Nation in Conflict - the Battle of Hastings

Posted on Friday 5th October 2012

The story of 1066 is the epic of three men: King Harold and his two great enemies: William, Duke of Normandy and his namesake, Harald Hardrada, Harald the Ruthless, King of Norway. Edward the Confessor died without issue and all three men claimed the throne – Harold with the support of the English nobility, and William and Harald by virtue of promises made to them by former kings. There is an interesting even-handedness about the battles of 1066: the English, Normans and Vikings each won a battle. Perhaps the Normans won the race because they did not have to fight a second battle. King Harold and Harald Hardrada, both did, and both of them lost it.
Partly through the medium of the Bayeux Tapestry, but also because of the way the sources are written, the first phase of the Battle of Hastings is presented as a series of tableaux: the exchange of missiles, the charge of the Norman horse, the retreat of the Bretons, William’s intervention, and the encirclement of the fyrd on their hillock. All of this might have taken place in the space of an hour, perhaps two hours, bringing the time to late morning. Yet the Battle of Hastings went on until dusk, at about six in the evening. What happened in the long hours between the elimination of the hillock group and the collapse of the English army?

The defeat of the english
The afternoon seems to have passed in a series of assaults on the weakening English position. The Normans ‘attacked with the greatest vigour’, writes William of Poitiers. The English army, though shorn of its wings, still inspired fear and was very difficult to break through and surround. The Norman attacks burst against the English rock. In a series of loaded statements, Poitiers goes on:
‘The English weakened, and, as if they admitted their wrongdoing by defeat itself, they now undertook their punishment. The Normans shot arrows, wounded and transfixed men. The dead, as they tumbled to the ground, showed more sign of motion than the living. Even the lightly wounded could not escape, but perished under the dense heap of their companions. So fortune concurred in William’s triumph by hastening it’.
A similar passage in the Carmen alludes to the terrible vengeance meted out to the English for fighting in a lost cause:
‘O Ruler of Heaven, thou who art tender and pitiful towards us and by divine will rulest all things, what destruction the surviving band of English suffered! Then pity died and cruelty triumphed, life perished, savage death raged, and the sword ran wild! Where Mars holds sway, no man shows mercy.’
There is a sense of growing desperation and violence in the last scenes of the Tapestry. Housecarls, who seem immortal at the start of the battle, are now shown being struck down by the swords and lances of the Norman cavalry. It scarcely needs the legend ‘and those who have fallen who were with Harold’. The archers in the lower panel have been busy, and the shields of the English bristle with arrows. How the archers managed to replenish their quivers at this stage is not clear. Perhaps, having pushed back the English line, they were able to scavenge spent arrows from the battlefield. Or perhaps fresh supplies of arrows had arrived from the ships. We can imagine a short but effective storm of arrows falling on the crushed ranks of the English, followed by the shock of the cavalry assault. Bit by bit, the English were worn down, and the Normans started to penetrate their lines, at last gaining a foothold on the ridge.


It was perhaps now, as the late afternoon sunlight slanted across the piles of bodies, that King Harold was killed, with or without an arrow in the eye. In the Carmen, Harold, in his last moments, performs prodigies of valour, hewing down the Normans now investing his hilltop position. This story is probably intended to magnify the Normans’ fame in overcoming the hero and winning the battle. At this stage in the battle, the attention turns to Harold and William personally. Both were great warriors, but, since the sources are Norman and French, William is of course the greater, Achilles to Harold’s Hector, Aeneus to the latter’s Turnus. His chaplain claims that Duke William surpassed even the bravest of his knights:
‘His leadership in battle was noble, preventing men from fleeing, inspiring courage in others, sharing danger, more often ordering his men to follow him than to advance... Three horses were killed under him. Three times he intrepidly leapt to the ground and hastened to avenge the death of his warhorse. This showed his quickness, his strength of mind and body. The fury of his sword pierced shields, helmets and hauberks; he struck down several soldiers with his shield alone... He helped and rescued many men.’
The Carmen differs only in claiming William had only two horses killed from under him, but the picture of a mighty warrior is much the same: ‘At the appearance of the duke the trembling host fell back, as soft wax melts away in the face of fire. With drawn sword he hewed to pieces helms and shields, and even his war-horse slew many’; presumably by trampling them.

The inscription here reads 'hic harold rex interfectus est', with the name 'Harold' written above a warrior with an arrow in his eye. But the words 'interfectus est' (has been killed) appear to refer to a second warrior being hacked down by a mounted Norman swordsman. The tapestry is the only source on this point, so we cannot know for sure which of the two figures was meant to be King Harold.
Clearly there must have been some justification for such stories, and we need not doubt that William was a prominent figure on the battlefield and the architect of the Norman victory. All the same, the William of the Bayeux Tapestry is presented more plausibly as an orthodox commander, giving orders and haranguing his fleeing men, but never shown actually fighting. In contrast to his knights, but like his priestly half-brother Odo, he carries no shield, and in his hand is no sword but a harmless wooden mace of office. It was necessary for the sources to present a valorous, martial William outdoing the great men of ancient myth. But there is an air of cliché about William’s supposed exploits, and even in Poitiers’ account, the emphasis is on William’s qualities as an inspiring leader of men rather than the man who more or less singlehandedly won the Battle of Hastings. He seems to take on two roles: the commander with his staff, and the embodiment of the Norman army. When the Carmen has him personally killing Harold, Gyrth and several thousand others, his audience no doubt understood it in a poetical sense: they were killed by Normans, William was the leader of the Normans, therefore William killed them.
By the time Harold was slain and his standard overthrown, the shield-wall had crumbled and the English line may have shrunk to a circular phalanx of men in the vicinity of the present day abbey. On the Tapestry only two men stand by the king, his standard-bearer and a lone housecarl. The death of King Harold is a contentious subject. Most sources say he fell late on in the battle, perhaps shortly before dusk. The scene everyone knows is on the last but one panel of the Bayeux Tapestry: ‘Hic Harold: Rex: Interfectus: Est’ - ‘Here King Harold is killed’. Beneath the word Harold, a tall figure clutches an arrow, seemingly embedded in his right eye. The tradition that Harold was struck in the eye by an arrow was well known to chroniclers writing a generation or two afterwards.
King Harold’s loss effectively ended the battle and began a sauve qui peut, as the English fled the field. As the Carmen put it, ‘The flying rumour “Harold is dead!” spread through the fray’. At that news proud hearts were tamed by fear: ‘The English refused battle. Vanquished they besought mercy; despairing of life, they fled from death’. The impression given elsewhere is that the housecarls fought to the death, while it was the fyrd, or some of them, that fled. No housecarls flee or beg for mercy on the Bayeux Tapestry: they are last seen fighting and falling with sword and axe amid a thicket of Norman lances. Even as Harold receives his death wound, scavengers were at work, stripping bodies of their coats of mail, or collecting weapons and shields. In the last surviving section of the Tapestry, five mounted Normans, including an archer, pursue the English as they flee into the forest. Three of the English have found mounts, which they lash frantically in their haste. One unfortunate has entangled himself in a thicket (or is he climbing a tree?). Another runs blindly with an arrow sticking from an eye. The last figure on the Tapestry is a poor naked figure apparently hiding in the bushes, peering out at the carnage.


The site of Harold's death.

According to tradition, Harold was killed by an arrow in the eye.

King harold
Harold was the last Anglo-Saxon king of England. He reigned for less than a year, from his coronation on 6 January 1066 until his death on the field at Hastings. Although the chronicler John of Worcester claims that Harold ‘immediately began to abolish unjust laws and to make good ones’, most of his unquiet reign was in fact spent preparing for war and conducting war by land and sea. The poignant single word ‘PAX’ on the silver pennies of King Harold was only an aspiration. Harold is of course remembered now mainly as the loser of the Battle of Hastings. Until then, however, he had been notably successful in war, having overcome the Welsh in two lightning campaigns, and defeated the last great Viking invasion in a single battle at Stamford Bridge just three weeks before Hastings. Moreover, he was a statesman of experience, having been a great earl for a quarter of a century, first of East Anglia, then of Wessex, and eventually acting as a kind of underking (subregulus) as the aging king, Edward the Confessor, became increasingly preoccupied with prayer and hunting.

Map of the Hastings battlefield at 9.00am, 14 October 1066.

Map of the Hastings battlefield at 5.00pm, 14 October 1066.

Further Reading

ISBN: 9780850529531

by Peter Marren
Only £9.99

If ever there was a year of destiny for the British Isles, 1066 must have a strong claim. What dramatic changes of fortune, heroic marches, assaults by land and sea took place that year. This book explains what really happened and why in what is arguably the 'best known' but worst understood battle in British history.
Read more at Pen & Sword Books...

Of further interest...