Battle of Hastings
Harold and his Saxon army had arrived at Senlac Hill, or possibly Caldbec Hill, on October 13. They probably numbered around 7,000 or 7,500 men, slightly outnumbered by William of Normandy who had landed more than two weeks previously with about 8,000. But the forces were in other ways mismatched.
The Saxon army had won a great victory at Stamford Bridge in the North, and then been forced to rush southwards to confront the new invader. They had previously made an astoundingly rapid march to surprise Hardrada and Tostig at Stamford Bridge. The core of Harold’s army had thus been drained of energy in the month preceding the clash with Duke William, and some of the Saxon elite had fallen at Stamford Bridge.
During the march south Harold had gathered new fighters to his strength, but they were mostly ill-trained and ill-equipped, not the battle hardened housecarls who could match the Normans and Bretons. The invaders had enjoyed more than two weeks of rest since landing. And Harold made a significant error in wanting to close with the invaders as soon as he could. Wiser counsel advised him to wait and gather a greater force – men were arriving daily to swell the ranks. Rest would have allowed those who had twice journeyed the length of England to recover. But Harold, perhaps convinced by the power of surprise in his victory over the Norwegians would hear none of it.
This desire to close with the enemy at once fits in poorly with the tactics used by Harold at Hastings . He formed his men into a great line many ranks deep, a shield wall to the front, and waited for William to attack, which he shortly did.
William had drawn his force up in a more complex alignment, as befitted an army with greater firepower and a substantial cavalry force. It is thought the invaders were divided into three ‘battles’ or divisions: the Bretons to the left; the Normans in the centre; and the French and Flemish on the right. They were also arranged with the archers, slingers and crossbowmen in the front ranks, the cavalry waiting to charge at the propitious moment at the rear, the infantry in the middle.
The early stages of the battle went in favour of the Saxons: the Norman missiles did little damage to their ranks, and the charges by infantry and cavalry alike were slowed by the slope they had to climb before engaging their enemy. When the Normans retreated in disarray, however, the ill-trained elements of the Saxon line chased after them, and were wiped out by a counter-attack led by William himself, who had removed his helmet to quell rumours he had fallen.
The battle which began in the early morning continued through the day with both armies suffering high casualties. The lack of discipline of the Saxons was noted by William, however, and he had his forces make feigned retreats after charging, repeatedly catching unwary pursuers and slaughtering them.
Saxon ranks were thinning with these losses, and the Norman advantage was pushed home with further attacks by their archers. Again they had learned fast, directing their fire not at the shield wall, but arcing over it to land on the soldiers behind it. This is when Harold is thought to have been killed, traditionally with an arrow in his eye, though this may be an embellishment. Indeed, there are indications that Harold was only wounded, albeit gravely, and was finished off later.
With Harold dead the English army was lost. Many ran for their lives, but the housecarls almost to a man remained and fought to the death. With the extermination of these crack fighters the Saxon cause lost future leaders and the best hopes for successful resistance.
There was a brief coda to the battle, some Normans in pursuit of the fleeing Saxon army caught and slaughtered at a place known as Malfosse, possibly running into late Saxon reinforcements. But this was a minor matter compared to the massive victory in the great set-piece battle.
For William the day was a decisive victory, and the way was clear for him to march on London . Harold was dead. Tostig and Hardrada had been killed at Stamford Bridge. The child Edgar the Atheling was the only rival to the throne, and William could not have picked a better one, a mere boy who had been passed over almost without a thought when Harold seized the crown earlier in the year.
Though there were further clashes with remnants of the Saxon army, William’s greatest enemy was now the disease that struck him and his forces, many dying of what is thought to have been dysentery. But by Christmas Day 1066 he would be crowned king of England, Edgar already having submitted to his rule before the Normans reached London.
Resistance continued, but was poorly led. William showed great organisational skills in using his limited forces to subdue an entire kingdom. He also used horrific brutality, best exemplified in the so-called harrying of the north three years after Hastings, when thousands of non-combatants were cut down by his soldiers, entire villages razed to the ground and crops destroyed. What remained of the Saxon nobility was systematically and with the cover of the feudal framework legally robbed of land, titles and wealth. Scotland and Wales were largely brought to heel too, the Norman war machine too powerful for the disparate forces there to combat. Britain had changed forever.
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