The Battle of Hastings: The Norman Army

When William’s scouts and spies reported Harold was at London, he regathered his army at Hastings, from where he would strike north. William’s army differed significantly from Harold’s. On continental Europe, the most common invaders in recent memory were cavalry based, whether the Huns, Avars, or Magyars from the eastern steppe, or more influentially, the Arabs, Berbers, and Moors from North Africa and Islamic Iberia. Frankish and Anglo-Saxon infantry developed along similar lines until the Franks had no response to the raiding from the Umayyed Caliphate and Charles Martel nearly lost the Battle of Tours in 732 due to a lack of cavalry. The Franks from that point on made heavy cavalry a priority. His grandson Charlemagne’s Paladins, and his heavily armored knights, were a direct result of the need for mounted soldiers.

Warhorses required special breeding, a dedicated support structure, and were expensive to maintain. Only the manor lords and his dedicated henchmen could afford it, and as such the mounted soldier gained a status. Additionally, this also allowed a high degree of training as the riders had no other duties. The difference could be summed up in a common scenario: if a huscarl walked into town, demanded the lord’s taxes, and the village didn’t want to pay, the fight would be relatively even: the huscarl’s training and armor would be offset by the fyrdmens’ numbers. If a knight did the same there would be no question who the victor would be: the knight could ride circles around the shieldwall or fix them in position with a threatened charge while his companions took what they wanted anyway. (They could also demand more from the villages) Feudalism as a result developed more quickly and to a much greater degree on Continental Europe.

This was directly reflected in the composition of William’s 8000 strong army at Hastings: almost evenly split between infantry, cavalry, and archers. The cavalry looked strikingly similar to Harold’s huscarls, albeit on horse, and sans great axe. The infantry were comprised of the men of the cavalry’s support structure: the liverymen, blacksmiths, squires, saddlers, etc just “at arms” hence “men at arms”. They were armed similarly to the fyrdmen but wore mail hauberks and metal caps. Their advantage in armor however was offset by their short martial training, particularly in formation: as artisans they were usually tied to a knight not a unit, and lacked the training time afforded to fyrdmen by the growing season. Which begs the question, “Why didn’t Frankish peasants develop into fyrdmen?” The increased demands of the knights led to better agricultural practices which unfortunately caused more year round work for the peasants. Furthermore, to deal with Muslim raiders, mounted bandits, and robber knights, the peasants became nominally proficient in the common hunter’s bow or shepherd’s sling, their only options to stay out of melee distance, and afforded a small counterbalance against these otherwise unassailable opponents.

Thus, on 14 October, 1066, William the Bastard of Normandy approached Senlac Hill with his army in three great lines. The first were the archers who would rain arrows down on the shield wall, killing or wounding as many as possible. They were followed by the men at arms who would hopefully disrupt Harold’s line enough for the real force of the Norman army: the knights, whose thunderous charge at an Anglo-Saxon weak point would break the shield wall

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