History is one of S.P. Austen's favourite topics and he is fascinated how it has shaped us all.
We have seen from the last article in this series, that Duke William of Normandy had landed his fleet at Pevensey, in Sussex, ready to meet King Harold in battle. Amongst his commanders were his half-brother, Bishop Odo, more warrior than churchman, who would rally the Norman troops and support William's orders in battle. Harold, meanwhile, had made haste to return south after defeating his enemies in Yorkshire at Stamford Bridge.
Now, with a reduced force of tired men, King Harold and his army rode out from London and made his encampment at Senlac Hill a few miles from the Hastings coastline. The date was now 13th October 1066. Harold encamped for the night. Amongst his closest and most loyal company were his brothers Leofwyn and Gyrth.
In the 11th Century, the area where the Battle Of Hastings was fought was known as Senlac, and Senlac Hill dominated the valley that lay before it. In modern times, this place is occupied by the town of Battle, which includes Battle Abbey which William had built afterwards to commemorate the event.
On the following day, Wednesday 14th October, the battle commenced around 9 o'clock in the morning, and lasted all day until about 5 o'clock when it was almost dark. Harold had been hoping for more reinforcements, but they did not come. Although Harold's forces were numerically superior, they were less well-equipped and less well-trained than the Normans. He and his forces were arrayed on top of Senlac Hill ready to receive the first wave of Norman forces.
The Bloody Battle
Duke William first sent in his men-at-arms, or foot soldiery, but the English repulsed them. Archers fired arrows into the English ranks, but firing uphill took the power out of these flights. The Norman cavalry then charged up the hill to engage the English troops but were successfully fought off, beaten back by lance, sword and the long shafted Danish battle-axe. The English had formed the classic shield-wall tactic of the day, where each man interlocked his kite-shaped shield with the man beside him so that they presented to the Normans an impenetrable wall of shields through which it was difficult to break through.
In those days, the English had not fully realised the importance of massed ranks of archery which in later centuries would prove invaluable in pitched battles of this nature. Therefore, only a small number of archers were found amongst King Harold's warriors. The Normans, on the other hand, had amongst them trained squads of archers launching volleys of arrows into the English ranks, and although uphill, it would have had a demoralizing effect, setting the men on edge, and many warriors would still have fallen.
According to the Bayeux Tapestry Harold's brothers Leofwyn and Gyrth seem to have been killed early on in the battle. Already, the Normans appeared to be prevailing. But the left flank of William's cavalry, unable to advance deeply into the English ranks, broke away and retreated down the hill. Encouraged by this, some of Harold's own forces broke out and gave chase down the hill, hoping for a quick victory. But William commanded his squadrons in the centre of his force to cut the English down.
William Almost Killed
The Normans regrouped and charged up Senlac Hill once more, all the while assailing the English with masses of arrows. At one point in the battle, Duke William galloped to where there was a serious breech in his forces, and the English were gaining the upper hand. William's horse was killed under him, and he fell.
Now the rumour spread amongst the Normans that William was slain. Duke William had to act quickly, so now gaining another horse from one of his knights, he lifted his helmet up revealing his face, and turning in the saddle for all to see that he was alive. This is depicted for us in the Bayeux Tapestry. Bishop Odo and Count Eustace of Boulogne cried out to the men to get their attention that William still lived.
The section of the English forces that had chased the Normans downhill were now inflicting murderous results upon the Bretons of William's army, in an area of marshland. William ordered some of his cavalry down to where the melee was being fought and the Norman knights killed every man amongst the English in that region.
The Impenetrable Shield Wall
After much fighting for several hours, both sides were now exhausted, and there was a pause in the violence whilst both the Normans and the English regrouped. William had still not been able to break down the impenetrable English shield-wall.
William had intended to use his cavalry principally for the finale of the battle, but due to having unsuccessfully tried to break the shield-wall with infantry and archery, and having lost so many of them in the process, he now had no choice but to use his knights for the final thrust.
In the Bayeux Tapestry Bishop Odo is seen commanding the knights in a charge up Senlac Hill. The Norman cavalry now received the full brunt of the English shield-wall, with long poled axes, swords and spears thrust at the charging horses and riders. More slaughter was to come. The Normans retreated down the hill once more, and it is speculated that if Harold and his men had only just held the hill, Duke William might never have won the battle and would never have been known thereafter as The Conqueror. But fate was not to lead England on that path. A large number of Harold's forces now broke the invincible shield-wall and gave chase down the hill once more. It was a fateful mistake which cost Harold the battle, the crown and his life.
William's cavalry now wheeled around and reformed, inflicting massive slaughter on the individual English soldiers, no longer protected by the overlapping shields of the wall. However, there were still warriors holding the shield-wall intact, with Harold amongst them up on the hill. However, their numbers were greatly reduced.
The Death of King Harold
It was now late in the afternoon. Once more, the Normans attacked up Senlac Hill. This time, William employed a mixed force of troops. Archers sent cascading flights of murderous arrows high into the sky so that they rained down on the heads and shoulders of the English. The Norman infantry ran up the hill and the knights galloped at full charge.
The Bayeux Tapestry depicts a man in mail armour holding an arrow protruding from his right eye. It has always been a popular belief that this figure is King Harold, mainly because directly above the figure the name Harold Rex is embroidered in the tapestry. Some historians dispute that this figure is Harold and claim that Harold is depicted as the figure to the right of the man with the arrow in his eye, who is falling under the slashing sword of a mounted Norman knight. However, the man with the arrow in the eye definitely appears to be of more 'noble' bearing than the man being felled by the charging Norman knight.
Personally, having studied the Bayeux Tapestry, I have noticed that all the important characters in the battle have their names directly over them. I believe, therefore, that the figure with the arrow in his eye is indeed meant to represent King Harold, as his name appears immediately above the figure shown. For me, Harold was a victim of one of the arrows that came hurtling down from high above, being first struck in the eye. Being the stoic warrior that he was, if the arrow did not penetrate his brain, he carried on fighting, either plucking the arrow out (presumably taking the eye with it) or snapping the shaft off to shorten it.
We have an account of how Harold finally died, with just the last company of his loyal men with him upon Senlac Hill. He was attacked by several of William's prominent Norman knights, namely, Guy of Ponthieu, Giffard, Montford and Eustace of Boulogne. One of the Norman knights who witnessed this scene, Guy of Amiens, described it graphically as follows:
"With the point of his lance the first pierced Harold's shield and then penetrated his chest, drenching the ground with his blood which poured out in torrents. With his sword the second cut off his head, just below where his helmet protected him. The third disembowelled him with his javelin. The fourth hacked off his leg at the thigh and hurled it far away. Struck down in this way, the dead body lay on the ground."
An horrific end; and if Harold was struck by an arrow in the eye as well, he must have fought magnificently, still standing with blood gushing from one eye socket until he was killed. In the aftermath, as darkness crept over the land, the Normans pursued the fleeing English survivors who made off in all directions, some on horseback and others on foot, taking the roads and pathways which led out of the field of battle.
Duke William had won the day, and the crown of England to boot, having had three horses killed under him. But the heroism of King Harold and his men would live throughout the annals of English history.
Books: History of the Anglo-Saxons by Sir Francis Palgrave
The Bayeux Tapestry: The Norman Conquest 1066 by Norman Denny & Josephine Filmer-Sankey
Conquest & Overlord by Brian Jewell
Recording: This Sceptred Isle by Christopher Lee for the BBC Radio Collection
© 2019 S P Austen