The Battle of Hastings revolved around a succession dispute. During the 11th century, the Anglo-Saxons ruled England. The Anglo-Saxons were originally immigrants from northern Europe who settled in England during the 5th and 6th centuries. Throughout the centuries, their tribes eventually came together to form a centralized kingdom. By the time of King Edward the Confessor’s reign, the Anglo-Saxons dominated English politics.
Edward the Confessor
King Edward ruled England from 1042 to 1066. During his 24 year reign, Edward remained childless. Having resigned himself to dying without an heir, the king used the succession as a bargaining chip. Initially, Edward considered Godwine, the Earl of Wessex, as a potential successor. However, the two men’s relationship soured in 1051, causing the king to reconsider.
Instead of Godwine, Edward’s cousin, William, became the king’s successor. Having spent half his life in Normandy as an exile, Edward wanted to show his gratitude. After Godwine died in 1053, his son, Harold, sought to displace William. To accomplish this, the earl gained support from the English nobility and consolidated his power.
On January 5, 1066, Edward lay dying. On his death bed, the old king allegedly changed his mind and chose Harold as his successor. After Edward’s death, Harold moved swiftly to have himself crowned. With the nobility’s support, the earl became King Harold II of England.
William, Duke of Normandy
When Edward the Confessor died, William was in Normandy. Harold had previously sworn an oath to uphold William’s claim to the English throne after Edward’s passing. Instead, the Anglo-Saxon had seized the throne for himself. In response, an enraged William sought revenge. After gaining the pope’s blessing and securing his duchy, the duke began recruiting soldiers for his cause.
Meanwhile, Harold II began mobilizing his army. However, it wasn’t to repel William’s impending invasion. The king’s estranged brother, Tostig, had been conducting raids along England’s coast. To further antagonize Harold, Tostig allied himself with the Norwegian King Harald III.
Harald III invaded England to press his claim to the throne. Initially, the Norwegian invasion proved successful. However, after arriving in York, the English army decimated the Norwegian army at the Battle of Stamford Bridge. On September 25, 1066, both Tostig and Harald died during the battle. Despite their failure, William remained determined to launch his invasion.
On September 27, 1066, William and his Norman forces invaded England. Commanding an army of 7,000 soldiers, William led his army towards Hastings. As the Normans secured their position, Harold II learned of their arrival. In response, the king quickly left York with a force of 7,000 tired troops. However, Harold’s hasty departure prevented him from fully mobilizing all of his trained soldiers.
The Battle of Hastings
On October 14, 1066, the Battle of Hastings commenced. At dawn, William ordered his army to advance towards Harold II’s. On a northwestern ridge, Harold’s forces took position. Despite being in a defensive formation, the English army’s position wasn’t ideal. Instead, it had been hastily chosen by Harold to counter William’s unexpected advance. Even worse for the king, his troops were primarily composed of untrained peasants.
As soon as Harold II’s men created their shield formation, William’s archers open fired. Although the Norman archers claimed many lives, English soldiers successfully countered with their spears. Next, the Norman cavalry charged in. In retaliation, the English infantry attacked them with their battle-axes. Panicking, some of the cavalry fled with English troops in pursuit.
Throughout the battle, William continually led cavalry charges. The Norman army twice feigned retreat, which resulted in English soldiers chasing after them. As a result, any troops who broke rank were slaughtered by the Normans. During the afternoon, the English army had become depleted and suffered heavy losses. Countless waves of Norman attacks on the English line had begun to take their toll.
Death of Harold II
The Battle of Hasting’s turning point occurred during the late afternoon. According to legend, a Norman arrow struck Harold II in the eye. The king died instantly, yet his soldiers continued fighting. During the evening, the English made one last attempt to win. They charged the Normans and inflicted heavy casualties. Despite this, the English soldiers dispersed after the charge, leaving William the victor.
After the Battle of Hastings ended, the remaining Norman army marched to London. After securing the capital, William the Conqueror had himself crowned king on December 25, 1066. With William I’s ascension, the Norman aristocracy displaced the Anglo-Saxons. French became the dominant language and influenced modern English. After Henry I‘s death in 1135, the Norman dynasty ended. However, William’s descendants continue to rule England to this day.
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. (2020, March 2). Battle of Hastings. Retrieved March 13, 2020, from https://www.britannica.com/event/Battle-of-Hastings
History.com Editors. (2009, November 9). Battle of Hastings. Retrieved March 18, 2020, from https://www.history.com/topics/british-history/battle-of-hastings
What Happened at the Battle of Hastings. (n.d.). Retrieved March 18, 2020, from https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/learn/1066-and-the-norman-conquest/what-happened-battle-hastings/