Norman Conquest Timeline
THE BATTLE OF HASTINGS
Hastings, 14 October 1066
After a day-long battle, the English have finally been defeated at Senlac Hill near Hastings today. King Harold is dead. William of Normandy has swept all before him on the battlefield at tremendous cost to his own troops. But nothing can now prevent him marching on London and having himself crowned King of England.
King Harold began the day with a distinct advantage. When William rode out of his Hastings stronghold this morning at 6am - half-an-hour before sunrise - he found Harold's army already formed up 10 or 12 ranks deep along a high ridge blocking his path. The English flanks were protected by streams and hollows, and the rear by a steep slope.
At the bottom of the ridge, the ground was marshy. Only a narrow strip in the centre was firm enough for William's army to negotiate. William sent his troops through this narrow gap, forming them up at the foot of the ridge - the French to the right, the Bretons to the left and his own Normans in the middle. This was a risky move, especially for those moving to the left who presented their unshielded side to the enemy. At any time, the English could have swarmed down the slope and attacked. But Harold showed an uncharacteristic caution and kept his position on the high ground.
At around 9.00am, Norman archers moved forward and fired. But the arrows were stopped by a wall of English shields and the archers, in their exposed position, suffered some losses. Next the Norman infantry went in. They were cut down by English two-handed battle axes. Seeing their plight, William sent in the cavalry, but attacking uphill blunted their effectiveness. However, when the cavalry pulled back, the undisciplined English chased after them. The Norman line began to give. A rumour that William was dead circulated and some Normans fled. Sensing this might turn into a rout, William lifted his helmet so that his men could see he was alive. This put heart back into his troops. They attacked and fell back in turns, keeping relentless pressure on the English line, while giving themselves periods of rest.
Occasionally feints lured more Englishmen down the hill to their deaths. But this tactic was also costly in Norman lives. As the afternoon wore on, William knew he had to win that day or surrender. The next day, Harold would have reinforcements. He would have none. He ordered an all-out assault. This time the archers shot high in the sky. The falling arrows thinned the English ranks. This shortened the shield wall enough for the Normans to mount the ridge on the flanks. But it took a further two hours for them to scythe their way through to where Harold had fallen, thought to have been killed by an arrow in the eye. His Gyrth and Leofwine are also dead, leaving the English without leaders.
Some Englishmen staged a stout rearguard action at the edge of the forest of Andredsweald but were cut down to a man. This is an indication of the stout resistance William will face taking the rest of England - and how ruthlessly he will deal with it.
Article by Nigel Cawthorne