Posted 14th Oct 2016 by Peter Byrne
With today marking the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings, we take a more detailed look at the fight which shaped England
Fought between William - then the Duke of Normandy - and King Harold, the battle marked the beginning of the Norman conquest of England.
The Normans had only started to take an interest in English politics after the marriage of King Æthelred II of England to Emma, the sister of Richard II, Duke of Normandy, in 1002. Their son, Edward the Confessor, succeeded to the throne in 1042, but had previously spent years in exile in Normandy.
An ever-growing Norman interest in English affairs was only furthered by Edward drawing heavily on his former hosts for support. By the end of his reign, Edward was childless and in conflict with the Earl of Wessex, Godwin. It is actually believed that Edward could have been actively encouraging William to invade.
After the heirless Edward died on 5 January 1066, a succession crisis followed. The immediately appointed monarch was Harold Godwinson, the son of Edward's previous enemy Godwin. However, William claimed that he had been promised the throne a deal which Harold was alleged to be privy to. Against this backdrop, war was inevitable.
William landed at Pevensey in Sussex on 28 September. Having just dealt with a Norwegian invasion force, Harold now moved rapidly to deal with this new threat to his kingship.
Harold's army was composed entirely of infantry, with only a few archers. This was in stark contrast to William's Normans, who were half infantry, with the other half an equal mix of cavalry and archers.
While contemporary records are not even remotely reliable - Norman sources say Harold had up to 1,200,000 men, while English sources are incredibly low, perhaps to soften the blow of the defeat - modern estimates predict around 10,000 fighting for William and 7,000 fighting for Harold.
Harold deployed his forces in a dense shield wall formation, protected by the natural fortifications of heavy woodland and marshland in the vicinity.
In comparison, William split his forces into three groups, with the left comprising of Bretons, the centre Normans, and the right of Frenchmen. His front lines were composed of archers with spear men behind, while he held his cavalry back.
Having to shoot uphill, Norman archers had little joy, prompting William to send in his spear men. Unable to force an opening, the cavalry were sent in but also failed to break through the English lines. With rumours abound that the duke had died, the Norman forces started to retreat. Ironicallt this prompted the English forces to begin to break out of their previously unpenetrated ranks to pursue them. However, William led a devastating counter-attack, rallying his troops to let them know he was alive and overwhelming the English. The remaining English troops rallied on a hillock but were beaten by sheer numbers.
There is uncertainty as to whether or not the Norman retreat was feigned or not, as it was a tactic that other Norman armies were acknowledged to have used in the period.
Harold's death is also something of a mystery, with numerous contradictory accounts. The Bayeux Tapestry provides more questions than answers too, depicting two figures under the header "Here King Harold has been killed" - whether he is the figure with an arrow sticking out of his eye or the fallen fighter hit by a sword is not clear. What is certain is that after his death, the English forces were leaderless and began to collapse.
In the aftermath of the battle, the bodies of the English dead were left on the battlefield, while the Normans were buried in a communal grave, which has so far not been found. The exact number of casualties have not been found.
After the battle, William founded Battle Abbey, and 12th century sources state that William made the vow to found the abbey, with the high altar of the church situated where Harold has died.
Image courtesy of ©English Heritage