“Heritage” was a regular series in Nationalism Today which examined Britain's social and cultural background.
This article was written by Paul Comben
ALTHOUGH the annals of military history are filled with battles which were destined to have a great influence on the fortunes of nations and peoples, there are probably very few that can match the historical importance of the Battle of Hastings. During the course of just one bloody day, October 14th 1066, Saxon England lost not only its king and an army, but also, as a consequence, much of its cultural identity. As the Norman knights rode over the stricken body of Harold Goodwinson in the half-light of that autumn evening so many years ago, the England of Bede, Alfred the Great and Edward the Confessor fell also, and a new power and identity began to exert its influence over the land.
That Saxon England fell so relatively easily into the hands of William the Conquerer is made all the more surprising considering that the hardy Saxons had tasted invasion and defeat before, but had eventually emerged victorious over their foes. Alfred the Great had himself suffered years of humiliation at the hands of the Vikings before defeating them and bringing unity to the kingdom, whilst just a matter of days before Hastings, Harold defeated the last of the great Viking kings, Harald Hardradi, at the Battle of Stamford Bridge. Considering this problem, it might be fair to say that the unity of Saxon England ― or at least most of it ― was its greatest weakness as well as one of its greatest strengths, for it meant that with the death of the king and the rest of his male family at Hastings, there was no other noble or warlord capable of leading the nation in further resistance.
From the Bayeux Tapestry ― William leads his troops into battle.
As for Harold's opponent, William, Duke of Normandy, he was a man obsessed with the desire to rule the "green and pleasant land" across the Channel, a land he had visited in the past and fallen in love with. Ironically enough, both he and the soldiers he led were close relatives of the very Viking invaders the Saxons had fought for centuries past. Their name, 'Norman', is merely a derivation of 'Northman', the warrior Viking kindred of Scandinavia. It is therefore quite wrong to think of the Normans as French, as most schoolchildren seem to believe, for they were merely Vikings who had settled a bit further south than most. A good example of their Viking links can be seen in the Bayeux Tapestry, which shows the Norman invaders sailing to England in ships not at all different from those used by their forefathers in their questing voyages in search of adventure, plunder and women. The Norman fleet must certainly have been an impressive sight as it approached the English coast late in the September of 1066. It consisted of some five hundred ships carrying an army of about seven thousand men. Their landing was unoppossed, because Harold's army was still in the north of England dealing with William's Viking allies. However, upon hearing of the invasion ― on the very evening after Stamford Bridge ― he immediately issued orders for his army to march south. Ahead of his soldiers went mounted messengers with orders that all the southern nobles and their peasant levies ― “The Fyrd”, literally “The Feared” ― were to gather at the hoary apple tree, which was apparently a well-known landmark on the road from London to Hastings, near where the Normans landed.
So it was that a truly Saxon king led a truly Saxon army into battle for the last time. They stood atop of Senlac Hill, eight or ten deep, with a thousand bright red and yellow shields arrayed with their bearers in the front rank to form the Saxon shield-wall. In the centre of Harold's line were his own men, the Huscarles, who had rammed their large kite-shaped shields into the ground so as to be able to wield their awesome double-handed axes, each with a shaft some five feet long. Amidst the Huscarles stood the king himself, and with him the great Dragon Banner of Wessex, and his own standard, 'The Fighting Man'.
The battle began some time early in the morning of October 14th 1066. The first Norman assault was aimed at Harold's centre, with armed Norman clerics offering up prayers for victory as they advanced. They were met, however, by Saxon roars of “Out!” and then with a deluge of spears, arrows, hand-axes, stones and weighted sticks. As the Normans closed on the Saxon line, they found to their dismay that they could make no impression on the shieldwall, which buckled and swayed, but then stood firm. Beneath their king's banners, the Huscarles were bringing down Norman knights and their mounts with single blows of their axes, and Harold himself shouted out encouragement to his warriors with cries of "Holy Rood!" Both Norman and Saxon chroniclers report Harold moving up and down his line, wherever danger threatened, bringing the Wessex Dragon with him, and calming the less well-trained Fyrd if panic arose.
After several further assaults had met the same fate as the first, a state of confusion and anxiety started to spread through theNorman ranks, and some of William's soldiers started to drift away from the field. It is probable that at this moment, Harold had his best chance for a victory. However, instead of ordering a general advance, the bulk of his army remained rooted to their position on Senlac Hill, while a portion of the ill-disciplined Fyrd charged after the Normans. William was therefore given a chance to rally his mounted troops, and these turned onto the unsupported Fyrd and cut them down almost to a man. Several further feints by the Normans succeeded in luring more of the Fyrd from the shield-wall, and by late afternoon, the remaining Saxon troops were gathered in a tight circle around the king and the twin banners.
It was now that William realised that the time for a supreme effort had come, for if the remnants of the Saxon force were able to hold on until nightfall, darkness would allow them to slip away into the surrounding woods, leaving William without a decisive victory. A series of furious Norman attacks followed, their efforts now aided by the Norman archers who were no longer being bothered by Saxon missiles. Little by little the Saxon position was eaten away, and not long before nightfall, Harold was struck in the eye by a Norman arrow, and his body then hacked to pieces by Norman knights before the Huscarles could close ranks around it. With their king dead, the remaining Fyrd slipped away into the woods, leaving the few hundred remaining Huscarles to die where they stood, defending the standards of the king until the last of them had been cut down.
William therefore gained his victory, but for military and political reasons, he refrained from entering London until Christmas Day 1066. The kingdom he inherited was to suffer much from Norman excesses in the years after Hastings, and the mutual distrust and hatred of both conquerors and conquered for each other did not die down for centuries. Eventually however, time acted as the great healer, and the combination of Saxon ruggedness and Norman discipline was to create a powerful nation and fighting force when the distant descendants of the Hastings warriors ― Norman and Saxon ― returned across the Channel to share in the glory of Crecy, Poitiers and Agincourt. Today the field of Hastings is sheltered behind the walls of a massive 14th century gatehouse and abbey built by Benedictine monks. From the abbey terrace one can still see the steep slopes of Senlac Hill, with the abbey terrace itself following the line held by the Saxons for most of the day. A stone marks the place where Harold fell, and an impressive model of the battlefield can be seen within the walls of the gatehouse.