As William rode out at the head of his army, round his neck, William was wearing the holy relics upon which Harold had made his oath to him, hoping to evoke divine influence so that he should win that day in October, the fourteenth day of the month. This was another factor that would convince the Norman duke in the aftermath of his victory, that his defeat of King Harold had been God’s will. William’s close win, proved that his was the just cause, and Harold had incurred the wrath of God for his wrong doings and sins. Later, Norman sources would go on to vilify and defame Harold’s character, though it seemed not to convince people that his vanquished opponent was as bad as they made him out to be.
Harold didn’t really have much going for him that day in October in terms of divine support, no papal banner, no righteous bishop to speak for him. Harold was a devout man, having provided churches with money and gifts, he’d built his own church in Waltham. But William seemed to be winning in the holier than thou stakes. William had had an unfair head start, having gone to Rome to speak his cause before the pope, whereas Harold had not had the time to make his plea, and so he was excommunicated, word of which he received on the day of the battle. And in such times, warriors needed the gods or God on their side. An excommunication would have deadened Harold’s morale and that of those around him. One can imagine that Harold would not want the morale of his men affected, and so most likely the excommunication was kept quiet as much as possible.
One of the things that pro Norman sources have countered about the English and their ungodly behaviour, was that instead of spending the battle eve in prayer and quiet contemplation as the invaders had done, the English were singing and drinking and making merry. And so, the English had another nail in their coffin, for not only were they not pious and reliant upon God, the Heavenly Father, they were disrespectful drunkards and deserved not to win. Whether or not this is true, it may have been, I’m sure that Harold and those who had been up to York and back again, were far too tired to be up all night drinking, as reported by William of Malmesbury. However, we must not forget that many of Harold’s men survived well into the afternoon the next day, indicating against the probability that the English were too hungover to fight (Mason 2004).
And so it was Taillefer, mentioned in my last post, who struck the first blow and then was killed himself, as Guy de Amiens, author of the Carmen tells us. William deployed his archers as men were collecting the corpse of the brave (or stupid) Taillefer. It seems that William wanted to use the usual formula for medieval warfare, archers first, then infantry, then cavalry. The archers’ job was to make holes in the enemy, weaken them, to make it easier for the infantry. But the archers did not seem to make much of a dent in the shieldwall, the arrows fell short, or went over the English warrior’s heads or simply struck their shields. Archers were lightly clad without heavy armour to enable them to move about quickly.
The battle was said to have onset begun with trumpets on both sides, as stated in the Carmen and the English were shouting “Oli crosse! Oli crosse!” the chant of Harold’s followers and reference to the piece of the true Holy Rood itself which was said to have been given to Harold’s church at Waltham by his predecessor. This was important to Harold, for it was said that when he had been ill, near to death, many years before as a young man, his mother had prayed for his life before the relic and he had survived.
The archers were still shooting when the infantry came up the hill to attack the shieldwall. They were met with a barrage of missiles and spears that jutted out of the tight wall of shields to rip out the infantry men’s guts. If the invaders had thought that the English were going to be a soft target, they were sadly mistaken. The Carmen tells us that William gives a rousing pre battle speech in which he tells his men that they should not fear the English, as they are like girls, with their long, combed and anointed hair, more reluctant warriors than hard fighters, ready to tear the enemy apart.* They soon learn that this is seriously not the case and are shaken by the ferocity of the English defence.
The shieldwall was still very much intact, with the English banging their weapons and shouting “Ut!Ut” and “Godemite” (God almighty) and “Oli crosse!” at them, as Wace reports in Roman de Rou. It must have been a fearsome experience to face a sheer wall of warriors, roaring their battle cries at them and throwing their projectiles at them. These would have been mostly javelins, and other missiles, possibly stones in slings, even small axes, knives, anything that could have been thrown, for it is not thought that there were many archers on the English team at Hastings. Only one archer represents the bow on the Bayeux Tapestry, telling us that there were not as many as the Normans had. It has been mentioned that these may have been men who were not mounted and had to walk. They had not yet arrived. The Normans appeared to be phased by this onslaught but they stoically carried on to the cries of “Normandy!” and “Dex eis! Dex eis!”. They eventually clash with the English in a fierce fight, trying to break the wall by pushing against it, smashing the tightly overlapped shields with their hand axes and spears.
After the brutal struggle had gone on for a long time, with the infantry and the archers having failed to dent the shieldwall, William sent in the cavalry, the best troops he had, on their very expensive steeds. The idea was that the arrows and the infantry attacks should damage the shieldwall and leave gaps for the cavalry to ride through. By the time the Norman Cavalry got to the wall, the impetus of their charge had been severely hampered by the terrain, and so it had little impact on the wall. The tight overlapping shieldwall broke open only to allow the huscarles with their great Dane axes out into the fight in front of the wall, possibly accompanied by armed shield-bearers, to protect them. A Dane axe is better used double-handed, but it left the axemen undefended and vulnerable, so they would need the protection of their fellow warriors. Many horses and their riders were injured by these great weapons that could, according to some sources, cleave a horse’s head and its rider in half. Tests have proven this unlikely (Davies 2016), though a Dane axe could easily take off a man’s head, and perhaps a horse’s head from the top of its neck, but not in one slice.
The knights ride up to the English and attempt to break through the wall with their lances and then ride away again. Horses never ride into a wall of men, they balk at this, and the trick was for William and his cavalry to approach the enemy, throw their javelins, or spear the men at the wall with their lances and then ride away to repeat the same maneuver. They continue this until an incision is made in the wall, allowing them a way in. As they ride away, the archers and foot soldiers again come up the hill, throwing missiles and shooting arrows again at the wall. And so this brutality went on and on for hours…
The Bretons, to the left of the vanguard, were getting hit hard, along with the other auxiliaries. Since the beginning of the battle, they had been taking casualties and the death toll was rising. Their morale was diminishing. After getting hammered for some time, they were spooked. Both the cavalry and foot-soldiers turned to run down the hill, away from the carnage. William was now dangerously exposed on his left flank. The retreat of the Bretons unnerved William’s centre and even the right flank were confused, especially as William’s men started to pull back. Then, apparently, it seemed that a rumour spread through the invaders that William had been killed, having been unhorsed at some point before the Breton’s retreat.
Bishop Odo, William’s half brother, was positioned with Bishop Geoffrey of Coutances, on the lower slopes of Telham Hill, watching the battle. With them were the priests and servants, perhaps the squires, boys, who were not expected to fight. It seems that Bishop Odo did not actually fight in the battle, but helped to marshal and rally the men in times of trouble. Odo saw what was happening with the Breton cavalry. He rode out to stop them from riding away and directed them back to the field, telling them that their leader, William, needed them and was, indeed, still alive and once again mounted. William sees the chaos that is happening and he lifts his helmet to show everyone that he is still alive and rides before those fleeing, shouting at them that he will personally cut anyone down if they leave the field. William was desperate to keep his men in the field. He could not lose a man, for if he lost this battle, there would be nowhere to run, assuming he would be alive to run. It was fight or die!
In the meantime, the English on the left flank have seen the Breton’s escaping and decide to run down the hill after them. There is some debate about whether or not this was an act by the undisciplined members of the army who took it upon themselves to chase the enemy as they ran away, or it was a coordinated decision made by commanders on the right flank of the English. The command certainly didn’t come from Harold, otherwise the whole army would have run down, and the immediate response by the English who ran down the hill, meant that there would have been no time for Harold to have given the order. And certainly, in that chaos, its possible that not all the men along the ridge saw what had happened with those that ran down the hill to their eventual deaths. Some have said that Harold should have taken that chance too, to run down the hill with the whole army and slaughter the Normans amongst the chaos, but horses can outrun men and there could have been a wholesale slaughter of the English. The Normans on their horses, once they got it together, could have encircled them as they came toward them. It is also unlikely that Harold would have wanted to risk losing his position on the ridge. He wanted to contain the enemy until they broke, and to do that, he needed to stay on the ridge.
The feeling is that these men who ran down the hill after the Bretons, were the fyrd members who turned up late, lightly armoured men with no mail, just shields and spears. They might have missed the order to hold the ridge and not leave it due to their lateness. And when they ran down the hill, it might have encouraged others, who thought, in the confusion, that the order had been given to follow. What happened to these men is nothing short of tragic. Their bravado got themselves killed, like someone who follows another across a busy road without looking. Just because the person they are following has crossed, doesn’t mean it’s safe, because William, seeing what was happening, drove his cavalry to encircle them as they fought against his foot-soldiers. He cut them off from their lines and they were mowed down, though some escaped and managed to take up a forlorn, but brave defence on a hillock, but the horses closed in and wiped them out. The Bayeux Tapestry shows these fyrdsmen wearing no armour and carrying just shield and weapons, so they were easy to kill, but as they stood courageously against the Norman cavalry, some of the horses tumbled down the steep marshy slope at the edge of the hillock to their deaths, taking their riders with them.
Coming in the scenes immediately before the death of the men on the hillock, are the deaths of Gyrth and Leofwine. If The BT (Bayeux Tapestry) is correct, Harold’s younger brothers were leading the men in the front lines, perhaps their own huscarles, either side on each flank. Guy de Amiens claims that Gyrth threw a javelin at the duke as he came at his line in the shieldwall. He killed the duke’s horse from under him, (this could have been where the idea the duke had been killed came from) and on foot, William ‘rushed upon the young man, snarling like a lion and hewed him limb from limb, shouting “Take the crown you have earned from us!”‘ suggesting that William had mistaken Gyrth for Harold. In any case, if we are to believe this story, Gyrth, who must have came very close to killing William, was after all killed by the duke. It was a moment that could have ended the battle and won it for the English.
In the next part, we take a look at the rest of the battle. Stay tuned.
*Poitiers would later corroborate this when he says that the English nobles, including the elite warriors, took great pride in their hair, which they groomed fastidiously. He also states that after the battle, the Normans believed that the perfectly groomed appearances of the high-status English, made the men look as beautiful as young women.
Guy de Amiens Carmen de Hastingae Proelio
The Bayeux Tapestry –unknown
William of Malmesbury Gesta Regum Anglorum
William Poitiers Gesta Guillelmi
Davies S (2016) – The Dane Axe, anecdotally.
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.