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  • James Houser

October 13, 1066 - The Battle of Hastings and the Norman Conquest

Updated: Jun 13, 2021

October 13, 1066. It is the night before the battle. The Duke of Normandy, known to all (though not to his face) as William the Bastard, prepares his army. The King of England, the Anglo-Saxon Harold II, rallies his militia troops to stand against the invader. The winds of history have brought this about, and it could have happened differently. But here, at Hastings, the future of England is about to be decided.

The year 1066, one of the most famous dates in English history, is full of “what ifs.” There was a very real chance that any of three men – the Anglo-Saxon Harold Godwinson, the Viking ruler Harald Hardrada, and the Norman Duke William the Bastard - would end the year sitting on the throne. All three of these men had strengths and weaknesses, things working for them and things working against them. Each had a chance, and each made decisions that ultimately shaped the outcome of 1066.

1066 occurred at the beginning of what we begin to call the “High Middle Ages,” when Europe emerged from a couple centuries of political turmoil to become the familiar medieval setting of knights, castles and cathedrals. Among the causes of those centuries of chaos were the raids of the Vikings, which eroded centralized power and devastated much of northern Europe. The Vikings had been a near-omnipresent force in Europe since the early 800s AD, but they had finally begun to calm down and start behaving like “adults” – you know, accepting Christianity, founding kingdoms, and building up royal estates. They still fought and plundered, but it was for Jesus now, so everyone was happy.

As part of their new, more strategic way of doing things, Viking chiefs started invading parts of Europe, not to plunder and leave, but to conquer and stay. One of the earliest pioneers in this line of work was Rollo, a Viking chief who promised to stop raiding the King of France if he was given piece of land of his own. In 911, the French King gave Rollo a strip of northern coastline on the condition that he protect the King against other Vikings.

This made Rollo the first Duke of the lands of the Northmen – a title that soon got shortened to the lands of the Normans, or Normandy. Over the years, the Normans (as they were now called) expanded their territory across northern France, building a powerful centralized duchy that was both wealthy and strong. By the 1060s AD, the Duchy of Normandy was probably one of the most well-led, well-organized feudal states in Europe. It was still only a Duchy, not a Kingdom, but the Norman accomplishment was still impressive.

In 1066, the Duke of Normandy was Rollo’s descendant William the Bastard. He was his father’s illegitimate son, hence the name, so he had to fight off the other Norman aristocrats and claimants to the Duchy. The Normans were a fierce, independent people, combining all the qualities of French scheming and plotting with Viking ambition and violence. It took William most of his early life to bring control to his unruly land. By this point, the Normans were highly Frenchified, and were culturally more French than Viking at this point.

William wasn’t the only one dealing with an unruly land. England had been the target of the first Viking raids, and no country got it worse than they did. England wasn’t just raided, though, it was often settled and turned into a Viking kingdom. Several times throughout the 1000s AD, powerful Viking kings invaded England to take it over as they had Normandy. By far the most successful was King Canute of Denmark and Norway, who briefly ruled these countries AND England in a North Sea Empire.

Canute’s descendants had ruled England until 1042, when the Anglo-Saxon nobility reasserted themselves and made Edward the Confessor king. So Viking invasions of England were nothing new – they were business as usual. When Harald Hardrada tried to invade England in 1066, then, it seemed to be business as usual. No one knew that it would be the LAST Viking invasion of England.

Edward the Confessor, King of England since 1042, was torn between two worlds. On the one hand, he had spent his early years in exile at the court of his uncle, Duke Robert II of Normandy – William the Bastard’s father. He was Norman-friendly in his politics and leanings. On the other, he had to deal with multiple powerful English vassals, including the Godwinson brothers Harold and Tostig. The Godwinson family had a great deal of control over King Edward the Confessor, despite his close connections to his relatives in Normandy, including his cousin William the Bastard.

As all this was unfolding, Player Three was beginning to rise in power. Harald Hardrada was a Viking warrior with *vision.* A relative of the great King Olaf of Norway, he had fought in the Byzantine Empire’s elite Varangian Guard, and had come home in 1046 to take over Norway. By all accounts Harald was an excellent king, who built Norway into a powerful realm with a strong army much like the Normans had done. Harald’s dream was to restore Canute’s broken North Sea Empire by conquering Denmark and England. Throughout the 1050s and 1060s, he had tried and failed to conquer Denmark. As for England…he just waited for an opportunity.

The problem with England was that Edward the Confessor didn’t have an heir. Everyone with a chance to become king knew that someday, Edward would die – and then it was game on. The powerful Godwin family had ideas about what should happen then, Harold and Tostig especially – they had ambitions no less than William or Harald Hardrada. Edward had tried earlier to make his cousin William his lawful successor, and even as late as 1064 or 1065 still favored him as his heir. At some point in 1065, Edward sent Harold to meet with William and discuss the terms of his succession.

What happened next is murky. According to multiple accounts, Harold swore that he would support William’s ascension to the English throne. This was certainly what William believed, and he sent Harold back to England confident that he would inherit England when old King Edward finally kicked the bucket.

Edward the Confessor died on January 5, 1066. Harold himself was crowned as King of England, Harold II, the next day. Apparently, there had been a miscommunication, since Harold had supposedly promised William that he would support his claim to the throne. Harold, though, insisted that Edward had changed his mind since then. I’m not going to place judgment one way or the other on this, but all you need to know is that there was a legitimate bone of contention between Harold and William, and both thought the crown belonged to them. The Anglo-Saxon nobility flocked to Harold, of course, since William was a foreigner, but the Church flocked to William. When the Pope blessed off on his war, William began to arm up. England was his, and he was going to take it.

Harold knew he had to worry about William, but he wasn’t the only issue. Harold’s brother Tostig had been left out of the power arrangements when Harold became King, and started looking for outside support to place him back in power. Tostig went to Harald Hardrada to offer his assistance in an invasion of northern England. This was the opportunity Harald had been looking for, so he began to put together an expedition of his own. 1066 is about to get LIT, everyone.

So it was that Harold II, pretty much as soon as he settled into the throne in 1066, had two power-hungry psychos gunning for his throne. This was the year that would decide the fate of England, not just its rulers but its future politics and culture: would England stay separate from the rest of Europe, an Anglo-Saxon province? Would it look to the south, to French and continental culture? Or would it look across the sea, and stay in the Viking orbit? All of these were real possibilities in 1066. Each of these could have been the outcome. It was time for the winds of change (literally) to make the difference.

Harold gathered his army in southeast England. He was in danger both from the south and the north, and he wasn’t sure which danger would threaten first. Harold chanced that William would come first, both due to his closer location and the fact that he posed the higher threat. William not only had the famous Norman knights to brawl with, he had also used the vast wealth of Normandy to recruit professional soldiers from all over France, including heavy infantry and well-trained archers. William had a strong and intimidating army at his back, and he was RIGHT THERE.

Harold had the fyrd and housecarls of Anglo-Saxon England. The fyrd were levied spearmen, drawn by draft from the population, with large shields and long spears. They fought in a close schiltron formation, a wall of shields and spears much like a Greek phalanx. The huscarls were a Viking innovation, well-armed heavy infantry with axes and polearms. Unlike the Normans, the English had no cavalry and few archers, preferring to fight in their traditional manner.

William spent the summer assembling his army and building his boats, while Harold waited – unwilling to send his army home while William still posed a threat. The problem with both these armies was that they were time-sensitive. William’s army was excellent, yes, but it was ludicrously expensive and the Normans’ treasury was only so large. The longer he waited to invade, the more troops might desert from lack of pay. At the same time, though, Harold’s army of conscripts could not be kept away from their farms and fields for too long, especially as winter approached and food supplies ran scarce. Time was on Harold’s side, but William had the initiative.

William was finally ready to cross in August. He had over 700 ships and nearly 12,000 men – a massive force for the medieval period. As he made his decision, though, the wind of history came. A great northerly wind blew out of the North Sea, preventing his ships from sailing and forcing them to remain in port. William had to grit his teeth through August and much of September as he was unable to sail, and it was a remarkable achievement that he kept his large army together and supplied for so long while in constant readiness for a crossing.

Harold, for his part, concluded that the north wind would keep William from sailing that year – which was good, since he was almost out of food. Reluctantly, he ordered his troops to go home and bring in the harvest – but pretty much as soon as they left, Harold received news that made any English King’s blood curl. The Vikings had landed.

The same northerly wind that had kept William’s ships in port had brought Harald Hardrada blasting in from Norway. The Vikings brought their own great army of 10,000 men, and Harald linked up with Tostig and his English followers soon after landing in northern England. He blew out an army raised by the local lords at Fulford on September 20, and soon captured York. Harald’s victories not only distracted King Harold, but they took northern England out of the fight for the rest of the year.

Harold raced north, raising as many forces as he could to head off the Viking invader. In doing so, though, he left the southern coast wide open, but he figured he was safe – William could never have maintained his army for so long. Harold’s quick movements and reactions paid off when he surprised Harald Hardrada at the Battle of the Stamford Bridge on September 25, 1066.

Harald had no idea an army was near, and many of his men had even left their armor on the nearby ships as they waited for their King’s next move. Though Harald Hardrada was probably the better battle commander, and his army was full of excellent Viking warriors, he was unprepared for a fight and outnumbered. Despite the legendary last stand of a single Viking warrior on the narrow Stamford Bridge, where he killed 40 Englishmen before being finally killed by a man stabbing him from underneath the bridge, the outcome was inevitable.

The Vikings were destroyed. Harald Hardrada and Tostig were both killed, along with almost the whole attacking force. Though 300 ships had carried the Vikings to England, only 30 were needed to carry the survivors back. Harold II had won a great victory and defeated the last Viking invasion of England – but he had no time to savor his triumph, for he once again received shocking news. William had landed. The Bastard was on the shores of England. With only a part of his battered, exhausted, weakened army, Harold marched south at maximum speed.

How had this happened? The winds of history had changed again. The northerly wind vanished, leaving the Channel calm and ready to be crossed, almost at the exact moment that Harold was marching north to confront Hardrada. William seized the opportunity to cross his army as quickly as possible. Had he crossed in August, or had Hardrada not landed when he did, William likely would have faced a full English army on the beaches of Sussex and been unable to land safely. Instead, when he finally touched ground on September 28, he was met by no opposition at all. Harold’s army was far away in northern England, marching south as fast as possible.

Harold arrived to find that William had constructed a wooden castle near the town of Hastings. Harold could only muster around 8,000 tired English soldiers, so he decided to fight a defensive battle, taking position on a hill six miles east of Hastings. It was now that Harold had to be kicking himself, thinking of all the troops he had sent away only a month ago; he could have had overwhelming numbers, if the winds of history hadn’t screwed everything up. William would be dead meat. But that was all in the past, and William knew that he had to fight soon or eventually be swamped by Harold’s oncoming reinforcements. He moved out to engage Harold’s army and pin him down. On the night of October 13, 1066, William readied his army to move out and fight. They would meet at Hastings.

As they moved in for the clash on October 14, William and Harold knew their tasks. Harold’s goal was to keep his defensive line atop the hill intact, since his untrained levies had little discipline and were liable to do their own thing. William had to break that line on top of the hill. He had the Norman cavalry, around 2,000 knights in metal helmets and chain mail. William’s goal was to get the English army to break its line so his heavy cavalry – the tanks of the medieval world – could do their work. The rest of his army, mercenary infantry with swords and crossbows, would provide the supporting arm.

The battle started in late morning, with the Norman crossbowmen moving forward to launch their arrows at the Anglo-Saxons’ shield wall. This had little effect, since the uphill angle arced the shafts over the English or into their shields. When this had little effect, William ordered his infantry up the hill, and the two sides met in a clash of steel, leather and flesh. He led his cavalry in multiple charges against Harold’s line as Harold, on foot, led his housecarls and levy spearmen in the fighting line. Both would-be kings were excellent and brave warriors and leaders, and both led well – but William was unable to make any dent on the English shield wall. Time and again he attacked, and time and again he failed to penetrate.

The Battle of Hastings was not going William the Bastard’s way, and it looked like he might lose. A rumor even began to spread that William himself had been killed, which disheartened the Norman force. William removed his helmet to show his face, which rallied his troops; then he noticed something. Whenever a Norman force retreated, the less disciplined English soldiers tried to chase them down the hill, which spread them out and weakened the shield wall. This gave William an idea.

William ordered his troops to feign total panic and retreat down the hill. This was a dangerous move, since for troops who were not trained in this tactic, a feigned retreat could easily turn into a real one. But it paid off. As the Normans retreated in apparent panic, the English militia were unable to resist the temptation and charged down the hill. Maybe they thought they were winning, or maybe they were tired of taking punishment and wanted to give it. Whatever the cause, Harold could not keep them in place any longer. The English militia charged down the hill in disarray – right where William wanted them.

William wheeled his knights around and charged back into the English. Outside of their shield wall, the individual soldiers were helpless and were cut down where they stood. Harold stood alone with his housecarls at the top of the hill, watching with dismay as his army was chopped up. William brought his archers back up to shred into the housecarl infantry, and sent a hit squad of knights to find and kill his rival. Harold took an arrow in the eye from the missile attack, but he still had one eye to see the Norman knights home in on him and hack him to death. English morale broke, and the army fled in every direction. At nightfall, William commanded the hilltop.

Three wannabe kings entered, and one king won. On December 25, 1066, William was crowned King William I at Westminster Abbey. No longer would he be William the Bastard. From now on, everyone would know him as William the Conqueror.

The Norman Conquest was not complete; William would be working to subdue England for the next two decades, and also had to go to war to protect his French holdings from rivals there. But the Battle of Hastings – and the historical wind of 1066 – marked a watershed. England had experienced its last Viking invasion, and some historians even peg Harald Hardrada’s defeat as the end of the Viking Age. William’s new realm was the strongest power in Western Europe, and England would be a major player in the politics of Europe until the present day, when beforehand it was a peripheral power with no real influence in Europe as a whole. The French influence of the Normans brought England decisively into the wider world of Latin Europe.

It didn’t have to happen this way. It was equally likely that Harald Hardrada incorporated England into a new North Sea Empire, and it could have been a Norse-influenced England to this day. Or Harold II could have kept his line together at Hastings, William could have been killed, and the Anglo-Saxons could have charted their own unique course. Or the northerly wind never came, William defeated Harold, only to be defeated himself by Hardrada. None of those things happened, but the world would have looked a lot different if they had.

Blame luck, blame the leaders, blame accident or circumstance. Or maybe blame the winds of history.

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