BATTLE OF HASTINGS (1066)
Possibly the most significant battle in English history, Hastings was the third battle fought in rapid succession by Harold Godwinson, last Saxon King of England. Marching his troops south from York he sought to surprise and destroy the forces of William, Duke of Normandy who had landed at Pevensey and already established his first castle at Hastings.
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On the 4 January 1066, the English King Edward the Confessor died childless. During his reign he had carefully managed a number of competing claimants to his throne and, whilst he might have achieved his own objective of ending his days peacefully in his own bed, his death prompted a succession crisis. Despite William, Duke of Normandy allegedly having received a promise of the English throne from Edward in the 1040s, the dying King nominated the powerful landowner Harold Godwinson as his heir and successor. With broad support from the English nobility he was crowned as Harold II just a day after Edward’s death. Alongside William, another foreign magnate was aggrieved by his coronation; the Norwegian King, Harald Hardrada who had set his sights on conquest despite a fairly flimsy legal claim to the English throne.
Both Normans and Norwegians made preparations to invade and Harold spent the Summer of 1066 in the south of England with his army waiting for an invasion. Summer came and went with no attack prompting Harold to disband his army; but no sooner than he had news arrived of Harald Hardrada’s invasion in the north. The forces of the Norwegian King, aided by Godwinson’s own brother, sailed up the River Ouse to attack York. A fierce fight ensued where the northern Earls Edwin and Morcar tried to thwart the invaders but were defeated at the Battle of Fulford on 20 September 1066. Five days later King Harold was in the north with his army where he surprised and defeated them at the Battle of Stamford Bridge. Harald of Norway was killed and the Viking forces decimated.
With Harold and his army in the north, William landed unopposed at Pevensey on 28 September 1066. Rather than proceed inshore, he immediately consolidated his beachhead first by taking control of the old Roman fortification at Pevensey Castle and then proceeding east where he hastily erected Hastings Castle. Concurrently he sent small forces to attack local settlements – all of which were under the guardianship of Harold; William, who required a decisive victory early in his campaign to avoid logistical challenges, hoped to goad the English King into early battle. It worked for when news reached King Harold (who was still in York celebrating his victory at Stamford Bridge) he immediately headed south to London. By the 12 October he had mustered his forces and set out towards the south coast hoping to surprise the Norman invaders. Unfortunately for Harold, William’s scouts alerted him early and he led his forces inland to meet the threat.
The English force probably numbered around 7,000 fighting men although some historians cite figures much higher. It was predominantly infantry as most of Harold’s archers had been left behind during the fast march south from York whilst cavalry was not used in battle by the Saxons. The core element of Harold's forces were his own household troops, Housecarls, who were heavily armoured professional soldiers regarded as some of the best in Europe. Armed with shields, spears and double-handed axes these were the men who had won at Stamford Bridge. The bulk of the English infantry force though were unarmoured men levied from the shires with little experience of fighting. It was this mixed force that arrived in vicinity of Senlac Hill on the night of 13 October 1066.
Historians are again divided on the size of the Norman force both in actual numbers and relative size to the English. It is probable that the invading force was smaller than the Saxons but not significantly so. Crucially though it was a balanced force; William brought armoured cavalry, significant numbers of archers and a predominantly armoured infantry force.
Alerted to the approach of the Saxons, William had marched his army inshore and on the morning of 14 October 1066 the two forces met in the vicinity of the modern village of Battle named after what was about to come. It was possible Harold was surprised by the presence of the Normans - they had marched further inshore than he expected - but he occupied the summit Senlac Hill which was a strong defensive position well suited to Saxon tactics.
- Stage 1: Deployment
William planned a decisive three phase battle. First he would weaken the English position with an crossbow assault and second break their organised ranks with an infantry attack. The third and final phase would be to see the (by then) disorganised English ranks devastated by a heavy cavalry charge. Accordingly he configured his army into three ranks: archers to the front, infantry in the second rank (in three groups; Normans in the centre, flanked by Bretons on the left and French troops on the right) with cavalry to the rear.
Harold’s plan was to hold his position and repulse each Norman attack until his enemy was spent. Only then would he initiate a charge downhill to destroy the remnant. Harold placed his armoured Housecarls at the front of his line whose shields and heavy weapons would be needed to deal with the Norman assaults.
- Stage 2: Norman Archers Attack
The battle commenced around 9.30am with William deploying his archers as planned. These men fired their crossbows directly at the English line but with little effect. Whilst the lack of English archers meant reply was limited, the shields of the Housecarls absorbed the brunt of the attack and Norman ammunition was soon exhausted.
- Stage 3: Norman Infantry Attack
William now sent his infantry forward to smash the English lines. However, the English ranks were still intact as the arrow assault had largely been ineffective. The Normans faced an unenviable task of attacking uphill against a heavily armoured frontline.
- Stage 4: Bretons Break
The Normans met a murderous reception at the top of Senlac Hill. The Breton forces, on the Norman left, broke and fled especially when rumours that Duke William had been killed circulated.
- Stage 5: William Rallies Bretons
As the Bretons retreated, a portion of the English army were seduced into following. Quick action by Duke William turned disaster into success; riding into the fleeing Bretons with helmet raised he assured them he was still alive and persuaded them to hold their ground. Concurrently he directed cavalry to cut down the English pursuers. This was effective but the English line held, depleted but intact.
- Stage 6: Feigned Retreats?
The Normans seemingly now attempted to replicate their success on the left elsewhere by either “feigned retreats” as suggested by the chroniclers or genuine fleeing. Either way the efforts failed and the English maintained their position on top of Senlac Hill.
- Stage 7: Cavalry Attack
William now tried to smash the English line with a portion of his cavalry. But attacking uphill against the still intact English frontline was an impossible task; it is likely they suffered heavy casualties without any success against the defending forces.
- Stage 8: Combined Attack
Hours had now passed and by late afternoon the English line was still intact. William now tried a coordinated attack. Instructing his archers to fire over the heads of the armoured frontline into the unarmoured rear, he concurrently ordered an infantry attack from a force made from the survivors of the original three infantry groups. The combined attack worked, and it was allegedly at this time Harold took an arrow in the eye, and the infantry attack broke up the English line.
- Stage 9: English Defeat
With Harold dead, the English lacked leadership to rally their line. William sent a cavalry charge forward which routed the English force.
The battle finished late in the day but the Normans used every minute of daylight left to pursue and kill the English forces fleeing the battlefield. Much of the nobility of Saxon England either died on top Senlac Hill or where cut down by the Norman pursuit.
Two and a half months later William was crowned in London and, despite some significant uprisings, the Normans entrenched their presence by constructing castles across the country. In the short term the effect was felt purely in England with vast swathes of the Saxon aristocracy being dispossessed. Longer term the impact was felt in Wales, Scotland and Ireland as the Norman influence spread. Few battles have had such a profound impact on the history of the British Isles.
Location of the Battle
Perhaps due to the lack of archaeological finds on the traditional site, a number of alternative locations have been mooted for the location of the Battle of Hastings. Caldbec Hill, about 0.5 miles to the north of the traditional site, is most often suggested but evidence for this is extremely limited. Currently most historians believe the traditional site remains the most probable although arguments relating to the orientation of the battle are persuasive; it is possible the Normans advanced on an axis centred on modern day Lower Lake Road albeit with the English position remaining in vicinity of the site of Battle Abbey.
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The ruined remains of Battle Abbey is owned by English Heritage and is sited on the traditional (and still most likely) battlefield. A major tourist attraction, it offers excellent exhibitions and a battlefield walk (complete with audio tour).
Traditional Interpretation: View to the south from Battle Abbey. Normans advanced towards camera.
Traditional Interpretation: View to the east from near Battle Abbey. Normans advanced from the distant centre to the near right.
Alternative Interpretation (Revised Axis): View to west and line of the Norman advance.
Alternative Interpretation (Revised Axis): English position (the Abbey High Altar is to the rear of the houses).
Alternative Interpretation (Revised Axis): View to north from Marley Lane. A steep drop on English left flank was recorded by chroniclers. Today the land is owned by the National Trust.
Battle Abbey. The abbey was built on the orders of William the Conqueror with construction commencing around 1070. It was lightly fortified during the fourteenth century as a consequence of the Hundred Years War. The fortified Gatehouse, shown above, was built at this time as were the surrounding walls.
Location. One of the most persuasive arguments for the traditional battlefield being the correct location is the Abbey itself where great effort was expended modifying the unsuitable terrain for the structure and community. Attempts to build on a more suitable location nearby were vetoed by William.
Located in the small village of Battle about 6 miles north west of Hastings and is very well sign-posted. A dedicated car park serves the site; parking is pay on departure although English Heritage members are only charged £1 (or free for life members). A further 200 metres along Upper Lane, the National Trust have preserved the view to the north of the village