On October 14, 1066, two determined enemies faced each other over shallow valley. Arrayed on one side was the invading army of William, Duke of Normandy. Looking down upon them from the heights of Senlac Hill were the defenders of England, led by their warrior king, Harold. With the fate of England in the balance, they would contend that day in one of the greatest and most decisive battles in the sanguine history of the British Isles: The Battle of Hastings.

This struggle was the culmination of years of dynastic intrigue concerning the succession to the English throne that followed  the death of King Edward the Confessor. This 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” (though this appellate may be a misconstruction of the Anglo-Saxon word for “Unwise”).

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. (Edward’s elder brother Alfred had been treacherously killed by the Danes some years earlier.)

Edward’s excessive piety earned him the sobriquet, “The Confessor”. Raised inedward the confessor the court of Normandy,  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 Norman faction 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, now Earl of Wessex. Harold used his wealth and position at court to build a private army, modeled upon Canute’s, of veteran warriors called  Huscarls (or Housecarls, “Household Warriors”). 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 NormanCoast.

Normandy was ruled by the stern and capable grandson of Richard the Good, Duke William (called 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 gain the English throne peacefully.

Fortune intervened in his favor when the Earl of Wessex himself washed ashore in 1064. Harold and his brother were taken initially by Count Guy of Ponthieu, a vassal of Duke William. He was 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; in the course of which Harold performed acts of heroism that earned him his spurs and accolade from William’s own hand.

Harold Knighted

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 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.

Harold tricked

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. Perhaps already he had set his own sights on Edward’s throne, and at that moment realized he had sworn under oath before God to help his new-found friend to attain it instead.

Harold returned to England, where events proceeded rapidly.

His 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 Earl, and wishing to avoid civil war, Harold accepted the new Northumbrian Earls, the brothers Edwin and Morcar. In 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. King of Norway since 1047, as an exiled prince in his youth he had ventured to the Court of Byzantium. There he’d won great renown as a leader of the famed Varangian Guard; the Scandinavian “corps de elite” of the Eastern Roman Emperors. Returning to Norway with both wealth and a store of military experience, 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. He had campaigned for many years in Denmark as well, in an attempt to unite the two countries under his sword.

Tostig Godwinson found a patron with a ready ear for intrigue in Hardrada. Between the two men, a scheme was hatched to invade England and unite Norway and England as one land; just as Canute had recently done with Denmark and England. 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 Witan, the English proto-Parliament, elected Harold Earl of Wessex as their king.


Harold Godwinson is crowned King

Two other strong men were prepared to contest the Witan’s judgment, however, and lay claim to the English throne: William the Bastard in Normandy; and Harald Hardrada of Norway. Both were laying in supplies and mustering their forces. The summer of 1066 promised to be a bloody one for England.

Godwinson prepared to defend his land and crown. 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.

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, Harold, 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 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 land-owning warrior class, the thegns; and the professional “Huscarls” of King Harold and the smaller versions of other great lords. 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.

The Normans, for their part, had an advantage of their own superb mailed heavy cavalry, provided by William’s knights and vassals. Norman adventurers had already ventured as far afield as Italy, where they were carving out another Duchy in Apulia. The Norman was feared and respected throughout Europe.  However, in 1066 it had yet to be shown that viking_waxeheavy cavalry could prevail over the mailed infantry tactics of the English “shieldwall”, perfected by English and Scandinavian armies over the previous three centuries. Harold’s Housecarls in particular had a 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!

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 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; and 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 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. And pious adventurers from all over Northern France flocked to his banner, to win religious indulgence by smiting the “Usurper”.

However, William still had to get his growing and now-eager host across the Channel, in the face of English naval superiority. With no apparent way presenting itself, he chose to wait; and watch for fortune (and God) to send him the opportunity he needed.

bayeux - normans preparing

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 militia Fyrd a necessity, as feudal obligation demanded; and both fleet and army went home to harvest their fields.

No sooner had the levies disbanded than word arrived from the north of England, that the opening salvo of the three-way campaign of 1066 had come: In September of 1066, Harald Hardrada and Tostig Godwinson landed near York, 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 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 surrendering.

Harold Godwinson responded with lightning alacrity, force-marching north with an army composed of his Housecarls and those levies he hastily gathered along the way. He arrived near York in time to intercept Hardrada and his army.

On September 25th, along the road to York at a river crossing called Stamford Bridge, the English met Hardrada and the Norse army marching from their camp on the coast to take the surrender of York. Not expecting a battle, Hardrada and his men had left their armor back at their boats, and come only with shield and arms. A ferocious battle erupted, the Norse suffering from lack of armor. It ended hours later with the routing of the Norwegian army and the death of both Hardrada and Tostig Godwinson.

Stamford Bridge - Bjorn

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

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.

In the absence of the English naval levies that had been dismissed with the coming of autumn, William 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. 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 invasion army of 1066 was a combined arms force, comprised of heavy cavalry, close order infantry, and archers. The mounted knights and their retainers who were the elite strike force of the army came from Normandy, Brittany, and Flanders. The age of the armored knight on horseback was just dawning and the evolution of arms and armor in its infancy.

The Norman knight 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 pants (“chauses”) of mail; the average knight’s hauberk ended at the knee, and had short sleeves and no protection below the knee. Instead, leather strips gartered the shins from ankle to knee.

Norman knights

The helmets worn by Norman knights and their English opponents alike were conical shaped capes of steel, sporting a nasal that protected the wearer’s nose from glancing sword strokes. Under this the Norman knight wore a hood of mail or leather. Sometimes this mail “coif” covered the knights chin and jaw as well.

The Norman invasion force has variously been estimated as high as 60,000 (William of Poitiers) and as low as 7,500 strong. Though Oman (Art of War in the Middle Ages, Chapter II) plausibly suggests a figure of 12,000 cavalry and 20,000 infantry; Christopher Gravett of the Royal Armories more plausibly places their number at the lower end of the spectrum: 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; and his invasion force would be easily contained and starved in Kent. And as winter came on, the Channel crossing would be closed and his supply line from Normandy cut. He needed a battle soon.

To lure his enemy south, William employed a strategy of devastation. Spreading out from their fortified 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 come 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 several days of rest, 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 Anglo-Saxon King of England, leading the last Anglo-Saxon army arrived at the fixed muster place, at Santlache (“SandyStream”) 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 another rise, Telham Hill. Here, on the morrow, Harold would array his army across the London road, facing south on Santlache.

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

Battle of Senlac

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

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

He saw the Saxon army, some 8,000 strong, deploying along the ridge of Senlac Hill, their array covered the top of the ridge from end to end, some 800 yards long. The English were forming-up in their traditional “shieldwall” formation. To William it would have appeared as a densely packed, brightly-painted rampart of shields; crowning the top of the ridge. The new-day sun no doubt glinted off the mail shirts and polished helmets, the spear-heads and axe 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.

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

1 Senlac close up 2

The shields of the Saxon infantry would have been one of three types, as depicted by the Bayeux Tapestry. Most often shown is a 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 Housecarls may have served with the Byzantine Varangian Guard, and may have passed through Russia in route to Constantinople, it is not impossible that the Rus rectangular shield found favor with some of the Housecarls.)

Whatever their design, the English shields that formed the shieldwall at Senlac were drawn-up tightly, likely overlapping and covered the ridgeline 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 Housecarls and Thegns were all expert infantry fighters; superb at standing firmly in the shieldwall and delivering blows with spear, sword, and long-hafted Danish Great Axe. This latter was a fearsome weapon, capable of splitting a man in half or severing the head of a horse!

William would also have noted that in the shallow valley separating Telham from Senlac, the ground directly below the front of Senlac was firm, a saddle between the two hills. But immediately to either flank, on 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 fight to come 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 must have known that 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, was the brave Flemings. And in the center, opposite Harold’s twin standards were Duke William and his indomitable Normans, the Papal banner flying beside the leopards of the Dukes of Normandy.

Each of these three divisions was arrayed identically, in three echelons. The first ranks were archers, the second composed of the heavy-armed foot, and the third and final comprised 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 in the new morning sun. It is likely that the emotions they felt 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, a fierce joy and anticipation was likely the predominant emotion. Every knight must have known that this was the greatest battle of their lives, and perhaps of the Age. This battlefield would be the stage upon which they would make-or-break their reputations in front of an audience of their peers and their liege lord. The courage and indomitable resolve of the 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; with brazen peal of trumpets signaling the beginning of the Norman attack!

archersThe archers of the first line advanced up the gentle slopes of Senlac Hill to  bow range, and at 100 yards began the battle by raising their bows in unison, loosing a massed barrage of arrows. Up they flew, towards the hedge of overlapping shields. The feathered shafts beat against the interlocked shields like hail. 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 next sent in the second line of armored footmen, who now advanced up Senlac’s slope.

As they 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 Norman foot neared the top of the ridge, the wall of English shields opened and 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.

saxon reenactors

Modern reenactors demonstrate 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 a brief and terrible flurry of blows followed! The Normans quickly staggered back from the shieldburg, as the spears and Great Axes took a fearsome toll! 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 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  Duke William and his banner the gallant troubadour-knight Taillefer (“Hewer of 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 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.article-page-main_ehow_images_a08_1c_bo_differences-between-beowulf-superman-800x800 Taillefer cut him down with his gleaming blade! At the English line, he tried to force his horse through the rampart of shields. A Housecarl’s great axe struck the minstrel a ferocious blow on his unwarded right side; toppling him from his horse and cleaving the gallant troubadour from shoulder to belly.

Behind the fallen Taillefer, the charging ranks of mailed knights came over the top of the ridge, only to come 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.

Little damage did they do to the Saxons, 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 Housecarl, swinging Great Axe from left shoulder, hacked off a Norman horse’s head with a single chop of his terrible weapon! As horse collapsed in place, his second swing cleaved the rider in twain as well.

1 tapestry

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 like a summer blaze in dry grass: “The Duke is slain!” And, “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!”

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


Duke William (1) raises his helmet, showing his followers he is still alive, averting a crises. His brother Odo, Bishop of Bayeux, rides at his side.

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


Meanwhile, on the Norman left, the truly panicking Breton contingent had fled down the slopes and into the boggy ground beyond the eastern 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 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. 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, pursuers were cut off from their own lines, and became instead desperate fugitives!

A small hillock rose out of the boggy ground here, and the English 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 help his brave if foolish subjects who had disobeyed his order to hold the line.


Though 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 rightwing 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. Both sides 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 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 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. Small groups of overexcited 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, 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 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 Housecarls about the King. 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.

Despite some 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. Ordered this time to aim high, they rained arrows down 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. 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 itself 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 Housecarls 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.

death of Harold _bayeux_tapestry

The Bayeux Tapestry here shows a Norman knight reaching a figure thought to be the King, and with a downward cut 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 Norman’s 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 apart and fled; back into the woods to their rear. In the gathering gloom, pursing Normans skirmished with fighting bands of fugitive Housecarls. But with the darkness come, the battle of Senlac was over.

(In the gathering darkness, some of the pursuing Normans got trapped in a wooded ravine behind Senlac Hill, a place whose location is uncertain; 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.)

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 was and 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. And though French became the language of the English aristocracy for the next couple of 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; which in time would lead to Magna Charta and 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 their 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 once were. The melding of the two races created 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.

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10 Responses to 1066: A MOMENTOUS YEAR!

  1. This sir blew me away, as always an excellent piece of work. Glad to see you back too.

  2. Pingback: ELITE WARRIORS OF HISTORY: THE JOMSVIKINGS | The Deadliest Blogger: Military History Page

  3. Pingback: THE ANGLO-SAXON HUSCARLS | The Deadliest Blogger: Military History Page

  4. Pingback: War Paint (Part 1): The Bayeux Tapestry | Yesterday Unhinged

  5. RT says:

    So much detail with vivid descriptions, it seems more like a story than serious historical analysis of source material relating to it or a military analysis of a combined arm assaulting army attempting to take a largely static homogeneous infantry held hilltop position.
    As is typical with many Medieval battles, not much about the battle is certain,for instance, numbers, you allude to the variation in the Norman estimates but put the Harold’s at 8,000 in spite of claims ranging from a few thousands to (ridicuously) over a million. There is even varying opinions as to which hill it was fought on with claims of no archaeological findings that would suggest such a large battle was fought on Senlac. The Bayeux tapestry shows armored horsemen attacking armored foot on a level field initially, while some suggest it was fought on even steeper Caldbec. If there is dissent as to the actual battlefield, there certainly is much more as to conflicts where William landed and set up camp, the sketchy numbers, course of the battle (was there an infantry assault after the archer attack, (it’s not mentioned by William of Poitiers or shown on the Bayeux Tapestry) Anglo Saxon deployment, Harold’s killing, etc. Historians even debate the nature of the term Huscarl as to whether it actually meant the well known Danish heavy infantryman or had become associated with any professional retainer by this time, the way some use Coke to mean any cola or Jeep any four wheel drive. This was also an age when history was often little more than a propaganda tool invented or twisted by scholars with an ulterior motive. As a well known researcher on the battle, R Allen Brown, said, sometimes the only certainty we know is the Norman Army won.
    If it was fought on Senlac (remember Bosworth was the wrong field and many 360 year old civil war battlefields are also speculative), It seems very possible the initial archery attack was an attempt draw Harold’s forces of the hill as later in the feigned retreats and gets some support by William’s account. The steepest and hardest to climb part of the hill is the area where William’s army is recorded as having the most trouble, the left wing where the Bretons attacked. This may not have been an accidental assignment given to them by William as they were often considered the most skilled cavalry in France and also a possible thorn in William’s side. The Bretons are also well recorded using false retreats to lure enemies into pursuing and it’s not too unlikely that may have been what happened in their “rout” and possibly got out of hand because of the steepness of the slope or was simply a disparagement by Norman writers, while Norman retreats were “feigned”. Like most of the battle interpretations it’s supposition.
    It’s certainly a very entertaining article you wrote but given the various conflicting sources and accounts, it can’t be taken as more than speculation. Looking at a much later American Revolutionary battle, Lexington and Concord, stories appeared within the next hundred years that weren’t mentioned contemporaneously and are likely fictional but were recorded by some as facts. Given the conflicting claims about Hastings’ specifics in sources and the predisposition to use of histories as propaganda it’s very hard to guess what actually happened except William won.

    • barrycjacobsen says:

      The problem with so many academic historians today is that A) They deliberately write in a very dry fashion, targeting fellow academics rather than the broader public; and B) They are afraid to attempt to build a logical historical narrative based upon what we know from the sources, and making what used to be called “educated guesses”.

      I am not one of these.

      I write not for academics, but for the average person with an interest in military history and eager to learn more. I attempt to write vividly and to paint a clear picture. To do less is to do a disservice to a subject about which I am passionate. History is not dry facts, it is the narrative of the lives of people who were often not very different than ourselves. Its filled with drama. To write without a flair for the dramatic is a waste of time, as the average reader will not take the time to read it. Nor should they.

      I disagree, of course, with the silly notion that all we can say is that William won. Specious nonsense. But if you wish to shrug-off the commonly accepted theories about this battle, based on the material we have, than by all means do so. But that attitude does nothing to advance the study of this event or any others.

  6. Temmie Turner says:

    Hoi my name is temmie…

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