The Battle of Hastings

At the bottom of Senlac Hill, the Norman army advanced in three divisions or “battles”. On the left were the long time Norman allies, the Bretons under Alan the Red. In the center were the Normans, led directly by William and his half-brother Odo, the Bishop of Rouen. And on the right the Flemish barons related to William’s wife Matilda, and the troops of that renegade of the French court Eustace of Boulogne. The battles were formed into three great lines, with archers to the front, followed by the infantry, and cavalry behind.

William began his assault on Senlac Hill at 8am with a rain of arrows, which had little effect on the shield wall proper. However it did kill any levy troops that did not have shields and any horses of the Anglo Saxon nobles who brought them to fight on. Next, William sent in his men at arms, and the battle devolved into a two hour long shield wall press, the kind of fight at which the huscarls excelled. But before the Norman infantry broke, William sent in his knights to support. With no weak point to charge, the Norman knights fought atop their steeds in the line with the men at arms. In places there was the shield wall press, in others, a chaotic melee, and still others, local charges. This panel of the Bayeux Tapestry shows a huscarl beheading a Norman horse with his Viking great ax, a Norman knight skewering a huscarl with his spear, and the shield wall holding firm.

This grinding attritional fight continued for another two hours, until around 3 pm when a rumor spread that Duke William was killed. The Bretons on the left thought all was lost, broke and retreated down the hill. William of course was not dead, and galloped over from the center, and pulled off his helmet to prove so. But the English were pursuing down the hill, which turned into a blessing for the Normans, as the pursuit temporarily broke the shield wall. Odo, the archetypical battle cleric, rallied the Bretons, and wielding his mace (lest he spill Christian blood) led the charge of the reformed left, just as William’s Norman bodyguards charged into the gap created by the pursuit. The English took serious casualties, but many managed to make their way back up the hill. Only Norman exhaustion prevented the complete destruction of the English right.

William by this point was becoming desperate: All Harold had to do was still stand on the hill at nightfall to win while William had to utterly rout the English. With the Breton example, William had what he thought was the template to win the battle: charges and feigned retreats which would hopefully cause the shield wall to unhinge as it did with the Bretons. For the next three hours, a typical pattern emerged: the Norman infantry would charge, then fall back. The Norman knights would charge, but the horses refused to impale themselves on the English spears so both sides just poked at and wailed on each other for a bit, then they too would fall back. Then the archers would fire a few volleys. Rinse and repeat.

The English didn’t fall for the feigned retreat and break ranks, but the sustained losses thinned out the shieldwall considerably. From time immemorial, whether Greek phalanxes, Roman legions, or English shieldwalls, formations of men with shields drift right when they sustain casualties or move, if only to get in the shadow on the man’s shield next to him. And this is what seemed to happen at Hastings: the English battle line shortened due to exhaustion and casualties, and the Norman knights got around the flanks, particularly on the English left. The was almost certainly no “All is lost!” moment for the English. Harold is depicted as shot through the eye on the Bayeux Tapestry, but that’s the only evidence of that happening until accounts of the battle from years later. Contemporary accounts all mention that the English fought on until they were overwhelmed and only broke when it was clear that if they stayed they would be surrounded and massacred. Harold, and his brothers Gyrth and Leofine, all died anonymously on the battlefield.

The bottom line is the English went toe to toe with the Normans for over ten bloody and exhausting hours, and the Normans were simply the last ones standing.

The next day, the Norman cavalry hunted down any survivors. Harold’s body was recovered but his head was so mangled that William sent for Harold’s mistress in London to identify the body. With the majority of the Anglo Saxon nobility dead on Senlac Hill, the Norman victory was complete.

The remaining English contingents from the farther reaches of Harold’s realm that couldn’t reach Hastings in time rallied around the 13 year old Edgar the Aetheling, but William made short work of them. On Christmas Day 1066 in Westminster Abbey, Duke William the Bastard of Normandy was crowned King William the Conqueror of England.

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