A Very Unusual Face Off: How the Battle of Hastings Unfolded

History Hit Podcast with Marc Morris

3 mins

18 Sep 2018

This article is an edited transcript of 1066: Battle of Hastings – Marc Morris on Dan Snow’s History Hit, first broadcast 14 October 2016. You can listen to the full episode below or to the full podcast for free on Acast.

Harold Godwinson met Duke William of Normandy, later William the Conqueror, on a battlefield near Hastings in September 1066. The English king had just defeated Viking invaders in the north, at the Battle of Stamford Bridge, and had rushed the length of the country to meet William on the battlefield in Sussex.

The first thing to say about the Battle of Hastings is that it was a very unusual face-off – a fact that contemporaries recognised. You can see it clearly on the Bayeux Tapestry, a contemporary source which shows that the English elite did not fight using cavalry.

Instead, they stood to fight in the tradition of their Anglo-Saxon predecessors and their traditional enemies, the Vikings. They drew themselves up in the famous shield wall and presented this static face to their enemy.

The Normans, since giving up being Vikings a century or so earlier, had completely embraced the Frankish mode of warfare, which was based on mounted cavalry.

The Norman elite hurtled up the hill on their horses trying to break the Saxon shield wall by throwing missiles, javelins and axes at it, but they didn’t have much effect.

The shield wall breaks

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For hours, the shield wall held. Then, in what might have been a ploy, or an accident that became a ploy, the Norman line started to give way.

There was a panic on the Norman side and a rumour ran through the Norman line that William was dead.

On the Bayeux Tapestry there’s a famous scene where William takes off his helmet and rides along the line, showing his men that he’s still alive and encouraging them to follow him. William personally stopped the line from collapsing.

Whether that was a ruse or not is unclear. But, when the Anglo-Saxons up on the ridge saw that the Normans were running away, they believed that the battle was over and started running down the hill to pursue them. The Normans then wheeled around and picked off the scattered Anglo-Saxons at will.

The flight of the Normans, feigned or otherwise, compromised the integrity of the shield wall.

From that point on, the Anglo-Saxons started to become more vulnerable and gaps began to open up in the formerly impenetrable barrier.

An unusually long battle

It was also very unusual that the battle went on all day. It was a long attritional conflict, which was only ended by groups of Anglo-Saxon warriors breaking discipline and charging, getting surrounded and cut off, and finally being cut down. It was a very slow moving battle.

At that time, you would have expected such a battle to have been over in an hour or a couple of hours.

The unusual length might have been due to the fact that there were two different types of warfare clashing, but it also shows that the two sides were well matched.

There are any number of books guessing the numbers on both sides, but the truth is that we haven’t the foggiest idea of how many were fighting for either army. It is likely there were no more than 10,000 Normans, however.

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That estimate is based on the numbers who fought in battles that occurred in later centuries, from which we have better evidence, such as payrolls and muster lists.Since no English king in the later Middle Ages ever managed to get more than 10,000 men across the Channel, it seems almost impossible that William the Conqueror – who was, after all, only the Duke of Normandy at that time – could have topped that figure.

There was possibly about 10,000 on both sides at the Battle of Hastings – simply based on the fact that the battle went on all day, which suggests the two armies were extremely well matched.

The shield wall’s strength was in its unity; when solid it could last all day. But once it was fractured, it became very vulnerable.

We’re told that the shield wall was compromised and that the Anglo-Saxons started to fall in greater and greater numbers. But that didn’t have to mean the end for Harold; although he would have likely lost the battle regardless at that point, the Anglo-Saxons could have started running away.

But Harold ends up dying – perhaps because he stayed and fought. His death naturally put an end to his chances of resisting William any further and cemented the Norman conquest of England.