Friday, October 14, 2016

The Battle of Hastings

The Battle of Hastings


Today marks the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings.

1066 has already been a tumultuous year in England. On January 5, Edward the Confessor died, leaving the English throne to Harold Godwinson (King Harold II). Harold’s family, the Godwins, were the most powerful in England. Harold was himself an earl, and as well the father-in-law to Edward the Confessor, the latter having been married to Harold’s daughter Edith. William of Normandy, also known as William the Bastard, claimed that he had been designated as Edward’s successor and that Harold had once promised him that he, Harold, disclaimed any right to the throne, leaving it instead to William. In addition, Harold Hardrada of Norway asserted a claim to the English throne.

Sometime in September, Harold Hardrada had landed his troops in the north of England. After fast marching his troops north, the army of Harold Godwinson met the invading army of Harold Hardrada (supported by Tostig Godwinson, Harold’s brother) at the Battle of Stamford Bridge (HERE IS A LINK to a posting on those events). The invading army was defeated, and Hardrada was killed. Learning of William’s invasion in the south, Harold had to turn his army around and fast march it south in order to respond to this new threat. Those forced marches were some 240 miles each way.

For reasons that have baffled many later historians, Harold, upon arriving in London, quickly turned his troops, already exhausted from the march, toward Hastings. He did this notwithstanding that reinforcements were due to arrive the following day. Still, Harold led his forces towards William’s beachhead, leaving word for the reinforcements to actual up as soon as possible. Those reinforcements included the archers.

The Battle of Hastings proper (there was an earlier skirmish) probably began around 11 in the morning. Through most of the day the forces of Harold prevailed – attacks on the shield wall were not effective, and the Norman archers were not effective firing up-hill. Harold holding his own against William would have been for Harold a win. As observed by Frank McLynn in 1066-The Year of Three Battles:
[Harold] knew he had only to hold out until nightfall when reinforcements were certain to arrive; he could play for a draw but William had to have a win.

The Norman infantry having failed to break through, William sent in his calvary. Attacking uphill, they did not have the force necessary to break through. When William’s flank started to fail (the Breton forces) and William was unhorsed and rumored to be dead. Harold’s forces began an advance downhill, their shielded wall still intact and functionally invulnerable. But then the advance lost its momentum, perhaps due to the death of its leader Leofwine, Harold’s brother. William’s forces pushed back and in order Harold’s forces reversed themselves back uphill. It was then a battle of attrition, and the Norman invaders were lost at a lower rate than were Harold’s forces. A combined archery and armored calvary assault finally broke the shielded wall, and the battle dissolved into combat between small units ensued. Harold and the remaining troops around him were attacked and Harold fell to multiple sword blows and a lance through his chest.

Maybe an hour after Harold fell, reinforcements, including additional housecarls, arrived.

The accepted, albeit almost certainly apocryphal, story is that Harold fell after being struck in the eye with an arrow. The Bayeux Tapestry may be interpreted as saying such. However, the “King Harold was killed” heading is over two figures (neither wearing a crown), one with an arrow in his eye and the other being struck down by a sword. If the former is meant to be Harold, the famous arrow in the eye as depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry may be a later invention. It is not mentioned in the earliest accounts of the battle. In addition, in medieval iconography, an arrow in the eye is the punishment afforded a perjurer. Having gone against his oath to leave the throne to William, some might have felt it poetic justice, even if not based in reality.

By Christmas William crowned King of England and was in Westminster Abbey accepting pledges of fealty from England’s mobility. Still, the next two decades of his reign would see numerous rebellions and challenges, including one from his own son Robert.

            As for the Bayeux Tapestry itself, HERE IS A LINK is an animated (and translated) version.

            The English like to claim that the Norman Invasion was the last invasion of England. This is not true. For example, during the Barons War, a French force invaded and had control of a significant portion of southern England, and the Isle of Wight was invaded in 1545. But the Norman Conquest is the last successful invasion of England.

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