Battle of Hastings
|Battle of Hastings|
|Conflict||Norman Conquest of England|
|Date||14 October 1066|
|Result||Decisive Norman victory|
On September 28, 1066, William of Normandy, bent on asserting by arms his right to the English crown, landed unopposed at Pevensey. On hearing the news, the Saxon King Harold, who had just destroyed the Norwegian Viking army under King Harald Hardråde at the Battle of Stamford Bridge in Yorkshire, hurried southward, gathering what forces he could on the way. He took up his position, astride the road from Hastings to London, on Senlac Hill some six miles inland from Hastings, with his back to the great forest of Anderida (the Weald) and in front of him a long glacis-like slope, at the bottom of which began the opposing slope of Telham Hill. The town called Battle in the modern county of East Sussex was named to commemorate this event.
The English force was 7000-8000 strong, and consisted entirely of infantry. The infantry comprised the local peasant levies (fyrd) along with the English men-at-arms (housecarls). The housecarls, most probably veterans of the Stamford Bridge battle, were armed principally with the Danish axe and shield. They took the front ranks along the line, forming a 'shield wall' with interlocking shields side by side. Behind the housecarls, the fyrdmen armed with whatever weapon was at hand took up position along the ridgeline and would have filled the front ranks if necessary as the housecarls fell.
On the morning of October 14, Duke William gathered his army below the English position. The Norman army was of comparable size to the English force, and composed of William's French, Breton and Flemish vassals along with various French nobles and their retainers, the nobles having been promised English lands and titles in return for their material support. The army was deployed in the classic medieval fashion with the Normans taking the centre, the Bretons on the left wing and the French and Flemish on right wing. Each battle comprised infantry, cavalry and archers along with crossbowmen. The archers and crossbowmen stood to the front for the start of the battle.
Legend has it that William's minstrel Taillefer, who had accompanied the army across the English Channel, begged his master for permission to strike the first blow of the battle. Permission was granted, and Taillefer rode forward alone in a showy display to the English lines where he was promptly pulled from his horse and killed.
The battle commenced with an archery barrage from the Norman archers and crossbowmen. However, as the Norman archers drew their bowstrings only to the ear and their crossbows were loaded by hand without assistance from a windlass, most shots either failed to penetrate the housecarls' shields or sailed over their heads to fall harmlessly beyond. In any event, the archery failed to make any impression on the English lines.
The Norman infantry and cavalry then advanced, led by the duke and his brother Odo. All along the front the men-at-arms and cavalry came to close quarters with the defenders, but the long powerful Danish axes were formidable and after a prolonged melee the front of the English line was littered with cut down horses and the dead and dying. The shield wall remained solid, the English shouting their defiance with 'Olicrosse!' (holy cross) and 'Ut, ut!' (out, out).
However, the Bretons on the left wing advanced too far forward of the other battles, coming into contact with the shield wall first. Inexperienced and unprepared for the savage defense by the English, the Bretons broke and fled. Possibly led by one of Harold's brothers, elements of the English right wing broke ranks and pursued the Bretons down the hill in a wild formless charge. With no defensive shield wall to protect them, the pursuing English housecarlar and fyrdmen were in turn set upon by a Norman cavalry charge and slaughtered.
This eagerness of the English to switch to a premature offensive was noted by Norman lords and the tactic of the 'feigned' flights was allegedly used with some success by the Norman horsemen throughout the day. With each subsequent assault later in the day, the Norman cavalry began a series of attacks each time, only to wheel away after a short time in contact with the English line. A group of English would rush out to pursue the apparently defeated enemy, only to be ridden-over and destroyed when the cavalry wheeled about again to face them away from the shield wall.
The Normans retired to rally and re-group, and to begin the assault again on the shield wall. The battle dragged on throughout the remainder of the day, each repeated Norman attack weakening the shield wall and leaving the ground in front littered with English and Norman dead.
Towards the end of the day, the English defensive line was in a depleted state. The repeated Norman infantry assaults and cavalry charges had thinned out the armored housecarlar, the line now manned by the lower quality fyrdmen levies. William was also worried, as nightfall would soon force his own depleted army to retire, perhaps even to the ships where they would be prey to the now gathered English navy in the Channel. Preparing for the final assault, William ordered the archers and crossbowmen forward again. This time the archers fired high, the arrows raining upon the English rear ranks and causing heavy casualties. As the Norman infantry and cavalry started forward yet again, Harold received a mortal wound, supposedly pierced through the eye by an arrow, but more likely that he was cut down by the Norman men-at-arms.
The renewed Norman attack reached the top of the hill on the English extreme left and right wing. The Normans then began to roll up the English flanks along the ridgeline. The English line began to waver, and the Norman men-at-arms forced their way in, breaking the shield wall at several points. Fyrdmen and carlar began streaming away from the battle as the English forces finally broke, the Normans overrunning the hilltop. The men of Harold's personal guard died fighting to the last to defend their mortally wounded king.
Only a remnant of the defenders made its way back to the forest; and William, after resting for a night on the hardly-won ground, began the work of the Norman Conquest.
Battle Abbey was built at the site of the battle, and a plaque marks the place where Harold fell.
The Bayeux Tapestry depicts the events before and at the Battle of Hastings.
The Battle of Hastings is also an excellent example of the application of the theory of combined arms. The Norman archers, cavalry and infantry co-operated together to deny the English the initiative and gave the homogenous English infantry force few tactical options except defense.
Parts of this entry were originally from the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica.