The Battle of Hastings was fought on October 14, 1066. The Franco-Norman army of Duke William II of Normandy clashed with the Anglo-Saxon army of King Haroldo II. It was the beginning of the Norman conquest of England. It took place about eleven miles northwest of Hastings, near the present town of Battle in the county of East Sussex, and resulted in a decisive Norman victory.
Succession crisis in England
The death of King Edward on January 5, 1066 left the kingdom without a clear heir and with several contenders for the throne of England. His immediate successor was the Earl of Wessex, Haroldo Godwinson, the richest and most powerful of the English aristocrats and son of Godwin, Edward”s old enemy. Haroldo was made king by the Witenagemot of England-an assembly of the kingdom”s notables-and crowned by Aldred, Archbishop of York, although the Normans claimed that the ceremony had been officiated by Stigand, the Archbishop of Canterbury who had not been canonically elected. Haroldo was immediately challenged by two powerful neighboring rulers. Duke William claimed that Edward had promised him the throne and that Godwinson had sworn to respect his decision. King Harald Hardrada of Norway also disputed the succession and claimed the throne on the basis of an agreement between his predecessor Magnus the Good and the previous English king, Canute Hardeknut, that if one died without issue, the other would inherit both England and Norway. William and Hardrada immediately began gathering troops and ships to launch separate invasions.
The English army was organized into regional divisions and formed by the fyrd, a force of militia recruited in levies under the command of local leaders such as earls, bishops, or sheriffs. The fyrd were composed of men who owned their own land and were armed with military equipment that was paid for by their community to meet the requirements of the king”s military forces. For every five hide, units of land nominally capable of providing sustenance for a household, one soldier was supposed to volunteer. It appears that the hundred, a type of English administrative division, was the main unit of fyrd organization. As a whole, the kingdom of England could provide about 14 000 fighters when needed. There were two types of military in the fyrd. Its natural leaders were thegns, the local landed elite, and clergymen; the rest were levies of the common people. Normally the fyrd remained mobilized for two months, except in emergencies. It was unusual for an entire national fyrd to be required; in fact in previous years they had only been called in 1051, 1052 and 1065 in order to prevent a rebellion and the outbreak of civil war by denying troops to the rebels. However, the national fyrd had not been involved in a genuine war since 1016 and its members were usually engaged in repairing fortresses and other infrastructure, as well as serving as garrisons in cities.
The main armor of the invaders was chain mail, which generally reached to the knees, had openings for the arms and in some cases also had sleeves up to the elbows. Some of this chain mail could have metal, bone or leather scales. Helmets were made of metal and had a conical shape with a band protecting the nose. Both cavalry and infantry carried shields. Foot soldiers protected themselves with a round wooden shield with metal reinforcements, while cavalry used another type of shield shaped like a kite and usually carried a spear. All fought with long straight double-edged swords. In addition, infantry could employ javelins and long spears, while cavalry also attacked with maces instead of swords. Archers, most of whom did not wear armor, used both the single bow and the crossbow.
The battle took place eleven kilometers north of Hastings, in the present town of Battle, between two hills, Caldbec to the north and Telham to the south, in an area of thick forest, with a marsh nearby. It was an area of thick forest, with a marsh nearby. The route that the English army followed to the battlefield is not known with precision, as there are several possible routes: an old Roman road that connected Rochester with Hastings, which has been thought to be the most likely due to the discovery in 1876 of several coins in the vicinity; another Roman road between London and Lewes or various rural roads that also lead to the site. The Anglo-Norman chronicler William of Jumièges wrote that Duke William kept his army armed and prepared for a possible surprise attack throughout the night before, but other accounts state that the Normans advanced from Hastings to the battlefield that same day. Most historians favor this second possibility, but Michael Kenneth Lawson argues that Jumièges” account is correct.
The name given to the battle is unusual, because there are several localities much closer to the site than Hastings. In this regard, in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle it is mentioned as the battle “at the old apple tree”. Four decades later, the Anglo-Norman chronicler Orderic Vital named the event as “Senlac,” a Norman adaptation of the Anglo-Saxon word “Sandlacu,” meaning “sandy water.” This could be the name of the stream that crosses the battlefield. Already in the Domesday Book in 1086 the battle is mentioned as bellum Hasestingas, the “Battle of Hastings”.
There is more information about the Norman deployment: it seems that Duke William organized his forces into three groups, which broadly corresponded to their origins. The left wing was composed mostly of Bretons, plus soldiers from Anjou, Poitou and Maine. All were under the command of Alan Rufus, a relative of the Count of Brittany. In the center were the Normans, who were the most numerous and were under the direct command of the Duke and some of his relatives. Finally, the right wing consisted of Frenchmen and fighters from Picardy, Boulogne and Flanders, who were the least numerous and were under the command of William FitzOsbern and Count Eustace II of Boulogne. The front lines were formed by archers and behind them infantry with spears. There were probably also crossbowmen and slingers alongside the archers. The cavalry was kept in reserve, while a small group of clerics and servants located at the foot of Telham Hill remained on the sidelines of the fighting.
In the early afternoon there was probably a pause, necessary for rest, food and to regroup the ranks. It is possible that William also needed it to implement a new strategy, perhaps inspired by the failed chase undertaken by the English that had been so favorable in the end for the Normans. If the Norman cavalry could approach the shield wall and then flee in panic and draw the English in pursuit, gaps could be opened in their crowded formation. William of Poitiers says that this tactic was used twice. Although it has even been said that the account of this ruse by Norman chroniclers was a way of excusing the flight of the ducal troops during the morning, it is improbable because they never concealed that first retreat. Moreover, it was a common ploy in Norman armies of the time. Some historians have argued that the story of the use of feigned flight was a deliberate strategy invented after the battle, but most are convinced that they were employed by the Normans at Hastings.
In the historiography about this battle, several explanations have been proposed for Haroldo”s defeat. Historian Michael Lawson believes that it was due to the difficulty of defending against two almost simultaneous invasions. The fact that he was forced to demobilize his troops in southern England on September 8 also contributed to his defeat, as did his haste in marching south rather than mustering more men before facing William at Hastings. However, he does not see clearly that the Anglo-Saxon army was sufficient to defeat the Norman duke. Lawson also believes it is clear that the king did not trust Earls Edwin and Morcar once his enemy Tostig had been defeated, for he did not want them to accompany him on his swift advance southward. Against these positions, which portray an exhausted Saxon infantry, historian Richard Huscroft argues that the long duration of the battle, a full day, shows that the English soldiers were not tired from their long march. Historian Ian Walker suggests that one reason for Haroldo”s haste to engage William was a desire to prevent him from expanding his beachhead and plundering the English countryside with his cavalry and mobile tactics to gain sustenance for his troops.
One story tells that Gytha, Haroldo”s mother, offered the victorious William the payment of the weight of her son”s body in gold if he would give it to her, which the duke refused, and instead ordered Haroldo”s body to be thrown into the sea. William instead ordered Haroldo”s body to be thrown into the sea, although it is not known where this could have taken place. Another story has it that Haroldo was buried on top of a cliff. Waltham Abbey, which had been founded by Haroldo, claimed years later that his body had been secretly buried there. Other legends even maintain that Haroldo did not die in Hastings, but escaped and became a hermit in Chester.
William expected to receive submission from the surviving English leaders after his victory but instead the Witenagemot proclaimed Edgar Atheling king with the support of Earls Edwin and Morcar, Stigand, Archbishop of Canterbury, and Aldred, Archbishop of York. Faced with this, William advanced towards London along the Kent coast. He defeated an English force that attacked him at Southwark, but was unable to take London Bridge, so he was forced to make a detour to approach the capital by a longer route. He went up the valley of the River Thames and crossed it at Wallingford, where he received the submission of Stigand. He then traveled northeast along the Chilterns and made his way to London from the northwest, fighting several skirmishes against forces sent from the city. The leaders of England finally surrendered to the Norman duke at Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, after which he was acclaimed king of England with the title William I and crowned by Aldred on December 25, 1066 at Westminster Abbey.
On the site of the battle, William ordered to found the abbey of Battle. According to some 12th century sources, “The Conqueror” made a promise to found this abbey and the high altar of his church was placed on the exact spot where Harold fell dead. It is more likely that the apostolic legates who met with him in 1070 imposed this foundation. The Bayeux tapestry, an embroidered cloth nearly seventy meters long that narrates chronologically all the events leading up to Hastings, was possibly commissioned shortly after the battle by Bishop Odon of Bayeux, William”s half-brother, perhaps to hang in his palace at Bayeux.
The topography of the battlefield has been altered by the later construction of the abbey and by the leveling of its summit, which is why the steep hill on which the English took up their positions appears much less steep today. After the dissolution of the monasteries decreed by King Henry VIII in the mid-16th century, the abbey grounds passed to secular owners, who used it as a country residence. In 1976 the plot was put up for sale and purchased by the British government with the help of some American donors who wished to honor the second centenary of their country”s independence. The abbey and the battlefield are today open to the public and are managed by English Heritage, a public body that protects England”s historical heritage. Every five or six years the Battle of Hastings is re-enacted with the participation of thousands of volunteers and spectators at the exact site of the battlefield.