On 14 October, Harold’s army arrived to the north of William’s landing area – the English were about to fight their third major battle in a month, and the Normans knew that this is probably their one chance to take down the English king before a larger, nationally-raised army arrived.
The longest prose account of the campaign around Hastings was written by William of Poitiers in The Deeds of William, duke of the Normans and King of the English (circa 1071), which is generally considered to be a reliable – although biased – record of the battle:
… So the Norman infantry [meaning those armed with crossbows and bows] advanced closer, provoking the English, and causing wounds and death with their missiles. The latter resisted bravely, each according to their means. They threw javelins and all sorts of darts, the most lethal of axes and stones fixed to pieces of wood. Under this deadly hail you might have thought that our men would be crushed. The mounted warriors came to the rescue, and those who had been in the rear found themselves in the front. Disdaining to fight from a distance, they rode into battle using their swords
…The English were greatly helped by the higher position which they held; they did not have to march to the attack, but remained tightly grouped. Their numbers and the strength of their army, as well as their weapons of attack, which penetrated without difficulty shields and other pieces of armour were also to their advantage. So they resisted vigorously or repulsed those who dared to attack them at close quarters with swords. They even wounded those who threw spears at them from a distance. So, frightened by such ferocity, the infantry and Breton mounted warriors both retreated, with all the auxiliary troops who formed the left wing. Almost the whole of the duke's army yielded.
…The Normans believed that their duke and Lord has been killed. The prince, seeing the greater part of the enemy camp setting out in pursuit of his men, hurled himself in front of the fugitives, and stopped them by striking them or menacing them with his lance. Then, having uncovered his head nod taken off his helmet, he shouted: 'Look at me! I am alive!’
...The English confidently resisted with all their strength, striving above all to prevent a breach in their line opening under the assault. Their extraordinarily tight formation meant that those who were killed hardly had room to fall. Even so, some breaches opened under the sword-blows of the most doughty fighters.
…Then an unusual kind of combat ensured, one side attacking in bursts and in a variety of movements, the other rooted in the ground, putting up with the assault, The English weakened, no, as if they admitted their wrongdoing by defeat self, the now undertook their punishment. The Normans shot arrows, wounded and transfixed men; the dead as they feel, moved more 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.
...At the close of the day, the English realised that they could no longer resist the Normans. They knew that they had been reduced in number of the death of many of their troops. The King himself, his brothers, and the leading men of the kingdom had been killed: those who remained were at the end of the struggle; and there was no hope in relief... So they fled, and left the field as quickly as they could, some seizing horses, others on foot, some by road, others across country... The Normans, although they did not know the countryside, pursued them eagerly, slaughtering the fleeing rebels, setting the seal on their victory. Admits the dead, the horses' hooves trampled all those who lay in their path.
(Quoted in Morillo, The Battle of Hastings, 1996)
The Norman army at Hastings was probably roughly equal in number to that of the English – perhaps 7,000 fighting men – but would have included all of the mounted troops that William could muster. In contrast, Harold’s hilltop force would have been split between the housecarls who had marched south with him after one or even both northern battles, the fyrd he raised en route, and yet more mercenaries, possibly included Danes sent by Sweyn of Denmark to help thwart William’s invasion. Sources give differing accounts of English numbers through the battle – some describe fyrdmen deserting early on in the day when they saw the Norman army (most likely later, pro-Norman propaganda), whilst others suggest that Harold’s ranks swelled through the day as more fyrdmen arrived to fight (possibly having been strung out in camp overnight on the route from London). Whatever the situation, Harold blocked William’s path inland, and on the morning of 14 October 1066, the rival armies faced one another.
Harold’s army was drawn up at the crest of Senlac ridge, flung across the road to London; his flanks were protected by terrain, and he was in a strong position. The day looked good for the English. Presumably he intended to fight a defensive battle, dismounting to counter the threat of the larger, superior Norman mounted arm. Housecarls filled the front line and centre, with the lesser – mere mortal – warriors filling the ranks behind. William, at the foot of the slope, deployed in three wings: Bretons on the left; his Normans in the centre; and Flemings and French on the right. To the fore were archers; followed by the foot spearmen; and the mounted troops sat at the rear. This demonstrated his intended order of attack – probably holding back his horsemen as they were the warriors he could least afford to lose (or replace). With William was the Papal Banner, a token of the Rome’s support for his cause.
Hastings was fought out in several phases, and was noted even at the time for the lengthy duration of fighting. The first phase, around 9am, began when William sent forward archers as a prelude to a foot assault. Neither archery nor spears made an impression on the English line, but it was also seen that the English lacked long-range missiles for their own, so could do little to damage the enemy unless they approached within javelin range. Time was not on William’s side – retreating back to harbour was not an option for him; therefore, he launched his best troops – his cavalry – in an uphill charge. Cantering uphill at a solidly formed body of disciplined warriors was unlikely to succeed, and so it was.
This initial cavalry assault went so poorly for William that it led to his left wing – the Bretons – falling back in disorder. At the same moment, rumour spread that William was dead. William acted quickly upon the rumour by removing his helmet and making sure that his army saw he would fight on; the Breton retreat was more troubling… as they fell back down the hill, a portion of the English right flank facing them surged forward in triumphant pursuit.
No-one now knows if the Breton retreat was genuine or a feigned flight; the traditional tale is that the Bretons lured the English out of position, and with the assistance of Norman warriors, turned on their pursuers and hacked them to pieces on ground favourable for horsemen. Some of the English made a stand on a hillock in front of the main English line and died while their comrades watched on helpless; others made it back to the temporary safety of the ridge. This cost Harold dear – his line was thinned, his army demoralised by the slaughter on their right, and a great chance had been snatched way from him.
Over the course of the afternoon, William began to alternate assaults by his cavalry with archery from a distance. This gave his horsemen a chance to recover their strength and composure while all the time applying pressure and stress to the English line. Towards the end of the afternoon, the English had suffered enough losses that the whole of the ridge could not be defended. Shrinking their perimeter offered the Norman horsemen a foothold from which to launch further devastating attacks, and the English was battered until it broke late in the day. At some point during the late afternoon archery assaults, Harold was struck down with an arrow in his eye (there is some debate as to whether this is what the tapestry shows, but it seems clear to me that the large figure clutching at the arrow is intended to be Harold); whether this killed him outright or incapacitated him we no longer know, but with the king out of action and his brothers dead, English resistance collapsed.
Harold died beneath his Fighting Man banner and his army fled the field. Some turned to fight as they fell back, inflicting no small number of casualties on the ruthless pursuing cavalry at a ditch known later to the Normans as the Malfosse. But the field was William’s.
Coming soon… refighting the battle using my Scottorum Malleus IV rules.