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Reliving 1066: The Battle of Hastings
Petronella Jackson surveys an important location in British History
Sense of the Battle:
It's early morning around 0900 on the 14th October in the year of our Lord, 1066. As the fog slowly lifts off Senlac Hill revealing the marshy landscape below, Anglo-Saxon King Harold Godwinson is mounted on his horse, surrounded by the large English army. Weary from a victorious battle only three weeks beforehand against Harald Hardrada, the King of Norway, at Stamford Bridge near York, Harold faces the invading army of the Normans led by William Duke of Normandy, who had returned to England to claim the throne promised to him by Edward the Confessor before he died in 1064. Having arrived the night before, King Harold hoped to surprise William, but the Norman had already received word that his enemy had arrived and arranged his men in preparation for battle.
King Harold's army of men are made up of Housecarls who are well-trained soldiers, paid for their military services, and the fyrd who are working men called up to fight for the King. They are ready and have formed a large strong Saxon wall of shields on top of the hill, ready to force the Normans to break against it and be defeated.
William's army are in the marshlands below the hill, formed in three lines: archers and crossbowmen in the front, followed by the armored infantry and finally at the rear the knights. The Breton knights, who've been granted considerable land-owning by William, are on the left, with the French on the right and William's Normans in the centre with William right in the middle.
As King Harold surveys the land, there is trepidation in the air. Suddenly the horns sound down in the marshlands and the first wave of arrows are sent through the air arching and falling, impaling the earth, a few hitting and falling off the shield wall. The archers below rush forward, stop, and send the next wave of arrows but they are no match for the shields. The battle has begun. Behind the Saxon wall of shields the English archers fire their arrows. The Saxons beat back wave after wave of Norman infantry followed by their cavalry. The air is filled with the smell of blood and cries and sounds of men screaming, swords clashing against armour and shields, horses hooves and falling men.
The Breton knights on the Norman left begin to see defeat and retreat, running away, leaving the English right to charge after them down the slope but this exposes them to a counter-attack led by William himself who kills the advancing Saxons. William's army begins to systematically retreat, bringing out the Saxons to pursue each retreating group who slowly fall in numbers as William's army counter-attack. During one of these pursuits William falls off his horse and a loud shout goes up that he is dead. Everything seems to stop for a few moments but amid piles of broken bodies, William sweeps off his helmet and regroups his army. The momentary pause has given the English time to regroup, and the Normans batter themselves uselessly against the reformed shield wall. As the day drags on, the English shield wall finally begins to crack. It is soon after this when King Harold takes an arrow in the eye and as his men mill around him, four Norman knights break through and hack him down. King Harold is dead.
The Battle of Hasting is one of the very few decisive battles in history. In one day William the Duke of Normandy conquered a kingdom that had resisted and fought against countless Viking invasions for many years, ending a line of Anglo-Saxon kings that claimed descent from King Alfred the Great.
Battle Abbey was built in 1071 on the site of King Harold's banner, where he died at the command of William, as the Norman victor's atonement for the bloodshed.
Experience a full weekend itinerary in Sussex visiting the Battle Abbey and walk in the footsteps of King Harold, where he fought and fell defending the English Throne, and where the victorious conquest of William the Conqueror began. The itinerary also includes walking tours in Battle, Hastings and a visit to Bodiam Castle. For more details, visit www.petronellas-itineraries.com/