Battle of Hastings

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The Battle of Hastings (sometimes referred to as Senlac in France) is one of the most well-known battles in European history. It was the second of two pivotal battles fought by King Harold Godwinsson in 1066.

The Buildup

When Harold Godwinsson inherited the throne from Edward the Confessor in early 1066, he triggered a furor throughout western Europe. Several other claimants to the English throne emerged, chief among these William, Duke of Normandy.

While King Harold was fighting Norse invaders at the Battle of Stamford Bridge, Duke William was waiting for a favourable wind to cross the English Channel and invade England. On 27 September 1066, he was finally able to cross the channel and landed at Pevesney bay, in Harold's own demense of Sussex, where he quickly raised a castle from prefabricated sections and began raiding inland, trying to force Harold to give battle.

Had William landed even a few weeks earlier, he would have faced a more formidable foe. King Harold had repulsed a Norse invasion of England at the Battle of Stamford Bridge, but at the cost of much of his professional army. Many of the surviving housecarls and fyrdmen were still making their way back from York, having marched a round trip of more than four hundred miles in less than two weeks. Nevertheless, Harold called up as many men as he could, and moved south to counter the Norman threat.

The Battle

On 10 October 1066, King Harold arrayed his host of several thousand Anglo-Saxons along the top of a low ridge about five miles from the village of Hastings, blocking the road north. At the base of the ridge waited William of Normandy's army. Having ridden to the battlefield the Anglo-Saxons fought in the ancient way, as infantry in a shieldwall. The Normans had many infantrymen, but also a sizable force of mounted warriors under personal command of William himself. The effectiveness of the Norman cavalry was greatly amplified by a single technological advantage: the stirrup.

Around midmorning the Norman infantry charged up the slope in a storm of arrows, slamming into the English shieldwall on the high ground. Fierce hand to hand fighting ensued, and shortly after the initial clash, the Norman's left flank crumbled and retreated back downhill.

The Anglo-Saxon right flank, rather than staying in the shieldwall, began an uncontrolled pursuit down the slope after the fleeing Normans. When they reached the base of the ridge, the Norman cavalry wheeled in and, standing in their stirrups, rode down the Anglo-Saxons.

On the ridge, Harold was able to maintain control of part of his shieldwall, but his command of the battle was severely hampered by his lack of mobility. Seeing his advantage, William changed tactics and began a series of charges and deliberate retreats up the slope, each time drawing out more Anglo-Saxons, who were promptly ridden down.

Late in the day, the Normans rolled up the hill one last time under cover of the last of their arrows. Harold, possibly looking upward to gauge the sun, was struck in the eye by an arrow and then killed. With his death, the Anglo-Saxons lost any coordination and the shieldwall disintegrated into a bloody melee. Harold's housecarls died to the last man, and his body was chopped to pieces by the Normans.

The Aftermath

With Harold dead and the Engish army defeated, William marched to London and seized the throne with little difficulty. The victorious Normans then established a completely new set of laws over the defeated Anglo-Saxons, effectively changing the character of England forever.



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