Anglo-Saxon England was one of the strongest and wealthiest kingdoms in eleventh century Europe, and in many ways one of the most advanced, and yet it was to be conquered by a motley army raised by a duke whose rule of his own duchy had for many years been at risk. The battle has fascinated historians for centuries, and divides opinion on just about every issue, from the size and nature of the armies to the events of the battle itself. To understand the events that led up to Hastings, we need to examine the last years of Anglo-Saxon England.
In 980 the Vikings returned. Raids are recorded from 980-982 and then again from 986. These raids slowly built up momentum, partly aided by the friendly reception they received in Normandy, whose dukes were descended from Vikings. 991 started well for the English. On 1 March, a treaty was agreed between England and Normandy in which both sides agreed not to harbour enemies of the other. However, five months later a significantly larger Viking force attacked the coast of south-east England.
This expedition is famous for two reasons. Firstly, after the Vikings had ravaged Kent, Hampshire and western Wessex, they were finally bought off with a large payment from the Royal government, the first of many similar payments that were to drain the England of Ethelred. Second, one incident during their rampage, the battle of Malden, was immortalised in one of the greatest of all old-English poems which describes the defeat of a force from Essex lead by Byrhtnoth, ealdorman of Essex, who died in the battle.
Unsurprisingly, the payment of 22,000 pounds of gold and silver to the Vikings of 991 did nothing to discourage further raids. Raids in 992 and 993 were followed by a major invasion in 994, led by Olaf Tryggvason, future king of Norway and Swein, son of Harold, king of Denmark. This army was eventually bought off after it failed to capture London and started to fall apart when Olaf and Swein quarrelled.
The situation got worse in 997 when a Viking army arrived that was willing to stay for years. Between then and 1002 they ravaged almost the entire south coast, only leaving when they received 24,000 pounds of tribute. Although the Vikings had done serious damage to the south of England, there was not yet a threat to English independence. This was triggered late in 1002, when Ethelred ordered an atrocity that deservedly rebounded upon him. Afraid that they might be planning to overthrow him, Aethrelred ordered that all Danish men in England should be killed on 13 November 1002. Although this order was never going to be obeyed in the Danelaw areas of England, it does appear to have been followed in large parts of the country. One of the victims may have been Gunnhild, sister of King Swein of Denmark.
This was a fateful mistake. By 1002, Swein was King of Denmark, controlled most of Norway and was allied to the king of Sweden. His position was not completely secure, but he was able to launch a raid in every year from 1003 to 1006, before returning with a large army between 1009 and 1012. This army only left after being paid 48,000 pounds of bullion and murdering the Archbishop of Canterbury. Finally, in 1013 Swein launched a full invasion of England, with conquest in mind. He first landed at Sandwich, before sailed up the east coast to the Humber. At Gainsborough he was accepted as King by most of the Danelaw. From there he marched into Mercia, and then Wessex, accepting the surrender of Oxford and Winchester on his way. After a temporary failure before London, where Ethelred had decided to make his stand, he moved west, completing his conquest of England. Finally, London surrendered, forced Ethelred to flee into exile in Normandy.
Swein’s triumph was short-lived. On 3 February 1014 he died at Gainsborough, and for a brief moment English independence was restored. The Danish fleet recognised Swein’s son Cnut as King, but the English turned back to Ethelred, who was recalled from Normandy. Faced with an English army, Cnut withdrew to Denmark. Unfortunately, the English proved unable to take their chance. While Cnut spent his time building up support for a new invasion, Ethelred found himself involved in a dispute with his son Edmund that ended in 1015 with Edmund in open rebellion and in control of the Danelaw. It was at this point that Cnut returned with a fleet. Aware that he was unpopular in the Danelaw after abandoning his allies there in 1014, he landed in Wessex. He was quickly joined by Eadric, recently appointed earl of Mercia. This split the English defence into two, with Edmund raising a force in the Danelaw, and Ethelred another in London. However, by now Ethelred was seriously ill, and on 23 April 1016 he died.
Nothing demonstrates the disrepute into which Ethelred had brought the monarchy into than the speed with which a representative assembly at Southampton acclaimed Cnut as king. A somewhat smaller assembly at London declared for Edmund, and what had been an invasion started to resemble a civil war. For some time Edmund appeared to have the upper hand, but on 18 October 1016 at Ashingdon the English army was smashed. Edmund briefly became a fugitive, before negotiating a settlement with Cnut – Edmund was to rule Wessex, Cnut the rest of England. This would have at best been a short term truce, but on 30 November Edmund Ironside died, and Cnut became undisputed King of England.
Cnut turned out to be a surprisingly good king. The main external threat to his position came from the sons of Ethelred and Emma of Normandy, including the future Edward the Confessor. Cnut dealt with this by marrying Emma himself. She promptly abandoned her young children in Normandy and threw her support behind her new husband. Cnut’s rule in England was largely trouble free, although his Scandinavian empire proved more troublesome. In an interesting contrast to the reign of William the Conqueror, by the end of his reign, the two most powerful men after the King were Godwin, earl of Wessex and Leofric, earl of Mercia, both Englishmen promoted by Cnut.
While Cnut lived, the exiled princes in Normandy seemed to have no chance of recovering their position. However, the one weakness in Cnut’s dispensation was the succession. In order to marry Emma of Normandy, Cnut had had to put aside his first wife, Elfgifu of Northampton, with whom he already had a family. However, this first family was not forgotten, with Elfgifu even acting as regent of Norway. Thus, when Cnut died in 1035 there were two claimants to his empire – Harold Harefoot, the son of Elfgifu, and Harthacnut, son of Emma of Normandy.
Harthacnut had been Cnut’s choice, but when his father died Harthacnut was in Denmark dealing with a threat from King Magnus of Norway, and was unable to return in time to prevent his half brother seizing the throne as Harold I Harefoot. Harold had initially been appointed Regent (1036) but seized the throne for himself in the following year. Harthacnut was only able to move against him in 1039 and even then he moved sluggishly. However, before he could launch an invasion, Harold died (17 March 1040). Harthacnut was invited to take the throne, but even then it took him until 17 June 1040 to reach England.
Harthacnut’s reign saw a dramatic reversal of the fortunes of Prince Edward (Alfred had died after an abortive invasion of England in 1036). Edward was invited to London, where he was made a member of the King’s household. Harthacnut may even have had Edward declared as his heir. Harthacnut was childless, and had already made arrangements for the succession in Denmark (it was to pass to Magnus of Norway if Harthacnut died without an heir). When the king died on 8 June 1042 (at a wedding feast), Edward was the obvious heir, and he was elected King by public acclaim in London. The line of native kings had been restored.
The one remaining cloud on the horizon was the succession. In 1042 Edward the Confessor was already 37 and was unmarried and childless. The new king’s marriage was a prize worth fighting for, and the winner was Earl Godwin. In 1045, Edward married Godwin’s daughter Edith. In due course, the Godwines could expect one of their own to inherit the throne.
Edward turned out to have his own views on this. Godwin had played an important part in the death of Edward’s brother Alfred, and Edward held this grudge until he had a chance to strike back. The trigger was the death of Archbishop Eadsige of Canterbury in 1050. Godwin had his own candidate for the post, a relative who was already a member of the monastery at Canterbury. However, in 1051 Edward chose to promote Robert of Jumieges, bishop of London, and a Norman. In order to be recognised as Archbishop by the pope, Robert had to travel to Rome to receive his pallium. On the way he passed through Normandy. The French sources, including William of Jumieges, claim that Robert brought with him an offer from King Edward to make Duke William his heir.
A possible result of this offer was a visit by Count Eustace of Boulogne, Edward’s brother in law, who had his own claim to the throne. The visit itself was insignificant, but on his way home Count Eustace’s party was involved in a brawl with the people of Dover. King Edward ordered Earl Godwin, whose lands included Dover, to punish the town. Godwin refused, and prepared to raise an army.
Edward responded by ordering Earl Leofric of Mercia and Earl Siward of Northumbria to raise an army to oppose him. Faced with the threat of royal displeasure, Godwin’s army collapsed. The Godwins were forced into exile, with Queen Edith forced into a nunnery. For a short time, Edward was supreme. This brief period also saw a visit from Duke William, quite probably to accept the offer of the throne.
Edward’s period of glory was short. In 1052, Godwin and his sons returned, and this time they had more support. Civil war was only averted by negotiation, or rather by Edward’s virtual surrender. The Godwins were reinstated, Queen Edith returned to her husband’s side, and Archbishop Robert (along with several other Normans) fled. Robert was replaced by Archbishop Stigand, who was never approved by the pope, something that Harold was later to regret. William of Poitiers claims that in return Earl Godwin swore to support William of Normandy as heir to the throne. Even if this was the case, the events of 1052 were a humiliation for King Edward. Earl Godwin didn’t survive long to enjoy his triumph. In 1053 he died, and his son Harold inherited his position as Earl of Wessex.
The next few years saw the Godwin family expand their influence. Harold’s brother Tostig became earl of Northumbria in East Anglia, Gyrth got East Anglia, and Leofwine received Middlesex and Hertfordshire. However, in 1065 they suffered a significant setback. Northumbria rose against Tostig in favour of Morcar, brother of earl Edwin of Mercia. King Edward accepted their actions, perhaps even approved of them, and ordered Tostig into exile. This was a double blow for Harold – he lost the support of Northumbria, and faced the possibility that Tostig would return to trouble him later.
The next significant event came in 1064 or 1065. The most likely series of events is that King Edward sent Harold to Normandy to swear loyalty to Duke William as heir to the throne. Harold landed in Ponthieu, to the north east of Normandy, where he was held captive by Count Guy until Duke William was able to arrange his release. Once safely in Normandy, Harold swore to support William’s claim to the throne of England, making his oath on holy relics. They then went on campaign together in Brittany, before Harold returned to England. This series of events has often been discounted by English historians, but they have had little or no evidence for this other than a general desire to portray Harold in a good light. That King Edward had promised the throne to William is generally accepted. That Harold visited Normandy in 1064 or 1065 is also accepted. Alternative motives for his trip to France have been many and varied, although few are as unconvincing as Eadmer’s claim that Harold was on a fishing trip when he was blown to Ponthieu. Whatever the truth, once Harold returned to England, everybody was left waiting for King Edward to die.
One of the more unusual sources relating to the battle of Hastings. The Adalae is one of over 250 poems written by Abbot Baudri that survive in a single manuscript. Countess Adela was the wife of Count Stephen of Blois, and more importantly the daughter of King William. The poem was a description of the countess’s great chamber, written between 1096 and 1102. This may sound like an unlikely source for military history, but the furnishings of the room included a tapestry hanging around the countess’s bed which depicted the acts of her father (probably similar in style to the Bayeux Tapestry). It seems likely that Abbot Baudri had not seen the room or the tapestry, which makes his account of the battle somewhat more credible, based as it would have been on public knowledge of an event only thirty years old. Of particular interest is Baudri’s account of the death of King Harold, killed here by an arrow, making the poem one of the earliest sources to give this detail.
Probably the most important English source relating to the events of 1066. Two versions of the chronicle, the D and the E, cover the events of 1066. Unravelling the history of the various versions of the chronicle is never straightforward. The E version survives in a manuscript written in the 1120s at Peterborough Abbey, but based in part on a chronicle produced at the monastery of St. Augustine at Canterbury. The connection can be traced clearly until 1061, but some aspects of the E version for 1066 suggest that the Canterbury chronicle was still available for that year. The E versions’ account of Hastings is very short, but may have been written very soon after the battle. The D version provides a longer account of the battle. It is not at all clear where this version was produced (Worcester has been suggested). The D version ends in 1079, and soon afterwards was probably being used as a source by John of Worcester. Both versions are generally sympathetic to the Godwins, although the D version contains the popular idea that the English defeat was a punishment for their sins.
Bayeux Tapestry, date uncertain but probably between 1066 and 1080.
The most famous source for the battle of Hastings is the Bayeux Tapestry, a visual account of the period between Harold’s captivity in Normandy and the end of the battle of Hastings. However, like every source, the tapestry has its problems. The first is that it has been heavily restored during the nineteenth century. Some of the restoration has introduced significant changes into the tapestry, most notably for the death of King Harold, where the famous arrow in the eye is probably a restorer’s error. Fortunately, several sets of early drawings of the tapestry survive, and we can use those to check on the accuracy of the restoration. The earliest known drawings of part of the tapestry were probably made by the daughter of the governor of Normandy between 1689 and 1704, and were discovered after his death in 1721. They came to the attention of a French historian, Antoine Lancelot, who recognised that they might be drawings of a very early tapestry. His work attracted the attention of Bernard de Montfaucon, a classical scholar who was then involved in producing a collection of sources for medieval French history. By 1728 he had been able to trace the tapestry to Bayeux Cathedral. His collection of sources, Les Monumens de la Monarchie Francoise, included the original drawings in the first volume while the second volume included drawing made by Antoine Benoit that completed the set. At almost the same time, Lancelot also published a set of drawings based on Benoit. These drawings provide us with our best idea of what the tapestry originally looked like.
A second problem is that we do not know for sure who the tapestry was made for, where it was made, or when it was made. Surviving records can only take us back to the fifteenth century. However, the most popular view is that it was made for Bishop Odo of Bayeux, who appears prominently in the tapestry. Odo fell from power and was imprisoned in 1082, giving us a date range of 1067-1082. Finally, Odo was earl of Kent, and three of his Kentish tenants are named in the tapestry, suggesting that is was probably made in Kent, possibly in Canterbury.
Taking all of this into account, the tapestry is still an incredibly valuable source. It provides us with a visual representation of the armies that fought at Hastings, providing us with evidence for English archers and light infantry as well as the armoured soldiers of the shield wall. It hints at details of the battlefield and the events of the day. It also suggests that the Normans and their allies were equipped in a very similar way to their English opponents. However, the tapestry can be overused. As an example, one of the ships shown transporting William’s army to England contains seven horses, and this figure has been used to limit the size of William’s army. Even if these scenes were meant to be used in this way, there are also boats containing ten, four and three horses in the same scene. The tapestry is a visual source, and should be treated as such.
Brevis Relatio de Guillelmo nobilissimo comite Normannorum (Brief History of the most noble William, count of the Normans)
Written by a monk of Battle Abbey and possibly surviving in the authors own writing, the Brevis is a history of Normandy and England from 1035 to the early twelfth century, when the unknown author was at work. His account broadly agrees with those of William of Poitiers and William of Jumieges, without being directly based on them. The language of the Brevis suggests that much of it is based on oral traditions surviving at Battle Abbey. Amongst his sources could have been Abbot Ralph of Battle (d.1124), who was a royal chaplain of King William and also knew Archbishop Lanfranc of Canterbury. It would seem likely that other monks of Battle Abbey would also have had tales to tell of the events that led to the founding of their abbey.
Carmen de Hastingae Proelio, (Song of the battle Hastings), possibly Guy, bishop of Amiens
Definitely the most troublesome of the sources relating to the battle of Hastings. The first mention of what might be this work comes in Orderic Vitalis, who mentions a poem written by Guy, bishop of Amiens, in the style of Virgil. According to Orderic, the poem was already complete by 1068, when Guy visited England in the entourage of Queen Matilda. This is the last we hear of the Carmen until 1827, when two twelfth century manuscripts were found in the Royal Library in Brussels, one a copy of the other. This was identified as the Carmen partly because of the content, but also because of the phrase L. W. salutat, which could be expanded to Lanfranc Wido salutat, or Wido (Guy) salutes Lanfranc (in 1068 abbot of St. Stephen at Caen, and soon to become Archbishop of Canterbury). This has been a controversial attribution, but current opinion seems to favour it, making the Carmen the earliest source to survive.
A major objection to the authenticity of the the Carmen is that it contains some elements that are not supported elsewhere, in particular, the death of King Harold at the hands of William, Hugh of Ponthieu and Giffard. It has been suggested that the Carmin is actually a piece of school work written some sixty years later. The evidence for this is not convincing. The story of Harold’s death seems more likely to be either intended as flattery, or the result of rumours flying around Normandy immediately after the battle. Although the Carmen needs to be used carefully, it can not be dismissed.
Chronicon ex Chronicis (Chronicle of Chronicles), Florence of Worcester, followed by John of Worcester
One of the great Anglo-Norman historians, John of Worcester produced his work at some point between 1095 and 1143, probably in the 1120s or early 1130s. He used a variety of sources, and often pointed out disagreements between his sources. However, a danger with his work is that he was strongly pro-English, and his account of the Hastings campaign is prone to exaggerate Harold’s problems, a tendency common to most English sources. This can be seen in his description of the vast size of William’s army and the small size of Harold’s. He also emphasises Harold’s qualities as king in a way that none of the other sources do.
Gesta Guillelmi (The Deeds of William), William of Poitiers
One of the earliest surviving sources, written during the early 1070s, the Gesta Guillelmi provides the longest contemporary account of the battle. William was a native of Normandy, who studied in Poitiers before returning to Normandy to become an archdeacon in the diocese of Lisieux. After the conquest he also became a canon of the church of St. Martin at Dover. The Gesta survives in a single version, sadly missing sections from both the beginning and the end. The surviving version covers the period from the death of Cnut up to 1067. Orderic Vitalis provides some details on the missing elements, describing his version as finishing in 1071 and being dedicated to King William.
William’s description of the battle has the Norman army arrayed in three lines – the first line containing archers and crossbow men, the second armoured infantry and the third the cavalry. The immense English army, here credited with Danish allies, was arrayed on a hill top. William’s army advanced into battle, but after a period of fierce fighting, his left wing started to collapse, causing the entire line to falter. A belief appeared that William had been killed, which he countered by removing his helmet. His troops rallied, and killed thousand of the English who had pursued them down the hill. Encouraged by this, William went on to feign retreat twice, each time trapping large numbers of the English. However, the fighting went on till the evening. Eventually, demoralised by the death of Harold and his brothers, the English started to flee. After a period of pursuit, the Normans ran into stiff resistance around a rampart. This last phase of English resistance was only defeated by Duke William in person, but only after the Normans had suffered some of their most significant losses.
Gesta Normannorum Ducum (Deeds of the Norman Dukes), William of Jumieges.
If the Carmen is an uncertain source, we do not have to wait much longer for our first unimpeachably authentic source. The Gesta Normannorum Ducum was originally written in the 1050s, before William of Jumieges added a section that ended in 1067. This new section was probably written during 1070. Jumieges was a Norman town, visited by Duke William in 1067, and William of Jumieges must have had access to eyewitness accounts of the battle. His own account is short, but contains one major problem. The fight is said to have started three hours after dawn and gone on until evening. Harold is said to have died in the first Norman attacks, and the English to have fled once news of his death spread. It is hard to imagine that new of the death of the king could have taken all day to spread through the army, and on this detail at least we have to assume that the Gesta is at fault, although whether the mistake was the authors or that of a later scribe is impossible to tell. A large number of copies of the Gesta survive, suggesting that it was one of the more popular histories of the period. Gesta Regum Anglorum (History of the Kings of the English), William of Malmesbury.
One of the greatest of the Anglo-Norman historians of the eleventh century. William was asked to write his history by Henry I’s wife Matilda shortly before her death in 1118. Matilda was a member of the Old English royal family as a great granddaughter of Edmund Ironside and part of William’s aim was to ensure that her ancestors were not forgotten. He used an impressively large amount of sources, and his work covers the events of 1066 as a whole. However he was clearly biased towards the English, considering the result of the battle to have been a disaster for England. This does tend to reduce the value of his account of the battle, as he tends to exaggerate the smallness of Harold’s army.
Historia Anglorum (History of the English), Henry of Huntingdon.
One of the few chroniclers of Hastings who was not a monk, Henry was the son of Nicholas, archdeacon of Huntingdon. His mother is unknown, but may have been English. His aim was to produce a comprehensive history of England, with a moral aim. His theme was that each invasion of England, starting with the Romans and ending with the Normans, was God’s punishment for the sins of the Britains, Romans, and Saxons respectively. His account of the battle contains many of the familiar incidents, such as the feigned retreat or the crisis the Normans faced in a ditch.
Historia Novorum in Anglia (History of Recent Events in England), Eadmer
Actually a biography of Archbishop Anselm of Canterbury, written by one of his friends. Despite this, Eadmer was pro-English, and his brief description of the battle credits William’s victory to divine displeasure with Harold’s oath breaking after the Normans had suffered heavy casualties.
Historia Aecclesiastica (History of the Church), Orderic Vitalis
Orderic Vitalis embodied the merger of English and Norman that began after Hastings. Born near Shrewsbury in 1075, his father was a French priest, but his mother was English. Aged 10 he was sent to the monastery of St. Evroul (Normandy), where he wrote his historical works. As well as the Historia Aecclesiastica, he started writing the monastery’s Annals in 1095, and between then and 1109 produced a revised version of William of Jumieges. In some areas his revision was extensive, using a wide range of sources and showing a deliberate effort to reduce the bias of some of his sources.
The Historia Eacclesiastica was produced between 1109 and (probably) 1124. Despite the title, this work includes a treatment of the events of 1066, including the battle itself. This is of most value for the events before the battle, especially the actions of Earl Tostig, and the events that led to Stamford Bridge. The description of the battle itself follows fairly closely that of William of Poitiers, although both of Orderic’s descriptions of the battle include an account of a temporary crisis faced by the French during their pursuit of the defeated English.
L’Estoire des Engleis (The History of the English), Geoffrey Gaimar.
Written just before 1140 for Constance, the wife of Ralph FitzGilbert, a Lincolnshire landowner, Gaimar’s work began as a reworking in French of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. By the time he reached the events of 1066, Gaimar had left his original source behind and provides a different view of events. His account of Hastings is of little interest, but he is much stronger on the events in the north of England, including the actions of Tostig and Harald Hardrada and the battles of Fulford and Stamford Bridge. Even a later insert on the actions of Alan of Brittany at Hastings seems to been included because he was granted Richmond Castle in Yorkshire in reward.
Roman de Rou (History of Rollo), Master Wace
A history of the dukes of Normandy starting with Rollo, the first duke and ending with the battle of Tinchebrai in 1106, written between 1160 and the mid 1170s. Wace is also know for a translation of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s history of the kings of Britain (the Roman de Brut or History of Britain), but that should not cause us to dismiss the Roman de Rou. Wace was a Norman, born on Jersey and eventually based in Caen. The Roman de Rou used a variety of the earlier sources, from both sides of the channel, and Wace is willing to tell us when his sources disagree. Some of his information came from his father, for instance a figure of 696 ships for the size of the Norman fleet, and even here he is willing to tell us that other sources disagree. His account of the battle is one of the longest, at some 1600 lines, and also includes far more names of combatants than other sources. Many of these individuals are attached to tales of heroic deeds, which could be based on authentic family traditions. The shear length of Waces’ work means that it contains many details not repeated elsewhere, but that may well still be true.
At Easter, Harold returned to London. The end of April saw the appearance of Halley’s Comet, widely seen as an ill omen. As the weather improved, the risk of invasion grew, and Harold knew that he faced at least two serious threats. In the event, a third threat appeared first. The first invasion fleet to hit England in 1066 was led by Harold’s brother Tostig, who landed on the Isle of Wight in May. From there he moved along the south coast to Sandwich, raiding as he went, but at Sandwich he heard news that Harold was on his way at the head of a force raised to resist an invasion from Normandy. From Sandwich Tostig took a fleet of sixty ships up the east coast to Lindsey (Lincolnshire), where he was defeated by earls Edwin and Morcar. From there he fled north to Scotland with the remnants of his force (reduced to eleven ships), where he waited for King Harald Hardrada of Norway.
Meanwhile, Harold awaited William’s arrival, with what may have been one of the largest armies raised by the Anglo-Saxon kingdom. It is also possible that he led a major naval force on a raid to the Norman coast, although the evidence for this is thin. This English army waited on the south coast for five months, until finally in early September their supplies ran out and Harold was forced to release them (it is also possible that the men needed to be released to bring in the harvest).
Unluckily, this was the exact moment that King Harald of Norway arrived on the Tyne with a fleet of 300 ships. Any danger that Edwin and Morcar might join the invasion was removed by the presence of Tostig with the Norwegian fleet. Harald would have hoped to gain some support from this area, the heart of the Danelaw. On 20 September 1066, the two earls met the Norwegian army at Fulford, just to the south of York, where despite inflicting heavy casualties on the invaders they themselves suffered worse, and were forced to flee the area. This left Harald in command of York, but he wasted his chance. After Fulford he moved seven miles east to Stamford Bridge (on the River Derwent), then a significant road junction, where he waited to receive hostages from all of Yorkshire. His plan appeared to be working, but he underestimated King Harold.
Once news of the Norwegian invasion reached Harold, he immediately gathered an army and headed north. Only four days after the English had suffered defeat at Fulford, Harold arrived at Tadcaster, eight miles to the south-west of York, where he prepared for battle. The next day, his army marched through York and straight on to Stamford Bridge, where they caught the invaders totally unprepared, split by the river into two separate forces. The result of the battle was a total English victory. Harald of Norway was killed, as was Tostig. An army that arrived in 300 ships, returned home in twenty four. It was the last victory of Anglo-Saxon arms, and one of the greatest. Harold had won it though the speed of his movement, and there is the ironic possibility that this victory for lightning action fatally influenced Harold’s judgement before Hastings.
He was given very little time to enjoy his victory. On 28 September William of Normandy finally landed in England. Whether he had been delayed by the weather, or had deliberately waited until Harold was distracted, William’s timing was superb. After a summer where any invasion would have faced an English army on the coast and a navy patrolling off it, William landed with the English navy in London and the king in Yorkshire.
We do not know exactly when Harold heard of William’s arrive, nor can we be certain about his actions between Stamford Bridge and Hastings. It is probable that he returned to London, where his mother and brother Gyrth both tried to persuade him not to lead the army against William in person. It is also probable that Harold intended to attempt to surprise William, and moved quickly on to the attack. This was to underestimate the skill of Duke William as a commander.
William had spent his time building up his position where he landed, building castles at Pevensey and Hastings and launching raids across Sussex. His troops were thus fully rested by the time they fought, while most of Harold’s army must have travelled a good distance. Harold arrived in the area on 13 October, and marched overnight, hoping to surprise William. However, William heard news of Harold’s arrival on the 13th, and his army spent the night on guard against attack. This time, Harold was going to have to fight an enemy fully prepared for his attack.
The nature of the English troops is also unclear. There is evidence to suggest that England could provide 15,000 well armed and armoured soldiers during the eleventh century, although the distances involved means that only a fraction of those men would have been at Hastings. This figure is based on surviving laws that required specific areas to provide one armed man for every five hides (a measure of land). England at this time contained 80,000 hides, leading to a figure of 15,000 five hide men.
The next problem is that we do not know who performed this duty, or how much of the army they represent. In many areas, the five hide men were probably thegns, men who could be considered to be the gentry of Anglo-Saxon England. It is quite clear that the thegns were expected to perform military duty, but it is not entirely clear whether this duty was the same as the five hide duty, or provided another group of armed men. The Bayeux tapestry suggests that the English army included a number of poorly armoured spearmen, who could have been a local levy or five hide men. There are clues in Domesday, which records the deaths of a number of men at Hastings, including both thegns and ceorls, free peasants who formed the level of society immediately below the thegns.
A final group within the English army were the housecarls, a group of professional fighters. They probably developed out of a corp of professional warriors raised by Cnut, and although by 1066 they were increasingly similar to the thegns, performing similar duties and often holding land in the same way, they were soldiers first and landowners second and were likely to live with their lord. Housecarls were not only found serving the king, but could also be found in the households of the great earls, and they may have formed the backbone of the English army, but we do not know how many of them were present at Hastings, or what role they performed. Moreover, we can be sure the Harold’s housecarls were present at Stamford Bridge, so may have suffered heavy casualties there.
One thing that we do know about the English is that they fought on foot. It is probable that most of the men who fought at Hastings travelled there on horseback, and it is possible that English armies sometimes used cavalry, but not at Hastings. There may have been a small number of English archers at the battle – one is shown on the Bayeux Tapestry, but again they didn’t play major role in the battle. Our best evidence for the equipment of both sides is probably the Tapestry. This shows both sides equipped in a similar way. For armour most have a helm with nosepiece and knee-length chain mail armour. For weapons both sides have a spear, normally shown being thrown, but sometimes used as a short lance, and two-edged swords used together with a pointed shield while the housecarls were armed with a long handled two-handed axe. This evidence is supported by the evidence of the heriot, a legal duty required of thegns, who had to return their military gear to their lord when they died. The exact equipment involved differs from source to source, but as a minimum included a horse, a coat of chain armour, a shield, a spear and a sword. The English army at Hastings was a well equipped force of men prepared for war.
Their motivation was varied. Some owed military service to William. Others came for the promised plunder – England was one of the wealthiest countries in Europe at the time. Others may have been attracted by the papal sanction of William’s cause. Exactly how William gained papal support is (once again) unclear. A first likely cause of friction between England and the Papacy was that Archbishop Stigand of Canterbury was not recognised by the pope, in part because he remained Bishop of Winchester at the same time. However, William retained Stigand as archbishop until 1070, reducing the chance that this was Pope Alexander II’s motive. A second possibility is that Harold was condemned as an oath breaker, having sworn an oath to support William’s claim to the throne on holy relics. Whatever the reason, William’s cause was greatly strengthened by his possession of a papal banner, possibly the standard of St. Peter.
The size of William’s army is just as uncertain as Harold’s. The Carmen credits him with 150,000 men, William of Poitiers gives him 60,000. Ironically, amongst the arguments used against these large figures is that William of Poitiers claimed that when the army was delayed at Dives for a month, they did not need to plunder the local area of supplies (at the same time, Harold was able to maintain his army on the south coast for the entire summer). Other sources suggest a force of 14,000, while modern opinion has tended to support even smaller figures. However, none of the arguments for the various sizes of army are entirely convincing. A good example of the potential confusion is the speed with which William was able to unload his army. It is generally accepted that William was able to disembark in a single day (although even this is in doubt). In comparison, it took five days to disembark 60,000 men on the Crimea in 1854, and three days for Henry V to disembark 10,000 men at Harfleur in 1415. This would suggest that William’s army couldn’t be any bigger that 10,000 men and was probably much smaller. However, just over a millennium earlier, Julius Caesar had managed to disembark a force of 25,000 men in an afternoon (Lawson, p.165). About the best we can say is that William and Harold’s armies were fairly evenly balanced when they met at Hastings, one of the longest battles of the middle ages.
The Norman army at Hastings was much more balanced than the English army. Many accounts of the battle stress their cavalry and archers, but there was probably also a strong infantry element to William’s army. Indeed, some of the fragmentary evidence there is from the period suggests that the cavalry could have formed as little as 10% of the Norman army. This would have made Hastings primarily an infantry battle, with the French cavalry played an important role at certain key moments of the battle.
Although William’s army was a disparate force, with elements raised from most of France, there is no doubt that most of the men in it would have been experienced soldiers. Normandy itself had been a chaotic and violent place for much of William’s life, and although he might not have had any great experience of battlefield command, he was certainly an experienced leader of men by 1066. The allied troops might have been less experienced, although it is unlikely that any were as green as the English levies might have been. Many of the adventurers attracted to William’s cause would have been experienced fighters, used to making their living through their skill with weapons.
The first obstacle this army had to face was crossing the channel. William’s army and fleet appear to have come together in early August at the mouth of the River Dives. They were then delayed for about a month by bad weather, before being forced east to St. Valery in the Somme estuary where they may have been delayed for another two weeks. This story has sometimes been disputed, and the six week delay put down to a deliberate ploy on William’s part, who was waiting for the Norwegian invasion to pull Harold away. However, it seems unlikely that William would have risked such a late crossing, while poor weather in the channel has affected many more recent invasions.
The actual crossing took place either on 28 or 29 September. William is said to have sailed overnight and landed early in the morning. The army moved to occupy Hastings and Pevensey, where they built or repaired fortifications and dug in. From their bases on the coast, the Normans raided across Sussex, probably hoping to provoke Harold into a rash attack. If this was their aim, they may have succeeded.
Harold sped back from York. From the time the news of William’s arrival reached him to the day of the battle only two weeks passed. He was probably hoping to catch William by surprise, but he failed in this. His army arrived near Battle on 13 October. William received news of his arrival in the area, and ordered his army to form up in case of a night attack. The next morning, the English army started to form up on the ridge at Battle. This apparently took three hours, suggesting that the battle began at around nine in the morning.
Despite this three hour gap, William was apparently able to launch his first attack before the English were fully deployed. However, it is likely that this only refers to some part of the English army, as other evidence suggests that in some parts of the line the English had been able to erect battlefield defences. Most sources agree that the English formed up in a very solid formation, probably a shield wall, which gave them the stability to stand up to repeated Norman attacks. There may have been a skirmish line of archers and light infantry in front of this main line.
The French probably deployed in three lines. The first line was of archers and crossbowmen, whose early involvement in the battle was said to be ineffective. Next came the armoured infantry, probably similar in nature to the English infantry they faced. This line apparently moved to make first contact with the English. Finally, the cavalry formed a third line, with Duke William in the centre. Normally, the cavalry would have been placed on the flanks, hoping to outflank their enemies. That William did not try this suggests that the English position had very strong flanks. William appears to have formed with the Bretons on the left, the French on the right and his Normans in the centre.
One story attached to the early part of the battle is that of the bard Taillefer, who in his eagerness to begin the fighting rode up to the English line juggling with his sword, which he then threw into the English lines killing a standard bearer, before being himself killed. This story appears in some of the earliest sources, and there may be some truth behind it.
The long duration of the battle suggests that it was largely an infantry battle. Where cavalry was able to play a significant role in battles of the period, they were normally of short duration, whereas several of the battles between the English and the Vikings, both of whom relied on infantry, lasted for most of a day.
Where the Norman cavalry would have played a key role was during the real and feigned retreats that make up the bulk of most accounts of the battle. The nature of the first retreat is unclear. In some sources, the Bretons on the Norman left began a genuine retreat, which came close to causing a general retreat before William acted to halt it. Some of the English chased the retreated enemy off the hill, and were surrounded and wiped out by the Normans. Having seen how effective this was, William then ordered a series of feigned retreats, and each time the English lost men in the chase. Other sources don’t mention a genuine retreat, suggesting that the first retreat was a deliberate feint while yet others have the feigned retreat first followed by a genuine one. Although some historians have cast doubt on the ability of the Norman cavalry to perform feigned retreats, it is a tactic that they had used before and were to use again, and there is little doubt that they were capable of performing it.
All of this does not explain the Norman victory. The most convincing theory here is that towards the end of the day, Harold was killed. Combined with the heavy losses suffered over the course of the battle, this would have been enough to break the will of the English army to stand and fight. His brothers were also dead, having probably been killed before Harold, leaving the army leaderless. Once again, there is contradictory evidence for Harold’s death, but he was probably badly wounded by an arrow to the head, before being hacked down by swordsmen. His body was probably badly mutilated, and could only be identified by marks on his body.
The English retreat took place in the late evening and night. They were pursued by the victorious Norman cavalry, but at one point there was probably a brief rally when the fleeing English troops reached a broken rampart. The fighting here might have been responsible for the more significant Norman casualties as the cavalry charged headlong into a ditch. However, the battle was by now irretrievably lost, and this last stand didn’t last long. William returned to the battlefield, where he rested overnight before returning to his camps on the coast.
One final area of uncertainty is that of the casualty figures. Very few individual casualties are know – one Norman (Engenulf of Laigle) is known by name, as are a slightly longer list of Englishmen, many provided by Domesday. Orderic Vitalis gives a figure of 15,000 dead, but this might refer to Normans alone, to the entire French army, or even just to the events of the chase – a fittingly uncertain note on which to end an account of such a well documented yet confusing battle.
The lack of further military resistance could be explained in several ways. If the French chronicles were correct, and King Edward had made William his heir some years earlier, then the surviving earls, many of whom had always been hostile to the Godwins, were now faced with the heir to the throne, fresh from a victory over the usurper Harold rather than with a foreign conqueror. This was certainly the position that William was to take. A second possibility is that the English army at Hastings had been as large as some sources suggested, and the losses in the battle equally big. In this version, shock at the scale of the English defeat suppressed any will for further resistance.
In the immediate aftermath of the battle, William acted like a man who expected further resistance. He first moved along the coast to Dover, which surrendered without a fight, despite containing a large garrison. He then moved on to Canterbury, which also surrendered, before circling around London to the west, crossing the Thames at Wallingford. As he moved, his army ravaged the surrounding areas, to the extent that the path of his movement might be visible in the Domesday valuations of the places on his route.
Any potential English resistance had to centre on the remaining Anglo-Saxon leaders, based in London. Edgar the Aethling was the legitimate heir, and there was definitely a proposal to make him king. Earls Edwin and Morcar are said to have agreed to fight for him. The Carmen goes as far as to say that Edgar was crowned in London, and William was forced to besiege the city (there may be some archaeological evidence for this). Whatever went on in London, in the event Edwin and Morcar decided not to fight, and at Berkhamsted they, along with Edgar and Archbishop Ealdred of York submitted to William.
Initially this appeared to be a wise move. Edwin was promised control over one third of England, and it briefly looked as if William intended to preserve much of the social and political structure of Anglo-Saxon England. On Christmas Day 1066, William was crowned by Archbishop Ealdred in Westminster Abbey.
Any chance of a peaceful start to the reign disappeared the following year. Early in 1067 William returned to Normandy, taking the English leaders with him to guarantee their good behaviour. While William probably did need to return to Normandy, he did not return to England until December, and without William to control events things quickly went off the rails. The first revolt involved an attack on Dover castle by Count Eustace of Boulogne, the widower of the sister of Edward the Confessor. 1068 saw William attack Exeter, where his authority was not recognised.
1069 saw the most serious revolt, centred in the north, but with simultaneous revolts on the Welsh borders and in the south west. This revolt involved Edgar the Aetheling and had the support of a Danish army, but was defeated when William arrived while the rebels were besieging York castle. However, after William left the area, a force of Danes arrived, and this time the rebels were able to capture both of the castles in York. William’s revenge was terrible. Once the rebels had been defeated, he began the Harrying of the North, devastating the area so thoroughly that large parts had not recovered by the time of Domesday, sixteen years later. Orderic Vitalis claims that 100,000 people died, a figure that has been challenged, but the extent of the destruction was clearly widespread. In 1086 more than half of the villages in the North Riding of Yorkshire were recorded as either fully or partially waste.
These revolts had two results. The first was to secure William in his new kingdom. Although there was more fighting, this was fairly standard for the period. The second result was the gradual destruction of the surviving English earls and most of the English aristocracy. The last native English earl, Watheof, was beheaded after a revolt in 1075, and the lesser landowners were slowly supplanted by Frenchmen, although many survived as tenants.
Despite these later revolts, Hastings deserves its reputation as one of the few truly decisive battles in world history. Other famous victories, such as Waterloo, came at the end of a protracted period of warfare, while many, such as Hannibal’s famous series of victories, failed to influence the eventual course of their war. In contrast, the success of William’s invasion was decided by the results of a single day of fighting. The amount of sources that describe the battle show that this was recognised at the time, but ironically it is the unusually large number of sources that make any single account of the battle so hard to construct. Ultimately, many of the details of the battle of Hastings can never be known.