The battle of Hastings

On 14th October AD 1066 William (the Conqueror) of Normandy and Harold Godwinson of England met at the Battle of Hastings. Harold had sat on the English throne for nine months and William had arrived in England three weeks earlier from Normandy together with his troops. Both were convinced they had been promised the English throne by the previous king, Edward the Confessor.

While Harold Godwinson and the Norwegian king, Harold Hardrada, fought at Stamford Bridge, William of Normandy prepared his attack on England. The 70 m long Bayeux Tapestry from the AD 1070s recounts the battle from William’s point of view.

The battle by the grey old apple tree

On 28th September William reached Sussex in Southern England with a great army and fleet. Historians today estimate that there were 450 ships, 7000 men and almost 2000 warhorses. The great number of men and horses is thought to lie at the root of William’s victory as Harold's army had suffered heavy losses at Stamford Bridge only a short time previously. The English had no experience of cavalry battles and their army therefore primarily numbered infantrymen.

When Harold Godwinson, who was in York, received the news of the Normans' landing he is thought to have mobilised his army immediately towards Hastings. Here, he hoped to be able to surprise the Normans in the same way as he just had the Norwegians at Stamford Bridge. But quite the opposite was to happen. The Angle-Saxon Chronicle written in AD 1066, in which the battle is named "The Battle by the Grey Old Apple Tree” reports:

Quote: King Harold heard this, and he gathered a great army and went against him by the grey, old apple tree, and William went against him and surprised him before his army was ready….

But a few days prior to the battle William challenged Harold to a duel in order to avoid a battle. Harold, however, did not reply and William’s messenger repeated the challenge. The second time Harold answered:

Quote:May the Lord today judge between William and I, and may He declare who of us is right.

In this way Harold rejected the challenge and William chose to attack. On Saturday 14th October William’s army evacuated Hastings and met Harold’s troops on high ground, Senlac Hills, ten kilometres from the town.

William's army comprised three types of warrior: Archers at the front, infantry in the middle dressed in coats of mail and armed with swords, spears and shields, and the cavalry to the rear, similarly equipped with coats of mail, swords, lances, spears and long shields decorated with dragons.

Harold's troops are said to have included professional warriors, the so-called housecarls, who carried a type of terrifying, long-handled battle axe known as “the Danish axe”, as well as swords, spears and clubs.

Harold was in a weak position. He had already lost a good many archers at the Battle of Stamford Bridge and the Bayeux Tapestry symbolically shows but a single English archer against the many of William's army.

After the archers had ceased fire, the infantry stepped forward and the battle commenced in earnest. After several hours of fighting, William brought his cavalry into action, and even though the English fought bravely, they could – being infantrymen – do nothing. Towards evening, after eight hours of fighting, the battle ended when Harold was killed and the surviving Englishmen took flight.

Conquering England

Duke William had won his first battle on English soil, but the battles were to continue. After the army had recuperated, battles began in order to conquer the rest of the country. The towns of Romney, Dover and Canterbury were quickly captured. Subsequently, William ravaged Sussex, Kent, Hampshire and Middlesex. He burnt down villages and killed the inhabitants. Before long he was known as Wilhelm the Conqueror.

When Christmas Day approached he travelled towards London in order to be crowned King of England in Westminster Abbey.

By: Louise Kæmpe Henriksen