Beginning at 9am on 14 October 1066, the Battle of Hastings only lasted until dusk (around 6pm on that day). But although this might seem very short to us today — not least given the extent of the fight’s historical significance — it was actually unusually long for a medieval battle.
The fighting pitted the armies of England’s King Harold II and William, Duke of Normandy, against each other. Although it ended up being decisively won by William and his men, the already battle-weary English put up a good fight.
But they didn’t really have a choice, for the stakes were high. Both men believed they had been promised the English throne by Harold’s predecessor, Edward the Confessor, and both were willing to fight to the death for it.
How it all started
William had been preparing for the battle ever since news reached him of Edward’s death on 5 January 1066 and Harold’s subsequent coronation a day later.
But it took him a while to gather together an army and the political support he wanted before setting sail from Normandy — located in the north-west of modern-day France — for England. It is also believed that he delayed his voyage to wait for favourable winds.
The Norman duke eventually arrived on the southern Sussex coast on 29 September 1066. This gave him and his men more than two weeks to prepare for their confrontation with Harold’s English army. Harold, meanwhile, had been busy fighting off another claimant to the throne in the north of England just days before William’s arrival.
When word reached the king that William had arrived on English shores he was forced to quickly march his men back down south. This meant that when the time came to take on William’s men, Harold and his men were not only battle-weary but also exhausted from their 250-mile-long journey accord the country.
The day of the battle
It is currently thought that both sides had large forces for the day — between 5,000 and 7,000 men. Exact figures are not clear, however, and some sources say that Harold had not yet assembled his full army.
Exactly how the battle played out is also much-disputed. Indeed, the timings of the fight are probably the only details that are not so hotly debated.
The traditional account suggests that Harold’s men took up a long defensive line on the ridge that is now occupied by the buildings of Battle Abbey in the Sussex town aptly known today as “Battle”, while the Normans unleashed attacks on them from below. But although some 10,000 men are believed to have died in the bloody battle, no human remains or artefacts from that day have ever been found in the area.
It seems that facts were murky even on the day. Both leaders were feared dead at various points and trick tactics were used. As light faded, the Normans — at least according to the traditional account — made one final effort to take the ridge from the English. And it was during this final assault that Harold is believed to have been killed.
Again, accounts differ as to the exact cause of Harold’s death. But its outcome is always the same. Left leaderless, the English eventually gave up and fled. And by the end of the year, William would have been crowned the first Norman king of England.
At a time when such battles were often over within an hour, the length of the Battle of Hastings showed how well matched the two sides were.