I rather cruelly left Harold Godwinson, aka King Harold of England, on the top of a hill near Hastings on a cold, dark October night as he prepared to clinch the crown with a double victory.
He had already seen off an attack by King Harald of Norway, aided by Harold’s own brother Tostig Godwinson, up North at Stamford Bridge, only to learn, as he celebrated victory, that Duke William of Normandy had landed down South and was laying his own claim to the English crown.
The surprise was that William, not finding any opposition when he landed on the beach at Pevensey, East Sussex, late in September 1066, did not make a sudden dash for London and instead took his time to land all his men, horses and equipment, and then gave them a break after the channel crossing.
Harold had made a forced march back South but stopped off in London to give his men a chance to take breath after all the excitement of the Northern leg of the crown championship.
With no sign of the Normans making a move Harold and his army headed to Caldbeck Hill, not far from Hastings, and on the night of 13 October set themselves up in what they believed was an impregnable position.
On either flank they had steep inclines which were also heavily wooded and ran onto marshy ground. The rear was also almost completely inaccessible for cavalry or infantry.
When the sun rose at about 6.30 that Saturday morning, Harold’s army was not the only one at the site. William’s army had arrived at the foot of the hill during the night and presented a formidable array of armoured knights, archers and infantrymen.
Despite this formidable array the Saxon army considered themselves safe behind their shield wall. An uphill charge by mail-clad men on foot or horseback would be a struggle and uphill shooting for archers was doomed to failure.*
Initially there was a stand off. The Saxons were safe behind their shield wall, a method of defence going back to Roman times, and the Normans were not keen on an uphill run with an axe or spearpoint waiting for them.
You can imagine the shouts going back and forth.
“Stop skulking up there and come down and fight like men.”
“Get on your ships and go back home.”
“This IS our home now.”
“Fat chance, take your bastard leader and sod off back where you came from.”
The match kicked off at about 9am when William’s archers fired a few volleys of arrows uphill at Harold’s men. All that happened was the arrows either rattled off the shields, having lost all momentum, or, overshot and struck the ground behind the Saxon army.
The other problem was that the archers soon ran out of arrows.
Considering a top archer can shoot off 10 to 12 arrows in a minute they will soon run short. Normally they could then use the arrows fired at them by the enemy.
Unfortunately the Saxons did not make much use of archers (the Celts, now called Welsh by the Saxons, have always been the best archers in these islands) which means for every 1,000 arrows the Normans fired off there might be less than 100 fired back. I am sure you can all do the mathematics.
Eventually the Normans plucked up the courage to carry out a full frontal assault with cavalry and infantry. They were met with a hail of axes, spears and even rocks and those that made it as far as the shield wall found it impenetrable from their side but discovered swords could spring out at groin level from the other side.
After a short period of shoving against what seemed to be a thick stone wall the Normans fell back to regather their forces and make a further attempt.
At one point, two or three hours into the battle (if you could call it that), when the Normans turned tail a section of the Saxons on the flank broke the shield wall and chased after them.
Luckily they responded to a command to return before the Normans could take advantage and the shield wall was reformed.
Unfortunately this incident gave William the idea for what Baldrick would have called a cunning plan.
Infantry and cavalry were ordered to turn tail again except that the cavalry were ordered to make a fast turn if the Saxons came after them and to ride down the enemy chasing them while the infantry were to attack the end of the line were the shield wall had fallen.
The first time they tried it they had reasonable success before the Saxons reformed and plugged the gaps in the shield wall.
The only problems was that the Saxons did not learn from experience and when the Normans did it again the home team broke ranks again, and again until by late afternoon it had turned into a melee and the superiority of the Norman cavalry took its toll on the Saxons.
By the time dusk fell the home side had paid the price for their lack of discipline when they thought they had the Normans on the run.
The remnants of the Saxon army, mostly the fyrd who were really just farmers and labourers, left the field of battle as darkness descended. The members of Harold’s personal guard and most of the nobles lay dead on the field. In fact many of them lay around the bodies of two of Harold’s brothers and it was believed Harold lay within that pile of the slain.
The way was now open for William to head for London and to get himself crowned.
The rule of the Anglo=Saxons had lasted barely 500 years and William the Bastard had become King William.
Oddly enough while still claiming to be of Anglo-Saxon heritage the modern English celebrate the Battle of Hastings as a success.
In fact it was the last invasion of this country and the rest of us in Britain have had to put up with it.