This week sees the 941st anniversary of the Battle of Hastings. This battle is one of the most important clashes to have taken place on British soil. It represents a moment in British history where the fragmented Anglo-Saxon system of rule is washed away and replaced by a single cohesive body of government. The Normans brought with them a new type of rule, one that was not dogged by local political and tribal claims and one that operated under a wider arc of unified control. The foundation of government that William the Conqueror put in place in the years following 1066 remains a pivot part of the British system, even today.
The battle took place on the outskirts of a village known today as Battle. King Harold, who had recently fought at the battle of Stamford Bridge (1066), raced south with his army. Along the way he attempted to recruit more men, though in reality the size of the army decreased as stragglers were left behind and warriors returned to their homes. The final size of this army is open to much speculation but the best guess is about 8000 men, consisting of 1000 professional housecarls and 7000 amateur fyrds.
Harold positioned his men on a spur of high ground that straggled the road from the South coast to London. He had very few archers and ordered all of his men to fight on foot. The formation adopted was a shield wall, with the men arranged in a dense mass with their shields interlocked for protection. The was a traditional and well practiced tactic.
In the weeks prior to the battle William had sailed across the channel with a large invasion force. Once again the size of this force is open to speculation. However, accurate records of the ships employed allows a far better guess of troop numbers. It is today believed that William's army was also about 8000 men strong.
This was broken down as follows:
Osprey Hastings 1066 (Campaign 13)
Little is known about the command and control of this army, though it has been suggested that William controlled the army through a mixture of voice commands and hand gestures. I believe this is a simplistic approach and it is likely that some kind of hierarchy would have been employed with William fitzOzbern and Eustace of Boulogne heading the Franco-Flemish, William controlling the Normans (possibly with the help of his half-brother, Bishop Odo) and Alan Fergant commanding the Bretons.
William advanced quickly to meet Harold on the morning of the battle. Once again the deployment of his troops is subject to much debate. However, the consensus is that the force was split into three bodies with the Franco-Flemish on the left, the Normans in the centre and the Bretons on the right. These bodies were further divided with the missiles troops at the front, the infantry in the centre and the cavalry to the rear.
The actual events of the battle are very difficult to accurately portray. This is mainly to due a lack of reliable primary sources. However, what follows is a summary of the key events as I see them, for the sake of simplicity I have referred to the combined Norman, Breton and Franco-Flemish forces as 'Norman'. I know this is wrong but stick with me.
* Norman heavy infantry attack, though the English shield wall holds.
* Norman cavalry attack, though this is also ineffective against the firm shield wall.
* The Breton forces waver under the English resistance and retreat/rout down the slope. The English follow (probably just the undisciplined fryds), but are slaughtered by a well timed cavalry counterattack at the base of the hill.
* Norman army waver as a rumor spreads of William's death. Discipline is restored by William, who lifts his helmet to reveal his face.
* Fighting continues well into the afternoon.
*The Normans perform a number of feint attacks, drawing English warriors from the shield wall to be killed.
* Harold is injured by an arrow (?) and the English shield wall begins to crumble. The Normans reply with a cavalry charge and Harold is cut to pieces in the ensuing fight.
* The English army routs from the field and is pursued well into the night by the Norman troops.
This description is a summary of the bare facts and even some of these are open to debate.
The big questions
The Battle of Hastings is one of the best documented early medieval battles. However, this doesn't mean we have a clear picture of what actually happened on the day. Instead we have a collection of 'facts' that are excepted by historians to be as close to the truth as we are likely to get. This said, the questionable nature of theses 'facts' has lead to a number of historical questions:
Where to start on this gem? The numbers vary widely and over time they have moved from 10s of thousands to less than a thousand men. A number of techniques have been employed by historians to estimate the troop numbers:
- Comparison with similar battles, most notably Stamford Bridge (1066),
- Clues and references in the primary sources,
- Examination of the countryside surrounding Hastings and an estimation of the maximum size of army this could support,
- Use of detailed Norman fleet records to determine number of men that could have been transported,
In recent times historians have settled on a figure of about 8000 troops on both side. To me this seems a pretty good guess. However, if you are looking for an even safer bet then we can assume the armies was 'large', whatever that means?
This argument comes down to two opposing views. One says that Harold was draw up in a tight formation on the crest of a hill. This is the most traditional and commonly held view, though an alternative does exist. This says that Harold deployed beyond the hill. It suggests that the English King not only placed his heavily armed housecarl warriors on the hill, but also deployed lighter troops in the broken ground South West of his position.
It was not uncommon for armies of the period to use hastily constructed field works. These were often little more than stakes in the grounds or concealed pits. It has been suggested that some type of static defence was used by Harold. Views on this range from the deployment of simple stakes to the construction of more complex earth works. There is some archeological and Bayeux tapestry evidence that can be interpreted to support this view. However, as with just about every other argument there is no consensus between sources.
The argument boils down to a simple question. Where the feint attacks real or an invention that became part of the reality? One side of the debate suggests that the Norman army had neither the command structure or low level tactical ability to carry out such a manouvre. The other side argues that strong evidence exists that not only were the the Normans more than capable of faint attacks, but they had been used successfully in previous campaigns.
This is perhaps the most controversial aspect of the Battle of Hastings. It is a commonly held belief that Harold was shot in the eye and killed in the closing stages of the battle. However, this belief has now be almost certainly dispelled. The myth of the arrow does not appear in any of the near contemporary accounts and seems to have been adopted as part of the battles wider mythology. In addition, the most compelling evidence for the story, the Bayeux Tapestry, is incorrect. If you examine the tapestry today, a scene can be easily identified that shows a figure with an arrow protruding from their eye.
However, the Bayeux tapestry has been restored many times during its long life. The oldest reproduction we have of the tapestry is a drawing made in 16th century. The section that clearly shows the 'arrow in the eye' as different from the modern version. In the older drawing has the figure appears to be holding a spear in the place of the arrow. In fact, the manner in which Harold is killed is ignored by many of the primary sources. It has been suggested in recent years that since many of these have a Norman bias, it is probable that Harold was hacked to death on the slope of the hill by Norman knights. A event William would be keen to distance himself from.
There are a number key primary sources. These all address the battle in varying degrees, though they all differ on the actual events that took place. The dates of their creation and the amount of 'copying' that occurred between texts is not always clear.
- The Carmen: This was written in 1067 by Guy Bishop of Amiens. This is perhaps the most important source and is often used by modern historians.
- William of Jumièges: Deeds of the Norman Dukes was extended in 1070 to include a chapter on William's conquest, on request of the Duke himself. This document is seen by many of a propagandist creation that seeks to justify William legal claim to the English throne.
- William of Poitiers: Deeds of William Duke of the Normans and King of the English is written between 1071-1077 on the request of William. This work is detailed though it is heavily influenced by the classics with William's invasion being compared heavily to the invasion of Britain by Julius Caesar. It is believed that much of the detail of the battle is based on interviews with people who fought at Hastings.
- William of Malmesbury: Books include Deeds of the Kings of England (449 to 1127) and Recent History (1128 to 1142). In his work he praised Harold but justified the Norman invasion because of what he called the "sins of the flesh" of the English.
- Orderic Vitalis: This author produced a number of works dating as late as 1133. He is the first person to offer accounts of a number of key events, with the most important being the Malfosse incident.
- The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: This provides sketchy information of the campaign, though is written from a fairly independent perspective. Competed in about 1121.
- Bayeux Tapestry: Completed in the years after the battle, it is believed to represent the full campaign from a Norman perspective, though it has been argued that an English sympathy can be read into the tapestry. Care must be taken when using this source since it has been heavily restored and altered.
As far secondary sources are concerned, there are many and all must be read with caution. Some of the key primary source have only come to light in recent years and certain popular secondary texts draw conclusions that are not supported by the new evidence.
There have been many books written about the Battle of Hastings and as with all other aspects of the battle, I would suggest caution is shown when reading any material (including this post!) about the battle. However to get you started here's two books I would recommend:
Osprey Hastings 1066 (Campaign 13): This is a great introduction to the battle with a balanced overview of the events.
The Battle of Hastings 1066 by M.K. Lawson: A very good summary of the current understanding of the battle.