasing Norman influence. Historian Michael Wood suggests that the indecent haste of Harold’s consecration, with the old king barely cold, is more suggestive of a coup d’état. In any event, over in Normandy, William was furious when he heard the news and set about organising a fleet and an army to invade. The promise of a share of England’s wealth and lands encouraged nobles and mercenaries from as far away as Sicily to join him. And, to cap it all, William obtained the support of the Pope – possibly because of Harold’s broken oath – so the project was now God’s work too.
In April, Halley’s Comet appeared in the skies. William took this heavenly symbol as a good omen; many in England saw it as a bad one. But Harold, an experienced soldier and leader, was not one to be cowed by comets or threats of invasion. First, he mobilised the Saxon fleet and stationed it near the Isle of Wight. Next, he raised the southern fyrd – a kind of militia that each county was obliged to raise at time of crisis. Alongside the distinctly amateur soldiers of the fyrd were the elite fighting troops of Anglo-Saxon England, the housecarls; some 3,000 strong, they were amongst the most feared warriors in Europe. So Harold waited through the long summer for William to come. But William needed a south-west wind which did not materialise, and was stuck across the Channel at Dives. Harold, running out of provisions and with the men of the fyrd impatient to bring in the harvest, disbanded his army.
Then – terrible news; England had been invaded in the north. Harold’s estranged brother, Tostig, had persuaded the King of Norway, Harold Hardrada, that what he most wanted was to be king of England. Hardrada, a giant of a man who had fought his way across Russia to Constantinople and back again, needed little encouragement – he thought that the kings of Norway had a claim to the English throne anyway. On or around 18th September, Hardrada and Tostig landed with an estimated 10,000 men and headed for York. Harold reacted with astonishing speed; he set off north with as many troops as he could muster, gathering in the fyrd from the Midlands along the way. In one of the most celebrated marches in history, Harold reached Tadcaster in 4 days, on 24th September, to find that the invaders had already defeated a northern English army outside York, at Fulford, on 20th. Harold, however, acted decisively and, at the Battle of Stamford Bridge on 25th September, comprehensively overwhelmed Hardrada and Tostig’s forces. Celebrations were short-lived; a few days later, Harold heard that William’s forces had landed in the south and were devastating the countryside around Hastings.
The Battle of Hastings
William had moved his fleet to St Valery at the mouth of the Somme, where he had a shorter crossing to England. Finally, on 27th September, he got favourable wind and the massive fleet – said to number some 700 ships – set sail. William led in his ship Mora, a present from his wife (it makes a change from socks and DVDs). On 28th, his forces landed, unopposed, in Pevensey Bay. William stumbled and fell as he landed. Grabbing sand and shingle, what superstitious men could have been seen as a bad sign was averted by the quick claim that the Duke had seized England with both hands. The Normans had brought timber prefabricated forts with them to secure their base and then moved to Hastings, probably to avoid the thick forest, the Andredsweald, which then covered south-east England.
Harold returned south the way he had come, heading for London, urgently needing to assemble a fresh army. Who knows what the outcome of Hastings might have been, without the losses at Fulford and Stamford Bridge and without, presumably, a proportion of travel and battle-weary men? Perhaps, Harold should have played a waiting game. But the ravaging of villages and homesteads in the south forced the king to reject caution, as it was intended to do. There would be one, decisive, battle to determine the future of England. Harold set off from London on 11th October with between 5-7,000 men; more would be gathered on the way, or would meet at the agreed rendezvous, an old hoar apple tree on the southern edge of the forest, just north of William’s army.
By the evening of Friday 13th October, Harold’s army was straddled across Senlac Hill, blocking William’s route to London. Norman sources suggest that the English spent the night drinking, which was a big part of male Anglo-Saxon society (so that’s where we get it from), whereas the pious Normans prayed and confessed their sins. Alternatively, it is reasonable to guess that many of the utterly exhausted Anglo-Saxons just lay down and slept.
Harold Godwinson, in his mid-40s, was a charismatic and experienced leader. Taking advantage of a strong defensive position on top of the hill, he deployed his troops in the traditional Saxon way, shoulder to shoulder in the shield-wall – and waited for William to attack. The King was in the centre surrounded by his personal housecarls, with his standards – including the Dragon of Wessex and his personal banner of ‘the Fighting Man’ – fluttering overhead. Somewhere, possibly on the flanks, were Harold’s two brothers, Gyrth and Leofwine. The bulk of the English army, the fyrd, fought with an assortment of weapons, from clubs to spears, but the weapon of choice for the elite housecarl was the battleaxe, with a blade up to a foot (30cms) across mounted on a 3-5-foot long helve. The wild-looking Anglo-Saxons must have been a terrifying sight, beating their shields and shouting the traditional Saxon battle-cry – “Uit! Uit! Uit!”.
William was slightly younger than his rival, about 38 years old at the time. A cunning and experienced commander, he was immensely strong and inclined to brutality. He formed up his army in three divisions: on the left, Bretons; Normans in the middle; on the right, his Franco-Flemish allies. In front, he deployed archers and slingers; in the rear, his cavalry. The English had very few, if any, archers – though we believe they threw stones and other missiles of one sort or another – and they fought on foot.
William’s minstrel, Taillefer, opened proceedings that historic morning: juggling with his sword, he rode toward the English, killing two before being struck down himself. Then the battle began in earnest. First, William’s archers loosed volleys at the English, to little effect. Next, the Norman infantry slogged uphill to the shield-wall; when that failed to break, William sent in his mounted knights, but they too were unable to penetrate the English line. Then the Breton cavalry, on the Norman left, fell streaming back downhill, panic spread and it was shouted that William had fallen. The Duke grasped the situation; pushing his helmet back so that his face could be seen, he gathered a force of knights to attack a group of Englishmen who, contrary to Harold’s strict instruction to hold the shield-wall, had foolishly followed the Bretons. The Normans cut them to pieces on a small mound near the foot of the hill. There was a lull – probably one of several in the long day during which the Normans attempted to grind the English down with repeated attacks. Twice, we are told, the English line was weakened by two feigned retreats inspired by the earlier Breton incident – though military experts say this would have been a difficult manoeuvre to pull off, particularly given the primitive command and control arrangements that existed. In any event, as daylight ran out, the English ranks were depleted, but were still in position on the ridge. William ordered his weary men into one last attack up the trampled and slippery incline, littered with dead and injured men and the detritus of battle. Tradition has it that, beforehand, he ordered his archers to shoot high into the air, over the remaining shield-wall. The English began to crack; the Normans gained footholds on the plateau. Sometime, possibly even earlier in the day, Harold’s brothers were slain. It is probable that the King was wounded in the eye*** with an arrow, and then cut down by a Norman knight. The housecarls gathered round their banners until, finally, they fell. Those remaining English that could do so left the field, pursued by the victorious Normans. Among the estimated 4,000 corpses on the battlefield was Harold’s mutilated body, which had to be identified by his mistress, Edith Swan-Neck. William refused Harold’s mother’s request for a Christian burial for her son and, apparently, the last king of the Anglo-Saxons was buried on a beach. Later, tradition is that his body was taken to Waltham Abbey in Essex, where (presumably) it remains.
There is an interesting post-script. The spot where Harold died was long thought to be marked by the position of the altar of the abbey William ordered to be built. An engraved stone lies there now. But Channel 4’s Time Team programme claimed that a more likely location for Harold’s last stand was near a mini-roundabout on the A2100. With the discovery of Richard III’s bones under a car park in Leicester, the English are getting used to their kings ending up in odd places.
Well for a start, if Harold had won the Battle of Hastings you would not be reading this in this form of English, if at all. No Shakespeare, no Dickens – no Enid Blyton? The President of the United States – if the USA existed in the form that does – might be addressing Congress in some form of Spanish, French – or, if the United Kingdom had ever come about and managed to get its act together, German. Possibly. No Parliament? No English Reformation? No British Empire? With a different gene pool, most of us probably wouldn’t even be here. In the short term, William’s victory led to more than just a regime-change; it overturned the entire socio-economic and political framework of England. The focus of its rulers shifted away from Scandinavia to France. In time, all of the people of Britain would come to be dominated by the new Norman elite and their descendents. The English language developed from a merger of old German (confusingly known as ‘old English’), Danish, Norse, Norman-French and Latin. The hybrid peoples of the British Isles then exported their ideas, institutions, influence – and themselves – all over the world. The Normans have left us with physical symbols of their power in the shape of castles and cathedrals, but the political and cultural legacy of their conquest is global.
* The satirical book 1066 and all that by RJ Yeatman and WC Sellar states there are two memorable dates in English history. The other one is 55BC, when Julius Caesar first invaded.
** In fact, Emma’s second husband was Cnut, with whom she had Harthacanut – so you can see it all looks rather complicated. I can highly recommend a book, Queen Emma and the Vikings, by Harriet O’Brien, which goes into all this and is a darn good read. My chum Dave lent it to me; thanks, Dave.
*** There are various sources for the Battle of Hastings, and Harold’s death. One of the prime sources is the cartoon embroidery, the Bayeux Tapestry, commissioned by the victorious Normans and probably made in England. The narrative, in Latin, says Harold Rex Interfectus Est (King Harold is killed) over representations of one man with an arrow in his eye and another being cut down by a mounted knight. We don’t know which figure is meant to represent Harold – or whether they both do. The general view seems to be the latter.