European History: Battle of Hastings

About the battle of Hastings in European history between the Normans led by William the Conqueror and the English led by Harold Godwinson in 1066.


When Edward the Confessor died in 1066, he left no direct heir to the throne of England. Many aspired to fill the vacancy but there were only 3 strong claimants: William of Normandy; King Harold Hardrada of Norway; and Harold Godwinson, the Earl of Wessex.

The English nobles chose Harold Godwinson, a proven general from the Welsh Wars. The 2 pretenders to the throne threatened invasion. Harold especially feared that William, the Bastard of Normandy, would dispute his rule with force, so he had the English Channel constantly patrolled by the English fleet while he prepared his army for William's invasion.

Suddenly the uneasy vigil on the Channel was interrupted by an invasion in the north of England. King Harold of Norway, at the head of his Viking warriors, routed the northern fyrdsmen and advanced on York in his attempt to win England.

Harold Godwinson was forced to relax his watch on the Channel and hurried north. By luck the English Army surprised the Vikings and in a hard battle defeated the forces of the mightiest warrior king of the north at the battle of Stamford Bridge. But just 4 days later Harold received the worst possible news--William had landed in the south.

Harold marched his weary, depleted army toward a confrontation with this new threat, intent upon repelling William immediately. As King of England, Harold was protector of the land, and it was reported that William's army was burning and pillaging.

The Norman invader fully intended to force a decisive battle with the English Army, since his small army of 7,000 men couldn't afford to wage a drawn-out guerrilla war. The strategy succeeded: Harold played into William's hands by immediately challenging the Normans.

Confident that his magnificent infantry, weakened though it was, could gain the upper hand, Harold attacked, deploying his men in the famed "shieldwall," his fierce housecarls in the center and the southern fyrdsmen on the wings. But William was prepared. He swiftly ordered his archers forward to thin the English ranks, but the archers failed to get close enough to penetrate the thick English shields. William then committed his Breton infantry and his cavalry but these were thrown back, unable to dent the shieldwall. Then, as the Norman Army retreated in disorder, some of the English fyrdsmen broke formation to chase the enemy. This was the opening that William's cavalry needed. Wheeling around, the Normans slaughtered the unsupported fyrdsmen and launched fresh assaults on the now-weakened shieldwall. The English hung on grimly until nightfall, repulsing the enemy repeatedly. But Harold fell, killed by an arrow through the eye, and William finally won the day.

The Bastard of Normandy had earned a new title: William the Conqueror. All of England was his, after the most decisive and far-reaching battle in English history.

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