1066 The Battle of Hastings. Normans conquest England
It’s the 14th of October, 1066 and two opposing armies come together on Senlac Hill to argue Harold’s right to the English throne or uphold William the Bastard’s claim of an old king’s dying behest.
For the Normans the ominous sight of Harold’s Saxon shield wall straddling Senlac ridge with the dragon banner of Wessex and his own personal banner of the Fighting Man, flying in the stiffening breeze greets them on this bleak October morning.
William relied on basic tactics with archers in the front rank weakening the enemy with arrows, followed by infantry which would engage in close combat, culminating in a cavalry charge that would break through the English forces. However, his tactics did not work as well as planned. William’s army attacked the English as soon as they were ready and formed up. Norman archers shot several volleys but many of the arrows hit the shield wall and had very little effect. Believing the English to have been softened up, William ordered his infantry to attack. As the Normans charged up the hill, the English threw down whatever they could find: stones, javelins, and maces. The barrage inflicted heavy casualties among the Norman ranks, causing the lines to break up.
The infantry charge reached the English lines, where ferocious hand-to-hand fighting took place. William had expected the English to falter, but the arrow barrage had little effect and nearly all the English troops still stood, their shield wall intact. As a result William ordered his cavalry to charge far sooner than planned. Faced with a wall of axes, spears and swords, many of the horses shied away despite their careful breeding and training. After an hour of fighting, the Breton division on William’s left faltered and broke completely, fleeing down the hill. Suffering heavy casualties and realising they would be quickly outflanked, the Norman and Flemish divisions retreated with the Bretons. Unable to resist the temptation, many of the English broke ranks, including hundreds of fyrdmen and Harold’s brothers, Leofwyne and Gyrthe. In the following confused fighting, William’s horse was killed from underneath him, and he toppled to the ground. Initially, many of William’s soldiers thought that he had been killed, and an even greater rout ensued. It was only after he stood up and threw off his helmet that William was able to rally his fleeing troops.
William and a group of his knights successfully counter-attacked the pursuing English, who were no longer protected by the shield wall, and cut down large numbers of fyrdmen. Many did not recognise the Norman counter-attack until it was too late, but some managed to scramble back up the hill to the safety of the housecarls. Harold’s brothers were not so fortunate—their deaths deprived the English of an alternative leader after the death of Harold. The two armies formed up, and a temporary lull fell over the battle. The battle had turned to William’s advantage, since the English had lost much of the protection provided by the shield wall. Without the cohesion of a disciplined, strong formation, the individual English were easy targets. William launched his army at the strong English position again and many of the English housecarls were killed.
With such a large number of English fyrdmen now holding the front rank, the disciplined shield wall that the housecarls had maintained began to falter, presenting an opportunity to William. At the start of the battle the hail of arrows fired at the English by William’s bowmen was ineffective because of the English shields. Though many on the front ranks still had shields, William ordered his archers to fire over the shield wall so that the arrows landed in the clustered rear ranks of the English army. The archers did this with great success. Legend states that it was at this point that Harold was hit in the eye by an arrow. Many of the English were now weary. William’s army attacked again, and managed to make small chinks in the shield wall. They were able to exploit these gaps, and the English army began to fragment. William and a handful of knights broke through the wall, and struck down the English king. Without their leader and with many nobles dead, hundreds of fyrdmen fled the field. The housecarls kept their oath of loyalty to the king, and fought bravely until they were all killed.
William’s victory placed a foreign ruler on the throne of England.