The Battle of Hastings was a great turning point in English history, which ended 600 years of Anglo-Saxon rule, and the beginning of Norman rule.

The battlefield with Battle Abbey in the background. © Carolyn M Cash
The battlefield with Battle Abbey in the background. © Carolyn M Cash

Edward The Confessor

Edward the Confessor, who died without issue, allegedly promised the English throne to William of Normandy in 1051.

According to Peter Rex in his biography, William the Conqueror, William of Poitiers claimed that “King Edward ordered Earl Harold to swear fealty to William concerning the crown” and that, in accordance with Christian custom, he pledged it with oaths.

William’s claim to the English throne was said to be through his great-aunt, Emma, who married Aethelred the Unready.

However, Harold was shipwrecked and held by Duke William of Normandy, Harold supposedly secured his release by promising to help the Duke gain the English crown, but in 1066, he claimed Edward the Confessor had named him as his successor.

Norman Invasion

King Harold II places the crown on his own head.
King Harold II places the crown on his own head.

However, when Edward the Confessor died, Harold Godwineson took the throne, breaking his promise to support William of Normandy.

To say William the Conqueror was rather cheesed off by this treachery would be a huge understatement.

So William ordered a fleet of ships, to transport men, horses and provisions across the Channel, to be built. The Fleet began to assemble around the River Dives towards the end of July and was fully ready by 12 August, with plans to launch on 15 August.

Matilda, the Duchess of Normandy, had presented William with his own ship, the Mora, for his own personal use.

However, the fleet faced delays whilst waiting for favourable winds for the Channel crossing.

Or was it, as historian Marc Morris suggests, a deliberate tactic to have Harold disband his army so the Normans could land unopposed?

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle had recorded that King Harold had gathered a greater raiding ship-army and also raiding land-army, in preparation for the forthcoming invasion. Harold had realised an invading force could land at Hastings, so he made sure the area had been heavily guarded.

If so, it definitely worked. Harold had waited, but no ships turned up so he stood down his army, according to Morris, so the Normans set sail about four or five days later.

Harold was forced to deal with another threat of invasion when Norway’s Harald Hardrada landed near York, staking his claim to the English throne, accompanied by his brother Tostig.

Harold had pulled the troops out of Hastings as he needed his army to take on the Vikings at Stamford Bridge, defeating them in a surprise attack.

William set out in early September planning to make a direct tossing from the Dives towards Southampton or Bosham, which was the Godwinesons’ family seat.

However, plans went awry as they were blown off course by westerlies to St Valéry.

Putting up with torrential rain and violent winds whilst despair set in amongst the men who complained about William, saying he was completely bonkers and that God was against this enterprise.

Remains of Pevensey Castle © Carolyn M Cash
Remains of Pevensey Castle © Carolyn M Cash

Meanwhile, William had been busy praying every day for warm weather and clear skies, and watched the weather vane for a sign that the wind was changing. His prayers were finally answered when it finally appeared, along with a south wind, on 26 September, so they all set to sail the following day.

Hastings

The Normans arrived at Pevensey bay three days later, around 9.00 am. However, they had to wait until the tide changed before landing around 11.00 am.

A scene from the Bayeux Tapestry: mounted Norman soldiers attacking Anglo-Saxons who are fighting on foot in a shield wall
A scene from the Bayeux Tapestry: mounted Norman soldiers attacking Anglo-Saxons who are fighting on foot in a shield wall

One story claims William lost his footing and stumbled, but he passed off this bad omen by claiming he had deliberately seized his rightful kingdom with both hands.

William ordered the ships to be anchored together, before unloading the horses, arms and supplies.

No one was there to resist him so William sent his knights to demand the surrender of Hastings, as he needed more food supplies. The burghers surrendered, as they no longer had troops to protect them.

The Normans were already building garrisons at both Hastings and the old Roman fort at Pevensey where they build a trench and a wooden castle on top of a mound.

However, Harold was forced to march 250 miles (about 402 kilometres) south to fight the Normans at the present-day town of Battle, between Caldbec Hill and Pelham Hill, which was about 7 miles (11 kilometres) north of Hastings.

The battle raged for about six hours and Harold bravely lost his life. It was said to be the bloodiest and the longest medieval battle.

However, debate continues to rage whether Harold was shot in the eye by an arrow as portrayed in the Bayeux Tapestry, but most historians agree that his body was in a very bad state, stripped of all his valuables when it was found the following day. Harold’s mangled body was completely unrecognisable so it was difficult to identify the body, until his old mistress Edith Swan-Neck as she recognised “certain marks” on his corpse.

Scene from the Bayeux Tapestry depicting the Battle of Hastings: "Harold Rex Interfectus Est: "King Harold was killed".
A scene from the Bayeux Tapestry depicting the Battle of Hastings: “Harold Rex Interfectus Est: “King Harold was killed”.

Meanwhile, Harold’s remains were said to be wrapped in a purple robe and buried on a sea cliff where he could watch the sea shore. Some claim Harold’s remains were later moved to Waltham Abbey.

Battle Abbey

Ruins at Battle Abbey Remains of Pevensey Castle © Carolyn M Cash
Ruins at Battle Abbey Remains of Pevensey Castle © Carolyn M Cash

William the Conqueror lost about a quarter of his men, but the rest of the army was later struck down with severe dysentery.

He was further disappointed when the remainder of the English nobility did not come to Hastings, offering submission and allegiance.

The English nobles, especially two northern earls named Edwin and Morcar, proclaimed the young Edgar the Ætheling, the last of the old Wessex line and Edward the Confessor’s great-nephew, as King.

So William and his army went on a slash-and-burn campaign throughout the countryside surrounding London as major towns surrendered, forcing the city to surrender.

He later built Battle Abbey to honour a promise to God if he was victorious. Battle Abbey was dedicated to St Martin, for penance for the bloodshed and to commemorate his great victory. The high altar was where King Harold allegedly fell in battle.

Sources

Borman, Tracy, Matilda: Queen of the Conqueror, Jonathan Cape, London, 2011

Bridgeford, Andrew, 1066: The Hidden History of the Bayeux Tapestry, Harper Perennial (HarperCollins Publishers), Hammersmith, 2004

Douglas, David C, William The Conqueror: The Norman Impact Upon England, Eyre & Spottiswoode, London, 1964

McLynn, Frank, 1066: The Year of the Three Battles, Pimlico (Random House), London, 1999

Morris, Marc, The Norman Conquest, Windmill Books (Random House Group Limited), London, 2013

Rex, Peter, William The Conqueror: The Bastard of Normandy, Amberley Publishing, Stroud, UK, 2011

Schama, Simon, A History of Britain: At The Edge of the World 3000BC-AD1603, Volume 1, BBC Worldwide Ltd, London, 2000

Smurthwaite, David, The Complete Guide to the Battlefields of Britain, Michael Joseph Limited, London, 1984 (Reprinted 1994)

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