In retrospect, the death and destruction wrought by great battles of history are somewhat tempered by the changes they have eventually affected- new empires have risen, enslaved people have been freed, democracies have come to flourish. But as so often happens, appreciation and understanding give way to complacency and apathy. We do not care how or why we have what we have, nor do we ponder the origins of our culture. Over nine hundred years ago, a grassy hilltop in the south of England set the stage for a confrontation whose ramifications would reach the entire world.
In January of 1066, the English king, Edward, died childless, and everyone generally expected Harold Godwinson, the Earl of Wessex, to succeed him. Most of the country believed that Harold’s late father, Earl Godwin, had really been the one running the country all along. Added to this was the fact that Edward was married to Godwin’s daughter. The marriage was not one based on romance, as most were not then, but rather a means for Godwin shore up his power base. Some historians suggest that the marriage was never even consummated because Edward was such a devout man and above the weaknesses of the flesh. Years earlier, he had constructed Westminster Abbey, an undertaking which had earned him the sobriquet “Edward the Confessor.” Other historians speculate that Edward was homosexual.
Harold Godwinson was a man of the people. He was charismatic, brave, handsome, a skilled warrior and a red-blooded (or perhaps blue-blooded) Englishman. Who would have questioned his right to be king?
Two men did. The first was the barbarian king of Norway, Harald Hardrada. His claim to the throne was based on a pact he had made with the former Danish ruler of England, Harthacanute, who had died 24 years earlier after a mere two-year reign. The second was William, duke of Normandy. William was a distant cousin to Edward the Confessor, and claimed that Harold Godwinson had pledged on sacred relics that he would support Duke William’s ascension to the English throne. This latter incident supposedly occurred two years earlier, when Harold sailed to Normandy, in modern-day northern France, to secure the release of his brother and his nephew. They were both being held as insurance for the throne of England. Upon landing on the French coast, Harold and his crew were captured by William’s vassals, and remanded to the duke’s custody. Accounts relate that the two men became friends, and Harold was allowed to return home after he had made his promise.
When William announced his plans for invading England, his friends and advisors thought him mad. He reminded them that as his vassals, they owed him military service in exchange for the fiefdoms – land and titles – he provided them. When this did not convince them, he tempted them with even more land and wealth if the invasion were a success. His final ploy was to secure the blessing of Pope Alexander II, by convincing him that Harold was a usurper and blasphemer. After he succeeded in having Harold excommunicated, William had turned this campaign into a holy crusade.
The Normans landed in Pevensey, in southern England, on September 28th, 1066. From there they marched east to the town of Hastings, sacking several other towns in their path. King Harold had just finished defeating the forces of Harald Hardrada and his Viking marauders at the Battle of Stamford Bridge a few days earlier when he received word that he would have to rush south and fight a new menace. Exhausted and desperate, his soldiers headed towards Hastings.
Harold’s forces were assembled on Caldbec Hill, about five miles from the town of Hastings. Strategically, the position of his 7,000 to 8,000 man army was excellent. The Normans, who had camped a short distance away, literally had an uphill battle. Harold’s’ army was composed of about 2,000 to 2,500 housecarls, professional bodyguards for the king. They were efficiently trained soldiers who wielded their trademark battleaxes with deadly accuracy. The rest of the men were mostly from local militias- called “fyrds”- who were not very well-trained or equipped, and were not called on to fight very often. Morale was not high among members of the fyrd, but the fact that they were defending their homeland against a foreign invader helped.
Duke William had Normans, Flemish and Bretons on his side, the former occupying the center position. His initial plan was to have his archers soften up the enemy with a barrage of arrows. This tactic was not particularly successful, due to the Saxons’ use of the shield wall, employed originally by Alfred the Great nearly two hundred years earlier. After a couple of unimpressive volleys from William’s archers, the cavalry charged up the hill, followed by the infantry.
The Saxons were caught off guard by the Norman cavalry’s method of fighting – on horseback. The Saxons employed mounts, but rode them to the place of battle, dismounted, and fought on foot. A knight charging on horseback had significant advantages over a foot soldier, but the housecarls’ axes, and the missile weapons hurled at the Norman knights inflicted significant casualties.
The first wave of the attack was not decisive. The Normans regrouped and charged a second time. At one point, the rumor circulated among the invaders that Duke William had been slain. Panic spread through the ranks, panic which would have cost William the battle. In a bold move, the duke removed his helmet and rode through the ranks of his soldiers. The battle was back on.
The Saxons might well have won the day had it not been for a foolish move by the fyrd. The Normans feigned a retreat, and a mob of inexperienced fyrdsmen broke ranks and chased them down Caldbec Hill, whereupon the Normans swept in from all sides and routed them.
The Normans had the advantage now. Saxon morale was crumbling. William again employed his archers, but this time ordered them to shoot their arrows into the air, arcing them. Many of the arrows hit home.
Legend has it that King Harold’s demise came shortly after he took an arrow in one eye. Seriously but not yet mortally wounded, the dazed and bleeding king sank to the ground, surrounded by a cadre of loyal housecarls, who were falling around him with increasing regularity. Finally a group of Norman knights charged through what was left of Harold’s bodyguards and hacked him to pieces.
William the Conqueror ruled England for the next 23 years, until he was fatally injured after a fall from his horse. His reign was not easy, neither on him nor the people he vanquished. Although he quelled the various revolts and rebellions with brutal efficiency, he could possibly have lost all that had been won that Saturday, October 14th, 1066 over the next few years. Respect him or despise him, one has to give a tremendous amount of credit to a man who was one of the best military commanders of the 11th century. In the aftermath of that bloody day, the English lost all that had been familiar to them, but in the end, a civilization much-enriched emerged from the ruins of the old one.