In the previous post, the battle had reached a turning point, one that had finally made a dent in the English Shield Wall. We saw previously, how the Normans had been fighting hard to crack the hard nut that was the English defence. No matter how hard the infantry and cavalry fought, they just couldn’t break in. Even the Norman archers had not made much of an impact. The terrain was not conducive for archers to shoot up hill on such an incline, many of their arrows fell short or went over their enemy’s heads. And it depended on which way the wind was blowing, too, for the wind in their faces would have hampered their shots. The archers were lightly armoured, and most likely would not have wanted to come too close to the fierce, snarling men of the shield wall with their huge Dane axes that could cleave a man in two, and the missiles that were thrown at them could have killed them easily.
William shows his men that he is still alive
But around noon or perhaps slightly later, William got his first break. Frustrated that things were not going as well as he’d hoped and then witnessing his mounted Bretons running away and deserting him, he suddenly gathered his thoughts and the opportunity presented itself as the English broke their right flank and ran down the hill after the fleeing Breton knights. The thing that may have spooked the Bretons was the rumour that William had died, or they may have been losing their morale after taking a hammering from the English, it may have been a bit of both, but if a rumour had reached them that William was dead, then that would have finished the battle. It was customary in medieval battles that if the king, or the leading commander died, the game was up for whichever side it impacted on negatively.
William careered around the battlefield, showing his men that he was alive and kicking. He’d been unhorsed at least three times, but each time, he’d acquired a new one from some poor horseman, who was left to fight on foot with no means of a quick escape. He rallied the men, and led them to circle the right flank that had run after the fleeing Bretons, and slaughtered them, letting only a few escape to make a brave stand on a hillock. But they too were soon slaughtered and William had managed to foil a rout, though his mounted troops were not without losses themselves as they slipped down the marshy slope on the left flank of the hillock to their deaths.
When this particular phase was over, there would have been a need for both sides to regroup, take a few minutes to rest and take some water, some food. It would have been time for William to work out his next plan, and to send orders round to the various commanders of his armies, to give some more rousing speeches to encourage the morale of his men. As for Harold, I’m sure he would be keen to send orders around the lines not to leave the ridge. Losing a large amount of men doesn’t seem to have made too much of a dent in his wall, but he would have wanted to ensure that more men left the ridge again. The gap in the shieldwall was no doubt replenished with reserves, tightening up the lines once more. William may have had a bit of a break, but not the kind he needed to do real damage to the wall of spears.
Looking at both leader’s state of mind at this stage, William would be frustrated, anxious…worried that he had so far failed to break the shieldwall in around 3-4 hours of hard fighting. He had to make his troops work harder, had to make them realise that if they didn’t win today, they would all die far from home, and without the comfort of their loved ones. One can imagine that these thoughts would have had much to do with his rousing half-time speech to his men, and the fact that he would reward them with land in his new kingdom should they help him win what was rightfully his. Harold would be bereft at the loss of his brothers, if they had died before the hillock scene as the BT says. He would be shouldering this terrible loss, and the excommunication, too, would also be affecting him, along with the sight of William’s Papal banner flying above his head, although he might have been buoyed by how little success William was having despite it. But Harold could not afford to lose men like this again, and would be ensuring that everyone knew that they needed to hold the ridge. And so having rested, refreshed themselves and roused their men, the two commanders regrouped and were now ready to start the process of battle again
Image by Eugene Ipavec, 21 May 2006
And so the fighting continued on in the same vein. Both the Carmen written by the Bishop of Amiens, and the Gesta Guillelmi by Poitiers, mention the fighting was hard and that William was in the thick of it and plays the major part. At one time when he loses his horse, he demands that a French knight give him his horse, but the fearful man refuses and an enraged William grabs him by the nose-piece of his helm and drags him from his horse to the ground. Thus William was once more mounted. This incident is a testimony to William’s strength of character. No one refuses him anything and gets away with it! Mind you, that horse was also killed, and if I were a horse, I would not want to be William’s. He seemed to have a habit of getting them killed, for this horse’s fate also followed his previous. Count Eustace of Boulogne, perhaps hoping for the largest slice of the pie, ingratiated himself with the duke by rushing to give him his horse. Not wanting to be without one himself, the count took his next horse from one of his own men. According to Howarth (1977), the two men from then on joined forces and according to one source, ‘cleared the field of the English.’
Poitiers claimed that none other excelled in such bravery or battle skills as did his hero, William, Duke of Normandy, and ‘At the mere sight of this wonderful and redoubtable knight, many enemies lost heart before they received a mere scratch.’ And Poitiers goes on to sing the praises of his lord, Duke William, telling us that he lost his horse from under him three times, and three times he leapt to his feet and avenged his steed. He pierced helms, shields and armour with his sharp sword, and as Howarth (1997) says, God was on his side, therefore adding to his courage and fortitude, making him a formidable warrior.
But William’s victory would only come if he killed King Harold.
There is a story depicted on the BT, (Bayeux Tapestry) as above where Bishop Odo, seeing that some young cavalry men have had enough and are trying to leave the field, armed with a club, confronts them. I wonder which was the most formidable choice, to continue to face the English and their deadly axes, or take their chances with Odo and his club? This seems to have been Odo’s role throughout the day, marshaling and rallying, and ensuring that the men were more afraid of leaving the field than staying on it.
Harold had been safe all day behind the battle lines, guarded by his chosen, hand-picked huscarles. These elite warriors were the closest of his companions, and like the others of his guard that fought amongst the front lines, had sworn to guard Harold with their lives. Whilst the shieldwall remained stable, he was not in a vulnerable position. All he had to do was maintain his situ until sundown when a Norman retreat could be harassed all the way back to Hastings, and with the blockade of English ships obstructing the Normans from fleeing by sea, William and his army would have no choice but to surrender or be cut down (Mason 2004).
Poitiers claims that the Norman army kept up with their relentless assault against the shieldwall well into the afternoon, but they made no ground and incurred many losses of their own. The English were also taking losses, but the enemy did little damage to the structure of their defence. William of Poitiers claims that Duke William ordered a series of feigned retreats, to draw out the English from their lines, similar to what happened earlier that day when the English followed the fleeing Breton horsemen and were cut down by William’s rallying. Apparently this did succeed in bringing some less disciplined men out of the wall (Walker 1997), however it is a wonder just how successful they were in creating multiple repeats of the ruse, considering the slaughter that had met those who had partaken in the chase previously. If I was in that shieldwall, you would be hard pressed to get me down that hill if I had witnessed what had happened to the first lot that did it. But, as according to Poitiers, the ‘feigned retreats’ he speaks of were successful but it still seems largely impossible that many English would take that risk again and again, as Poitiers implies.
The writer could have confused the ‘series’ of feigned retreats with the usual practice of cavalry regrouping and starting the assault again. Horses don’t like to charge into a wall of anything let alone a shieldwall of braying men waving weapons and jeering at them, so the Normans would ride up, attack with missiles or jab their spears and lances at the English, then turn and ride away when they were done. This might well have brought out a few of the English from their lines, reserves perhaps, who had turned up later in the day and joined the front ranks, without the knowledge of Harold’s orders or what had happened earlier. Naturally they would be killed by the Norman cavalry who took advantage of their isolation. Disciplined cavalrymen such as William’s would easily swoop round and trap these men and annihilate them. Could it be that upon seeing how some of the English were willing to be drawn out of their protective wall, William thought to use a cavalry feint, which, because they were tired and eager to get the thing done after a long, hard day, might bring a large amount of English out from the protection of their lines, because at some point, the English wall began to crumble.
I can visualise such a thing happening toward the end of the battle when exhausted men, wanting a resolution to the day, ignoring Harold’s orders, took the chance to follow the cavalry as they retreated down the hill, believing that the invaders, like them, had had enough. Some of the commanders may have chosen to disobey Harold, hoping that if a substantial amount of men ran down the hill to take the battle to the Normans, then Harold would give the signal to follow.
Whatever happened, and we will never know because accounts are often confused and conflicting, the English wall at some point began losing bricks and was now suffering terrible losses. Keeping the lines stretched out all the way across the ridge so that the flanks were not exposed, must have become more difficult. Twilight was approaching and despite the shrinking of the shieldwall, and William’s continued assaults on the English, the duke had still not made any significant break through. With darkness threatening to fall, William knew that the next wave of infantry challenge, cavalry charges, and hails of arrows would have to be their final, otherwise their desired victory would be eclipsed by the setting of the sun. William summonsed all his strength to give heart to his army. He ordered the archers to follow the cavalry as close as they could and to release their bolts right over the heads of the advancing knights and foot soldiers in front of them so that they fired more-or-less straight up, high into the air so that the arrows fell on the heads of the English in their lines. Medieval archers are known for the ability to fire rounds of ten arrows in a manner of minutes. The result of this barrage was that there were now some breaches being made in the wall. And the invaders were fighting as if their lives depended on it, for they did.
According to Rex (2011), in order to keep the wall intact, Harold and his headquarters moved into the front lines. With the shieldwall thinning, the king and his men would now need to fill in some gaps. It is here that, maybe, depending on which version one believes, Harold’s brother Gyrth might have died. Both Leofwin and Gyrth’s bodies are said to have been found near to where Harold’s was found. It should be considered that in order for this to happen, if they had died as per the BT earlier on in the battle, (see previous post for the death of Harold’s brothers) then Harold must have moved his men forward down the lines. On the other hand, other sources put their deaths around the same time as Harold is killed. With the Bayeux Tapestry illustrating the deaths of Harold’s brothers before the scene on the hillock, it is difficult to know which would be correct, but as I quoted in my last post, Guy de Amiens, in his Carmen de Hastingae Proelio, suggests that William had mistaken Gyrth for Harold, killing him in a rage. One can align this with the death scene at the end of the battle, where William and his men are looking for Harold, so they can kill him. Perhaps Gyrth had not died earlier, and he was defending his brother at the time, saw William and his fellow knights come hunting for Harold and threw his weapon at William which killed his horse. William is said to have jumped straight up from his fallen horse and gone for Gyrth shouting “Take the crown you have earned from us!” If William was searching for Harold, knowing him to be nearby, it was an easy mistake. In any case, it is said that William ‘hacked him limb from limb’. A little over dramatic perhaps, but in the end, Gyrth wound up dead, his dismembered body carrion for the wolves and ravens. As I said before, if Gyrth’s aim had been more direct, he might have saved the battle for the English if he had killed William instead of his horse.
What seems to have happened as according to the sources, and having pieced them together, William spots Harold on the top of the hill, with his two handed axe, fiercely cutting down those who were attacking him. Filled with bloodlust, the duke gallops off with three of his men, Eustace of Boulogne, Hugh of Ponthieu and a knight called Giffard, to kill Harold, and are soon followed by others. A breach in the shieldwall allowed them to ride straight for the king, (perhaps it is here that William encounters Gyrth). Guy de Amiens describes the last few moments of Harold’s life: The first of the four (thought to be William) pierces Harold’s shield and mail with a lance, right through to his chest. Blood gushes forth, saturating the ground. The second assailant cuts off his head with his sword. The third liquefies his entrails, and the fourth cuts off the king’s ‘thigh’ and carries it some distance away. This was thought to be Giffard, and Guy was being euphemistic with the word ‘thigh’. What in fact is inferred is that Giffard cut off Harold’s genitals, an act that William thought heinous and later expels the knight from his service in disgust. Mason (2004), quoting an inference from a later writer of the battle, Benoit, states that the group of followers who charged up the hill also had a hand in the disfigurements made to Harold’s body. They each took a turn in thrusting a weapon into the dead king’s corpse and it is said that he had wounds in more than 13 places, and there is a particular report that Harold’s head had two sword wounds thrust into it as far as his ears. Most likely his head had been removed when these were inflicted. So several men could claim to have had a hand in the bringing down of the valiant English king.
This last struggle occurred, as shown in the BT, around the Wessex Dragon banner and Harold’s own banner, the golden fighting man, which had been wrested from the standard bearer as he was mercilessly cut down. Initially, the original warrior drops the banner as he falls to the ground but it is snatched up by another warrior, soon to lose his life also. A man is seen trying to defend Harold as the Norman riders gallop forward. The figure of the tall, majestic man under the legend ‘HAROLD’ with an arrow supposedly protruding in his eye, is not thought by some historians to be Harold. It is the man who is being cut down by the mounted rider who is widely accepted now as Harold. The man with the arrow in the eye is another story, which we will discuss later at some other time. I do not believe that Harold was injured in this way and that there is another story to this figure, as the story of the arrow in the eye seems not to have been mentioned by the earlier recorders of the battle. This man certainly looks like Harold, with his elaborate mustache and the way he holds himself. He clasps a javelin behind his shield and seems to be pulling an arrow out of his eye. Studies have been done on the cloth and it has been noted that the stitching was redone at sometime and it seems possible that it might not have been an arrow at all but a javelin which the man was about to throw. If this were Harold, the artist may have wanted to show him in action just before he was hunted down and killed. The legend says: HAROLD REX INTERFECTVS EST, Here Harold Is Killed. He is fighting for his life, and here he is being killed. There is the problem of the axe, which the first Harold does not appear to have, but we have to remember this is a representation of what happened not an actual real life sketch.
What happens when a leader dies in battle? As soon as the survivors get wind of it, they are likely to run, disappear off the field of death. Word would have got around quickly that the English king was dead. His loyal huscarles had fought to their own deaths around him in a desperate struggle to keep him alive. At what point, it behoves me to wonder, would they have realised they were actually going to die with their king? Was it when they swung that first blow at the mounted men, or was it not until they heard their beloved lord scream his last breath? The fact that they knew their moments were numbered must have been traumatising. They had almost reached the safety of darkness and if they had just held out that bit longer, their king would have lived to fight another day. They would have had William in their clutches and Harold would still have sat on the throne of England.
And the youths who ran from the field with horror in their eyes and terrible sadness in their hearts, knew that it was over; the king was dead. England had lost. In that final hour the darkness descended upon them in more than one way, and death chased them, their blood, like that of their fellows, spilling into the grass and leaving a lake of scarlet upon the green meadows. So on Senlac Ridge and Caldbeck Hill, on the eve of October 14th, 1066, lay dead, the flower of English youth.
Guy de Amiens Carmen de Hastingae Proelio
The Bayeux Tapestry –unknown
William of Malmesbury Gesta Regum Anglorum
William Poitiers Gesta Guillelmi
Benoit de Sainte Maure Chronique des ducs de Normandie
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.
Rex P. (2011) 1066 A New History of the Norman Conquest Amberley Publishing, Gloucs.