The Battle of Hastings and 1066
1066 was the year that saw three kings on the throne of England. At the outset of the year there was the virtuous Edward the Confessor, although married he was thought to be celibate and so without an heir.
Following Edward’s death there came Harold II, not of the royal bloodline but he was the highest ranking of the English aristocracy; and, furthermore his sister was married to Edward. He was Earl Godwinson of Wessex. In Saxon times it was not uncommon for the king to be elected by the Witanagemot, the forerunner to our parliament, so one could say that Harold Godwinson was undeniably the rightful King of England.
Harold Godwinson was succeeded by William, Duke of Normandy, whose military force defeated the Anglo-Saxon army at what became the most well known conflict to be fought on English soil. The Battle of Hastings was to be a major turning point in British history; its legacy lingers on to this day.
King Edward the Confessor was childless and getting on in years. Knowing that he had not long to live he made a promise to his cousin Duke William, that upon his death the throne of England would pass to him.
There was another key claimant to the English throne. He was Harald Hardraada, a Norwegian Viking. His claim was based on the fact that a previous Viking king of England, Harthacnut, had made a treaty with Magnus I of Norway that either would inherit the others throne if he died before they did should they leave no heir.
Battle of Fulford
Harald Hardraada and Earl Tostig sailed up the River Ouse on 20 September 1066 in pursuit of their claim to the English throne. They had with them more than 10,000 men in 200 Viking ships to launch their long-awaited invasion of Northumbria and so lay claim the throne.
The “Northern Earls”, Edwin and Morcar came out to meet them with a hurriedly assembled army made up mainly of their own personal troops. These two earls were defeated and killed at the Battle of Fulford just outside York. Their armies were so devastated that they were incapable of playing any part in the subsequent campaigns.
This would mean that King Harold had to assemble together a new fighting force of his own, made up largely of his own housecarls and his 'thegns'. He hurried north, calling up all the shire levies he could muster on the way. In four days he marched 180 miles – much to the surprise of Hardraada and Tostig. Harold’s army arrived at Stamford Bridge, to the east of York, on 25 September.
Battle of Stamford Bridge
Harold offered Tostig his earldom back before the battle began if he would change sides, but Tostig threw the offer back in the king's face. The Norwegians held an apparently strong position on a bridge crossing over the River Derwent.
There was a story that a lone Viking axeman was defending the bridge from a position on the north-eastern bank of the river. This axeman was thought to have put up a strong defence for hours on end until a wily Englishman, most probably a “housecarl”, paddled his way under the bridge in a barrel. This brave warrior thrust a spear up through the wooden slats of the bridge and as a result skewered the Norseman and thus felling him to the ground.
Once the bridge had fallen the outcome of the battle was a foregone conclusion. Both Hardraada and Tostig fell to the onslaught of the Saxon army in a last, desperate stand. Harold and his army had won a hard fought campaign, but at a heavy price. It left them exhausted and badly mauled, and he had lost the forces of both the Earl of Northumbria and the Earl of Mercia.
Duke William Lands in Sussex
Three days after the Battle of Stamford Bridge, Harold was given the news that Duke William’s 700 ships had landed laden with his troops, horses and armaments. Many historians claim that the Normans landed at Pevensey, and some actually did do so. More recent evidence points to a place called Bulverhythe, an outpost just to the west of Hastings, as being more likely to have been the landing place.
When he first stepped off his ship on to the English shore William stumbled and fell to the ground. His surrounding entourage immediately took this to be a terrible omen and thought that it would bring defeat in the forthcoming campaign. Although one of the duke’s quick thinking knights made light of this incident and commented, “Look, how our duke clutches at the soil rightfully belonging to him”.
King Harold Goes South to Hastings
The king hurried south hoping to catch William by surprise. The duke being very astute probably had scouts reconnoitring every move of Harold’s journey south. Harold was back in London on 12 October recruiting men along the way in order to expand his depleted army. Having recruited what he considered enough able men he set out for the Sussex coast.
Harold swiftly moved his army on to Caldbec Hill, a high ridge six miles inland from the coastal town of Hastings. This was very soon to become the battlefield. With this ridge offering to Harold a good advantage, William was forced to take up a less favourable position in marshy ground at the bottom of the ridge.
The Battle of Hastings - Saxons on Top
The battle commenced with the duke’s archers moving into position and letting loose a deluge of arrows which was easily defended by the Saxon shield wall. The archers being left very exposed suffered heavy fatalities in their ranks. Next William sent in his foot soldiers and many were cut down by the English using their 2 handed battle-axes.
The duke immediately deployed his cavalry, but charging uphill was almost impossible and these experienced horsemen were deemed ineffective; they ceased their attack and turned back down the hill. The English on the right flank chased after them and began to break into the Norman line of defence.
Harold Loses Control
There was a rumour amongst the Normans that their duke had been killed, but he appeared to them and with his helmet removed showed them that he was still very much alive. This gesture served as a rallying call to his troops, they began to fight with more strength, more vigour and eventually gained ground on the Saxon line.
The English right flank was drawn further out of position and was in due course cut off from the main body of Harold’s army. These men were left isolated and were easily picked off by the Breton troops, William’s allies on his left flank. This action caused openings in Harold’s defence and allowed William to use his archers to a greater effect than earlier in the day. He ordered them to fire their arrow higher into the air so that they could cascade down on the hapless English.
William Gains a Victory and a Kingdom
With the English lines thinning out the Normans were able to move up the hill on both flanks and make inroads to where King Harold was situated. When they eventually broke through they found the king surrounded by a number of his loyal housecarls. Even these highly trained soldiers could not hold out against such an attack of force and together with their king were cut down where they stood.
The dead king’s corpse was beheaded and his limbs cut off. It was left to Edith Swan-neck, Harold’s common law wife, to identify him from the artefacts adorning his body.
Many of the surviving defeated English troops realising that their king was dead slid away from the carnage that became known as “The Battle of Hastings”.
William, Duke of Normandy had just become William, King of England by conquest.
|1040/41||Harthacnut of England made the treaty with Magnus I of Norway on the inheritance of each others throne.|
|1051||Duke William visits England where he claims King Edward pledged him the English throne upon his death.|
|1064||Earl Harold Godwinson journeys to Normandy and swears to Duke William that he, William, would be king of England after the death of Edward.|
|1066||5 January - Edward the Confessor dies.|
|6 January - Harold Godwinson is crowned King of England.
|12 September - William assembles his fleet on the Normandy coast ready to invade.|
|September - Harald Hardraada, king of Norway, accompanied by King Harold’s brother Tostig, invade the north of England; sailing up the Humber and setting up camp near York.|
|20 September - The northern earls Edwin and Morcar with their armies are defeated at the Battle of Fulford, near York.|
|20/24 September - King Harold marches north.|
|25 September – The Norwegians are defeated at the Battle of Stamford Bridge, near York. Harald Hardraada and Tostig, King Harold’s renegade brother, are killed.|
|1 October - Harold marches south after hearing that William had landed in Sussex.|
|6/11 October - Harold and his army arrive in London.|
|13 October - Harold arrives at Caldbec Hill at Senlac (modern day Battle, East Sussex).|
|14 October - The Battle of Hastings takes place with Duke William being victorious over King Harold. The king together with his brothers, Leofwine and Gyrth are killed.|