Before we examine the Battle of Hastings and William the Conquer's subsequent victory, perhaps we should take a look at the history of military art in the 11th century.
The military art of the 11th century is far from thoroughly understood, and it would be rash to judge the wisdom of either commander’s actions while we remain largely ignorant of factors about which they surely had far better knowledge. By studying William’s campaigns during the years preceding his invasion of England, historian John Gillingham has reconstructed a picture of 11th-century warfare that differs quite a bit from what we might expect, but which helps to explain many of the decisions made by both William and Harold.
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Gillingham discovered that supply played a more crucial role than combat in deciding the outcome of military campaigns and that major battles were, in fact, very rare. William seems to have had a keen grasp of this reality, and he had a knack for using it to frustrate his enemies. The standard method of waging war in William’s day was to invade an enemy’s lands, not with the intent of destroying opposing armies, but of laying waste to the countryside. By aggressive foraging and pillaging, an invader could supply his own troops indefinitely while at the same time destroying his opponent’s means of sustaining himself.
The most effective counter against this strategy was for the defending commander to draw his army close enough to the invader to ambush any foraging parties the invading army sent into the countryside in search of food, but not so close as to put themselves at risk of being engaged in a major battle which might end in disaster. Deprived of the opportunity to pillage, the invader would be forced to withdraw or starve. An important key to the success of such a strategy was mobility since the more mobile army could dictate the distance between itself and its enemies.
William’s military record shows that he was a master of this sort of warfare, so he must have realized that invading England put him in a potentially sticky situation. Once ashore, he needed room to forage, but Harold’s numerically superior army had time on its side. If Harold could confine the Normans to a small area near the coast, the English would have no need to attack. With the help of a navy capable of preventing a retreat back across the Channel, Harold could starve the invaders into surrender. For William, the only hope for a successful campaign was to abandon the safe, customary strategy of avoiding battle, and risk all on one decisive confrontation. Harold would have done well to avoid such a gamble, but William’s cavalry heavy army was the more mobile one, and that meant Duke William would get his way.
Introducing King Harold Hardrada of Norway
All the same, William would have to wait his turn. The Duke was not the only serious challenger to Harold’s reign. Another Harold - Harold Hardrada, King of Norway - also hoped to make England his own. With the Norse King marched an unlikely ally, Tostig, Harold Godwinson’s own brother, who had been Earl of Northumbria until his subjects revolted against his harsh rule and overthrew him. (Tostig was also related, by marriage, to Duke William.)
The King of Norway landed on the Northumbrian coast on 7 September, exactly three weeks before Duke William’s eventual arrival at Pevensey. Harold Godwinson, who had been expecting the Duke all summer, had just days before decided hopefully that the anticipated invasion might not come after all, and, running short of food for his militia, had sent them home. While Godwinson hastened to reassemble his army, Hardrada marched on York. Until the English King could arrive, no less than a week after receiving the first news of the invasion, the Earls of Northumbria and Mercia stood alone against the Norsemen.
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The English and Norsemen met outside York at the Battle of Gate Fulford. The invaders put the defenders to rout, but Hardrada and Tostig seemed to think it would take Godwinson many more days to reach Northumbria from the south, so they made no immediate plans to meet him when he did. Godwinson’s southern army, by forced march, surprised the Norsemen at Stamford Bridge on 25 September and cut the Norwegian army to pieces. According to one account, Godwinson allowed the survivors to return to Norway, and they were so few that they needed only 24 of their 300 ships.
All of this served the Duke of Normandy’s ambitions very nicely. Hardrada’s defeat had removed him from contention for the throne, while the victory at Stamford Bridge, no less than the defeat at Gate Fulford, had cost Godwinson many valuable fighting men. What’s more, the forced march North and the return march they now faced must have exhausted the English.
A better English strategy
Goodwinson had ben anxious to deal with Hardrada as quickly as possible, knowing that a long campaign in the north would give Duke William a free hand in the south. But with the Norsemen vanquished, a better English strategy might have been patience, allowing themselves time to recover following two pitched battles, and allowing William to come to them on ground of their choosing. Harold’s intentions following the Normans’ arrival, however, are uncertain. From his subsequent movements, he appears to have hoped to surprise the Normans much as he had the Norsemen. Some researchers speculate that in his rush to battle in the south, he must have left many of the veterans of Stamford Bridge behind and mustered fresh troops from in and around London. The English army was almost exclusively composed of foot soldiers, who may not have been capable of marching back south quickly enough to suit King Harold’s plans.
The English camped near the present town of Battle on the night of 11 October, possibly expecting to attack the Normans the following day. Norman scouts, however, reported their arrival to William, and the Duke beat Harold to the punch by attacking the English early the next morning.
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William of Poitiers described the decisive encounter as “a strange kind of battle, one side attacking with all mobility, the other withstanding, as though rooted to the soil.” These words suggest that the English defenders used tactics the Normans weren’t accustomed to, but which they had little respect for. As William of Poitiers indicated, the Normans relied heavily on highly mobile cavalry, supported by archers and infantry. The English, exclusively on foot, deployed in a static formation known as a shield wall, which extended some 600 to 700 yards in length and probably from nine to 12 ranks deep. Lined up shoulder to shoulder, each English soldier had the responsibility of defending to the death the spot on which he stood.
The Normans may have thought this arrangement strange, but it almost proved their undoing. William attacked the shield wall repeatedly with archers, javelin-carrying horsemen, and swordsmen on foot. None of them were able to penetrate the English line. On the contrary, when the rumor spread that William himself had fallen, the Norman attackers retreated in confusion, and the Duke struggled to regain order by removing his helmet and riding back and forth along his lines so his troops could see that he was unharmed.
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Had the English been able to maintain strict discipline and stayed “rooted to the soil,” they might have prevailed, but when the Normans retreated, some of Harold’s militia, sensing victory, rushed after them. The Normans rallied, turned on the exposed English, and annihilated them far from their own lines. This incident apparently inspired William to try a bold strategy. Again he sent his cavalry against the shield wall. The English remained as firm as ever, and again the Normans turned and ran. According to the Norman accounts of the battle, this retreat, however, was a feint, designed to draw more English troops out of their lines in pursuit. (Some historians are skeptical of this statement, seeing it as simply an excuse for the embarrassing retreat of William’s elite horsemen before English militia.) Regardless, the English foolishly left their lines once again, with similar results.
The two pursuits had greatly reduced Harold’s strength, and the shield wall that had stood firm for nearly eight hours began showing signs of weakness. Yet another Norman charge finally succeeded in punching a hole in Harold’s defenses, and Norman horsemen rushed through into the English rear, cutting down the King himself. His death sparked a rout of the English, an end to one of the longest of medieval battles, and the beginning of Norman England.
* Originally published in July 2016.