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Hastings 1066: The Battle

battle_of_hastings_bayeux_tapestry

The Battle of Hastings, without any doubt the most important battle ever fought on English soil and arguably the most historically significant in English history, was not actually fought there. A modern visitor to Hastings will on enquiry be directed seven miles to the northwest along the A21 and A2100 to the picturesque town of Battle, founded in the aftermath of 1066 in commemoration. It was here on a clear, warm day in mid-October that Duke William and King Harold would meet and decide England’s future in a welter of bloodshed.

The battle’s name is just one of a barrel of mysteries surrounding that fateful day. The biggest by far was why the battle was even fought at all. William was desperate for it. He had taken his army across the Channel and was now effectively stranded. He had thousands of men and horses who would go through food, water and forage at a prodigious rate, and could not be re-supplied or reinforced from back home in Normandy. Almost immediately on landing, his men were burning, looting and pillaging the local area, as the Bayeux Tapestry illustrates, stripping them of the supplies his men needed and condemning the Sussex villagers to destitution and starvation in the coming winter.

Time was William’s greatest enemy. It was late in the season and he needed a single, decisive battle and victory to give him a chance at the crown. For Harold the opposite was true. Time was on the Anglo-Saxon’s side. There was no Humber estuary on the south coast, no route way into the English heartlands, Harold could have screened William, pinning him against the sea and simply waited him out, starving his army into submission and a humiliating withdrawal. Instead he went straight at William. Covering around 40 miles a day he arrived in London with his carles on the evening of 6 October. His messengers had done their job, and men from the select fyrds across the southeast, the lower midlands and even the southwest were starting to appear to swell the king’s army.

Harold heads south

The headstrong monarch tarried for less than a week before he decided enough was enough and it was time to face his rival. His younger brother Gyrth, the Earl of East Anglia, tried to persuade the king to stay in London and let him take the army south so that no matter what, the king would be safe, but Harold dismissed the idea out of hand. Harold’s decision to charge out of London and head south has never been explained, with conflicting views abounding, his desire to save the local populace from further Norman depredations being amongst the most unlikely. Whatever the cause, the fact was that Harold led an army out of London, probably on the morning of 12 October, that was at most 7000 men strong, with only perhaps a little over 3000 of those men being hauberk-equipped frontline housecarles, lithsmen or thegns who had fought at Stamford Bridge. These men were still recovering from the cataclysm on the Derwent and the loss there of as many as half of their friends and comrades, while the rest of the army were select fyrd men predominantly from the southern shires; well-equipped and with some experience, but untried and facing the sternest of tests. With the king rode his brothers Gyrth and Leofwine with their retinues, but of Edwin and Morcar there was no sign, and the two great earldoms of Mercia and Northumbria would be almost wholly absent from Hastings. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, King Harold had given orders that the army was to move approximately 60 miles and assemble on 13 October ‘at the hoar apple-tree’, a well-known local landmark at the boundary of the Sussex hundreds of Baldslow, Ninfield and Hailesaltede on the far side of a massive primeval forest, the Andredsweald, which stretched for some 80 miles from Petersfield in Hampshire in the east, all the way to Ashford in Kent in the west. It was rarely less than 15 miles deep along its length. The apple tree has long gone of course, but there is little doubt that the location is modern-day Caldbec Hill, at 300 feet above sea-level the dominating feature in the area. All was bustle as in the gathering gloom of the evening of the 13th as the army began to arrive and prepare for the confrontation they knew would come the following day. All that night more men arrived, tethered their horses, ate their evening meal and tried to snatch a few hours sleep, but it was almost daybreak before the end of the column reached the assembly point, and for those poor souls there would be no time to rest. Rising with the dawn, King Harold mustered his men and set off south, hoping to catch William unawares as he had with the Norse at Stamford Bridge just over a fortnight earlier.

It was not to be. Ever the prudent commander, William had scouts out in numbers, they discovered the presence of the English army and the duke was informed without delay. For William the arrival of Harold and his main army was a godsend. There would be no need to cautiously advance north and try and force the king to battle while the Franco-Norman army was still in its prime, their enemy was but a few miles away and a decisive action could be fought now when it suited William the most. Mirroring Harold exactly, William had his men up and moving out of their encampment before sunrise on the morning of 14 October. As the sun rose around 6.30am on a warm, still day, the Norman and English armies were heading towards each other at pace, both sides eager for the clash and believing the day would be theirs. The result of such eagerness was a battle that was almost a meeting engagement, with neither side having the time to carry out extensive reconnaissance or, for the English, to prepare their position with any fortifications such as a ditch or sharpened stakes. When his own scouts reported the Normans were on the march, Harold, with the benefit of local knowledge, led his men forward on foot and opted to position his army on a ridgeline running east-west just about a mile forward of Caldbec Hill.

Battle Hill

Battle Hill is no mountain, but it is an imposing position and one well suited to an infantry defence of the shield wall. At its top is a fairly flat plateau, some 800 metres long and about 150 metres deep. It is protected on its flanks and rear by a number of streams and areas of marshy ground that fall away, sometimes pretty steeply, giving an attacker little choice but to go for a frontal assault up the slope that stretches away below the ridgeline for 400–500 metres. This is no easy option, with more streams and boggy ground to negotiate at the base of that same slope, before an army then has to struggle up the incline to the summit itself. Over the centuries the monks of Battle Abbey terraced the hill to a degree, especially at the summit to build the Abbey itself, but the feature remains essentially the same, with the gradient steepest in the centre and eastern side, at around 1 in 15, and far less so at its western end where it reduces to 1 in 33. In practical terms anyone can walk up it without undue effort, even carrying the equivalent of the additional weight of arms and armour. For cavalry, however, the slope would prove a hindrance, although conversely it would allow them to disengage quickly if they were to turn away and retreat downhill. This would prove incredibly useful during the battle. Archers too would suffer, as they would be forced to shoot upwards and hence lose much of the impact of their volleys. On the other hand, if Harold had had a large number of his own bowmen they would have been doubly effective, a lack of capability the English would come to rue.

However, by far the biggest feature of the battleground that strikes anyone who has walked it is its compactness. Other famous battles such as El Alamein, Kursk, the Somme and so on, were fought over areas measured in tens of square of miles, if not hundreds. Hastings, on the other hand, can be measured in the hundreds of metres. The battle was to last all day, and at no time were the men who fought it more than a couple of football pitches away from each other.

While King Harold was hurriedly forming his line on the ridge, William was just over a mile away near Telham Hill and its neighbour Blackhorse Hill, hidden from view by woods on either side of the same track the English had used to come south. Just as Harold’s scouts had warned him of the Norman advance, so William’s scouts told him of the English situation. Still out of sight, the duke halted his army and instructed them to prepare for battle while he rode forward to get a view of his enemy. So as his men donned their precious, but heavy, hauberks, William and his retinue galloped round the bend in the road and as the valley opened up in front of him he caught his first sight of the English army. It must have been an imposing sight with Harold’s 7000 or so men crammed onto the ridgeline above him in ranks up to ten or twelve deep. The morning sun glinted off thousands of spear points, helmets and mailshirts, and above it all right in the centre fluttered two enormous banners; the Wyvern (dragon of Wessex) and the famed ‘Fighting Man’ – Harold’s personal totem.

William gives his order

William had not come to England to be overawed at the site of a shield wall, but cast his general’s eye over the terrain and his opponent. It was obvious that Harold had decided to stay on the defensive and use the ridge to his advantage, so that cast William in the role of the attacker, a position he relished, and within minutes he had decided on his plan and rode back to his men to give them his orders for the assault.

Those orders were crucial, and showed William to be both a hugely talented leader as well as a man willing to take a calculated risk. The foot of the slope in front of the English, Senlac or Santlache as it was known, was girded by two streams and surrounding marshes, totally unsuitable for cavalry and infantrymen wearing heavy armour.

The track the Normans were on ran through Santlache on a narrow 200m-wide ribbon of dry ground, which had to be crossed in column to bring William’s army to the foot of Battle Hill. The men would then have to form up in line on the other side in full view of the English, no more than a few hundred metres away on the summit. If Harold attacked during this manoeuvre then he could possibly cut the Normans in two and destroy them piecemeal. William knew the risk, and took it. He had already divided his army into three distinct sections, breaking it down into manageable units to give him strong and clear command and control, and these units would be his manoeuvre sections for the forthcoming action. The vanguard was commanded by William’s Norman Companion, Roger de Montgomerie, and was made up of 1500 or so mercenaries and allied troops from Flanders and northern France, as well as a small number of Normans under Robert de Beaumont (son of William’s ally Roger de Beaumont).

They moved off first, passing through the gap and then swinging east to take up position on the right of the Norman line as they looked up the hill. Next went the duke’s ally, Count Alan of Brittany, with 2000 Bretons, Poitevins, Angevins and men from the County of Maine, who swung west and formed the Franco-Norman left wing facing the English up the shallowest gradient. Last to take up position was William himself, leading the strongest division, the 3500-strong Norman core of the army, with a preponderance of armoured cavalry and heavy infantry. They looked up directly at The Fighting Man, King Harold and his personal housecarles, and together they linked William’s line together into one cohesive whole. With this bold manoeuvre William had stolen the initiative, and he would not relinquish it for the rest of the battle.

As for Harold, he remained entirely passive, deciding not to intervene when the Normans were clearly vulnerable. True, it would have meant giving up the advantage of the high ground, but he had taken exactly that same risk at Stamford Bridge and it had brought him a magnificent victory; this time he simply stood by. As for his battle strategy, the English plan was simplicity itself and was entirely based on the traditional Germanic tactic of the shield wall, also called the ‘war-hedge’. The men were formed into a single, huge rectangular block, in rough rows, with each man taking up about three feet so that he had enough room to use his spear and shield, although the men armed with swords and axes had to be ever mindful of the men around them less they injure their own. The front rank was the most important of course, as it would take the brunt of the enemy’s charge, so these men were all professional warriors, housecarles and lithsmen, and were equipped to a man with hauberks. The same was true of the second rank and some of the third rank. These men were vital. Their armour was proof against most missiles such as arrows and throwing spears, and their mail-shirted bulk would shield the mass of the army behind them. If these men fell, the future of Anglo-Saxon England would lie with the select fyrd contingents of southern England standing behind them, whose padded leather jackets and quilted jerkins would be no match for Norman cavalry spears and infantry swords, which would wreak havoc in their ranks. As long as the famed housecarles stood then the shield wall was nigh on impregnable and the day would belong to the English. 

Feudal allies

Although the men were arrayed in rows, they were also grouped by shires and feudal dues; the men from Kent stood together, as did those contingents from London, Sussex, Bedfordshire, Surrey, Essex, Buckinghamshire and Berkshire. As for Harold’s brothers, the Earls Gyrth and Leofwine, the majority of their best men were front rankers, but they themselves stood slightly back from the front with a small number of their own carles, as did all the other Saxon nobles and thegns. Their personal banners fluttered above them, but all were overshadowed by the King’s Wessex dragon and Fighting Man as he stood right in the centre of his army on the highest point of Battle Hill, surrounded by the pick of his warriors, everyone one of them a veteran of Harold’s Welsh wars and Stamford Bridge.

The contrast between the dispositions of the two armies could not have been greater. William was using a sophisticated structure for his forces, specifically tailored to provide him with command and control and enabling him to adapt to any changes in the forthcoming battle. In comparison, Harold had effectively surrendered control of his army to the vagaries of the day. His ability to manoeuvre, launch counter-attacks or even reinforce sections of his own line was non-existent. It is a puzzle that will never be answered as to why a commander of Harold’s experience and track record adopted a battle plan based entirely on the hope his men would stand and outlast the Norman assault.

The two armies now faced each other less than 300 metres apart. Housecarles, lithsmen, Normans, Bretons and Flemings would have been able to make out individuals in the ranks facing them, and no doubt insults and jibes were traded as the men built up their courage for the ordeal to come. The Franco-Norman army was in a rough line now, grouped into compact and manageable units gathered around their own lords, ensuring they would fight alongside men they knew and had trained with. They began to edge forward up the hill, their commanders keeping them in check, while above them the same was true of the English, the shield wall ebbing and flowing like a living thing, men shouting and standing on each other’s feet, swords and scabbards banging against shields and legs, all of them just waiting.

Just as King Harold knew his task that day was to hold the line, Duke William also knew exactly what he had to do to win – kill the English housecarles. Do that and England was his, and he would no longer be a mere duke; he would be a king. And so, at 9 o’clock in the morning, with the blare of trumpets, William ordered the battle to begin.

Unsurprisingly, given the make-up of his forces, William’s first attack was led by his heavy infantry supported by hundreds of archers loosing volley after volley at the English line. Orderic described how ‘the Norman infantry closed to attack the English’, and Guy of Amiens has the Norman archers firing ‘at the faces of the English’, with those armed with crossbows ‘destroying the shields of the English as if by a hailstorm’. Expensive hauberks and kite shields did their job – but still some men fell, quarrels and arrows punching home into eyes and necks.

With few archers of their own, the English had no choice but to wait until the Normans were within 20–30 metres at most before they could reply, and then they began to hurl their throwing spears. The slope gave them an advantage, and Normans were bowled off their feet, tumbling back down the hill. Their comrades stepped over their bodies and carried on, shouting their war-cry, ‘God aid us!’ The English responded with their own ancient Saxon call of ‘Out! Out! Out!’ Then, when the Normans were a few yards away the English loosed more missiles; hand-axes and large rocks prised from the hillside, and with a roar and the thud of metal and wood coming together the two armies clashed. Poitiers said, ‘The noise of the shouting from the Normans on one side and the barbarians on the other could barely be heard above the clash of weapons and the groans of the dying.’

There was nothing subtle about shield wall fights, no room for decorous sword play or fancy footwork; it was a question of brute force and raw courage. The front ranks of both armies ground their shields against each other, the men behind leaning into the backs of the men in front to add their weight to the fray. Spears and knives were the preferred weapons, the Saxon scramasax being especially useful, as the warriors searched out weak points and gaps in armour around necks, faces, legs and hands, worrying and sawing the blades back and forth until blood flowed. So tightly packed were the combatants that sometimes the bodies of the dead and wounded were unable to fall and stayed crushed between their fellows.

Holding the line

The Norman infantry were taking heavy losses and the English line was holding steady, as Guy recounted: ‘They bravely stood and repulsed those who were engaging them at close quarters,’ so William decided to throw his cavalry into the fight to try and decide the battle quickly. With the slope against them the heavy horses could not achieve a gallop and by the time they reached the struggling lines of warriors they were probably doing no more than a fast canter. The technique of the mounted knight charging home with a lengthy lance couched underarm was still in its infancy, and whilst some attacked in that fashion the Bayeux Tapestry makes it clear that the vast majority of Norman cavalrymen held their lances overhand above their heads and either threw them or stabbed downwards using their height to add power. Englishmen fell, but the élite cavalry were assailed by a weapon of such ferocity that they were thrown into confusion – the two-handed battleaxe. These fearsome blades, wielded by powerful housecarles with years of training behind them, cut through hauberks, shields, horses and men. As horses fell, kicking and whinnying in agony, the Franco-Norman assault began to falter. Poitiers again: ‘They [the English] began to drive them back’ and ‘almost the whole of Duke William’s battle line fell back.’

Men fell back from the fury of the Saxon defence, and on the left Count Alan’s Bretons, Poitevins and Angevins turned and ran. This left William’s central division exposed on its flank, and the English came forward, ripping into the Normans. The Franco-Norman army was in danger of disintegrating, and in the chaos the cry went up that Duke William himself had been killed and near panic set in. Standing in his saddle, the Duke pulled off his helmet so his men could see him, and according to William of Poitiers he shouted:

“Look at me. I am living and with God’s help I shall be victor! What madness leads you to flight? What retreat do you have if you flee? If you keep going not a single one of you will escape.”

While some men streamed by him, the Duke’s bravery caused many of his own men to stop fleeing and rally on their leader. The Hastings battle legend taught to every school child is that this retreat was actually a deliberate Norman trick to lure the inexperienced English militiamen out from behind their protective shield wall and into a trap. The chroniclers and the Bayeux Tapestry are clear on this – this first Norman flight was real. It was true that the tactic of the feigned flight was something of a Norman speciality, and one they employed back in France – and it would be used at Hastings – but not at this point in the day. This flight was no ruse, but was caused by English skill at arms and the casualties wrought by that skill. The Bretons in particular lost a great deal of men (the Tapestry has cavalrymen tumbling over their horses’ heads) in the marshland and among the uneven ground on the western side of the slope.

The bigger question is whether this English sally was a wild pursuit born of inexperience, or a deliberate counter-attack ordered by the King or one of his chief lieutenants. If it was the latter then it was the only time during the entire battle that the English deviated from their ‘stand and fight’ strategy. Whether deliberate or not, it ended in disaster for the English. William had steadied his men and now he turned them loose on the pursuing Saxons. Finding their courage again, the Normans drove into the flank of the pursuing English on the left. In open ground, without the protection of the shield wall, the charging Englishmen were doomed. 

They tried to form a shield wall on a small hillock below the main battle-line, but as the Tapestry makes clear these warriors wore no hauberks, almost certainly meaning that they were select fyrd and not trained carles. The Norman cavalrymen used their height advantage to slash down onto Saxon heads, and with no support from the rest of the army, the shield-ring was cut to pieces within minutes, and the fyrdmen were butchered to the last man. The effect on English morale can only be imagined. Barely moments ago it had seemed as if they were on the brink of victory with the Normans in headlong retreat, and now they had been forced to stand and watch as a large number of their own had been slaughtered just a few hundred yards away. The battle was now at stalemate.

Exhausted and bloody

Having been fighting for the best part of two hours (most battles of the age would have been over by now) the men on both sides were exhausted and bloody. The first Norman assault had been repulsed, but so had the English counter-attack, if that was indeed what it was. Both sides had already suffered hundreds of casualties, the Tapestry depicting headless corpses and hacked off limbs, and so it is likely that the armies took pause to catch their breath – then, yet again, it was William and not Harold who seized the initiative.

Realising that any delay worked in Harold’s favour rather than his, the Duke adopted a strategy of straightforward attrition. Remembering the key to the battle lay with the housecarles in the first few English ranks, he ordered all three divisions to launch repeated attacks, cavalry followed by infantry, followed by cavalry, followed by infantry and so on, and all the time the Norman archers were ordered to pepper the English war-hedge with arrows.

These tactics allowed the Normans to continually feed fresh troops into the line and rest between assaults, while their opponents among the English élite had no such luxury. This was no grand, cinematic charge up the hill by 2000 Norman cavalry but rather, relatively small groups of knights attacking different sections of the English shield wall in continuous relays for the next few hours. The Normans would gallop forward as fast as the slope would let them, throw their javelins, and then wheel away to be succeeded by a volley of arrows and then a second wave of heavy infantry, fighting the housecarles chest to chest. The same process was then repeated again and again, hour after hour, all along the line.

The front rank of carles had stayed solid during the first Franco-Norman assault. Their kite shields reached almost to the ground, the men hunching down behind them so only their eyes and the tops of their helmeted heads presented any sort of target. Their right hands were drawn back holding heavy war-spears, ready to thrust them forward. They were still confident. These were the men who had beaten Grufydd’s Welsh warriors in the wilds of Powys, and had turned Battle Flats red with Norse blood, and they would be hard to beat now. Norman arrows fell out of the sky, forcing them to raise their shields, as the Norman infantry closed in again. Bringing their shields back down a few arrows found their mark, slicing into shoulders and legs, as men fell a second ranker would step forward to take his place and the wall was whole again. As the two lines of infantry clashed, men stabbing at each other, snarling like animals, cohorts of cavalry would come forward at pace, the horsemen riding to within yards of the battling ranks and, picking their moment they would let fly a javelin to bury itself in the neck of a carle thrusting forward with his own spear. Gurgling his own lifeblood away the carle would fall backwards, and again another man would step forward to take his place in the line, keeping the Normans at bay. Every once in a while a Norman cavalryman, grown overconfident, would venture too close to the English line and suddenly, with a bellowed ‘Out!’ a huge carle would swing his battleaxe, cleaving both horse and rider and bringing them crashing to the ground in a welter of blood and bone. Soon the lines had to move, almost imperceptibly, as the piles of dead made fighting ever harder, and corpses were dragged back to give the front lines room to carry on the struggle. The stink was terrible, blood mixing with sweat, urine and faeces on the now-slippery slopes of Battle Hill.

Cavalry attack

But William’s tactics were working. The exhausted carles, England’s vital élite, were being cut down, one at a time, and gaps began to appear in those crucial, heavily-armoured front ranks. Gradually, more poorly-equipped select fyrd men were forced to step forward into a front rank that was beginning to visibly shorten along the ridgeline. The fyrdmen were brave and relatively well trained, but they were not housecarles, and William knew it. Their padded leather jerkins were no substitute for the thousands of interwoven mail links of a hauberk, and Norman arrows and throwing spears punched home, killing them by the dozen and forcing more of their brethren into the wavering line. It was now that the superbly drilled Norman cavalry came into their own, each officer, the so-called magister militum (master of knights) calling out commands by voice, trumpet call or flag – the gonfanons. Seeing that sections of the shield wall were now manned by fyrdmen and not carles, the cavalry used their tactic of the feigned flight, pretending to fall away in disarray. Each time, considerable numbers of fyrdmen, freed from the horror of absorbing the punishment of the shield wall, sallied out, hoping to smash their opponents once and for all, only to see their fleeing quarry suddenly wheel around, cut them off from their comrades on the summit and surround them with a wall of horseflesh and chain-mail armour. William of Poitiers writes: ‘Twice the Normans used this ruse with equal success,’ and each time hundreds of Saxons were butchered on the blood-slicked grassy slopes. By now the English had just about run out of anything to throw at the Normans, every arrow, spear, javelin, hand axe and rock having been sent flying into their ranks. More importantly, the corps of housecarles was dying. Many had arrived at Hastings carrying wounds and injuries from Stamford Bridge, their armour saving their lives but unable to protect them from the broken bones and heavy bruising wrought by sword blows. Nevertheless, they had ridden at their earls’ and king’s command, their discipline paramount, bandaging arms and legs and tethering their mounts to take their place of honour in the line. They had not wavered, nor sallied out like their select fyrd comrades, but they were too few and they knew it. Most of them were lying where they had fallen, in the front rank, surrounded by the corpses of their foes. 

But it wasn’t over yet. The main body of the English army was still intact. True, the housecarles were nearly a spent force, but there were still numbers of professional lithsmen and the bravery of the several thousand select fyrdmen was undiminished. By now it was late afternoon, well after 3pm and it would be dark in less than two hours. Practised eyes looked around the battlefield, counting the numbers, grimly assessing the odds, and the truth was that only time could now save the English army, and both the remaining carles and William recognised it. If Harold could hold until nightfall, he would win. Cloaked by night, he would be able to take his men north, back to their horses on Caldbec Hill and the safety of the Andredsweald. There he could wait for reinforcements, especially Morcar and Edwin’s northern levies who were marching south at that very moment. As for William, his men would have no choice but to retreat back to their encampment of the previous night knowing the dawn would bring them no such relief. There were no fresh men or mounts on their way to the Normans. The battle had now lasted an unbelievable six hours, and it still hung in the balance.

Decisive action

For the fourth and last time that day, it was William, not Harold, who acted decisively. Forsaking the rolling attacks of the last few hours, he ordered an all-out assault. The cavalry and infantry were to crash into the shield wall, all the while the archers were told to loose endless volleys into the hard-pressed English. William of Poitiers said of the English line, ‘It was still terrifying to behold,’ and so ‘the Normans shot arrows, hit and pierced the enemy’ and without hauberks man after man went down peppered with goose feather-fletched arrows. The Tapestry shows the remaining English warriors’ shields thick with them.

The Norman horsemen tried to force their way through into the English line, that same line responding with equal ferocity. The legion of housecarles was not extinct just yet, and those that lived stood their ground, the axe-men still swinging away, shearing through armoured men and horses alike, the war-cry of ‘Out, out, out’, still defiant, but getting more ragged and fainter, shouted from parched mouths. Almost all the front line were now select fyrd and lithsmen. Instinct prompted most of the surviving carles to inch backwards to gather together around their lords and their banners, even now looking to protect them from what was to come, and leaving yet more lithsmen and fyrdmen to take their places in the shield wall. The dead were piled up in heaps, men standing among their own slaughtered comrades, no-one was pulling the corpses away now, and all eyes were on the advancing Normans.

Now, for the first time, lack of numbers forced the English line to retreat from the far western and eastern edges of the ridge, and the attacking Normans could see the shield wall perceptibly shrinking before them, its ranks getting thinner and thinner as the last of the carles in the frontlines were bludgeoned to death. There was no longer a dam of mail-shirts and huge battleaxes. Norman cavalry and infantry seized a foothold on the western end of the summit of Battle Hill, and could now attack straight into the English flank, forcing the shield wall to curve round to try and protect itself. It was the beginning of the end. The Normans could sense victory at long last. ‘The longer they fought the stronger they seemed to be, and their onslaught was even fiercer now than it had been at the beginning’ (Poitiers).

It was getting dark but it was too late, the lithsmen were almost all gone while the fyrd men were dying in droves, their courage not enough to compensate for their lack of armour and training. Then, suddenly, the once-continuous shield wall shivered and then shattered into pieces. In the mêlée that followed, the English army broke up into a myriad of small shield-rings. Desperate defenders circled their lords, stabbing with tired arms at the rejuvenated Normans who could smell victory. The biggest knot of fighters was, of course, grouped around the King himself, his twin standards still fluttering in the breeze. The men who still stood with Harold were his very best. These were the housecarles, lithsmen and thegns who had marched with the Godwinson family for 20 years and more. These men would not surrender and they continued to fight toe to toe with the Normans, while the majority of surviving fyrdmen fled for their lives, desperate to reach their tethered horses back on Caldbec Hill and ride for the safety of the Andredsweald a few miles north.

The English were beaten, but all was not yet lost. If Harold could escape then Anglo-Saxon England would still have a king and a rallying point. His survival was paramount and William knew it; Harold apparently did not. The Normans pressed home their attack, determined to achieve complete victory and wipe out the enemy who had held them at bay for so long, and without the protection of the war-hedge there was only death. Standing in the circle with their elder brother the King, the earls Leofwine and Gyrth were cut down and killed.

The earls are slain

The Tapestry has them slain by the lances of heavy cavalry as Leofwine wields an axe, his brother a spear, both of them standing their ground. Between them the two brothers had controlled almost all of East Anglia and south-eastern England, and with them died all of their housecarles and personal retinues, their bodies falling about their lords. Harold was now the only English leader of note left alive on the battlefield. Why did he not flee in the gathering dark? Was he already dead, or mortally wounded and unable to seek safety? Confusingly the contemporary chronicler, William of Jumièges, wrote, ‘Harold himself was slain, pierced with mortal wounds during the first assault.’ Was the king actually dead during most of the battle, or maybe badly injured? This would at the very least explain his total inaction at every turn. Yet it seems unlikely that thousands of carles, paid lithsmen and fyrdmen would have stood and absorbed hours of savage punishment from the Normans with their king already dead, so we must discount this theory. 

Far more likely is that Harold, as an exceptional warrior leader in his forties with more than 20 years experience, who had never known anything but victory, refused to believe he was defeated. Standing beneath his banners the King was now swinging his sword alongside his beloved Wessex housecarles, men with whom he had trained and fought since he was a boy. These men would not leave him, and whilst he stayed so did they. It was folly, and William punished it, a solid wedge of Norman cavalry smashing into Harold and his last few housecarles, cutting and slashing, and finally overwhelming the King and his remaining men. 

Harold may or may not have been hit in the eye by a Norman arrow, but whatever the truth of that popular belief, inspired by the Bayeux Tapestry, he was killed in that final all-out attack and his body was hacked to pieces. With his death, the Battle of Hastings was lost, as was Anglo-Saxon England.

With English resistance utterly broken, William gave orders for his cavalry to set off in pursuit and turn defeat into a total rout. Fanning out from Battle Hill summit, the Franco-Norman horsemen charged off into the gathering gloom, cutting down the fleeing Saxons by the hundred, ‘Many died where they fell in the deep cover of the woods’ (Poitiers) as Hastings became a massacre. But with victory came complacency, and in the darkness a large contingent of Norman cavalry did not see Oakwood Gill, a steep ravine in front of them near Caldbec Hill, its sides and bottom choked with thick undergrowth. Tired horses tumbled down the slope, ‘crushing each other to death’ and several groups of surviving fyrdmen, who still had some fight left in them, swarmed into the gully and butchered the helpless Normans. Battle Abbey’s own chronicler wrote of the incident:

“…just where the fighting was going on, and stretching for a considerable distance, an immense ditch yawned. It may have been a natural cleft in the earth or perhaps it had been hollowed out by storms. But in this waste ground it was overgrown with brambles and thistles, and could hardly be seen in time, and it swallowed great numbers, especially of Normans in pursuit of the English.” 

The Normans called it the Malfosse – the ‘evil ditch’, and the setback there was enough to make William call off the pursuit and finally end the day’s carnage. A battle had been fought and a country won and lost.

In retrospect it is doubtful whether any other state in Europe could have achieved what Anglo-Saxon England did in contesting three major battles in quick succession, but in the end it was all too much. There is little doubt that had Harold only faced either Norway or Normandy he would have kept his crown, but facing both was a task too great for even England’s plentiful resources. Edwin and Morcar’s defeat at Fulford was a disaster for Harold, and the springboard for William’s victory a month later. In one sense Hardrada’s Norsemen were foot soldiers in the Norman army, though they did not know it, but it was they who destroyed the greater part of the considerable military might of the earldoms of Northumbria and Mercia; what few forces remained north of the Severn-Wash line died on the banks of the Derwent at Stamford Bridge alongside hundreds of Harold’s own Wessex household troops, all of them men he could not afford to lose. Given a few months to rest and recover, England’s resilient military structure could have replaced most of its losses, and William would then have faced an army that outnumbered him two to one or more, its fyrdmen simply overwhelming his own troops through sheer weight of numbers. Instead, by dashing south without lingering to gather more men, Harold’s shield wall at Hastings was far smaller than it should have been and simply not big enough to counter William’s more sophisticated tactics and use of all-arms. The Earl of Wessex and King of England was undone in the end by lack of armour, the men who wore it, and knowing how to use them to their best advantage. In truth Harold Godwinson was simply outgeneraled and outnumbered.

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