The Battle of HastingsCategory: 11th century
The Normans outnumbered the Anglo-Saxon forces and were greatly superior in quality. They were all men for whom fighting was the main occupation in life. They were well armed and the chance of being killed was not so great, since they all wore armour and there were no fire-arms at that time. The superior military tactics of the well- trained Normans were unknown in England. They used a skilful combination of heavy-armoured cavalry and archers. First the archers would break up the ranks of their enemy and then followed a charging cavalry which decided the victory.
The Anglo-Saxons had a small cavalry, it was mainly Harold’s bodyguard. The hastily gathered levies of free peasants who fought on foot made up the main body of the Anglo-Saxon army. Not all the footmen were properly armed, many were armed with pitchforks, axes, or only thick oak-poles. The Anglo-Saxon footmen usually fought in a mass standing close together, so as to form a wall of shields to protect themselves.
It must also be remembered that while William had firm power over the vassals who came with him from Normandy and France, King Harold’s power over the Anglo-Saxon earls was very weak. Harold could not rely on the earls of North-Eastern and Middle England in time of need. The earls moved slowly towards Hastings, so as to arrive after the battle and then join with the victor, either Harold or William. As a result, when Harold met William at Hastings, he had under his command only the men of Wessex.
Harold drew up his men inside a palisade on a hill-top awaiting the attack. His bodyguard was drawn up in the centre and the other troops on the flanks. Standing shoulder to shoulder they made a wall in front. Stakes were driven into the ground so that the Norman horsemen could not break the ranks of the infantry. This was a good defensive position, as the Normans had to ride up the hill to fight and it was actually impossible to break through the shield-wall of the Anglo-Saxons.
While the Anglo-Saxons were in this enclosure they saw the Normans coming forward. The Norman army was drawn up in a different formation: in front were the footmen (archers, pikemen, and swordsmen) followed by the horsemen. In front of the cavalry rode a singer, who sang songs of battle and victory, throwing his sword up into the air and catching it again as he rode.
The Normans began to attack with flights of arrows and the Anglo-Saxon light-armed footmen suffered greatly from them. Then followed the charging attacks of the Norman cavalry upon which William chiefly relied. But the Anglo-Saxons stood firm, side by side, shield to shield. They fought with such energy that both the Norman infantry and cavalry had to turn back and retreat down the hill.
The battle went on all day. As long as the Anglo-Saxons stayed inside the palisade the Normans could not reach them successfully, so they thought of a battle-plan for drawing them out. Three times they went up the hill and then pretended to run away. When the Anglo-Saxons saw their enemies retreating, a large number of them came out from behind the palisade to pursue the Normans and to complete, as they thought, the defeat of their enemy. As soon as the Anglo-Saxons had descended to the plain and were a good way from their palisade the Normans turned round and attacked them fiercely. Their trick served its purpose. In the open the mounted Normans had a great advantage over the men fighting on foot. The Anglo-Saxons were encircled, a great many of them were killed, and horses trampled down their dead bodies.
Those who remained inside with Harold formed a ring round him and continued to fight bravely until the Normans thought of another plan. They shot their arrows high in the air, so that they fell inside the palisade. One of these arrows struck Harold in the eye and killed him. The Anglo-Saxons went on fighting hard round the standard of the English King but gradually the shield-wall thinned and at last the Normans succeeded in breaking the line and the battle was at an end.