Out of all the old battles fought on British soil this one defines who we British became. This battle that was fought in 1066 altered England and Wales and ultimately Scotland and Ireland into a nation that took on the world. Never again would foreign power land forces on British soil and conquer the people who lived on it. Many tried but all failed.
Today visitors to our island can still see the influence that the Norman’s who vanquished the Saxons on that day in architectural structures and farming. The Norman Conquest broke England’s links with Denmark and Norway and connected the country to Normandy and Europe. Norman-French and Anglo-Saxon words make up the English language we use today. For example, royal, law and pork come from Norman-French words, but king, rules and pig come from Saxon ones.
Most historians agree that ‘The Norman Conquest’ is the most important event in the history of England and with good reason. The book 1066 and All That (1930), written by Sellar and Yeatman, jokes that 1066 is the only date everybody could remember. The most famous source of the invasion is the Bayeux Tapestry. It shows the events before, during, and after, the Norman Conquest, embroidered into a piece of cloth.
Essentially three men in 1066 had a pole position to be king of England after Edward the Confessor died on 5 January 1066. All three strong brave warrior leaders. Edward the Confessor King of all England when he died had no children and that put all three men on a war footing.
Harold Godwinson, Earl of Wessex
Harold was a powerful and rich English nobleman. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Edward named Godwinson as his successor on his deathbed. The next day, the royal council, known as the Witan, met and declared Godwinson king. An English king was proclaimed by the Witan — this gave Harold Godwinson the only claim to the throne by right.
William, Duke of Normandy
The Norman chroniclers reported that Edward had promised his distant relative, William, the throne in 1051. William was the only blood relative of Edward, but the English throne was not hereditary anyway. Claims that Edward promised the throne were probably made up by the rival sides after the event. The Bayeux Tapestry, which was made after the Conquest, shows Godwinson swearing an oath of support to William in a visit to Normandy in 1064. William was supported by the Pope.
Harald Hardrada, King of Norway, Viking warrior
Hardrada based his claim on the fact that his ancestor, King Cnut, had once ruled England (1016‒1035). He was helped by Godwinson’s half-brother, Tostig.
On 5 January 1066 the day the Confessor died the game was afoot. There could only be one winner.
Place of the Battle of Hastings: On the Sussex coast of England
Combatants at the Battle of Hastings: The Norman, Breton, Burgundian, Flemish and a French army of Duke William of Normandy against the Saxon army of King Harold of England
Generals at the Battle of Hastings: Duke William of Normandy against King Harold Godwinson of England
Size of the armies at the Battle of Hastings: The armies probably numbered around 5,000 to 7,000 on each side, although some traditional accounts give the numbers as much higher.
First, though there is the matter of Harald Hardrada, King of Norway, Viking warrior to deal with because what happens at the Battle of Stamford Bridge has tragic consequences at the battle of Hastings.
After Harold Godwinson was crowned King Harold II, William and Harald Hardrada both made plans to invade England.
Hardrada invades England with 300 longships
First Harold II assembled his bodyguards, known as the housecarls, and gathered an army of ordinary men, called the fyrd. He knew that his two rivals were planning to invade. He split the fyrd in two, sending some men to the south and some to the north. He sent a fleet of ships to the English Channel. Then they all waited. In September supplies had run out and Harold II had to send the fyrd back home to bring in the harvest. remember the fyrd were like you and me just ordinary citizens who had jobs that need to be done. In this case, most would have been farmers, not soldiers England did not have a standing Army. The first English standing army was formed by Oliver Cromwell in 1645 during the Civil War.
Then Hardrada invaded. He landed in Yorkshire and defeated the northern Saxon army at the Battle of Fulford. This meant that Harold Godwinson had to move quickly to shore up the disaster at Fulford. Harold II marched north quickly, gathering an army on his way. He took Hardrada by surprise and defeated him at the Battle of Stamford Bridge (25 September). King Harold led his army, most of whom were on foot, across 185 miles in just four days. The English army marched day and night with such speed that Hardrada’s army only knew of King Harold’s location when they saw them rushing towards their camp! Only six days after the Battle of Fulford the English forces led by King Harold won an astonishing victory against the Norwegian forces of Harald Hardrada. Hardrada and Tostig, Goodwinson’s half-brother, were killed during the battle. King Harold won a famous victory but lost a third of his forces, and only four days later led his army on another exhausting forced march to confront Duke William on the south coast of England. At any other time, his victory would have been remembered as one of the greatest in English history but Harold would be judged by the outcome of the battle against Duke William three weeks later at Hastings. He and his Nobles had just three weeks to live.
Several months after preparing an invasion force of 5,000/7,000 men and 700 transport ships, Duke William finally landed in England. The Normans came ashore at Pevensey bay in Sussex on 28 September and immediately built a motte and bailey castle. There had been a fortification at Pevensey since the Romans had built a fort there of stone over the years after they left it had been left in ruin. William made good use of the ruins and used timber inside the ruins. England in 1066 was not England that we now know it was more woodland with vast forests stretching miles so timber would have been used for quickness to form a defensive position.
Duke William’s forces used the castle at Pevensey as a base from which to raid the south of England whilst they prepared for the decisive, winner takes all battle with King Harold II and his force of exhausted Anglo-Saxons.
Harold II marched back from Stamford Bridge with an exhausted army. A third of his men had died at Stamford Bridge and another third were left behind during the march south because they could not keep up. Harold did add to his army with the fyrd. They were not fully trained soldiers but had to fight for the king when called upon. Although they boosted Harold’s army to roughly 7,000, they were inferior to the men he had left behind on the road south to Hastings.
October 14th 1066: The day of battle
Harold had tried to catch the Norman army by surprise like he’d done with Harald Hardrada at Stamford Bridge, but Norman scouts warned Duke William of King Harold’s advance. Harold and his army then decided to take up the best defensive position in the area, a small hill which the Normans later called Senlac Hill which means ‘blood-lake’ in French. They probably gave it this name because it sounded similar to the English name for the site, scen-leag, and because so many died there.
After being spotted by Duke William’s scouts Harold and his army took up a defensive position on Senlac Hill and formed a shield wall.
A shield wall is where warriors would stand side by side with there shields interlocking with a further line behind with their shields over the heads of the first line with them crouching down giving protection. There could also be a third line doing the same both the second and third line would have had spears that would go over the shoulders of the first and second line using the shoulder to rest the spear on. From that position, the spears would protrude through the small gaps of the first line of shield making it an impenetrable defence, from that position the line could move forward at one step at a time the first line would stab at any enemy that managed to get in close and the spears could reach out to a further distance and also stop any horses with riders getting to close a tried and tested way of fighting in battle and as long as that shield wall does panic and break then nothing can penetrate.
William and his army rode out of their encampment in Hastings to fight at 9 am.
William ordered his archers to fire at Harold’s army but the shield wall prevented any damage to the English army. William later sent in his infantry but they were again forced back by the shield wall.
William’s cavalry also failed to break the shield wall and some men even began to retreat after they heard rumours of William’s death. William rode to the front of his army and lifted his helmet to show his men that he was still alive and he led another attack on the shield wall.
In the late afternoon, William’s cavalry tried to move the English away from their defensive position by feigning retreat. After many attempts, some of the inexperienced English infantry left the shield wall and tried to attack the Norman cavalry who they believed were retreating.
The Norman cavalry turned around and cut the English to pieces. As more of Harold’s army came down from the hill to join the battle, the Normans had the opportunity to break the shield wall.
Around 5 pm an arrow supposedly hit King Harold, who was fighting with his men on foot, and on hearing of his death his army lost all their discipline and was massacred by the Norman infantry and cavalry. Harold’s brothers Gyrth and Leofwine died beside him and as the sun began to set the battle was over. Duke William had won.
The battle was a bloody affair The Normans and the other Frankish contingents in William’s army fought in the manner developing across mainland Europe, a mix of archers, dismounted soldiers and above all mounted knights.
The soldiers on either side who could afford it wore leather jackets with steel chain or ring mail sewed into the leather and a conical helmet with a nose guard, carrying a spear, sword and the characteristic kite-shaped shield. Archers in the Norman army were armed with a short bow.
The significant features of the battle were the manoeuvrability of the Norman mounted knights, the terrible power of the Saxon battle-axe and the impact of the Norman arrow barrage. The Saxon battle-axe was quite a devastating weapon and it was wielded in a manner that when it hit an enemy combatant it would take off limbs
As you can see the axe was nearly as tall as a man, used at close quarters and held with both hands nothing would stop it taking off the head arm or leg of a man.
There was a problem though, as you can see the men who had a battle axe had to have space to use it or they would kill each other so it would only be effective against a one on one or maybe one on two. Nevertheless, the Saxons did use it to good effect as part of The Bayeux Tapestry shows
Casualties at the Battle of Hastings:
The figures are unknown but were heavy for the Normans and disastrous for the Saxons.
The follow-up to the Battle of Hastings:
It was some time before Saxon England acknowledged William as king. William was forced to march to the West and cross the Thames at Wallingford in Oxfordshire before circling round from the North and capturing London, devastating the countryside as he marched. The Tower of London was the first of the castles William built to dominate and subjugate England. William was finally crowned in Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day 1066 by the Saxon Archbishop, Aldred of York.
In March 1067 William returned to Normandy, leaving Odo, Bishop of Bayeux, to continue the process of building castles and subjugating the population. William only returned to England on four further occasions.
William the Conqueror died following the capture of Mantes in 1087, leaving England to be ruled by William II and Normandy by his eldest son Robert.
Probably only 20,000 Normans and other Frenchmen came to England as a result of the Conquest. Nevertheless, the Saxon country was transformed, French, becoming the language of administration and government and the Conqueror’s followers displacing the native nobility. The Saxons lamented their lost freedom for two centuries while England now looked across the Channel for cultural and political inspiration.
Conquest in France remained the obsession of the Frankish kings of England until the 16th Century. French names predominated among the nobility and the military classes; doubtless, the Montgomery leading the British armies in the Second World War was a descendant of the Roger de Montgomerie who fought for the Conqueror.
My own name Lear is also a Norman name. The name Lear came to England with the ancestors of the Lear family in the Conquest of 1066. This surname was originally derived from the Old French de L’Eyre, a reference to a place in the arrondissement of Evreux in Normandy My own ancestors fought at the Battle by the side of William and settled in the South of England given land by a grateful William. Over time we lost all the land through many civil wars by being on the wrong side. Such is life. This is my family crest and coat of arms.
I have to say at this point that the name Lear is from my mother's side of my family and its the name I took when my mother died just after I was born and my uncle her brother married and then adopted me. My birth fathers name was Lyons which again is Norman. Lyons is a surname with several origins. It is the name of a noble Anglo-Norman family that originated in the district of the Forest of Lyons, north of the town of Lyons-la-Forêt in Normandy, where the family seat was the Castle of Lyons. Unlike the Lear family who settled in England, the Lyons family went further North ending up in Scotland. This is the family crest and coat of arms of the Lyons family.
This Documentary made in 2013 give a good account of what it must have been like.