The Battle of Hastings
The Bretons on the left have fled and confusion is spreading in the Norman army. Duke William pushes his helmet back to show that he is still alive. His half-brother, Odo, is shown helping to stem the panic. (Angus McBride)
The Norman archers walked forward and loosed a cloud of arrows, but many hit the English wall of shields or passed over the heads of the whole army. Both sides relied on shooting the enemy’s arrows back at them, but the English had few archers to shoot back so the Normans soon ran short of ammunition. This Norman ‘softening up’ barrage failed to have much impact, so the infantry was sent forward. Coming up the slope they were met by a blizzard of missiles: javelins, small axes, arrows, even stones tied to pieces of wood. On closing there followed a ferocious hand-to-hand struggle, in which the Normans suffered particularly from the English axes. Squadrons of Norman cavalry now came up in support, not in a concerted charge but in groups, throwing spears or thrusting with them, only a few tucking them under the arm.
After a time, the Bretons on the left wing broke and fled back down the slope. Unarmoured Englishmen chased after them. Some Norman horsemen got into difficulties by riding over the hillock in the valley and into the marshy area beyond. This was the crisis of the battle. William himself was unhorsed, the left wing in flight, the centre and right now giving ground. Remounting, he pushed the helmet back from his face to show his presence. With Eustace of Boulogne carrying the papal banner William rode among his soldiers shouting that he was alive. Then he led some cavalry from the centre, cutting down the Englishmen caught in the open. The crisis had passed, and both sides regrouped.
Many more mounted Norman knights were used in the following assaults, but they met with no more success than previously. According to the contemporary William of Poitiers, William twice ordered feigned flights by groups of cavalry to draw Englishmen out, inspired by the earlier rout of the Bretons; the horsemen outstripped their pursuers then wheeled about. However, as the afternoon wore on the English still held the ridge. The numbers of dead now made an additional barrier, and many knights had lost their horses and were fighting on foot. In the lower border of the Tapestry increasing numbers of archers now appear, their quivers in front of them. It seems that fresh supplies of arrows had now arrived, and the archers shot before the mixed infantry and cavalry again attacked. At some point in this final phase, an arrow struck Harold in or near the right eye. The English line was by now much weakened and had drawn in its flanks so that at last a body of Norman knights managed to reach the end of the line, and began to roll it up. Others broke through the English line and attacked the standards. Harold was cut down and killed, the Dragon banner felled and the Fighting Man carried off, later to be sent to Rome.