The Battle of Hastings – a brief summary

Kaye Jones offers a brief summary of the Battle of Hastings in 1066, perhaps the most fateful date in English history.

October 14th, 1066, Senlac Hill, about 6 miles north-west of Hastings: two armies stood opposite each other: the English army of King Harold II in one line; the army of William of Normandy in another.

At around 9:00am the Normans made the first attack raining down on the English countless showers of arrows. But the English were strong; having formed a near-impenetrable shield wall which kept the Normans at bay. William sent in his infantry but the English threw down javelins and stones as the Normans charged up the hill (as depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry). Even the few infantrymen who did make it to the English lines failed to crack the wall.

William Removes His Helmet

A frustrated William sent in his cavalry sooner than he probably should have. Within one hour of battle, the left flank of the Norman army had been completely broken. Under such pressure, the left flank retreated and was soon followed by the remaining two divisions. In the chaos some of the English soldiers made the fatal mistake of chasing after them and breaking their ranks. Rumour quickly spread that William had been killed. To prove otherwise, William removed his helmet and restored some much needed morale to the Norman troops. This show of force proved to be a turning point in the battle as William was able to lead a cavalry charge against the English soldiers who had broken rank.

Despite such bloodshed, the bulk of the English shield wall was still intact. By the afternoon, William realised that breaking the wall was the key to victory. His new tactic involved a number of feigned retreats to entice the English out of their lines and cut them down as they ran. Harold’s brothers, Gyrth and Leofwine, soon became victims of William’s deadly tactics and King Harold was not long after.

Arrow in the eye

Legend has it that he was struck in the eye with an arrow, while others believe he was slain by the sword. The contemporary Song of the Battle of Hastings argues that four Norman knights tore off Harold’s limbs and disembowelled him. Whatever the true cause of his death, the English bravely fought on but, without proper leadership, their cause was lost. The Battle of Hastings replaced Stamford Bridge as the longest and most brutal in English history.

Kaye Jones
Read more about the Normandy Invasion in 1066: History In An Hour