Friday, 14 October 2016

Hastings 950 - The Battle by Rob Bayliss

On Monday 25th September, just five days after their victory  at the Battle of Fulford Gate, King Harald III of Norway and his English ally Tostig Godwinsson were relaxed, camped eight miles east of York at Stamford Bridge. A cloud of dust was seen approaching on the road from the city. Harald and Tostig took it to be a delegation from the defeated Earls Edwin and Morcar bearing tribute and hostages. But the keen eyed among the host saw the tell-tale glint of mail and spear points.  King Harold II, brother of Tostig had arrived with the royal army from his watch over the English Channel.

A forced march of 180 miles in four days by Harold and his standing army of huscarls, collecting fyrd (militiamen) on the way, had caught Harald, the famed ex-commander of the Varangian Guard completely by surprise. Harald’s army would fight bravely, but the English victory over the Norse invader was utterly decisive. Harold had said that would only yield Harald “six feet of English earth or seven as he is so tall”. From a fleet of 300 ships only 24 were needed to ferry the defeated survivors home. Both Tostig and Harald lay slain.

The blood of the slaughter had barely soaked into the ground when word arrived to Harold’s ears that the much feared invasion from Normandy had taken place. Duke William had landed at Pevensey on the 28th while Harold and his forces had been in the north. It is thought that Harold was informed of this event during his march back south, which would account for the lack of Edwin and Morcar’s forces at the subsequent battle. Harold hurried back south to London and made his preparations for the most crucial and decisive of battles; the Battle of Hastings that took place on Saturday 14th October 1066.

The Normans land and establish their bridgehead - Bayeux Tapestry

The two armies that faced each other that momentous day would look similar but fought using different tactics.

Huscarl - Regia Anglorum
Although still a heroic society the English army had evolved from the days of warlords having retinues of hearth troops, although it retained an aspect of this tradition. The great lords of the day such as King Harold and the earls had their huscarls; the heavy infantry of the day, perhaps on a par with the famed Varangian guard in Byzantium. The huscarls had been introduced some 50 years earlier during Cnut’s reign. These were experienced professional warriors, possibly some of the best soldiers to be found in Europe at the time. They had taken the ancient tactics of the shieldwall and
developed them. Each huscarl would have a long hauberks of mail with a coif and conical helm with a nasal guard. They carried long kite shields and, as well as being armed with swords and throwing spears, they also were adept with the dreaded Danish axe. This was a fearsome weapon, it was able to break shields, lop off limbs and even decapitate a horse in a single blow.

Around this core were the fyrd. The fyrd system dated from King Alfred’s time. These were territorials who were bound to give two months service a year. They were raised on the basis on one man for every 5 hides of land. This raised around twenty shillings which would pay for the warrior’s weapons, armour and food. These warriors would probably have the more traditional round shields. In theory a king could call upon up to 20,000 fyrd, but such a number could never be raised at once due to the practicalities of communication and logistics at this time. As well as these semi-professionals Harold could also call on all freemen to his banners in a time of national emergency. Such men would have grabbed any weapon to hand, whether spear or scythe.

There are further factors effecting numbers available to Harold; the Southern Fyrd had been on duty all summer in expectation of the Norman invasion and had been disbanded due to the approach of harvest time. The pitched battle of Stamford Bridge would have caused great loss both to the huscarls and the fyrd who answered the call. Normally Harold would have had around 3000 huscarls, perhaps Stamford Bridge would have reduced this to 2000. Harold’s brothers Earls Gyrth and Leofwin would have approx. 1000 huscarls each. Perhaps the recalled fyrd that gathered at Hastings would be around 5000. So Harold would field around 9000 men, similar to the numbers William commanded.

The Norman army, despite their Scandinavian heritage had a more continental way of war. Norman society was feudal and at the core of their army were knights. The knights were granted lands with which to support themselves, and were required to serve their lord.  Like the Huscarls they would have long hauberks of mail, conical helmets with nasal guards and kite shields. However these were mounted heavy cavalry; the shock troops of the time, armed with lances, it is thought that William had around 2500 of these mounted warriors in total. As well as the knights the Normans fielded infantry, professional men-at-arms that weren’t landed knights and would probably be armed in similar fashion to the English Fyrd, these would be the bulk of the army, numbering perhaps 4500.  The Normans also had around 1500 dedicated archers using short bows to soften up an enemy prior to sword play.
Norman soldiers - Image from model-

The army was divided into three; William’s Normans in the centre supported either side by his subject allies, Eustace of Bologne and his Flemish forces on the eastern wing and Count Alain and his Bretons on the western.

The invasion itself was a marvel of medieval logistics. William had to gather around 500-700 ships to carry men, horses, equipment , and even a wooden castle in kit form, over the Channel. Encouraging his underlings and allies to help finance this operation speaks volumes for William’s reputation and powers of persuasion. He had to remind them of the terms of their tenure, but also convince then that such an operation was even feasible. True there was the promise of lands and plunder but due to the efforts of his advisor Bishop Lanfranc, William had managed to get a Gonfanon – a papal banner –  so the enterprise now had the blessing of Rome. This was no mere invasion, this was a crusade.
The invasion fleet had to wait almost a month until the tides and winds were favourable, it’s recorded that William only lost 2 ships during the crossing. Ironically one of these carried the Duke’s soothsayer; never underestimate the fickle finger of fate, or its sense of humour!

The papal Banner - Bayeux Tapestry

Moving hesitantly inland from the landing site at Pevensey, William built a fortification at Hastings. From here his forces raided the surrounding countryside both for supplies, with an eye to his extended supply lines, and also knowing full well the area were part of the Godwinsson lands. William needed a decisive victory as soon as possible. Likewise, Harold, no doubt buoyed by his victory in the north, and angered by the Norman pillaging, wished to grab destiny with both hands.

 Arriving in London on the 6th October Harold gave himself a week to gather his forces. True Duke William had been campaigning most of his life, but Harold was also a seasoned warrior and very able commander, and he gathered intelligence of the Norman position. On the 11th October, yet with only half his available forces he advanced across the Weald toward William. On Friday 13th the English gathered at the edge of the forest between the villages Whatlington and Crowhurst . The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle  lists the assembly point as the “hoary apple tree” . It has been suggested that Harold initially planned a swift forced march at night to launch a surprise attack against the Norman camp the next day, but his scouts would have reported that William knew of his presence and was advancing towards him. Even with the advantage of surprise lost, Harold had chosen an excellent defensive position, below Caldbec Hill. At  9am on 14th October the battle began at Senlac Ridge, as the Normans organised in the valley Harold’s shield wall took shape across the ridge, their ranks 700 yards long. In the centre Harold unfurled his standards , the wyvern of Wessex and his personal banner of the fighting man.

Map of the battle from

Under William’s papal banner the Normans advanced. The archers got within range and emptied their quivers at the English line. But this volley had little effect. They were shooting uphill so most arrows either were impaled on shields or passed over the English lines. Following this the Norman infantry struggled up the slope. The rise was some 50 feet from the brook in the valley bottom and they were met with a hail of missiles from the English, including spears, throwing axes and even rocks. William threw his knights forward, alarmed at the lack of progress achieved by the first wave.

The Norman first wave attacks the English  shieldwall -

It was on the shallow western end of the ridge that the Bretons arrived at the English lines before the Normans and Flemish. It was an uncoordinated effort that met an intact English line. They were met with missiles and were unable to get close to the English without risking their mounts. The Breton wing fell back leaving the Norman left flank exposed to missiles. The Norman and Flemish wings met the same dreadful site of intact English lines after struggling up the slope through hurled spears and rocks. The whole Norman line now waivered, on the verge of a general retreat. William's half brother Bishop Odo desperately tried to rally the fleeing Bretons.

On the western edge of the Ridge the English fyrdmen saw the Bretons in full retreat, from their perspective the whole Norman line looked on the verge of defeat; breaking ranks, they set off down the hill in pursuit. In the centre William saw the unfolding events, he had to act fast to stem the rout. He took his Norman cavalry and attacked the advancing English. How quickly in the fog of battle are the tables turned. The English fyrdmen now found themselves stranded in the open, unable to get back up the hill, and made a last desperate stand on a small hillock near the valley floor. The event is shown in the Bayeaux Tapestry. That they aren’t huscarls is shown by the lack of hauberks. The Bretons rallied and the stranded warriors in the hillock were slaughtered to a man. In the space of an hour and a half, with a momentary lack of discipline, Harold’s advantage and seemingly early victory had been snatched away from him. Harold’s previously impregnable line had to stretch thinner to compensate for his losses. Both sides paused to regroup.
The fyrd trapped on the hillock - Bayeux tapestry

Duke William shows his men he's alive - Bayeux tapestry
With the archers restocked with arrows the Norman second wave began. Learning from the previous failure William urged a slower advance so the infantry and cavalry could support each other. This second attack went on for 2 blood-soaked hours as the attack against the shield wall became a series of smaller battles along its length.  By 1pm the dead would be piled on both sides yet the shield wall held true. Both the Flemish and Bretons were sent back reeling in disarray. Again English Fyrdmen foolishly gave chase to be caught in the open. Norman chroniclers say these were feigned retreats but with the discipline (or lack of) at the time this is highly unlikely. With the low morale of these troops a feigned retreat could easily become a rout. It is said that William himself fought in this second phase and had 3 horses killed under him. he had to show his face when a rumour began among his men that he had been slain.

Again the Normans withdrew and took stock. William must have been becoming increasingly desperate; the English shield wall held and his men would be exhausted. The slopes would be churned up by hooves and slick with blood. He knew his men had one more attack in them. Defeat and retreat would almost certainly cost William his life. The next attack had to succeed. A different tack was required. He had to combine his archers and his knights and foot soldiers more effectively with his whole force attacking the ridge at the same time.

Bishop Odo in action against the shield wall - notice his weapon is a club so as not to sinfully draw blood - from

At 3 o’clock The Normans advanced slowly with horse and foot solders together, the archers in the rear.  The Norman advance drew out the usual English volley, but it was impatient and launched at a longer, less effective distance. As the Normans closed with the English the archers fired upwards, high into the air so the arrows would fall on the English line and draw their  shields up. With the shower of arrows causing a distraction the hand to hand combat began. An hour into the third wave and the turning point was being achieved. Gaps began to appear in the English line and the Normans forced themselves in, breaking the shield wall into sections.  With both English flanks now weakened and the whole ridge no longer defensible, William ordered the Flemish and Bretons to attack from both sides. They broke through, shattering the English position that had held solid across the ridge all day.

For Harold now the battle was lost, it was all about now life, death and honour. There was fighting
Harold is slain - Bayeux Tapestry
along the whole ridge. It was at this point that Harold’s brothers Leofwine and Gyrth fell, defending their king and brother judging by their proximity to Harold. The fyrd attempted to escape and melt into the forest but the huscarls, true to their oaths, remained fighting around Harold and his standards. As the light faded around 5.30pm Harold fell, probably not by an arrow to the eye, as interrupted in error from the tapestry, but from a sword blow and then “covered in deadly wounds”, according to William of Jumieges. Fired by the events of the day and their sense of religious righteousness Flemish knights hacked at the fallen king, grievously mutilating him. It was said only Harold's handfast wife, Edith Swanneck, could recognise her lover's body, so terrible were the wounds inflicted on the slain Harold.

The last stand -  from

With the King and his brothers slain there was nothing more to fight for, a few remaining huscarls fought doggedly to the last while others fled to the forest  pursued by the vengeful Norman cavalry to prevent any regrouping. It might well have been the case that there were still late arrivals of fyrdmen appearing on the battle’s periphery. That some English still had the spirit to fight was shown when a band of Norman knights were ambushed and slaughtered at a place called Malfosse (evil ditch), named as such after the event. Yet despite the valour of the defenders at Malfosse the battle was over, and decisively so; England would never be the same again, of the three contenders for the throne only the Norman Duke William remained.

Harold's bones are lost to history, there would be no shrine to the fallen king. It was said that he was either buried without ceremony on unconsecrated ground (as he was ex communicated), or was perhaps thrown into the sea. Another tale reports him as being buried under a cairn on a headland, as if ironically watching for invaders. William refused the pleading of Harold's mother, Gytha Thorkilsdottir, to yield to her the slain kings remains, even in exchange for Harold's weight in gold. Even in death perhaps, he revealed the precariousness of William's position, that of an invader, a foreign usurper. Yet a new regime would now held sway, and history would be written by them, as victors are wont to do.


The Battle of Hastings - Peter Poyntz Wright - (1986)
The Bayeux Tapestry
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
William of Jumieges - Deeds of the Dukes of the Normans
Frank Barlow - The Feudal Kingdom of England 1042-1216 (1988)

Rob Bayliss is a reviewer at The Review and fantasy author. Information on his writing projects can be found at Flint & Steel, Fire & Shadow.

1 comment:

  1. Awesome account of the battle and the events preceeding it. As always, you are our Battle Man