Here are three videos I made of the Battle of Hastings re-enactment of 2006.
The first one is set to the theme of the movie Excalibur – O Fortuna:
The Battle of Hastings
The Death of the Minstrel Taillefer
The second video is a little bit of medieval humor with an incident from the Battle of Hastings. Before the battle began, a Norman minstrel, Taillefer, attacked the English in a mad attempt to gain glory. This is his story.
The Fall of King Harold Godwinson
The third video has a Roving Ronin Report intro and is a ballad of the Battle. The song is from the Secret Commonwealth, a celtic folk-rock band from Murfreesboro, Tennessee. It’s a period piece not necessarily on the battle but around the time period. The theme of a woman mourning her husband’s loss though is eternal.
Battle of Hastings: Winner Takes All
1066 And All That Redux Part Three
“This was a fatal day to England, and melancholy havoc was wrought in our dear country during the change of its lords.”
-William of Malmesbury, The Battle of Hastings, 12th Century
Normans knights crash into the English Shieldwall at the Battle of Hastings
At the beginning of October 1066, King Harold Godwinson of England was sitting pretty. Through dedicated vigilance, he had successfully defended his kingdom from would-be invaders. He had kept the national militia, the fyrd, in service much longer than any king before him. He had turned the military world on its ear with his epic dash from London to York in just four days with an army in tow. He had completely destroyed a large Viking army led by one of the most fearsome warlords of the day.
Saxon spearman awaits the Norman Conquest
It would seem that nothing was beyond this resourceful man’s capabilities. Then news came as he was celebrating his victory in York that the man Harold had been preparing for all year finally arrived. Duke William of Normandy had come to claim the crown that he thought rightfully his.
The elite housecarles swing their long axes in eager anticipation
As mentioned previously [Viking Interlude], 1066 was a year of great feats by great men. William was not to be undone by the accomplishments of Harold and the late King Hardrada. He maintained a large army through long weeks of inaction while waiting for favorable winds. In a brilliant bit of propaganda coup-de-grace, William had acquired support from the Pope and was given a Papal banner to carry into battle. When the winds finally blew in his favor, William crossed the Channel with a remarkable collection of knights, archers, foot-soldiers, pre-fabricated castles, and most impressively horses.
William had the Papal Banner carried into battle to inspire his men and cow the English
William’s channel crossing still astounds military historians to this day. Just getting horses onto a wooden boat and keeping them calm throughout the journey (a day and a night) was a great accomplishment.
|The Norman Army
The Wave of the (medieval) Future
Archers, Infantry, and Cavalry – the medievally modern and efficient Norman army The Normans were the descendants of Viking adventurers but they lost their sea legs during their settled stay in Normandy. They traded ships for horses and became just as lethal on land as their Viking brethren were on the sea. Warfare was a way of life. The Norman dukes were constantly fighting to increase their territory, defend their border, or quell rebellious subjects.The Norman army which followed William the Conqueror across the English Channel in 1066 was the wave of the future, medievally-speaking. It was well-organized and divided into separate sections: archers, foot soldiers, and most notably cavalry. The mounted soldiers were the precursors of the knight in shining armor on horseback. They trained in groups known as conroys. This allowed them to act in cohesion which added to their overall effectiveness. At this time, however, the fierceness of a medieval charge on horseback with couched lances had not yet been fully developed. On the Bayeux Tapestry, many of the horseback knights carry their spears overhand for the purpose of throwing or stabbing. Their mobility was their chief strength which they used to deadly effect at Hastings by feigning retreats then cutting down pursuing enemy. Mobility also greatly added to William’s ability to control his army and issue orders. He was able to turn around a near-rout by riding around showing his demoralized army that he was not dead.
Along with the Normans, marched warriors from France, Flanders, and Breton. The Bretons were renowned for making use of feigned retreats on horseback to draw out the enemy then wheeling back and destroying them.
William landed horses and all on September 29 near the city of Hastings. William boldly leapt the first man from his ship onto the shores of his future kingdom. And he fell flat on his face. Not the stuff of stirring legends. It could have become an ominous omen in those superstitious times but William (or someone) turned it into a jest — saying “Behold, I have grabbed England with both hands!” Everybody laughed then got on with the business of conquering.
Norman archers opened the battle at nine
When Harold got wind of William’s arrival, he repeated his record-setting dash and set off for London. Many soldiers were left behind as there was no time for all of them to make the rapid journey. Harold spent a week in London to raise another army of fyrd then set off to meet William.
The English Shieldwall holds firm against the arrow assault
His army was not the same one that had destroyed Hardrada at Stamford. Many of the fyrd of the north were hard-bitten veterans unlike those of the south but they couldn’t all make the journey. Harold’s elite soldiers, the ax-wielding housecarles, suffered from depletetions of their ranks at Stamford Bridge. In addition, a number of good men had been killed throughout the year fighting first Harold’s estranged brother Tostig and then later the Norse invasion of Hardrada. William was not facing a country at its full strength.
|William the Conqueror
A rough upbringing produces a hard, hard man
William the Conqueror leading his men in battle “King William…was a very wise and great man, and more honored and more powerful than any of his predecessors. He was mild to those good men who loved God, but severe beyond measure to those who withstood his will.He caused castles to be built and oppressed the poor. The king was also of great sterness, and he took from his subjects many marks of gold, and many hundred pounds of silver, and this, either with or without right, and with little need. He was given to avarice and greedily loved gain.”
-Anglo-Saxon ChronicleWilliam the Conqueror was not always known by his lofty title William the Conqueror. Prior to 1066, he was known as William the Bastard. He was not called this for his surely disposition but for his parentage. His father Robert, the former Duke of Normandy, became utterly smitten with a tanner’s daughter (tanners worked with animal skins). She gave birth to William out of wedlock and thus he was technically-speaking a bastard in the medieval sense. Robert made the boy his heir nonetheless. While on a pilgrimage to the Holy Lands, Robert grew sick and died leaving the very young William at the tender mercies of his relations. It was all around a rough upbringing. His guardians were murdered and William had to spend years fighting rebellious subjects while avoiding attempts on his life. He was quite sensitive about his parentage. At one battle, a besieged city beat upon animal skins to mock William’s origins. When he took the city, William had the hands and feet of the survivors hacked off.
William was a cunning and capable leader in both the arts of war and administration. His presence alone often served to cow opposition to his rule. He was fierce man to cross but he could also be generous to his defeated enemies. The northern part of England though saw his darker side in the post-1066 years when he ravaged the countryside to punish rebellion. Even some his staunchest admirers were critical of his behavior there.
His coronation at Westminster Abbey in London following his defeat of Harold was something of a fiasco. This normally solemn occasion was marred by the panicky reactions of Norman soldiers. When the customary shout to acclaim the new king was made, Norman soldiers positioned outside the Abbey panicked thinking there was riot so they began burning some of the nearby buildings. The subsequent smoke led to a hasty ending to the ceremony now robbed of its dignity.
William’s end was not very dignified either. He died in 1087 fighting his elder son in France. His funeral bier was robbed by his servants and when he was placed in the crypt of the church, his swollen belly burst causing everyone who was left to flee the stench. Not the most gracious way for the first king of a long line of monarchs to have been treated.
In hindsight, Harold should have hung back and gathered his forces but he wanted to be done with William quickly. He marched south rapidly gathering troops as he went but also leaving them trailing behind — most regrettably archers.
The foot soldiers close-in together
On the morning of October 14th, Harold assembled his soldiers atop of Senlac Hill some miles north of Hastings. The professional soldiers lined up with the militia and formed a shield wall. The Normans had their cavalry and archers but the English had their stout shields and their long battle ax capable of bringing down horse and rider.
|The English Army
The Best of the Best in the Dark Ages
The English Army – The Militia and the Professional Housecarles The English army at Hastings was interesting composite of elements descended from both the Saxons and Scandinavians. The fyrd system of local militia had been set up in the time of Alfred the Great (839-899) to defend against Viking incursions. They were used in a variety of functions from building and repairing defense works, dealing with bandits and raiders, and doing garrison duty. The frydmen were not conscripted peasants and thus cannon fodder but freedman supported by their local communities. They often had a stake in the fight they were participating in. Their weapons and training varied on an individual level. They were led by local lords called thegns who were better equipped and trained.The elite fighting force of the English at Hastings, the housecarle, was a creation of the Danish kings (1016-1040). They were well-armed, well-trained, and fiercely loyal. They served as bodyguard troops for the kings and earls.
The English army used horses mainly for getting to the battle where they would fight on foot. There was long held this notion by historians of the past that the English’s lack of a mobile fighting force at Hastings led to their downfall. If that had been the case, the Battle of Hastings would have been over and done with by lunchtime. The fact is the housecarle had in his possession a great equalizer in the form of a long handle ax called the Dane Ax. Properly used, the Dane Ax could bring down horse and rider with one blow. It apparently left such an impact on the mounted Norman knights, that William had the Dane Ax banned in England once he became king.
The Battle of Hastings was a 9 to 5 battle literally. The action started at 9 when a Norman minstrel with a head full of old epic songs charged wildly at the English shield wall in a bit of dashing heroics. This would-be Lancelot was quickly cut down and the professionals got down to the grim business of killing.Archers attacked first raining arrows down on the English. It was more of a drizzle than a rain of arrows. This was not Agincourt where archers won the day. Also the Norman archers had the disadvantage of shooting uphill. French sources though claim shields were shattered and bodies transfixed but more than likely this description was a bit of artistic license.
A charging Norman knight is checked by a spear
The infantry charged in next. First both sides exchanged javelins and the like before rushing together. The Norman infantry failed to make a dint in the English shield wall. Next the famed Norman cavalry, the wave of the future, crashed into the shield wall with all its might then broke and ran. It was only a little after 9:30 and already the well-organized Normans were in big trouble. Many of the English broke ranks to slaughter the retreating Normans. A rumor went up that William himself was dead. The Battle of Hastings was suddenly in danger of becoming a minor footnote in British history when William removed his helmet to show rumors of his death had been greatly exaggerated if not outright fabricated. He got his demoralized army back in order with grim predictions of the death that awaited everyone in this foreign sea-locked land if they did not unite and fight on.At this point Harold almost won the Battle of Hastings but things went to hell quickly. It’s believed by some scholars that the English were on the verge of a massive charge when Harold’s two brothers who were at the front center of the charge were cut down. The charge collapsed and the Normans counterattacked killing many of the English who had broken ranks to pursue them. They surrounded a group of English on a small hill and slaughter every one of them while the rest of the English looked on helplessly.
A group of cut-off English are cut down
The climatic moment was over. The rest of the day was one of grueling attrition — attack, attack, attack. William used feigned retreats to pull the eager but inexperienced fryd members out of their ranks before cutting them down. The English were being slowly whittled down. They were also becoming exhausted. The Norman army could be rotated and rested whereas many of the English fought from morning till evening (if they survived).
Still the English shield wall stood damnably firm. As the afternoon wore on, a 20-man kamikaze cavalry squad made a mad dash to seize the English banner and to cut down Harold if they could. They failed and their leader was killed.
Normans finish off a poor Englishman
What is amazing about the whole affair is not that William won the Battle of Hastings but that the English survived as long as they did. They lacked archers, they lacked mobility, they lacked rest. Many of them were not professional fighters. Others still carried wounds from Stamford Bridge. Yet despite all this, the weary English fended off one of the most professional armies of the day for hours and they almost won. Had William landed before Hardrada, chances are England and her present day former colonies would probably be speaking either Norwegian or a form of Old English today.
William was probably fretting as the afternoon wore on. If he did not finish off the English before nightfall, they could regroup and fight another day. The conquest of England could takes weeks, months, or years and by then many of William’s army would have been dead or probably would have deserted a perceived losing cause. Then Harold was killed.
The Norman infantry coming at the formidable English shieldwall again
What the highborn knights failed to do, some anonymous lowly underpaid archer accomplished by firing an arrow high into the sky and by sheer luck landing it in Harold’s eye. Four knights then rushed in to finish off the wounded king. Actually there is still academic debate as to whether or not Harold was killed by an arrow or if he was cut down by Norman knights or if it was a combination of both. What is certain is that Harold was indeed killed. The English army disintegrated and the Battle of Hastings was assured its rightful place in British history as the stepping stone towards greater and bigger things (from a Norman perspective).
The Battle of Hastings was one of those rare battles in which the fate of an entire nation is decided. Although there was still resistance to the Normans, many of England’s leaders had fallen at Hastings so the resistance lacked a centralizing element to be effective.
A priest surveys the carnage
History students may recall what followed the brief lecture of the Battle of Hastings was the Domesday Book — a book of invaluable information to historians today. The Domesday Book wrapped up the whole realm of England into a taxable entity from the most luxurious of manor homes to the ricketiest of peasant huts. It was basically just one huge shakedown designed to fill the coffers of the king and his nobles.
William comes a little too close for comfort
It might seem the English took their defeat to heart and simply rolled over for William. Even William thought the English would easily take to his rule and this is also the impression left in many school history lectures whose instructors are probably impatient to move onto more important things like the Magna Carta. This was not the case and William was sadly delusional in this matter. Despite losing so many men in the fighting of 1066, the English of Northumbria rebelled just a few years later. This prompted William to ravage the northern area of England so badly that even he, hard-bitten warrior that he was, felt guilty on his deathbed for what he had done there.
The Normans close-in at the end of the day to finish off the remaining English
The Norman conquest changed the course of British history, culture, and language. The next century saw castles built all over England in order control the population. The ruling class was predominantly French-speaking Normans while the Saxon English became second-class citizens in their own country. England became an occupied land and it was a considerable amount of time before the Norman-ruling class became Anglo-sized enough to consider themselves English.
Probably the reason for the lack of a good novel, or Shakespeare play, or Hollywood film on the Battle of Hastings is the confusion on how to present the outcome of the battle. Was it a victory or a defeat? Was Harold a tragic hero or an incompetent usurper? Was William the Conqueror a bold leader bringing civilization and culture to backwater England or a greedy grasping insecure invader?
Mounted Normans run down an English soldier
One prevalent way in which the Battle of Hastings over the course of the centuries has been depicted as that on one hand it was a tragic defeat for the English people but on the other that a greater nation was destined to rise from the aftermath of the battle. As retired Field Marshal Montgomery, a descendant of Norman invaders himself, was keen to put it to a young pro-Harold Michael Wood: “You see, my boy, the greatness of England would have never been possible without the Normans.”
-Michael Wood, In Search of England: Journeys Into the English Past, 1999
Norman and Allied Infantry are practically left out of the Bayeux Tapestry
In the end, the true tragedy of the 1066 and the Battle of Hastings must be the fate of Harold Godwinson. Too much is made of his loss and not what he had accomplished and could have accomplished had he lived. The year 1066 really belongs to him not William although he lost and William won. By maintaining his country throughout the year in the face of a potential invasion then defeating another invasion which came completely out of the blue, Harold showed his quality. Had he lived and defeated the Normans at Hastings, England might have had one of its greatest kings. Harold might have led his country to a greater destiny than we will ever know.
The What-Could-Have-Been King
Harold Godwinson marching to meet the Normans and his destiny
“On taking the helm of the kingdom, [Harold] immediately began to abolish unjust laws and make good ones; … to show himself pious, humble, and affable to all good men: but he treated malefactors with the utmost severity, … and he himself laboured by sea and by land for the protection of his country.”
Harold Godwinson was a literate man in a vastly illiterate world. He was known to own several books – again another medieval rarity. His father Godwin was cunning political survivor who raised himself and his family to the heights of power in England. Godwin secured for his sons the powerful position of Earl of the various sections of England. After his death, Harold was the strongest earl in the kingdom. As brother-in-law to the king he had tremendous influence.
Several years before the Battle of Hastings, Harold won military renown for defeating the Welsh in a series of lightening-quick campaigns. Speed and surprise was his favorite tactic which he employed so successfully at the Battle of Stamford Bridge. It would not avail him at the Hastings where an expectant William awaited.
Harold didn’t really have to win the Battle of Hastings. All he had to do was fend off the Normans till nightfall. By that time more English would have arrived and more importantly the English navy would be in position to block the Normans’ retreat. Harold’s death threw all of that into disarray. It’s believed he is buried at Waltham Abbey. Another version is that in the form of an ironic jest, William had his body buried on a hill near Hastings so as to forever guard England’s shore from invasion.
Harold was a shrewd and able leader in both administration and war. He practically ran the country during the declining years of Edward the Confessor’s reign. He apparently possessed foresight and a good sense of national duty. He sided against his own brother for the good of the kingdom when his brother’s subjects rebelled against his earldom. His downfall was that he may have been too overconfident and too rash in meeting the Normans in battle so soon after fighting a major battle in the north. However, he almost won and had he done so, he might very well have gone down in history as one of England’s mightiest kings.
A Viking Interlude
1066 And All That Redux Part Two
All lay fallen
In the swampy water
Gashed by weapons
And the hardy
Men of Norway
Could cross the marsh
On a causeway of corpses.”
– King Harald Hardrada of Norway on the Battle of Fulford, 1066
The English were viciously mauled at the Battle of Fulford by the third contender for the throne
1066 was a record-breaking year of amazing feats. In England, Harold mobilized the local militia, known as the fyrd, throughout the southeastern coast in anticipation of William’s visit. He kept the fyrds mobilized for over four months something which had never been done before and speaks to Harold’s administrative qualities.
Across the channel, William was also showing his abilities in assembling and maintaining an army of vassals, allies, and mercenaries. The winds were against him throughout the summer when campaigning would have been ideal. Keeping that motley horde under control through those longs weeks of peace was a feat in itself. During these idle months of waiting, he was able to secure papal support through adroit politic maneuvers. With papal support, William’s cause suddenly took on a holy crusade-like air that brought in more allies but more importantly made the whole endeavor more legitimate.
A mustering of the English militia may have looked like this in 1066
The stage was set for these two titans to fight it out but the winds that kept William in Normandy sent a dark horse contender to England’s northern shores. Literally out of the blue and sailing on the thinnest of claims to the English throne came King Harald Hardrada of Norway along with thousands of lusty plunder-seeking Norse adventurers. They came in longboats much like their heathen Viking ancestors of previous centuries did when they came to raid England.
At this point, history students might shake their heads in disbelief. 1066 was all about Harold and William: Anglo-Saxons and Normans, right? What the hell were Vikings doing in 1066? No doubt Harold was wondering the same thing as he scrambled to deal with this unforeseen threat. Thus began a dramatic episode that is often left out in the brief accounts of 1066.
English soldiers on the move
|Harald Hardrada: A Viking’s Viking
—Last of the Vikings
“Where battle-storm was ringing,
Harald Hardrada was a legend in his own time. He could rightly be considered the last of the Vikings although he was Christian at least in name but not practice. He fought battles from the Eastern Mediterranean world to Scandinavia and ended his career fighting in England. Hardrada fought in his first battle when he was only 15. He found himself on the losing side and wounded. He left Norway and took service with the Byzantine Empire. The Byzantines had been impressed with the courage and hardiness of Hardrada’s people for years having been attacked by them in the past. They formed an elite troop known as the Varangian Guard composed solely of Norsemen. Hardrada quickly gained their respect and went on to fight numerous battles for the Byzantines.
Hardrada employed various strategies cunning and cruel to win his battles. He used birds set on fire to burn out one town and faked his own death to gain access to another one. He eventually fell out with the Byzantines and was imprisoned but in another of his daring exploits he escaped. Hardrada returned to Norway laden with booty and fame. He shared the throne with his half-nephew and when that nephew conveniently died, Hardrada assumed the whole country. He waged a futile destructive war with Denmark for 15 years before finally concluding a truce. Hardrada and his men had been at peace for two years itching for action when blessed opportunity for war came sailing their way in the form of the English king’s embittered brother, Tostig. For Hardrada and many that followed him to England, it would be their last journey.
Hardrada was clever, lucky, and resourceful but he was also cruel, dishonest, and greedy even by Viking standards. He fought mainly for the love of battle. He was a tall man for the times. At the brief negotiation session before the Battle of Stamford Bridge, King Harold Godwinson offered Hardrada “seven feet of English ground, or as much more as he may be taller than other men.” King Harold, however, permitted the surviving Norsemen to take Hardrada’s body back to Norway for proper burial.
What brought Hardrada to England’s shore in the first place is another bit of the year’s complexity — Harold’s embittered estranged brother, Tostig. A favorite of the old king and former Earl of Northumbria in Northern England, Tostig was a minor player in the scheme of things yet his actions had serious impact on the upcoming Battle of Hastings.
Tostig hated his brother because he believed Harold had betrayed him. A year earlier, Tostig’s subjects rebelled against him. Although the old king was willing to ravage the area for Tostig’s sake, Harold made peace with the rebels for the good of the realm. Tostig never forgave him. In May of 1066, Tostig set off the chain of events leading to the Battle of Hastings by attacking southern England with 60 ships. They were minor affairs but it made Harold call out the fyrd earlier than he would have. He thought William would soon follow in force but in actuality William was still making preparations. Keeping the fyrd mobilized for four months eventually taxed Harold’s resources and he disbanded it in early September, less than two weeks before Hardrada’s army landed.
The English militia faced months of idleness waiting for the Norman Conquest
Tostig had been chased off but the hatred of his brother drove him on so off he went to the court of the great Harald Hardrada. He promised the king support of the English nobles. He was bluffing but Hardrada was seriously out-of-touch with current events and it might have been that he wouldn’t have cared anyway. Hardrada was fifty at the time so his gambit might have been one last great jaunt before retirement. Hardrada’s thin claim rested with a promise from one of the earlier Danish Kings of England some decades ago that had been made to Hardrada’s predecessor. Again, the whole affair smacks more of daring-do and just for the hell of it rather than a righteous struggle for the throne.
In yet another of the amazing feats of the year, Hardrada raised an impressive force of over 10,000 warriors in short time and sailed a large fleet to the British Isles. He burned the town of Scarborough in northern England to the ground mainly just for the fun of it. Then on September 20, Hardrada completely smashed an English army at the Battle of Fulford near the city of York. His victory, however, would later prove his undoing.
The Battle of Fulford cost Harold men that he could have used at the Battle of Hastings
The city of York submitted and its leaders promised to meet him with 500 hostages at nearby Stamford Bridge five days later. Hardrada was pleased as he could be. He had had a great time of it burning, looting, and fighting. The northern area was defenseless and Harold was far south. It seemed now a simple matter to hole up in York and fight Harold for the crown — but at a later time. Now was a time for feasting and celebrating.
Medieval battles were up close and personal
The morning of the 25th probably found a number of Norse soldiers at Stamford Bridge more than a little hung-over. Many of them were unarmored since they were only going as a show of force. Soon their bloodshot eyes spied in the distance the dust kicked up by the approaching hostages.
It was an awful lot of dust.
Weren’t hostages supposed to be unarmed?
Suddenly it dawned on them that what was approaching was a heavily-armed hostile army!
Harold’s forced march from London to York was an incredible stunt for those times
In complete disbelief, the Norsemen watched in mounting horror and growing sobriety as an army led by King Harold Godwinson, who should have still been far south mustering troops, came bearing right down on top of them. It was going to be a long day.
‘the army grew greater the nearer it came, and it looked like a sheet of ice when the weapons glittered.’
– Snorri Sturlasson, Heimkringla (“Saga of Hardrada”), 13th Century.
The (modern) bridge at Stamford where many Norsemen met their end long ago
Another record had been broken that year in 1066. If Hardrada had surprised Harold, Harold more than returned the favor by defying military logistics of the day in marching an army from London to York, a distance of 190 miles, in just four days – a thing unheard of at that time. On the evening of the 24th, the surprised citizens of York greeted him as a liberating hero. This was Harold’s finest hour. On the next morning he rode out to fight a living legend.
The English victory at the Battle of Stamford Bridge owed a lot to Harold’s abilities to inspire men to follow him and fight
The Battle of Stamford Bridge has been called by some medieval scholars the last great battle of the Dark Ages. It was long, brutal, and bloody. Both sides fought mostly on foot and hacked at each other with axes and swords just as their ancestors had done for centuries since the time of Beowulf.
A placard at Stamford Bridge displaying the battle
|Defense of Stamford Bridge
Lone Beserker holds English army at bay briefly
One incident at the Battle of Stamford Bridge that was remembered by English writers of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles was the defense of the bridge at Stamford by a lone berserker warrior. This lone warrior who more than likely did not wear a horned helmet stood off the approaching English army allowing his brethren time to set up their ranks.
“…but there was one of the Norwegians who withstood the English folk, so that they could not pass over the bridge, nor complete the victory. An Englishman aimed at him with a javelin, but it availed nothing. Then came another under the bridge, who pierced him terribly inwards under the coat of mail.”
It’s debatable whether the incident really happened or not but it’s true to the nature of the Norsemen.
The Norsemen actually received reinforcements from their ships but many were too exhausted to be of any use
Although the Norsemen were taken by surprise and many of them were without armor, they fought hard and killed many of Harold’s men before they themselves fell. Hardrada, the veteran of countless battles since he was 15, died a Viking death in battle; his throat pierced by an arrow.
The Battle of Stamford Bridge was a fierce fight in which many on both sides perished
Reinforcements from the Norse fleet eventually arrived but many were so exhausted from the effort of getting there that they collapsed. The English pushed the remaining Norsemen back to their fleet.
An exhausted Norseman is finished off
Against Harold’s wishes, Tostig was killed during the latter part of the battle. The Battle of Stamford Bridge raged from morning till night. By the end the Norsemen were utterly defeated and the few survivors sued for peace. Harold granted them safe passage and they sailed away on only 24 ships having originally come in 300.
The English close in to finish off the Norsemen
Harold had lost a brother but he had gained a great victory which if hadn’t been for that “other” battle would probably still be praised to this today. He spent a week in York probably convinced William would not set out until next spring if his army had not fallen apart before then. Amidst a victory feast in the days that followed the battle, a breathless messenger arrived at the king’s table. The news that Harold had dreaded to hear ever since he took the crown had at last arrived — William had finally come to England.
Next: The Battle of Hastings
Very few Norsemen sailed back to Norway after the battle
1066 and All That Redux Part 1
The well known, little known Battle of Hastings
“In the Year 1066 occurred the other memorable date in English History … The Battle of Hastings, and was when William I (1066) conquered England … The Norman Conquest was a Good Thing, as from this time onwards England stopped being conquered and thus was able to become top nation.”
– 1066 And All That, William Carruthers Sellar and Robert Julian Yeatman
The Battle of Hastings reverently remembered with a pub sign
October usually means Halloween for most people — pumpkins, witches, ghosts, and the like. In mid-October, U.S. government workers get the day off for Columbus Day (Oct. 12). What is often overlooked in this month of ghouls and explorers is the anniversary of one of the most important events in the English-speaking world: 1066 and the Battle of Hastings.
1066 — it’s a year that’s beaten mercilessly into the heads of every school child throughout the English-speaking world and then some. 1066 and all that with Anglo-Saxons and Normans battling it out for control of England in the epic Battle of Hastings. It’s the best known and yet least known turning point in English history. There are no movies, Shakespeare plays, or novels of any note on the subject despite there being plenty of material for such. It’s as though the fame of the event ensured its obscurity.
Lethargic academics of yore wrapped 1066 into a nice, neat (not too mention: boring!) package which most people take for granted that they know what’s on the inside without bothering to actually look. For many 1066 is the start of English history proper. All that stuff before 1066 — Celts, Romans, Arthur, Alfred, Vikings, etc. — has been regulated to the files of the historically unimportant and immaterial. Anglo-Saxon history suffered the worst in this regard with only Alfred the Great getting any lime light.
1066 was more than just “all that” for those who fought and died that year
The main important fact to take away from 1066 and the Battle of Hastings is simply that the Anglo-Saxons lost and the Normans won due to their overall superiority. Pencils down.
The names of the major players (mainly two) at the Battle of Hastings are well known. There’s the winner — William the Conqueror — and there’s the loser — Harold Godwinson who got an arrow in his eye for all his trouble. What is often overlooked is that William was actually Guilliame. He was a French-speaker while Harold’s English would have left a lot of modern English speakers today baffled.
William the Conqueror and Harold Godwinson face off in a stain glass window
William as the story goes was promised the English crown on the death of the old king, Edward the Confessor. The crown was given to the Earl Harold Godwinson instead in a shocking display of medieval democracy. William under the laws of the day felt his thin relationship to the old king and the king’s unsubstantiated promise gave him the righteous authority to take the crown by force. In today’s time, William’s claim wouldn’t pass a grand jury but in those days of divine right and kinship, it was enough to secure William support financially, militarily, and spiritually.
A typical professional fighter of the 11th century
1066 and all that was actually quite complex despite the attempt to oversimplify the whole affair. For one thing there was not one great battle that year but three — the two earlier battles having had significant impact on the outcome of the one at Hastings.
To understand 1066, it’s important to go way back to 1016.
1016 England witnessed a Scandinavian invasion that ended with a foreign king upon the English throne. The Anglo-Saxon heirs to the throne fled to Normandy. It was there that the future king, Edward the Confessor, grew up until he was called back to England after the death of the Scandinavian king and his two sons.
The Battle of Hastings depicted on a battle site marker in the aptly named town, Battle
Edward was more Norman than Saxon and his mother was sister to the Duke of Normandy, William’s grandfather. Edward allegedly promised William the crown in return for Norman hospitality while he was in exile.
A man of the times – medieval times
While Edward whiled away his exile in Normandy, a powerful earl came to power under the Scandinavian kings. This was Godwin, the father of Harold. Godwin was a power to be reckoned with when Edward came to the throne. Edward’s nomination of several Normans to key position kicked up a row with Godwin’s faction that ended with the Normans being expelled. Against his will, Edward married a daughter of Godwin to maintain the peace.
A re-enactor playing William the Conquorer at the Re-enactment of the Battle of Hastings
Despite his feelings for his father-in-law, Edward liked his brothers-in-law (who were actually young enough to have been his sons if he hadn’t sworn a holy vow to remain celibate). Particularly he liked Harold and his younger brother Tostig.
When Edward died he entrusted his wife and his kingdom in Harold’s capable hands. Harold had been practically running the affairs of the country for sometime while the otherworldly Edward devoted his time to spiritual matters and erecting Westminster Abbey.
King Harold Godwinson – the last English king
Although Harold had no royal blood, he was elected by the English council to be the next king in January 1066. Here was a king of English stock, elected by the English, and supported perhaps by more of the country than many kings before him. Harold might have ushered in a new golden age of prosperity and unity if not for two other men with claims to the throne and for the sticky matter of an oath he made some years ago to one of them.
Norman cavalry troops – the precursors of the knight in shining armor
Across the channel, William the Duke of Normandy was absolutely furious. He had believed he would be named king. He after all was related to the last king albeit distantly and he had a promise albeit vague from that king. If the promise and kinship weren’t enough, William had another ace in the hole — he had the sacred oath of Harold to defend his rights to the English crown.
An Anglo-Saxon Housecarle – one the elite soldiers of Harold’s army
Some years earlier, Harold wound up shipwrecked in Brittany and taken captive. William graciously paid for his ransom and later pressed Harold to make an oath swearing allegiance. What Harold didn’t know until it was too late was that he had sworn the oath on sacred relics that William had hidden beneath a cloth.
Today that oath would be thrown out of court for being both coercive and dishonest. However in medieval times, oaths were strong bonds especially those sworn over sacred relics. It was enough to paint Harold as a profane oath-breaker and an usurper.
The formidable English shield wall at the Battle of Hastings
Harold and the English were little perturbed by this. They did not want a Norman king and that was final. The oath to them was of little worth due to the circumstances surrounding it. They showed an amazing amount of progressive thinking while the Normans looked like superstitious savages in comparison. Did the upcoming Battle of Hastings really move England forward as historians of the past long proclaimed? Or was it really a setback?
NEXT: A Viking Interlude
Norman knights clash with English foot soldiers
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