By Kelly DeVries
Often the determination of victory in war, during campaign, on the battlefield, or at siege is the luck of a general. Luck is not always successful, but those unlucky, unsuccessful generals are not recognized by history; most warrant less than a footnote in books about the successful generals who defeated them or the conflicts in which they were unlucky. However, the lucky, successful generals are written about over and over again, during their time and the centuries that follow. The story of their success is always repeated, sometimes with little additions but often with lots of embellishment. What is downplayed, if it is even mentioned, is the luck that the general had in winning, and how close he came to losing. Luck may characterize the Battle of Hastings better than any other battle, and William the Conqueror more than any other general.
Following the Battle of Stamford Bridge, Harold’s army returned to York flushed with victory and ready to celebrate. They had suffered a large number of casualties, but they had successfully turned back one invader-claimant of the throne.
Three days later, on September 28, William’s fleet landed at Pevensey. Other than a few militia who met some errant ships up the coast at Romney and were quickly run off, there was no opposition to the Norman landing. It had been so long since Harold had thought William was to arrive, that the lack of Anglo-Saxon troops on the southern coast did not surprise the duke. When, however, when he discovered that they were still in the north recovering from their battle against the Norwegians, he surely knew that luck was with him – although of course he attributed it to deity and perhaps papal blessing. That Harold was not in the south bought the duke time.
Only the most foolish of generals expected that decisive battle would bring him immediate conquest, and William was no fool. He planned to develop and hold on to a beachhead around Hastings, near Pevensey, from which he could operate his invasion, a safe spot to receive reinforcements and supplies from the continent. This is surely why he built three motte-and-bailey castles at Pevensey, Hastings, and Dover. They were constructed very quickly, too quickly for some historians who wonder if they were only simple ring-work fortifications, so prevalent in England since the Bronze Age. But the construction of the motte-and-bailey castle at Hastings is displayed in the Bayeux Tapestry, and the remains of it and the other two still exist. Besides, William could conscript as much labor as he found among the population in nearby regions.
His troops spread widely across the south. Another Bayeux Tapestry scene shows the pillaging of local farms, as all foodstuffs and booty were gathered into William’s beachhead. The Normans were able to raid so effectively so widely because so many were mounted. William’s army was a cavalry-dominant army. He had infantry, for certain, and archers, but the primary force to be used at Hastings was his cavalry. Cavalry could also be used to broaden the range of pillaging activity, and William clearly employed them in such a way after he landed.
How long after their landing Harold heard that a second invasion force was on the shores of his kingdom is not known for certain. News traveled relatively quickly in the eleventh century, and signal fires or mounted couriers could have reached him in a few days. The king’s response was again very quick: his army started another march. Again it is evident that many of his troops were mounted or acquired mounts from the farms in Yorkshire. The English were a population that did not want to suffer yet another invasion; a few had even witnessed the last one, and they knew that devastation and economic ruin generally followed in its wake. They were willing to give what supplies they could, or to serve in the militias. No doubt many of Harold’s infantry could not again make the forced march, or at least they could not keep up if not mounted. Once more the speed of the Anglo-Saxon army was remarkable – historians have estimated nearly 50 km per day were covered. Harold knew that surprise had worked well in his favor at Stamford Bridge, and he wanted the same against William.
Harold stopped for about a week at London, to let his troops rest and allow others to catch up, and, no doubt, to scout William’s position. He then pushed south, camping on October 13 at Caldbec Hill, 13 km away from the Normans; early the following day he marched his army to Senlac Hill, just under 10 km away from William’s camp. He dismounted his troops and formed them into a line near the crest of the hill. There Harold Godwinson, king of England, recent victor over Harald Hardrada, king of Norway, would form a shield-wall to face William the Bastard, duke of Normandy.
The irony that Harold was using a tactic that he had just defeated has been pointed out by several historians, but, as this experienced general must have realized, the tactic itself had been successful for centuries, even if it had failed to defeat him at Stamford Bridge. The shield-wall at Hastings was formed by infantry and dismounted cavalry standing in a tightly packed formation, their shields overlapping in what was in effect a fairly secure field fortification. Henry of Huntingdon uses the Latin phrase quasi castellum to describe what was “like a fortress.” If a shield-wall could hold its position, it was almost impossible to break through the formation.
All of the Anglo-Saxons at Hastings were experienced warriors, with most having served at Stamford Bridge and some against the Welsh in 1063. Harold placed his housecarls in the center of the shield-wall. There is no reliable record of how many fought at Hastings, or how many housecarls may have been in the king’s retinue when at full strength – assuming that some had been killed or wounded fighting against the Norwegians. They were Harold’s most trusted and skilled troops; illustrations show them armored in lengthy mailcoats and able to fight with all weapons, but especially feared for their use of the battle-axe, which they could swing either single- or two-handed. Harold placed the fyrd on the wings of the shield-wall.
Anglo-Saxon England, in all its various forms, had relied on its militias to defend against the many attacks it had suffered during the past millennium. As they had proven at Fulford Gate, these militias were brave in the face of invasion; as they had proven at Stamford Bridge, they were well-trained and skilled. They were certainly better than Guy of Amiens’ mocking description, rustica (peasants). Again, from artistic depictions, they were well-armored, with most wearing mail and helmets, and adept in the use of spear and sword. A few archers also fought with the English forces, although their numbers were small. Of the Anglo-Saxon soldiers, William of Poitiers writes:
If any author of antiquity had been writing of Harold’s line of march [to the battlefield] he would have recorded that in his passage rivers were dried up and forests laid flat. For huge forces of English had assembled from all the shires. Some showed zeal for Harold, and all showed love of their country, which they wished to defend against invaders even though their cause was unjust.
William’s army was also very experienced, especially his cavalry. Many would have served the duke in several of his military adventures. Those from Boulogne, Flanders, Brittany, and elsewhere in France were probably quite experienced soldiers as well. There had been lots of warfare in Europe during the previous generation. Any soldier wanting to pursue the excitement of combat certainly had opportunities to do so, and they would not have passed on a chance of participating in the Duke of Normandy’s conquest of England. “Men-at-arms” as a definition for medieval soldiers was still a couple of centuries in the future. These were cavalry, for no young man of nobility or means in continental Europe fought on foot. Their sons and grandsons who would travel to the Holy Land on the First Crusade – both William’s son, Robert of Normandy, and his son-in-law, Stephen of Blois, would be among them – are called knights by historians today, even without the ceremony that seems to have developed over the next few decades. These were knights too, in all but the name. Outfitted in mailcoats that covered torso, upper arms, groin, and hips, the Bayeux Tapestry shows some – including the leaders, William and his brother, Odo, the bishop of Bayeux – also armored in mail leggings to the feet, and coifs covering their heads and the back of their necks. They carried kite shields, lances, and swords. They were undoubtedly the most superb armed force in Europe since the time of Charlemagne. It was not luck but William’s reputation that had drawn these soldiers to him.
William’s tactics at the Battle of Hastings were simple, and not too unusual for the period. Like facing any fortification, an attacker could either be patient or attack. William would have known of Harold’s arrival at Senlac Hill and his willingness to do battle. William was lucky again here, for Harold’s confidence in recent conflicts gave him the impetus to try to drive this Norman invader away as he had the Norwegian one. Only foolish premodern generals sought out decisive battles, but only foolish generals turned down the opportunity if it was presented to them. William believed he had the soldiers, the skill, God’s and the Church’s favor, and now the opportunity. He was not going to turn it away. So waiting for Harold to leave was not an option.
Attack was. But it was quite risky: his Norman cavalry were to charge up the hill and against the Anglo-Saxon shield-wall. Breaking it was unlikely. If stopped, the cavalry were to retreat, regroup, and charge again and again. Eventually, the duke hoped that a breach in the shield-wall could be made, where his cavalry could drive through. Rout would then ensue, and medieval battles were often won when the other army ran away. Yet, with luck, what happened at Stamford Bridge would happen at Hastings. (Although the battle was, of course, fought not at Hastings but on Senlac Hill, it took the name of William’s nearby camp; today it is simply known as Battle.) William hoped for a breach in the shield-wall, but he preferred that Harold, or his forces, would break their wall on their own and rush down onto the Normans. As Harold Godwinson had discovered at Stamford Bridge, the most likely way of decisively ending a battle was to catch the opposing general outside of his protective lines. William also had infantry and archers (or crossbowmen as many sources identify them) at the battle, but their roles were limited; probably his plan was to harass the Anglo-Saxons when the cavalry were disengaged.
“A strange kind of battle”
Contemporary sources, including William of Poitiers, the army’s chaplain, report that the duke of Normandy began the battle early in the morning by ordering his cavalry into three divisions across a single front. This was to enable easier command structure. The Norman cavalry, led by William himself, “the strongest force,” were ordered in the center; on its left were the Breton cavalry; and on its right were a mixture of other mounted soldiers, called “French” by most chroniclers, but probably Boulognese and Flemish cavalry. In front of the cavalry lines were the archers and infantry.
Guy of Amiens, who may have been an eyewitness to the battle, has William delivering an oration to spur on his troops. He recounts it as long-winded, enthusiastic, and filled with inspirational lines. It is likely to have contained none of William’s actual words. Guy’s intention was to show how William motivated his soldiers, which the duke must have done very well at Hastings, whatever his words were.
There may also have been some taunting of the Anglo-Saxons by the Normans. Guy of Amiens tells the story:
Meanwhile, with the result hanging in the balance and the bitter calamity of death by wounds still there, a juggler, whom a brave heart ennobled, putting himself in front of the duke’s innumerable army, with his words encourages the French and terrifies the English, while he played by throwing his sword high in the air. When one Englishman saw a single knight, just one out of thousands, juggling with his sword and riding away, fired by the ardour of a true soldier and abandoning life, he dashed out to meet his death. The juggler, who was named Taillefer, when he was attacked spurred on his horse and pierced the Englishman’s shield with his sharp lance. He then with his sword removed the head from the prostrate body, and, turning to face his comrades, displayed this object of joy and showed that the opening move of the battle was his. They all rejoice and together supplicate the Lord. They exult that the first blow was theirs. Both excitement and passion run through their manly breasts, and they all hasten to engage in the fight.
Norman trumpets then sounded and the Norman footsoldiers advanced, slowly, towards and up the hill to encounter the shield-wall. This would turn out to be rather unimportant to the battle’s outcome. It does not seem to have mattered to William; it was probably his decision for their engagement to be short. Although William of Poitiers insists that they “kill[ed] and maim[ed] many,” they retreated after only a brief engagement. Often this has been ascribed to William not wanting his more noble cavalry to be kept from the battle for too long, as this would dishonor them. However, in comparing Hastings to other battles of the same period, infantry often engaged in initial combat, probably to see if their opponents were serious in their defense – many simply ran away at the prospect of facing a more numerous or skilled force – or to soften them up for the ensuing cavalry charges.
The cavalry charges started soon afterwards. “Those who were last became first,” writes William of Poitiers, referring to the Norman cavalry replacing their infantry. Contemporary sources claim that the Norman cavalry were not as numerous as their Anglo-Saxon infantry opponents. How many there were, exactly, is difficult to know. Contemporary sources are notoriously incorrect about numbers; it is difficult to blame even eyewitnesses for exaggerating how many they were and how many opponents they faced. Modern historians’ figures of 5,000-7,000 for the Normans and 10,000-12,000 Anglo-Saxons may also be too large. Or, they may be too small. There is really no way of knowing. The ratios are probably correct, though: William’s army faced a greater number of Harold’s troops at Hastings. Would William’s luck prevail?
Infantry and archers withdrawing, the cavalry charged forward, “brave to the extreme,” according to William of Malmesbury. They were stopped by the shield-wall. Although William would have hoped for a quick breach, his cavalry’s initial ineffectiveness was expected. But then the Anglo-Saxons stopped the next charge, and the next, and the next. No one, contemporary or modern, can agree on just how many cavalry charges were made by the Norman cavalry at Hastings. Harold’s army was disciplined; they could not be moved from their strong defensive position. William of Poitiers describes the scene: “this was a strange kind of battle, one side with all the mobility and initiative, and the other just resisting as though rooted to the soil.” Again it is Guy of Amiens who provides the derision:
the English stood firm on their ground in the closest order. They met missile with missile, sword-stroke with sword-stroke; bodies could not be laid down, nor did the dead give place to living soldiers, for each corpse though lifeless stood as if unharmed and held its post; nor would the attackers have been able to penetrate the dense forest of Englishmen had not guile reinforced their strength.
It was also a very long battle. Most medieval battles were decided in a very short time, usually no more than an hour. Not the Battle of Hastings. Hours passed as the Norman cavalry delivered charge after charge against an unbreaking shield-wall. Few fell, wounded or killed, on either side. Charging horses stop if they cannot penetrate an unrelenting formation, and this seems to have happened to a number of the Norman charges, with little actual fighting between the two armies. But some did occur, and with this came casualties, and as the battle went on these casualties mounted. Well into the battle, it appeared that William himself had fallen – at least, rumor of this spread throughout the Norman cavalry. In a time before heraldry, such a mistake could easily happen. In the Bayeux Tapestry, Norman horsemen all look the same. It would have been easy for them to lose a leader in the din, dust, and chaos of battle. Hearing the rumor, William’s troops retreated from the charge further than usual, maybe fleeing from the battle to regroup under new leadership or, perhaps, even to abandon the conquest. The Bayeux Tapestry shows the duke having to tip his nasal helm up to expose his whole face – Guy of Amiens and William of Poitiers also have him address his troops with a speech – indicating that he was still alive. His cavalry responded with yet another charge.
“Slaughtered them to the last man”
That William was still fighting with them seemed to re-energize the Norman cavalry, enough at least to pull off one of the most widely used, but difficult cavalry tactics: the feigned retreat. A feigned retreat demanded skill and discipline, for those “retreating” had to look like they were actually fleeing from the battlefield, but be able to wheel and charge again, in formation and unity. When a feigned retreat worked, however, it would break the opposing line into a celebratory pursuit, so that when those retreating turned and attacked, the battle would be over quickly. On the other hand, should it not work, military history had shown that, demoralized by their failure, those who had attempted the feigned retreat might actually retreat from the battlefield in earnest.
Such a tactic could not be performed too early in the battle, and only rarely more than once – yet at Hastings the Normans attempted two feigned retreats, according to contemporary testimony. The first brought no disruption in the shield-wall; but the second, probably done later in the battle when more were fatigued by the continual fighting, worked well. Some Anglo-Saxon soldiers broke from the shield-wall and pursued the “retreating” Normans. William of Poitiers writes succinctly of what happened next: “the Normans suddenly wheeling round their horses, checked and encircled them, and slaughtered them to the last man.” Among these were Harold’s two brothers, Gyrth (whom, Guy of Amiens claims, William himself killed) and Leofwine, who had served as his lieutenants that day.
The battle had changed so quickly that Harold Godwinson could do little more than try to form his remaining soldiers again into a shield-wall. However, too few were left, and they were too fatigued and disorganized to resist the Normans for long. They remained until their king was killed – cut down by a mounted soldier’s sword or, as tradition would later have it, shot in the eye by an arrow. Then they fled; they probably numbered only a few hundred.
The dead and dying were spread across the field. For once Guy of Amiens gives a bit of respect to the English, calling them a “forest” that had been cut down. The last Anglo-Saxon army had been defeated, and it was a defeat that the remaining military and governmental powers in England could not recover from. It was not entirely decisive, however, as William still had to face some opposition in the kingdom, primarily in the north where Edwin and Morcar, the remaining Anglo-Saxon earls, were able to scrape together some resistance. It would take a couple more years, but this too would be defeated quite easily.
But why had William won at Hastings? Most Norman sources ascribe the victory first to God and then to William. His exploits on the battlefield were recounted and, no doubt, embellished – William of Poitiers provides the most lengthy account, using almost all the superlatives in his Latin thesaurus and comparisons to the greatest of classical heroes. William was incredibly brave and skilled. He led his army from the middle division of cavalry, and he fought so valiantly that three horses were killed under him. Each time, he remounted and returned to the fight – perhaps one of these was what started the rumor of his battlefield death. He was undoubtedly inspiring to the Normans and demoralizing to the Anglo-Saxons. This is precisely what an effective general had to be in battle during the Middle Ages. But he also has to have luck, and William had lots of luck, throughout his entire life, but especially at the battle of Hastings. Even William of Poitiers has to admit this. Often missed in his lengthy account of the battle is this sentence: “ita felicitas pro Guillelmo triumpho maturando cucurrit – thus luck persisted (literally ran) to hasten victory for William.”
Kelly DeVries is Professor of History at Loyola University in Maryland and Honorary Historical Consultant, Royal Armouries, UK. He is the author of many works on medieval history, including the recently published 1066: A Guide to the Battles and the Campaigns (co-authored by Michael Livingston).
To learn more, listen to Kelly DeVries and Michael Livingston as they analyze the campaign and battle from an episode of Bow and Blade.
This article was first published in the Medieval Warfare special issue on The Battle of Hastings – you can buy that issue here. You can also get new issues of the magazine through our Patreon – click here to learn more.