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1066: A Year to Conquer England (Part 3)

Updated on July 19, 2017

William's Voyage

William had been waiting for the right winds all Summer and now, in early October, they were finally right. William had built a fleet of around 700 ships to cross the channel and they were all specially built to have flat bottoms to transport horses.

They set off around the 5th of October, during the voyage William lost sight of his fleet. This could have been a terrible omen however, with the Pope's support and the Papal banner he soon found the rest of his ships.

Upon landing on English shores, at Pevensey Bay, William stumbled and fell. Another potentially terrible omen. However William took 2 handfuls of the stones on the beach and, standing yelled "you see, I already hold England in my hands!"

William's men then set up a wooden fort near Hastings and set about burning and pillaging nearby towns in Harold's earldom to try to coax him into a battle.

You see? I already hold England in my hands!

— William of Normandy

Harold's actions

Harold, who was still in the north after defeating Hardrada, heard of William's arrival some days after his landing and rushed south again to London where he sought the council of his brother Gyrth. His brother urged him not to attack rashly and to allow him to attack first with a smaller force to weaken William before Harold attacked in full force and finished him off. Harold refused, reportedly stating something along the lines of "My people are dying, what sort of King cannot protect his own people?"

Upon approaching William's army to talk, William sent a messenger to challenge Harold in a 1 on 1 duel and prevent the need for mass bloodshed as God would decide the worthy ruler. Harold refused.

Harold began to move his armies towards William's position, attempting a similar feat to that of Stamford Bridge however Harold had forgotten one thing. William had cavalry and was using them for reconnaissance, making a surprise attack near impossible. Harold camped a few miles from William on the night of the 13th of October and allegedly the battle weary Saxons partied all night and drank themselves drunk whereas the Normans sat awake ready for battle out of fear for a night attack.

My people are dying!

— Harold Godwinson
A graphic of the tactics in play at Hastings
A graphic of the tactics in play at Hastings

Army composition

Normans

3 types of troops made the French army: archers, infantry and, most importantly, cavalry. The Saxons, who'd been fighting off the vikings for the last few centuries, hadn't really encountered European fighting cavalry before so this was a big advantage.

Anglo-Saxons

Harold's army consisted of only 2 types of troop: ranged fighters and infantry. Since they'd been fighting the Vikings consistently over the last few centuries they'd become very good with the Scandinavian shield wall tactics. The Normans, used to European style battles, hadn't had to face a shield wall before so this was the Saxon advantage.

The Battle Of Hastings- October 14th 1066

On the morning of October 14th 1066 Harold Godwinson marched his 10,000 strong army to the top of Senlac Hill while the Normans stood in the valley below. This move meant that the Normans had to attack uphill making it harder to attack effectively using cavalry and men.

Around 9 am the battle began, William ordered is archers to fire high onto the Saxons who were lined up in the shield wall formation to little effect. William and his brother Bishops Odo sent infantry up to engage the shield wall but still it held fast. It was said that the shield wall was packed so tightly the dead had no where to fall. Then William sent his cavalry up the hill, again rebuffed.

Wave after wave were sent up the hill to no avail. A rumour began to spread that William had died, but he hadn't, he rode along the front of his men and removed his helmet allegedly shouting "Do you recognize me?" and rallying his troops.


Do You recognize me?

— William of Normandy
And so Duke William of Normandy became William I of England (Otherwise known as William the Conqueror
And so Duke William of Normandy became William I of England (Otherwise known as William the Conqueror

He then continued to send more and more waves at the English until one flank of his men turned and fled. The Saxons, thinking the battle was won, broke their shield wall and charged from the high ground after them. There is debate over whether the feigned retreat was a deliberate Norman tactic or an accident but either way it had the same effect. William had successfully managed to break the English defence and now all he had to do was finish the remaining men.

William's cavalry were deployed to finish off any survivors and King Harold himself was killed, either by being shot in the eye or falling victim to William's death squad, both are depicted with equal possibility on the Bayeux Tapestry.

Of course, not all the English would submit to Norman rule but that is another article all together...

Was the Feigned retreat deliberate?

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