On Saturday 14th October 1066 King Harold II of England was defeated by William, Duke of Normandy (also known as William the Conqueror) at what is now known as the Battle of Hastings. The battle was was fought on Senlac Hill, a location that’s approximately seven miles from Hastings, England.
By the end of the bloody day King Harold had been killed. Legend says that Harold was killed by an arrow in the eye, although this may be more folklore than fact. Henry and his forces were destroyed by William and his Norman army, and Harold was the last Anglo-Saxon king of England.
Overview of the Battle of Hastings
- Edward the Confessor, the English king that preceded Henry, was raised in Normandy and as such had a number of Norman friends.
- Duke William of Normandy claimed that during a visit to see King Edward he told William that he would succeed him as king.Duke William also claimed that Harold Godwinson agreed that William should be the successor of Edward the Confessor.
- However, Harold Godwinson accepted the crown and became King of England after Edward’s death, and Duke William receives support from the Pope to mount a campaign against England to claim the crown.
- King Harold hears of the impending attack and positioned his army on the south coast in preparation for the arrival of the Norman invasion, when the Vikings suddenly launch an invasion in north of England.
- King Harold and his army are forced to answer the Viking invasion, and Henry marched his army to York to defend against the Viking attack.Harold and his men defeat the Vikings, but they have to immediately march back to the south coast to answer the Norman invasion that landed while Harold was in York.
- Despite the unexpected attack on the Vikings, the English troops managed to hold off the initial Norman attack. Knowing that they may be losing the battle, the Norman forces changed their strategy and fired their arrows up into the air.
- Believing that the Normans are retreating, the English give chase, giving up their position on higher ground which was giving the English troops a great advantage, which ultimately cost the English the Battle of Hastings.
The Factors that Contributed to the Battle of Hastings
In 1051, William Duke of Normandy is said to have visited England, and during his visit he met with his cousin Edward the Confessor. Edward had ruled England, but had failed to produce a son that would be heir to the throne. This meant that King Edward would need to name a successor.
On his deathbed, King Edward granted the kingdom to Harold Godwine. Prior to his appointment as king, Henry was the head of a leading noble family in England. King Edward died on the 4th January 1066 and Harold Godwine was crowned as King Harold II just two days later.
William Duke of Normandy immediately disputed his claim, and put forward his own claim, stating that Edward had promised him the throne during his visit in 1051. Whether Edward had indeed made such a promise is impossible to prove, however, William felt he was entitled to the English throne, and he was not going to give up his chance to rule without a fight. Harold, however, thought of himself as a serious contender for the title of king, and he had no intention of letting William take the title from him.
Furious, William sought support, and he found it in the Pope. The Pope encouraged William to go to England and take the crown that he felt was so rightly his. William also found support from his fellow noblemen in Normandy, and he also found allies in the noblemen of Brittany and Flanders.
Within six months William had gathered enough men and resources to launch an attack on English soil. By July, William was preparing his forces, ready for an attack.
The Lead up to the Battle of Hastings
While King Harold was busy preparing his troops for the impending Norman invasion, the Vikings had also been preparing for an English invasion. In mid September Harald Hardrada and Tostig travelled towards England, ready to do battle. It is estimated that they had around 10,000 men for an army.
With both the Vikings and the Normans attacking England, King Harold would be very busy during the month of September, trying to fight off two enemies from two ends of the country.
- On September 20th 1066 Harald Hardrada and Tostig successfully launched an attack at Gate Fulford. King Harold realises that he cannot allow this attack to go unanswered, and he had to withdraw his army from the southern coast, leading them to York to do battle with the Vikings. In just four days, Henry and his army marched around 180 miles.
- On September 25th 1066 King Harold and his army battled with Harald Hardrada and his Viking forces, and they successfully quashed the Viking invasion in the Stamford Bridge Battle. The victory did come at a cost though; Henry’s men were tired and mauled from the battle.
- On September 27th 1066 Duke William of Normandy set sail with this army, and a day later he and his men landed on English soil.
- On September 28, 1066, William landed at Pevensey with approximately 15,000 troops as his army.
Once William and his army were safe on English soil, William ordered that some of the boats that they had used to be burnt. This was a clear message from William to say that he had no intention of going anywhere. The rest of William’s ships were protected by an earth embankment that was built by the troops across the mouth of the harbour. A small castle was also constructed, yet another sign of William’s intention to remain and takeover.
With the ships protected, William and his troops set to work causing enough trouble to attract Harold’s attention. William’s army pillaged and burned the local area before marching onwards to Hastings, and by the 29th September Hastings was under the control of William and his Norman forces.
By October 1st King Harold was told about the Norman invasion, and he did not hesitate in giving his response. Once informed of William’s landing in England, King Harold made all arrangements to swiftly move and redeploy his army to answer the Norman threat. King Harold and his army marched back down the old Roman road of Ermine Street. They paused to pray for victory.
Within a few days, King Harold was back in London and reorganising his forces and resources ready to face William. King Harold went on quickly to Hastings, ready to do battle with Duke William of Normandy.
Friday 13th October
On Friday 13th October 1066, Harold arrived at Senlac, near Hastings, with his army, which was of a roughly one third of the size of William’s army. Once established, the Normans and Saxon negotiators met, in an attempt to prevent another war.
William’s demands were simple; he wanted King Harold to:
a) Give up the throne and crown and hand them to William
b) Refer the matter to the arbitration of the Pope (which William knew would fall in his favour) or
c) Let the matter be resolved in a single combat
Harold declined all three requests, and the King and the contender were resigned to committing to war.
Saturday 14th October – The Battle of Hastings 1066
The next day, on Saturday 14th October, Duke William of Normandy led his forces out to Senlac to do battle with the King of England and his men.
Harold and his army adopted a defensive position, and using the shield-wall tactic that the English had perfected, he and his men attempted to hold their position.
The tactic worked very well, and waves of Norman troops threw themselves at the English army, and yet were unable to make any ground. The strength and determination of the British damaged the moral of the Norman allies, and suddenly the line began to fall and withdraw.
A short speech of encouragement from William was enough to restore order in his army, and the English, in the interim, had allowed crack to form in their shield wall. This was the opportunity needed by the Normans to gain advantage, and they used this opportunity well. They changed their tactics, and began to reduce the size and numbers of the defending Saxon army down.
Along with his army, Harold lost his life that day. Legend says that an arrow was fired and had hit him in the eye. What we do know is that King Harold’s brothers, Gyrth and Leofwine, also died that die trying to protect England from the Norman invasion.
In less than ten hours, the Saxon reign had come to an end, and Duke William of Normandy would become known as William the Conqueror.
The field was left full of bloody corpses, and William the Conqueror marched on to London to claim the crown as his.
Following the Battle of Hastings 1066
William arrived in London and immediately received the submission of the city.
- Christmas Day in 1066, William the Conqueror was crowned in Westminster Abbey as the first Norman king of England, ending the Anglo-Saxon rule over England. French was adopted as the language of the king’s court and the language was gradually blended with the Anglo-Saxon tongue, helping to give rise to the modern form of English.
King William I proved to be an effective king, even though he faced a number of rebellions against him. William ruled England for a total of 21 years. His commissioning of the “Domesday Book” has been heralded as one of his greatest achievements while on the throne, despite the fact that he did not live long enough to see the work completed.
William I died in 1087, leaving his son, William Rufus, to become the successor of the throne as William II, making him the second Norman king of England.
The Battle of Hastings may have been short and bloody, but the results of that battle led to great changes in English society. Through The Norman takeover law, language and culture all adapted. The Normans paved the way for the English feudal system, which would later be challenged with the Black Death and the Peasants Revolt.
The Impact of The Battle of Hastings on English Society
The Battle of Hastings is often attributed with the title of “the battle that changed history”. It is often given this title because of the huge impact the demise of the Saxon empire and the rise of a Norman king had on the country and the culture of England. The battle didn’t just change things inside England, it also changed the way that England was perceived by other countries.
The citizens of England were Saxons at heart, and they did not appreciate or approve of William and his men stripping them of their rights and privileges. Many rebellions were attempted and failed, and William was not shy of ensuring that his law was enforced.
Despite his unpopularity with the people, William the Conqueror was able to rule uninterrupted for more than 20 years.
Changes to the legal system
During the Saxon rule citizens were able to enjoy certain freedoms and “Earls” could share similar power and influence as that enjoyed by the king. However, William was quick to make changes to this system.
Under William’s law, the king was the sole authority figure, making it almost impossible for anyone, no matter what their nobility, to argue against the king.
Changes to English Culture
A culture and set of customs that had lasted more than 3000 years was wiped out and changed forever with the arrival of the new king. William’s rule saw the elimination of the Saxon way of life, and society was pushed toward Norman thinking.
Introduction of the Feudal System
Saxon ownership was completely undermined with the arrival of the new king and his noblemen with the development of the feudal system. William had previously developed and implemented a similar system in Normandy with great success.
The system was founded upon the idea that the best soldiers would be rewarded with a piece of land, creating a bond of loyalty between the troops and their leader. In William’s case, he took the land owned by Anglo-Saxon land and redistributed it to his Norman nobleman. Anglo-Saxons were forced to work their own land for new landlords at poor rates of pay.