While from the military perspective, the Battle of Hastings counts as a single (albeit interesting) encounter between two different martial cultures, the event in itself proved quite pivotal when it came to the socio-political side of affairs in early medieval Britain. Much of this dynamic scope obviously had to do with the Norman victory in the battle, which led to the infusion of continental European customs and languages in what was essentially an Anglo-Saxon dominated realm. In essence, the Battle of Hastings was not only a military victory but also a cultural victory (in the long term) for the ‘French’ Normans.
The incredible ambit leading up to the battle, the encounter itself, and its aftermath on Britain – all of these ‘parcels’ of history are explained in a nifty manner by Francis Glenday in his short and simple animated video titled as “A Young Person’s Guide to the Battle of Hastings” –
Now while the video does a great of explaining the general scope of the Battle of Hastings and its effects, there were a few intriguing factors that played their crucial roles in the unfolding of the event.
1) The multifarious army of the Normans –
As the video explains, William’s invasion of Britain was partly legitimized by the papacy. But beyond moral support, the Norman Duke knew that the key to winning his engagements on British soils would be decided by the sheer effectiveness and tactics of his ‘mixed’ army. So while popular culture portrays the Battle of Hastings as an epic encounter between the ‘English’ Anglo-Saxons and the continental Normans, in reality the conflict brought forth other nationalities into the fray. For example, on the Norman side, the left wing of Duke William’s army was largely composed of Bretons, who interestingly traced their lineage from the ancient Brittonic speakers of southwestern Britain, while combining elements of both Gauls and Viking raiders. Likewise the right wing of the Normans were composed of Franco-Flemish troops. Another overlooked point in the case of the Norman invasion force was how it also included large numbers of infantry troops and mercenaries, including spearmen, archers and even crossbowmen.
Pertaining to the latter, literary works like Carmen de Hastingae Proelio (Song of the Battle of Hastings), attributed to the Bishop Guy of Amiens, and often viewed as the earliest known source of the battle, clearly mention bolts with square-shaped heads. And if crossbow seems ‘exotic’ to the scope of Hastings, historians have also painted the possibility of slingers being used by William. Typically used as screening troops, these men could have still unleashed their lethal volleys, especially on armored targets at effective range of around 30 m (around 100 ft). So when translated to numbers, the Normans probably brought forth 7,500 troops – comprising 2,000 horsemen, 4,000 infantrymen (including heavy infantry wearing the loricatos mail) and around 1,500 missile troops (including archers, crossbowmen and slingers).
2) The ax effect and English numbers –
The video fleetingly mentions the ax-wielding elite troops on the English side. To that end, as opposed to the medieval status of the sword, the royal hearthweru (or heath-guard) and huscarl (derived from Old Norse húskarlar) warriors on the English side preferred their axes – possibly of the heavy kind, known as the broadaxe. The imposing weapon, used by two hands, had a cutting edge of more than 10-inches, while being supported by a hardy shaft. Many of the fyrd (conscripted) soldiers also used the lighter Danish axe as a single-hand wielded melee weapon, with its cutting edge of around 3-inches.
As for the numbers on the English side, Harold might have just had a slight advantage over his Norman adversary with around 8,000 men. Among them around 800-1000 men comprised the royal hearthweru troops of the king and his brothers. These elite household troops were supported by around 6,500 men of the fyrd and a small number of militias from Sussex and Kent. Now once again reverting to the size of the battlefield, the ridge and its surroundings would have actually made the space cramped for the English forces. Furthermore, it should be also noted that many of the Anglo-Saxon warriors marched 241 miles (386 km) to intercept William, and that too after dealing with a massive army fielded by the ‘last great Viking’ Harald Hardrada only 19 days before the Battle of Hastings.
3) Initial archer effectiveness (or lack thereof) –
Coming the very scope of the battle itself, the encounter possibly began at 9 am in the morning with a blaring of trumpets. And given the better defensive position of the English forces atop the ridge (around 730 m or 2,400 ft in length), protected on the flanks by woods and at the front by marshes, the initial Norman plan was to ‘soften’ up the opposition with projectiles. But unfortunately for the Duke of Normandy, the very gradient of the slope made the trajectory of the arrows quite harmless for the forces concentrated on the ridge, with most arrows probably passing over the heads of the (possibly) adopted shield-wall – and few only hitting the latecomers to the English party on the rear.
On the other hand, the Anglo-Saxons had very few archers among their ranks, which in turn would have made it difficult for the Normans to re-use the fired enemy projectile. So the preliminary archery volley was more-or-less a failed tactic on the part of the Normans, which interestingly led to some bold maneuvers initiated by their commanders to turn the tide of the ‘disadvantaged’ battle. Simply put, the ineffective volleys of the Norman archers forced William to advance his army (including his knights) up the hill to meet the English head-on.
4) The resurrected Duke –
Intriguingly enough, during the passage of the battle, after repeated failed charges on the part of the Normans, a rumor began to spread that their Duke was killed in the battle. Consequently, the Anglo-Saxon right-wing pushed forth and began to pursue the routing Bretons, while even managing to catch up with some of the enemy horsemen who were left floundering in the marshy grounds.
However, as with many of the momentous encounters recorded in the annals of history, it was ironically this chaotic scene that offered Duke William the opportunity to strike back at his foes. But first he had to prove his own existence in front of his troops – a job done with aplomb when William rode through the ranks of the invasion force with his helmet pushed-back. According to the Bayeux Tapestry, Count Eustace of Boulogne (also known as Eustace aux Gernons) helped the Duke in his ‘resurrection’ efforts by pointing towards him with a papal banner. And meanwhile William roared about the desperate Norman position with the inescapable sea to their back, and thus rather made a grandiose presentation of himself – which would have surely raised the morale of many of the proximate Norman troops.
The ardent words were soon followed by action, with the Duke leading his chosen company of horsemen to dash into the English forces who had come down to pursue the Bretons. These unarmored men were most likely cut down by the swift cavalry of the Normans, in spite of a ‘mini’ last stand made by some of the detached Anglo-Saxons by the slope. In essence, this was the ‘break’ needed by the Normans to turn the tide of the battle, which ultimately led to their hard-won victory.
The post was composed from excerpts of our previous article – 12 Things You Should Know About The Battle Of Hastings.
Video Source: Francis Glenday (YouTube)