Why did the battle of Hastings take place?
The battle of Hastings took place in 1066 because of a disputed succession. For the previous 24 years England had been ruled by Edward the Confessor, who, despite being married, had failed to produce any children to succeed him. It is thought that in the middle of his reign, in the year 1051, the king promised the English succession to his cousin, William, duke of Normandy. Edward had spent half his life in exile in Normandy, and clearly felt a strong debt of gratitude towards its rulers.
This plan went down badly with Edward’s English subjects, especially the family of his queen, Edith. She was the daughter of the country’s most powerful earl, Godwine, and in the later 1050s her brothers – the Godwinesons – became the dominant force in English politics. During the same period a long-lost relative of Edward, a boy known as Edgar Ætheling, was located in Hungary and brought to England. However his impeccable ancestry counted for nothing: when Edward died on 5 January 1066 it was his brother-in-law, Harold Godwinson, who claimed the throne, insisting that the old king had nominated him in his dying moments.
Harold was crowned the very next day, but soon had to fend off challenges to his rule. The first – an unexpected invasion led by Harold Hardrada, king of Norway – he successfully overcame on 25 September 1066 by winning the battle of Stamford Bridge in Yorkshire. The second challenge came from William, duke of Normandy, who landed at Pevensey in Sussex three days later.
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Where did the battle of Hastings take place?
The battle of Hastings is something of a misnomer. Although William, having landed at Pevensey, quickly moved along the coast to Hastings and established his camp there, the actual engagement with King Harold took place some six miles to the northwest, at a site that has been known ever since as Battle. This location has been contested in recent years, but the arguments for alternative sites are extremely flimsy, whereas the evidence for the traditional site remains overwhelmingly strong.
Having won the battle of Hastings, William was determined to commemorate his victory and atone for the bloodshed by building an abbey – Battle Abbey – and happily its ruins still survive today. According to a host of 12th-century chroniclers (not just, as is often claimed, the Chronicle of Battle Abbey itself) the high altar of the abbey church was erected over the place where Harold was killed. Even William’s obituary in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, written by an Englishman soon after the king’s death in 1087, noted that Battle Abbey was built “on the very spot” where God had granted the Conqueror his victory.
This strong chronicle evidence is supported by the site of the abbey itself, which from monks’ point of view was badly situated on sloping ground and ill-supplied with water. It is a location that makes sense only if William insisted they build in that precise location, as tradition maintained was the case.
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How many soldiers were involved in the battle of Hastings?
The short answer to this is: we don’t know. Medieval chroniclers are notoriously unreliable when it comes to providing numbers for the size of armies. William the Conqueror’s own chaplain, William of Poitiers, claims that his master brought 60,000 men with him to England; and two other chroniclers assert that the duke’s army was made up of 150,000 men.
In reality, no medieval armies were ever this large. In the later Middle Ages, by which time we have more reliable evidence in the form of muster rolls and financial accounts, we can see that the largest armies raised in the British Isles numbered about 35,000 men. But when they had to fight in France, English monarchs never managed to ferry more than 10,000 troops across the Channel. If these were the maximums obtained by mighty kings like Edward I and Edward III, a mere duke of Normandy is unlikely to have been able to assemble a force that was reckoned in five figures.
The conventional figure offered for the size of William’s army is 7,000 men, but rests on little more than guesswork by Victorian scholars. As to the size of the English forces, we are even less well informed. Harold Godwineson’s fighting strength must have been reduced by his clash with Harold Hardrada in September, and several chroniclers maintain that the English king rushed to confront the Normans before all his forces were assembled. Since the fighting at Hastings lasted all day, however, the reasonable conclusion is that the two sides were fairly evenly matched.
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What weapons and tactics were used at Hastings?
A look at the most famous source for the battle of Hastings – the Bayeux Tapestry – suggests that the weapons used by the English and the Normans were very similar. On both sides we see men wearing mail shirts and conical helmets with flat, fixed nasals, protecting themselves with kite-shaped shields and attacking their opponents with swords and spears (though spears are far more common). The only notable difference in terms of kit is that some of the English prefer to wield axes – sometimes small ones for throwing, but often great battleaxes that required two hands to swing.
When it came to tactics, however, the two sides at Hastings had very different ideas, as contemporary chroniclers noted. The English, after centuries of fighting against Vikings, fought in Scandinavian fashion, standing on foot and forming their celebrated ‘shield-wall’. Significantly this was the case not only for the ordinary soldiery but also the elite, right up to and including King Harold himself.
The Norman elite, by contrast, despite their own Viking origins, had adapted during the course of the 10th century to fighting on horseback. The action at Hastings was therefore unconventional, with the English standing stock still on the top of a ridge, obliging the Norman cavalry to ride up a slope in order to engage them.
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Why did William win (and why did Harold lose?)
At first it seemed that the English army’s tactics would serve them well: despite repeated assaults from the Norman infantry and cavalry, the shield-wall held firm. Some way into the battle, however, a crucial turning point occurred. A rumour ran through the Norman ranks that William had been killed, and some of his forces turned and started to flee. It was almost disastrous, and only retrieved by William removing his helmet and riding along the line to demonstrate that the rumour was untrue. But seeing their enemies retreating in disarray persuaded some of the English that the battle was won, and so they pursued them down the hillside. Once the Normans had recovered their composure, and wheeled round to attack their pursuers, they found that the shield-wall now had breaks in it.
Another factor that helped decide the battle was the relative numbers of archers on both sides. Our two contemporary narrative accounts (The Song of the Battle of Hastings and William of Poitiers) make frequent reference to Norman bowmen sending thick clouds of arrows against the English, but do not once mention the English replying with similar volleys. Similarly, the Bayeux Tapestry shows many Norman archers, but only a solitary Englishmen is depicted with a bow. It seems possible, therefore, that Harold’s army contained fewer bowmen, perhaps on account of the haste with which it was assembled, and that this could have proved decisive, given the way in which the English king is traditionally said to have died – more on that below…
How and when in the battle did King Harold die?
What ultimately decided the battle was the death of King Harold. Darkness was already descending, says the Song of the Battle of Hastings, when the report ‘Harold is dead!’ flew around the field. The long-established story is that the king was killed by an arrow which struck him in the eye – a tradition that seemingly goes back to the Bayeux Tapestry, which was stitched only a few years later.
There are, however, reasons to doubt whether Harold really did die in this way. In the first place, multiple questions have been raised about the tapestry itself (which is technically an embroidery): is the figure with the arrow in his eye really Harold, or is the king represented by the figure to the left, being ridden down by a Norman knight? Is the arrow actually an arrow, or was it a spear that has been customised by overzealous restorers in the 19th century? And even if the tapestry artist did intend to show Harold with an arrow in his eye, was this really what happened? It can be demonstrated beyond any doubt that the designer based certain scenes on images he found in illustrated manuscripts kept in the monastic libraries in Canterbury, and it seems possible that Harold’s death is an occasion where such borrowing has taken place. No other contemporary source mentions the arrow in the eye, and moreover the Song – our earliest account of the battle – describes Harold being hacked down by a dedicated Norman ‘death squad’.
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How many casualties were there at the battle of Hastings?
Again, we don’t know for sure, but all the sources agree that the battle of Hastings was a very bloody affair. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, laconic as it is, speaks of “great slaughter on both sides”. William of Poitiers, describing the aftermath, wrote that “far and wide, the earth was covered with the flower of the English nobility and youth, drenched in blood”.
For the Godwinson family in particular the battle was catastrophic, for not only King Harold, but two of his younger brothers, Leofwine and Gyrth, were among the fallen. (Another brother, Tostig, had been killed three weeks earlier at Stamford Bridge). According to The Song of the Battle of Hastings, William buried his own dead, but left the bodies of the English “to be eaten by worms and wolves, by birds and dogs”.
Nor was the heavy death toll at Hastings confined to the site of the battle itself. Throughout the night that followed, the Normans pursued those English who had fled after Harold’s death but came undone when, in the darkness, they rode their horses headlong into an unseen ancient ditch, later dubbed ‘the Malfosse’. As the chronicler Orderic Vitalis explained in the early 12th century, the Norman cavalry “fell one on top of the other, thus crushing each other to death”.
Where is King Harold buried?
The discovery in 1954 of a grave in the parish church of Bosham (West Sussex), containing the remains of a well-dressed Anglo-Saxon man, prompted speculation in some quarters that Harold’s final resting place had been found. But ignoring this on the grounds that other well-dressed men are known to have died in Anglo-Saxon England(!), we have two more credible alternatives. One is that Harold was buried at Waltham Abbey in Essex, a church he had re-founded and richly endowed during his lifetime. The story that the king was buried there, however, does not appear in the abbey’s chronicle until the late 12th century, and by the early 13th century the monks of Waltham were claiming that Harold had actually survived the battle of Hastings and lived out the rest of his days as a hermit, supposedly in Chester.
Contemporary accounts, by contrast, tell us that the king was buried on top of a cliff in Sussex, under a mocking inscription to the effect that he could continue to guard the seashore. This is the story told by both the Song of the Battle of Hastings and William of Poitiers, and is arguably more credible. Poitiers in particular is always at pains to defend the behaviour of his master, William the Conqueror. Had William permitted Harold to be buried at Waltham, it would be very strange for Poitiers not to have said so.
Dr Marc Morris is a historian of the Middle Ages whose acclaimed books include King John: Treachery, Tyranny and the Road to Magna Carta (Hutchinson, 2015) and The Norman Conquest (Windmill Books, 2013). He is a fellow of the Royal Historical Society and appears regularly on radio and television.
This article was first published in October 2018.