On the morning of 14 October 1066, an estimated 8,000 Normans clashed with 8,000 Saxons on Senlac Hill, seven miles from morthwest of Hastings in Sussex.
It was the decisive battle of the Norman Conquest, by the end of which Harold Godwinson was dead and William of Normandy was all but King of England.
William was furious when Harold Godwinson was crowned King of England in January 1066. As far as he was concerned, the fact that a dying Edward the Confessor had named Harold as his successor did not invalidate Edward’s earlier promise to leave the throne to him.
Nor did it affect Harold’s oath, probably sworn in 1064, to help William’s succession come about.
William gathered support for an invasion, and assembled a fleet to cross the Channel. But he was not the only one.
The first challenge to Harold’s kingship came from Scandinavia. In September, another claimant to the throne, King Harald Hardrada of Norway, had crossed the North Sea.
Joined by Harold’s own brother Tostig, he defeated two of Harold’s allies at Fulford outside York. Harold rushed north and on 25 September he surprised the Norsemen at Stamford Bridge. He destroyed their army, killing both Hardrada and Tostig.
But Harold had little chance to enjoy the fruits of victory, for on 1 October, he heard that William had landed at Pevensey in Sussex. In order to deny him time to raise more troops, William wanted to bring Harold to battle as soon as possible.
To provoke him into fighting he ravaged the country around Hastings. The plan worked. Harold hurried south, stopping for only a few days in London to pick up more troops. On 11 October, after sending out a fleet to cut off the Norman retreat, he marched on Hastings.
Harold may have hoped to catch the Normans by surprise on the morning of 14 October 1066. If so, he was to be disappointed. William’s scouts had warned their Duke of the enemy’s approach and the Normans were themselves advancing. Harold abandoned his attack plans, and took up a defensive position on Senlac Hill, where he waited for the Normans to come to him.
Some of William’s army seems to have deployed into three bodies, with Bretons on the left, soldiers from France, Flanders and Picardy on the right and his own Norman troops in the centre.
Although the Bayeux Tapestry makes much of the Norman knights, it’s worth remembering that its creators would have sought to appeal to an aristocratic audience – in fact a substantial part of William’s army were foot soldiers, with archers and crossbowmen in the front ranks and heavy infantry behind them.
The cavalry were deployed to the rear. Clearly the intention was to soften up the English lines with archery, before the infantry and cavalry moved in to finish the job.
But Harold’s men proved tough nuts to crack. William’s chaplain gives a good first-hand account: “The Duke and his men… came slowly up the hill… the Norman foot drawing nearer provoked the English by raining death and wounds upon them with their missiles. But the English resisted valiantly… they hurled back spears and javelins and weapons of all kinds together with axes and stones fastened to pieces of wood… The English had the advantage of the ground and profited by remaining within their position in close order… and most of all from the manner in which their weapons found easy passage through the shields and armour of their enemies.”
Some of these weapons must have been the fearsome two-handed axes illustrated in the Bayeux Tapestry. Suddenly, part of William’s army, possibly the Bretons on the left, gave way. They poured back down the slope pursued by some of Harold’s men.
Soon, William’s army was in danger of collapse and matters weren’t helped by a rumour that the Duke himself had been killed.
William acted swiftly. Riding among his men, he pushed back his helmet to show he was still alive. His men rallied, turned on their pursuers and cut them down. Indeed, it is possible that after this the Normans actually used the tactic of a feigned retreat to draw more English down from the hill.
The Normans kept up the pressure. Casualties mounted on both sides and Harold’s brothers, Gyrth and Leofwine, were both slain. As evening approached, William may have ordered his archers to shoot their arrows into the air, to hit the unarmoured English in the rear ranks.
In the end, the relentless combination of archery, infantry and cavalry attacks seems to have thinned the English ranks sufficiently for the Norman knights to break through the shield wall.
Harold, possibly struck in the eye by an arrow (the earliest accounts of the battle make no mention of this), was hacked to pieces and the English line disintegrated. Although some may have made a last stand near a ravine called the Malfosse or ‘evil ditch’, for the English, the day was lost.