THE YEAR OF THE THREE KINGS
Today is the anniversary of the Battle of Hastings. Called by many historians one of the “Decisive Battles of History”, Hastings was the culmination of years of dynastic intrigue surrounding the English throne; following the death of the childless King Edward the Confessor. That year, 1066, saw England the prize in a three way war; a war of Three Kings.
Edward was raised in exile among his mother’s relatives at the court of Normandy during the kingship of the Danish conqueror, Canute the Great. Once on the throne of England, Edward favored his Norman kinsmen and friends. The 24 years of his reign were marked by tension between his English lords and Norman favorites.
The leader of the English nobility in opposition to Edward’s pro-Norman policy was the powerful Earl of Wessex, Godwin. Related to the House of Canute by marriage, he was leader of the strong Anglo-Danish faction of the English nobility and common folk. Eventually Godwin forced Edward’s Norman favorites out of England, becoming the “strong-man” behind the throne in Edward’s later years as king.
When Godwin died, his place beside Edward was taken by his strong son, Harold Godwinson, who inherited his father’s title of Earl of Wessex. Harold used his wealth and position at court to build a private army of Anglo-Danish warriors, called Huscarls (“House Men”). With these he defeated a coalition of rival English lords and the Welsh Prince, Gruffyd, from 1055-1057. He then warred successfully in Wales in 1063, killing Gruffyd and bringing peace to the Welsh Marches.
The following year, a momentous event occurred. Harold and his youngest brother were shipwrecked off the NormanCoast.
Normandy was ruled by the stern and capable Duke William (called “the Bastard”). A cousin (or half-nephew) of Edward the Confessor, William had been encouraged by the childless Edward to expect to be named as his heir. 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 ascend to the English throne.
Fortune intervened in his favor when the Earl of Wessex himself washed ashore in 1064.
William rescued and entertained Harold that summer at his court at Rouen. He even took Harold on campaign with him against the rebel Count of Brittany; in the course of which Harold performed acts of heroism which earned him his “spurs” and the accolade of knighthood from William’s own hand.
Little details remain and scholars argue over the depth of the two men’s friendship. It seems likely, though, that the two most powerful men of 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 legal weight in 11th century Christian Europe; and Harold, once he realized what he had done, was said to have noticeably paled. Perhaps he had already set his own sights on Edward’s throne, and at that moment realized he had dangerously compromised his claim.
Harold returned to England, where events proceeded rapidly.
His brother, Tostig Godwinson, 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 Earl, and wishing to avoid civil war, Harold accepted the new Northumbrian Earls, the brothers Edwin and Morcar. In so doing, he earned Tostig’s enmity. Tostig fled England, and eventually arrived at the Norwegian court at Nidaros; where reigned the Norse king, Harald Sigurdson, 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 a young man in exile from his homeland, he had ventured to the distant Court of Byzantium. There he won a great renown (and an even larger fortune) as a leader of the famed Varangian Guard; the Scandinavian “corps de elite” of the East Roman Emperors.
Returning to Norway in 1047, he seized the throne that had once been his older brother’s. His subsequent reign had been a period of war and centralization; as he brought the turbulent and independent Norse landholders under royal authority. For many years he campaigned in Denmark as well, in an attempt to unite the two countries under his sword and recreate the Empire of Canute.
Tostig Godwinson found in Hardrada a patron with ready ear for intrigue. Between the two men, a scheme was hatched to invade England and unite Norway and England as one. What Canute had wrought two generations earlier, 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; though in Normandy, William openly disputed this claim as an invention of his rival. The English proto-Parliament, called the Witan, met and elected Harold Godwinson King of England.
Harold was fully aware of the two other men prepared to contest the English throne. Throughout the summer of 1066, the English militia, called the Fyrd, stood ready on land and sea. Watch was kept along the coast, with the strong English fleet patrolling the English Channel. That year Haley’s Comet appeared over the European sky, and was called in England the “Fire-Drake” (fire dragon). Throughout the North, men saw this as an omen, heralding momentous events to come.
In Normandy, William prepared to back his claim to the throne of England with force of arms; and to avenge himself upon his erstwhile friend and oath-breaker, Harold. It was no small endeavor, and though they accepted the justice of their Lord’s claim, many a Norman lord looked upon William’splans with trepidation. William set about in the Spring of 1066 to bolster their resolve, and to gather recruits to his banner. In pursuance of this, he sought and received Papal support from Rome. The breaking of an oath, particularly when given upon the bones of a Catholic saint, was a serious legal offense in Medieval Europe. It also didn’t hurt William’s cause that all southern Italy and Sicily was controlled by the Norman Fitz-Tancred dynasty, who were the Pope’s chief defenders against his rival, the Holy Roman Emperor; and who were deferential to their Norman Duke back home.
Harald was subsequently excommunicated by the Pope, and a papal legate delivered to William a Papal banner, to symbolize the support of Holy Mother Church. This religious sanction gave William immeasurable political and psychological advantage. The morale of his vassals was greatly strengthened in the fearsome undertaking to come. It also encouraged pious adventurers from all over Northern France to flock to his banner, in order to win religious indulgence by smiting the “Usurper”, and perhaps new land in a conquered England.
Even with this Papal support, the conquest of England must have seemed a daunting task.
England was a far larger and, in theory, stronger country than the Duchy of Normandy. Her fleet controlled the channel, and William had nothing that could be called a navy to oppose the English “Sea Fyrd”. This was manned by experienced seamen, captained by men who were in many cases former Vikings; and filled with detachments of axe-wielding Huscarls, experienced at fighting on shipboard.
On land, the Normans had the advantage of mailed cavalry, provided by William’s knights and vassals. The knights of Normandy were considered
the finest heavy cavalry in Western Europe; and had won battles from France to Sicily. However, in 1066 it had yet to be shown that heavy cavalry could prevail over the steady, close-ordered infantry of the English “shieldwall”, perfected by English and Scandinavian armies over the previous three centuries. Harold’s Huscarls in particular had a fearsome reputation throughout Europe. These “knights who fight on foot” were all veteran professional warriors, many of whom had 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!
William’s first task was to get his growing and now-eager host across the Channel, in the face of English naval superiority. With no apparent way to do so safely, William bided his time throughout the summer, waiting for fortune (and God) to send him the opportunity he needed.
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 but wait, and try to keep his levies in the field. Unfortunately for him, summer turned to fall and still his enemies failed to materialize. Feudal obligation demanded he disband the Fyrd, both by land and sea, so that this country militia could return to their farms and bring-in the autumn harvest.
No sooner had the levies gone home, than word arrived from the north of England that the opening of the three-way campaign of 1066 had come: Harald of Norway had landed near York. In September of 1066, Harald Hardraade and Tostig Godwinson invaded England, coming with a large invasion fleet of Viking longships and experienced Norse warriors. By the time word of the incursion reached Godwinson in London, the Norse had already met and routed the Northumbrian levies at the Battle of Gate Fulford. York was on the verge of surrendering.
In response, King Harold Godwinson forced-marched north with an army composed of his Huscarls and levies hastily gathered along the way. He arrived on September 25th , in time to intercept Hardrada and the Norse army as they marched unarmored (though not unarmed) to accept the surrender of York. At a river crossing called Stamford Bridge, the two armies met.
For a while, the narrow bridge was held by a single, gigantic Norse warrior (whose name, sadly, is unrecorded). Time-and-again Harold sent forward
champions from his own Huscarls to clear the bridge. Each time, the Viking champion sent them back reeling. Finally, a Huscarl in a small boat worked his way under the bridge; and with a spear stabbed between the boards and under the Viking champion’s mail skirts. The Norse warrior fell, mortally wounded; and the English crossed the bridge.
Hardrada had used the time gained to prepare his host for battle. As the English now approached the Norse shieldwall, deployed beneath King Harald’s raven banner known as “Landwaster”, Tostig Godwinson came out to parlay with his estranged brother. King Harold offered his brother clemency if he would surrender himself. But when asked what terms he offered Tostig’s ally, Harald of Norway, the reply was “Six feet of English earth to be buried in (or as much more as necessary, as King Harald is larger than most men”!
With that, a ferocious battle erupted. Though mighty warriors, the Norse suffered from their lack of armor; and though they had few archers, an English bowman struck the decisive blow when an arrow struck Hardrada in his unprotected throat. Even after their famous lord was slain, the Norse fought on. Reinforcements arrived under Hardrada’s Marshal, Eyestein, from their distant ships; but these were exhausted by their long run from the coast to the battle. These too were defeated, and within hours of its beginning the battle ended with the routing of the Norwegian army; with both Hardrada and Tostig Godwinson slain.
Though the redoubtable Hardrada was thus dispatched, Harald Godwinson found no time to savor his triumph. While still at York, dire word reached him that William the Bastard had crossed the Channel, landing near Pevensey.
In the absence of the English naval levies that had been dismissed with the coming of autumn, William had taken advantage of unexpectedly good sailing weather and his rival’s distraction in the North to pounce upon England like a leopard upon his prey! Taking advantage of the opportunity the late season and the Norwegian invasion had given him, William and his Normans crossed the channel on the 28th of September, just two days after Stamford Bridge.
The Norman army of 1066 has variously been estimated as high as 60,000 (William of Poitiers) and as low as 4,000 strong. Christopher Gravett of the Royal Armories plausibly places their number at the lower end of the spectrum: 2,000 chivalric horse, 4,000 heavy foot, and 1,500 bowmen; for a total of 7,500.
After establishing a base near the coast, William needed to find a way to bring Harald to battle quickly. He knew that time was against him: if the full English levy could be reconstituted, the numbers against him would preclude a successful battle; and his invasion force could be easily contained and starved in Kent. With winter coming, the Channel crossing would be closed, and his supply line from Normandy cut. He needed a battle soon, before Harold could gather additional strength and his supplies grew scarce.
To lure his enemy south, William employed a strategy of devastation. Spreading out from their base near Hastings, Norman mounted detachments pillaged deep into Sussex; lands that were once part of the Earl of Wessex’s demesne. This was more than just a raid to replenish supplies: it was a personal insult and challenge to King Harold, to defend his people if he dare!
Harold had not been sluggish in responding to the Norman invasion. Five days after receiving news of Williams landing, he was back in London. After a rest of several days, allowing some of his levies to arrive back from their fields, his army moved south toward the Normans at Hastings.
On the early evening of 13th of October, 1066, the last Saxon King of England leading the last Saxon army arrived at the fixed muster place: Caldbec Hill. Directly to the south, the London-Hastings road passed over a ridge and descended into marshy valley before rising up and over another rise, Telham Hill. It was to the northernmost of these rises that Harold would on the morrow array his army: Santlache (“Sandy Stream”) Hill; later punned by the Normans as Senlac (“Blood Lake”) Hill.
The Normans spent the night of the 13th and early morning of the 14th in prayer and confession; the English likely in the deep sleep of the exhausted. At daybreak, William led his army out of camp toward Telham hill; arriving there in about an hour. Telham Hill was just 800 yards from where Harold was arraying his forces on Senlac. As the Norman column mounting the hill, William paused to survey the scene.
Senlac Hill as viewed from below. The Battle Abbey was build atop the position of the Saxon Shieldwall. The slope, eroded by centuries of rain-runoff, would have been steeper in 1066AD
His eyes would have taken in the terrain and position of his enemy just north of his own: the Saxon army deployed on the ridge of Senlac Hill, directly across from his position. He could see that their array took up the whole ridge from end to end, some 800 yards long, and ten ranks deep!
The English were arrayed in their traditional “shieldwall” formation. To William it would have appeared as a densely packed, brightly painted rampart of shields, with the new-day sun glinting off the mail shirts and polished helmets, the spear-heads and axe blades of the warriors arrayed behind it. Their front ranks would have comprised the best armed and equipped men in the English host: Huscarls, and the leading thegns and their retainers. Behind these would be the more numerous and lightly men of the Fyrd. All would have been similarly armed with spear or Great-axe, sword and dagger, and often tomahawk-like belt axes for throwing at the enemy prior to contact (the Bayeux Tapestry, woven later by ladies of the Norman court, depicts the Saxons hurling hammers and maces as well) .
The shields of the English shieldwall would have been one of three types, as depicted by the Bayeux Tapestry. Most often shown is a “kite shield”, the same that was carried by their Norman enemy. These were long shields round on the top and pointed at the bottom. The second most depicted shield was a concave round (lentoid) shield, held by a central grip behind a large center iron “boss”. This shield type differs from the more familiar “Viking” round shield, which was flat and not concave. Experiments in recent years with these type 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 scuta, or rectangular shields of the Rus.
Whatever their design, the English shields that formed the shieldwall at Senlac were drawn-up tightly together, likely overlapping; and covered the ridgeline from end-to-end.
The English numbers are as controversial as those of the Normans. Medieval chroniclers numbered them a preposterous 30,000; though a more realistic number would be about that of his rival: 7,000. Of these, the Huscarls were the professional and most effective part. But these had been sorely tried at Stamford Bridge; and were unlikely to have numbered more than 2,000 at the battle.
William would have noted that the ground directly separating Telham from Senlac was firm, a sort of saddle between the two hills. But immediately to either flank, on the east and west, the ground became marshy as two separate steams began 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 fight to come would be straight forward, with little opportunity for the Normans to flank, or the Saxons to withdraw.
At 8:00 am, the Norman columns filed down from Telham and deployed in the valley below Senlac. William sent his men forth with the stirring words, “Now is the time to show your strength and the courage that is yours! There is no road for retreat!” They knew they must conquer or perish!
To the left, taking station on the western flank of William’s army, was the Breton contingent. To the right, forming on the eastern flank, were the Flemings. And in the center, opposite Harold’s own twin standards of the Wessex Dragon and The Fighting Man, were Duke William and his indomitable Normans.
Each of these three divisions were arrayed identically, in three lines. The first ranks were archers, the second heavy-armed foot, and the third and final comprised the chivalric heavy cavalry.
The battle commenced at the start of the third watch, or 9 am. A brazen peal of trumpets sounded, signaling the Norman onslaught!
The archers of the first line advanced to bow range, and at 100 yards began the battle with a barrage of arrows. Up they flew, towards the hedge of overlapping shields. Like a hail storm, the feathered shafts clattered against the interlocked shields! Due to the angle of fire and the protection afforded the Saxons by their shieldburg, the arrow storm did little damage; mostly bouncing from the shields or sticking harmlessly in their wood and leather faces.
As the archers passed back through the ranks to replenish their quivers from supplies in the rear, William sent in the second line of armored footmen, who now advanced up Senlac’s slope.
As they ascended the slope, the waiting English replied with a din of their own: weapons clanging on shields, and cries of “Holy Cross!” and “Godemite!” (God Almighty), and “Ut! Ut!”, (Out, Out!). As the Norman foot neared the shieldwall, its ranks opened, and out came a shower of throwing 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 gave back a step, and fell never to rise again.
Modern Reenactors reflect the fierce resolve of the Saxon shieldwall to repel the Norman assault with cries of, “Ut!”
Advancing onward, the Norman footmen charged the last few yards into the shieldwall, and a brief and terrible flurry of blows followed! Back they staggered, away from the shieldburg, as the spears and Great Axes took a fearsome toll. Though competent soldiers, the Norman foot were 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 regrouped in the valley below, the banners and lances of the Norman Chivalry fluttered and dipped all along the valley floor. Forward they 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!
In the center, in front of William and his banner, the gallant troubadour Taillefer (“Cut Iron”), the Duke’s own minstrel, led the charge. To him had been granted the privilege of striking the first blow amongst all the Chivalry. As his horse ascended the slope of Senlac, far outdistancing those behind him, Taillefer tossed his lance into the air and caught it repeatedly, all the while singing verses from “The Song of Roland”!
At the top of the ridge, English champions stepped forward to meet him. The first he slew with his lance, a second went down before his gleaming blade. The third, a giant Huscarl, brought his Great Axe down in a ferocious swing, which struck the minstrel on his unwarded right side; toppling him from his horse and cleaving the gallant troubadour from shoulder to belly in a single mighty cut!
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 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 stopped, the Norman knights and men-at-arms hurled their lances at the Saxon masses. Or used lance or sword to stab and slash from high atop their rearing chargers at the heads and shoulders of the English warriors behind their shields.
The terrible English long-axes struck back, cleaving and hacking down man and horse. In one recorded incident ( likely repeated up and down the line of battle) a hulking Huscarl, swinging his axe from his left shoulder, hacked off a Norman horse’s head with a single blow! As the Norman’s horse collapsed where it stood, his second swing cleaved the rider in twain as well!
Man and beast could not stand such carnage for long. Beginning on the Norman left, where the riders of Brittany fought, and cascading down the whole Norman line, the cavalry began to give way. In seconds, retreat became rout on the left as the Bretons spurred their horses in panic away from those terrible 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 through the Norman host like a summer blaze in tall grass: “The Duke is slain! The day is lost! Save yourselves!”
At that moment of crises, the fate of England hung in the balance. In moments, the entire Norman army could be following the Bretons in panic, off the field and stampeding back toward the false security of their camp.
But fate took a different turn. William, still alive though slightly wounded in the previous skirmishing atop the hill, rode forward through his milling 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!!” Thus, with Count Eustace of Boulogne at his side carrying the Papal banner of Holy Cross, William rallied his wavering army.
Meanwhile, on the Norman left, the truly panicking Breton contingent had fled down the slopes and into the boggy ground beyond the left flank of the battle. Seeing their discomfort, the undisciplined English rustics of the Fyrd who fleshed out the right-wing of the Saxon line, sensed victory and went charging after them. Down the hill they ran, pursuing and in places catching the fleeing Bretons.
William spied the debacle developing on his left flank; and taking what knights he had at hand, galloped across the field and into the rear of the pursuing Fyrdmen. In an instant, pursuers were cut off from their own lines, and became fugitives!
A small hillock rose out of the boggy ground there, and the English 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 on top of Senlac, could do nothing to help his subjects who had disobeyed his order to hold the line!
Though in the balance the morning had gone well for Harold and the Saxons, it had not been without cost. In the tightly packed shieldwall, the wounded could hardly withdraw to the rear for first-aid. The king’s own two 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 or both of Harold’s brothers leading the charge of the right-wing down the hill after the fleeing Bretons. 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. Both sides had taken serious casualties, and horse and man needed both food and water before continuing the struggle.
William must have had some concern, for as early afternoon wore on, the English still stood firm though somewhat thinner atop Senlac. He had to dislodge them! Come nightfall, if the English army remained 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. Defeat was not an option: by nightfall, he had to find a way to dislodge the Saxons from Senlac.
By mid-afternoon, the battle began again. This time, Norman foot and horse advanced up the hill in “Conroi”, individual groups fighting beneath the banners of their liege Lords. Such units gave the Normans great small unit flexibility, and allowed one group to rest while another assaulted the Saxon line.
Noticing the effect the Breton’s panicked flight had on the integrity of the shieldwall, William ordered his Conroi 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. Small groups of over-excited Saxons 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 and cut off their retreat. In moments the pursing English were savaged and hacked down from all sides by Norman cavalry.
Many acts of bravery and boldness are 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 their King. Bishop Odo, William’s half-Brother, fought throughout the day with a mace in hand: being a churchman, shedding a man’s blood with sword or lance was unacceptable; but smashing his bones with mace or club was! In another incident, a Saxon warrior ducked under the Duke’s lance-point, and dented William’s helmet with a mighty axe 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!
As Norman “Conrois” charge the English shieldwall, Odo Bishop of Bayeux fights with mace in hand, in order not to “shed blood”
Despite 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. And though thinned out greatly, they showed no sign of breaking.
William had time for one last throw of the dice.
Reordering his ranks, he now brought up his archers again, for the first time since the morning. Ordering them to aim high, William’s archers now rained arrows down in a falling trajectory upon the now not-so-tightly packed and well-ordered shieldwall.
At this junction of the battle, 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 one last time. Unable to hold the whole of the hilltop with their diminished number, the English shieldwall had contracted itself around its center; leaving the ends of the hilltop undefended. Here a wedge of Norman knights, all of whom swore an oath not to return alive if they failed to slay Harold, gained a foothold for the first time that day. On flat ground now, they spurred into the tired Fyrdmen and few remaining Huscarls gathered around the Royal standards. Too exhausted to keep them out, the horseman pushed into the shieldwall, hacking and slashing their way to where Harold stood beneath his standard.
The tapestry shows here a Norman knight reaching a figure thought to be the King, and with a downward cut hews deep into the King’s thigh. The caption above this portion of the tapestry reads “Here King Harold was Killed”. It is therefore believed that the Norman’s pushed through and slew the wounded Harold beneath the Wessex Dragon.
With the sun setting upon their fallen King, the English army now broke apart and fled back into the woods to their rear. In the gathering gloom, pursing Normans were repulsed by stubborn and vengeful Huscarls. But with the darkness come, the battle was over.
1066 a watershed year in history. The Viking Age came to a close, with the death of Harald Hardrada and the destruction of his army at Stamford Bridge. This would prove the last great attempt by a Scandinavian king to conquer the British Isles. Christianity had come to the North, and a Great-grandson of Hardrada would lead a Norwegian contingent to the Crusades. The Scandinavian kings would take their place in Europe not as pagan enemies, but as Christian colleagues.
The Battle of Senlac Hill, or Hastings as it is more popularly known, was a decisive battle of European history, and a turning point for England. Had the Saxons prevailed, England would have remained as it was and had been since Alfred the Great: a strong nation, but one outside the tides of European mainstream; more Scandinavian in outlook than 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. And though French became the language of the English aristocracy for the next two centuries, the 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; which in time would lead to the Magna Charta and Simon de Montfort. Unlike their cousins who remained on the continent, the French who settled in England inherited from their Saxon subjects a proud unwillingness to accept absolutism at face value, and to fight their king when necessary to protect their rights.
The Saxons would gain the vitality and boldness of the Normans, and no longer be the insular, inward looking people they once were. The melding of the two races created an English race that would one day create the British Empire, the greatest empire since Rome; and the United States of America, the greatest force for good the world has ever known.