The 1066 clash between Harold and William had revolutionary consequences for the island nation.
For historians the year 1066 and the Battle of Hastings are inextricably linked, for that single day’s combat gave rise to what eventually became the modern English state and, later, Great Britain. The battle—illustrated in the epic Bayeux Tapestry—pitted the forces of Harold, the last Anglo-Saxon king of England, against those of Duke William II of Normandy. Harold had assumed the throne upon the death of Edward the Confessor (r. 1042–66). William, Edward’s cousin, insisted the king had promised the throne to him, and he sought to enforce that claim by force. As illustrated in the following excerpt from Moment of Battle: The Twenty Clashes That Changed the World (2013), by James Lacey and Williamson Murray, the Norman invasion of England and William’s subsequent victory at Hastings created a new country and a new people.
Soon after Harold was declared king of England in January 1066, William began preparations for an invasion. He first sought the support of Pope Alexander II, but even with his blessing recruiting an invasion army proved difficult. There was nothing in the feudal code that required vassal lords to invade a distant land. With so much to lose in Normandy, many were in no hurry to attack England, where the prospective gains might be great, but the risks greater. William had to call three councils before he had worn down the resistance of his nobles sufficiently to gain their support.
By early August 1066 the invasion force had mostly mustered, and the army encamped near Dives-sur-Mer, where the fleet was also assembling. It was there also that William demonstrated his true genius for war, as a master of logistics. To centralize the distribution of food, he had a huge granary constructed. Moreover, he arranged for the shipment of supplies to feed at least 12,000 men and as many as 2,000 horses for over a month. William appears to have also devised procedures for getting rid of the tons of garbage and raw sewage an army creates daily—a substantial achievement for the era.
As William mustered his forces, Harold mobilized his army and navy along England’s southern coast. But William was not his only concern. Harold’s brother, Tostig, had been deposed from the earldom of Northumbria in 1065 and since then had been a constant thorn in his brother’s side. In May 1066 Tostig, with 60 ships, ravaged much of England’s southern coast. Eventually repulsed by the two northern earls Morcar and Edwin, he took the remnants of his force to Norway, where he allied himself with Harald III Hardrada, the renowned Viking king. In 1065, just before Tostig’s arrival, Hardrada was at peace, but he still possessed a powerful army that was eager for booty and land. Tostig could not have arrived at a better time.
While Tostig plotted and William gathered his forces, Harold and the English army waited. All summer the fleet and at least a quarter of the fyrd, the equivalent of a national militia, stood ready. In early September, however, with its food expended and at the end of the two-month service the fyrd owed the king, Harold had to order its disbandment. Soon thereafter the fleet reached the end of its tether also, and by September 10 it was back in London and demobilizing. With no fleet patrolling the English Channel and the coast denuded of troops, England lay wide open. William, probably informed by spies, began to stir. The Norman army left Dives-sur-Mer for the port of Saint-Valery-sur-Somme, about 160 miles up the coast and closer to his proposed landing sites at Pevensey and Hastings.
But the first strike did not come from William. In mid-September Harald Hardrada landed 10 miles south of York. Edwin and Morcar had joined forces to oppose him, and on September 20 at Fulford Gate the two earls, with perhaps 5,000 men, met the similarly sized Viking army. At first the English had the upper hand, pushing back the Viking flanks, where Hardrada had placed his least reliable men. At this crucial juncture Hardrada unfurled his war banner. As the flag fluttered in the breeze, Hardrada ordered his personal guard forward. The Norse army took heart and attacked with renewed ferocity. Amid a great slaughter the English line broke, and the Vikings pursued in a killing fury.
Hardrada entered York but withdrew to his ships later in the day to celebrate his victory. From his perspective he had just defeated the English army and expected immediate surrender. To ensure the defeated northern earls did not cause any further trouble, Hardrada demanded 500 hostages. This was agreed to, and Stamford Bridge was selected for the surrender ceremony and the transfer of hostages, scheduled for September 25. Until then the Norse army sat idle. It was a fateful mistake.
Hardrada took two-thirds of his men with him to Stamford Bridge, leaving the rest to guard his ships. When he arrived, there were no hostages. Instead, he found an army coming down the road. Harold had arrived on the scene from southern England after one of the great forced marches in history and was now rushing to do battle with the Viking horde.
As the English closed, Hardrada found himself in a weak position with a significant number of his men back at the ships. As for the several thousand he brought with him, most had left behind their armor. Moreover, Harold had caught him by surprise, and his Viking force had scant time to form for battle. The English first struck the small force Hardrada had left behind on the far side of the Stamford Bridge. Harold’s men then swarmed across the bridge and fell on the Vikings. The battle was vicious. Strong men, their bloodlust raging, hacked at each other with ax and sword. The Vikings, without armor to protect them, fell by the hundreds. Finally, unable to withstand the onslaught, their line broke. Hardrada, realizing the battle was lost, went berserk. Flinging himself into the midst of his enemies, he swung his broadax in great, savage circles before an arrow finally felled him. Harold picked up the Viking king’s fallen banner and offered peace to Tostig and the remaining Norseman. The offer was refused, and the Vikings came on in a final desperate charge.
By now the rest of the Viking host was arriving from the ships, having double-timed the entire distance carrying their shields and wearing chain mail. Some were so exhausted they died on reaching the field; most were too tired to make the effort required to break an English shield wall. Still, the slaughter went on until nightfall, when the Vikings broke and ran. At some point during the struggle an ax blow killed Tostig. Harold took no time to mourn his brother, as he led his army in pursuit of the fleeing Vikings. Realizing the Norse threat was over for his lifetime, Harold allowed the surviving Vikings to return to Norway. They were only able to man 24 of their original 300 ships.
It was a great victory, but Harold’s army had suffered losses he could ill afford. As his army recovered, word came that William’s army had landed at Pevensey and was ravaging the surrounding countryside. Harold gathered his huscarls and hastily marched south.
On September 28 the Norman army landed at Pevensey, a prosperous market town, but William soon moved his base to Hastings, and his army began to waste the surrounding country. As this region was part of Harold’s personal holdings, William calculated that such depredations would bring his enemy to battle as rapidly as possible. William needed a quick and decisive fight; for if Harold decided to avoid battle and instead bottle up the Normans at Hastings—while using his 700 ships to cut off escape—William was doomed. Supplies would not last long, and the Normans would find little in the countryside they had so recently devastated. It was a supreme gamble, but William knew his man.
After another forced march, Harold paused in London to reorganize his tired army and gather new troops. His brother Gyrth advised Harold to wait until they had an overwhelming force, in the meantime burning the land between Hastings and London. If forced to advance across a wasteland, the Normans would become easy prey for Harold’s host. If Harold insisted on fighting, then Gyrth offered to lead the army. If he won, all would be well. If he lost, Harold was free to raise another army and continue the struggle. Harold ignored his brother’s wise counsel and marched south with only a fraction of the force he might have mustered. William was already marching north to meet him.
On the morning of October 14 Harold positioned his army along the ridge in front of Senlac Hill (Battle Hill), astride the Roman road leading from Hastings to London. It was a strong position, only 800 yards long and flanked by heavily forested slopes. To the front the ground was wet and soggy. If William wanted to march on London, he would have to march through Harold, and the only way to do that was by frontal assault.
Harold’s army, between 6,000 and 8,000 men, formed a shield wall along the ridge crest. With locked shields Harold’s front line would have been approximately 1,000 men wide and six to eight men deep. This first line would have consisted of his huscarls and the most reliable troops of the other Anglo-Saxon lords, including those of his two brothers—Gyrth and Leofwine—and the best of the fyrd. Behind them stood the remainder of the fyrd, possibly with some archers in the rear. Harold himself, surrounded by handpicked huscarls, set his standard behind the center of the English line.
William’s army approached in column, swinging into battle formation almost within arrow-shot of Harold’s army. The Breton division went to the left, William’s Normans occupied the center, and Franco-Flemish forces positioned themselves on the right. All three divisions assumed the same formation of three lines, with archers to the front, followed by heavy infantry and with cavalry in the rear.
As William’s army assembled, the Anglo-Saxons started their war cry— “Ut, ut!” (Out, out!”)—as they beat their axes and swords against their shields. The din must have been frightful, as was the appearance of the bearded, battle-hardened Anglo-Saxon warriors. But seemingly unimpressed with the threat, William’s army spent two hours methodically moving from the column of march into battle formation. When all was ready, a single man rode out in front of the Norman host and began juggling his sword. Both armies watched the display in silence. When his first act was over, he sang the “Song of Roland,” that epic French story of battle and glory. Song completed, he charged the English line, supposedly killing three men before being struck down.
The preliminaries complete, William signaled the archers to advance. The waiting Anglo-Saxon troops locked their shields together, creating a human fortress. A thousand archers, possibly more, marked their targets and released, though few arrows did any damage. So it went until the archers had expended roughly 25,000 arrows, then fell back. The Saxon line undoubled. Then it came again, in a thunderous roar: “Ut, ut!” Thousands of men shouted, steel clanged on steel, as the Anglo-Saxons defiantly announced to the Normans that their line held. As the archers retreated, William’s infantry slowly advanced. They were met by a fusillade of spears, rocks and throwing axes. For a few moments they paused, shielding themselves from the deadly hail, but then came on again.
Seeing that his infantry had failed to make an impression on the Anglo-Saxon line, William sent his cavalry forward. Riding through the infantry, it met the same hailstorm of missiles that had greeted the first Norman assault. Worse, having to advance uphill, its charge slowed. Typical of the close range battles of the period, the fighting continued until one side could no longer stand the horror. This time it was the Bretons on William’s left flank who broke first. As they streamed to the rear, the Saxons followed. Seeing the Bretons break caused the Normans in the center to start stepping back also, followed by the French on the right.
William, recognizing the danger to his line, advanced to the point of greatest danger. Before he could get there, his horse was killed, and he was tossed to the ground. Rumors of his death spread, and the retreat was soon on the edge of becoming a rout. Here was the crisis of the battle. If Harold had ordered an attack along the whole line, something he could only do by advancing his battle standard for all to see, there is little doubt the invaders would have been swept away. That he failed to do so is almost inexplicable.
William, on the other hand, acted decisively. Mounting another horse, he rode along the line, roaring that he lived and that the army’s only safety lay in victory. Through strenuous efforts, assisted by his brother Bishop Odo, William reformed his center and right and got the Norman cavalry in hand.
Before him stood his first great opportunity. The Saxons from Harold’s right were still chasing the retreating Bretons. Without the protection of a shield wall these men were easy prey for a Norman cavalry charge. William personally led that charge, unleashing a wholesale slaughter. It was during this fighting that Harold’s brothers Gyrth and Leofwine fell. For the Normans the crisis had passed.
Both sides paused. William need- ed to reform his troops, while Harold had to thin out his left and center to reform his right flank, which had suffered grievously as a result of its pursuit of the Bretons. That the Saxon shield wall had held against the initial Norman attacks must have given Harold confidence, yet the loss of his brothers was of grave concern. As a large part of his army consisted of men sworn to support his brothers, Harold must have wondered how well and for how long they would fight with their lords dead. Moreover, Saxon losses had been heavy, particularly among the huscarls. Unwilling to trust in the fighting qualities of the fyrd, Harold ordered his line shortened so he could still man the front rank with huscarls. As the line shortened, the number of men in the rear ranks swelled, presenting an irresistible target for archers firing at a high angle, which William’s archers soon did.
William had problems of his own. It was getting late, and night would end the fighting. He could not afford a draw, for his army would only get smaller, while Harold’s would grow larger. But he now had advantages he had not possessed earlier in the day. His archers had been resupplied with arrows and were now causing severe damage to the rear ranks of the Saxon army. Moreover, he had seen that the Anglo-Saxons could be tempted to break formation in pursuit of fleeing portions of his army. By attacking and then retreating, he could draw them out, to be massacred by his heavy cavalry. Finally, the shortening of the Saxon line allowed him to work some of his forces around either or both flanks, placing them on the ridgeline, and avoiding the necessity of fighting uphill.
By late afternoon the Saxon line had contracted into a compact mass fighting in three directions, as the Normans gained the ridgeline. Almost surrounded, the morale of the fyrd sank, and for the first time men began to desert Harold’s standard. Still, the Saxon line held, and darkness was rapidly approaching. William, on the other hand, finally had a good position, but his men were exhausted. The situation called for one more supreme effort, but were the Normans capable of mounting it?
William gathered the best of his cavalry and ordered his archers to redouble their efforts. As the archers did their deadly work, the Breton, French and Norman infantry renewed their assaults, and once again the terrible violence approached a crescendo. Unlike the fighting earlier in the day, however, William’s men were inflicting enormous losses and beginning to open gaps in the Saxon front. William led his cavalry forward, and the Normans smashed through the Saxon line and struck at the elite force of huscarls around Harold’s standard. There, England’s king was either already dead from an arrow through the eye, or had been cut down soon after William’s final charge.
With Harold’s death the remains of the shield wall crumbled away. William was victorious, but his army had suffered severe damage. He took it back to Hastings to rest and await reinforcements from the Continent. When no deputies arrived from London to surrender the country, William set out again.
William marched along the coast toward the port city of Dover, which opened its gates to him. When he finally arrived in London, the surviving Saxon earls surrendered the city without a fight. William was crowned king of England on Christmas Day 1066.
For the next several years there were sporadic Saxon revolts against William’s rule, which the Normans put down ferociously. The most serious revolt took place in the north in 1068, prompting William to lay waste to large swaths of England’s northern counties. By 1070 the Normans had crushed the worst of the opposition, and Norman castles dotted the countryside, stifling further attempts at protest.
Saxon England was gone. In its place a new country and people were forged, as Norman England slowly became just England. There is little doubt the change had a profound effect on the future of Europe and the world. That England would give up its insular outlook and project itself out into the greater world was not a foregone conclusion. The great tides of history did not require that a small island on the fringes of the civilized world propel itself to the forefront of events. That it did so was a direct result of Norman dynamism. But that dynamism would have meant little without the well developed political and economic structures established by the Anglo-Saxons. It was the centuries-long fusion of these two cultures into a single people that permitted English greatness, a greatness that would never have manifested itself if William had not conquered at Hastings.
TEXT EXCERPTED FROM MOMENT OF BATTLE: THE TWENTY CLASHES THAT CHANGED THE WORLD, BY JAMES LACEY AND WILLIAMSON MURRAY. PUBLISHED BY ARRANGEMENT WITH BANTAM BOOKS, AN IMPRINT OF RANDOM HOUSE PUBLISHING GROUP. COPYRIGHT © 2013 BY JAMES LACEY AND WILLIAMSON MURRAY
Originally published in the September 2013 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.