Harold was marshalling his men as the Norman army and their allies, marched along the road from Hastings, into the valley that was slung between Telham and Caldbeck Hills. Singing their war songs, and shouting ‘Dex Aie!’ – God aid us – and ‘Normandy!’
Watching them whilst on the ridge facing them, Harold’s mob start banging their weapons against their shields and shouting for ‘Godwinson!’ and ‘Oli crosse!’ or ‘Gotte mite!’ essentially meaning, God is on our side! And of course, the famous ‘Ut! Ut! Ut!’ Imagine the noise these thousands of men would have made, a cacophony of languages and chants. It would not have been unlike a football match here in the modern world, except the chanters were the players and not the observers in this game of death.
The ridge was reportedly 800 yards long, the flanks of which were protected by sharp declines and it cut right across the road back to Hastings. At its highest point it rose to about 150ft, and 60ft above the lowest point of the marshy valley. Behind the shieldwall, lay the road back to London and Lewes, on the top of the hill, there was open heathland big enough to camp on overnight. Nearby was the edge of the forest, where after the battle, survivors would run, or crawl, when they realised they had lost the battle. For now, though, they were not thinking of dying, or losing, well, maybe some were, but the confident among them wanted to get stuck into the enemy, thinking only of driving them back into the sea to whence they came. They were fighting for their freedom, the right to govern themselves as their customs dictated over years of building their country from the days when the first Germanic tribes climbed over the strakes of their longships and stepped onto Britannia’s soil.
The Normans, on the other hand, were fighting for what they believed in too, except their beliefs were governed by the desire of their leader, who had promised them that he had God on their side, that he, William of Normandy, was the true King of England. He’d also promised them land, riches and status, to encourage them to come with him. They were fighting for their new lives, land where they had none back in France, and greater prospects. And they were doing this at the expense of their English counterparts.
You can imagine the speeches that each war leader gave their troops, though it must have been difficult to relay a speech to that amount of men without the technology of today, still, no doubt there were speeches and the differences within them would have been to do with the above.
Harold’s men must have been 8-10 men deep and a thousand men across. By these times, the 11th century, that would have been a large army. And there would still be more men Harold could call on, if only he could contain William, at the very least, if not, destroy him completely. His plan must have been to maintain the shieldwall on the ridge until new troops arrived, and all his troops should have known what the plan was. Guy of Amiens, in his Roman de Rou, informs us that many of Harold’s troops deserted him because of the excommunication. Florence of Worcester confirms this but gives a different reason, they left because there was no room on the ridge, the battlefield was full. Howarth (1977) believes that those who went away were local peasants who had turned up to support their masters, perhaps. It seems unlikely that professional warriors would have left their comrades to it, even if there was no more room on the ridge, they would have stayed in reserve, and filled in the gaps when men were wounded or injured.
William had marched at dawn. For an army of that size to get itself up and going, it must have taken a lot longer than initially thought. When the head of William’s army came over the slope of Telham Hill, the rear was only getting started 6 miles away. William halted in sight of the English army who were already lining up on the ridge. Kinights stopped to put on their mail hauberks. William, put his mail on back to front! Just the sort of thing I do on a daily basis with my clothes – not mail – I might add. But once again, he laughs at the bad omen and his men help him to sort himself out.
William deploys his army to the left and right as the English watch on. There is about 200 yards between them. Battle lines draw up and it begins.
Gravett C (2000) Hastings 1066 The Fall of Saxon England Osprey Publishing Ltd, Oxford.
Howarth D (1977) 1066 The Year of the Conquest Viking Press, New York.