The Battle of Hastings

The Norman victory at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 was the last successful invasion of England--and the first and only since the Roman conquest a thousand years earlier. Its aftermath established a new feudal order that ensured that England would adopt the political and social traditions of continental Europe, rather than those of Scandinavia. The single battle also gained the country's crown for the Norman leader William.

Prior to the Battle of Hastings, the Vikings ruled Scandinavia, Northern Europe, and much of the British Isles. Areas they did not directly control were still vulnerable to their constant raids. Earlier Viking victories in France had led to intermarriage and the creation of a people who called themselves the Normans. Other Vikings conquered the British Isles and established their own kingdoms. Royal bloodlines ran through the leaders of all of the monarchies, but this did not prevent them from fighting each other.

Claims of crowns and territories reached a state of crisis with the death of Edward the Confessor, the King of England in 1066, who had left no heir. Three men claimed the throne: Harold Godwin, brother-in-law of Edward; William, the Duke of Normandy and a distant relative of Edward's; and King Harald Hardrada of Norway, the brother of Harold Godwin.

Both Harald and William assembled armies to sail to England to secure their claims. Godwin decided that William presented more of a threat and moved his English army to the southern coast across from Normandy. Weather, however, delayed William, and King Harald's ten thousand Vikings arrived first. On September 20, the Vikings soundly defeated the local forces around the city of York and seriously weakened the English army in the region.

Hearing of the battle, Godwin turned his army north and covered the two hundred miles to York in only six days. At Stamford Bridge, he surprised the Vikings and soundly defeated them. The retreating Viking survivors filled only twenty-four of the three hundred ships that had brought them to England.

Godwin had inflicted the most decisive defeat on the Vikings in more than two centuries, but there was no time to celebrate. A few days later, he learned that the Normans had landed at Pevensey Bay in Sussex and were marching inland. Godwin hurried back south with his army and on October 1 he arrived in London, where he recruited additional soldiers. On October 13, Godwin moved to Sussex to take defensive positions along the Norman line of march on Senlac Ridge, eight miles northwest of the village of Hastings. He did not have long to prepare because William approached the next day.

Godwin possessed both advantages and disadvantages. He had the advantage of the defense, and his army of 7,000 was about the same size as that of the Normans. Only about 2,000 of his men, however, were professionals. These housecarls, as they were known, wore conical helmets and chain-mail vests and carried five-foot axes in addition to metal shields. The remaining Saxons were poorly trained militiamen known as fyrds, who were basically draftees levied from the shires. Many of the fyrds, and most of the housecarls, were exhausted from their march as well as from the fierce battle with the Vikings.

William's army contained about 2,000 cavalrymen and 5,000 infantrymen, equally armed with swords or bows or crossbows. Despite the lack of numerical superiority and an enemy defense that would only allow for a frontal assault, William attacked.

The Normans advanced behind a rain of arrows from their archers, but the Saxon shields turned aside most of the missiles. Several direct attacks by the infantry fared no better. William then personally led a cavalry charge but was turned back by marshy ground and the Saxon defenses. Defeat, or at best stalemate, appeared to be the outcome of the battle for the invaders. The Normans were further demoralized when a story swept the ranks that William had been killed.

When the Norman leader heard the rumor, he removed his visor and rode to the head of his army. His soldiers, seeing that he was alive, rallied and renewed the assault. William also ordered his archers to fire at a high angle rather than in a direct line in order to reach behind the Saxon shields. The battle remained in doubt until William's cavalry turned and wildly fled from the battlefield. Whether the cavalry was retreating from fright or as a ruse, it had the same results. The Saxons left their defenses to pursue, only to be struck by the Norman infantry. At about the same time, an arrow hit Godwin in the eye, and he was killed by the advancing infantry. The leaderless Saxons began to flee.

William, soon to be known as the Conqueror, pursued the retreating Saxons and seized Dover. With little resistance, he entered London on December 25, 1066, and received the crown of England as King William I. Over the next five years, William brutally put down several rebellions and replaced the Anglo-Saxon aristocracy with his own Norman followers. Norman nobles built castles from which to rule and defend the countryside. Norman law, customs, traditions, and citizens intermingled with the Saxons to form the future of England as a nation.

Later the adage would declare, "There'll always be an England." The fact remains that the England that eventually came to exist began on the Hastings battlefield, and 1066 became a schoolbook standard marking the expansion of English culture, colonization, and influence around the world.

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