Battle of Hastings

The battle of Hastings was a very important battle in English history. It resulted in a new king and drastic changes to the country as a whole. The battle was fought between William of Normandy, who wanted to overthrow the English king, and King Harold II.

Reasons behind the battle

After the English king, Edward the Confessor died, there were three people fighting to take his place on the throne: William of Normandy, Harold Godwinson, and Harald Hardrada.

Harold Godwinson was actually crowned king by the English Parliament on January 6, 1066, one day after Edward the Confessor died.

William (and Harald) were not prepared to accept Harold being the new king and began their own, separate, invasions—Harald invading from the north and William from the south.

William Invades

William built an invasion fleet and was ready to sail to England from Normandy around August 12, 1066, but he had to wait for favourable winds. He was also concerned about the Anglo-Saxon fleet, so he decided to wait for more favourable conditions.

These conditions came on September 27, 1066. William set sail for England and his forces landed at Pevensey Bay on September 28. The bay was completely undefended so there was nothing stopping William’s forces from landing. Once his troops had landed, William fortified his position and began to attack the surrounding countryside. William focused his scorched earth attacks on lands that were owned by King Harold.

Harold Marches to Meet the Invaders

William’s invasion could not have happened at a worse time for King Harold II. When King Harold of England heard that William’s forces had landed, he was three hundred kilometers to the north having just defeated Harald Hardrada, another invader who was intent on taking Harold’s crown. Harald Hardrada had landed an invasion force two weeks earlier and King Harold was forced to march his army north to battle the invaders. Hardrada’s forces were soundly defeated and Hardrada was killed, but King Harold’s forces suffered numerous casualties as well.

While on the march back south, King Harold was informed of William’s invasion and he was forced to march his exhausted troops three hundred kilometers to the south to meet the threat.

Harold Reaches London

It took Harold’s men eight days to make it to London where King Harold allowed his forces to rest for a few days. While in London, Harold met an envoy from William. The envoy tried to get Harold to accept William’s claim to the throne, but Harold refused and even had to be restrained from killing the envoy.

Harold’s brother Gyrth tried to get Harold to put him in charge of the forces that were going to attack William. Gyrth argued that if he lost and was killed, Harold could gather another army and attack but if Harold was killed, the kingdom would be lost. Harold refused and insisted on leading the forces himself.

Harold was also counselled to wait and spend more time preparing for the battle. If Harold had waited an extra week or so, he would have had a larger army as well as a number of archers (which his present army was lacking), but again Harold refused. Scholars are not quite sure why Harold refused to follow these suggestions but he may have been hoping to surprise William with a quick attack—the same tactic that worked in the battle with Harald Hardrada.

The Battle

On the night of October 13, 1066, Harold’s exhausted forces arrived in the area around Hastings. Harold may have been hoping to catch William by surprise, but William received information that Harold’s forces were approaching.

Harold’s forces gathered around Caldbec Hill where he had been planning on waiting for reinforcements but William, attempting to break out of the peninsula where his men were stationed, forced Harold to send men to capture another hill farther on. This hill (which became known as Battle Hill) would give whoever controlled it a strategic advantage. Both sides sent men to try and capture the hill, and Harold’s forces won the race. Harold moved his forces to the hill and set up a defensive position. Harold then ordered that the area be fortified by putting up sharp stakes and digging a ditch around his forces. Harold then ordered that no matter what, his forces were not to leave their fortified position.

The actual battle took place on October 14, 1066. William may have tried to provoke Harold’s forces into leaving the hill and engage in a battle at the bottom of the hill but this was unsuccessful. Harold knew that William’s cavalry would have the advantage if he pursued William’s men at the bottom of the hill.

Although it is debated by scholars as to whether it is true or not, it is claimed that William gathered his men together and then asked for a volunteer to challenge a Saxon to combat. A man named Taillefer volunteered and rode forward. Taillefer challenged a Saxon and won the battle. He then charged the shield wall where he was immediately killed.

Regardless of whether the story of Taillefer is true, what is known is that William’s infantry raced up the hill to attack Harold’s forces. William’s forces were at a major disadvantage having to run up hill. Their archers had no effect since the arrows simply hit the Saxon shield wall or flew over the Saxons’ heads. Once the Normans reached the shield wall, they were cut down. The infantry assault lasted for approximately thirty minutes before it ended with heavy losses to William’s forces.

The next assault was by the cavalry. The Norman warhorses raced up the hill and although the Saxons took some casualties, the Normans were not able to do much damage and suffered the loss of a number of men (and horses).

Harold orders an advance and, still keeping in a shield-wall formation, the forces advanced. At this point, William was thrown from his horse. Immediately, people started claiming William had died (which probably would have resulted in a rout of William’s army), but William jumped on a new horse, took off his helmet and yelled that he still lived.

Harold’s advance was on the point of winning the battle but for reasons that have not yet been determined, the advance stopped. It is thought that the advance stopped because Harold’s brother Leofwine was killed. Leofwine may have been leading the advance and this could have been the reason why it stopped. William quickly attacked and forced the Saxons back up the hill where the Saxons reformed their shield wall.
By now it was around 2:00 p.m. on October 14th and both sides took a break. After the pause, the battle continued and the Normans were able to gain control of the area on the Saxon’s right. This was a gentle slope which allowed the Normans to attack from two directions—from the west and straight up the hill.

William ordered his archers to launch their arrows so that they would fall straight down into the defenders. This would not cause a lot of damage but would distract the Saxon forces as William attacked. William charged again (on both fronts) and was able to break through the Saxon shield wall. Now the fighting was mainly hand-to-hand combat. Harold was isolated with a few men at the top of the hill and William ordered Eustace of Boulogne to attack Harold with his best knights. Harold was killed during this attack and William won the battle.

Some scholars argue that Harold’s forces were tricked by the Norman forces when the Norman forces pretended to be routed and fled. Harold’s forces then broke formation and attacked only to see the Norman forces turn around and continue the attack. The Norman forces then attacked Harold’s soldiers and killed Harold. Whether this happened has been (and continues to be) debated among scholars.

After this battle, William was the only claimant for the crown left. He continued the invasion and within the year was crowned the new king of England.