illustration of the Battle of Hastings and two Norman bowmen

The Day English History Was Turned Upside Down

illustration of the Battle of Hastings and two Norman bowmen
Just over 950 years ago, England had a violent rebirth as it was savagely thrust into a new era by Normandy's William the Conqueror.
October 14th, 1066 marked the birth of Norman England, with half the Anglo-Saxon nobility, including King Harold, perishing in battle that day. The other half were soon displaced by a new French-speaking aristocracy. English language and culture had been indelibly altered. 
Achievements like the Domesday Book aside, the subsequent reign of the cruel and ruthless man also known as 'William the Bastard' was shockingly brutal, even by medieval standards. 
It's telling that by the end of his rule in 1087, at least one source attributes an incredible, guilt-ridden deathbed confession to William:
"I appoint no one my heir to the crown of England, for I did not attain that high honour by hereditary right, but wrestled it from the perjured King Harold in a desperate battle with much effusion of human blood. I have persecuted its native inhabitants beyond all reason, whether gentle or simple I cruelly oppressed them."
"Many I unjustly disinherited. Innumerable multitudes, especially in the county of York, perished through me by famine or the sword. 
"Having therefore made my way to the throne of that kingdom by so many crimes, I dare not leave it to anyone but God alone, lest after my death, worse should happen by my means." 
Historian David Starkey references sources that actually do have William choosing heirs for his lands in England and Normandy, so it's likely the deathbed conversion to decency was actually ascribed to him by unsympathetic contemporaries. What's striking is that these do not seem to have been in short supply.
Immediately after his death, attending lords did not tend to the corpse. Neither did they stick around to pay their last respects to a 'conquering hero' who’d secured a foreign land and made his nobles its nobles. 
Instead, according to Simon Schama’s History of Britain, they charged off to grab territory open to seizure now that he was dead. The king's body was abandoned, sprawled out on the monastery floor, "naked, bloated, and beginning to putrefy", where it was looted by servants.
When he finally was bundled, then forced, into a now undersized sarcophagus, the king, who'd grown fat in his later years, suffered a final indignity related by the monk Ulderick:
"William’s swollen bowels burst and an intolerable stench assailed the nostrils of the bystanders. Despite the clouds of fragrant incense, the funeral service had to be rushed to a conclusion."  
It wasn't supposed to be this way. With an English king killed in battle, and his successor ignominiously disrespected in his final hour - how had England's history become so dark?
'It was the hairy star'
Contemporary explanations for England's radical political shift were rooted in superstition, with the English recalling a couple of inauspicious omens.
Everyone remembered the winter of 1065, that had brought huge storms and ravished the countryside. As the monks gathered to consider why God had forsaken their country, the hairs on the back of their necks must have stood up when they remembered the dark vision the dying king, 'Edward the Confessor', had related to them one night that winter.
Tree cleft in two
(tree image: Duncan R Slater)

The Normans, meanwhile, were confident that God ordained their invasion. Years before, English political infighting had resulted in the ejection of the Norman Archbishop of Canterbury, and his replacement by a local, 'parochial', religious official named Stigand.

This gave William a pretence for seeking Papal support, which he got, claiming that he was invading England to correct the 'disruption' Stigand’s appointment had created in the church hierarchy. 

And no doubt, the Normans and their English opponents over the Channel both noticed Halley's Comet blazing across the night sky in April 1066, and must have seen it as a celestial marker for something hugely significant. As events rolled on that year, it was likely recollected with dread by the English while possibly filling the Normans with a growing sense of destiny and divine purpose - at least, that is the impression one gleans from the appearance of the comet on the Bayeux Tapestry (see the video below.)

NASA picture of Halley's Comet
Halley's Comet, visible earlier in 1066 and depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry (image: NASA)

As we know today, however, history often turns on a combination of chance, personality, and circumstances.

To the medieval mind, chance meant the will of God, and was often the totality of any explanation. But with hindsight, it's possible to see that the Battle of Hastings probably turned out the way it did because a long chain of events beforehand aided William while disadvantaging Harold.

'The shadow of Alfred and the bastard duke'

The explanation for the defeat of the Anglo-Saxons by the Normans at Hastings ultimately starts with the decline and fall of Rome.

As the Empire contracted in the 400s AD, fringe provinces like Britain were left to fend for themselves and were vulnerable to raids from groups like the Picts, Scots, and Saxons.

Map of the Roman Empire at its height in 96 AD
The Roman Empire expanded into and then made England one of its fringe provinces (image: public domain)

It's difficult to imagine today, but the vacuum left by Rome's fall reverberated for centuries afterwards as new peoples and nations were formed. Borders were not considered as indelible as they are now, and William's conquest in 1066 was part of the process of establishing them.

He effectively added England to his French Norman dukedom, while, in time, huge chunks of France would come to be part of the kingdoms of some of his successors in England.

But in the years preceding Hastings, the biggest, meanest, most expansive force with which England had to contend was not coming out of France, but Scandinavia.  

Romano-Britain had, by the 7 and 800s, incorporated the Saxon raiders (some of whom are thought to have been mercenaries hired to deal with other raiders) into what had been a Romano-British culture, creating Anglo-Saxon England.

But it was not a united kingdom, and ironically, as Simon Schama observes, it took Viking invasions to make it that way.

'The Last Kingdom' television series depicts Alfred’s struggles with the Vikings and features a version of the shield wall

Rallying behind the then king of Wessex and subsequent first true king of England, 'Alfred the Great', the Anglo-Saxons finally defeated the Vikings at the Battle of Edington in 878.

Post-battle politics revolved around improving naval forces and training foot soldiers to secure river crossings, both with the aim of repelling the 'Danes'.

Meanwhile Vikings, or 'north men', who settled in Normandy (or 'North-man-dy'), swapped out their longships for warhorses and developed cavalry tactics. In time, they would become the Normans who would later invade England from the south in 1066.

Alfred’s preparations paid off, and relative peace reigned for over a century, until another Viking, 'Cnut the Great', invaded and made himself king.

Unlike William, Cnut's reign was calm, but upon his death in 1035, a violent power struggle ensued.

'Edward the Confessor,' a descendent of Alfred, eventually ended up on the throne, but not before Cnut’s advisor, Godwin, had arranged the murder of Edward’s brother. Now, disastrously for England (as it would turn out), Godwin and Edward were trapped into political partnership. Each one of them wielded enough influence to hold power, but not sufficient power to remove one another. 

illustration of Cnut the Great
King Cnut (image: Public Domain)

It is here that Norman and English history was already beginning to overlap, because Edward had spent 30 years in Normandy as a refugee from the political crisis sparked by King Cnut's death.

Schama notes that he would have known the young William and seen him orphaned and vulnerable to assassination.

He suggests that Edward would have "marvelled" at how the illegitimate son of the Norman duke and a tanner's daughter had suddenly become the heir to so much, after his father died on a pilgrimage. 

"William was forced, just aged 10, to witness the brutal murder of his beloved steward in his bedchamber before his very eyes… Edward must have marvelled at how the stripling boy grew into a steely and ruthless young man, eventually triumphing in battle over a formidable league of rebel nobles."

So it was that eventually, the sturdy, 5 feet 8 inch 38-year-old Duke ‘William the Bastard’ would become, in 1066, King 'William the Conqueror', defying all those who challenged his birth or position. In fact, by 1066, any political infighting in France had ceased to affect William, leaving him free to concentrate his efforts on his invasion of England.

'A house divided against itself'

Meanwhile, over the Channel, the dominoes were falling in a way that would undermine the future King Harold Godwinson.

Edward had appointed Norman nobles as allies in his power struggle with Earl Godwin, eventually throwing him and his sons out in 1051, only to have them round up muscle in Ireland and Flanders and come back with a fleet, forcing him to eject his Norman advisors. He was left impotent, disengaged and from that point, interested only in confession.

The coup worked a treat for Godwin, but, after his sudden death in 1053, it set gears in motion that would eventually doom his son Harold.

To begin with, it is at this point that Norman chroniclers assert that Edward promised the crown to William upon his death. As if that weren't enough of a pretence for William, Harold himself sailed to Normandy in 1064. The reason is unclear, but it may have been to rescue his younger brother - who'd been taken hostage by William.

Norman Warriors during the time of the Battle of Hastings in 1066
Norman warriors, encountered by Harold when he met William, seen here as what Schama says were "the scary half-skinheads of the early Feudal world" (image from 'Hastings 1066' by Christopher Gravett © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

In any event, the Normans asserted that Harold was shipwrecked, taken in, and possibly charmed by William. He was then either convinced or tricked into swearing some kind of oath - William claimed it gave him the right to be king of England. The English claimed it only obliged Harold to be William's man in Normandy. 

But as it turned out, it wasn't the dispute between William and Harold that would boil over first. 

Upon becoming king after the death of Edward in January 1066, Harold was certainly expecting trouble from William. He called up and massed his army on the south coast.

But he was looking in the wrong place. 

Bringing back memories from Godwin's ejection from and subsequent return to England against King Edward, Harold had previously supported northern nobles in a dispute with his younger brother Tostig. He may have wanted them on side for when he claimed the crown.

Either way, Tostig had been thrown out by Harold and was now back. He'd allied himself with the fearsome king of Norway, Harald 'Hardrada' III, who, according to Schama, was "built like a Norwegian cliff face" and had a reputation for "elaborately creative cruelty".

Having let his army disband to tend to the harvest, Harold was forced to recall as many of them as he could before storming north to East Yorkshire, picking up whomever else he could along the way. Awaiting him were thousands of belligerent Vikings conveyed, some sources say, by 300 ships, others 500, with yet others claiming over 700.

But despite overwhelming force and their surprise invasion, it was Hardrada and his men, complacently awaiting hostages after already winning one battle, who were caught off guard when Harold' entire army showed up instead.

The result was the Battle of Stamford Bridge, which was a resounding victory for Harold Godwinson, leaving his little brother and Hardrada dead amongst a pile of Viking corpses. The few 'Dane' survivors reportedly limped back to Norway in just 24 of their original ships.

'Two different ways to fight'

It must have seemed like he was cursed when Harold then got news that William was now invading in the south. Going into reverse gear, his army bolted back down the 187 miles to Hastings - galloping, running, or marching as fast as they could. 

They arrived too late to stop William terrorising the local populace, but were determined that he would advance no further. Harold assembled his army on the ridge of Senlac Hill, now at Battle, outside Hastings, where he could block the road to London.

Senlac Hill Hastings
Harold’s forces lined up across the top of Senlac Hill, seen here in the distance with an Abbey now standing where Harold and his forces were (image: Christopher Hilton from

Possibly unaware that Harold’s army had just been exhausted by one battle, William was likely wondering if he might be the one to die that day. 

His forces had deployed on a peninsula and would need to force their way through a bottleneck of land now blocked by Harold’s men. 

Two pictures from the top of Senlac Hill in Hastings
Tne abbey on the left now stands where the Anglo-Saxons were (left); they held the high ground and looked down the hill at the Normans (right) (images: writer's collection)

It would not be easy. The Anglo-Saxons were packed tightly across the whole breadth of the ridge of Senlac Hill, about 8,000 of them at the front with interlocking shields forming a man-made wall perhaps 10 men deep. The 45-year-old Harold was amongst them, providing leadership and inspiring confidence, surrounded by bodyguards and with a retinue of 800 crack troops both around him and bolstering the front line.  

Eyeing up their Norman opponents, they likely beat their shields and chanted:

'Olicrosse!' (Holy Cross!), 'Godmite!' (God Almighty) and 'Ut, ut!!' (Out, out).

With steeper hills and thick vegetation on either side, flanking them was out of the question. The only way was through the middle.

But that would be, quite literally, a daunting up-hill challenge. Yet, if William's men didn’t break through that day, they'd have been finished. With dwindling energy, momentum, and supplies, the Anglo-Saxons could encircle them on land and at sea. A home turf advantage also meant Harold's supply lines could be maintained, and as soldiers belatedly made it to battle, his ranks would only swell.

Perhaps the Anglo-Saxons began to believe the day could be theirs after all.

A map of the Norman landings before the Battle of Hastings
William (in blue) was on a peninsula, vulnerable to encirclement – if the route to London was blocked and his ships surrounded, he could be starved out (image from 'Hastings 1066' by Christopher Gravett © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

Commencement of the battle was signalled by a trumpet call at around 9am (medieval battles were reputed to have begun in conjunction with church hours, as well as having a number of priests, servants and boys observing the proceedings). 

Unlike Harold’s army, William's was a product of warfare on the continent, something that would work in his favour that day.

In his book on medieval warfare, David Nicolle describes the Norman style of warfare as patient, cunning, and multifaceted - well-practised, as it was, with besieging castles. He also notes that, with the death of the king (or duke) being the natural outcome of a direct fight, Normans tended to avoid them. At Hastings, William had no choice. Thus, Harold’s shield wall would be patiently picked at until they found a way in.

Norman forces were modular, grouped into archers, infantry, and cavalry, and could be used more flexibly than Harold's. This norm for the continent was expanded to the British Isles following William's invasion, becoming a sort of basis for modern tactical arrangements, with mobile and ranged weapons' forces (then archers, now artillery) supporting a core of infantry.

The archers attacked first, softening up the English, quite possibly emptying their first 24-arrow quivers by unleashing a hail of fire. There were thought to have been 1,500 archers, with pull and crossbows, far outmatching the cruder slingshots, javelins, and smaller supply of bows used against them by the Anglo-Saxons.

However, most of the arrows smacked into the shield wall, or flew ineffectively over the top. 

Next up was the 4,000 heavy infantry, armoured in chain mail 'hauberks' and conical helmets, bearing swords, some spears, and shields of their own. They were the summoned men and mercenaries of William's army, and their job would be to hit the wall looking for weak spots, and eventually prize it open.

3D map battle of hastings
View from the south of the battle: William's forces (in blue) kept testing the shield wall until Harold's right wing (in red) broke away and gave chase (image from 'Hastings 1066' by Christopher Gravett © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

That too failed, and so William sent up his 2,000 cavalry – knights on horseback expected to perform 40 days' service in exchange for land. They formed into units of 25 or 50 called, 'conrois', and charged at the wall, stabbing, probing for weak points.

But the hill slowed their momentum, and in any case, they had to contend with the deadly 'huscarls' (or housecarls), the equivalent of Anglo-Saxon knights - elite troops armed with two-handed axes that could reputedly slice through a horse and rider in one.

Snapshots of the battle that may or may not be true are related by Norman poet Robert Wace, who lived a generation or so after events. One is of Norman knight Robert fitzErneis riding for the English standard, killing a man with his sword before being cut down by axes, possibly wielded by huscarls.

Opening and closing the wall for these huscarls, jostling behind their shields, were the fyrdmen. The fyrd formed the 6,500-man core of Harold's army and consisted of ordinary villagers and farmers clustered around lords, or thegns, and experienced soldiers. They were allocated and raised using animal hides as a unit of economic measure (one man provided for every five hides, according to Christopher Gravett’s book, Hastings 1066). 

These men could be expected to serve up to two months of military service a year anywhere required, including overseas, and could be called out at any time for a national emergency (October 14th, 1066 was certainly one of those). They'd be paid if they served in this capacity for more than a day.

With this core of mobile troops were 700 extra local Kentish and Sussex fyrd militia that had also been rallied. And it may have been some of these less professional men who made the first big mistake for the English that day.

With the Norman horsemen being pounded on their left wing, they broke into a retreat back down the hill. Feigned retreats were a common tactic of Norman knights, and whether this was one of these ploys or a spontaneous rout is not clear, but it had the desired effect of drawing the English out.

With rumours spreading that William had been killed, the men on Harold's right flank broke formation and chased their enemies down the hill.

But William was not dead. He flung back his helmet defiantly and mobile, on horseback, unlike Harold embedded in the middle of his troops, he swung around and rallied his forces. 

They surrounded the fyrdmen and quickly cut them all down.

3D map of the Battle of Hastings that shows the first break up of the English lines
Norman knights test the shield wall (top left), then pull back and eventually slaughter fyrdmen that have given chase (image from 'European Medieval Tactics (1)' by David Nicolle © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

Wace relates another close call for the Normans, when one Englishman, a wrestler, ducked a swing from William's sword and dented the Duke's helmet with his axe before bodyguards lanced him.

Fighting continued into the afternoon; William knowing full well that he'd need to win by nightfall or face a loss of momentum and likely total defeat.

It was at this point the archers came back into play. It's not clear if William pre-planned or realised at the time that firing over the shield wall would work, or if archers did this on their own to avoid hitting their own infantry attacking the wall in front of them.

In any case, the relative flexibility of the Norman forces helped make it more likely, and it was this indirect fire that won them the battle.

The shield-wall, which the Anglo-Saxons had employed so successfully over the centuries, adopting and then beating the Vikings at their own game, left them with a terrible weak spot. Against armies with large numbers of archers, men not directly behind the shield wall, including the king, were vulnerable when arrows rained down in an arc.

One such arrow struck Harold in, or just above, his eye. Panic likely spread throughout the English side, and the Normans started to break through.

William's men engaged the king's bodyguards, a ferocious melee ensuing as they got to Harold and then hacked him to pieces. His body is said to have been so badly mutilated that, after the battle, it took either his wife or mistress to identify it from marks known only to her.

3D map showing the defeat of Harold's forces at the Battle of Hastings
Looking south: William's forces (in blue) eventually overwhelmed Harold's (in red), survivors of Harold's men escaping into nearby woodland (from 'Hastings 1066' by Christopher Gravett © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

Many of the bodyguards, thegns, and huscarls who were left likely fought to the death rather than be dishonoured by outliving their king. Remaining fyrdmen slipped away into the safety of surrounding woodland and oncoming darkness. They would now have a new king, one who spoke a different language, brought in a foreign culture, and in time would terrorise and then control them by throwing up castles all over the country.

The Bayeux Tapestry, commissioned by William's half-brother, tells the story of the battle

In the end, William got lucky.

By seeing off the Vikings first, Harold had aided William by tiring himself and his men out, weakening his army. Additionally, by so completely defeating Hardrada, Harold had totally eliminated the Viking threat to the English crown.   

Map of Britain and Europe, upside down and right way up
As Simon Schama has pointed out, in the years after 1066, England's orientation pivoted away from Scandinavia and towards the rest of Europe

But England would not go on to become a province of the Normans. 

Long-established Anglo-Saxon culture, language, and political structures endured. The English language developed a much larger vocabulary as Anglo-Saxon English fused with French in the centuries that followed, giving today's English speakers a richer linguistic heritage. 

And, ironically, as Gravett puts it, "(William's) grandchildren saw Normandy gradually separate from England, as a native Anglo-Norman race developed” in the years that followed.

In time, it seems, Anglo-Saxon England eventually conquered 'William the Conqueror'.

For more, read 'Hastings 1066' by Christopher Gravett and 'European Medieval Tactics (1)' by David Nicolle, and visit Osprey Publishing for more military history.

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