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Battle of Hastings 14th October 1066

Protagonists: William, Duke of Normandy and Harold, King of England

Outcome: Total Norman victory, death of Harold, his son, his brothers and many Anglo-Saxon nobles.

The Battle

Both armies were of similar size about 7000 men although the Norman army consisted of approximately 3000 cavalry, 1000 archers and the rest infantry whereas the Saxon army had no cavalry and very few archers.


Harold drew his army up in a strong defensive position along a ridge with the flanks of the Saxon shield wall protected by woods and waited for the Normans to attack. The Normans drew their forces up in three lines: archers, infantry and cavalry. This formation had proved very successful in other battles. The archers were intended to weaken the enemy force prior to the infantry closing and the cavalry exploited any gaps created by the infantry.
While many of the Saxons were local militia and not as well equipped as the Norman infantry the front ranks of the shield wall were made up of huscarles, who were trained professional soldiers. They were every bit as well equipped as the Norman infantry. They were well versed in fighting in a shield wall and many of them had also been present at the Battle of Stamford Bridge a few days earlier where they had destroyed the Viking army of Harald Hardrada. Tired they may have been but morale could not have higher. The Saxons also knew that if they held until nightfall reinforcements would arrive and they could finish off the Normans the next day.

The Normans on the other hand knew that they had to win as there was nowhere to retreat to.

The Normans were forced to advance up a steep slope to the Saxon shield wall and by all accounts the archers were more of a nuisance rather than a serious threat to the Saxons. Indeed it was not long before they started running low on arrows. Because the Saxons did not use archers the Norman archers were unable to pick up arrows fired at them and replenish their supply.

The Norman infantry and cavalry made little or no impact on the Saxon shield wall and as the fighting continued the Normans began to waver. The Norman forces on their left, who were made up primarily of Breton and Flemish mercenaries, were the first to break and fled back down the slope. Despite orders to the contrary many Saxons seeing the Normans flee pursued them inflicting many more casualties on them.

At this point the whole Norman army began to falter. William himself had his horse killed under him and the rumour that he had been killed began to spread. William removed his helmet and was able to rally those closest to him. Meanwhile his brother Odo seeing the danger on the left gathered a group of knights and led a charge into the disorganised Saxons, who had broken ranks and were pursuing the retreating Norman infantry, killing most of them. This seriously, but not fatally, weakened the Saxon shield wall.

Legend has it that on seeing this William changed his tactics and started to feign a series of retreats to lure more of the Saxons out of the safety of their shield wall. There is no doubt that several further Norman attacks failed and as they fell back were pursued by some of the Saxons. However, to implement this sort of strategy requires a level of training and discipline that the Normans, nor indeed any army of the time, possessed. The professional legions of Rome might have been able to do it but no Medieval army could. While the Norman cavalry charged en masse they fought as individuals and as communication in the heat of battle was near impossible more than a few yards away there is no way William could have executed this plan.

Be that as it may, as the day wore on more and more Saxons pursued retreating groups of Normans only to be cut down by the Norman cavalry. By the late afternoon the Saxon shield wall no longer stretched the full length of the ridge and gaps were beginning to appear in it. Once it lost its integrity the shield wall lost its strength. The Normans broke though the gaps and a group of knights, quite possibly led by William himself, attacked and killed Harold, mutilating the body so badly that it was almost impossible to identify later. With their king dead many of the remaining Saxons fled but the Saxon nobles and huscarles stayed true to their oath of loyalty to their king and fought to the last.

Such was the carnage in the battle the Normans named the ridge Sanglac (Lake of Blood) now known as Senlac.

William was unable to follow up his victory immediately such were the casualties that his army had taken and rested for two weeks hoping that the Saxons would come and make their peace with him and waiting for reinforcements to arrive from Normandy. Eventually he marched on London and on 25th December 1066 was crowned King of England.

Consequences:

End of Anglo-Saxon England and culture. Within a generation almost all Anglo-Saxon names had ceased to be used. Twenty years after the battle the most popular name for a boy at all levels of society in England was William.
The establishment of a Norman dynasty, in the long term leads to 8 centuries of warfare with France (the first four centuries of warfare were over lands held in France by the English kings).

Magna Carta (the cornerstone of the American Declaration Independence among other things), trial by jury (how many countries in the world today now use this system?).

Massive increase in the land controlled by the church and therefore power (one of the causes of the Reformation in England and the Dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th century).

Almost a third of the words used in modern English are of French origin, a direct result of the Norman conquest of England.

What if: The Normans had lost.

Their army and main military power would have been destroyed. Norman conquests in Italy, Sicily and Jerusalem would probably not have taken place. The Duchy of Normandy would have almost certainly been retaken by the King of France, up to this point it had only paid lip service to the French crown.

The power of the Church in England would not have increased so dramatically, thus the English Reformation may never have taken place. As the Kings of England had no land in France most of the wars between the two kingdoms over the next 400 years would not have taken place. England and France may even have become long term allies.

English language and culture as we know it today would not be the same. Would there have even been a British Empire? Would the English have established colonies in the New World, which eventually lead to the creation of the USA and Canada?

There are few battles anywhere in history that have had such a long lasting effect on the world we live in today.

 

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