In the absence of the English naval levies (the Sea Fyrd) that had been dismissed back to their home ports with the coming of autumn, William had but to await good sailing weather and his rival’s distraction in the North to pounce upon England like a leopard upon his prey. Taking advantage of the opportunity the late season and the Norwegian invasion had given him, William crossed the channel on the 28th of September, just two days after Stamford Bridge.
The Norman invasion Army of 1066 was a true combined arms force, comprised of heavy cavalry, close order infantry, and supporting archers. The mounted knights and their retainers, the elite strike force of the army, came from all across northern France: Normandy, Brittany, and Flanders. The "Age of Chivalry", during which the armored knight on horseback was king of battle, was just dawning. The coming struggle would pit the new against the old, as mounted knights (supported by archers and heavy foot) would face an army trained in the Viking Age tactics of the "shield-wall".
The Norman knights who followed Duke William wore a long shirt of mail, which covered from shoulder to knee, called a “hauberk”. Though the richest lords wore strong, well-riveted mail hauberks that included long sleeves and perhaps even leggings (“chausses”) of mail; the average knight’s hauberk ended at the knee, and had short sleeves and no protection below the knee. Instead, leather strips gartered the shins from ankle to knee.
The helmet worn by both the Norman knight and the elite among his English opponents were conical shaped capes of steel, sporting a nasal that protected the wearer’s nose from glancing sword strokes. Under this the knight wore a hood of mail or leather. Sometimes this mail “coif” covered the knight's chin and jaw as well.
The Norman invasion force has variously been estimated as high as 60,000 (William of Poitiers) and as low as 7,500 strong. Though Oman suggests a figure of 12,000 cavalry and 20,000 infantry ; Christopher Gravett of the Royal Armories more plausibly places their number at the lower end of the spectrum: 2,000 chivalric horse, 4,000 heavy foot, and 1,500 bowmen. Transportation and supply of an army much larger than this would have been problematic for William in the extreme.
William knew his rival was in the north. He also knew that time was against him: if the full English levy could be reconstituted, the numbers against him would preclude a successful battle; and his invasion force would be easily contained and would wither from starvation in Kent. With winter coming on, the Channel crossing would be closed and his supply line from Normandy cut. These strategic factors considered, William needed to bring his foe to battle, and soon.
To lure Harold south, William employed a strategy of devastation. Spreading out from a fortified base established at Hastings, Norman mounted detachments pillaged deep into Sussex; lands that were once part of Harold's demesne as the Earl of Wessex. This was more than just a raid to replenish supplies: it was a personal insult and challenge to King Harold, to come defend his people if he dare!
Harold had not been sluggish in responding to the Norman invasion. Five days after receiving news of Williams landing, he was back in London. After several days of rest, allowing some of his levies to arrive back from their fields, his army moved south toward the Normans at Hastings.
On the early evening of 13th of October, 1066, the last Anglo-Saxon King of England led the last Anglo-Saxon army to the muster place at Santlache (“Sandy-Stream”) Hill. Directly to the south of this position, the road from London to Hastings passed over this ridge to descend into a marshy valley; before rising up and over another rise, Telham Hill. Here, on the morrow, Harold would array his army across the London road, facing south upon the crest of Santlache.
After the battle to come the Normans would make a pun of the name, calling the hill upon which Harold’s army stood Senlac (“Blood Lake”) Hill.
While the Normans at their Hastings base spent the night of the 13th and early morning of the 14th in prayer and confession; the English camped behind Senlac likely in the deep sleep of exhaustion. Since late September they had marched from London to York, fought a bloody battle against a hardy foe, marched back to London, and with scant respite now marched here to Senlac. Even for men as hardened by labor as these 11th century warriors, this must have taken a toll upon their stamina.
At daybreak, Duke William led his army out of camp toward Telham hill; arriving there in about an hour. Just 800 yards to the north, Harold was arraying his forces on Senlac. From Telham’s elevated height, William surveyed his enemy’s position.
He saw the Saxon army, some 8,000 strong, deploying along the ridge. Their array covered the top of the hill from end to end, some 800 yards long. The English were forming-up in the traditional “shieldwall” formation. To William it would have appeared as a densely packed, brightly-painted rampart of shields, crowning the top of Senlac. The new-day autumn sun no doubt glinted brightly off the mail shirts and polished helmets, the spear-heads and axe blades of the warriors arrayed behind it. Flying above the center of their array were Harold’s twin standards: the Dragon of Wessex and his personal standard, the Fighting Man (bearing the image of an armored warrior). Ten ranks deep, the English host presented a brilliant and terrible spectacle.
The front ranks of the shieldwall comprised the best armed and equipped men in the English host: the leading thegns and their retainers, and Harold’s own professional Huscarls. Behind these would be the more numerous and lightly armored men of the Fyrd. All would have been similarly armed with spear or Great-axe, sword and dagger, and often a tomahawk-like belt axe for throwing at the enemy prior to contact.
The shields of the Saxon infantry would have been one of three types, as depicted by the Bayeux Tapestry. Most often shown is the so-called kite shield, no different than that carried by their Norman enemy. The second most commonly depicted shield carried by the Saxons was a lenticular shield: a concave round shield, held by a central grip behind a large center boss of iron. This shield type differs from the more familiar “Viking” round shield, which was flat and not concave. Experiments in recent years with these types of shields have shown them to be amazingly strong and resistant to impact. The third type, shown on only a few panels, is a rectangular or oval shield with rounded corners, not dissimilar to a later Roman scutum, or the rectangular shields of the Rus. (Considering that some of Harold’s Huscarls may have served with the Byzantine Varangian Guard, and may have passed through and even served a time in Russia on route to Constantinople, it is not impossible that the Rus rectangular shield found favor with some.)
Whatever their design, the English shields that formed the shieldwall at Senlac were drawn-up tightly, likely overlapping and covered the ridgeline from end-to-end.
The Anglo-Saxon military elite who formed the front ranks of the shieldwall were armored in nearly identical fashion as the Norman knights they would soon be trading sword strokes with: a mail shirt and conical helmet. But while the Normans were all accomplished horsemen, the Huscarls and Thegns were instead expert infantry fighters; who, like their Saxon and Viking forebears, were superb at standing firmly in the shieldwall and delivering deadly blows with spear, sword, and long-hafted Danish Great Axe. This latter was a fearsome weapon, capable of splitting a man in half or severing the head of a horse!
Surveying the English position William would also have noted that in the shallow valley separating his army on Telham from Harold's on Senlac, the ground directly between them was firm, a saddle between the two hills. But immediately to either flank, on the east and west, the ground became marshy; as two separate steams passed on either side of the saddle. Behind and to the flanks of Senlac, the ground fell off more steeply, and was heavily wooded to the rear. Thus the fight to come would be straight forward, with little opportunity for the Normans to flank, or the Saxons to withdraw in order.
At 8:00 am, the Norman columns filed down from Telham and deployed in the valley below Senlac. William sent his men forth with these stirring words:
“Now is the time to show your strength and the courage that is yours! There is no road for retreat!”
Every man must have known that they must conquer or perish.
To the left, taking station on the western flank of William’s army, was the Breton contingent. To the right, forming on the eastern flank, was the brave Flemings. And in the center, opposite Harold’s twin standards were Duke William and his indomitable Normans, the Papal banner flying beside the leopards of the Dukes of Normandy.
Each of these three divisions was arrayed identically, in three echelons. The first ranks were archers, the second composed of the heavy-armed foot, and the third and final comprised the mounted knights and their squires.
One can imagine long minutes of relative quite before the coming storm; as the Normans shuffled into their ranks, then quietly waited the order to attack. Like their Duke earlier, they would have surveyed the English line awaiting them on the heights above, brilliantly lit in the new morning sun. It is likely that the emotions they felt covered the gamut from eager excitement to bowel-loosening terror. For the knightly class, raised from childhood on tales of heroism and seeking above all else in life a reputation for courage and valor, a fierce joy and anticipation was likely the predominant emotion. Every knight must have known that this was the greatest battle of their lives, and perhaps of the Age. This battlefield would be the stage upon which they would make-or-break their reputations in front of an audience of their peers and their liege lord. The courage and indomitable resolve of the Norman knights would be tried sorely in the coming hours, but would ultimately prove worthy of the task William had set for them.
The battle commenced at the start of the third watch, or 9 am. A brazen peal of trumpets signaled the beginning of the Norman attack.
The archers of the first line advanced up the gentle slopes of Senlac Hill into bow range, and at 100 yards began the battle by raising their bows in unison, and loosing a massed barrage of arrows. Up they flew, towards the hedge of overlapping shields. The feathered shafts beat against the interlocked shields like hail. Due to the angle of fire and the protection afforded the Saxons by their shieldwall, the arrow storm did little damage; mostly bouncing from the shields or sticking harmlessly in their wood and leather faces.
As the archers passed back through the ranks to replenish their quivers from supplies in the rear, William next sent in the second line of armored footmen, who now advanced up Senlac’s slope.
As they approached, the waiting English responded with a clamor meant to intimidate their enemy: weapons beating in unison upon shields, and cries of “Holy Cross!” and “Godemite!” (God Almighty), and a deep grunting of “Ut! Ut!”, (Out! Out!). As the Norman foot neared the top of the ridge, the wall of English shields opened. Out came a shower of thrown weapons: axes and javelins, rocks thrown by hand or sling, and even maces and hammers designed to be slung at the foe! Under this fusillade the Norman ranks recoiled a step, and many went down never to rise again.
Pushing forward, the Norman foot charged the last few yards into the shieldwall; and then followed a brief but terrible exchange of blows. Bloodied, the Norman foot soldiers staggered back, recoiling from the spears and deadly axes. Though competent soldiers, the Norman foot were second-class troops, no match for these fearsome victors of Stamford Bridge!
A retreat began all along the line, and the Norman foot was soon falling back down the hill in mass.
Now the trumpets sounded again, and as the Norman infantry licked their wounds and reformed in the valley below, the banners and lances of the Norman Chivalry fluttered and dipped all along the valley floor. Forward surged the mailed cavalry of Northern France, the proudest warriors in Christendom! First at a trot, then a canter, stretching into a gallop as they pounded up the gentle slopes of Senlac.
In the center of the mass of charging horsemen, Taillefer (“Hewer of Iron”), the Duke’s own minstrel, led the way. It had been granted to him, the gallant troubadour-knight, the privilege of striking the first blow. As his horse ascended the slope of Senlac, far outdistancing those behind him, Taillefer tossed his sword into the air and caught it repeatedly, all the while singing verses from “The Song of Roland”!
At the top of the ridge, a brave Saxon champion stepped forward to meet him. Sweeping past, Taillefer cut him down with a stroke of his gleaming blade! At the English line, he tried to force his horse through the rampart of shields. A Huscarl's great axe struck the minstrel a ferocious blow on his unwarded right side; toppling him from his horse and cleaving the gallant troubadour from shoulder to belly.
Behind the fallen Taillefer, the charging ranks of mailed knights came over the top of the ridge, only to come to an abrupt halt before the stolid shieldburg. Even the best trained destrier will not willingly collide with a solid object. And so long as the shieldwall remained steady, no Norman could force his horse through that barrier of shields.
Instead, as their charge was brought to a halt, the Norman knights and men-at-arms hurled their lances like javelins at the massed Saxon ranks; or used lance or sword to stab and slash from high atop their rearing chargers, aiming at the heads and shoulders of the English warriors behind their shields.
Little damage did the Norman knights do to the Saxon shieldwall, but oh! the carnage caused by those terrible axes, as giving measure for measure, the English cleaved and hacked at man or horse. In one recorded incident that was likely repeated up-and-down the Norman line, a stout Huscarl, swinging Great Axe from left shoulder, hacked off a Norman horse’s head with a single chop of his terrible weapon! As horse collapsed in place, his second swing cleaved the rider in twain as well.
Man and beast could not stand such carnage for long. Beginning on the Norman left, where the riders of Brittany fought, and cascading down the whole Norman line, the cavalry began to give way. In seconds, retreat became rout on the left as the Bretons spurred their horses in panic away from those terrible axes! The Normans in the center and Flemings on the right likewise retreated, albeit grudgingly, down the hill, toward the shelter of their reformed infantry ranks.
As sometimes happens at desperate moments, a wild rumor spread like a summer blaze in dry grass: “The Duke is slain, the day is lost! Save yourselves!”
At that moment of crisis, the fate of England hung in the balance. The entire Norman army might soon be following the Bretons in panic, off the field and stampeding back toward the false security of their camp.
But fate took a different turn. William, still alive though slightly wounded in the previous skirmishing atop the hill, rode forward through his milling warriors. Pushing back helmet so his face was clearly discernible to all, he roared:
“What is this madness that makes you fly?? Look at me well! I am alive, and by the grace of God I shall yet prove the victor!"
With Count Eustace of Boulogne at his side, carrying the Papal banner of Holy Cross, and his half-brother Bishop Odo pointing him out to his uncertain vassals, William rallied his wavering knights to his side.
(The Bayeux Tapestry ambiguously shows King Harold’s brother, Gyrth, dying in this initial clash. Some scholars have suggested that Duke William singled out Gyrth, who was perhaps commanding his brother’s Huscarls in the center of the English ranks; thinking Gyrth to be King Harold himself. William personally engaged and slew Gyrth in combat, and was perhaps wounded in the exchange, leading to the rumor of his death.)
Meanwhile, on the Norman left, the truly panicking Breton contingent had fled down the slopes and into the boggy ground beyond the eastern flank of the battle (where later monks would construct a fish pond). There many milled about in the marshy ground. Seeing their discomfort, the undisciplined English rustics of the Fyrd, who fleshed out the right wing of the Saxon line, sensed victory and went charging after them. Down the hill they ran, pursuing and in places catching the fleeing Bretons.
William spied the debacle developing on his left flank. With the eye for opportunity that has always been the hallmark of the great battle leader, William gathered what knights he had at hand and galloped across the field; into the rear of the pursuing Fyrdmen. In an instant, pursuers were cut off from their own lines, and became instead desperate fugitives!
A small hillock rose out of the boggy ground here, and the English Fyrdmen rallied upon it and attempted a stand. But William and his knights set upon them, as did the now returning Bretons. Massacre ensued, as Harold, refusing to leave his strong position atop Senlac, could do nothing to help his brave if foolish subjects who had disobeyed his order to hold the line.
Though in the balance the morning had gone well for Harold and the English, it had not been without cost. In the tightly-packed shieldwall, the wounded could hardly withdraw to the rear for first-aid, and the dead could only fall in place. Both of the king’s own brothers, Gyrth and Leofwine, have been cut down fighting and commanding from the front ranks. (One theory regarding this portion of the battle has one (Leofwine?) or both of Harold’s brothers leading the charge of the rightwing down the hill after the fleeing Bretons. Perhaps it is here that either or both are cut down during William’s counter-attack, causing the English attack to falter and ultimately fail.)
As the noon hour came and passed, both armies took a break to rest and reorganize themselves. Both sides had taken serious casualties, and both horse and man needed food and water before continuing the struggle.
William must have had some concern, for as early afternoon wore on, the English shieldburg still stood firm (though somewhat thinner) atop Senlac. He had to dislodge them: come nightfall, if the English army remained in place he must return to his camp in defeat. Morale would plummet. Supplies would run low, as foraging far from the camp would be impossible with an English army intact on Senlac. No, defeat was not an option. By nightfall, he had to find a way to dislodge the Saxons from Senlac Hill!
By mid-afternoon the battle began anew. This time, Norman foot and horse advanced up the hill in Conroi, individual groups fighting beneath the banners of their liege Lords. Such units gave the Normans great small unit flexibility, and allowed one group to rest while another assaulted the Saxon line.
Noticing the effect the Breton’s panicked retreat had on the integrity of the shieldwall, William ordered his Conrois to alternately feign such flight as the Breton’s had displayed earlier. This tactic succeeded brilliantly all through that afternoon, as small groups of knights would suddenly wheel their horses about and gallop down the hill in mock panic. Groups of overexcited Saxons would give chase, leaving the safety of the shieldwall and pursuing the fleeing Frenchmen down the slope. Before they reached their quarry, however, other bands of knights would wheel around their flanks, cutting off retreat. In moments the pursing English were savaged and hacked down from all sides by their mounted French enemies.
Many acts of bravery and boldness were recorded during that long afternoon’s skirmishing.
At one point a Norman knight, Robert fitz Ernie, cut his way clear through to Harold’s Fighting Man standard, only to be hewed to the ground by the axes of the Huscarls about the King. In another incident, a Saxon warrior ducked under the Duke’s lance-point, and dented William’s helmet with a mighty axe blow; before dodging back into the shelter of the shieldwall! The fighting was so fierce, in fact, that William is said to have had three horses killed beneath him in the course of the day.
Despite some minor tactical successes, by early evening, with the sun setting over the western forests, William’s situation was growing desperate. The English still held the hill. Though greatly thinned out, they showed no sign of breaking.
William had time for one last throw of the dice.
Reorganizing his ranks, he brought up his archers in mass for the first time since the morning. Ordered this time to aim high, they rained arrows down upon the now not-so-tightly-packed and well-ordered shieldwall.
At this junction of the battle, disaster struck the English: Apparently looking up at the wrong moment, King Harold was struck in the eye by an arrow! Though not immediately mortal, the wound effectively took him out of the fight, as he writhed in pain in the rear of his host.
With a final flourish of trumpets, the Norman knights now charged a final time. Formed into a wedge, a band of knights, all of whom had swore an oath not to return alive if they failed to reach and slay Harold, galloped to the top of the ridge. There is some evidence that among their numbers (perhaps even leading them) was the same Count Guy who had take Harold prisoner on the beaches of Normandy in 1064.
Unable to hold the whole of the hilltop with their diminished number, the Saxon shieldwall had contracted around its center; leaving the ends of the hilltop undefended. Here the wedge of Norman knights gained a foothold for the first time that day. On flat ground now, they spurred into the Fyrdmen and few remaining Huscarls gathered around the Royal standards. Too exhausted to keep them out, the horseman used the weight of their steeds to push into the shieldwall, hacking and slashing their way to where Harold stood beneath his banner.
The Bayeux Tapestry here shows a Norman knight reaching a figure thought to be the King, and with a downward cut the knight hews deep into the thigh of the armored warrior. The caption above this portion of the tapestry reads “Here King Harold was Killed”. It is therefore believed that the Normans pushed through and slew the wounded Harold beneath the Wessex Dragon and the Fighting Man.
With the sun setting upon their fallen King, the English army now broke apart and fled back into the woods to their rear. In the gathering gloom, pursing Normans skirmished with fighting bands of fugitive Huscarls. But with the darkness come, the battle of Senlac was over.
(In the gathering darkness, some of the pursuing Normans got trapped in a wooded ravine behind Senlac Hill, a place whose location is uncertain; called by the chroniclers the “Malfosse”. Here a force of retreating Englishman, perhaps reinforced by late-arriving contingents of the western Fyrd, turned on their pursers and inflicted great slaughter. However, this small success was unable to change the decision of Senlac Hill.)
The Saxon dead lay unburied for days after. King Harold's body was so disfigured that it could only be identified by his long-time mistress, Edith Swan-Neck, brought to the field by William's orders. She was able to identify her lover by "marks known only to her". Harold was said to have been buried near the sea, from where he could watch-over England's coast, which he had so zealously guarded, throughout eternity.
William went on to capture London, where he was crowned King of England. The Norman Conquest was achieved, and England would never be the same again.
Senlac Hill, or the Battle of Hastings as its more popularly known, was one of the most decisive battles of European history, and a turning point for England. Had the Saxons prevailed, England would have remained as it had been since Alfred the Great: a strong nation, but one outside the tides of European mainstream; more Scandinavian in outlook then Continental.
By falling under Norman rule, England was pulled firmly into European affairs. Within a few generations of the Conquest, England was at the center of a vast Western European empire that controlled more of the lands of France than did that land’s king: The Plantagenet Empire of Henry II. Though French became the language of the English aristocracy for the next three centuries, in time the Anglo-Norman lords came to think of themselves not as Frenchmen, but as Englishman.
Both the Normans and the conquered Saxons learned and benefited from each other. The Norman barons gained the Englishman’s love of liberty, personal freedom, inalienable rights, and the Scandinavian-derived concept of parliamentary governance; which in time would lead to Magna Carta and the fight for constitutional monarchy led by Simon de Montfort. Unlike their cousins who remained on the continent, the French who settled in England inherited from their English subjects a proud unwillingness to accept absolutism at face value, and to fight even their sovereign king, when necessary, to protect their rights.
The Saxon would gain the boldness and vitality of the Norman, and no longer be the insular, inward looking people they had been. The melding of the two races created an English race that would one day create both the British Empire, the greatest empire since Rome; and the United States of America, the greatest power the world has ever known.
1. Oman, Charles: Art of War in the Middle Ages, Chapter II
To read more about the redoubtable Norman knights, or the stalwart Anglo-Saxon Huscarls, see:
Norman Knight; and: