Was the Winner at Hastings a Forgone Conclusion?

Many people think that William’s victory at Hastings was a foregone conclusion; after all, he was quickly tagged “William the Conqueror” and his victory ended the reign of Saxons in England. But asuming the battle of hastings was a route would be a significant mistake. Nothing could be further than the truth, in fact: at dawn on October 14, 1066, the outcome was too close to call.
Had Harold Godwinson been allowed to encamp and prepare for William’s landing, he probably would have utterly destroyed the Normans as they landed in Engalnd after traversing the Channel from France. However, Harold was forced to march his army over 200 miles north to address a viking invasion near York.

William fortuitously landed on the Sussex coast when Harold was preoccupied with this invasion in the north. On hearing of William’s arrival, Harold immediately began a forced march south from York, refusing to wait in London for reinforcements, and arriving in the vicinity of Hastings on the night of 13 October. Less than three weeks earlier, at Stamford Bridge, he had defeated the army of Norwegian King Haraldr Harðraða, which he had caught completely by surprise. Now he hoped to repeat this successful strategy against William. Harold was perhaps overconfident from his fresh victory. Waiting in London to rest and collect reinforcements may have made the difference between vctory and defaet.

William was forewarned by his scouts and attacked Harold’s force before a third of it was drawn up, forcing him into a strong but confined defensive position on Senlac ridge. Harold, moreover, had lost some of his best men in the earlier battles of Fulford Gate and Stamford Bridge on 20 and 25 September.

The Norman archers, supported by heavy infantry, began the battle, but made little headway against the close infantry formations of the Anglo-Saxons, so densely arrayed, noted Duke William’s biographer William of Poitiers, that the dead could not even fall.

Assaults by the Norman cavalry initially fared little better, and the well-equipped housecarls did terrible execution with their great two-handed axes. William’s left, comprised of Bretons, broke in panic amidst rumors that the duke was slain, and William narrowly avoided catastrophe by rallying his fleeing men and removing his helmet to show he was still alive.

Launching a counter-attack, the Normans cut down those Saxons who had broken ranks in pursuit, and, exploiting the efficacy of this manoeuvre, they executed several ‘feigned flights’ with considerable success. Renewed assaults by Norman archers and knights gradually thinned the remaining English formation, which lacked sufficient archers to neutralize the Norman missilemen. Harold’s death effectively ended the battle; wounded first in the eye by an arrow, he was then cut down by Norman knights.

Hastings was by no means the inevitable triumph of feudal heavy cavalry over ‘outmoded’ Germanic infantry; the battle raged from dawn to dusk, the Normans came close to complete disaster, and it was chance alone that Harold, not William, was slain. Contemporaries regarded the battle as so closely fought that only divine intervention could explain William’s eventual victory.

Published in: on August 8, 2009 at 1:07 pm  Leave a Comment  
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