On October 14, 1066, a field some seven miles from the town of Hastings was the scene of arguably the most famous battle in English history. It is unquestionably one of the most important because it changed the course of history in England as William, Duke of Normandy, defeated King Harold Godwinson. Incidentally, the site of the battle is now a town named Battle.
Background to the Battle
There had been a link between Normandy and England since 1002 when King Ethelred II married the Duke of Normandy’s (Richard II) sister, Emma. They had a son named Edward the Confessor, and he spent many years living in Normandy. When he became king in 1042, he brought a large array of Normans including soldiers, clerics, and courtiers. However, Edward had no heirs and became involved in a battle for the crown with Godwin, Earl of Wessex and his sons.
King Edward died on January 5, 1066, and the lack of an heir meant that a dispute over the next monarch was inevitable. The king’s immediate successor was Harold Godwinson who was the son of Godwin and England’s richest and most powerful aristocrat. Although Harold was crowned king, he faced two contenders almost immediately. William of Normandy claimed he was the rightful heir as Edward had promised him the crown. Harald III of Norway also contested the crowning of Harold and based his claim between an old agreement between former kings of England and Norway.
Harold’s forces drove back the fleet of his exiled brother, Tostig, but could not prevent Harald III landing in the north of England in early September 1066. By now, Harold had sent his militia home because most of them had to harvest their crops. The Norwegians took York after victory at the Battle of Fulford. Meanwhile, Harold was building his army in anticipation of an attack by William. When he heard about the Norwegian invasion, he raced north to meet them and won an impressive victory at the Battle of Stamford Bridge on September 25. Although Harald III and Tostig died in the battle and their army was almost annihilated, Harold’s army was also in bad shape and ripe for another invasion.
William Makes His Move
William was planning an attack but was way behind the Norwegians in terms of preparation. It took him nine months to build his fleet, but he was finally ready to invade England in August 1066. However, the crossing was delayed; sources vary regarding the reason. Some say he knew a journey at that point would see his fleet intercepted by the English; others believe bad weather prevented his attack.
Either way, it was a stroke of good fortune for William because he arrived at Sussex on September 28, a few days after the Battle of Stamford Bridge that had significantly weakened his enemy. His army consisted of cavalry, archers, and crossbowmen. The exact amount of troops he brought to England is unknown and varies from 7,000 to 14,000 depending on the source.
Harold left most of his men up north after Stamford Bridge and brought a relatively small army down south to deal with the threat. He probably did not learn of William’s landing until he was already on his way south. Harold and his men covered approximately 200 miles in seven days and camped at Caldbec Hill on October 13. He was now just 8 miles from William’s castle in Hastings. His attempt to surprise William failed when Norman scouts reported the king’s arrival. Most historians agree that William left the castle and took his army to meet his rival.
Harold placed his shield wall on Senlac Hill and had a significant advantage at the start of the fight. Estimates vary on the size of his army, but it was probably somewhere between 5,000 and 13,000 men. William’s men had no choice but to climb the hill on the boggy ground; a tough task made even worse by the fact the men were weighed down by heavy armor. However, the English army was made up entirely of infantry which was a problem against William’s cavalry. On 9 am on Saturday, October 14, 1066, one of England’s most legendary battles took place.