The Battle of Hastings
William Duke of Normandy’s historic
victory over the Saxon army of King Harold, leading to the conquest
of England and the eventual replacement of the Anglo-Saxon dominated
society by a Norman French.
War: The Norman Conquest of England
Date: 14th October 1066
Place: On the Sussex coast of England
Combatants: The Norman, Breton, Burgundian, Flemish and
French army of Duke William of Normandy against the Saxon army of
King Harold of England
Generals: Duke William of Normandy against King Harold
Godwinsson of England
Size of the armies: The armies probably numbered around
5,000 to 7,000 on each side, although some traditional accounts give
the numbers as much higher
Uniforms, arms and equipment: The Battle of Hastings saw
the clash of two military systems. The Saxon army, centred on the
King’s personal bodyguard of “housecarles", comprised the universal
levy, the “Fyrd", led by the local leaders of each shire with their
The last stand of King Harold and his Housecarles
The Fyrd, containing large numbers of ineffective
peasants along with the warriors of each shire, fought in wedged
shapes battalions, the point of the wedge formed by the best
equipped soldiers, the remaining men, armed with spears and whatever
weapons they had, forming the rear ranks. The favoured weapon of the
professional warriors was the battle axe. The Saxon army fought on
foot, nobles and men-at-arms dismounting for battle.
The Normans and the other Frankish contingents in William’s army
fought in the manner developing across mainland Europe, a mix of
archers, dismounted soldiers and above all mounted knights.
The soldiers on either side who could afford it wore leather
jackets with steel chain or ring mail sewn into the leather and a
conical helmet with a nose guard, carrying a spear, sword and the
characteristic kite shaped shield. Archers in the Norman army were
armed with a short bow.
The significant features of the battle were the manoeuvrability
of the Norman mounted knights, the terrible power of the Saxon
battle axe and the impact of the Norman arrow barrage.
Winner: The Normans, overwhelmingly.
Account: William, Duke of Normandy, launched his bloody
and decisive invasion of Saxon England in 1066. In that year Edward
the Confessor, King of England, died without heir, appointing by his
will Harold Godwinsson, son of England’s most powerful nobleman, the
Earl of Wessex, as his successor. Across the Channel, William of
Normandy considered himself rightfully the next King of England,
basing his claim on a promise by Edward the Confessor in the early
1050s and an oath of fealty sworn by Harold during an enforced visit
to William’s capital at Rouen following his capture by the Count of
Succeeding to the dukedom of Normandy as a bastard child of Duke
Robert, William devoted his early adult life to enforcing his
authority in a succession of ruthless campaigns, meanwhile building
his dukedom into a fearsome mini-state, efficient both
administratively and militarily.
In the summer of 1066 William assembled an army of noblemen and
adventurers from across Northern France to invade England, promising
lands and titles in his new kingdom to his followers and obtaining
the support of the Pope for the venture.
A fleet of around 1,000 vessels, designed in the style of the old
Norse “Dragon Ships" (80 feet long; propelled by oars and a single
sail), was built and assembled to convey the army across the
Among the fighting knights of Northern France who joined William
were Eustace, Count of Boulogne, Charles Martel, Roger de Beaumont
and Roger de Montgomerie. The clergy was well represented; among
them Odo, Bishop of Bayeux, William’s half brother, and a monk René
who brought twenty fighting men and a ship, in the expectation of a
bishopric in England. Robert le Blount commanded the fleet.
The Battle of Hastings
It was no secret that William intended to invade England. He had
sent an insulting demand that Harold pay him homage and the
gathering of the troops and ships had northern France in turmoil,
causing Harold to assemble a powerful army along the Sussex coast in
William’s fleet lay ready to cross the Channel, after being held
in port for the duration of the summer by contrary winds, when
Harold received the news that a Norwegian army led by King Harald
Hadrada with Harold’s renegade brother Tostig had landed in
Yorkshire after sailing up the Ouse.
Harold marched his army north and routed the invaders at the
battle of Stamford Bridge, in which both Harald Hadrada and Tostig
The Battle of Hastings: a later highly misleading medieval
The timing could not have been worse for the Saxons. The winds
changed and William’s fleet crossed the Channel, landing on the
Saxon coast unopposed on 28th September 1066.
Harold received the news of the Norman landing in York soon after
his triumph over the Norse invaders and determined to march south
immediately to do battle with William.
Harald Hadrada’s army had been nearly annihilated in the savage
fighting at Stamford Bridge but the Saxons had suffered significant
losses. The King’s brother, Earl Gurth, urged a delay while further
forces were assembled but Harold was determined to show his country
that their new king could be relied upon to defend the realm
decisively against every invader.
Safely landed at Pevensey Bay, William built a fortification and
then moved further east to Hastings; his troops ravaging the
countryside which was known to be part of Harold’s personal earldom.
The Saxon army arrived in the area on 13th October 1066 and
established a position on a hill north west of Hastings, known
subsequently as Senlac (sang lac or lake of blood); putting up a
rough fence of sharpened stakes along his line, fronted by a ditch.
Harold issued orders as compelling as he could make them that, when
throughout the battle, his army was not to move from this position,
whatever the provocation.
Early on 14th October 1066 William moved forward with his army to
attack the Saxon position, the Normans in the centre flanked on the
left by the Bretons and on the right by the rest of the French.
The Battle of Hastings : The Norman Assault
The battle was fought over the rest of the day, a savage fight
with heavy casualties on each side. The issue in the balance until
late in the afternoon; marked by repeated cavalry attacks on the
Saxon position by William’s cavalry, violently repelled until the
final assaults. The Normans found the Saxon warriors with their
battle axes, and in particular Harold’s “housecarles", a formidable
enemy. There were many accounts of knights with their horses being
hacked in pieces by these terrible weapons wielded in great swinging
At around midday an assault developed on the Saxon camp causing a
section of Harold’s line to retreat in confusion. Reaching the top
of an incline the Saxons turned on the pursuing Normans, held up by
a ditch across their front, and drove them back with considerable
In the early afternoon William’s left flank of Bretons gave way,
to be pursued down the hill by the fyrd they had been attacking.
This break in the line, that Harold had so adamantly warned against,
gave the Normans the opportunity to break into the Saxon position at
the top of the slope. The incessant Norman attacks began to break up
Harold’s army; the barrage of arrows taking a heavy toll, in
particular wounding Harold in the eye.
During the course of the battle William had three horses killed
under him and was forced to ride round the field, his head bared, to
reassure his army that he was unhurt; assisted by his half-brother
Odo, Bishop of Bayeux, in rallying the Norman soldiers.
A particularly savage fight developed around the position held by
the now severely wounded Harold and his royal housecarles. Finally
the Saxon King was killed, followed by his brothers, Earl Gurth and
Earl Leofwin, and the remaining housecarles.
It was late afternoon and much of the remnants of the Saxon army
gave way, fleeing the field; although a significant force continued
to fight. The battle finally ended with all the remaining Saxons
The heaped bodies were cleared from the centre of the battlefield,
William’s tent pitched and a celebratory dinner held.
The figures are unknown but were heavy for the Normans and
disastrous for the Saxons.
Follow-up: It was some time before Saxon England
acknowledged William as king. William was forced to march to the
West and cross the Thames at Wallingford in Oxfordshire before
circling round from the North and capturing London, devastating the
countryside as he marched. The Tower of London was the first of the
castles William built to dominate and subjugate England. William was
finally crowned in Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day 1066 by the
Saxon Archbishop, Aldred of York.
In March 1067 William returned to Normandy, leaving Odo, Bishop
of Bayeux, to continue the process of building castles and
subjugating the population. William only returned to England on four
William the Conqueror died following the capture of Mantes in
1087, leaving England to be ruled by William II and Normandy by his
eldest son Robert.
Probably only 20,000 Normans and other Frenchmen came to England
as a result of the Conquest. Nevertheless the Saxon country was
transformed, French becoming the language of administration and
government and the Conqueror’s followers displacing the native
nobility. The Saxons lamented their lost freedom for two centuries
while England now looked across the Channel for cultural and
Conquest in France remained the obsession of the Frankish kings
of England until the 16th Century. French names predominated among
the nobility and the military classes; doubtless the Montgomery
leading the British armies in the Second World War was a descendant
of the Roger de Montgomerie who fought for the Conqueror.
The Bayeux Tapestry: A remarkable feature of the Norman
Conquest was its near-contemporaneous record in the Bayeux Tapestry;
strictly a work of embroidery rather than tapestry (being
embroidered on cloth rather than woven into it). The origins of the
tapestry, lodged in Bayeux Cathedral, are uncertain; perhaps
executed at the direction of William’s wife Matilda or by
seamstresses in England at the direction of Odo, Bishop of Bayeux,
and, after the Conquest, Earl of Kent, and given to the Cathedral at
Bayeux by its bishop.
The Tapestry illustrates the various stages of the conquest,
providing detail that is not available in the written accounts.
The original Tapestry is displayed in Bayeux and a copy in the City
Museum at Reading in Berkshire.
Anecdotes and traditions:
- Duke William’s mother was Arlette, a tanner’s daughter. The
garrison of a French town under siege by William hung animal hides
over the walls as a taunt on his origins. They regretted the joke
when William took the town and put the garrison and population to
- At his birth William grabbed the straw causing onlookers to
comment on his determination. When his father, Duke Robert, left for
the Crusades he appointed his little bastard son, William, as his
- As William disembarked in England he stumbled and fell, to the
dismay of his soldiers who took this as an ill-omen. William quickly
held up handfuls of sand and said “Look I have already taken the
land." Some days later, arming for the Battle of Hastings, William
put his hauberk on back to front, again causing adverse comment
among his superstitious followers. “Just as I turn the hauberk
round, I will turn myself from duke to king", said William, clearly
never at a loss for “le bon mot".
- The Pope provided William with a battle standard, carried at
William’s side during the Battle of Hastings by a knight called
Toustain, after two other knights had declined the dangerous honour.
- The Norman army was said to have been led into battle at Hastings
by the jongleur, Taillefour, who repeatedly tossed his sword in the
air and caught it, while singing the “Song of Roland".
- Tradition has it that Harold was shot in the eye by an arrow.
There seems some uncertainty about this, although the Bayeux
Tapestry shows Harold plucking out the arrow. Traditionally, death
by transfixing through the eye was the fate of the perjurer, the
character William sought to give Harold for failing to comply with
his oath of fealty. Harold may simply have been overwhelmed by the
Norman soldiery without any such particular arrow injury.
- Numbers of militant clergy fought at the Battle of Hastings in
William’s army. In order to comply with the oath of ordination, that
priests might not shed human blood, clergymen like Odo, Bishop of
Bayeux, and Geoffrey, Bishop of Coutances, armed themselves with
bludgeon type implements rather than bladed weapons, using them to
beat their adversaries’ brains out.
- After the battle William had Harold’s body thrown into a pit,
claiming he had perjured his oath to allow William to take the crown
of England. Later the corpse was removed and re-interred at Waltham,
Harold’s favourite religious shrine. It is said that Harold’s body
was recognised on the battlefield by his queen, Eadith of the Swan’s
- A rumour persisted that Harold survived the battle and lived as an
anchorite in the area, finally confessing his true identity on his
- A force of exiled Saxons served as the Varangian Guard of the
Byzantine Emperor, fighting as before on foot with battle axes. The
Varangian Guard was bloodily annihilated fighting the Frankish
Crusaders, as their brothers had been at Hastings.
- The best remembered feature of William’s administration in England
was the survey of resources known as the Domesday Book prepared in
1085 to 1086.
- The Bayeux Tapestry by Collingwood Bruce.
- Fortescue’s History of the British Army volume I.
- British Battles by Grant, volume I.