Setting the Stage: William’s Army

William, Duke of Normandy, was faced not only with raising an army, but the larger task of forming an invasion force. Not only would he have to fight when he arrived in England, he would have to tackle the logistical nightmare of getting his troops, horses, weapons, armor and supplies across the English Channel.  Ships were expensive and William, even at his high station, would never be able to afford to assemble the force and ships necessary on his own.  As he rallied moneyed and noble allies to his cause, he made it clear to them that they would have to supply their share of ships as well as troops.

That William crossed the channel with well over 500 ships carrying some 5000 men is a testament to William’s persuasiveness.  That he held the Pope’s endorsement and promised nobles titles and lands far beyond their present holdings when they conquered England no doubt helped as well.  One impressive measure of the amount of nobility recruited to the cause is the fact that almost a quarter of William’s invasion force were calvary – mounted soldiers who were typically at least minor nobles with enough wealth to maintain a stock of horses, armor, and supporting personnel.

William also fielded an impressive division of archers which served as the artillery of the time.  They wore little to no armor as they engaged the enemy from a distance, shooting their arrows in great arcs from the rear of the attack, over the friendly forces and into the enemy formations.  As with modern artillery, the idea was to “soften up” the enemy formations by taking out as many as possible before engaging with infantry (foot soldiers) and calvary.  Though the Saxon King, Harold, never fielded a calvary force, he was well aware of the power of artillery – unfortunately, his archers would not catch up with his infantry in time for the Battle of Hastings.

William’s forces were roughly divided into three large groups, the largest being the Norman forces directly under William’s control.  The Normans fielded something like 1000 calvary, more than 500 archers, and up to 2500 infantry.  His compatriots Eustace of Boulogne and William fitzOsbern led a force of more than 700 Flemish infantry, another 400 archers and perhaps as many calvary.  The third force was composed of 1000 Breton infantry, another 400 archers, and perhaps as many as 600 mounted Breton calvary led by Alan Fergant.

Landing a force this size would have been extremely difficult, if not impossible, under fire.  If William had crossed in July when he wanted to, Harold would have been waiting to shred his troops as they disembarked.  Weather and logistics delayed William, though, and by the time he was able to cross in October, Harold was drawn to the north to fight back a Viking invasion, and William was able to land and form a beachhead unopposed.  By the time Harold was able to march his army south to face William, William’s force was dug in, organized, and ready for battle.

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Published in: on November 1, 2009 at 1:05 pm  Leave a Comment  
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