Anglo-Saxon (English): about 2,000-3,000 heavy infantry (huscarles, professional soldiers of the English crown), about 5,000 light to medium infantry (fyrd, local levies from the southeast of England); probably 7,000-8,000 in all under Harold II, then king of England.
Northern French (including Bretons, Normans and Flemish): probably 7,000 to 9,000 divided into three contingents, each with roughly 700-800 armored medium horse, 1,500 medium to heavy infantry and 500-600 missile-firing infantry (archers and crossbowmen) – all professional feudal soldiers or mercenaries, under William, Duke of Normandy.
The Situation: The thing you have to remember about Hastings is that Edward I (The Confessor) was probably gay.
Queer. A funguy, a bugger, a poofter, a moffie, an ass-pirate, a butt-bandit, light in the loafer, a cake boy, a closet queen, a fairy, a faggot, a friend of Dorothy. He was very likely a fruit, a maricon, swish, a nelly, a puff, a fudge-packer, a three-dollar bill, a chickenhawk, as well as the patron saint of kings, difficult marriages, and separated spouses, and the last Saxon King of England to die in his bed.
Where, according to legend and his own PR people, he treated his second wife like a sister and never “polluted” his mind or body with naughty thoughts about doing the nasty. Or even DID the nasty.
The official story is that he just luuuurved him some Jesus. So much that he took the idea of virginity and celibacy so seriously he never bothered to get around to fathering an heir. Or maybe he hated his wife because he hated her father, Godwin, Earl of Wessex. Or maybe because she was sixteen when she married the king, who was 43, so he hesitated to deflower this shrinking teenager (raise your hands everybody who thinks that a fortysomething guy is going to pass up sex with a nubile teenager – as Dennis Miller used to say, that’s why there’s a LAW!!)
Nope. He just hung around with huge, hunky Norman warriors looking like Tom of Finland in a mail coif until he had a series of cerebral hemorrhages in the autumn of 1065 and croaked in January of the new year. Leaving no heir to succeed him.
So. There’s no heir of the body for the Witenagemot, the Saxon Parliament, to elect to the kingship. They choose instead the son of Edward’s old enemy, Harold Godwinson.
A troubled succession in 11th Century Europe always meant trouble. And as always, troubles came for England not in single spies, but in hordes of bloody great Vikings in long ships.
Here’s the deal; two different people claimed that the throne of England was, in fact, theirs.
From the north came a tall ruffian by the name of Harald Hardrada
the surname is actually an appellation, from the Danish “hard rede”, “hard counsel” and can be better translated as “tough talker” or “hard guy”. His spiel was that Harthacanute, King of England and Denmark, and Magnus I, King of Norway had agree that first to croak would pass his kingdom(s) to the survivor. Harthacanute kacked, Magnus got Denmark but passed on England. Hardrada, Magnus’ nephew, threw in with Harold's brother Tostig (a real Saxon shitheel, traitor and rebel) and called in Magnus’ marker. He’d have England or die tryin’.
From the south came the bastard son of a Norman noble and the daughter of a rustic (probably a tanner), William, Duke of Normandy.
This character, a real hardcase, claimed that Edward had “left him” the crown of England (which by English law he was incapable of doing) AND that Harold Godwinson had sworn fealty to him (which was probably untrue but likewise was irrelevant to English succesion law). Oh, and that his great aunt was Emma of Normandy, Edward’s mom (hunh?).
The reality? All of this was crap; he was a conqueror. And he was going to conquer him some England.
The Sources: As always when one side in an engagement goes on to overwhelm the other, we have the problem with propaganda.Most of the “traditional” sources for information on the battle are Norman or Anglo-Norman, and their purpose from creation was the celebration and glorification of the Conquest. The famous Bayeux Tapestry, possibly sewn in the Norman cloister of that name within a half-century of the battle, was possibly history’s first political cartoon, using pictures (which a largely illiterate public could understand) to emphasize the nobility of Duke William, the perfidy of Earl Harold and the overall goodness that Norman piety and order had prevailed over Anglo-Saxon horniness and treachery. While it seems to be fairly reliable as to actual events and sequences it places the most Norman interpretation it can on each.
The earliest known recorded written account of the battle is in the form of a sung verse, the “Carmen de Hastingae Proelio” (Song of the Battle of Hastings) attributed to Bishop Guy of Amiens, is 835 lines of hexameter and pentameter likely composed sometime in 1067, possibly for the Easter festivities in Normandy. It is in the bloodthirsty tradition of feudal war poetry and celebrates particularly Bishop Guy’s nephew, Guy de Ponthieu. Only a single copy exists in the Royal Library in Brussels, apparently an early 12th century copy of the 11th century original.
Other accounts contemporary or nearly contemporary with the time of the battle are:
1. William of Poitiers’ “Gesta Guillelmi II ducis Normannorum” (The Deeds of William, Duke of Normandy) from 1070. This guy is the Scotty McClellan of the 11th Century, a brass-faced liar and spinmeister who says whatever he thinks will make his boss William look good. Unfortunately his material was used by a number of later authors, including Ordericus Vitalis, who included all of Poitier’s lies, and
2. William of Jumièges’ “Gesta Normannorum Ducum” (Deeds of the Dukes of the Normans), adapted from a much earlier work ("De moribus et actis primorum Normannorum ducum”, written between c. 996 and c. 1015) and also completed about 1070. A Norman writing from a Norman point of view, this William was also a monk with no military training.Other Norman sources include Ordericus Vitalis’ Historia Ecclestiastica another Norman version that is an autodidact of the two sources above, and William of Malmsbury’s “A History of the Kings of England”, probably written about 1120-1130. William is also influenced by the earlier chronicles but distance enables him to gain both some perspective and probably some knowledge of the primary English source, the “Ango-Saxon Chronicle”
This work is somewhat misnamed – it should be called the “ChronicleS”, since there are nine surviving manuscripts compiled at monasteries throughout southeastern England beginning in Alfred the Great’s time.We are warned that “not all are of equal historical value, and none of them is the original version”. Here’s part of the wiki entry for the ASC:
“Almost all of the material in the chronicle is in the form of annals, by year; the earliest are dated at 60 BC, and historical material follows up to the year in which the chronicle was written, at which point contemporary records begin. These manuscripts collectively are known as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. The Chronicle is not unbiased: there are occasions when comparison with other medieval sources makes it clear that the scribes who wrote it omitted events or told one-sided versions of stories; there are also places where the different versions contradict each other."This includes political bias: Tetlow (see below) points out that the author of the Abington manuscript is venomously anti-Godwin and includes any gossip he hears that reflects badly on the new king of England.
There are two worthy modern sources for the battle: David Howarth’s “1066 The Year of the Conquest” and, recently reissued, Edwin Tetlow’s “The Enigma of Hastings". Howarth does his usual thorough job but I truly love and recommend the Tetlow book; it looks at the events of 1066 with a reporter’s and war correspondent’s eye. Wonderful, illuminating book.
The Campaign: Hardrada got in first, landing in the north, near York, in September 1066. He kicked the shit out of the locals at the Battle of Gate Fulford on September 20 and looked to have pretty much locked up the north of England. Basking in the afterglow, his boyos left most of their hardware at their ships when they sauntered over to do a little plundering and perhaps some casual raping five days later to find the English army waiting for them at Stamford Bridge.
Harold II is usually remembered as the big loser at Hastings, if at all. But Stamford shows the quality of the man and his soldiers; the guys could flat out fucking fight. The king and his housecarls (huscarles; thingmen or bodyguards) marched and rode their scruffy little horses the roughly 200 miles from London to Stamford in four days to pound the Vikings flat in little over half a day (the sources are oblique, mostly written long after the battle, so the details of the engagement are kinda vague). Hardrada and Tostig were killed in the scrum, the north was secured for England, and just when you’d think that the lads could raise a lusty cheer, ease off the sweaty warharness and slip off to the pub for a crafty ale or six, comes the word that the Normans are ashore at Bulverhythe.Well. Fuck THAT for a game of soldiers. Harold and the housecarls saddled up and rode south again, stopping only in London for a night; a sackful of cheese sandwiches and roger the missus (with boots on and her night-rail over her head, no doubt) once for Old England, and then it was off for Senlac and the goddam uppity Frogs.
The English army assembled sometime in the late evening of October 13th or in the predawn darkness of the 14th at a place called Caldbec Hill,where the Sussex fyrdmen had been directed to gather around a “hoar apple tree”, undoubtedly a local sequoia of a tree that everyone in the area knew. The camp must have been a chaotic mess of bone-tired housecarls trying to get some sleep or straggling late after a thrown shoe or turned ankle, clueless local nobility and smallholders wandering around lost and trying to hook up with the rest of their warband and the usual irritating bastard stumbling around looking for something or someone and waking everyone up by either stepping on them, shouting next to them or shoving a flashlight inside their hootch until they got pissed and threw a boot at him to make him shut the fuck up and go away: the usual military goatfuck.
Harold’s plan, we are told, was to try and attack the Norman palisade at Bulverhythe near sunrise. It was probably irking to the hard-charging English king to find William’s little army dressed right and covered down on Telham Hill the next morning at oh-dark-thirty.
Making the best of a bad job, Harold advanced his force to the crest of Senlac Ridge, approximately 1,000 yards southeast of Caldbec Hill.The position featured steep side slopes, a long slope in front down to a marshy bottom and the then-dense Andreasweald forest to the rear. Here he formed the traditional Saxon defensive position – a “shieldwall”; a rectangular block of men in close order with their long, kite-shaped shields thrust into the ground or braced on it. The front couple of ranks would have been the professionals, the housecarls, armed with longswords or axes. Behind would have been the local gentry, less well equipped, less well trained, probably not as eager for the fight. In the center, the king and his officers, beneath the Dragon of Wessex and Godwin’s personal standard, The Fighting Man.
Below, the armored mass moved off Telham Hill to begin the last fight of Saxon England.
The Battle: The story of Hastings has been told too often to repeat here. We all know the part where the bowmen fire and retire; the Norman, Breton and Flemish infantrymen slog up, exchange cuts and stabs, retire; the knights form a rough line, boot their mounts into a canter and then a gallop and charge. Now a horse will not ram an object it cannot see a way around, over, or through, so the “charge” would have come to a messy, jouncing stop near the shieldwall, where the knights and housecarls would have traded blows and curses with several killed or maimed on both sides before the horsemen retired as well. This sequence apparently took upwards of an hour or so, with heavy losses on both sides but the invaders getting the worst of it.At this point the invaders broke, or at least the Breton left broke, streaming downhill in a chaotic mass of horsemen and footsoldiers. The English right were unable to resist the overwhelming impulse to slaughter a defenseless and fleeing enemy; they broke out of the shieldwall and pelted downhill after the Bretons.
Disaster. Harold must have said some very hard words in Old English as he watched William face his Norman center left and ride down the scattered English troops. The Tapestry shows this in fetching detail as a Norman rider lops the head and limbs off an Englishman in a group surrounded on a hillock. No question that the morning had been a drawn round.
According to all the sources several hours of hard fighting followed a brief pause. To describe this combat as “hard” is nothing less than the literal truth; pre-industrial warfare was demanding in a way that few humans living have experienced. All the emotional and much of the physical elements of modern war were present; fear, rage, confusion, hunger and thirst and lack of sleep, walking or running distances carrying heavy loads.But the moment of actual combat was a modern dies non, something which none of us can truly understand. The French invaders, and the Saxon defenders, had to walk or run the last few steps heavily armed and armored and stand within the distance of lovers hacking at each other with edged weaponry. Assuming roughly equal skill and absent outside intervention (always a risk in the sort of general melee that occurred along the Senlac shieldwall) or the vagarities of luck, at some point the combatants would tire to the degree where one or the other, or both, would have to just stop fighting and rest, chest heaving, breath sobbing, arms, shoulders and back screaming with effort and lactic acid.
Several chroniclers claim that the invaders duplicated the accidental decimation of the English fyrd by a series of feigned flights; I find this unlikely. Harold, an excellent combat commander, would have put the fear of God into his people after the Breton debacle, and William, clever as he was, had not rehearsed this most difficult and tricky of battle stratagems; the risk of a feigned flight becoming a genuine one was just too great. Rather, I suspect that the long noon and early afternoon hours passed in a seemingly endless grind of attacks on the shieldwall. A shower of arrows and spears, the shouting and shrieking onset of footsoldiers, a rough scrimmage along the line of contact, and then the arrival of the horsemen, spears and swords hacking, and then the ebbing and the two sides fell away to rest and recover.But every time the French attacks retreated they left another dozen or score of English dead and mained – most of those first from the kings housecarls, then select fyrdmen as the ranks began to thin. And they did thin – all the sources report that individuals and groups of Norman knights began to push into the English mass. Harold’s brothers Gyrth and Leofwine were killed by Norman attacks sometime after midday. This suggests that the English army was beginning to lose cohesion; probably Norman units were gaining the top of the ridge and could hit the English line harder. The early losses among the housecarls were starting to tell.
Sometime in the afternoon William had something of an inspiration.
He directed his bowmen, at this point combat-ineffective as they were unable to fire into the melee to their front, to fire what I would call an “unobserved high-angle fire-for-effect”. The archers and crossbowmen raised their point of aim and lofted their shafts into the air to land in the middle and rear of the English mass.
The effect of this unusual “combined arms” assault must have been shattering. The English troops within the army would have been fixed on the struggle to their front and front-flank. Their armor was designed to catch attacks on the shield, or shed blows from the sides and cuts from side and above; instead, the falling arrows would have landed on shoulders and heads, frightening as much as killing and wounding. The chaos must have been as deadly as the casualties. Sometime after this indirect fire attack, at some time late in the afternoon of the short October day a large group – probably twenty or thirty – of Norman knights fought their way into the center of the English lines. This group included William and two of his closest supporters, Eustace of Boulogne and Hugo de Ponthieu and a knight or man-at-arms named Giffard. Let the Carmen take up the tale:
"Now the victor, joyful France almost ruled the field; already she was seeking the spoils of war when the duke sighted the king far off on the steeps of the hill, fiercely hewing to pieces the Normans who were besetting him. He called Eustace to him ... Hugh, the noble heir of Ponthieu, escorted these two ... fourth was Giffard, known by his father's surname: these four bore arms for the destruction of the king... The first, cleaving his breast through the shield with his point, drenched the earth with a gushing torrent of blood; the second smote off his head below the protection of the helmet and the third pierced the inwards of his belly with his lance; the fourth hewed off his thigh and bore away the severed limb: the ground held the body thus destroyed."Note that several commentators have speculated that “thigh” is a euphemism for a more personal body part; as Bill Sherman said eight hundred years later, war is all hell and you cannot refine it.What is interesting is that, although the eyewitness account of the Carmen is so specific, probably the most persistent story about Hastings is that of Harold killed by an arrow through the eye.
I have a hard time believing this. For one, it presumes that the English king was goggling up in the sky in the middle of hand-to-hand combat. And thinking about the geometry of a human head and a falling arrow points up the difficulty of making this happen. But…a falling arrow might well have struck Harold, ripping down across his face and tearing the pupil or the sclera of one eye. This would have been incredibly painful and would have effectively blinded the king. So perhaps the end came, not in the heroic combat described by the Norman victors, but in a flurry of hacking blows rained down on a blinded, wounded man crouching behind his shield in pain, hardly able to recognize the danger until it killed him.Their king and his entire male line dead, the English army must have disintegrated into knots of struggling men, some to kill as many invaders as they could before they died, some to escape into the falling dark and the forest behind. The Normans didn’t pursue very far; they were exhausted, and ready for food and rest. In fact, the Norman army held its position for almost a fortnight, waiting for an English counterattack or the approach of emissaries to parley. William didn’t recognize the devastation he had wrought on the English – he had decapitated the country. There was no one, either to oppose or submit to him. He was, in fact, William the Conqueror.
The Outcome: Complete Norman strategic and geopolitical victory; the beginning of the occupation and subjugation of Anglo-Saxon England.The Impact: Immense, world-changing, almost too much so to really understand. The implications of a Saxon England are vast, and the entire history of western Europe and then the globe would have been changed had the overthrow of the English crown and the eventual Anglo-Norman kingdom not occurred. The Norman taking of Saxon England may well be one of the two or three single most pivotal moments in world history along with the closing of Ming China in the 1640’s and the Spanish conquest of Mexico and Peru in the 1500’s.
And the timing and events of Hastings are critical to all that. What if Hardrada hadn’t invaded? What if William had missed the weather window and had to wait until the spring? Harold had been king less than a year in October, 1066. He was a strong an, and like many strong men he had made enemies. The monks scripting the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle implied that Harold’s support that autumn wasn’t all it might have been:
“William, however, came against him unawares, ere his army was collected; but the king, nevertheless, very hardly encountered him with the men that would support him: and there was a great slaughter made on either side.”The implication of the bolded passage being that some men would NOT support him. Had Harold had a winter to politic, bribe and cajole his rivals, he might have met William with a force too great to destroy. He might have been able to survive one defeat and retreat to his holdings in Wessex, as Alfred had against the Danes. Might have, might have, woulda, coulda, shoulda…
But he did not. He died, as Saxon England died, on the furzy turf along the top of Senlac Ridge, on an autumn day almost a thousand years ago.
Touchline Tattles: The events of the day are so distant, and have been so thoroughly, shall we say, embroidered upon, that nearly every human interest story about the Battle of Hastings seems like a tale.
What shall we do with, say, the famously mysterious Aelfgyva, eternally linked to “a certain cleric” in a stylized caress…or perhaps a blow…his attitude mocked…or perhaps interpreted…by the little naked man in the margin with his exaggerated genitals? Was this some Pamela-Anderson-sex-tape of the 11th Century, so widely known that no more explanation than her name was needed to set off knowing chuckles and elbows? Who knows?
So many tales, the people who lived them lost through nearly a thousand years...
But my thought is that perhaps the most poignant tale told of the Battle of Hastings is about the woman who had stood beside Harold throughout his adult life, born his children, known his secrets, body and mind. She is known to history only as “Edith Swan-neck”, Eadgitha Swanneshals, and she was the English king’s handfast wife of twenty years.
The stories say that the king’s corpse was so battered that it couldn’t be recognized. I can imagine that this might well have happened; the dead man was hacked apart, his body was probably left where it fell, and it fell amid a litter of other wealthy Englishmen killed alongside him. So the next morning I can picture the Norman clean-up crews being directed to find the body of the king and so prove that the throne was empty, quartering the area they were pointed to and returning to their officer; “Alors, m’sieur capitaine, we cannot find ‘eem, helas, all the dead ones, they are cut apart so terrible that I cannot tell one from the other, me!”
So the story says that the tall lady with the strong, sad face came to the place where her love had been killed, king and noblewoman common in a waste of blood and death, to walk among the other dead and the dying to where his defiled body lay, to tell the men waiting there the intimate signs she alone knew of, and to see in their cold eyes the empty table of grieving and loss and the lonely years that their merciless swords had set for her.