The Battle of Hastings

The Battle of Hastings in 1066, by Francois Hippolyte Debon
The Battle of Hastings in 1066, by Francois Hippolyte Debon (1845)

The Battle of Hastings happened on October 14th 1066. It was between the invading French-Norman army and the English army. The French-Norman army won and took control of England.

A Struggle for Power in England

When King Edward the Confessor died in January 1066 he did not leave a child. This meant several people believed they could become King of England, including:

  • Harold Godwinson, Earl of Wessex – a rich and powerful aristocrat who was the son of Edward’s opponent, Godwin.
  • Tostig Godwinson – Harold’s brother who was in exile.
  • Duke William II of Normandy (later known as ‘William the Conqueror’)  – leader of the Normans who had helped Edward become king in 1042 and claimed Edward promised him the throne (in order to stop the Godwin getting it).
  • Harald III of Norway (also known as Harald Hardrada) – Harald claimed the earlier kings of England and Norway – Harthacanute and Magnus I – had agreed that if a there was no heir in England or Norway the other country would inherit it.

Harold was named king. Tostig, William and Harald put armies together to take the crown.

Tostig Attacks First

The first attack on Harold’s reign came from his own brother, Tostig, who had been exiled in Flanders. Tostig had some success in the south-east of England, but Harold’s army quickly forced Tostig out. Tostig moved to Scotland to get more men.

Harold’s Army Sits and Waits; Hardrada and Tostig Unite

After beating Tostig, Harold’s men stayed in the south of England awaiting a suspected attack from William. He recruited more men – mostly farmers and sailors – but William did not come (either because of bad weather or needing more preparation). By September Harold’s new men needed to go back to their work. Harold let them leave his army on September 8th.

At almost the same time Harald Hardrada arrived in the north east of England with 15000 men. Tostig and his army also joined this force. The army made its way south to York.

Harold – without his farmers and sailors – moved his army north to meet the invaders. On September 25th Harold’s army beat Harald Hardrada and Tostig  in the Battle of Stamford Bridge. Both Hardrada and Tostig were killed, but Harold’s army suffered large losses.

The Norman Conquest

Harold’s army had suffered badly during their victory, and was now in the north-east of England. This left the south-east wide open.

On September  28th William landed in the south-east of England with approximately 7000 troups. He marched north, taking land, until reaching Hastings where he stopped in order to regroup.

On October 13th Harold’s army arrived for their third battle of the year.

Death of Harold at the Battle of Hastings 1066 (Boston: J.R. Spaulding & Co., 1901))
Death of Harold at the Battle of Hastings 1066 (Boston: J.R. Spaulding & Co., 1901))

The Battle

Although it is known as the Battle of Hastings, the battle happened 7 miles outside Hastings (where a town named Battle now exists). It is not clear exactly what time each army arrived at the battlefield – either the morning or the night before. It is also not known exactly how many men Harold had left in his army – English accounts put the number as low, whilst Normans say it was much higher. Some historians say it was probably around 7000.

A famous tactic used called ‘feigned flight’ was used, in which the Normans pretended to run away, only to ambush the chasing English. It is not clear whether this was planned or by accident, but it worked: in the late afternoon Harold died. Soon after, the Normans won the battle.

The Bayeux Tapestry

The Bayeux Tapestry
The Bayeux Tapestry

A tapestry exists showing around 50 scenes from the battle. It currently hangs in Bayeux, France.

It is not known exactly when the tapestry was made, but it is thought to come from the 1070s.

The most famous scene in the tapestry is the death of Harold: it shows a lot of soldiers and a man with an arrow in his eye (although nobody knows which man is Harold, legend now says Harold died by an arrow to the eye).

Norman Victory & Consequences

There were a few smaller battles after the Battle of Hastings – and Harold’s army desperately tried to have another king named – but the momentum was already established: William the Conqueror took England. He was named King of England on Christmas Day 1066.

The Norman House ruled England until 1154, when events back in France saw it collapse.

The arrival of a French king in England brought the two countries closer, and moved England away from Scandinavia. It also changed the language: William made French the language of the English court, and is is guessed 10000 French words entered the English language. 3/4 of those words still exist (even now it is guessed that an English speaker who has never studied French already knows 15000 French words).

Harold II, by James E. Doyle (1864)
Harold II, by James E. Doyle (1864)