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The Battle of Hastings - A Game of Thrones

Synopsis

On October 14, 1066, the Battle of Hastings took place. It was fought between the Norman Army of Duke William of Normandy and the English army of King Harold Godwineson. The battle took place at Senlac Hill, about 6 miles northwest of Hastings. Harold was killed during the battle; historians predict or believe that he was shot through the eye before being hacked to pieces. Although there was further English resistance after the Norman victory, the battle is seen as the point at which William gained control of England. The Bayeux Tapestry shows the events of the battle.

Harold had rushed his armed forces to the north of England to attack an invading Norwegian army led by King Harald Hardrada and Tostig Godwineson, Harold’s brother. The English destroyed Harald's army at the Battle of Stamford Bridge, near York. Upon hearing that William had landed, Harold hurried his men southward to meet the invaders. Harold’s brother, Gyrth, recommended a delay in the attack to bolster their numbers and let the men rest, but Harold was determined to show his people that he could defend his new kingdom. He headed toward London on the morning of 12 October, gathering all the forces he could on his way. He arrived at Senlac Hill on the night of 13 October.

Harold organised his forces across the road from Hastings to London, on Senlac Hill. Behind, loomed the great forest of the Weald, and in front of him was a long glacis slope which rose to the opposing slope of Telham Hill.

The English Army

Three weeks before the Battle of Hastings, the English army has fought two major battles, Fulford and Stamford Bridge and had severely weakened the English army’s battle-worthiness. The English army mainly consisted of infantry. The back-bone of the army consisted of Housecarls, full-time professional soldiers who were well-equipped with good armour and weapons. A large number of the English army, called the fyrd, was composed of common labourers, field workers, fullers, smiths and wrights who weren't well-armed or wore armour and carried hoes, scythes, pitchforks and spears.

The Norman Army

William, Duke of Normandy, was a skilled and experienced military leader by Hastings. His troops, with both infantry and cavalry, were feared and respected. The Norman army consisted mainly of nobles, mercenaries, and troops from Normandy, Flanders, Brittany and France, with some soldiers that came from as far as southern Italy. The army’s power derived from its cavalry which was considered among the best in al of Europe. The Norman horse was heavily armored with a lance and sword and the infantry were armed with spears, swords and shields almost like the English forces. The large number of missile troops reflected the drift in European armies for combing different types of forces on the battlefield that William took advantage of. Hastings marks the first known use of the crossbow in the battle in English history although it is not shown on the tapestry.

The Battle

William relied on archers weakening the enemy with arrows, followed by charging infantry engage the English shield wall with cavalry in support. However, his tactics did not work as thought. The Normans attacked after the arrows flew, but the volleys had very little effect. Believing the English to have been softened up, the infantry marched up the hill, but the English repulsed them. William ordered his cavalry to charge far sooner than planned. Faced with a wall of axes, spears and swords, many of the horses shied away despite their training. The Breton division on William’s left faltered and broke completely, fleeing down the hill. Suffering heavy casualties and realising they would be quickly outflanked; the Norman and Flemish divisions retreated. Unable to resist the temptation, many of the English broke ranks, including hundreds of fyrdmen and Harold’s brothers, Leofwyne and Gyrth. William’s horse was killed from under him. Initially, many of William’s soldiers thought that he had been killed, and an even greater rout ensued. It was only after he stood up and threw off his helmet to show them he lived that he was able to rally his fleeing troops.

William sent up his cavalry which successfully counter-attacked the pursuing English. Without any English horsemen as support, it is believed the English had very little if none the infantry were no longer protected by the shield wall, were in disorder and were cut down. Some managed to scramble back up the hill to the safety of the shield wall that Harold had maintained but Harold’s brothers were not so fortunate. The two armies formed up, and a lull fell over the battle. The battle had turned to William’s advantage, since the English had lost a great number of men. Without the cohesion of a disciplined, strong formation, the individual English were now easy targets. William launched his army at the strong English position again and many of the English housecarls were killed or became casualties.

With such a large number of English fyrdmen pressed into the shield wall it was no longer the solid wood and steel wall. At the start of the battle the volleys were ineffective because of the English shields and tight ranks. Though many on the front ranks still had shields, William ordered his archers to fire over the shield wall so that the arrows landed in the clustered rear ranks of the English army. The archers did this with great success. Legend states that it was at this point that Harold, directing his men, was struck. Many of the English were battle-weary. William sent up his troops again and managed to make small chinks in the shield wall. They were able to take advantage of these gaps, and the English wall began to army began to fragment. With many nobles dead, hundreds of fyrdmen fled the field. The remaining housecarls kept their oath of loyalty to the king, and fought bravely until they were all killed. The English fled the field and escaped across the hills and into the Weald. Norman cavalry rode after them but were ambushed and killed when encountered a deep ditch called the “Malfosse”.


William and his troops rested for two weeks near Hastings, waiting for the remaining English thegns to come and submit to him. hey never came. William began to move towards London. The Norman army's fighting strength was reduced by November by dysentery, along with that, William himself became ill. However, his army was reinforced by fresh troops coming from the English Channel.

While William was advancing towards London, the remains of the English witan had chosen Edgar the Atheling as king being the only available candidate at that time. William advanced through Kent devastating Romney and receiving the submission of Dover and its important castle. At Dover he paused for a week receiving the submission of the inhabitants of Canterbury on October 29. He sent messengers west to Winchester who received the submission of that city from the widowed Queen Eadgyth. From Canterbury, William advanced to Southwark. After failing in attempt to cross London Bridge, William destroyed the entire town. This forced him to use an alternative route to the city by crossing the Thames at Wallingford.

The Normans finally proceeded on London from the north-west, eventually reaching Berkhamsted in late November. Fearing mass slaughter, the Sheriff of Middlesex, the archbishops of York and Canterbury and the deposed Edgar the Atheling submitted. William received them graciously and accepted their submission and was crowned king on Christmas Day, 1066 at Westminster Abbey.

Conclusion

The Battle marked the end of English (Anglo-Saxon) rule and ushered in Norman rule over England. William brought England closer to France and Europe and changed the course of our nation. Some historians describe the English loss at Hastings cataclysmic. Others say that it totally changed English society for the better, for it changed English politics, architecture, the introduction of castles, and the language we speak today, as a result of 1066, is a mixture of old English and French.


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