So in the last part of this post, the battle lines have been drawn. Harold’s army has been marshalled along the top of the ridge at the edge of Caldbeck Hill and are watching William’s army of chevaliers, archers, crossbowmen and infantry as the Norman leader arrays them at the bottom of the steep slope, more than 200 yards from the English who are shouting “Ut! Ut! Ut!” as they bang their shields. Amongst William’s army, to the left of the field, are the Bretons, the largest of his mercenary contingents along with the men from Anjou, Poitou, and Maine. They were under the command of the Breton commander, Alan Fergant. William took up the centre with his Norman troops and on the right flank, were the smaller contingents from France and Flanders, Picardy and Bolougne, under the leaderships of William’s seneschal, his great friend, William FitzOsbern, assisted by Eustace of Boulogne, who had caused so much trouble over the Dover incident with the Godwinsons in 1051. This incident had set the ball rolling for William, for if Eustace had not escalated the rift that was growing between Earl Godwin and King Edward, it would not have paved the way for William.
Harold’s men would have been made up of his own huscarles and those of his brother, Gyrth, and also thegns and land holders commended to him from East Anglia, where Gyrth was earl. The same with Harold’s other brother, Leofwine, who presided over Middlesex Kent, Essex, Hertford, Surrey and probably Buckinghamshire. And of course the men of Sussex. On the march back down from York to London, Harold would have needed to recruit men for the fourth army he’d had to call out this year and with the northerners still recovering from the battles in the north, he would have sent messengers on fast horses to call out the fyrds from East Anglia across to Hampshire.Many of these troops would have met him in London, but no doubt, there were those who went straight to the Hoary Apple Tree in Sussex. Harold had marched with those who’d joined with him in London to the proposed meeting place whilst his huscarles were rounding up the men of the southwest to come join them, shires like Dorset, Wiltshire and Gloucestershire, and perhaps Devon and Somerset too. According to Walker (2004) men were arriving throughout the day and augmenting Harold’s army. Many of these were the local militias throughout the shires, 1 man in every 5 hides, who trained for 2 months a year. They would have been equipped with at least a shield and spear, perhaps more, if their 5 hides could afford it, or they had a generous lord. These chaps would not have had to fight in the front lines, for they would have been killed very quickly, being so poorly armoured. It would have been their job to support the professional warriors from the back of the lines.
It has been a popular idea that much of the English army were peasant farmers with pitchforks and slings. I don’t buy it. How on earth would an army made up mostly of yokels have lasted in such a battle all day? Working on a farm can give you muscles, sure, but muscles don’t offer skill or protection alone. The men in the front lines had to be professional, or at least semi professional like the landholding thegns, or the enemy would have broken the lines as if they were a pack of cards. The peasantry would have been better utilised in bringing in the harvest, and maintaining the fields and making sure there was enough food for the winter. Their inexperience would have got them killed, so then, who would be there to work on the land if they were gone? Well, yes, the women, I hear you say. But much of the husbandry would have needed the strength of men, not women. The only peasants that may have turned up, might have been the local Sussex farmers, who turned up to support their lords. This was their land, and perhaps they had been personally affected by the raiding Normans. These may be the men, who, when they arrived, saw that there was enough men on that ridge already, men who were armoured and had fighting experience, so they went away, as is reported in Roman de Rou, and in Florence’s Chronicle of Worcester.
Both leaders had a good reason to want to engage as soon as possible. William must have known that not all of Harold’s army had arrived yet. England’s martial system allowed Harold to draw on around 25,000 men in a national crisis. It is thought that at the opening of battle, Harold had around 7-8,000 men and we know that more were arriving. William was cornered on the Hastings peninsula with little way of retreat, and with rumours of Harold having assembled a fleet to destroy the Normans ships, it was fight or die. But if they could get a foot hold in, say Kent, Harold would be heading for disaster. So, William needed to get this early victory; destroy Harold and the morale of the English would be destroyed also. Harold, on the other hand, needed to contain William, to keep him locked into that corner of Sussex until the rest of his army arrived and that was why he took up the defensive stance on the ridge. His army was blocking the road to London and if William retreated, they would be able to follow him and wrap him up in no time. There was also more at stake for Harold: Sussex was also where most of Harold’s ancestral home was, the hoary tree was within the boundaries of Harold’s estate of Whatlington and William had been harrying his people. The king must have felt aggrieved at this and concerned for his lands, and his people. He was their hlaford, their loaf-giver, their lord. He owed them his protection.
The battle was thought to have begun around 9am, however this may have been later, according to Howarth (1977), who states that by the time William had organised all his men, and set out to march at 6.30 am, it would have been considerably later than 9am. This seems possible, but all the sources seem to imply that the battle begun in the third church hour, so 9am. By now, Harold and William would have made the usual obligatory speeches to their men, exhorting their men to fight for their respective just causes. The English would have been told that their homes, their way of life and their families were at risk. If they didn’t beat the invaders, they would lose everything. William’s men would be fighting for the spoils and riches they had been promised, and for their leader’s worthy and rightful cause, and their lives. If their did not beat Harold in the field this day, they would be doomed to die on English soil.
It was time for the battle to begin. Three writers wrote about a minstrel of William’s called Taillefer who begged his lord to be able to strike the first blow. When given permission he charged out of the ranks, singing the La Chanson de Roland and tossing, twirling and catching his sword. He was reputed to have killed three Englishmen who charged out to meet him before he was cut down and killed, himself. This seems like an embellishment added by the Normans, however, it is the Carmen de Hastingae Proelio by Guy de Amiens, that we must credit with this story first, and it is then mentioned again later by other writers. We might be able to put Taillefer’s insane bravado down to his battle excitement, but surely no sane artist wanting fame and prestige, would perform such a suicidal final act, bearing in mind that minstrels were known to be a little crazy. Perhaps it didn’t quite happen the way the Carmen tells us, for one writer puts this scene in the middle of battle. But whatever happened, if it happened at all, its a nice opener to the story of the battle.
In the next part of this post, the battle begins… join me as we examine the key battle stages as we find ourselves in the midst of the fighting.
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.
Mason E (2004) The House of Godwine The History of a Dynasty Hambledon & London, London and New York.