Harold Godwinson had won a great victory at Stamford Bridge, defeating a Norse army and killing its storied leader, Harald Hardrada, the mightiest warrior in the north. But for the English king there was no time to celebrate: his erstwhile friend, William “the Bastard”, Duke of Normandy, had crossed the Channel with an army and landed in Kent!

(To read Part One, go here)

William of Normandy had but to await good sailing weather and his rival’s distraction in the north to pounce upon England like a leopard upon his prey. In the absence of the English naval levies (the sea fyrd) who’d patrolled the Channel till dismissed back to their home ports with the coming of autumn, he was able to take advantage of the Norwegian invasion and cross the channel on the 28th of September, 1066;  just two days after Stamford Bridge (see Part One).

Images of the Norman invasion preparations: Armor, weapons, and supplies being carried to the waiting ships. Note the distinctive Norman “helm-cut” hairstyle. Above: the Bayeux Tapestry depicts the scene.


The Norman invasion Army of 1066 was a true combined arms force, comprised of heavy cavalry, close order infantry, and supporting archers. The mounted knights and their retainers, the elite strike force of the army, came from all across northern France: Normandy, Brittany, and Flanders. The “Age of Chivalry”, during which the armored knight on horseback was king of battle, was just dawning. The coming struggle would pit the new against the old, as mounted knights (supported by archers and heavy foot) would face an army trained in the Viking Age tactics of the “shield-wall”.

The Norman knights who followed Duke William wore a long shirt of mail, which covered from shoulder to knee, called a “hauberk”. Though the richest lords wore strong, well-riveted mail hauberks that included long sleeves and perhaps even leggings (chausses) of mail, the average knight’s hauberk ended at the knee, and had short sleeves and no protection below the knee. Some protection from bladed weapons was afforded by leather strips which cross-gartered the shins from ankle to knee.

1408176.jpg1408192.jpgThe helmet worn by both the Norman knights and the elite among there English opponents were conical shaped capes of steel, sporting a nasal that protected the wearer’s nose from glancing sword strokes. Under this the knight wore a hood of mail or leather. Sometimes this mail “coif” covered the knight’s chin and jaw as well.

The Norman invasion force has variously been estimated as high as 60,000[1] and as low as 7,500 strong. Though Oman suggests a figure of 12,000 cavalry and 20,000 infantry [2]; Christopher Gravett of the Royal Armories more plausibly places their numbers at the lowest end of speculation: 2,000 chivalric horse, 4,000 heavy foot, and 1,500 bowmen. Transportation and supply of an army much larger than this would have been problematic for William in the extreme.

William knew his rival was in the north. He also knew that time was against him: if the full English levy could be reconstituted, the numbers against him would preclude a successful battle. His invasion force could be bottled-up in Kent, where it would wither away from starvation. This is in fact what became of the French invasion of England in 1216. With winter coming on the Channel crossing would be closed and his supply line from Normandy compromised.  These strategic factors considered, William needed to bring his foe to battle, and soon.

To lure Harold south, William employed a strategy of devastation. Spreading out from a fortified base established at Hastings, mounted Norman detachments pillaged deep into Sussex, lands that were once part of Harold’s demesne as the Earl of Wessex. This was more than just a raid to replenish supplies: it was a personal insult and challenge to King Harold, to come defend his people if he dare!


Harold was not sluggish in responding to the Norman invasion. Five days after receiving news of Williams landing he was back in London. After several days of rest, allowing some of his levies to arrive back from their fields and stragglers from his northern campaign to catch-up, his army moved south toward the Normans at Hastings.

On the early evening of 13th of October, 1066, the last Anglo-Saxon King of England led his army to the muster place at Santlache (“Sandy-Stream”) Hill. Directly to the south of this position the road from London to Hastings passed over this ridge to descend into a marshy valley; before rising up and over Telham Hill. Here, on the morrow, Harold would array his army across the London road, facing south upon the crest of Santlache.

After the battle to come the Normans would make a pun of the name, calling the hill upon which Harold’s army stood Senlac (“Blood Lake”) Hill.

1408178.jpgWhile the Normans at Hastings spent the night of the 13th and early morning of the 14th in prayer and confession, the English camped in the woods behind Senlac likely spent the night before the battle in the deep sleep of exhaustion. Since late September they had marched from London to York, fought a bloody battle against a hardy foe, then marched back to London, and with scant respite had now marched here to Senlac. Even for men as hardened to labor as these 11th century warriors this must have taken a toll upon their stamina.

At daybreak, Duke William led his army out of camp toward Telham hill, arriving there an hour later. Just 800 yards to the north, Harold was arraying the English on Senlac Hill. From Telham’s elevated height, William surveyed his enemy’s position.

He saw the Saxon army, some 8,000 strong, deploying along the ridge. Their array covered the top of the hill from end to end, some 800 yards long. The English were forming-up in the traditional “shieldwall”. To William it would have appeared as a densely packed, brightly-painted rampart of shields crowning the top of Senlac. The new-day’s autumn sun no doubt glinted brightly off the mail shirts and polished helmets, the spear-heads and ax blades of the warriors arrayed behind it. Flying above the center of their array were Harold’s twin standards: the Dragon of Wessex and his personal standard, the Fighting Man (bearing the image of an armored warrior). Ten ranks deep, the English host presented a brilliant and terrible spectacle.

1408205.jpg The Anglo-Saxon shieldwall as depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry. Below, modern reenactors depict the English warriors who struggled at Hastings in 1066

The front ranks of the shieldwall comprised the best armed and equipped men in the English host: the leading thegns and their retainers, supporting Harold’s own professional Huscarls. Behind these would be the more numerous and lightly armored men of the fyrd. All would have been similarly armed with spear or long-ax, sword and dagger, and often a tomahawk-like belt ax for throwing at the enemy prior to contact.

The shields of the Saxon infantry would have been one of three types, as depicted by the Bayeux Tapestry. Most often shown is the so-called kite shield, no different than that carried by their Norman enemy. The second most commonly depicted shield carried by the Saxons was a lenticular shield: a concave round shield, held by a central grip behind a large center boss of iron. This shield type differs from the more familiar “Viking” round shield, which was flat and not concave. Experiments in recent years with these types of shields have shown them to be amazingly strong and resistant to impact. The third type, shown on only a few panels, is a rectangular or oval shield with rounded corners, not dissimilar to a later Roman scutum, or the rectangular shields of the Rus. (Considering that some of Harold’s Huscarls may have served with the Byzantine Varangian Guard, and may have passed through and even served a time in Russia on route to Constantinople, it is not impossible that the Rus rectangular shield found favor with some.)


Whatever their design, the English shields that formed the shieldwall at Senlac were drawn-up tightly, likely overlapping and covering the ridge-line from end-to-end.

The Anglo-Saxon military elite who formed the front ranks of the shieldwall were armored in nearly identical fashion as the Norman knights they would soon be trading sword strokes with: a mail shirt and conical helmet. But while the Normans were all accomplished horsemen, the Huscarls and thegns were instead expert infantry fighters; who, like their Saxon and Viking forebears, were superb at standing firmly in the shieldwall and delivering deadly blows with spear, sword, and long-hafted Danish battle-ax. This latter was a fearsome weapon, capable of splitting a man down the middle or severing a horse’s head with a single mighty blow!

Surveying the English position William would also have noted that in the shallow valley separating his army on Telham from Harold’s on Senlac the ground directly between them was firm, a saddle between the two hills. But immediately to either flank, to the east and west, the ground became marshy; as two separate steams passed on either side of the saddle. Behind and to the flanks of Senlac the ground fell off more steeply, and was heavily wooded to the rear. Thus the coming battle  would be straight forward, with little opportunity for the Normans to flank, or the Saxons to withdraw in order.

At 8:00 am the Norman columns filed down from Telham and deployed in the valley below Senlac. William sent his men forth with these stirring words:

“Now is the time to show your strength and the courage that is yours! There is no road for retreat!”

Every man in the Norman host must have known that this day they had to conquer or perish.

1408217 Senlac Hill, viewed from the Norman center-right. Where the Battle Abbey now stands, Harold drew-up his shieldwall.

Taking station on the western flank of William’s army and forming the left flank was the Breton contingent. To the right, forming on the eastern flank, was the brave Flemings. In the center were Duke William and his indomitable Normans, the Papal banner flying beside the twin leopards of Normandy.

The arms of Normandy: De gueules aux deux léopards d’or (twin leopards, gold, on a field or red)

Each of these three divisions of William’s army was arrayed identically, in three echelons. The first rank were of archers, the second composed of the heavy-armed foot, and the third and final comprised the “men-at-arms”: the mounted knights and their squires.

One can imagine long minutes of relative quite before the coming storm, as the Normans shuffled into their ranks, then quietly waited the order to attack. Like their Duke earlier, they would have surveyed the English line awaiting them on the heights above, brilliantly lit by the new autumn sun. It is likely these men experienced a range of emotions that covered the gamut from eager excitement to bowel-loosening terror. For the knightly class, raised from childhood on tales of heroism and seeking above all else in life a reputation for courage and valor, likely a fierce “battle joy” and keen anticipation was the predominant emotion. Every knight must have known that this was to be the greatest battle of their lives, and perhaps of the Age. That here on this field they would not just live or die; but by their deeds either make or ruin their reputation in the eyes of their peers and of their liege-lord. The courage and indomitable resolve of these Norman knights would be tried sorely in the coming hours, but would ultimately prove worthy of the task William had set for them.


The battle commenced at the start of the third watch, or 9 am. A brazen peal of trumpets signaled the beginning of the Norman attack.

The archers of William’s first line advanced up the gentle slopes of Senlac Hill into bow range, and at 100 yards began the battle by raising their bows in unison, and loosing a massed barrage of arrows. Up they flew, towards the hedge of overlapping shields. The feathered shafts beat against the interlocked shields like wind-driven hail. Due to the angle of fire and the protection afforded the English by their unbroken wall of shields the arrow storm did little damage; mostly bouncing from the shields or sticking harmlessly in their wood and leather faces.

1408262.jpgAs the archers passed back through the ranks to replenish their quivers from supplies in the rear, William next sent in the second line of armored foot-sergeants, who now advanced up Senlac’s slope.

As the Norman foot approached the waiting English responded with a clamor meant to intimidate their enemy: weapons beating in unison upon shields, and cries of “Holy Cross!” and “Godemite!” (God Almighty), and a deep grunting of “Ut! Ut!”, (Out! Out!). As the Normans neared the top of the ridge, the English shieldwall opened. Out came a shower of thrown weapons: axes and javelins, rocks thrown by hand or sling, and even maces and hammers designed to be slung at the foe! Under this fusillade the Norman ranks recoiled a step, and many went down never to rise again.

1408269.jpg Modern reenactors express the ferocious determination of the English defenders to keep the Normans “Out!”

Pushing forward, the Norman foot charged the last few yards into the shieldwall, and then followed a brief but terrible exchange of blows. Bloodied and over-matched the Norman foot soldiers staggered back, recoiling from the spears and deadly axes. Though competent soldiers, the Norman foot were second-class troops, no match for these fearsome victors of Stamford Bridge! A retreat began all along the line, and the Norman foot was soon falling back down the hill in mass.

Now the trumpets sounded again, and as the Norman infantry licked their wounds and reformed in the valley below, the banners and lances of the Norman chivalry fluttered and dipped all along the valley floor. Forward surged the mailed cavalry of northern France, the proudest warriors in Christendom! First at a trot, then a canter, stretching into a gallop as they pounded up the gentle slopes of Senlac.

1408294.jpgIn the center of this mass of charging horsemen Taillefer (“Hewer of Iron”), the Duke’s own minstrel, led the way. It had been granted to this gallant troubadour-knight the privilege of striking the first blow. As his horse ascended the slope of Senlac, far outdistancing those behind him, Taillefer tossed his sword into the air and caught it repeatedly, all the while singing verses from “The Song of Roland”!

At the top of the ridge a brave Saxon champion stepped forward to meet him. Sweeping past, Taillefer cut him down with a stroke of his gleaming blade. Reaching the shieldwall he tried to force his horse through the rampart of shields. A Huscarl long-ax struck the troubadour a ferocious blow on his unwarded right side, toppling him from his horse and cleaving the gallant knight from shoulder to belly.

Behind the fallen Taillefer the charging ranks of mailed knights came over the top of the ridge; only to be brought to an abrupt halt before the stolid shieldburg. Even the best trained destrier will not willingly collide with a solid object. And so long as the shieldwall remained steady, no Norman could force his horse through that barrier of shields.

Instead, as their charge was brought to a halt, the Norman knights and men-at-arms hurled their lances like javelins at the massed Saxon ranks; or used lance or sword to stab and slash from high atop their rearing chargers, aiming at the heads and shoulders of the English warriors behind their shields.

1408293.jpgLittle damage did this initial charge do to the English shieldwall. But oh! The carnage caused by those terrible axes, as giving measure for measure, the English cleaved and hacked at man or horse. In one recorded incident that was likely repeated up-and-down the Norman line, a stout Huscarl, swinging his long-ax from his left shoulder, hacked off a head of a Norman knight’s horse with a single blow of his terrible weapon! As the Norman’s horse collapsed in place, his second swing cleaved the rider in twain as well.

1408390.jpgMan and beast could not long stand such carnage. Beginning on the Norman left, where battled the riders of Brittany and cascading down the whole Norman line, William’s horsemen began to give way. On the left retreat became rout as the Bretons spurred their horses in panic away from those terrible cleaving axes. The Normans in the center and Flemings on the right likewise retreated, albeit grudgingly, down the hill, toward the shelter of their reformed infantry ranks.

As sometimes happens at desperate moments, a wild rumor spread like a summer blaze in dry grass: “The Duke is slain, the day is lost! Save yourselves!”

At that moment of crisis, the fate of England hung in the balance. The entire Norman army might soon be following the Bretons in panic, off the field and stampeding back toward the false security of their camp.

But men of destiny make their own fate. William, still alive though slightly wounded in the previous skirmishing atop the hill, rode forward through his wavering warriors. Pushing back helmet so his face was clearly discernible to all, he roared:

“What is this madness that makes you fly?? Look at me well! I am alive, and by the grace of God I shall yet prove the victor!”

With Count Eustace of Boulogne at his side, carrying the Papal banner of Holy Cross, and his half-brother Bishop Odo of Bayeux pointing him out to his uncertain vassals, William rallied his wavering knights to his side.

1408361.jpg Duke William (1) raises his helmet, showing his followers he is still alive, averting a crises. His brother Odo, Bishop of Bayeux, mace in hand, points the Duke out to his momentarily shaken followers.

(The Bayeux Tapestry ambiguously shows King Harold’s brother, Gyrth, dying in this initial clash. Some scholars have suggested that Duke William singled out Gyrth, who was perhaps commanding his brother’s Huscarls in the center of the English ranks; thinking Gyrth to be King Harold himself. William personally engaged and slew Gyrth in combat, and was perhaps wounded in the exchange, leading to the rumor of his death.)

1408364Meanwhile, on the Norman left, the truly panicking Breton contingent had fled down the slopes and into the boggy ground beyond the western flank of the battle (where later monks would construct a fish pond). There many milled about in the marshy ground. Seeing their discomfort, the undisciplined English rustics of the fyrd, who fleshed out the right wing of the Saxon line, sensed victory; and charged after them down the hill, pursuing and in places catching the fleeing Bretons.

William spied the debacle developing on his left flank. With the eye for opportunity that has always been the hallmark of the great battle leader, William gathered what knights he had at hand and galloped across the field, into the rear of the pursuing fyrdmen. In an instant the pursuers were cut off from their own lines, turned instead into desperate fugitives!

A small hillock rose out of the boggy ground here, and some of the isolated fyrdmen rallied upon it and attempted a stand. But William and his knights set upon them, as did the now returning Bretons. Massacre ensued, as Harold, refusing to leave his strong position atop Senlac, could do nothing to save his brave if foolish subjects who had disobeyed his order to hold the line.

1408366.jpgThough in the balance the morning had gone well for Harold and the English, it had not been without cost. In the tightly-packed shieldwall, the wounded could hardly withdraw to the rear for first-aid, and the dead could only fall in place. Both of the king’s own brothers, Gyrth and Leofwine, have been cut down fighting and commanding from the front ranks. (One theory regarding this portion of the battle has one (Leofwine?) or both of Harold’s brothers leading the charge of the right-wing down the hill after the fleeing Bretons. Perhaps it is here that either or both are cut down during William’s counter-attack, causing the English attack to falter and ultimately fail.)

As the noon hour came and passed, both armies took a break to rest and reorganize themselves. They had taken serious casualties, and both horse and man needed food and water before continuing the struggle.

William must have had some concern, for as early afternoon wore on the English shieldburg still stood firm (though somewhat thinner) atop Senlac. He had to dislodge them: come nightfall, if the English army remained in place he must return to his camp in defeat. Morale would plummet. Supplies would run low, as foraging far from the camp would be impossible with an English army intact on Senlac. No, defeat was not an option. By nightfall, he had to find a way to dislodge the Saxons from Senlac Hill!

By mid-afternoon the battle began anew. This time, Norman foot and horse advanced up the hill by individual conroi, small household groups of knights and their retainers fighting beneath the banners of a liege-lord. Such units gave the Normans great small unit flexibility, and allowed one group to rest while another assaulted the Saxon line.

1408402.jpg William’s brother, Bishop Odo, battles the shieldwall with cudgel in hand: A churchman, he was forbidden to spill blood, so could not use a sword. But the blunt trauma inflicted by club or mace created a “grey area” this warrior-prelate could exploit!

Noticing the effect the Breton’s panicked retreat had on the integrity of the shieldwall, William ordered his Conrois to, alternately, feign such flight as the Breton’s had displayed earlier. This tactic succeeded brilliantly all through that afternoon, as small groups of knights would suddenly wheel their horses about and gallop down the hill in mock panic. Groups of overexcited Englishmen would give chase, leaving the safety of the shieldwall and pursuing the fleeing Frenchmen down the slope. Before they reached their quarry, however, other bands of knights would wheel around their flanks, cutting off retreat. In moments the pursing English were savaged and hacked down from all sides by their mounted French enemies.

Many acts of bravery and boldness were recorded during that long afternoon’s skirmishing.


At one point a Norman knight, Robert fitz Ernie, cut his way clear through to Harold’s Fighting Man standard, only to be hewed to the ground by the axes of the Huscarls about the King. In another incident, a Saxon warrior ducked under the Duke’s lance-point, and dented William’s helmet with a mighty ax blow, before dodging back into the shelter of the shieldwall! The fighting was so fierce, in fact, that William is said to have had three horses killed beneath him in the course of the day.

Despite these minor tactical successes, by early evening, with the sun setting over the western forests, William’s situation was growing desperate. The English still held the hill. Though greatly thinned out, they showed no sign of breaking.

The Duke had time for one last throw of the dice.

Reorganizing his ranks, he brought up his archers in mass for the first time since the morning. Ordered this time to aim high, they rained arrows down upon the now not-so-tightly-packed and well-ordered shieldwall.


At this junction disaster struck the English: apparently looking up at the wrong moment, King Harold was struck in the eye by an arrow. Though not immediately mortal, the wound effectively took him out of the fight, as he writhed in pain in the rear of his host.

With a final flourish of trumpets, the Norman knights now charged a final time. Formed into a wedge, a band of knights, all of whom had swore an oath not to return alive if they failed to reach and slay Harold, galloped to the top of the ridge. There is some evidence that among their numbers (perhaps even leading them) was the same Count Guy who had take Harold prisoner on the beaches of Normandy in 1064.

Unable to hold the whole of the hilltop with their diminished number, the Saxon shieldwall had contracted around its center, leaving the ends of the hilltop undefended. Here the wedge of Norman knights gained a foothold for the first time that day. On flat ground now, they spurred into the fyrdmen and few remaining Huscarls gathered around the royal standards. Too exhausted to keep them out, the horseman used the weight of their steeds to push into the shieldwall, hacking and slashing their way to where Harold stood beneath his banner.

1408389The Bayeux Tapestry here shows a Norman knight reaching a figure thought to be the King, and with a downward cut the knight hews deep into the thigh of the armored warrior. The caption above this portion of the tapestry reads “Here King Harold was Killed”. It is therefore believed that the Normans pushed through and slew the wounded Harold beneath the Wessex Dragon and the Fighting Man.

With the sun setting upon their fallen king the English army now broke and fled back into the woods to their rear. In the gathering gloom, pursing Normans skirmished with fighting bands of fugitive Huscarls. But with the coming of darkness the battle of Senlac was over.

(In the gathering gloom some of the pursuing Normans got trapped in a wooded ravine behind Senlac Hill, a place whose location is uncertain but was called by the chroniclers the “Malfosse”. Here a force of retreating Englishman, perhaps reinforced by late-arriving contingents of the western fyrd, turned on their pursers and inflicted great slaughter. However, this small success was unable to change the decision of Senlac Hill.)

1408396.jpgThe heaps of English dead lay unburied for days after. King Harold’s body was so disfigured that it could only be identified by his long-time mistress, Edith Swan-Neck, brought to the field by William’s orders. She was able to identify her lover by “marks known only to her”. Harold was said to have been buried near the sea, from where he could watch-over England’s coast, which he had so zealously guarded, throughout eternity.

William went on to capture London, where he was crowned King of England. The Norman Conquest was achieved, and England would never be the same again.

Senlac Hill, or the Battle of Hastings as its more popularly known, was one of the most decisive battles of European history, and a turning point for England. Had the Saxons prevailed, England would have remained as it had been since Alfred the Great: a strong nation, but one outside the tides of European mainstream; more Scandinavian in outlook then continental.

By falling under Norman rule, England was pulled firmly into European affairs. Within a few generations of the Conquest, England was at the center of a vast western European empire that controlled more of the lands of France than did that land’s king: the Plantagenet Empire of Henry II. Though French became the language of the English aristocracy for the next three centuries, in time the Anglo-Norman lords came to think of themselves not as Frenchmen, but as Englishman.

Both the Normans and the conquered Saxons learned and benefited from each other. The Norman barons gained the Englishman’s love of liberty, personal freedom, inalienable rights, and the Scandinavian-derived concept of parliamentary governance. These in time would lead to Magna Carta and the fight for constitutional monarchy led by Simon de Montfort. Unlike their cousins who remained on the continent, the French who settled in England inherited from their English subjects a proud unwillingness to accept absolutism at face value, and to fight even their sovereign king, when necessary, to protect their rights.

The Saxon would gain the boldness and vitality of the Norman, and no longer be the insular, inward looking people they had been. The melding of the two former enemies forged an English race that would one day create both the British Empire, the greatest empire since Rome; and the United States of America, the greatest power the world has ever known.


  1. William of Poitiers
  2. Oman, Charles: Art of War in the Middle Ages, Chapter II

To read more about the redoubtable Norman knights, or the stalwart Anglo-Saxon Huscarls, see:

Norman Knight and Anglo-Saxon Huscarls: Dark Ages Warrior Elite

Some of the artwork in this article has been reproduced with the permission of Osprey Publishing, and is © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.

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Deadliest Blogger continues our series on famous warships or types of ships in history.

Beginning in 1570, English ship designers began building a sleeker, faster, more seaworthy type of galleon known as “race-built”. This name derived from their “raced” or razed (removed) fore-and aft-castles; relics of the Middle Ages when boarding was the primary tactic in naval warfare. While the galleons of their rivals, the Spanish and Portuguese, still had tall fore-and-aft-castles; these race-built galleons gave English captains tremendous advantage in maneuverability and handling.

Designed under the direction of Sir John Hawkins, these were a revolutionary design. Lower in the water, with greater length in relation to their beam (broadest right at the waterline, unlike earlier Galleons), it was more stable and “weatherly” (capable of sailing faster and closer to the wind) than any previous ship of the same size. It was armed with a larger and more homogenous compliment of guns than other contemporary Men-of-War; giving it superior firepower and a longer range capability than any ship it faced. (English naval gun carriages and recoil systems were superior to that of their contemporaries, as well.) This combination of speed with firepower would become a hallmark of English ships for centuries to come.

Perhaps the most famous of these race-built galleons was the Revenge. Built in 1577 by the renown Matthew Baker, it was the first of 13 Royal Navy ships to bear that name. It had a relatively short but illustrious history, and in its day was considered perhaps the most dangerous warship afloat.

Its most famous captain was Sir Francis Drake, the renown English “seahawk”. In 1587 the Revenge was Drake’s flagship when he led a small fleet of privateers in “singed the beard of the King of Spain”. Sailing boldly into the main Spanish port of Cadiz, the English engaged and bested six times their number in Spanish Galleons; presaging the Armada battles to come. Drake destroyed 37 naval and merchant ships here and at Corunna; delaying the Spanish invasion by a year.

The Revenge was Drake’s flagship during the Armada battles of 1588. Here Drake and the Revenge led the pursuit of the Spanish fleet. The Revenge’s superior speed, handling and gunnery allowed Drake to cut out and capture the Spanish galleon Rosario, along with Admiral Pedro de Valdés and all his crew. This Spanish ship carried a substantial treasury to pay the Duke of Parma’s Army in the Low Countries; and its loss was a double blow to the Spanish.


During these battles with the Armada leading to the Battle of Gravelines, the speed and superior handling of the Revenge and the other race-built English galleons thwarted the Spanish in their desire to close with and grapple the English ships; turning the fight into a boarding action that would favor their superior infantry and larger crews. Instead, the English kept their distance, and used their superior gunnery to good effect.

In 1590, Revenge was under the command of another notable English seaman of the period, Sir Martin Frobisher; coasting along the Spanish Main, seeking to intercept Spanish treasure fleets from the New World. The following year, under the command of Sir Richard Grenville (whose father died as captain on the ill-fated Mary Rose) the Revenge met its glorious end when surrounded by Spanish ships off the Azore Islands. Thought out-numbered 53 to 1, the more nimble Revenge outmaneuvered and out-fought the Spanish for fifteen hours; driving off repeated attempts to grapple and board her with withering and accurate gunnery. Finally, the Spanish Galleon San Cristóbal rammed and became entangled with the Revenge; bringing her dead in the water and allowing the Spanish to close and batter her with massed gunnery. After a night of fighting on at close quarters, morning found her masts shot away, six feet of water on the hold and only sixteen men left uninjured out of a crew of two hundred and fifty.

Her mortally wounded captain ordered the ship to be sunk rather than fall into Spanish hands: “Master Gunner: sink her, split her in twain! Fall into the hands of God, not into the hands of Spain!” His remaining officers refused, and instead surrendered the ship on guarantee of the crew’s safety.

The Revenge would never live to serve the Spanish. While under tow days later, it was wrecked in storm along with a large number of escorting Spanish ships.

The race-built design revolutionized naval warfare, ushering an age of naval gunnery and maneuver. It also heralded the beginning of English naval superiority. Over the next two centuries, the Royal Navy would surpass Spanish, Dutch, and French rivals; till Britannia would truly “rule the waves”. That dominance began with ships like the Revenge.




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Many such lists have been compiled, all perforce subjective to one degree or another. I chose “fighting generals”, who knew how to win the wars they fought. Here are Deadliest Blogger’s Top Ten Generals in American History:

10. Winfield Scott

 Scott Rose to fame as the man who defeated Mexico in a brilliant amphibious campaign far ahead of its time, followed by an audacious march on Mexico City. He also devised the “Anaconda Strategy” that helped to strangle the Confederacy and help the Union win the Civil War. A bold, clear-sighted and creative strategist, “Old Fuss and Feathers” too often gets overlooked when such lists as this are compiled. In his day, no less an expert than the Wellington called him the greatest living general.

 9. Dwight D. Eisenhower

Disparaged by the flamboyant MacArthur as “the best clerk I ever had”, Ike was the archetype of the modern “political general” in the age of coalition warfare. Never forgetting that his primary mission was to keep the various allies happily working in concert, he nevertheless orchestrated a massive campaign against the Axis in Europe and North Africa that brought total victory. No general in history has commanded a larger force on land, sea, and air. While he often had to allow his British allies to take the bit in the teeth– and to put-up with the vainglorious and barely competent Montgomery–he managed to win the war with minimal casualties and no major defeat (though several severe embarrassments). In all, he was the consummate professional soldier.

8. Douglas MacArthur

Even more theatrical than the famously dramatic Patton (Eisenhower, who served as his aid in the 1930s, once quipped, “I studied dramatics under MacArthur”), MacArthur was the epitome of the general-hero at a time when America needed one. He successfully led the southern theater of the Pacific Campaign, and presided over the surrender of Japan. In Korea in 1950, his audacious strategy of landing massive forces behind the North Koreans at Inchon was a masterpiece. He drove the North Koreans out of the South and back to the Chinese border. But for that country’s intervention against his forces, the war would have ended in 1950 with MacArthur acclaimed the greatest general of the 20th century. As was, he succeeded in extricating his Army intact, and after appointing Ridgeway to lead 8th Army stopped the Chinese advance, stabilizing the line. His disagreement with the Joint Chiefs and President Truman over how to deal with the Chinese situation led to his sacking.

7. Ulysses S. Grant

The model for the modern American general, Grant was fearless, aggressive, and determined. He understood better than any of his contemporaries (except Sherman, perhaps) the war he was fighting and waged it to a successful conclusion where less men had failed. Grant was a determined, dogged commander who never lost heart in the face of the enemy, despite hideous casualties. After taking a beating during the first day at Shiloh, he merely shrugged and said, “We’ll lick ’em tomorrow”— and he did. There was a move to relieve him after this most sanguine battle; but Lincoln overruled Grant’s detractors: “’I can’t spare this man; he fights.” Grant was the ultimate pugnacious combat commander, a pit bull who would never let him go once he had sunk his teeth into an enemy.

6. Robert E. Lee

Often placed at the top of lists like this, Lee’s legend benefited from dying soon after the war. He made grave tactical and strategic mistakes (particularly at Gettysburg), and was greatly aided by the help of such able sub-commanders as Jackson and Longstreet (who often gets little credit). Lee was also an inspiring commander, a bold strategist, and a tactical innovator who came very close to winning an unwinnable war. His dauntless energy and aggressiveness during the Seven Days Battle are particularly striking when compared to the performance of his adversary, the over-cautious McClellan. His two invasions of the North were well-conceived and had every chance of succeeding. The first was thwarted in part by lost orders falling into his enemy’s hands, resulting in McClellan being able to concentrate his forces against Lee’s at Antietam. At Gettysburg, a campaign which was initially even more successful, he may have been suffering from a mild heart attack (this would explain his lethargy and lack of imagination during the battle). Had anyone else been in command of the Confederate war effort in the last two years, the war would have ended much sooner than it did.

5. William T. Sherman

Hated in the South to this day for the devastation he brought them, Sherman stands out as the most clear-sighted strategist of the Civil War. He understood that to break the Confederacy’s indomitable will he had to make war too terrible to bear. His concept of “tough war” presaged the “total war” concept unleashed in the 20th century. Sherman achieved his famous “March to the Sea” by an advance that constantly threatened multiple objectives, keeping the Confederate defenders off balance. Only Jackson and Forrest marched armies faster, and no one marched one further than Sherman. Unlike Grant, he seldom threw his men away attacking heavily defended places or entrenched enemies; instead obtaining his objective by maneuver. He made war hell for his opponents, not his own soldiers.

4. George Washington

This list could not exist had Washington failed. He was a master of guerilla warfare, using maneuver and audacity both to preserve his inferior army and to defeat British forces where possible. His ultimate victory over the greatest power of the age presaged that of Nguyên Giáp, the North Vietnamese generalissimo who defied America in the Vietnam War. He was an inspiration to his troops, sharing their terrible privations and always placing himself at the point of maximum danger in battle. Tactically he was solid if not overly imaginative. But as a strategist, he ran circles around nearly every commander the British sent against him. His boldness was perfectly matched with prudence, a combination necessary for a general fighting with limited resources against an enemy with control of both the land and the sea. Despite the odds against him, he seldom lost a battle and always succeeded in extricating his army to fight another day. In the end, he understood how to win the war he was fighting, and in so doing birthed the United States of America.

3. Nathan Bedford Forrest

Perhaps the most feared general in American history, “that Devil Forrest” was the prophet of mobile warfare. His campaigns were (allegedly) studied by German proponents of the blitzkrieg and compare favorably to those employed by Rommel and Guderian. Though often considered a “cavalry leader” (he was probably the finest in American history), his task-forces were actually well-balanced mobile arms combat teams of cavalry, mounted infantry, and horse artillery. He also has the distinction of being the “fightingest” general in American history, personally killing with his own hands some 30 union soldiers (and losing 29 horses in the process!). Forrest was dubbed “The Wizard of the Saddle,” but he was in truth a wizard (and prophet) of modern warfare.

2. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson

His reputation for solidness on the battlefield earned him the name “Stonewall.” But this nickname belies the aggressiveness and rapidity of movement that became his hallmark on the battlefield. During the Valley Campaign, Jackson marched his infantry brigades so quickly and covered so much ground that they came to be known as Jackson’s “Foot Cavalry.” Brave, eccentric, religiously upright, and bold, Jackson was at his best when given independent command, perfectly complimenting his commander-in-chief, Lee, as a Corps commander. His crowning glory at Chancellorsville cost him his life when he was wounded coming back from an evening reconnaissance by his own sentries. It can be argued that the Battle of Gettysburg (and the Civil War) was lost the moment those shots echoed in the woods at Chancellorsville.

1. George S. Patton, Jr.

No general was more controversial—or effective—during WWII than old “Blood-and-Guts.” The only American commander admired and feared by the German high command, Patton was the ultimate progenitor of mobile combat. Like Forrest, he was a prophet of mobile warfare and advocated using every vehicle in his Third Army—artillery caissons to supply trucks to the backs of tanks—to transport his infantry so that they could keep up with the relentless pace he set for his armor. The ultimate warrior, he was the U.S. Army’s Master of the Sword and an Olympic competitor (1912, in the Military Pentathlon). As a young cavalry officer, he chased Pancho Villa into Mexico. (During this campaign, he got into an Old West style gunfight with two of Villa’s lieutenants, killing them both!) He created and led America’s only armored brigade during the First World War. Before the Second World War, he was the primary exponent of armored warfare and quickly became America’s foremost “tank man” during the war. In Sicily at the head of 7th Army and in Europe leading 3rd Army he consistently displayed a boldness and aggressiveness that are the hallmark of great commanders throughout history. He combined the fearlessness of Grant with the aggressiveness of Jackson, and created in Third Army a force as mobile as that of Forrest’s. Even more theatrical than MacArthur, he is the general against which nearly every American general since has measured himself and sought to emulate.

*Author’s note: In creating this list, and in placing each of these commanders in the order presented, the over-arching question posed was: who would I want commanding my army were I the President, appointing a commander-in-chief; and, perhaps more importantly, if all squared off against each other who would be most likely to come out on top. I chose “fighting generals”, who knew how to win the wars they fought.

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The Battle of Brunanburh in 937 is mostly forgotten today, but it is a battle that deserves to be remembered. For it was the largest and bloodiest battle fought in Anglo-Saxon England prior to Hastings (and likely surpassing that later battle in the numbers of combatants involved). It left its victor, King Athelstan of Wessex the first Anglo-Saxon ruler to be called “King of England”.

Athelstan was the son and heir of Edward the Elder, and grandson of Alfred the Great. Upon his father’s death in 924, Athelstan was acclaimed first King of Mercia (central England), and then on the following year King of Wessex (the dominant Anglo-Saxon kingdom, encompassing all the area south of the Thames). In 927, continuing the ambitious anti-Danish policies of his father and grandfather, Athelstan conquered York, which had been in Danish hands for 60 years; since captured by Ivar the Boneless and the “Great Heathen Army” in 867.

After this  Constantine II of Alba (Scotland) and Owen I, ruler of British Strathclyde (Cumberland), submitted to Athelstan’s over-lordship. This effectively placed all of “England”  under Saxon rule for the first time in history. (Prior to the Danish invasion of 866, England had been composed of four rival kingdoms: Northumbria, Mercia, East Anglia, and Wessex. The first three of these were Anglish; with Wessex the only Saxon kingdom.)

After seven years of peace Athelstan invaded Scottish territory. It has been suggested this was on account of Constantine’s attempt to renounce his submission to Athelstan’s over-lordship. A coalition was formed to oppose Wessex/English domination, which included the Hiberno-Scandinavian[1]  ruler of Dublin, Olaf Guthfrithsson (called Anlaf in the Old-English poem “The Battle of Brunanburh“, possibly a great-grandson of Ivar the Boneless); as well as Owen of Strathclyde, and several “petty kings” and jarls joining Constantine of Alba in opposition to Athelstan.

1393024.jpgOlaf crossed the Irish Sea with a Hiberno-Scandinavian army and marched through Cumberland, joined along the way by a force of Strathclyde British. In Northumberland they united their forces with that of Constantine’s Scots, along with various Danish jarls of northern England eagerly taking the opportunity to rise against their new Saxon overlord. This allied army met in battle the Northumbrian Fyrd (freeman-levy), commanded by Athelstan’s ealdorman, Gudrek and Alfgeir. The English were routed, with Gudrek slain. Alfgeir fled south to Athelstan, leaving Olaf and the allies in possession of Northumbria.

Athelstan realized the enormity of the danger he faced, which threatened to undo all he had thus far achieved. He acted quickly, raising an equally large army from his lands in the south and hired Scandinavian mercenaries to strengthen his forces.

Athelstan’s army was comprised of the united fyrds of Wessex, East Anglia, and Mercia. These farmers and townsmen came armed with spear or axe and shield. They had little armor, but two generations of wars against the Danes had infused the English with a wealth of battle experience, and many were older veterans of earlier campaigns. Strengthening the fyrdmen were the professional warriors of Athelstan’s hearth-weru (“Hearth-troops”, or household guards) and the armed retainers of the leading ealdormen of the shires. Since the days of Alfred, such Saxon armies had stood toe-to-toe and bested one Viking army-after-another; and would have come to Brunanburh filled with confidence.

The numbers involved at Brunanburh are unknown, only that the armies were approximately the same size. Considering that this battle involved major forces from throughout the British Isles, with levies on either side drawn from as far afield as Ireland and Scotland, and all of England from the Cheviots to the Channel (and even a strong force of Viking mercenaries, primarily from Norway and Iceland) a figure of 15,000 per side seems reasonable.

The only complete account of this campaign and the climatic battle is found in the Icelandic Egils Saga. According to this source, a force of 300 veteran Norse/Icelander Vikings joined Athelstan’s guardsmen. These were led by two recently arrived Icelander brothers, the sons of Skallagrim (also referred to in the Saga as Skalla-Grímr, or “bald Grim”): Thorolf and Egil. It has been suggested that Athelstan hired several thousand such mercenaries, putting them all under the command of the experienced Skallagrimsson brothers.

1393079.jpgThe opposing forces met at a place called Brunanburh; or, according to Egils Saga, on a moor called Vin-heath. The location of the battle is not known for certain. But there are three leading contenders.

The first, popular today, is Bromborough in western England district known as the Wirral, southwest of modern Liverpool. Apparently the name of Bromborough may be derived from Old English Brunanburh (meaning ‘Brun’s fort’). There are also locations nearby that some have attempted to identify with the Dingesmere, a place mentioned in both the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and the Old English poem, The Battle of Brunanburh, in connection with the battle. But this location in the Wirral seems too far southwest for a Scot and Strathclyde army to be operating, so far from their respective home bases (particularly as there were no good north-south roads connecting this area through Cumberland to Strathclyde and Scotland in the north). It also seems too far in the west to be the location for the decisive battle of a war fought over the control of Northumbria and Yorkshire, on the other (eastern) side of the Pennines.

1609955.jpgThe second contender is Burnley, a market town in Lancashire; where local folklore tells of a great battle on the moors. Local tradition holds that five kings were buried under tumuli on these same moors. Perhaps after the defeat of the Northumbrian ealdormen Olaf and the allies regrouped nearer their power centers in the north. But this makes little strategic sense. Having driven Athelstan’s forces out of Northumbria, why would the coalition army then pull out, marching back north? For the same reason, I dismiss another contender, Burnswark, situated near Lockerbie in Scotland.

A final, strong, choice for the battle site is in Lincolnshire, east of the Pennines, along the Great North Road between Derby and Rotherham. Historian Michael Wood suggests Tinsley Wood near Brinsworth as a plausible location. Wood notes that there is a hill nearby, White Hill, observing that the surrounding landscape fits the description of the battlefield contained in Egil’s Saga. Geographically this location makes the most sense. It is in the southern part of Northumbria, where one would expect the allies (who had recently overrun Northumbria) to contest with the English for control of that region.

Wherever the battle may have been fought, it seems that the opposing armies agreed to meet at Brunanburh, the winner to take all “England”. Egils Saga portrays this arrangement of a fixed battle as the result of a ruse posed by Athelstan’s Norse captain, Egil Skallagrimsson, to stop the allies from looting English territory while the King gathered his forces.

A challenge was issued to meet on a field “enhazelled”.

This was a version (writ large) of the Scandinavian dueling custom called a holmgang; in which combatants met to fight on an appointed field, the boundaries of which were marked out with hazel rods or branches. There is no other example I know of where this custom was expanded to encompass a battle between armies.

According to Egils Saga, a messenger was sent to Olaf challenging him to bring his army to meet Athelstan in battle:

(they sent) messengers to King Olaf, giving out this as their errand, that king Athelstan would fain enhazel him a field and offer battle on Vin-heath by Vin-wood; meanwhile he would have them forbear to harry his land; but of the twain he should rule England who should conquer in the battle. He appointed a week hence for the conflict, and whichever first came on the ground should wait a week for the other. Now this was then the custom, that so soon as a king had enhazelled a field, it was a shameful act to harry before the battle was ended. Accordingly king Olaf halted and harried not, but waited till the appointed day, when he moved his army to Vin-heath.

King Olaf, commanding the allies, accepted the challenge. Accordingly, he halted his army at Brunanburh (which Egils Saga say was at Vin-heath by Vin-woods) and ceased ravaging the countryside about,  waiting for Athelstan to arrive by the appointed day.

To the north of the heath, there was a village where Olaf made his headquarters. He sent a force of Scots and Strathclyde British commanded by two brothers, jarls Hring and Athils, up to the heath to camp on the prospective battleground and stake out the allied position. They found the hazel rods already in place along the edges of the field; and an English force camped in place to the south, commanded by the Skallagrimsson brothers.

As the appointed day for the battle approached King Athelstan was still gathering his forces and needed more time. He had sent Egil and his brother Thorolf, commanding the English vanguard composed of their own 300 Norse Vikings along with the remnants of the Northumbrian forces defeated earlier, under ealdorman Alfgeir, to Brunanburh. This was the force Hring and Athils found camped on the south end of the heath.

To make their numbers appear larger, the English disguised their small numbers by pitching more tents than they had need of, and arranged for a large portion of their men to occupy themselves outside the camp in view of the enemy as though the camp were over-flowing. When these were approached by Olaf’s men (there being a truce in place till the battle day), Athelstan’s men claimed that these tents were all full, so full that their people had to sleep out on the open heath!

When the appointed day of battle came Olaf marshaled his army and prepared to march onto the heath. Athelstan had yet to appear. Thorolf and Egil found yet another clever way of delaying the enemy and of buying the English more time: they sent an envoy to Olaf, feigning a message from King Athelstan; offering to avoid battle and pay “Danegeld” to Olaf and his allies.

Instead of attacking that day, Olaf called a conference of his allies to discuss the offer. Athelstan’s (supposed) offer was rejected as insufficient, and the allies countered with a demand for more. The English envoys begged for time to bring this offer to King Athelstan, who they claimed was a day’s journey to the south with a “mighty host”, and for their king to consider and respond. Olaf agreed to a further three days truce.

1393078.jpgAt the end of this period, the Skallagrimsson’s sent another envoy across the heath to Olaf’s camp, again claiming to be from King Athelstan. They offered the original amount; plus an additional “shilling to every freeborn man, a silver mark to every officer of a company of twelve men or more, a gold mark to every captain of a king’s guard, and five gold marks to every jarl[2]. Again Olaf took this offer to a council of his allies, who after deliberation agreed that if Athelstan would also cede to Olaf the overlordship of Northumbria, the allies would withdraw to their homes. Another three days were granted for Olaf’s emissaries to accompany the English envoys back to Athelstan and await his answer.

Thus the clever Skallagrimsson brothers, wily Viking freebooters, stretched out negotiations and gained the English monarch an additional week to marshal his forces. Athelstan arrived with his army south of the heath at the end of the period of truce. They took Olaf’s offer to the King, explaining their ruse and their offers on his behalf as well.

Athelstan took no time in rejecting Olaf’s terms, instead demanding that the coalition withdraw from Northumbria and return to their own lands, after returning the booty they had thus far taken on the campaign. Adding insult to injury, Athelstan further demanded that the cost of peace would be that Olaf (and perhaps the other coalition rulers) become his vassals, ruling their lands as “under-kings”.

“Go now back”, he told Olaf’s emissaries, “and tell him this.”

According to Egils Saga:

At once that same evening the messengers turned back on their way, and came to king Olaf about midnight; they then waked the king, and told him straightway the words of king Athelstan. The king instantly summoned his earls and other captains; he then caused the messengers to come and declare the issue of their errand and the words of Athelstan. But when this was made known before the soldiers, all with one mouth said that this was now before them, to prepare for battle.

Realizing he had been hoodwinked all along and now enraged, Olaf sent his jarls, Hring and Athils, back to their troops encamped on the heath with orders to attack the English advance guard under the wily Skallagrim brothers at first light. He promised to marshal the army and move to support them as soon as his forces were ready.

1393081.jpgThe battlefield at Brunanburh was set on a broad heath, or moor. It was bounded on the north and south by villages, which were the headquarters for each army. Which of these, if either, was called Brunanburh is unknown. The heath itself was level ground, bounded by a river on the west and the Vin-Wood to the east.

At first light, Hring and Athils led their men against the English vanguard of Norse and Northumbrians under the Skallagrimssons and Ealdorman Alfgeir, respectively. Egils Saga tells the tale thus:

As day dawned, Thorolf’s sentries saw the (enemy) army approaching. Then was a war-blast blown, and men donned their arms…they began to draw up the force, and they had two divisions. Earl Alfgeir commanded one division, and the standard was borne before him. In that division were his own followers, and also what force had been gathered from the countryside. It was a much larger force than that which followed Thorolf and Egil…. All their (the Skallagrimssons) men had Norwegian shields and Norwegian armor in every point; and in their division were all the Norsemen who were present.

The larger force of Northumbrians under Alfgeir took up a position on the left, their flank resting on the river. The Norsemen were on the higher ground beside the woods; and though the Saga is unclear on this, it seems likely that their was a gap between their two forces. The jarls Athils and Hring also drew up their force of Scots and Strathclyde Britons in two divisions, with Athils opposed to ealdorman Alfgeir on the lower ground, by the river, with Hring arrayed against the Norse Vikings on the high ground by the forest.

The opening act of the Battle of Brunanburh now began.

Both sides charged forward with spirit. Jarl Athils pressed the Northumbrians hard, forcing Alfgeir and his men to give ground. Before long the Northumbrians broke and Alfgeir fled, abandoning the Norse Vikings fighting beside them.

1393150.jpg(This was the second time Alfgeir had abandoned a field in defeat. So sure he was of censure and punishment by Athelstan that he and his surviving followers avoided the king’s army and fled in disgrace south, into Wessex. From here, Alfgeir took ship to Frankia, where he had kin, never to return to England again.)

On the high-ground on the English right flank the Norse were holding their own against jarl Hring’s Strathclyde Britons. After pursuing Alfgeir’s Northumbrians for a distance, jarl Athils returned with his men to the field, coming up behind the Norse. Thorolf Skallagrimsson detached his brother Egil with half their troops and the standard, to turn about and fall upon Athils. Meanwhile he, Thorolf, pulled his remaining men back to the wood’s edge, forming a half circle with their wings resting on the woodline, where his men stood firm with their backs so protected.

Meanwhile Egil’s force charged against Adils’, and “they had a hard fight of it”, says the saga. “The odds of numbers were great (against them), yet more of Adils’ men fell than of Egil’s”. Still, the situation looked dire for the Athelstan’s Norse vanguard.

Egils Saga says that at this point Thorolf “became furious”. What is meant by this is unclear, but judging by what followed it seems to mean that Thorolf was overcome by what the Scandinavian sagas call “Berserkergang”: a furious battle-madness that lent the “berserk” a terrible strength and rendered him insensate to pain or fatigue. According to the sagas, berserks were “strong as bears or wild oxen, and killed people at a blow, but neither fire nor iron told upon them”. Its seems that Thorolf Skallagrimsson went “berserker”.

Throwing his shield onto his back, his “halberd” grasped with both hands, he raged forward against Hring’s troops, dealing cut and thrust on either side.

Thorolf’s weapon, as described in Egils Saga, is something of a mystery; matching no weapon described elsewhere in the sagas or in any account of Viking warfare: “(its) blade was two ells long (25”), ending in a four-edged spike; the blade was broad above, the socket both long and thick. The shaft stood just high enough for the hand to grasp the socket, and was remarkably thick. The socket fitted with iron prong on the shaft, which was also wound round with iron. Such weapons were called mail-piercers”. This could be simply describing a 5’-6’ great axe with a long spike at the end; but much of the description is open to interpretation.

Men sprang away from him both ways, but he slew many. Thus he cleared the way forward to earl Hring’s standard, and then nothing could stop him. He slew the man who bore the earl’s standard, and cut down the standard-pole. After that he lunged with his halberd at the earl’s breast, driving it right through mail-coat and body, so that it came out at the shoulders; and he lifted him up on the halberd over his head, and planted the butt-end in the ground. There on the weapon the earl breathed out his life in sight of all, both friends and foes. Then Thorolf drew his sword and dealt blows on either side, his men also charging. Many Britons and Scots fell, but some turned and fled.

1609956.jpgWith his brother Hring dead and his forces routed, the tide now turned against Athils. With his men falling around him or beginning to run away, he fled with those still fighting into the woods, where they were pursued for a short time by the Norse, who killed many before the rest escaped deep into the forest.

Now both of the main armies came up onto the heath. But the day being late, they camped on the site where their mutual vanguards had been for the last week. Thorolf and Egil returned to camp, where Athelstan praised the Skallagrimsson’s for their victory in this first round of the conflict. They stayed the night together, pledging friendship.

King Olaf was apprised of the events on the heath that day, and that his jarls Hring and Athils were defeated, their men dead or scattered, and the former dead on the field. He must have spent the night with some trepidation, but prepared for battle the next day.

At dawn both armies deployed, their forces arrayed as on the first day in two wings.

Athelstan placed the bulk of his army around himself and his banner in the low ground beside the river, where rested his left flank; in the same place Alfgeir had occupied the day before.  The saga says he placed the “smartest” companies in the van. This likely means that the better armed and armored household troops of the various ealdormen were in the front ranks; and the less experienced and poorly equipped fyrdmen behind them. There is no mention of where his own elite “Hearthmen” were stationed, but the Saga claims he asked Egil Skallagrimsson to command this mainbody, and the author of the Saga likely means that Egil was commanding the king’s Hearthmen. It is probable they formed the center of this division of the army, around the royal banner bearing the dragon of Wessex.

Athelstan placed the Norsemen, supported by other unspecified troops, again on the higher ground on the right, by the woods. These were commanded by Thorolf Skallagrimsson. They were to face the Scots, who fought as spearmen supported by a swarm of javelin-armed light skirmishers. Athelstan appreciated that the light-armed Scots were only dangerous to a foe that allowed his formation to break-up; and the king told Thorolf that he trusted the veteran Norse Vikings to maintain their tightly ordered shield wall.

When the king commanded these dispositions, Egil objected to being separated from his brother. But Thorolf quieted him, saying it should be as the king ordered. Filled with foreboding, Egil said, “Brother, you will have your way; but this separation I shall often rue.”

Olaf’s dispositions matched those of the English, with his own standard opposite that of Athelstan’s, his right flank on the river. His Hiberno-Scandinavian warriors, as well as the household troops of the various Northumbrian Danish Jarls would face Athelstan’s Saxon and English troops. As mentioned, Olaf’s Scottish allies faced Thorolf’s Vikings on the higher ground beside the Vin-wood.

Both armies (with the exception of the Scots) fought in much the same way: a dense line, many ranks deep, fighting close together with shields overlapping. This formation was called the “shieldburg”, or “shieldwall”. Warriors would strike at each other from over (or under) the rim of their shields, with spear, sword, and long-axe. Men in the second rank would support the first, holding their shields over their comrade’s heads; or, if armed with the long-hafted Danish battle-ax, strike from above at unprotected heads. Such a battle between two evenly matched and well-ordered shieldwalls was a bloody slug-fest; as men battled over or stepped upon a carpet of their own or enemy dead. One way of breaking such a formation quickly was the “swine-array”, a wedge-shaped formation meant to penetrate and shatter a shieldwall.

Drawing up armies of this size was an affair of hours, and it is unlikely the battle commenced before noon. The opposing armies closed with each other, hurling throwing axes and spears at their foes as they did. Then the walls of brightly-painted shields clashed together, and as the Saga says “the battle waxed fierce”.

On the right, Thorolf pressed eagerly forward along the edge of the woods, attempting to rapidly bend back and turn the flank of the Scots. Holding their linden wood shields before them, they brushed aside the barrage of light javelins the Scots hurled as they came on. Apparently, in his eagerness to get around the enemy’s flank, Thorolf ran far ahead of his followers. This was to prove his undoing.

At just this moment, out from the woods to Thorolf’s right, suddenly leapt jarl Athils and his surviving followers. It is not stated if they merely returned from deep in the wood, where they had taken refuge the day before, at an opportune time for the allies; or if this was an ambuscade planned in advance. But their sudden appearance caught Thorolf and his Norsemen by complete surprise.

1393120Out ahead of his men, Thorolf found himself momentarily isolated, swarmed about and struck at from all sides. He was slain, and his men drew back. “The Scots shouted a shout of victory, as having slain the enemy’s chieftain.” With Athils’ followers they fell upon the leaderless Norse, and the struggle here grew desperate for Athelstan’s Vikings.

From his position by the King’s banner Egil Skallagrimsson saw his brother’s banner pushed backward; and hearing the Scots triumphant shouting surmised his brother’s plight. He left his place and rushed to the right-wing, where he took command of his flagging Norse comrades.

With Egil in the van ferociously laying about him, the Norse (likely now formed in “swine-array”) hacked their way to Athils’ standard. The Saga says “few blows did they exchange” before Egil cut the northern jarl down, avenging his brother. Their leader slain, Athils’ men now broke and ran, the Norse close on their heals hacking at their backs. Nor did the Scots long stand, but seeing their Strathclyde allies flee likewise took to their heals.

To the west, the battle raged on the lower ground by the river, both shieldwalls locked in fierce struggle. Neither had the advantage, and many fell on both sides. Then, returning from pursuing the Scots, Egil and the Norse fell upon the rear of King Olaf’s division. The carnage was terrible, as Olaf’s warriors were struck down from behind. Seeing his enemy beginning to crumble, Athelstan ordered his standard forward, and the English line advanced with renewed fury.

1393083.jpgThe Hiberno-Scandinavian line disintegrated, and the Saga claims there was “great slaughter”. The casualty figures for either combatants are unknown, but many thousands died on both sides, and the coalition army was utterly routed. Here the Saga’s account of the battle ends, stating:

King Olaf fell there, and the greater part of the force which he had had, for of those who turned to fly all who were overtaken were slain. Thus king Athelstan gained a signal victory.

But on the fate of Olaf Guthfrithsson Egils Saga is mistaken: Olaf escaped with at least a portion of his men, returning in defeat to Dublin.

However, the Saga is correct that Athelstan’s victory was indeed decisive. He had destroyed the coalition against him, and reasserted English control over Northumbria. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records the deaths of five kings and seven jarls among his enemies. Among the slain was the Scottish king’s own son, cut down by Egil’s vengeful Norse. The Annals of Ulster agree:

Many thousands of Norsemen beyond number died although King Anlaf (Olaf) escaped with a few men. While a great number of the Saxons also fell on the other side, Æthelstan, king of the Saxons, was enriched by the great victory.



Athelstan had completed the work begun by his grandfather, Alfred: he had united all the former Anglo-Saxon kingdoms under the Dragon of Wessex; forced the Strathclyde British and the Scots into vassalage; and in the process turned back yet another attempt by Scandinavian forces to assert control of Northumbria.

After Athelstan’s death two years later, Olaf would return in 939 and force Athelstan’s successor, his brother Edmund, to cede Northumbria and part of Mercia. Thereafter, Hiberno-Scandinavian kings ruled Northumbria from York for decades (with the exiled Norwegian King, Eric Bloodaxe seizing and holding Northumbria twice during this period). Control of Northumbria would pass back-and-forth between English and Scandinavian rulers till after 1066, when England’s new Norman masters would finally bring the region under their control.

But in the years following his crowning victory at bloody Brunanburh Athelstan son of Edward had earned the right to style himself “Æthelstan, King over all Britain and Scotland” (totius rex Brittanniae et Albionis): the first “King of England”.

Tomb of Athelstan at Malmesbury 



1. Many authors refer to Olaf’s forces as Hiberno-Norse; or simple Norsemen. But as many, including Olaf himself, were of Danish extraction it is inaccurate to call them such. To avoid confusion with the Norsemen who followed Thorolf and Egil Skallagrimsson and fought with Athelstan, I refer to Olaf’s warriors as Hiberno-Scandinavian.

2. Egils Saga, Ch 52



David Pilling is an excellent historical author, whose books I enjoy immensely. His series on the Arthurian Age in Britain is quite good, and I share most of his historical conclusions. Here is the first in that series:

Leader of Battles (I): Ambrosius (Historical Action Adventure)

Continue reading

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Just six weeks after the brazen shields and deadly spears of Leonidas’ 300  Spartans failed to stop Xerxes at the pass of Thermopylae, Greece found salvation behind the “wooden walls” of the Athenian navy!

IN 480 BC there occurred one of those turning points where the trajectory of history and the future of Western Civilization hung in the balance. That event was the Persian invasion of Greece.

The roots of this conflict went back twenty years.

Cyrus the Great, founder of the Persian Empire, had incorporated the Greek cities along the Aegean coast of modern Turkey, then called Ionia, into his dominions. But in 500-499 B.C., the Ionian Greeks rebelled against Persian rule. The rebels were aided by the Ionian “Mother City”, Athens, and by the small city of Eretria, on the island of Euboea. The revolt was short lived, but Persian memory was long.

1394030.jpgIn 490 B.C., Darius I (called “the Great”) dispatched an expeditionary force to punish Athens and Eretria. The size of the force has at times been exaggerated, but the ground force (fleet aside) was likely around 50,000 men, transported across the Aegean by a substantial fleet of warships.

The Persians quickly overcame and destroyed Eretria. Their army then embarked again and landed on the Greek mainland, at the beach of Marathon, only 25 miles from Athens. After appealing in vain for Spartan aid, the Athenians (plus a minor contingent from the nearby town of Plataea) engaged the Persians at Marathon.

The Battle of Marathon showed the world for the first time the inherent superiority at close-quarter fighting of Greek hoplites over the lighter armed archers of Asia. The Persian army, despite its numerical advantage, was routed and thrown (literally!) back into the sea.

1394033.jpgTen years later, Darius’ son and successor, Xerxes, launched a second invasion. This one was  far larger in size and scope than his father’s. Darius had sent a punitive expedition. Xerxes led an invasion, the purposes of which was to bring the free city-states of Greece into “the fold” of the Persian Empire.

Building a pontoon bridge of boats across the Hellespont (the modern Dardanelles), the vast Persian host marched into Greece; the Persian fleet maintaining their supply line from Asia. So great were their numbers that as they advanced the Persian horde drank “rivers dry”. All the peoples of Thrace and northern Greece submitted to Xerxes, rather than attempt to fight.

The Persian army reached Thermopylae in August. The battle at the “Hot Gates” against the Greek blocking force took three days. While it was raging, the Persian fleet engaged the Athenian and allied Greek naval squadrons at Cape Artemisium. This was the first time the Greeks were able to test their naval tactics against Xerxes’ Phoenician, Ionian, and Egyptian squadrons. On the whole, the Greeks held their own. While not as maneuverable as their “saltier” Phoenician opponents, the Greek ships were sturdy, fast and the Greek hoplite-marines more than a match for their counterparts on the Persian decks.


When news reached the fleet from Thermopylae that the pass must soon fall, the Greek fleet at Artemisium broke off the engagement and retreated south into the Saronic Gulf.  Meanwhile, after breaking through at Thermopylae, Xerexes’ horde passed through Boeotia on its way to Athens. Thebes, leader of the Boeotians, surrendered and “Medized“, becoming subjects of the Great King. The Persian fleet (600+ triremes strong) made its way down the Euboean Channel, carrying vital food supplies for the Great King’s vast army. As they passed Marathon on their way south some at least of the Phoenician mariners who had been part of that earlier expedition must have experience mixed feelings of vindication and trepidation.

In Athens, the people (demes) debated in the Areopagus, the Athenian democratic Assembly, whether to submit to Xerxes, defend the city, or flee. Themistocles, under whose farsighted leadership the city had built its strong fleet of 180 triremes[1], urged the population’s evacuation to Salamis Island off the Attica coast; and to trust to their fleet to turn-back the Persian invasion.

Themisticles had reason to trust the defense of Greece to the Athenian and allied Greek navies. On the eve of the Persian invasion, the Athenians had in desperation sent an embassy to Delphi. There the  Delphic Oracle had promised that Athens’ salvation lay in her “wooden walls”. Some citizens argued that the Acropolis, Athens’ ancient citadel and center of religious and civic life, be fortified with a wooden palisade, behind which the Athenians could make their stand. However, Themistocles insisted that the “wooden walls” the Pythia referred to were the wooden hulls of the city’s fleet of new triremes. In the end, the population was indeed evacuated to Salamis island, with the Greek fleet basing itself there as well. A small number of skeptics chose to hold the Acropolis, behind their wooden palisade.

NGS Picture ID:559413Xerxes’ forces crossed Mount Cithaeron into Attica, and soon arrived at Athens. The Acropolis was stormed with overwhelming force after a few-day’s struggle, and all its defenders slain. When the Persian armada rounded Cape Sounion, they beached at Phaleron, south of the city. There, on the Attic plain outside Athens, the Great King massed his forces and prepared for his next move.

In the Greek allied camp there was division. The Peloponnesians (particularly the Corinthians and Spartans) were for retreating to the Isthmus of Corinth, a narrow choke point they could hold against the Persian masses and prevent them marching directly into the Peloponnese. But Themistocles warned that with control of the sea, the Persians could simply land forces anywhere along the Peloponnesian coast, ignoring the defenders of the Isthmus. He urged a naval battle, instead; meeting the larger and more experienced Persian naval forces in the narrow Salamis Straits. He further threatened that if the Peloponnesians retreated to the Isthmus, abandoning Athens and the rest of Greece to the north, that he and the Athenians would abandon Greece entirely. That they would take ship and sail west to Sicily and found a new city. As the Athenian fleet was by far the largest contingent in the allied forces this threat decided the Peloponnesians to stand and fight at Salamis.[2]


To lure the Persians into the narrow straits, where their numbers could not be brought to bear, the wily Themistocles sent word to Xerxes. Pretending to be ready to betray the Greek cause in return for the restoration of Athens, he warned Xerxes that the Greeks were preparing to flee. But that if he struck now, moving against the Greeks while they were retreating out of the Salamis Strait, he would catch the Peloponnesian contingents retiring south and destroy them piecemeal.

There was mixed council in the Persian camp as well. Many of Xerxes commanders were for immediate attack into Salamis Strait. Others argued for marching overland against the Isthmus. Only the Queen of Halicarnassus, Artemesia (who was not only a brave leader, commanding her own naval squadron, but was also mistress of the Great King and one of his canniest advisers) argued for caution. Artemesia explained that the Greeks lacked supplies on Salamis, and if the Great King only waited would be forced to withdraw south. In the open waters further south, nearer the Isthmus, the larger and more experienced Phoenician mariners would have an advantage in a battle of maneuver. Finally, she counseled, it was unnatural for the Greeks to work together. That if Xerxes would only be patient, the alliance would fall apart and the cities would be left to their own individual devices. Some would make peace, and those who refused could be picked-off one-by-one.

Xerxes decided to compromise: while sending 30,000 troops toward Megara and Isthmus, he also took Themistocles’ bait. The Persian armada rowed out from Phaeleron and into the Salamis Straits.

1394378.jpgThe numbers of ships involved have been estimated as 600-900 Persian triremes verses 220-390 Greek triremes. Herodotus states that at the start of the war Xerxes fleet numbered some 1,200 ships. 600 of these were sunk in storms off the Thessalian and Euboean coast. That left 600 ships; and some 50 of these were lost during the naval skirmishes around Cape Artemesium at the same time as the Battle of Thermopylae. Herodotus says that Xerxes was reinforced by 120 ships from Thrace and the Islands. This would seem to put the Persian fleet at approximately 670 ships. The Greek fleet was certainly outnumbered by as many as 2-1 and if the lowest number for the Greek fleet is accepted (given by Hyperides), then the Greeks were outnumbered by 3-1 (See note 1 at bottom.)

The trireme was the Ship-of-the-Line of its day. Fast, agile and deadly it was propelled by three banks of oars rowed by 170 oarsmen. Contrary to popular myth these were not slaves, but freeborn citizens (or subjects, in the case of the rowers on the Persian vessels). The trireme’s main weapon was its bronze-sheathed ram at its bow. In battle the ship’s crew and captain attempted to maneuver the trireme into position to ram an enemy ship. Various tactical maneuvers were practiced to achieve this. In succeeding generations the Athenian crews became the elite of the ancient world; experts at out-maneuvering an opponent and getting into position to ram and sink them. If the trireme found itself entangled with another, or its ram stuck in the side of its prey, it carried a compliment of 15 marines to either board or repel boarders. In the Greek fleet these were citizen hoplites. On Persian vessels they could be Persian, Phoenician, Ionian Greeks, or Egyptian soldiers.

1394080 The Olympia, a modern Greek reconstruction of an ancient Athenian trireme. In testing, Olympias achieved a speed of 9 knots (17 km/h) and was able to execute 180 degree turns within one minute, in an arc no wider than two and a half (2.5) ship-lengths. These results, achieved with an inexperienced crew, suggest that the ancient writers were not exaggerating about the nimbleness and agility of such vessels. With an experienced crew of hardened, professional rowers these numbers would no doubt be even more impressive.

Ethnically, the Persian naval contingents were supplied by the Persian subject peoples of Phoenicia, Egypt, Caria, and the Greek cities of Ionia. The Greek squadron from the city of Halicarnassus in Caria was commanded by Queen Artemesia herself. The cream of Xerxes fleet was the contingent provided by the Phoenician cities, master-mariners of the Levant.

As the Persian armada came on in column, entering the Straits, they were led by the proud Phoenicians, followed by the Ionian Greeks and then the other subject peoples of the eastern Mediterranean. Eager to trap the Greeks fleet they erroneously believed were attempting to withdraw Xerxes’ admirals sent the Egyptian squadron around the Island to block the opposite exit, near Megara. To help rescue ship-wrecked crews or capture floating enemy survivors, a Persian garrison was landed on the tiny Island of Psyttaleia, at the entrance to the channel.

As the Phoenicians rowed majestically down the channel, to their right lay the cliffs of the Attic coast. Two-hundred feet above, on a golden throne, the Great King sat surrounded by his courtiers, observing the action below. Every man in his fleet was aware that their master’s eye was upon them; and that his scribes would note both achievements to be rewarded and failure to be punished. (In fact, after the battle, certain captains who distinguished themselves were given land grants or high positions in the governance of the empire, while others lost their lives for perceived failure or cowardice.) To the left of the Persian fleet lay the shores of Salamis Island. Of the Greek fleet they could see nothing expect sails in the distance, withdrawing as expected toward the Bay of Eleusis.

These departing ships were in fact the Corinthian squadron of the Allied fleet. They were the bait to “sell” the notion that the Greeks were fleeing, drawing the Phoenician vanguard well-and-fully into the trap. What no Persian captain could see was that the bulk of the Greek fleet was waiting in hidden coves and behind promontories along the Salamis shore.

Then, at a signal or predesignated moment the Corinthians furled their sails and dropped their masts (no galley in the ancient world went into battle with their sails hoisted), and turned about. Now, rams towards the enemy, they fell upon the head of the Phoenician column. Simultaneously, from Salamis on their left flank, the Phoenicians were suddenly assailed by the Athenians. The sleek Greek triremes darted forward, their crews raising the paean (battle hymn). The vanguard of the Persian fleet found itself unexpectedly enveloped and assailed from the flank; and in the narrow waters in such close-order even such experienced mariners as the Phoenicians could not maneuver or avoid fouling each other. This sudden melee at the head of the Persian column brought the whole to a halt, and more of the Persian ships coming up behind crowded and fouled each other.

Now, from all along their left flank, the Persian fleet was surprised by flank attacks by the darting Greek triremes, rowing rapidly from coves along the Salamis coast. In the resulting melee, many Persian ships were rammed and holed, or capsized and sunk. None of the Persian squadrons were able to maneuver or work together, while the Greek triremes acted in concert, dashing in-and-out, holing their enemy and just as quickly back-rowing and withdrawing to allow their prey do sink or capsize.

As the battle raged below, Xerxes watched from his throne on the cliffs above. Instead of observing his triumphant fleet finish off the fleeing Greeks, he watched in horror as one Persian ship after another was rammed and sunk.

Herodotus suggests that the Greek triremes were “heavier” built than those of the Phoenicians (who he states were superior seaman than the Greeks). This may have given them an advantage in the ramming battle in the Straits. In boarding actions, the Greek hoplites proved the better fighters, capturing those Persian ships they were able to grapple. (The exception was the Egyptian ships: their marines were armed with a weapon similar to the Medieval European halberd, which proved deadlier in boarding action than the Greek spear.)

As the battle clearly turned into a disaster Queen Artemesia ordered her ship to withdraw. As she was fleeting from the Straits, several Greek triremes began to pursue: the Greeks had placed a bounty on the Greek queen they considered a traitor to Hellas. To throw the hunters off the scent, Artemesia ordered her ship to ram a nearby Phoenician trireme; thus fooling her pursuers into thinking she was one of their own.

1394088.jpgXerxes later approved of her action, saying that his men that day behaved like women, and his woman like a man!

The day ended in a complete and decisive victory for Themistocles and the Greek fleet. The Persian losses were somewhere between 200-300 triremes: a third to half of their fleet. The survivors limped back to the beaches of Phalerum, sheltering in the shadow of the Persian army. Herodotus says the Persians suffered many more casualties than the Greeks because most Persians did not know how to swim.[3] Some Phoenician captains tried to blame the battle’s loss on the Ionian Greek contingent’s supposed cowardice during the battle. Xerxes, having just watched from his cliff-high throne an Ionian ship capture an Aeginetan ship (from the nearby Greek island of Aegina), one of the few Persian successes during the battle, as well as the intrepid courage of Queen Artemesia, had the complaining Phoenician admirals beheaded for slandering “more noble men then themselves”.

The Battle of Salamis Xerxes watches the battle from a throne placed on the cliffs above the straits, as his fleet is defeated below.

Even the Persian garrison left on Psyttaleia was not spared the disaster: toward the end of the day, the Greeks landed on the island and slaughtered all they found.

With the Greek fleet now supreme, Xerxes position was perilous. His supply-line was dependent on seaborne supplies from Asia, and his line of retreat was only maintained by a bridge of boats across the distant Hellespont (Dardanelles). Knowing he could no longer feed so vast a horde in Greece, and fearing that the Greeks might attack the bridge across the Hellespont and trap his army in Europe, Xerxes now withdrew with the bulk of his forces. He left in Attica a picked army of some 120,000 of his best men under the command of his brother-in-law, Mardonius; a force large enough to complete the conquest of Greece, while small enough to sustain itself off of local supplies.

In this task Mardonius would fail, and his army would be destroyed the following year at the Battle of Plataea, ending the threat of Persian conquest. But Salamis was the turning point, tipping the balance in favor of the Greek city-states. As the Oracle predicted, Athens (and Greece) had found its salvation in its “wooden walls”.

The battle was a tipping-point, and had it gone the other way the history of the Western World would have been far different. A Persian-ruled Greece would have been unlikely to have birthed a Golden Age as was seen in the century that followed. The flowering of arts, architecture, philosophy and democratic self-governance that marked Classical Greece, and which were handed down first to Rome; then to modern man via the Renaissance and the Enlightenment and which are at the core of Western Civilization, would have been stillborn. Rome may still have dominated Europe and the Mediterranean, but it would have lacked the “civilizing” influence of Greece and Hellenic civilization. Its legacy without this would have been much harsher and less enlightening for the world.


For further reading, see:

Great Warships of History: the Greek Trireme


The Lion at the Hot Gates: Thermopylae 480 BC


Diadochi: Macedonian Game of Thrones


  1. The number given for the Greek fleet varies with the sources: Herodotus reports that there were 378 triremes in the Greek fleet, and breaks-down the numbers by city-state (polis). In this table, Athens contributes 180 ships. However, the Athenian playwright Aeschylus (who actually fought at Salamis) states that the Greek fleet numbered only 310 triremes, the Athenian contribution being 110; a number supported by Ctesias. Hyperides numbers the Greek fleet at only 220 triremes. As it reflected better upon themselves to inflate the Persian numbers and downplay their own, one should look with skepticism upon Hyperides’ numbers and give Herodotus greater due.
  2. Megara and Aegina, two other non-Peloponnesian naval states, supported Athenian strategy as well, having the most to lose should the Greek fleet abandon them.
  3. Considering that the Persian mariners were mostly from seafaring peoples, this statement seems doubtful; though may have been true of warriors from inland peoples acting as marines aboard ship.


Some of the artwork in this article has been reproduced with the permission of Osprey Publishing, and is © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.

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Few military organizations or formations in history have evoked such fear, loathing, or grudging respect as the Waffen SS! Hitler’s elite private army, their role and history are highly controversial to this very day.

(To read Part Four, go here.)

Following the failure of Operation Zitadelle (The Battle of Kursk) and the Allied landings in Sicily, the SS Panzer Korps was broken up and reorganized. 1st SS-Panzer Division Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler (LSSAH) was sent to northern Italy; where it helped disarm Italian forces that had surrendered upon the fall of Mussolini’s Fascist government. 3rd SS Totenkopf and the 2nd SSPanzergrenadier Division Das Reich were sent south to aid 5th SS Panzergrenadier Division Wiking in repelling a Soviet offensive along the Mius River.

Viking had not been part of the SS-Panzer Korps during the Kursk offensive; but instead had waited at Izyum on the Donets River south of Kharkov. There, along with the 23 Panzer-Division, it was to form the reserve force for Manstein’s attacking forces. When several Soviet formations attacked towards Orel and Kharkov simultaneously, SS “Wiking” was committed against the Soviet forces near Kharkov, destroying around 100 Red Army tanks over several days. When Zitadelle was cancelled, the division remained in the area, halting Soviet attacks.

Further to the south, however, on the Mius-Front, a major Red Army offensive, Operation Rumyantsev, threatened to break the German lines. 5th SS Wiking was attached to the 2nd SS Panzer Korps, replacing LSSAH, and sent to the Mius-Bogodukhov sector to halt the Soviet attacks. In subsequent fighting, the SS divisions defeated two Soviet tank armies (totaling over 1,000 tanks), destroying over 800 of them. However, the SS formations suffered heavily in the fighting as well; as illustrated by Totenkopf’s loss of 1,500 soldiers and its Panzer regiment reduced to a mere 20 tanks.

1449713 SS-Untersturmführer Gerhard Mahn of SS-Panzergrenadier Regiment Germania (5th SS Panzergrenadier Division Viking) signals to his armored units as they counter attack behind front line troops in south Russia.

Between 20 September and 20 of November 1943 Das Reich and Totenkopf were pulled out of Russia, and sent into the northwestern Balkans to conduct operations against Slovene and Croat partisans on the Istrian peninsula and north of Trieste. This operation was necessary to keep open communications with German forces operating in the south against Tito’s partisans in Yugoslavia. After this, both were refitted and rested, and promoted to the status of full panzer divisions (as opposed to Panzergrenadier formations).

In October, SS Viking was again pulled out of the line, and also restructured as a panzer division. To bolster the strength of the division, the Walloon volunteer unit 5th SS-Sturmbrigade “Wallonien” was attached to the division, under the command of Leon Degrelle. (The Walloons were the subject of ridicule by many “Wiking” veterans until they proved their worth in the fighting for a forest near Teklino, thereafter being considered a first-rate fighting formation.)

Following the cancellation by Hitler of the German offensive against the Kursk salient, the Soviets launched massive counterattacks all along the front of Army Group South in the Ukraine. Everywhere the Germans were forced to give ground. Manstein pulled back, and establish a strong, defensible line behind the Dnieper River (the southern part of Hitler’s Panther-Wotan Line). However, by December 1, 1943 Manstein’s line was broken by continuous Soviet armored offensives, the opening of what became known as the Dnieper–Carpathian Offensive. Soon, the Soviet Army had crossed the Dnieper in force.

Because of Hitler’s reluctance to allow a general pull-back from the west-bank of the Dnieper, a German force of 58,000 men, 59 tanks and 242 artillery pieces were trapped by the Soviets in a pocket centered on the town of Korsun. Among the trapped units was 5th SS Viking. In the following Battle of the Korsun–Cherkasy Pocket (24 January 1944 – 16 February 1944), Viking acted as a mobile “fire brigade”; stamping out any Soviet penetration of the pocket. During this crises, the 1st SS Panzer Division (LSSAH) returned to Russia to join with the Army (Heer1st Panzer Division as part of the XLVIII Panzer Corps (under the skilled command of General Hermann Balck), spearheading the relief of the forces in the pocket and opening a corridor. During the breakout, Viking sustained serious losses, acting as the German rearguard.

In March 1944, LSSAH was moved to France, where it joined old comrades who had been detached to form the cadre of the newly constituted 12th SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend (“Hitler Youth”).

These two “sister divsions, along with the 17th SS Panzergrenadier Division Götz von Berlichingen, would now form new 1st SS Panzer Korps under the command of LSSAH’s founding leader, SS-Obergruppenführer Josef “Sepp” Dietrich. This formation would become the elite strike force of Hitler’s army in the last 12 months of the war in Europe.


Unit symbol of the 12 SS Hitlerjugend (R); combining the sigrunen of the Hitler Youth with the skeleton-key symbol of its parent unit, the 1st SS Panzer Division Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler (L)

The idea of forming a Waffen-SS divison composed of Hitlerjugend members born in 1926 (17 year olds) was a project enthusiastically supported by Adolf Hitler; and the division was officially created on 13 February 1943. While the rank-and-file was drawn from these Nazi “Eagle Scouts”, the NCO and officer cadre was drawn from veterans of LSSAH. Its commander was SS-Oberführer Fritz Witt, who had served with great distinction in all of LSSAH’s battles to date. Witt had commanded the 1st SS Panzergrenadier Regiment during the Third Battle of Kharkov (where Witt was awarded the Oakleaves to the Knight’s Cross he’d earned in France during the 1940 campaign) and during the fighting at Kursk. His former commander, Paul Hausser, in his Knight’s Cross citation described Witt as “the model of the young leader, never retreating in the face of anything”. He was an example of the caliber of officers who had survived the first bloody years of the war to come of age by 1943-44: bold and imaginative in a way few “conventional” officers ever are, but which is the hallmark of “special ops” soldiers the world over.

This leavening of young, near-fanatical Nazi youth with veteran LSSAH leaders created, in very short time, an elite division worthy of fighting beside its parent division. They would soon be tested, and in the testing nearly perish, in the battle of Normandy in the summer of 1944.


In preparation for the expected Allied landings in France, Dietrich’s 1st SS Panzer Korps was moved to a bivouac to the west of Paris. Together with the above named SS divisions (1st SS Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler, 12 SS Hitlerjugend, and the 17 SS Götz von Berlichingen) the Korps was augmented by the addition of the Heer’s (Army’s) elite Panzer-Lehr-Division. This was a very strong armored formation comprised of experienced personnel drawn from the cadre of various panzer (tank) training schools. These former teachers were some of the most experienced and highly-trained panzer operators in the German army. Almost all were decorated veterans of combat in Russia, North Africa, or Sicily/Italy. It was equipped to a higher standard than any other formation in the Heer (with the possible exception of Panzer Grenadier Division Grossdeutschland). For these reasons Panzer Lehr was considered an elite unit from the time of its formation in November ’43 and worthy to fight beside the elite 1st SS Panzer Korps.

Dietrich’s Korps was to form a part of Panzer Group West, the Western theater’s armored reserve. Because the German High Command was uncertain of where the Allies would land, these panzer forces were meant to act as the mobile reserve, ready to respond to wherever the landings occurred.

The Allies landed on the beaches of Normandy on June 6, 1944. The SS Panzer Korps began moving forward towards the landing zones. However, as Rommel (who had faced the Western Allies in Africa) warned during the months of planning leading-up to the invasion, Allied air power made movement by day extremely problematic. Forced to move only at night the Korps arrived in Normandy in dribs-and-drabs, taking casualties from air attacks along the way.

1449789.jpgKurt Myer (second from left) addressing some of his officers in the field, Normandy

12 SS Hitlerjugend arrived first in the battle area on June 7, one day after the Allied landings (to Allied planners”D+1″) in the Caen area, opposing the advance of Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery‘s British and Canadian forces. Brigadeführer Kurt “Panzer” Meyer‘s 25th Panzergrenadier Regiment took over the Ardenne Abbey as regimental headquarters; the Abbey’s Medieval turret allowing for a clear view of the battlefield. That very first day, as the SS made contact with advancing Canadian forces and prisoners were taken, there occurred another of the all-too familiar incidents of war crimes that came to be associated with the Waffen-SS.

Canadian prisoners were taken to the regimental headquarters. When asked what to do with them, Myers is reported to have said: “What should we do with these prisoners; they only eat up our rations?” Afterwards, he announced: “In the future, no more prisoners are to be taken”. This was the “war to the knives” that the hardened Waffen veterans had practiced in Russia now brought to the Western Front as well. The Canadians were taken out into the Abbey garden and executed. Other groups were killed in the same fashion the next day.[1]

1450324.jpg Battles of Carentan and Bloody Gulch

On June 10 SS Götz von Berlichingen was ordered to reinforce Carentan, where two battalions of Fallschirmjäger-Regiment 6 (the 6th Parachute Regiment) were defending the town from elements of the 101st Airborne Division. The advance of the Waffen forces was delayed by the stubborn resistance it encountered along the way at Graignes, held by a mere 182 troopers of the 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 82d Airborne Division. After finally forcing the defenders to retreat on the 11th, the SS committed yet another atrocity, executing townsmen for aiding the Americans, as well as American wounded overrun in a makeshift field hospital.

This delay at Graignes allowed the 101st to capture Carentan and to set up defensive positions southwest of the town. Here on 13th June the advance elements of Götz von Berlichingen joined the 6th Fallschirmjäger Regiment in an effort to break through the 101st Airborne’s defensive perimeter. At what came to be called “Bloody Gulch“, the armored vehicles assaulted the dug-in paratroopers at close quarters, nearly breaking their position until struck in flank and routed by sixty tanks from Combat CommandA of the 2nd Armored Division accompanied by infantry of the 29th Division. This repulse of the SS counter-attack and securing of Carentan allowed the linkup of forces from Utah and Omaha Beachs, creating a secure beach-head for further American operations.


SS Heavy Panzer Battalion 101 arrived in the next few days to protect the left wing of the I SS Panzer Korps, which was mostly engaged in defending around Caen. The rest of SS Leibstandarte arrived towards the end of the month with lead elements becoming embroiled in the British offensive Operation Epsom.

This offensive was intended to outflank and seize the city of Caen. Overly-ambitious, Montgomery’s plan called for Caen to fall on D-Day (June 6). In fact, German resistance combined with inept British operational action prevented Allied capture of this objective for six long, hard-fought weeks.

An attempted pincer attack on Caen, on June 7, was thwarted by the 21st Panzer Division (a veteran formation of Rommel’s Africa Korps) and the Panzer-Lehr. With these two heavy divisions blocking direct attack, another attempt (Operation Perch) was launched on the 13th to cut off and “bag” Caen. This was to be accomplished by an armored sweep of the veteran 7th Armoured Division (the “Desert Rats” of the African campaign) around the southwest of Caen. This attack was meant to exploit a gap at Caumont between the left-flank of Panzer-Lehr and 17th SS Götz von Berlichingen, where 2nd Panzer Division had been delayed and had yet to move up into position.

This British attack led to the Battle of Villers-Bocage, a battle in which SSObersturmführer Michael Wittmann would win immortal fame.

1449791.jpg Operation Perch, and the movement of 7th Armored Division towards Villers-Bocage

On 13 June a mixed combat group of tanks, infantry and artillery drawn from elements of the 22nd Armoured Brigade of the 7th Armoured Division, under the command of the colorfully-named Brigadier William “Loony” Hinde advanced through the Caumont gap towards Villers-Bocage. After advancing 5 miles, the column, led by the 4th County of London Yeomanry (4th CLY), with a company of the 1st Rifle Brigade, entered the town along its single narrow lane at 08:30 AM, greeted by a crowd of celebrating residents. The long column of tanks and transport vehicles slowly rumbled through the town, its spearhead reaching the important high ground beyond, designated Hill 213. There the entire column halted, each vehicle nose-to-tail, while the company commanders assembled on Hill 213 for a leadership conference.

Unbeknownst to Brigadier Hinde or his officers, Tigers were prowling in the ground to the south.


Aware of the gap in his line, Sepp Dietrich ordered his only reserve, Schwere (heavy) SS-Panzer Abteilung 101 to move behind the Panzer-Lehr and 12th SS-Panzer divisions to the Villers-Bocage area, as a precaution against just such an attempt as was now unfolding. The battalion had only 17 Panzer Mk VI Tiger tanks, and these were spread in company units across several miles. Unfortunately for “Looney” Hinde and his command, directly southwest of Hill 213 and Villers-Bocage was 2nd Company, commanded by Germany’s top “panzer ace”, Michael Wittmann.

Wittmann was surprised at the arrival of a massive enemy column in his company area. Thus far his force had remained undetected, but with the British occupying the high ground at Hill 213 it was likely his command would soon be observed and come under fire.

“I had no time to assemble my company; instead I had to act quickly, as I had to assume that the enemy had already spotted me and would destroy me where I stood. I set off with one tank (his own command vehicle) and passed the order to the others not to retreat a single step but to hold their ground.” – Michael Wittmann

Wittmann had only 5 Tigers available for action, and was thus severely outnumbered in both tanks and men. However, he had three advantages that morning at Villers-Bocage. First was the element of surprise: though Wittmann assumed otherwise, the British had not yet spotted his Tigers concealed on their right (southern) flank. Secondly, no doubt to Wittmann’s surprise and delight, the British vehicles were halted and tightly packed along the road. Within the village’s narrow lanes the Allied vehicles had no room to maneuver, or routes of escape Finally, he had beneath him an armored behemoth which, despite its many mechanical drawbacks, was nearly impervious (frontally and along its sides) to most of the weapons he faced. While his Tiger’s powerful 88 mm gun was a proven tank-killer that could pierce the armor and destroy any Allied armored vehicle it met.

While unaware that Tigers were poised to attack the flank of his regiment, Lieutenant-Colonel Arthur, Viscount Cranley, commander of the 4th CLY, was concerned that his column, halted and strung out along the road, was vulnerable. “Out on a limb”, was the way he described his position. He expressed this concern to his superior, “Looney” Hinde; who brushed these aside and ordered him to join the leader’s conference on Point 213, at the front of the column. Hinde himself left Villers-Bocage to return to his Brigade headquarters 4 kilometers to the rear.

Thus at the very moment that Wittmann was advancing to the attack the British troops and vehicles sitting at Villers-Bocage were virtually without leadership. Their brigade commander, the blissfully over-confident and well-named “Looney” Hinde was headed away from the battle area, and their battalion and company commanders were all gathered at the head of the column for a conference.

At around 0900 AM, a certain Sergeant O’Connor of the Rifle Brigade, travelling towards this conference atop Point 213 in a half-track, spotted Wittmann’s tank breaking cover and advancing parallel to the road, only 50 yards away. Breaking radio silence to give warning, O’Connor shouted out: “For Christ’s sake get a move on! There’s a Tiger running alongside us fifty yards away!”

But his warning came too late for the British at Villers-Bocage. Caught flat-footed, their tank crews stretching their legs and making tea, the British had no chance to prepare an effective resistance. The tiger was loose among the sheep.

What followed in the next 15 minutes was one of those moments in military history that beg credulity. Michael Wittmann, in a single Tiger Tank (marginally supported by the other 4 Tigers available, who took on the vehicles on Hill 213) brought the advance of the entire 7th Armored Division to a halt.


Breaking cover along the south side of the road, Wittmann first fired upon and knocked out the rearmost tank at Point 213, a Cromwell MK VIII cruiser. A quick second shot set ablaze a Sherman Firefly. These two burning tanks now blocked the road.

Driving west parallel to the column, Wittmann’s Tiger next took under fire and destroyed one vehicle after another as he went.

“The enemy (Wittmann) attended first of all to the motor platoons…trundling back toward Villers, shooting up vehicles and riflemen section by section; with only the company’s 6pdr anti-tank guns able to offer even a measure of resistance, which I learned afterward they did with considerable bravery but with little effect.” – Christopher Milner, Commander, “A” Company, CLY[2]

At the east end of Villers-Bocage Wittmann engaged and knocked out three M5 Stuart light tanks of the 4th CLY Reconnaissance Troop, these the headquarters troop.


Wittmann then entered the town, his Tiger’s 88 blazing at targets at close range. British tanks and vehicles went up in flames, as the Tiger raged among them. Finally, as his tank exited the town on the north side, Wittmann’s Tiger was disabled by an ant-tank round. Bailing out, he and his crew made their way safely on foot  to the headquarters of Panzer-Lehr Division.

Villers-Bocage, zerstörte Militärfahrzeuge

Carnage at Villers-Bocage (T);  Wrecked British vehicles on Hill 213 (B).

Villers-Bocage, zerstörte britische Panzer

Meanwhile, the Germans were now attacking Villers-Bocage from the north and south simultaneously, as the 1st Company of Schwere SS-Panzer Abteilung 101 and tanks from Panzer-Lehr entered the battle. By 1300 the leading battle-group of the 22nd Armored Brigade (spearhead of the 7th Armored Division and Operation Perch) had ceased to exist. 27 tanks, three self-propelled guns, 14 armored half-tracks, and two 6pdr anti-tank guns had been destroyed. Worse, nearly the entire battle-group command personnel, isolated on Hill 213 by Wittmann’s initial assault, became prisoners of war, including Lt Col Viscount Cranley. Though the British held the village for another day, Operation Perch had been stopped by this strong and bloody rap on the nose. By noon the following day (June 14) the division commander ordered the 7th Armored Division to retreat back to its starting positions to the east.

Wittmanns action has been described as “one of the most amazing engagements in the history of armored warfare”, and “one of the most devastating single-handed actions of the war”. But it was also foolhardy, and not the proper role of a company commander, whose place was at the head of his command; not dashing into the midst of an enemy formation “like a brash subaltern looking to get mentioned in dispatches”. It was a reckless bravery that would cost him his life two months later, when he was killed in action. However, for his action at Villers-Bocage Wittmann was promoted to Hauptsturmführer (Captain) and awarded Swords to his Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross.

1449815.jpg Michael Wittmann


As the summer continued on, the Allie’s weight of men, material and firepower took its toll on the German formations in Normandy.  Naval gunfire from Allied cruisers and battleships off the coast combined with unrelenting air attacks to wear down the fighting strength of even such battle-hardened formations as the Waffen-SS. On 14 June, a British naval barrage hit the division command post of Hitlerjugend in Venoix. The division’s dynamic commander Fritz Witt was killed instantly. The division and his former comrades in LSSAH mourned his loss. He was replaced by the 33-year-old Kurt “Panzer” Meyer.


A determined-looking young SS trooper, Normandy 1944

Reinforcements arrived from the Eastern Front in the form of the II SS Panzer Corps consisting of the 9th SS Hohenstaufen and 10th SS Frundsberg divisions and the SS Heavy Panzer Battalion 102, sent to spearhead a counter-offensive to destroy the Allied beachhead. However, the two divisions were fed piecemeal into the battle to stop Allied attacks and the Germans were unable to gain the initiative.

On July 25th the Americans launched Operation Cobra, a massive offensive against the left flank of the German line south of the Cotentin Peninsula. Timed just a week after the start of Operation Goodwood , which tied down the best German formations around Caen, Omar Bradley’s Twelfth United States Army Group (supported by intensive carpet bombing of German formations in their path) blew through the German lines. Shortly after the start of the offensive, General George S. Patton, Jr was brought out of semi-retirement and given command of the newly activated Third Army. Arrayed on the far right (west) of the American line, Patton’s army broke through the opposing German forces and, turning west, swept into Brittany.


Moving with incredible dash and elan, Patton’s formations hooked around the German forces in Normandy, creating a massive encirclement. The German formations trapped in what came to be called the Falaise pocket included the 1 SS Leibstandarte, 10 SS Frundsberg, 12 SS Hitlerjugend and the 17 SS Götz von Berlichingen.

To open an escape corridor, the II SS Panzer Korps (now composed of divisions 2 SS Das Reich and the 9 SS Hohenstaufen), now commanded by SS-Obergruppenführer Wilhelm Bittrich, veteran commander of Hohenstaufen, were ordered to attack the vital Hill 262 from the outside in order to keep the gap open. Here they fought a desperate and costly engagement against the Polish 1st Armored Division. But though repelled, time was bought for large numbers of German forces to escape the pocket; though many formations had to abandon all their equipment in order to do so, walking out of the encirclement with nothing but what they could carry.


(In George Patton the Allies finally had a senior commander as skilled in modern mobile warfare as the best German commanders. Patton was something of an anomaly: an old soldier [the oldest general in the American Army] filled with outdated, romantic notions of war; yet who fully embraced and helped develop the most modern concepts of mechanized, combined arms warfare. Patton understood better than any of his contemporaries the devastating nature of American tactical air power, and how it had changed the rules of warfare. His orders to his division commanders to drive deep and fast through German lines, ignoring potential threats to their flanks, was in recognition of the reality that aerial reconnaissance and ground attack would secure their flanks from any major threat as they advanced. From the day he took over Third Army and began his dash across France to the German border, the German commanders had a foe to whom they had no answer, and the fortunes of the Third Reich in the West were numbered.)

During the retreat from the Falaise death-trap Obersturmbannführer Max Wünsche, commander of the 12th SS Panzer Regiment, attempted to ex-filtrate from the pocket on foot, along with two other officers. Wounded in the leg, the intrepid Wünsche did not make it: he was captured by British troops. He spent the rest of the war as a prisoner of war in camp 165 at Caithness, Scotland, a special camp for high-ranking German officers. His loss was a sore one: Wünsche was among the best of Germany’s young combat leaders. Only 30 years old, he was one of that class of “young Turk” officers that had grown within the Waffen during the early years of the war, rising rapidly to higher command based on their abilities as combat leaders. In the desperate battles to come, his presence would be sorely missed.

1597486.jpgA remarkable photo of Max Wünsche (riding motorcycle), transporting a wounded subordinate, Rudolf von Ribbentrop (sidecar) to an aid-station near near Norrey-en-Bessin in summer, 1944. In no other organization would a regimental commander personally convey a comrade to a medical station; such was the informality and hands-on ethos within the Waffen SS.

With the German Army in full retreat from Normandy, two more Waffen-SS formations entered the battle in France: SS Panzergrenadier Brigade 49 and the SS Panzergrenadier Brigade 51. Both had been formed in June 1944 from staff and students at the SS-Junkerschule. These Brigades were tasked to hold crossings over the Seine River, allowing the broken army to retreat. Eventually they were forced back and then withdrew, the surviving troops being incorporated into the 17 SS Götz von Berlichingen division.

1449838.jpg Captured Waffen SS soldier



  1. For his responsibility in the Ardenne Abbey massacre Myer was convicted and sentenced to death on 28 December 1945 by an Allied tribunal. His sentence was commuted to life imprisonment on 14 January 1946; but he was released after serving only nine years.
  2. Forty, George, The Desert Rats at War.
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“By the grace of God I shall yet prove the victor!”

On October 14, 1066, two determined enemies faced each other across a shallow valley: William, Duke of Normandy; and from the heights of Senlac Hill, Harold, England’s warrior king. With the fate of England in the balance, these two former friends would contend that long day in one of the greatest and most decisive battles in the sanguine history of the British Isles: The Battle of Hastings.

The struggle for the English throne in 1066 was the culmination of years of dynastic intrigue concerning the would-be successor to King Edward the Confessor, a monarch known for his piety but who had failed in his duty to produce an heir.  The issue was complicated by the events a generation earlier in England’s history, when the Danes under their kings Svein Forkbeard and his son, Canute, wrested England from the hands of the Anglo-Saxon king Aethelred the “Unready[1], scion of Alfred the Great and the ruling House of Wessex.

The Danish conqueror Canute married Aethelred’s widow Emma, a daughter of the Norman duke Richard I (“the Fearless”). Her two sons by Aethelred, Alfred and Edward, fled the Danes and took refuge in the court of their Norman kinsmen at Rouen. Emma also had a son by Canute, Harthacanute, who briefly ruled England and Denmark following the deaths of both his father and brother. Upon his deathbed, Harthacanute named his half-brother Edward, still in Normandy, as his heir.[2]

1402928.jpgRaised in the court of Normandy, once on the throne Edward favored his Norman kinsmen and friends. He was also naturally suspicious of those English lords who had won favor under Danish rule, particularly the powerful Earl of Wessex, Godwin; who had linked himself to the house of Canute by marriage. Edward the Confessor’s 24 year reign was marked by tension between his English lords and Norman favorites at court. Eventually Godwin forced the Normans out of England, becoming the “strong-man” behind the throne in Edward’s later years as king.

When Godwin died, his place behind Edward’s throne was taken by his strong son, Harold Godwinson, elevated to his father’s title of Earl of Wessex. Harold used his wealth and position at court to amass a private army of professional Anglo-Danish warriors, called Huscarls (or Housecarls, “Household Warriors”). Canute had first created such a force, and Harold’s force was modeled on this elite body of fighting men. With these he defeated a coalition of rival English lords and the Welsh Prince, Gruffydd ap Llywelyn, from 1055-1057. He then warred successfully in Wales in 1063, killing Gruffydd and bringing peace to the Welsh Marches.

The following year a momentous event occurred. Harold and his youngest brother, Gyrth, were shipwrecked off the Norman Coast.

Normandy was ruled by the stern and capable Duke William the Bastard. A cousin of Edward the Confessor, William had been encouraged by the childless Edward in his ambition to be named heir to the English throne. However, William had learned the lessons from earlier in Edward’s reign regarding English hostility to Norman influence, and knew he had to win over the powerful House of Wessex to his cause if he were to peacefully gain the English throne upon Edward’s death.

Fortune intervened in William’s favor when the Harold and Gyrth washed ashore in Normandy in 1064. The two Godwinson brothers were seized initially by Count Guy of Ponthieu, a vassal of Duke William; but were ransomed by the Duke and became William’s guest.

William entertained Harold that summer at his court at Rouen. He even took Harold on campaign with him against the rebel Count of Brittany;during the course of which Harold performed acts of heroism that earned him his spurs and accolade (knighthood) from William’s own hand.

1402930 From the Bayeux Tapestry: Duke William knighting Harold Godwinson?

Little details remain and scholars argue over the depth of the two men’s friendship. It seems likely, though, that these most powerful men on either side of the English Channel developed a respect for each other and friendship that goes far to explaining the enmity and sense of betrayal that underlines William’s later actions.

At some point, while at the court of Rouen, Harold was tricked into swearing, upon a box containing the bones of a long-dead saint, to uphold William’s claim to the English throne. Such an oath carried great weight in 11th century Christian Europe; and Harold, once he realized what he had done, is said to have noticeably paled. He was now bound by his honor and oath before God to support the claim of his new-found “friend”, whatever his own ambitions.

1402946.jpg Harold is tricked into swearing on holy relics.

His Norman sojourn resulting in a political disaster for his kingly aspirations, Harold returned to England, where events proceeded rapidly. That year, as though to herald the coming bloodshed, Halley’s Comet burned brightly in the sky. It was taken by all as a portent of great (and terrible) events to come.

Harold’s brother Tostig, the earl of Northumbria, had been ejected by his liegemen in favor of two sons of an earlier earl. Recognizing his brother’s poor performance as lord of the turbulent Northumbrians, and wishing to avoid civil war, Harold accepted the new Northumbrian earls, the brothers Edwin and Morcar.

By so doing he earned his brother Tostig’s enmity.

Tostig fled England, and eventually arrived at the Norwegian royal court at Nidaros. This was the seat of power of the redoubtable Norse king, Harald Sigurdsson (called Hardrada, or Hardrede: “Hard-council”, or “Harsh-judgment”).

In 1065, Harald Hardrada was considered the greatest warrior in the North, if not in all Europe. Said to be seven-feet tall and broadly built, he had been a fighting man since old enough to wield a sword.  As an exiled prince in his youth he had ventured to the Court of Byzantium, where he’d won great renown as a leader of the famed Varangian Guard; the Scandinavian “corps de elite” of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Emperors.

1403013.jpg Hally’s Comet, which appears in the sky every 75 years, arrived in 1066 and was widely taken as an omen of great events to come. Here its arrival is depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry

Returning to Norway in 1046 with both wealth and a store of military experience, Harald seized the throne that had once been his older brother’s. His 20 year reign saw unremitting military campaigns, as he steadily brought the turbulent and independent Norse landholders under royal authority. For many of those years he had campaigned in Denmark in an attempt to unite the two countries under his sword, and create a Norwegian hegemony.

Tostig Godwinson found a patron with a ready ear for intrigue in Hardrada. Between the two of them a scheme was hatched to invade England and unite Norway and England as one land, just as Canute had done with Denmark and England two generations earlier. What Canute the Dane had wrought could not the “Champion of the North” do as well?

Meanwhile, in England, Edward the Confessor’s long reign finally came to an end in January of 1066. On his deathbed he was said to have named Harold Godwinson as his heir. However, in Normandy an outraged William openly disputed this claim as an invention of his rival. Ignoring William’s claim the Witan, the English proto-Parliament, elected Harold Godwinson as their king.

1402956 Harold Godwinson is crowned King

Whatever the Witan decided, Harold Godwinson’s claim was about to be challenged. Both William in Normandy and Harald Hardrada in Norway were laying in supplies and mustering their forces. The summer of 1066 promised to be a bloody one indeed for England.


In Normandy, William prepared to back his claim to the throne of England with force of arms; and to avenge himself upon the erstwhile friend and oath-breaker who had betrayed him. The risk of this undertaking is easily underestimated today, with the ultimate results known in advance. But at the time he proclaimed his intent to invade England, William was venturing upon a dangerous and uncertain endeavor.

England was a far larger and, in theory, stronger country than the Duchy of Normandy. Though largely composed of a national militia of stout English freemen, called the fyrd, if given time to muster this force was potentially large and capable of holding its own in battle. Giving the fyrd more staying power was the wealthier land-owning warrior class, the thegns, and King Harold’s professional Huscarls. England’s fleet controlled the channel, and William had nothing that could be called a navy to oppose the English “Sea Fyrd”. Manned by experienced seamen and captained by men who were in many cases former Vikings, the English longships were filled with detachments of axe-wielding Housecarls, experienced at fighting on shipboard.

1402964.jpg Anglo-Danish Huscarls

Harold’s Housecarls had a particularly fearsome reputation throughout Europe. These “knights who fight on foot” were all veteran professional warriors, many of which had themselves served in the Varangian Guard in their youth; or in the service of one of the various Scandinavian kings. Their five-foot Danish long-axes were said to be able to hack through shield and mail as if it were tissue![3]

William, however, had an advantage of his own: the superb mailed heavy cavalry, provided by the Norman knights and mounted sergeants. Norman adventurers had already ventured as far afield as Italy, where they were carving out another Duchy in Apulia. The Norman knight was feared and respected throughout Europe, considered the most dangerous heavy cavalry on the continent. William’s army was a balanced force, with archers and armored foot-sergeants complimenting the mailed cavalry, creating a true “combined arms” fighting force.

However, in 1066 it had yet to be shown that heavy cavalry could prevail over the close-order infantry tactics of the English “shieldwall”, perfected by English and Scandinavian armies over the previous three centuries; and archers, with their rather weak “self” bows had never been a significant factor in western European battles.

1403005 Norman cavalry, the armored battle tanks of their age. A Byzantine source hyperbolically claimed they could “charge through the walls of Babylon”!

Though they believed in the righteousness of their Lord’s claim, many a Norman noble must have looked upon the coming campaign with trepidation.

William set about in the spring of 1066 to bolster their resolve, and to gather additional recruits to his banner. To effect this he sought and received Papal support from Rome. Oath breaking, particularly when said oath was given upon the bones of a Catholic saint, was a serious ecclesiastic offense. His Papal petition was aided, no doubt, by the fact that all southern Italy was controlled by the Norman Duke of Apulia, Robert de Hauteville (called Guiscard, the “Cunning”). The Normans of Italy had become the Pope’s chief bastion against the German Emperor’s Italian ambitions. Though politically independent and powerful rulers in their own right, the de Hautevilles were ever deferential to their Duke back home.

William achieved his aim: Harold was excommunicated by the Pope, and a papal legate delivered to William a Papal banner to symbolize the support of Holy Mother Church. In the 11th century the blessing of the church gave William immeasurable political and psychological advantage. The morale of his vassals was greatly strengthened in the fearsome undertaking to come, and few men in William’s ranks doubted now that God was on their side. To augment his own Norman vassals, pious adventurers from all over Northern France now flocked to his banner to win religious indulgence by smiting the “usurper”, Harold.

However, William still had to get his growing and now-eager host across the Channel, in the face of English naval superiority. All that summer Harold’s ships patrolled the southern coast, waiting to intercept the Norman expedition. The English fleet was not his only obstacle. The weather that summer seemed determined to prevent his crossing. William waited and watch for fortune (and God) to send him the opportunity he needed.

1403017.jpg The Norman host prepares in Normandy for the invasion

With two armies preparing to invade, all that summer of 1066 England held its breath. Harold found himself in the unenviable position of having to surrender the initiative to his enemies. He could do naught else but wait, and try to keep his levies in the field. Unfortunately for him, summer turned to fall and still the imminent invasions failed to materialize. Fall harvest made disbanding the  fyrd a necessity, as feudal obligation demanded, and the men of both fleet and army went home to harvest their fields.


No sooner had the English levies disbanded than word arrived from the north that the opening salvo of the three-way campaign of 1066 had come: in mid-September Harald Hardrada and Tostig Godwinson landed near York, coming with a large invasion fleet of Viking longships and experienced Norse warriors, veterans of Hardrada’s many campaigns. By the time word of the incursion reached Harold Godwinson in London the tidings were grim: the Norse had already met and routed the Northumbrian levies at the Battle of Gate Fulford; and York, the second city of England, was on the verge of surrender.

1403031.jpgHarold responded with lightning swiftness. Force-marching north with an army composed of his royal Housecarls and those shire-levies hastily gathered along the way, he arrived near York in time to intercept Hardrada’s army on their way to accept York’s surrender.

On September 25th, along the York road at a river crossing called Stamford Bridge, the English met the Norse marching from their camp on the coast. Not expecting a battle, Hardrada and his men had left their armor back at their ships, coming only with shield and arms.

To buy time for the surprised Norse to form their array for battle, a lone Norwegian champion stepped forward to hold the narrow bridge against the English crossing. His name is now sadly lost. But this fearsome warrior held the bridge against all attackers, hewing down man-after-man with his deadly long-axe. No more than three-at-a-time could approach him on the narrow foot-bridge, and time-and-again he sent Harold’s redoubtable Housecarls dead or reeling back, bloodied. Meanwhile, the Norse formed their shieldwall for battle beneath Hardrada’s famous raven banner, “Landwaster” (Landøyðan); and King Harald sent messengers back to his ships, summoning the rest of his host.


An incident at the beginning of the Battle of Stanford Bridge: a lone Norse hero held the narrow bridge, allowing the Norwegian army time to deploy for battle.

Eventually, a solution was found to the lone Viking holding the narrow bridge, slaughtering all who approached him. An Englishman, finding a skiff along the river bank, rowed under the bridge. The English warrior struck upwards between the planks with his spear, piercing the Norseman from below. Mortally wounded, the Norse champion collapsed in agony, dying where he lay.

The English were now free to cross the bridge and give battle.

Before the two sides “laid on”, King Harold asked to speak with his brother Tostig under flag of truce. Tostig came forward, and the two brothers parlayed. Harold offered Tostig a pardon, if he would give-up this fight and return to his brother’s side.

“What of my ally, King Harald of Norway”, asked Tostig? “What will you offer him?”

“To the King of Norway”, Harold replied, “I offer naught but six feet of good English earth; or as much more as is necessary to bury him, he being larger than other men”.

This brought negotiation to an end. Both men returned to their forces, and prepared for the fight.

Stamford Bridge was a bloody and hard-fought battle. Though fearsome warriors (and physically larger than most others in Europe), the Norse suffered from their lack of armor. Men fell on both sides, but more Norse than English. King Harald Hardrada is reputed to have fought in the front rank, encouraging his men and laying many an Englishman low. However, an arrow struck him in the throat, ending the storied life of this “Last of the Vikings”.

1403039.jpgLate in the battle the Norse reinforcements arrived from the coast, where they had been guarding the Viking longships. Led by Eystein Orre, the Norse King’s Marshal, they were exhausted by the haste with which they had run the 15 miles from their camp to the battlefield. Eystein reputedly took up “Landwaster”, and initiated a final Norse counter-attack. Nearly breaking the English line, the attack faltered when Eystein too was killed. Defeated, the Norse fled from the battlefield.

Following them, King Harold and the English forced their surrender. The English king was merciful, and allowed the surviving Norse to return home peacefully. Included in their number was Hardrada’s young son, who would return to Norway and rule as Olaf III Kyrre (“The Peaceful”).

Though the redoubtable Hardrada was defeated, Harald Godwinson found no time to savor his triumph. While still at York, word came of a second invasion, this one in the south: William the Bastard had crossed the Channel.


Two very well-made reenactments of the fight at Stamford Bridge; depicting the holding of the narrow way by a single Norse champion:



  1. This appellate may be a misconstruction of the Anglo-Saxon word for “Unwise” rather than “Unready”. Either would be applicable in his case.
  2. Edward’s elder brother Alfred had been treacherously killed by the Danes some years earlier, after being lured back to England.

Some of the artwork in this article has been reproduced with the permission of Osprey Publishing, and is © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.

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