The Battle of Hastings took place on 14 October 1066 between the Norman-French army of William, the Duke of Normandy, and an English army under the Anglo-Saxon King Harold Godwinson. This event marked the beginning of the Norman Conquest of England.
Background: The Contention for the English Throne.
In January of 1066, Harold Godwinson, formerly the Earl of Wessex, assumed the English crown after the passing of King Edward the Confessor, who had left no clear heir. However, the circumstances surrounding Harold's claim to the throne remained unclear, as Edward had allegedly nominated Harold as his successor on his deathbed.
On the opposing side was William, the Duke of Normandy, who asserted that Edward had promised him the English throne in 1051 and was resolute in his intent to invade England. Adding a layer of complexity to the narrative was King Harald Hardrada, also known as Harald III of Norway, who harboured a similar claim to the crown. Allying himself with Tostig, the Earl of Northumbria and Harold's brother, Harald Hardrada assembled a formidable invasion force and landed near the River Tyne on September 8, 1066, menacingly close to York.
On September 25, 1066, Harold's forces clashed with Hardrada's at Stamford Bridge, catching the invaders off guard. The battle ended swiftly, with both Hardrada and Tostig perishing and the invading force suffering severe losses. Harold had successfully repelled one contender for his crown, but William awaited in the south. In the meanwhile, the latter amassed an invasion fleet on the northern coast of France. Estimates of the fleet's size vary, but it likely comprised 5,000 to 8,000 troops, including cavalry. Aware of the impending Norman invasion, Harold prepared to confront it.
The Battle of Hastings
On October 14, 1066, William's Norman forces and Harold's English army clashed. William's troops, having moved swiftly to reach Harold's camp early that morning, caught the English somewhat off guard. The latter’s army had strategically positioned itself on a raised terrain known as the "hammer-head ridge," which enjoyed natural defences from the surrounding woods. Meanwhile, William's forces aligned themselves to the south of the ridge, organized into three infantry divisions: Bretons, Normans, and French, each boasting archers and crossbowmen in the front lines, while cavalry reserves stood ready at the rear.
The battle began with a barrage of arrows from the Normans countered by a hail of stone axes thrown by the Anglo-Saxons as the Normans ascended the ridge. The Norman cavalry struggled due to the terrain but was eventually repelled by the Saxon shield wall. A moment of panic swept the Norman ranks when rumours spread that William had fallen. However, William, unscathed, revealed himself to rally his troops. Subsequently, some Anglo-Saxons pursued the retreating Norman cavalry downhill but were ambushed and defeated once on level ground. Witnessing this success, William ordered two more feigned charges and retreats, luring the Anglo-Saxons into pursuit and then executing counterattacks on favourable terrain.
The Norman cavalry's superiority over the Anglo-Saxon infantry was a crucial factor in tipping the scales, as the housecarls, the best-trained troops, were depleted in number. In the final cavalry charge, Harold and other Saxon leaders, including his brothers Gurth and Leofwine, were killed. According to tradition, Harold suffered an arrow to the eye, fell under a cavalry charge, and was hacked to pieces by Norman swords. Following his death, the remaining Anglo-Saxons conducted a rearguard action as they retreated to a nearby hill, the Malfosse, but they were ultimately overwhelmed, securing total victory for William.
Following his victory at the Battle of Hastings, William the Conqueror ascended to the English throne and became known as William I. His coronation took place on Christmas Day in the same year at Westminster Abbey, marking the end of 500 years of Saxon rule in England. However, William's hold on his new kingdom was not immediate, as he faced five more years of struggles, including battles against rebels in the northern regions of England and the widespread construction of Norman motte-and-bailey castles, before he could establish full control over his realm.
To commemorate his triumph, William constructed Battle Abbey on the battlefield site, and its ruins still stand today. The fate of Harold's remains remains shrouded in mystery, with some accounts suggesting their transfer to Waltham Abbey, though a later exploration of the tomb revealed it to be empty. Legend also suggested that Harold survived the battle, but such tales served to deny rebels a martyr's grave and a rallying point.
The culmination of the battles of 1066, resulting in the defeat of both the Anglo-Saxons and the Vikings, ushered in a new era of history in northern Europe, particularly in England. The Normans replaced the Anglo-Saxon ruling elite, and significant restructuring occurred within the Church. Moreover, England established much closer ties with continental Europe, particularly with France.