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The Norman Conquest-- A Blow-by-blow look at one of History's Great Battles

Updated on August 6, 2010



It begins with the death of English monarch Edward the Confessor, who did not designate a specific heir to his throne before he passed away. The title is passed to Harold. However, William of Normandy claims that Edward had privately promised the throne to him. He further maintains that Harold had previously agreed to relinquish any rights to the crown and support William’s claim. Harold doesn’t acknowledge any of this, which enrages William, who has no real proof. When Harold refuses to step aside, the furious William returns to Normandy and begins preparing an invasion fleet. He even secures a papal decree supporting his right to the throne. He sails off across the English Channel, intending to take what’s his.

Meanwhile, Harold has another threat to deal with. His brother Tostig is also after the crown and thus allies himself with Viking warrior Harold Harota of Norway. Harota lands in England and teams with Tostig to sack the city of York. Emboldened by this success, they march further on, but Harold will not yield to his brother or to the Vikings. He meets their forces and soundly defeats them at the battle of StamfordBridge. This is the beginning of the end for the Vikings, but it is also a pyrrhic victory for King Harold.

No sooner has the dust settled then does a messenger arrive to tell the English troops that Duke William and his French Normans have arrived at Pevensey. Without time to recover, the wounded and exhausted survivors of the Stamford battle go on a forced march across country to Sussex. They arrive on October 13, 1066, where the fresh and eager Normans are waiting.

Harold, knowing that his army is in no shape to go head-to-head with the Normans, takes up a defensible position atop a high ridge known as Senlac. The battle begins with a volley of stone projectiles launched at the French infantry by the Saxons. After disrupting his foes, Harold takes the battle to them. With momentum on his side for the moment, he hopes to win the day with a reckless charge.

Duke William himself leads his Norman forces into battle as they lock up with the charging Saxons. The Norman infantry has trouble breaking through the Saxon’s front line. William’s cavalry has no better luck. It seems that the Saxons might hold out.

But King Harold makes a fatal miscalculation. When a group of Norman horseman retreat to regroup, a large contingent of Saxons break formation to follow and finish them off. William rallies his forces and overwhelms the small group. He sees a hole in the Saxon lines. The Saxon’s manage to close up the gap a bit, but not entirely. They repeat the same mistake twice more, allowing the French to breach their line repeatedly.

By late afternoon, the tired Saxons are wavering under the continual Norman attacks. Before they can regroup, an arrow—fired by an unnamed and forever anonymous archer—strikes King Harold right in the eye. William leads a renewed charge wherein he and his men hack their way to Harold, killing the wounded king.

Exhausted, leaderless and demoralized, the Saxons retreat to Senlac. Eventually, they have to cede Senlac Ridge, yard by agonizing yard. Ultimately, they have no choice but to flee the battlefield entirely, leaving the victory to the Duke. William would forever become known as William the Conqueror and, after Harold is buried respectfully at Waltham Abbey, William takes the throne, beginning English Feudalism.


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