A synopsis on the Battle of Hastings 1066
My recent visit to the historic Battle Abbey in the quaint town of Battle in East Sussex, north of the Sussex Coast, England offered up a whole new insight into the history of England. While I knew what the Battle of Hastings 1066 was, the significance of October 14, and how the French won the battle, it was nothing quite like visiting the site itself where it all happened. To see the ruins, to listen to the stories and to walk the battlefield are all moments that shed an additional light to the bitter battle, and bloodshed endured by both the Anglo-Saxons and the French.
WHERE DID THE BATTLE OF HASTINGS TAKE PLACE?
The site where it all happened was not, in Hastings, as one would expect given that the battle is referred to as ‘Battle of Hastings’, an English coastal town. The Battle of Hastings took place on a small hillside called Senlac Hill, the site of what is now Battle Abbey.
However, there are some suggestions that the battle was not fought on Senlac Hill. Alternative locations have been put forward. This includes Crowhurst that is located at 4.8 km (3 miles) south of Battle, and Caldbec Hill situated about 1.6 km (1 mile) north of Battle. Both schools of thought believe that the Battle Abbey monks invented the story of the association with the abbey and the battlefield in the Chronicle of Battle Abbey. The Chronicle was written some hundred years later after 1066, in the late 12th century.
Did the monks invent the story about the abbey situated on the battlefield?
The claim that Battle Abbey was founded on the site of the battle is found in many other historical sources that existed before the Chronicle of Battle Abbey was written in the late 12th century.
The earliest is the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. In one journal entry in 1086, which is an obituary written by a man who had known the king and present in his court, writes:
“On the very spot where God granted him the conquest of England he caused a great abbey to be built; and settled monks in it and richly endowed it”
In addition to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the historian, William of Malmesbury, wrote in his Deeds of the Kings of the English in 1125 about the abbey.
“… is called Battle Abbey because the principal church is to be seen on the very spot where, according to tradition, among the piled heaps of corpses Harold was found”
In the second decade of the 12th century, in a journal about the life of William the Conqueror, written at Battle Abbey, states:
“Harold and his army arrived at a place now called Battle and that the Battle took place on the site where William, count of the Normans, afterwards the king of the English had an abbey built”
Therefore, it appears that the notion that the Battle Abbey was founded much later by the monks was not plausible. The abbey was very much current by at least the second decade of the 12th century. There is a good reason to be confident that the Battle Abbey was founded on the site of Battle of Hastings.
Enactment of Battle of Hastings 1066
There is an annual enactment of the events of the Battle of Hastings 1066 on the grounds of Battle Abbey. About 300 reenactors create the drama and intensity of this legendary conflict. It is a fun event for all ages and makes a great day out.
Battle Abbey was established as a memorial and as an atonement for the violence that took place on that decisive day in October. The history leading up to the abbey being built is worth knowing to appreciate the significance of Battle Abbey. It began well before the Battle of Hastings in 1066.
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PRELUDE TO THE BATTLE OF HASTINGS 1066
For 24 years previous to the Battle of Hastings, England was ruled by King Edward the Confessor. He had spent some years in exile in Normandy prior to his reign. Though married, Edward did not have a son to succeed him. In the middle of his reign, around the year 1051, apparently the king promised his cousin, William, the Duke of Normandy that he could succeed to the throne. Edward felt indebted and held a great deal of gratitude to his cousin and the rulers of Normandy.
However, Edward’s decision to pass the English succession to his Norman cousin did not sit well with his queen and her family. The queen, Edith was from an influential and powerful family, Godwine. In the latter part of the 1050s, her brothers became the dominant players of English politics.
When Edward died on January 5, 1066 the throne was succeeded by his brother-in-law, Harold Godwinson. Harold insisted that the old king had nominated him in his dying moments.
When William, Duke of Normandy learnt of this, he was furious and felt betrayed. Towards the end of September 1066, William, his very large army of around 700 ships sailed over to England from France and landed in Pevensey.
William intended to win a decisive battle against Harold.
WHAT HAPPENED AT THE BATTLE OF HASTINGS, OCTOBER 14, 1066
When King Harold learnt that the Duke of Normandy had landed on the Sussex Coast, he marched his very tired army of men straight down to Sussex to meet the invaders. Harold’s army was very tired because they had just successfully warded off an invasion of Norway in York two weeks earlier. They stopped in London for supplies and continued their march to the Sussex coast. They were exhausted when they arrived for the battle.
Unlike the Anglo-Saxons, Duke William of Normandy had plenty of time to prepare his men. They landed in Pevensey over two weeks earlier.
On the eve of the Battle, the evening of October 13, 1066 both armies were encamped within sight of each other at Battle.
The French and the Anglo-Saxons met at a place called Senlac Hill, about 13 km (8 miles) from Hastings on the morning of Saturday, October 14, 1066.
1 | The battle on October 14, 1066
At dawn on the morning of Saturday, October 14, 1066 Harold’s army formed a strong defensive position along the ridge of Senlac Hill, which is now occupied by the ruins of Battle Abbey. It is recorded that the English army formed a wall of shields, where soldiers stood close together with little room for manoeuvre. The English defence line stretched almost a kilometre (half a mile) on the hilltop.
Harold placed his trained troops around his standard at the summit of the ridge (where the high altar of Battle Abbey was later placed). Harold hoped to keep his line unbroken and his casualties light, thus demoralising and exhausting William’s army.
William, had his army on the hillside above the marshy valley bottom. He ranged his forces into three ranks; First, the archers, followed by infantry and behind them the mounted knights.
Harold’s army lacked archers and cavalry. The formation of a ‘shield wall’ made a perfect target for arrows. William’s archers inflicted many casualities but they also suffered great losses from the English slings and spears. William’s cavalry were mutilated by the English infantry with their battle-axes. He pressed on with his cavalry charges and interspersing them with flights of arrows.
A visit to Battle Abbey and the Battlefield Walk will give a sense of the events unfolding on October 14. There are wooden sculptures along the Battlefield Walk trail showcasing William’s infantry and mounted knights.
2 | How did William win the battle
William feigned retreat twice. By doing so, William tricked some of the English soldiers away from their strong positions by getting his men to pretend to run away. When the Englishmen broke ranks in pursuit, they were cut down. The split in Harold’s army was the turning point in the battle that led William to victory.
As the day went on and the battle continued, Harold’s men were depleted, tired, worn-down and slowly outnumbered.
William’s advance was unexpected and Harold had to fight where he stood or retreat.
Harold’s brothers, Gyrth and Leofwine fell and Harold himself was killed later in the afternoon. The Englishmen fought on without their leader, causing the Normans further casualties. They fought until dusk then broke.
Battle of Hastings 1066 reenactments at the Battle Abbey, Battle, East Sussex
3 | How long did the Battle of Hastings last?
The battle lasted nine hours, from dawn to dusk. The French were better trained and had better weapons and horses whereas the English army were exhausted and had less sophisticated weapons. It was the bloodiest battle ever on English soil and thousands of men on both sides were killed. King Harold was killed. It is thought that he was killed with an arrow to his right eye but historians debate if this was true. Some of the earlier sources describe how Harold was hacked to death by four Norman knights.
In medieval times, conflicts were decided within hours. The victory in Senlac Hill was not certain until dusk. This is an indication of just how evenly matched and led both sides were.
4 | What was the size of the army in the Battle of Hastings 1066
It is not clear exactly how many men took part in the battle. Some accounts say Harold had up to 13000 men against the Normans of 8000. However, the below is an accepted consensus.
William Duke of Normandy is said to have sailed across the Channel with a large force of 5000 and 7000 men. These men in William’s army were not only Normans but also included soldiers from Brittany, Aquitaine, France and Maine. The Norman army of 1066 was composed of archers, crossbowmen, heavy infantry, and knights on horseback. The backbone of the Normans were their cavalry, made up of 2000 – 3000 men on horses.
Harold is said to have had a larger army of men, between 7000 to 8000 at the battle. Harold’s soldiers were composed of housecarls and the fyrd. Housecarls were well-trained, full-time soldiers and were regarded as the finest infantry in Europe. Their main weapon was a battle-axe, held by both hands. The fyrd were working men who were called up to fight for the king in times of battle. They had swords, bows and spears while some had axes, slings and iron clubs. The English armies used horses to get around but they fought on foot on the battleground.
5 | Why was the Battle of Hastings important in England’s history
The Battle of Hastings 1066 is significantly important in England’s history because the Duke of Normandy had conquered England. The Anglo-Saxons had ruled England for 600 years since the Roman times and with the Conquest, it meant the end of the Anglo-Saxons rule. From then on, England was ruled by a foreign aristocracy.
After the victory at the Battle of Hastings, William marched on to London.
William was the first Norman king of England. He became known as William the Conqueror, and was crowned the King of England on Christmas Day 1066 at Westminster Abbey.
Upon the death of William I in 1087, his son, William Rufus became William II, the second Norman king of England.
BATTLE OF HASTINGS AND BATTLE ABBEY
The end of the battle meant the end of Anglo-Saxon rule and it was also the beginning of the history of Battle Abbey.
In 1071, William I himself founded the Abbey on the site of the battle. He also ordered that the high altar of the abbey be placed ‘on the very spot’ where King Harold fell. Battle Abbey was built as a memorial to his great victory and as an act of penance.
With the founding of the Benedictine Abbey, the area around it grew over the years to a town. The town is Battle, as we now know it.
THE LEGACY OF THE BATTLE OF HASTINGS 1066
With the crowning of William as King William I, the Anglo-Saxon phase in English history came to an end.
1 | Language
When William ascended to the throne of England, he did not speak English. He made no attempt to learn the language either. He introduced French in his courts instead. French was spoken in England’s courts, government and the upper class for three hundred years. This transformed the English language. English was infused with new words and developed into modern English as we speak now. Some Norman words including beef, pork, noble and purchase are used in everyday English today.
2 | Domesday
One of William’s notable achievements as king of England is the creation of the Domesday Book. The Domesday is the earliest public record and contains the results of an extensive survey. The survey encompassed land and landholdings commissioned by William himself in 1085. It is by far a complete census of land and people of England and provides a window into the medieval world.
3 | The Bayeux Tapestry
The Bayeux Tapestry is a significant part of medieval history. It is a remarkable piece of art, created in England and was made in the 11th century. The 70 metre-long (230-foot) tapestry depicts the events of the Battle of Hastings and the Norman Conquest of England. It is a great source for historians to understand the events of 1066.
The Bayeux Tapestry consists of 58 detailed panels of woolen yarn embroidered on linen. It is said to have been probably commissioned by William’s half brother Bishop Odo. It hangs in the Bayeux Tapestry Museum in Bayeux, Normandy, France.
4 | Norman Castles
An important feature of the Norman legacy is their castles. After their Conquest, William I embarked on a castle-building programme. The Normans constructed castles all over England to control their new territory and as a show of strength and might to the Anglo-Saxons.
The Normans built over 500 castles in England within a twenty-year period. About ninety of them can be seen today. Here are just a few amongst the most popular Norman castles:
1 | Pevensey Castle
This was the first castle built by the Normans, as soon as they landed in England.
Pevensey Castle Visitor Information:
Pevensey Castle is cared for by English Heritage. The Castle is open daily between April and October. Weekends, November to March.
Where: Castle Road, Pevensey, East Sussex. BN24 5LE
2 | Tower of London
The Tower of London was founded by William the Conqueror soon after he arrived in London. It was built by the River Thames, both as a defensive castle and as a royal residence. It is one of the most visited attractions in London today and houses the Crown Jewels.
iii | Read all related articles on the Tower of London > Beyond the Walls of London Fortress
Open daily from 9:00 am to 5:30 pm.
3 | Windsor Castle
Windsor Castle is the oldest, largest royal castle in the world presently occupied by the Royal family. The castle was built by William the Conqueror in a strategic location near the Thames River. When it was constructed, the castle was not intended to be a royal residence. However, it has been the royal residence for 39 monarchs since it was built.
Windsor Castle is open to the public and is another of the most popular attractions visited. Opening times vary.
Where: Guildhall, 51 High Street, SL4 1LR
4 | Dover Castle
After the Battle of Hastings, William and his men travelled to Dover to build a castle. Dover Castle is the longest-serving fortress in England. Sadly, nothing much remains of the Norman castle as it was rebuilt by later monarchs.
Dover Castle is worth a visit where you can discover secret wartime tunnels, the medieval palace of King Henry II and the Church of St Mary. The Church of St Mary in Castro as it stands today is a restored Saxon church dating from around 1000 AD. There is a Roman lighthouse next to the church. The church, lighthouse and the wartime tunnels are all situated within the grounds of Dover Castle.
Open daily from 10:00 am. Purchase your admission tickets here.
Where: Castle Hill Road., Dover, CT16 1 HU
5 | Canterbury Castle
Canterbury Castle is one of the three Royal castles in Kent, along with Dover Castle and Rochester Castle. Canterbury Castle was built shortly after the Conquest. It was a wooden motte-and- bailey castle built in 1066. The motte of this castle is visible as the mount in the Dane John Gardens Canterbury. The stone keep is now in a ruinous state and is closed to visitors.
6 | Carisbrook Castle
The Normans built a motte-and-bailey castle at Carisbrooke, Isle of Wight at about 1100. This replaced the temporary castle built in 1066. The castle itself was built on the site of a Saxon fortress.
Carisbrooke Castle is cared for by English Heritage. The castle is open daily from 10:00 am.
Where: Castle Hill, Newport PO30 1XY
THE NOT SO OBVIOUS EVENTS OF 1066
While there are many sources that describe the Battle of Hastings, it is difficult to say what is definitive. The following are some of the not so obvious events in 1066.
1 | Two other significant battles in 1066
The Battle of Hastings, between William and Harold was not the only conflict for the throne of England.
Harold’s banished brother, Tostig along with the Norwegian King Harald Hardrada and his Norwegian army invaded northern and midland England. They defeated the English Earls at Fulford near York on September 20th. They were defeated by King Harold and the English army at Stamford Bridge, Yorkshire on September 25.
2 | The Saxons and the Normans were fairly matched
It was not obvious that William would win the battle. The battle lasted nine long hours, which is unusual for medieval battles. The Saxons created effective defensive walls with their shields. The Normans were unable to break through. They tricked the Saxons into believing that they were retreating. This made some of the stronger Saxons break their positions to follow the Normans. This led the Normans to attack the weak ones standing in the shield wall.
3 | The first blow
Ivo Taillefer, William’s minstrel killed the first Saxon of the battle.
4 | Harold’s death
Harold may not have been killed by an arrow to his right eye. There are suggestions that the arrow story is a more favourable view to William than the idea that Harold was hacked to death by his Norman knights. Who knows…!
5 | The location of King Harold’s body is unknown
Some sources record that William denied Harold’s mother her son’s body even though she offered to pay in gold the weight of him. Later sources say that Harold’s body was identified by his mistress and is buried at Waltham Abbey, Essex. Apparently, you can still see his alleged grave. However, the exact location of Harold’s body remains a mystery to this day.
I am fascinated by the history of places I visit. A visit to Battle, and more so to Battle Abbey was a day I enjoyed very much, an unusual visit to fill my historophile thirst.
Have a splendid time exploring England.
The Battle of Hastings: fact and fiction British Library
The Bayeux Tapestry: Bayeux Museum
Lewis, MJ, Owen-Crocker, GR and Terkla, D (eds), The Bayeux Tapestry New Approaches ( Oxford , 2011)