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In October 14, 1066, the tragic Battle of Hastings took place. It was fought between the Norman Army of Duke William II of Normandy and the English army of King Harold II. The battle took place at Senlac Hill, about 6 miles northwest of Hastings. Harold II was killed during the battle; historians predict or believe that he was shot through the eye by the barraging arrows fired from the Norman armies. The battle was the decisive Norman victory in the Norman Conquest of England. Although there was further English resistance after the Norman victory, the battle is seen as the point at which William gained control of England, becoming England's first Norman ruler as King William I. The famous Bayeux Tapestry shows the events of the battle. Many battles later on were built on the site of the conflict, such as Battle Abbey in East Sussex.
Belonging to the most authoritative family in England, Harold Godwisnon claimed the throne soon after Edward the Confessor died in January 1066. Some historians say that Edward had verbally promised the throne to his cousin William the Duke of Normandy, but decided just before his death to give it to Harold. While Edward the Confessor had a great English nephew who might have qualified as his heir, he was considered to be too young.
William had been instituting policy in England for over 15 years, and by taking Harold's crowning, he declared the start of a great battle. He planned to invade England and take over the throne. However, at that time, the Norman army was not strong enough, so nobles as far as Southern Italy were called to gather at Caen in Normandy. In order to convince them to aid him, he promised lands and titles to his followers and supporters and claimed that the voyage was secured by the Pope. William assembled an enormous fleet of about seven hundred ships, over twenty thousand men. This force waited at the port through summer, probably because of unfavorable weather conditions and more likely from fear of a clash at sea with the large English fleet. The Norman ships finally sailed for England after the exhaustion of supplies forced Harold to dismiss his fleet and army, to add to that, many English ships were destroyed by a storm. On the day of September 28, 1066, William landed unobstructed at Pevensey.
Harold, who had been waiting for Normans to start their invasion, rushed his armed forces to the north to attack an invading Norwegian Viking army led by King Harald Hardrada and Tostig Godwinson, Harold's brother. He completely shattered the invaders at the battle of Stamford Bridge, near York. Upon hearing that the Duke's forces had landed, Harold hurried southward to meet the invaders. Harold's brother, Earl Gyrth, recommended a delay in the attack, but Harold was determined to show his people that he could defend his kingdom against anyone who tries to invade it, hence demonstrating his power. He headed toward London on the morning of 12 October, gathering all the forces he could on his way. He arrived at Senlac Hill on the night of 13 October.
Harold organized his forces across the road from Hastings to London, on Senlac Hill. Behind him was the great forest of Anderida, also known as the Weald, and in front of him was a long glacis slope which rose to the opposing slope of Telham Hill.
The English Army
Three weeks before the Battle of Hastings, the English army has fought to major battles, Gate Fulford and Stamford Bridge. The Battle of Stamford was victorious for the English forces that crushed Harald Hardrada's Viking army, but also weakened the English army's battle-worthiness at Hastings. The English army mainly consisted of infantry. The heart of the army consisted of Housecarls, which are full-time professional soldiers who had a long standing dedication to the King. Their armor consisted of a conical helmet, a chain mail hauberk, and a kite-shaped shield. Their primary weapon was the two-handed Danish battleaxe as well as a standard sword.
The mass of the English army, called the fyrd, was composed of part-time English soldiers brought from the landowning minor nobility. These soldiers were required to serve with their own armor and weapons for a specified period of time. The English had a terrifying defense line which is the shield wall in which all of the men at the front ranks packed in their shields together; it was an invincible defense strategy. In the beginning of the battle, the shield was very effective at defending the English forces from the Norman attacks. The whole army was lined up at the front line; as the English soldiers at the front went down, forces from the back would come up front and fill the gaps of the wounded soldiers. This strategy very much aided the English forces for a while until the Norman armies found a way to breach it.
The Norman Army
William, Duke of Normandy, was a skilled and experienced military leader. His troops, with both infantry and cavalry, were feared and respected. He had fought and defeated the king of France in 1054 and 1057. William did not believe in being merciful to those who fought against him. The Norman army consisted mainly of nobles, mercenaries, and troops from Normandy, Flanders, Brittany and France, with some soldiers that came from as far as southern Italy.
The Norman army's power was basically derived from its cavalry which was considered among the best in Europe. The Norman army was heavily armored with an alance and a sword. The Norman infantry were protected by ring mail and armed with spears, swords and shields almost like the English forces. The large number of missile troops reflected the drift in European armies for combing different types of forces on the battlefield. One of the weapons used by the Normans, the bow, was a relatively short weapon with a short draw, but despite of the fact that it was short, it was very effective on the battlefield. Hastings marks the first known use of the crossbow in the battle in English history.
William relied on basic tactics with archers in the front rank weakening the enemy with arrows, followed by infantry which would engage in close combat, ending in a cavalry charge that would break through the English forces. However, his tactics did not work as well as planned. William's army attacked the English as soon as they were ready and formed up. Norman archers shot several volleys but many of the arrows hit the shield wall and had very little effect. Believing the English to have been softened up, William ordered his infantry to attack. As the Normans charged up the hill, the English threw down whatever they could find: stones, javelins, and maces. The barrage inflicted heavy casualties among the Norman ranks, causing the lines to break up.
The infantry charge reached the English lines, where violent hand-to-hand fighting took place. William had expected the English to weaken, but the arrow barrage had little effect and nearly all the English troops still stood, their shield wall undamaged. As a result William ordered his cavalry to charge far sooner than planned. Faced with a wall of axes, spears and swords, many of the horses shied away despite their careful breeding and training. After an hour of fighting, the Breton division on William's left faltered and broke completely, fleeing down the hill. Suffering heavy casualties and realizing they would be quickly outflanked; the Norman and Flemish divisions retreated. Unable to resist the temptation, many of the English broke ranks, including hundreds of fyrdmen and Harold's brothers, Leofwyne and Gyrthe. In the following confused fighting, William's horse was killed from underneath him, and he toppled to the ground. Initially, many of William's soldiers thought that he had been killed, and an even greater rout ensued. It was only after he stood up and threw off his helmet that William was able to rally his fleeing troops.
William and a group of his knights successfully counter-attacked the pursuing English, who were no longer protected by the shield wall, and cut down large numbers of fyrdmen. Many did not recognize the Norman counter-attack until it was too late, but some managed to scramble back up the hill to the safety of the housecarls. Harold's brothers were not so fortunate; their deaths deprived the English of an alternative leader after the death of Harold. The two armies formed up, and a temporary pause fell over the battle. The battle had turned to William's advantage, since the English had lost much of the protection provided by the shield wall. Without the cohesion of a disciplined, strong formation, the individual English were easy targets. William launched his army at the strong English position again and many of the English housecarls were killed.
With such a large number of English fyrdmen now holding the front rank, the disciplined shield wall that the housecarls had maintained began to weaken, presenting an opportunity to William. At the start of the battle the hail of arrows fired at the English by William's bowmen was ineffective because of the English shields. Though many on the front ranks still had shields, William ordered his archers to fire over the shield wall so that the arrows landed in the clustered rear ranks of the English army. The archers did this with great success. Legend states that it was at this point that Harold was hit in the eye by an arrow. Many of the English were now weary. William's army attacked again, and managed to make small chinks in the shield wall. They were able to take advantage of these gaps, and the English army began to fragment. William and a handful of knights broke through the wall, and struck down the English king. Without their leader and with many nobles dead, hundreds of fyrdmen fled the field. The housecarls kept their oath of loyalty to the king, and fought bravely until they were all killed.
Following the Battle
Very few defenders fled and escaped to the forest. The Norman forces pursued many of the fleeing English soldiers but they were ambushed and killed when they were walked over a steep ground, called the "Malfosse" or bad ditch. William and his forces rested for two weeks near Hastings, waiting for the English lords to come and submit to him. After a while, he realized that his hopes of submissions were in vain, so William began to move towards London. The Norman army met many hardships and a large number of William's army were reduced in November by dysentery, along with that, William himself was fatally ill. However, the Norman army was reinforced by fresh troops coming from the English Channel.
While William was advancing towards London, the remains of the English government had gathered together and chosen the young and inexperienced Edgar the Atheling as king. According to many historians, they have chosen this king because they said that a weak king is better than no king at all and in the absence of the Godwinson family, he was the only available candidate at that time. Not long after the election of Edgar, many people fled for their safety. Members of the English establishment such as Edgar's sisters Margaret and Cristina hastily escaped with their followers to Chester for protection. Meanwhile, William advanced through Kent devastating Romney and receiving the submission of Dover and its important castle.
At Dover he paused for a week receiving the submission of Canterbury on October 29. He sent messengers to Winchester who received the submission of that city from the widowed Queen Eadgyth. From Canterbury William advanced to Southwark. After failing in attempt to cross London Bridge, William destroyed the entire town. He now tried to use an alternative route to the city by an indirect path crossing the Thames at Wallingford ravaging the land as he passes.
The Norman forces finally proceeded on London from the north-west eventually reaching Berkhampstead in late November 1066. Arguments went on between William's forces and the stressed authorities in London. They finally came to an agreement that stated that the city would be spared from further killing if Edgar resigned and William was recognized as king.
This agreement seems to have been imposed on the young Edgar. In early December, Ansgar the Sheriff of Middlesex, the archbishops of York and Canterbury and the deposed Edgar the Atheling came out and submitted to the Norman duke. William received them graciously and accepted their submission. William was crowned king on Christmas Day, 1066 at Westminster Abbey.
The Battle of Hastings marks a very important point in history, in which it demonstrates William's strong devotion to take the thrown. Many battles following the Battle of Hastings were built on the site such as Battle Abbey. Till now, there is a plaque that marks the place at which Harold was killed and has fallen and the location where the high altar of the church once stood.
The battle had a remarkable influence on the English language. The Norman's main language was French, as a result of the rule, many new French words used by the nobles later was adopted by the English language and became part of the English language itself.
As Paul K. Davis writes, "William's victory placed a foreign ruler on the throne of England, introducing European rather than Scandinavian society onto the isolated island" in "the last successful invasion of England.