Battle of Hastings, 14th October 1066

Pevensey Bay - midway

William, Duke of Normandy, sailed from St Valery-sur-Somme on 28th September 1066 to invade England with about 10,000 men. His aim was to seize the kingdom promised to him by Edward the Confessor and to replace King Harold who had previously sworn an oath of fealty to him. William and his army landed unopposed at Pevensey Bay and secured the beachhead before moving to Hastings where they repaired the castle’s defences and waited for intelligence on Harold’s actions. The Normans formed a strong balanced force with cavalry, archers, cross-bow men and infantry.

Hastings Castle

Reports of the English army’s approach came in early October and William’s army stood to. At dawn on the 14th October they advanced along the old road to London (now the A2100) and as the lead scouts reached Telham Hill they saw Harold’s army forming up on the ridge across the valley to their front. (See OS Explorer map 124 or OS Landranger map 199)

The Normans' distant view across the wooded valley to where the Abbey stands now

Reports of the English army’s approach came in early October and William’s army stood to. At dawn on the 14th October they advanced along the old road to London (now the A2100) and as the lead scouts reached Telham Hill they saw Harold’s army forming up on the ridge across the valley to their front. (See OS Explorer map 124 or OS Landranger map 199)

The position of the high altar where Harold's command post may have been and where he fell

Battle Abbey was built to commemorate the Norman victory and on William’s order the high altar was placed where Harold fell. If his command post was here on the Senlac Ridge then it is estimated that his men were deployed approximately 400 yards in a level line running east/west either side of him. The house-carls would have formed the front rank with axe men and spearmen interspersed using their shields for protection against Norman arrows and spears. The levies would form the rear ranks up to 12 deep. It was a strong position with ravines and forest as obstacles in the rear, sharply falling ground to the flanks and short but steep slopes to the front with marshy ground further forward. The Normans would be forced to make a frontal attack from Telham Hill to the Senlac ridge.

Looking south from the English position towards the Norman axis of approach

The Normans were likely to have deployed on the southern slope of the valley with the Senlac stream (no lakes then). They would have avoided crossing two ridges from Telham Hill by starting from the bend in the road 900 yards from Harold’s headquarters, descending westwards down the ridge until the Senlac stream was reached and then making a right turn in line to face the English.

From the west edge of the battlefield with the Norman start line to the right and English positions on the left

The Senlac stream - a risky crossing today!

The Norman plan for attack would probably have had three phases; a low angle direct shooting bombardment with arrows aimed at the English front ranks, an infantry advance to break the front line and then a cavalry charge to broaden the gaps, destroy the rear ranks and pursue those fleeing. In the event there were four phases. The archers started the attack about 0930 hours from 100 yards with crossbow men at 150 yards. The English could do no more than stand and take it until the arrows ran out and the bolts were shot. With few English archers shooting back the Normans could not use spent arrows falling among them and the bombardment soon stopped with little damage done. The infantry attack was disadvantaged being uphill after crossing the stream and against very determined defenders.

 

In the second phase, when the attackers closed with the Harold's men, Bretons on the Norman left wing were severely mauled and soon turned and fled. Despite orders to stand fast an English contingent broke ranks to chase them downhill, killing many and causing alarm in the Norman ranks. William stopped this flight, despite personal risk, and using some of his cavalry he counter-attacked the pursuing English. Few of them made it back to their lines and their places were taken by men from the rear ranks.

The long uphill plod for the Normans to the line of the English defence where the Abbey wall now stands

It is probable that there was a pause in the battle at this stage. Not onlywere both sides weary after their approach marches but the house-carls and most Normans had chainmail and fighting in armour required a lot of strength. A pause would enable them to repair the gaps in their ranks, resupply the archers and crossbow men, see to their kit, slake their thirsts and snatch a rest to their aching limbs.

 

Phase three started with a Norman cavalry charge but it did not go according to plan. It was tough, uphill and against a formidable defence of the house-carls’ axes, spears, arrows and clubs. Norman casualties were heavy and on the right wing some fell back. Again an English contingent broke ranks to pursue unhorsed or hesitant riders and those in difficulty but these too were caught in another swift Norman counter-attack by reserve cavalry.

 

William now ordered a full attack with all troops in a fourth phase. It started with high angled archery shooting into the rear ranks to hit and disrupt the lightly protected men. As they did so Norman infantry and dismounted cavalry advanced through the bowmen’s line to the weakened English line, especially on the flanks where the ranks had previously broken. As they advanced so the arrows reached Harold’s rear ranks causing more casualties and disruption. Breaking through the line the Normans gradually strengthened their enveloping movement towards Harold’s command post which remained strongly defended by his house-carls. As the pressure increased Harold was struck by an arrow. He pulled it from his eye but as he tried to recover Norman knights broke through his bodyguard, struck him down and finished him with their swords.

 

By now the English command structure had gone and although small knots of men fought on they were gradually overwhelmed as a ruthless pursuit commenced. Darkness and the forest enabled a few men to survive but the overall losses were severe.

 

Afterword

 

This account is largely based on A H Burne’s book, The Battlefields of England (1996, Greenhill Books). He provides the strongest case for the course of action described having thoroughly studied other accounts and other historians’ views and conjectures.

 

The numbers involved are unknown but Burne’s suggestions have been used here.

 

Recognition of the site at Battle by English Heritage is based on the belief that the high altar marks the spot where Harold fell – as directed by William. However, there are other theories which range from variations on the deployment at Battle to another site 3 miles away where the abbey may have been built originally.

 

The battlefield and abbey are maintained by English Heritage with display boards and full facilities for visitors.