The true story of the Battle of Hastings, today in 1066

On the anniversary of the battle of Hastings, our history blogger gives an account of the battle, and puts it into a wider context of medieval Nordic wars … 

The last Anglo-Saxon king falls in battle on English soil. But did he really die with an arrow in his eye?

As we wait for the next series of Game of Thrones, I cannot help but think I have seen it all before ­— dynastic families so intermarried that the members’ only loyalty is to self; ambitions so uncompromising that war is the inevitable result; and carnage so total that the threat of defeat is existential. But whenever the story takes me to the throne room in the Red Keep at King’s Landing, all I see is Westminster Abbey — because this is an old, old story.

We like to think that Anglo-Saxon England was brutally cut down in 1066 — unexpectedly — in a battle lasting just one day. To reinforce our assumptions, we still revel in Victorian and Hollywood melodrama stereotypes of dastardly Normans persecuting flaxen Saxons in box-sets of Ivanhoe or Tolkein’s thinly disguised versions set in Middle Earth.

The reality, of course, is far more complex.

For a start, in 1066 England was not ruled exclusive by Anglo-Saxons, and the Normans were not an alien race. Leading Anglo-Saxon and Norman families were already deeply intermarried. For instance, that famous 11th-century Anglo-Saxon king Saint Edward the Confessor was mixed race. His father, Æthelred II “the Unready” (unraed, no counsel or unwise) was as Anglo-Saxon as they come. But his mother, Emma, was a powerful Norman noblewoman — daughter of Duke Richard II of Normandy.

Edward’s connections to Normandy ran deep throughout his life. Although born in the Oxfordshire village of Islip, the unrelenting Viking threat meant he was taken for safety to Normandy in 1013, and again from 1016–1041. So when he ascended the English throne aged 37/40, he had spent the last 25 years of his life in Normandy. Understandably, as soon as he got the chance, he set about appointing Normans to many of the senior positions in English government and the Church. So, decades before Hastings, there were already a lot of Normans over here.

It was an age when kings and dukes were primarily warlords. Their worth was measured in land and spilled blood. It was therefore inevitable that as the governments and noble houses of the Anglo-Saxons and Normans became ever more intertwined, the Normans would come for the throne of England sooner or later.

The road to Hastings began ordinarily enough. A man lay dying. As it happened, it was Edward the Confessor. But what marked the event out as singular was that he had failed in one of his key royal responsibilities — he was leaving the world childless. To no one’s surprise, as the end approached, he nominated as heir his brother-in-law, the 46-year-old Earl Harold Godwinson of Wessex.

Harold was the kingdom’s richest noble, and a great military commander who had subjugated Wales in 1063. The Witenagemot promptly proclaimed him king, and Archbishop Stigand of Canterbury crowned him at Edward’s gleaming new Westminster Abbey the following day, the 6th of January 1066, the same day Edward was buried there.

But the dead king’s ineffectual leadership had passed Harold a major headache, as one of Edward’s favourite political strategies had been to promise all sorts of people he would make them his heir. Given his strong attachment to Normandy, it is no surprise that he had, most likely in 1051, promised the throne to Duke William of Normandy, a distant cousin. In fact, Norman sources go further, saying that in 1064 Edward had even sent Harold to Normandy to confirm the arrangement. At the same time, in front of William and on a box of relics, Harold apparently swore a sacred oath to uphold William’s claim to the English throne.

The headache did not end with William. There were other claimants, too. King Harald III “Hardraada” (the ruthless) of Norway had a claim to the throne via an earlier agreement between Harthacnut (king of England and Denmark) and Magnus I (king of Norway and Denmark). Over in Hungary, Edgar the Ætheling had a claim as grandson of King Edmund II “Ironside”. And in exile in Flanders and Normandy, Tostig Godwinson, Harold’s rebellious brother, was nursing a venomous grievance against the Anglo-Saxon establishment.

So, with the sacred coronation oil still wet on Harold’s head, a lot of steel began to be sharpened across the water, from Normandy to Norway.

Harold identified the most immediate threat as Duke William of Normandy.

William, like his predecessors, was of Viking stock, tracing his direct male line back to Rollo the Viking, who had moved south from Scandinavia into France around AD 900, where he and his people  were recognised asNortmanni or northmen, eventually giving rise to the name Norman. They converted to Christianity, began speaking French, gave up boats and learned the ways of Frankish cavalry combat, but remained fundamentally fired up by their traditional lives of warfare and looting.

William did not have an easy childhood. His father was true-blue Norman nobility, Duke Robert I “the Devil” of Normandy. But his mother, Herleva, was a concubine and tanner’s daughter — hence the taunts of bastardy that William received throughout his life, about which he remained highly sensitive. For instance, when the defenders of a castle at Alençon hung animal hides out to taunt him, he captured the fortification and showed his appreciation by cutting off all their hands and feet.

When he unexpectedly became duke at the age of seven, Normandy immediately descended into anarchy and warfare, as all levels of the nobility (including his family) tried to exploit his youth — murdering three of his guardians and even his tutor. Somehow he survived the free-for-all, and the experience hardened him into a survivor. Once knighted aged 15, he immediately set about pacifying and restoring order to his duchy, seizing back possessions that had been taken from him, and imposing justice on the lawless opportunists who had destabilised his inheritance.

It was a remorseless apprenticeship in blood and power that turned him into one of the most accomplished warriors and rulers of the age. He earned his authority by the sword, and these early experiences profoundly shaped his character. He was always open to innovation, while his strategies in war and government were consistently pragmatic — ruthlessly exploiting any weaknesses, but withdrawing when the odds were against him. Away from the battlefield, he reformed the Church in his lands, and supported it with the piety expected from someone in his position, appointing his maternal half-brother, Odo (who later fought alongside him at Hastings), as bishop of Bayeux.

By the time Harold Godwinson was crowned at Westminster Abbey in 1066, William was 38 years old, had spent his entire life fighting, and was very, very experienced at taking what he believed was rightfully his.

William prepared the ground before Hastings thoroughly, even going so far as to seek the approval of the Pope, who blessed battle banners for William to carry, demonstrating the Holy See’s displeasure with Harold for his alleged perjury, and also generally with the state of the English Church under the excommunicated Archbishop Stigand, who claimed to be both bishop of Winchester and Archbishop of Canterbury at the same time.

Winners write history, and the Battle of Hastings (or, more precisely, the Battle of Senlac) was no exception. The main accounts we have are theSong of the Battle of Hastings (1066), the chronicle of the Norman monk William of Jumièges (1070), and the chronicle of William of Poitiers, who was a former soldier and William the Conqueror’s personal chaplain (1071). Then, from some time in the 1070s or 1080s, there is the extraordinary and unique Bayeux Tapestry, probably commissioned by William’s brother, Bishop Odo of Bayeux (then also regent of England and earl of Kent), woven to his order in England.  There are also a few lesser descriptions, including some Anglo-Saxon accounts, notably in versions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.  But all these records are biased, and none has the detail needed to reconstruct events minute by minute.  There is therefore a lot about 1066 that remains contested and unknown.

On the 27th of September, after bad weather forced an eight-week delay, William crossed the Channel in around 600 transports with perhaps as many as 7,000 infantry and cavalry. He faced no opposition at sea or on landing at Pevensey, so was free to move east towards Hastings.

Harold was busy elsewhere. It had been a long summer, with threats to his crown coming from all angles.

In May, Tostig Godwinson (King Harold’s exiled brother) raided the east coast, but was beaten off by Earl Edwin of Mercia. Harold had been guarding the south coast against an anticipated attack by William, but by the end of the summer he had run out of supplies and had to let his militia go back to their fields for the harvest. Then, in mid-September, King Harald Hardraada of Norway landed an army near York, which was quickly reinforced by Tostig and his men. Together, on the 20th of September, they comprehensively defeated the northern earls at the battle of Fulford.

To head off this very serious threat. Harold raised men again and rushed to the east of York, where he annihilated Hardraada and Tostig’s armies on the 25th of September at the battle of Stamford Bridge, leaving both invading leaders dead on the battlefield.

The distance between Hastings and Yorkshire meant that Harold did not hear of William’s arrival until the 2nd of October. A battle on the south coast was the last thing he or his tired army needed. Nevertheless, he headed south. After 11 days — and having stopped to raise local militias and collect some fresh but inexperienced troops in London — he drew near to Hastings on the 13th of October, where his army of around 7,000 pitched camp on the ridge of Senlac Hill, south of Wealden Forest, around 10 miles north-west of Hastings.

The stage was set.

Senlac Hill (possible etymology: sang lac, lake of blood). One of the best preserved medieval battle sites in England

As the sun rose on the 14th of October, William moved out to meet Harold. He had his archers in front, his infantry behind, and three divisions of cavalry bringing up the rear.  The men were a mix of Norman, Breton, Flemish, and French, with a significant number of mercenaries and adventurers.

Harold’s army was simpler, just infantry, Anglo-Saxon style, who rode to battle but fought on foot. The majority came from the fyrd (locally raised militia), but at the centre of the force were the housecarls, the king’s professional, personal troops, among the toughest infantry of the period anywhere in Europe.

Some medieval accounts say that Taillefer, a Norman jongleur, rode out first, juggling a sword and whipping the men up with a spirited recitation of the Chanson de Roland. He slew an Anglo-Saxon who ran out to silence him, before running into the enemy ranks and being cut down.

Attacking from the south, William’s archers scored initial success against the Anglo-Saxons on the top of the hill, but at the cost of many dead from javelins and slingshot. He then unleashed his mounted cavalry up the slope, but they fled after being savaged by Anglo-Saxon double-handed battle-axes and being spooked by a rumour that William was dead.

William took off his helmet to show he was still alive, regrouped the knights, and set up a rhythm of alternating volleys of arrows and cavalry charges. The Anglo-Saxon shield wall held firm on top of the hill, but William fooled them with two feigned retreats, luring groups of Anglo-Saxons down off the ridge in pursuit, only to be rounded on and massacred.

The grind and gore of close quarters battle wore on throughout the day. Three horses were cut down from under William, but he drove on until eventually the Anglo-Saxons began tiring of their defence against mounted cavalry. As the shadows lengthened, two of Harold’s brothers fell, and — in the late afternoon — Harold was killed. His men fought on for a while, but as dusk came they broke and scattered.

It was over.  As the Shropshire monk Orderic Vitalis recorded:

 The mangled bodies that had been the flower of the English nobility and youth covered the ground as far as the eye could see. (The Ecclesiastical History)

Norman knights charging the Anglo-Saxon shield wall

William wasted no time. He swung his army north-west to London, and the remaining Anglo-Saxon leaders submitted to him at Berkhamstead. He was crowned king of England in Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day 1066.  As an indication of divisions to come, when the crowd in the abbey cheered him in English and French, the guards outside were unnerved by the foreign shouts and thought there was treachery afoot, so set fire to surrounding buildings. The coronation descended into chaos as people ran out of the abbey to go looting, while William, the bishops, clergy, and monks finished the ceremony.

To quash the ensuing revolts, William rapidly built castles across the land (most famously the Tower of London), which he used as bases from which to crush opposition. The most dangerous revolt came from Northumbria in 1069–70, but William’s troops smashed it, before decimating vast tracts of northern England in the almost genocidal “Harrowing of the North”, principally designed to waste the land to stop further Viking incursions (like the earlier Danelaw) or support for them.

The king stopped at nothing to hunt his enemies. He cut down many people and destroyed homes and land. Nowhere else had he shown such cruelty. This made a real change. To his shame, William made no effort to control his fury, punishing the innocent with the guilty. He ordered that crops and herds, tools and food be burned to ashes. More than 100,000 people perished of starvation. I have often praised William in this book, but I can say nothing good about this brutal slaughter. God will punish him. (Orderic Vitalis, The Ecclesiatical History)

Small-scale resistance persisted in isolated pockets — most famously orchestrated by Hereward the Wake from his base on the Isle of Ely in the Fens — but before long the rebellions fell quiet.

One of the enduring mysteries of the Battle of Hastings is what really happened to Harold. The famous image from the Bayeux tapestry has him felled with an arrow in his eye, but none of the six broadly contemporary chronicles mention this, and the tapestry was made probably 10 or 20 years later.  It is most likely that the tapestry weavers included it as a symbolic death — a visual code identifying Harold’s perjury, for which blinding was a common punishment, just like Zedekiah in the Bible. Tradition says Harold  was buried at Bosham church or Waltham Abbey, and in the wake of the discovery of Richard III’s body, a camera crew is currently following archaeological attempts to find Harold at Waltham Abbey.

In the aftermath of the victory, Pope Alexander II imposed heavy penances on William and the Norman army for the sheer numbers they killed at Hastings. William therefore ordered the construction of an abbey, where monks could pray for the souls of the dead. It was the first religious foundation to be built by the Normans in England, and was as much a symbol of Norman might as an act of penance for the bloodshed. Despite the difficulties of building on a hill and establishing a monastery nowhere near any water, William insisted it be raised on the battlefield, with the high altar over the spot where Harold fell. The abbey thrived, and gave life to the nearby town of Battle, playing an especially important role managing local defences and feeding and clothing refugees during the Hundred Years War. Abbot Hamo is perhaps its most famous superior, remembered for leading local troops to victory against the French during the battle of Winchelsea in 1337. Battle Abbey remained one of England’s most notable monasteries until Thomas Cromwell dissolved it in 1538, at which point William the Conqueror’s cloak, which had been kept there, also disappeared from history.

So, was the Battle of Hastings one of the key turning points in English history? Did William’s gamble and good luck change the fortunes of England forever? The schoolchild’s essential guide to English history certainly thinks so:

When William the Conqueror landed he lay down on the beach and swallowed two mouthfuls of sand. This was his first conquering action and was in the South; later he ravaged the North as well. The Norman Conquest was a Good Thing, as from this time onwards England stopped being conquered and thus was able to become top nation. (Sellar and Yeatman, 1066 And All That, 1930)

Generations of historians have pointed to the immense rupture in English life that followed the conquest. The Anglo-Saxon nobility was replaced wholesale, while Norman nobles assumed absolute control of the country’s levers of power — the throne, government, and the law. All land was appropriated by the crown then parcelled out as fiefs to around 180 Norman nobles, who held the land in return for knight service, revolutionising patterns of landholding and military infrastructure. The Church was reformed by the removal of Anglo-Saxon bishops and abbots, and Norman replacements were parachuted in. Centuries-old links with the royal houses of Scandinavia were definitively broken, and relations with France became much closer. The language of power changed, and written English largely ceased to exist, as Norman-French (later Anglo-Norman) and Latin took over for almost all purposes.

On the other hand, many things did not really change for the vast mass of ordinary people. They continued to speak Anglo-Saxon, a language which has evolved directly into our modern English of today. It acquired many Norman-French words after the conquest, but the fundamental mechanics of the language suffered almost no structural impact, remaining resolutely Germanic. Even when French vocabulary was assimilated, the new words often came as additions not replacements. So today we have pig/swine and pork, cow and beef, sheep and mutton, murder and homicide, ghost and phantom, freedom and liberty, harbour and port, and so on. It was a process of linguistic enrichment rather than destruction.

If you want to know what the Ænglisc sounded like that Harold and his men shouted to each other on top of Senlac Hill, then these opening lines of Beowulf give you as good an idea as any:

Hwæt! wē Gār-Dena in gear-dagum Þēod-cyninga þrym gefrūnon, hū ðā æþelingas ellen fremedon.
[So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness. We have heard of those princes’ heroic campaigns. (transl. Seamus Heaney)]

Many other important Anglo-Saxon innovations were also retained. The fabric of central and local government was largely unaffected, and the apparatus of the Anglo-Saxon legal system — including its jewel, trial by jury — was kept, preserving the country’s ancient legal heritage, keeping it distinct from the Romanised processes on the continent.

In reality, as invasions go, the country had seen worse. Far more devastating was the displacement 600 years earlier of the indigenous Britons, when the Anglo-Saxons (or Angles, Saxons, Jutes, and Frisians to be precise) invaded and imposed their alien Scandinavian-Germanic ways onto the islands’ Celtic peoples, driving them from the centre into the Welsh Marches, Devon, and Cornwall. In that invasion the Anglo-Saxons came in large numbers to settle — which the Normans never did.

Ultimately, all of these people, Anglo-Saxons and Normans, were Nordic/Viking-type warrior people, whose endless wars ravaged northern Europe throughout the early middle ages — sowing the seeds for conflicts in every subsequent century up until 1945.
In the grand scheme of these endless battles for land and wealth, the Battle of Hastings was more of a local fracas than an epochal shift. Nevertheless, the consequences for these islands have shaped our history ever since, tying us to dynastic English possessions in France right up to the loss of Calais in 1558, bringing to an end what Edward the Confessor had started 500 years earlier.

(First published in The Daily Telegraph, 14 October 2014)