THE BATTLE OF HASTINGS – NORMAN CONQUEST
14th October 1066
This was a decisive battle fought between an advancing Norman army led by William Duke of Normandy and a defensive Saxon Army led by Harold Godwinson.
William, Duke of Normandy had spent much time with Edward the Confessor during the latter’s exile in Normandy. In 1051 William visited Edward in London where he claimed that Edward told him he would name him successor to the throne of England. In 1064 Harold Godwinson, Earl of Wessex, was shipwrecked off the French coast and brought to William. William claimed that Harold swore an oath to support William’s claim to the English throne. Harold later claimed the oath was made under duress.
When William heard the news that Edward the Confessor had died and that Harold had been crowned King Harold II he as furious and vowed to take revenge. William had spent the Spring and Summer of 1066 preparing his invasion force. He then had to wait until September for favourable winds to blow his ships across the sea to England. He landed at Pevensey on September 28th 1066.
Battle, near Hastings, England
William Duke of Normandy
Alan the Red
Eustace II, Count of Boulogne
Normans, Bretons and Flemings
Infantrymen and cavalrymen
Total number 7,000 – 10,000
King Harold II (Godwinson)
Ealdormen and Fyrd infantrymen
Total number – 7,000 – 8,000
The battle began at 9am when the Norman archers fired a volley of arrows uphill, however the incline of the hill meant that most of them went over the heads of the shield wall. William’s second attack was made by men with spears who charged up the hill, but they failed to break through the shield wall. Next was a cavalry attack which fared no better.
The Breton soldiers fighting to one side of the battle were met with a particularly fierce defensive Saxon line and suddenly a group of them turned and fled down the hill. Whether they fled in retreat or because they believed William had been killed is disputed, but whatever the cause a number of Saxons, believing they had won the battle, broke the shield wall and ran down the hill hoping to see the Normans off. However, William ordered a new attack on these fleeing Saxons and they were cut down. It is believed that Harold’s two brothers Gyrth and Leofwine died in this attack.
Having seen the effect of the Normans fleeing down the hill William’s next tactic was to make two more feigned flights. Both had some success in weakening the shield wall but it did not break. The fighting continued.
Late in the afternoon Harold fell. The exact cause of his death has traditionally been attributed to an arrow in the eye but this is now disputed and it is thought more likely that an arrow hit him through the eye opening of his helmet and while he was reeling from this he was struck by a sword. With Harold and many leading Ealdormen dead many of the remaining Saxons fled the battle. The high altar of Battle Abbey is supposed to be the exact place that Harold fell and the place where William gave thanks for his victory.
Decisive Norman victory
William set about claiming the crown for himself by ruthlessly slaughtering any who opposed him. The Witan selected Edgar Aetheling as the new Saxon King but he was no match for William and early in December Edgar and the last remaining Saxon Witan paid homage to William as their King. He was crowned in Westminster Abbey on 25th December 1066.
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