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, and landed in Kent!
In the absence of the English naval levies (the Sea Fyrd) that had been dismissed back to their home ports 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 crossed the channel on the 28th of September, just two days after Stamford Bridge.
Images of the Norman invasion preparations: Armor, weapons, and supplies being carried to the waiting ships. Note the distinctive Norman “helm-cut” hairstyle. Below, the Bayeux Tapestry depicts the scene.THE NORMANS
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. Instead, leather strips gartered the shins from ankle to knee.
The helmet worn by both the Norman knight and the elite among his 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 (William of Poitiers) and as low as 7,500 strong. Though Oman 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 would wither from starvation in Kent. With winter coming on, the Channel crossing would be closed and his supply line from Normandy cut. 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, Norman mounted 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!