It is a common trend to start English history from this point. Let’s find out why.
Name: The Battle of Hastings
The War: The Norman Conquest of England
When: 14 October 1066
Where: Senlac Hill, south-east of the town of Hastings, England
Forces/Commanders: Circa 8’000 Norman troops (and some Flemish, French, Bretons and others) under William of Normandy (known at the time as “the Bastard”, later “the Conqueror”) against circa 8’000 English (Anglo-Saxon) troops under King Harold II Godwinson
“See, I have taken England with both my hands.”
-William the Conqueror after allegedly falling flat on his face during the Norman landing.
“Here fell the English and the French simultaneously in the battle…Here the French do battle. And those who were with Harold fell. Here King Harold was killed. And the English fled.”
-The Bayeux Tapestry description of the battle, translated from Latin.
“That fatal day for England, the sad destruction of our dear country.”
-William of Malmesbury, Gesta Regum Anglorum (Deeds of the Kings of the English)
Things in the periphery of Europe in 1066 were rather different then they are now.
Edward the Confessor, of the House of Wessex, was King of England from 1042 to 1066. He was the first English King, or rather Anglo-Saxon King, for a while, the island having been ruled by Danes – Canute and his son Harthacnut – for a few generations. Edwards’ reign was largely peaceful, though it was marked by a gradually escalating conflict with English Earls, most notably Godwin, Earl of Wessex. Edward was heavily influenced by the large amount of his life he had spent living in Normandy before his reign and his main advisors were from the region.
This was against the wishes of Godwin, who was banished after a riot between his followers and Edward’s at Dover. Godwin returned with an army and reclaimed his position. After his death, his son, Harold Godwinson, continued to grow his families holdings.
Edward died on the 5th of January 1066. His succession was disputed by numerous men.
Edward lacked a direct heir, so the designated successor was his great nephew Edgar. However, the 14 year old, known as “Ætheling”, had no support at all from the English nobles. Harold was approved as King by the Witengemot, a Saxon council of the ruling class, allegedly with the blessing of Edward, given shortly before he died.
But there were two other claimants. Harald Hardrada, the King of Norway, invaded England with a force of 15’000 men, claiming that Harthacnut had made a pact of succession with his own father. He was encouraged by the rebellious Tostig Godwinson, Harold’s brother. He defeated a force of English troops at Fulford on the 20th September, before being defeated (and killed) in turn by an army under Harold’s direct command at Stamford Bridge on the 25th. Harold had force marched his army from London to the north in just four days to achieve the surprise needed to win the victory and his forces suffered heavily. Almost at once they had to turn south to meet another invasion.
William, Duke of Normandy, known before 1066 as “the Bastard” due to his illegitimate birth, had been a distant cousin of Edward, but had known him from his time in France. William claimed that Edward had promised the throne to him in 1052, and that Harold had previously sworn loyalty. After gaining support from the Pope, he began to assemble an army to press that claim, calling on troops from as far away as Italy to swell his Norman army. Building a large fleet to transport them, William was lucky that his departure was delayed as long as it was: it meant that Harold had to deal with the Norwegian invasion first.
William’s army of Normans, Bretons, Flemish and mercenaries, embarked on 12th September. Rough seas forced him to re-dock and it was not until the 28th that he was able to make landfall on the southern coast.
No one was in the area to oppose him, so William immediately moved his army up close to the town of Hastings, where he hurriedly constructed a wooden castle/fort to secure his position, before waiting for Harold to come to him. Harold duly did so, his army marching from the north in just five days. Hearing of his movements on the 13th October, William moved his army out to meet him. The armies clashed on the 14th, with Harold having secured the high ground of Senlac Hill, seven miles north of Hastings.
The armies were very different. The English were nearly all infantry, split into two main groups: the Housecarls, full time soldiers armed with double handed axes, and the fyrd, the larger group, made up of part-time soldiers from the land owning nobles.
The Normans had a much more diverse army, which apart from infantry including a large amount of cavalry and missile troops. Only half of them were actually Norman, the rest drawn from all over Europe. The Norman cavalry was very highly rated at the time, and gave them a powerful edge.
William made the first moves. He had a basic plan: to break the English lines with archers, soften them up with an infantry attack, before finishing them off with a cavalry charge.
The attack didn’t work. The English shield wall tactics, where the ranks of infantry locked their shields together in a strong line (the Housecarls being at the centre of this), negated the effects of the archers, firing at the first rank only. The Norman infantry, attacking uphill, suffered from attack from above, from spears, maces and other throwing weapons. The infantry forces clashed, but it was the English who had the advantage, with the shield wall preventing a breakthrough. With his foot soldiers seemingly useless, William ordered his cavalry to charge, including himself, but they fared little better then the infantry.
Hit heavily during the attack and with no progress being made after an hour of fighting, a large portion of William’s army broke and retreated. Defeat seemed imminent. Much of the English forces broke their own ranks to pursue, against orders. A maelstrom of fighting developed both on, and at the base of, the hill, with William’s horse being killed underneath him. Many Normans thought their commander had been killed, a full rout only being prevented when the Duke took off his helmet to reveal himself.
With a group of his knights, the Duke rallied his troops and launched a ferocious counter-attack, slaughtering many of the fyrdmen and Housecarls that had broken ranks. The momentum of the battle shifted, as the English rapidly retreated back up the hill to safety.
William pressed on, reforming his army and attacking the English position again. He now ordered his archers to fire above the first rank of the shield-wall, hitting those soldiers in the rear. This had a huge effect on the English Army, as the force lost its cohesion under the assault, having already been dealt a great blow with the death of so many Housecarls. According the popular belief, Harold was hit in the eye by an arrow at this point and killed. Whether it was an arrow or not, Harold was dead before the battle was finished.
With his enemy fragmenting, William made another frontal assault with cavalry and infantry. The English, having lost their leader and with no one to replace him, broke. Only the remnant of the Housecarls remained, fighting to the death while the rest retreated.
William had won the battle, and with it, the country.
Why It’s Decisive – Effect On That War
Anglo-Saxon military power was broken, but not totally defeated. William rested his army for two weeks waiting for the submission of the English nobles, a submission that never came. They had fled back to London and hurriedly choose Edgar the Ætheling to be the new King.
William advanced on the capital. Though his army suffered greatly from disease, it ravaged a large part of south-eastern England and the surrounding environs of London before the city, and Edgar, agreed to submit in order to stop further bloodshed. William was crowned King of England on Christmas Day, 1066.
But the Norman Conquest was far from over. In what became known as “the Harrying of the North”, William and the Normans faced years of revolt from various nobles and Earls in nearly every part of the island, not to mention attempted Scandinavian invasions and internal dissatisfaction within their own camp, from those who felt William had been less then generous with his rewards after Hastings. It was not until 1072, after several brutal campaigns across England, that William was able to assert control on the island.
For all that though, it’s clear that the revolts were too piecemeal and uncoordinated to be a serious threat to the Normans, though they were costly. This was largely a result of Hastings, where the natives took such heavy casualties and lost heirs of the influential Godwinson family.
Norman rule was now the norm. Taking control of the previously established Saxon bureaucracy and forming a strong, centralised monarchy, the Normans set about changing England, its cultures, its language and its thinking. The new King, for his part, spent most of his life back in France, ruling England from abroad until his death in 1087.
Hastings can effectively be seen as the last call for the shieldwall type tactics that had dominated English warfare for centuries. The improvement in missile weaponry negated the advantage that it had previously held, and the new class of warrior that the Normans represented weren’t going to play by the Anglo-Saxon rules.
The English lacked leadership with composure. Harold’s brothers charged into the attack when the Normans appeared to be floundering and were killed in the resulting counter-attack. As a result, when Harold was killed, the English had no leader in place to rally them.
Hastings can be considered to be one of the earliest examples of combined arms tactics in action, due to effective way that the infantry, missile troops and cavalry interacted in the second half of the battle, though some embellishment on the behalf of contemporary chroniclers may have effected this view. It’s perfectly possible that William, rather than being a tactical genius, was simply lucky, blundering into victory due to the uncoordinated English attack.
Hastings is also the first recorded use, on English soil at least, of the crossbow, introducing one of the time periods more sophisticated pieces of weaponry to the island.
Can only be considered gigantic. With he last successful military invasion of the British Isles, a gigantic portion of culture, language and society on the island changed. A new monarchy, a new system of ruling, new nobles, all contributed to changing the course of English history. Moreover, the connection between England and Normandy set off the consistently continuing Anglo-French conflicts.
Scandinavian culture, ingrained in the island due to the centuries worth of Norse attacks and invasions began to disappear, replaced by a more continental European one.
If things had been different? If Harold had been able to restrain his troops and absorb the attacks, if William had been killed?
Anglo-Saxon rule would have continued over the island, though further internal conflicts and rebellions would have been inevitable. I deem it unlikely that Harold would have been done fighting. The threat of invasion, from European or Scandinavian sources would have been an ever-present threat, though if the last thousand years are any indication, it would have been a difficult task. Would a Saxon England have been so expansive as England in reality became? In France, Scotland or Ireland? How would a Saxon dominated island have approached religious change, colonial expansion? Who knows.
It would have been a terrible blow to the Normans, but they had extensive holdings in Europe already. Possibly they would have turned in the other direction for conquest, seeking control of France.
In National Consciousness
The Norman Conquest, epitomised in Hastings, is considered the last successful conquest of England. The country would be taken over by outside forces again, but not through military means.
As such, it holds a fabled place in English history. A large proportion of English historical texts don’t begin before Hastings, which should be indication enough of its importance. New numbering scheme began for the English Monarchs with William, cutting of those who came before.
An abbey, dubbed “Battle” was built (on the orders of the Pope) on the alleged site of Harold’s death, and the resulting community grew into the modern day town of Battle in West Sussex. Harold is commemorated with a plaque on its grounds. Nearby, a separate plaque commemorates the fusing of the English and Norman cultures that the battle precipitated.
William lost the title of “the Bastard” as a result of the war, gaining the moniker by which he is better known today: “the Conqueror”. He is buried in Rouen, Normandy, the area still considering him an icon.
Hastings has been mentioned in the historical chronicles of numerous men, such as William of Poiters, William of Malmesbury, Florence of Worchester, all the way up to Winston Churchill. But the most famous historical retelling is that of the Bayeux Tapestry, a near-70 meter long piece of cloth, embroidered to give a visual depiction of the battle and the events surrounding it. Currently on display in Bayeux, Normandy, the Tapestry is the source of many of the legends surrounding the battle, most notably the idea that Harold was killed by an arrow to the eye and the sighting of Halley’s Comet, a portent of doom, around the same time.
The battle, and the numerous personalities within, have been the subject of plays, fiction, films, documentaries and other television programs, though no big budget Hollywood pictures.
It might be one of the smallest battles in this series for sheer numbers, but its effect was incalculable. Hastings laid the seeds for the rise of England as a great power, a position it holds to this day.
For more of NFBs Decisive Battles, check out the index here.