Day in History: Battle of Hastings

  October 14, 2012 at 2:49 pm by

On October 14th one of the most important battles in British history was fought – Battle of Hastings. Not only did it signify the end of Anglo-Saxon era and the beginning of the Norman one, it was also the very last successful invasion of England. Since then, for nearly 1,000 years, no one succeeded to repeat the feat of William the Conqueror, the illegitimate son of Robert I, Duke of Normandy.

Edward the Confessor

William claimed the English Throne for himself as soon as Edward the Confessor passed away. He was not the only claimant, however. The death of the childless Edward the Confessor triggered a succession crisis as there was no clear-cut heir to the Throne. At some point, it was believed he would be succeeded by Edmund Ironside’s son, Edward Aetheling who was hastily called back from Hungary. Unfortunately, the young man died almost immediately upon his return in 1057. He did leave a son behind, Edgar, who was also given the designation Aetheling (meaning throneworthy); however, while the boy might have initially been considered a potential successor, towards the end of Edward the Confessor’s reign he had no supporters or political power. The likeliest candidates for the Throne of England were thus Harold Godwinson, William the Bastard and Harald Hardrada.

Harold Godwinson was Edward the Confessor’s brother-in-law. Edward was married to Edith of Wessex, Harold’s sister and the daughter of Godwin, Earl of Wessex. The Godwin family was easily the most powerful of English lords. Towards the end of Edward’s reign, the Godwin brothers controlled all of England apart from Mercia. Harold’s claim was thus based not as much on actual succession rights (although he was a direct descendant of King Aethelwulf), but the fact he already did de facto control most of the country.

Harold Godwinson

The second claimant was Harald Hardrada, King of Norway. He based his claim on an agreement made between Magnus I of Norway and Harthacnut in 1038, which stated that if either died, the other would inherit the deceased’s throne and lands. Harthacnut had succeeded his father, Canute the Great, as King of England. When he died, the Throne of England was inherited by his maternal half-brother (the son of Emma of Normandy and her first husband, Aethelred the Unready), in violation of the aforementioned treaty. Since Edward had effectively been Harthacnut’s co-ruler as well as the son and heir of the previous Anglo-Saxon Monarch, his Kingship was virtually undisputed within the country. Upon Edward’s death, Harald was quick to remind of the treaty; he argued that since Edward left no descendants, there could be no other legitimate heir but himself.

The third and final claimant was William, Duke of Normandy. His claims were likewise not based on succession rights, but the fact Edward the Confessor had promised to name him his heir. William of Normandy and Edward the Confessor were second cousins once removed; their relation, however, came not through Anglo-Saxon Royal Houses but through Emma of Normandy who was William’s great aunt and Edward’s mother. Edward’s promise to William was verbal and not supported by any kind of treaties, so William in fact had the least credible claim of the three.

Battle of Stamford Bridge

Harold Godwinson knew an invasion attempt was imminent, but he expected William to be the first to attack. To counter that, he stationed his army in Southern England to meet the Norse invaders; yet months went by, but William’s troops made no attempts to land in England. Unfortunately for the Anglo-Saxons, Harald Hardrada was the first to attack; the King of Norway saw his opportunity, believing there was no way the Anglo-Saxon army would manage to arrive in time to thwart his invasion. He was proven wrong when Harold Godwinson quickly marched across the country and defeated Norwegian forced in the historical Battle of Stamford Bridge on 25 September 1066. The English King proved to be an able commander and the English troops to be well trained, highly skilled and capable of great endurance.  The Anglo-Saxons didn’t have a lot of time to celebrate the glorious victory though.

This was the point at which William acted: two days after the Stamford Bridge, he sailed to meet his destiny. His fleet consisted of almost 700 ships of classic Norse design, headed by the Mora, which is depicted on the Bayeux tapestry with a carved dragon figurehead on its prow. Immediately upon landing, the Normans pillaged and burned the surrounding area; it was an act of not cruelly but cunning, to force Harold to quickly march across the country to defend his people.

Battle of Hastings

Harold didn’t hesitate; as soon as he heard of William’s landing, he raced his army down the old Roman of Ermine Street. By October 12, he was back in London, by 14th, he was on the way to Hastings. William received news of the King’s approach from Vitalis – a vassal of Odo of Bayeux, who is depicted on the famous Bayeux tapestry bringing the message – and marched to meet the English King. The two armies met at Hastings on 14 October 1066.

Harold’s army consisted of about 5,000 men, most of them exhausted from the long march and barely rested after Stamford Bridge. William’s army consisted of up to 15,000 infantry, archers and cavalry, all well-rested and prepared for the battle. Harold understood the odds were heavily against him, and that he had no choice but to fight a defensive battle.

At the start of the battle, the tactic proved to be a great success and for a while it seemed the King was fated to win another great battle. Again and again, the Norman hurled themselves against the English shield, but every time their attacks were repelled and they did not make any headway. The Normans were becoming increasingly desperate, and the Bretons began to give way.

Death of King Harold

Orderic Vitalis tells the story of what happened next: “The ferocious resolution of the English struck terror into the foot-soldiers and knights of the Bretons…; they turned to flee and almost the whole of the Duke’s battle line fell back, for the rumour spread he had been killed. But the Duke, seeing a great part of the opposing army springing forward to pursue his men, met them as they fled… Baring his head and lifting his helmet he cried: ‘Look at me, I’m alive and with the aid of God I will gain the victory!’ “

It was the turning point of the battle. The Anglo-Saxons, elated at the sight of fleeing enemy, broke their lines to pursue them – a move that proved fatal. Now that the English wall had broken, the Normans were able to lever open the cracks. Exhaustion and weight of numbers also took their toll. Gyrth and Leofwine, the two remaining brothers of Harold are depicted being cut down on the Bayeux tapestry, and Harold did not outlive them for long.

The Bayeux tapestry shows him taking an arrow in the eye and then being ridden down by a Norman cavalryman. Though the English continued fighting bravely even after their king had fallen, their cause was lost, and eventually the few survivors fled into the night.

William the Conqueror

Tradition has it that William gave thanks to God for his victory and ordered that all in his army should do penance for the souls that they had killed that day. He himself paid for the foundation of Battle Abbey on the spot where Harold fell. The body of Harold was eventually recovered after a long search.  William had the body buried next to the battlefield, with a headstone reading, “Here lies Harold, King of the English”.

Of the long-term consequences, the most devastating one for the Saxons was the fact that so many thegns, noblemen and leaders died at the Battles of Stamford Bridge and Hastings, that it was virtually impossible for the Anglo-Saxons to resist the Norman lords: quite literally no leader of note remained to rally around.

Filed under British Royals, Historical Royals
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Related posts:

  1. Day in History: Battle of Stamford Bridge
  2. This Day in History – August 4
  3. Day in History: Birth of Louis VIII the Lion
  4. The Battle of Britain Begins
  5. Day in History: Mary I becomes Queen Regnant of England

One Response to Day in History: Battle of Hastings

  1. pmzq says:

    Great story, and of great consequence. It literally changed history.

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