Episode 2: Medieval Warfare At The Battle of Hastings
Heralding the beginning of the Norman Conquest, the Battle of Hastings in 1066, when William the Conqueror faced King Harold on the south coast, was one of the bloodiest and most important battles ever fought on British soil.
The Battle of Hastings
The Battle of Hastings took place at a site now known as Battle on 14 October 1066. Harold drew up his army in three wedges on Senlac Ridge, overlooking the battlefield. With him he had little more than 5,000 footsore and weary men, ranged against a Norman force of up to 15,000 infantry, archers and cavalry.
Facing such odds, Harold had no choice but to fight a defensive battle. He was forced to rely on the much-vaunted English shield-wall, behind which his men could stand and let the Norman attacks break themselves.
The tactic was a great success. Again and again, the Norman knights hurled themselves against the English shields, but as the Bayeux tapestry shows, they were unable to make any headway. Then, on the Norman left, the Bretons under Count Alan began to give way. Orderic Vitalis takes up the story:
'The ferocious resolution of the English struck terror into the foot-soldiers and knights of the Bretons and other auxiliaries on the left wing; they turned to flee and almost the whole of the Duke's battle line fell back, for the rumour spread that he had been killed. But the Duke, seeing a great part of the opposing army springing forwards to pursue his men, met them as they fled, threatening and striking them with his spear.
'Baring his head and lifting his helmet he cried: "Look at me, I'm alive and with the aid of God I will gain the victory!" No sooner had the Duke spoken these brave words than their failing courage was restored, and surrounding several thousand of their pursuers, they mowed them down almost at once.'
The whole incident is portrayed on the Bayeux tapestry. It was the turning point of the battle. Now the English wall had broken, and the Normans were able to lever open the cracks. Exhaustion and weight of numbers also took their toll. Gyrth and Leofwine, the two remaining brothers of Harold are depicted being cut down on the tapestry, and Harold was soon to follow.
We see him on the Bayeux tapestry taking an arrow in the eye and then being ridden down by a Norman cavalryman, one of four who managed to break through the English line and trample Harold into the ground. Though the English still fought on bravely after their king had fallen, their cause was lost, and eventually they fled into the night.
Tradition has it that William gave thanks to God for his victory and ordered that all in his army should do penance for the souls that they had killed that day. He himself paid for the foundation of Battle Abbey on the spot where Harold fell.
The body of Harold was eventually recovered after a long search, but its face was so badly disfigured that they had to bring it to his concubine, Edith Swan-neck, to identify by the intimate marks upon his body. Initially, William had the body buried next to the battlefield, with a headstone reading, 'Here lies Harold, King of the English', but after Harold's name was blackened by later Norman propaganda, the headstone was removed, and the body was disinterred and taken to Harold's abbey at Waltham.
The contest for England was not yet over, however. William kept his army in Hastings for about a week, then he marched through south-eastern England, via Dover and Canterbury, to London Bridge.
Finding this too heavily defended, he continued along the southern bank of the Thames to Wallingford, sending a detachment to take Winchester on the way. Wallingford was the easternmost ford of the Thames, and was defended by an ancient Anglo-Saxon burh (a fortified town) under the command of the king's thegn Wigot of Wallingford.
By now it was December, and the long campaign had sapped the English will to resist. Dover and Southwark had been razed to the ground, and William now had control of Canterbury, the religious centre of England, and Winchester, the ceremonial seat of the English kings.
At Wallingford, the first English submissions occurred. Archbishop Stigand of Canterbury led a delegation of important English bishops and thegns, who surrendered to William, and Wigot opened the gates of Wallingford to him. By Christmas, the earls Edwin, Morcar and Waltheof, along with Archbishop Ealdred of York, had also surrendered, having ensured that their positions would be secure under the new régime.
William was crowned by Archbishop Ealdred on Christmas Day, in Edward's new abbey cathedral at Westminster. This is significant, because the new king chose to be crowned in the same location as King Harold, deliberately stressing the continuity between himself and Edward's old régime. He also ensured that he was not crowned by Stigand, whose legitimacy was questioned by the Pope.
During the ceremony, the assembled magnates (both Norman and English) shouted their acclamation of the new king; but their shouts startled the guards outside the cathedral who, fearing an English uprising, promptly set fire to the neighbouring city of London. Orderic Vitalis paints a vivid picture of the terrified congregation fleeing from the smoke-filled church whilst the remaining Bishops hastily completed the ceremony, with the new king trembling from head to foot. It was an interesting start to a completely new era.
About the author
Dr Mike Ibeji is a Roman military historian who was an associate producer on Simon Schama's A History of Britain.