The battle of Hastings

william-the-cOn October 14th, 949 years ago, Duke William of Normandy accompanied by a Norman-French army met the Anglo-Saxon king Harold Godwinson just outside Hastings and on that Saturday morning the battle commenced.

Duke William, also known as William the Bastard, had landed at Penvensey on September 28th with a force that contemporary sources claims consisted of over 700 ships, a number which is most likely exaggerated. The invasion was a result of the succession crisis that had been raging in England since the passing of Edward the Confessor in January that same year. The accession to the throne by Harold Godwinson, Earl of Wessex and the richest and most powerful man in England, had been contested by Duke William – who claimed king Edward himself had promised him the throne – and the Norwegian king Harald III who claimed that there had existed an agreement between his predecessor Magnus and the earlier English king Harthacanute that if either one died without an heir the other would inherit both England and Norway.

As far as Harald – also known as Harald Hardrada – was concerned, England belonged to him. This prompted Harald as well to launch an invasion force which reached the north of England, where they were strengthened by the forces of Tostig Godwinson, exiled brother of Harold and supporter of the Norwegian bid for the throne.

They met Harold at the battle of Stamford Bridge in East Riding of Yorkshire in a battle that often is considered to mark the shift from the Viking age to the early Middle Ages. Like most battles, it was bloody and horrific, and left most of the Norwegian army wiped out. This however also meant that when Harold´s army met that of William at Hastings, they were already quite worn down.

The contemporary sources is contradictory, and the only thing that is known as a fact is that the battle started at 9 am on a Saturday morning and lasted until dusk 11 kilometres north of Hastings, at the location of the modern day town of Battle, but already in the Domesday Book 21 years later, in 1087, it was referred to as the Battle of Hastings.

As we all know, the victory of the day was Norman. The outcome has a lot to do with not least the fact that Harold´s army had only days before fought off the Norwegian invaders, along with the fact that Duke William was a more experienced military commander.

Tapisserie de Bayeux - Scène 51 (partielle) : la bataille d'Hastings, chevaliers et archers normands.

Tapisserie de Bayeux – Scène 51 (partielle) : la bataille d’Hastings, chevaliers et archers normands.

The Norman dead was buried in graves, while the English soldiers was left lying where they fell, with no one really knowing what happened to the remains of Harold Godwinson. One account states that William himself threw the body of the former king in the sea, while there also started to circulate legends that Harold did not in fact die at all, but withdrew the Chester to live out the remainder of his days as a hermit.

Duke William, from this day known as William the Conqueror rather than William the Bastard, had of course expected the surviving English soldiers, and in time the rest of the country, to acknowledge him as the new king. It didn´t quite work out that way, and instead Edgar the Ætheling was proclaimed king.

After a number of clashes between Norman and Anglo-Saxon forces during the fall, William was finally crowned king of England at Westminster Abbey on December 25th 1066.

Sources:

William the Conqueror – David Douglas

Death of Anglo-Saxon England – Nick Higham

The Norman Conquest – Hugh Thomas

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