Memorable Battles in World History
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Battle of Hastings

Title: Bayeux Tapestry
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The Battle of Hastings on October 14, 1066, arguably the most important land battle in British history, resulted in the Norman conquest of England. By 1066, Duke William of Normandy was probably the most powerful French noble and potential master of France. William also laid claim to the throne of England. In 1064 Harold Godwinson, Earl of Wessex and chief adviser to English king Edward the Confessor (r. 1042–1066), arrived in Normandy, either as an emissary from Edward to confirm William as his successor or because, as Harold later claimed, his ship had been wrecked on the Norman coast. In any case, William extracted from Harold an oath in which Harold recognized him as Edward's successor and promised to aid William in securing the crown.

On his return to England, Harold was soon forced to side against his brother Tostig who led a popular uprising against Edward. Tostig was driven into exile and sought refuge with his wife's brother-in-law, Baldwin of Flanders, William's father-in-law and ally. In January 1066, Edward died, commending his family and kingdom to Harold. The principal English nobles assembled as the Witan elected Harold king.

When this news reached William, he resolved to secure by whatever means necessary his claimed inheritance. He sent emissaries to Harold demanding that he fulfill his oath. Harold's position was weak. England was disunited and Harold was not of a royal line. Two important earls in north England refused to acknowledge his rule. Harold won over one by marrying his sister, and in April, Harold secured recognition as king.

Still, William's position was much stronger. Not only did William rule the rich duchy of Normandy but his alliances with other prominent French nobles were strong, and he enjoyed the support of much of European opinion, which regarded Harold as a usurper. William isolated Harold diplomatically and even secured the support of Pope Alexander II. To weaken Harold further, William encouraged Tostig to lead Norse forces on raids against the English coast. Although Harold defeated Tostig's men and forced them back to their ships, the raids had an important ancillary effect, because they led Harold to believe that William's invasion was imminent.

William's army was centered on mounted cavalry and had been well tested in various military campaigns. Its principal weapons were the lance, the sword, and the mace. The men were protected by shields and helmets, and many wore chain mail armor. William would have to requisition ships to transport his men and horses to England. A more serious problem lay in the vagaries of the weather for a channel crossing.

Edward had disbanded the small English fleet, so Harold had to scrape together and transform into warships various fishing and commercial vessels to meet a Norman invasion. Harold could count only on a small force of professionals for his army. Only with difficulty would he be able to assemble a larger citizen force, the fyrd, for which there would be pay for two months. Although many of his professional soldiers were mounted, the major fighting was on foot. The men were armed with spears, javelins, two-edged swords, and long-handled axes. Archery was practiced but not yet important as an English weapon of war. Judging by the historical record of the Bayeux Tapestry, the Anglo-Saxon soldiers were protected similarly to the Normans.

Harold mobilized both his land and sea forces, and kept them on guard throughout the summer. At the end of September their terms of service, and money and provisions for them had all expired. No sooner had the English forces disbanded than Harold received word that Norwegian king Harald Hardrada, accompanied by Tostig, had invaded the north.

Norwegian forces, sailing in some 300 ships, landed near York on September 18, 1066. Two days later, at Gate Fulford, the invaders defeated English forces under earls Edwin and Morcar. Harold immediately marched north with such forces as had not already been disbanded; on September 25, at Stamford Bridge, he all but wiped out the Norwegians. Both Harald Hardrada and Tostig were among the dead. Harold allowed the survivors (reportedly not more than two dozen boatloads full) to return to Norway. Harold had also sustained heavy losses though, and the battle thus had tremendous consequences for the upcoming struggle with William.

William was preparing to sail for England. His forces were ready in early August but for some reason he did not then sail. He did attempt to depart in mid-September, but contrary winds prevented it. On September 27, the winds finally shifted to the south and the fleet set out. Landing in England at Pevensey the next day, William soon marched his army to Hastings, the coastal terminus of the road to London. He then set out ravaging the countryside in an effort to draw Harold into battle.

Harold was at York on October 1, celebrating his victory, when he learned of William's arrival. He immediately hurried south, stopping only briefly in London to gather additional men. Harold also ordered out some 70 vessels to prevent William's ships from escaping. Harold undoubtedly would have been better served by remaining in London longer to gather more men, but he was by nature impulsive and offensive minded. He departed London on October 11 to cover the 60 miles to Hastings, probably hoping to catch William by surprise with a night attack, but he arrived too late on the 13th and decided to let his men rest. The two armies were about 7 miles apart when Harold made camp. Learning of Harold's approach, William decided to strike first.

William advanced on the Saxon forces at dawn on October 14. Although William may have enjoyed a slight numerical advantage, each side probably had about 6,000 men. The fight was also even in terms of training and equipment. Harold's professional forces formed a shield-wall and held the high ground, but Harold was short of archers and he had no cavalry, where William had a mixed force of infantry, cavalry, and archers.

Battle was joined with a Norman attack about 9:00 a.m. William's Breton left wing soon retreated in confusion and there was a sense of panic in the army on false news that William had been slain. William did have three horses killed underneath him that day, but he now showed himself to his men, rallied them, and led his troops in cutting down the few Saxons who left the shield-wall in the pursuit.

The battle raged the remainder of the day and might have gone either way. The Normans mounted a series of attacks and feigned retreats, but drew few of the Saxons from the protection of the shield-wall. Finally, William ordered high-angle arrow fire from his archers, followed by a last charge. Harold was struck in the eye with an arrow, probably in this barrage. In any case, the Norman horsemen and infantry managed to crack the shield-wall. Harold was cut down fighting under his standard. The English were soon in flight, pursued by the Normans. Harold's death made the battle decisive.

Following the battle, William cautiously advanced on London, ravaging the countryside as he went. The death of Harold and his brothers in the battle created a leadership vacuum, and in mid-December most Anglo-Saxon nobles submitted to William. He was formally crowned King of England on Christmas Day 1066, to be known to history ever since as William the Conqueror.

William spent the next three years putting down rebellions and destroying much of the English countryside in the process. But he also created the English nation and an effective state system centered on the king that was of tremendous advantage to England in the centuries to come. William's victory also ended the long Anglo-Saxon connection with Scandinavia and linked Norman England with France, which had tremendous consequences for both nations in the centuries to come.

Spencer C. Tucker


Further Reading
Freeman, Edward Augustus. The History of the Norman Conquest of England: Its Causes and Results. New York: AMS Press, 1977; Howarth, David Armine. 1066: The Year of Conquest. London: Collins, 1977; Bradbury, Jim. The Battle of Hastings. Stroud, Gloucestershire, England: Sutton, 1998; Morillo, Stephen, ed. The Battle of Hastings: Sources and Interpretations. Rochester, MN: University of Rochester Press, 1996.
 

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