The Battle of Hastings: The English Army

The razing of Harold and Leofine’s lands had the intended effect: the English army raced south from the Battle of Stamford Bridge. Harold stopped briefly in London to gather his army and collect stragglers, but every day he waited dozens of villages burned, and their inhabitants slaughtered or carried off. On 13 October 1066, Harold and his footsore and much reduced army moved south to Senlac Hill.

Harold led 15,000 at the Battle of Stamford Bridge, but for the upcoming battle he had less than seven, most of whom forced marched nearly 500 miles in the last month, and the rest were hastily armed locals because he dared not wait for other contingents of fyrdmen and huscarls from the distant parts of his realm. But Senlac Hill was a strong position, nearly impossible to flank, with a steep, but not too steep, slope to the south. It was a perfect position for Harold’s infantry based army. A huscarl shield wall at the top would be difficult to break.

In England the most common invaders were footbound i.e. the Romans, Germanics, Vikings etc and usually nearby on the relatively small island, so there was little reason to engage in the expensive horse breeding and logistics support required for the warhorses needed to carry heavily armored knights. So feudalism (such as it was) developed differently in England and this reflected in Harold’s army: the money saved on cavalry was used for the training and equipping of professional heavy infantry, huscarls, and semi-professional medium infantry, fyrdmen.

The fyrdmen were trained militia, though most likely unarmored, but disciplined and proficient in the use of round shield, long stabbing knife, and spear. They were the foundation upon which the huscarls won the battles. Harold’s huscarls were the exact sort of composite heavy infantry that Western Civilization has depended upon since the Greeks threw the Persians back into the sea at Marathon: stalwart and deadly in any defense, and unstoppable in the attack under deliberately prepared circumstances. The huscarls were trained and influenced by the best standards and practices of their day: they carried the long Norman kite shield that protected the legs and prevented the Viking penchant for thrusting under the shield wall. They wore Frankish chainmail, a Frankish steel cap with distinctive noseguard, and carried a bearded Frankish throwing axe to break up charges and formations (and you know, chop wood). From their Saxon, Angle, and Jute forefathers they had the seax, a long stabbing knife, perfect for gutting a fish… or an adversary in the press of a shield wall. Furthermore, they were trained in that one constant of warfare since the Stone Age: the venerable and versatile 7 ft spear, whether thrown, braced for a charge or a boar, or overhand in a way familiar to the Greeks and Romans in ancient past. Finally, they carried the deadly Viking great axe, for the general melee after their adversaries’ shield wall broke, or more commonly for individual combat.

These professional soldiers and militia made an imposing sight on Senlac Hill, and an even more formidable shieldwall. On 13 October 1066, they were just seven miles from the Norman army gathered around Duke William the Bastard’s wooden castle at Hastings.

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