the Battle of Hastings
Just two or three days after King Harold Godwinesson's sanguinary victory over the invasion force of King Harald Hardrada of Norway, at Stamford Bridge on September 25th 1066, William 'the Bastard', Duke of Normandy, set sail for England with his own invasion force.
The caption to this scene in the Bayeux Tapestry translates as: "Here Duke William crosses in a large ship over the sea and came to Pevensey". William's flag ship, Mora, which was presented to him by his wife, Matilda, is shown with a lantern at the top of its mast. Since the Channel crossing was carried out overnight, the lantern acted as a beacon for the fleet to follow.  Note
Master Wace writes: "... I heard my father say - I remember it well, though I was a young lad - that when they set off from Saint-Valery there were seven hundred ships less four, either ships, boats or skiffs, carrying weapons or equipment. I have discovered in writing - I do not know if it is true - that there were three thousand ships under sail."  The exaggerated figure of 3,000 ships comes from William of Jumièges. Geffrei Gaimar overstates the case further, claiming the fleet comprised "at least eleven thousand ships". More reasonably, William of Poitiers says the fleet was in excess of 1000 ships. A 'Ship List', dating from c.1067-72, of contributors to Williams fleet, itemises 776 ships, and puts the total size of the fleet at 1000 ships. Orderic Vitalis talks of a force of "fifty thousand knights [i.e. mounted fighters] and a great company of foot-soldiers". In 'The Godwins' (first published 2002), Frank Barlow writes: "The size of the expeditionary force can only be conjectured. Some 20,000 men and 500 ships would seem to be the top limit; ten thousand effectives is probably closer to the mark."
In fact, William's preparations had been complete for some time. He had originally gathered his fleet at the mouth of the Dives river, but the weather refused to cooperate and William was trapped by unfavourable winds for a month. As things turned out, this delay worked to William's advantage. Harold, who had assembled a massive military presence on the south coast, had to send home his army and fleet due to lack of provisions. At this point, William took advantage of a westerly wind to move his fleet to St.Valery, at the mouth of the Somme, which considerably reduced the distance which the fleet would have to travel to reach England. William, once more, waited for the southerly wind he needed.
"Here you had a long and difficult delay, for you spent fully fifteen days in those parts, awaiting the help of the Supreme Judge... You looked to see by what wind the weathercock of the church was turned... The feast of Michael was about to be celebrated throughout the world when God granted everything according to your desire."
With the wind in his favour at last, William quickly mustered his ships. In order to make landfall in daylight, the fleet sailed through the night.
"They were borne by a favourable wind to Pevensey where they made an unopposed landing."
William of Poitiers
"... Earl William came up from Normandy into Pevensey on the eve of St.Michael's mass [i.e. on 28th September] ..."
'Anglo-Saxon Chronicle' Manuscript D
"... he at once raised a strongly entrenched castle. Leaving a force of knights in that, he hastened on to Hastings where he quickly raised another."  Note
William of Jumièges
According to Wace, the Normans had shipped prefabricated components to enable the rapid construction of a fortification. He also claims that William had the fleet disabled ("broken up and pulled up on land with holes in them") to prevent desertion. (The 'Chronicle of Battle Abbey' says that William had most of the boats burnt). William of Poitiers, however, insists that the castles were built as much for the defence of the ships as the men.  Note
"Having gained control, though over no great space, your people attacked the region, laid it waste, and burnt it with fire. Small wonder, for the foolish folk denied that you were king! Therefore they perished justly and went to destruction."
'Carmen de Hastingae Proelio'
Harold was, apparently, still in York when word of the invasion reached him.
"When king Harold heard it he invested the archbishop Aldret [Ealdred, archbishop of York] with part of the great treasure and the goods that he had conquered from the Norwegians."
Geffrei Gaimar
"... the king at once, and in great haste, marched his army towards London ..."
William of Malmesbury asserts that many men deserted Harold because he wouldn't share-out the loot taken at Stamford Bridge.
Whilst Harold was in London, Orderic Vitalis says that his mother, Gytha, and brother, Earl Gyrth, advised caution, but Harold would not listen:
"Then for six days he sent far and wide to summon the populace to war, gathered a huge multitude of Englishmen around him, and hastened to battle against the enemy....
Gaimar: "He employed five days in assembling them, but he could not collect many, because of the great number of people who were killed, when God did justice on the Norwegians."
.... His plan was to catch them unawares and overwhelm them by an unexpected or night attack; and to prevent them escaping in flight he kept seventy heavily armed ships at sea."
"... and though he well knew that some of the bravest Englishmen had fallen in his two battles [Fulford and Stamford Bridge], and that one half of his army had not yet arrived, he did not hesitate to advance with all speed into South Saxony against his enemies ..."
Florence of Worcester
"Harold went into Sussex, he brought what people he could with him. His two brothers assembled followers; they went with him to give battle to the people from beyond the sea; one was Gerd [Gyrth], the other Lefwin [Leofwine]."
When Duke William had first set foot on English soil, he couldn't have known the outcome of the struggle which had occurred, some 250 miles/400 kilometres to his north, only three or four days previously. According to William of Poitiers, one "Robert, son of the noble lady Guimora", a wealthy Norman who lived in "those parts [the vicinity of Hastings?]", sent a message informing Duke William of Harold's resounding victory at Stamford Bridge, of his rapid approach "at the head of a great force", and advising William to be cautious. William sent back the reply: "I shall not seek the shelter of fosse or walls but do battle with Harold as soon as possible; nor would I doubt my ability to destroy him and his had I but 10,000 men of the same bravery as the 60,000 that in fact I lead."  The numbers are, of course, exaggerations. The 'Carmen' and William of Poitiers report that there was an exchange of messages, carried by monks, between Harold and Duke William. Harold demanded Norman withdrawal from England. In reply, William stated the legitimacy of his own claim to the throne and, according to William of Poitiers, offered to solve the dispute by single combat - a suggestion at which Harold "turned pale".  Note
"The courageous leaders mutually prepared for battle, each according to his national custom. The English, as we have heard, passed the night without sleep, in drinking and singing, and in the morning proceeded without delay against the enemy... On the other hand, the Normans passed the whole night in confessing their sins, and received the communion of the Lord's Body in the morning."
William of Malmesbury
Estimates vary, but it is possible that, in terms of numbers at least, the armies were fairly evenly matched at about seven thousand each. William's army was a professional force, picked for the task. The core of Harold's army appears to have been the housecarls and thegns of Harold and his brothers, Gyrth and Leofwine, but the bulk was composed of hastily assembled shire leviesNote
The 'Carmen de Hastingae Proelio':
"The duke ... advancing before his lines, called in the knights and summarily compelled them to fall back, and with a lance he made them readily assemble in close order ... he drew up the armed ranks by a command. He dispatched the foot in advance to open the battle with arrows, and set crossbow-men in the midst so that their speeding shafts might pierce the faces of the English (these wounds given, they might fall back). He hoped to establish the knights in the rear of the foot but the onset of the battle did not allow this; for he perceived companies of the English appearing not far off and could see the forest glitter, full of spears... Suddenly the forest poured forth troops of men, and from the hiding-places of the woods a host dashed forward....
The contemporary English description of the battle of Hastings, in Manuscript D of the 'Anglo-Saxon Chronicle', is very brief indeed, however, it does note that Harold: "... gathered a large force, and came to meet him [William] at the hoary apple-tree. And William came against him unawares, ere his army was drawn up."  William of Poitiers says that "the banner which the pope had sent" was carried in the vanguard of William's army.
.... There was a hill near the forest and a neighbouring valley and the ground was untilled because of its roughness. Coming on in massed order - the English custom - they seized possession of this place for the battle. (A race ignorant of war, the English scorn the solace of horses and trusting in their strength they stand fast on foot; and they count it the highest honour to die in arms that their native soil may not pass under another yoke)....
Orderic Vitalis: "... a great multitude of the English flocked together from all sides to the place whose early name was Senlac, some desiring to support Harold's cause, but all wishing to defend their country against invasion."  'Senlac' is a Frenchified form of the Anglo-Saxon 'Sandlacu' i.e. 'sand-stream'. The battle site is some 7 miles/11 kilometres north-west of modern Hastings. William of Poitiers: "... not daring to fight on equal terms with William whom they [the English] feared more than the king of Norway, they took up position on higher ground."
.... Preparing to meet the enemy, the king mounted the hill and strengthened both his wings with noble men. On the highest point of the summit he planted his banner, and ordered his other standards to be set up. All the men dismounted and left their horses in the rear, and taking their stand on foot they let the trumpets sound for battle."
The battle of Hastings began at 'the third hour' (i.e. 9 a.m.) on Saturday October 14th 1066.
The 'Carmen' tells the yarn of how, during the tense period before the armies engaged, a mounted entertainer, named Taillefer, rode to the front of the duke's forces, and juggled with his sword. Taillefer was attacked by an Englishman. The Englishman was killed and decapitated by Taillefer, giving heart to William's men, and spurring them into battle.  Note
Harold's men formed a densely packed shield-wall, indeed, according to Florence of Worcester, the English were so confined by the narrowness of their position that many had to withdraw from the ranks. William began his assault:
"First the bands of archers attacked and from a distance transfixed bodies with their shafts and the crossbow-men destroyed the shields as if by a hail-storm, shattered them by countless blows.
'Carmen de Hastingae Proelio'
"They [the English], on the other hand, valiantly resisted, each according to his ability. They threw spears and weapons of every kind, murderous axes and stones tied to sticks."
William of Poitiers
William led his knights against the English ranks:
"Now the French attacked the left, the Bretons the right, the duke with the Normans fought in the centre. the English stood firm on their ground in the closest order. They met missile with missile, sword-stroke with sword-stroke; bodies could not be laid down, nor did the dead give place to living soldiers, for each corpse though lifeless stood as if unharmed and held its post ..."
'Carmen de Hastingae Proelio'
"Thus for some time the fight was waged with the utmost vigour on both sides. The English were greatly helped by the advantage of the high ground which they, in closest array, could hold on the defensive; also by their great number and massed strength; and further, by their weapons which could easily find a way through shields and other defences....
This must be a reference to the two-handed battle-axe.
....Thus they vigorously resisted or repulsed those who bravely attacked them at close quarters with the sword. They even wounded those who hurled javelins at them from a distance."
William of Poitiers
The next stage of the battle is told differently in the 'Carmen' and by William of Poitiers. According to the 'Carmen' the French knights, "versed in stratagems", pretended to retreat, thus luring some English troops to leave the ranks in pursuit. (These troops are referred to as "the English peasantry"). The French knights then turned on the pursuing English and large numbers were killed, however:
"The English people, prevailing by their number, repulsed the enemy and by their might compelled him to turn - and then the flight which had first been a ruse became enforced by valour. The Normans fled, their shields covered their backs!"
Duke William acts to halt the retreat. He raises his helmet to show his fury at the Normans, and gives a shaming speech to the French. His forces return to the fight. According to William of Poitiers (whose account, it has to be said, is much clearer, though he clearly applies a pro-Norman spin), however:
"... behold! the footsoldiers and also the Breton knights, together with all the auxiliaries on the left wing, are driven back. Almost the whole ducal army falls away - though this may be said without disparagement of the invincible Norman race... The Normans now believed their duke and leader had fallen. Their retreat was not thus an occasion of shameful flight but of grief, for he was their whole support."
Removing his helmet, to show he was still alive, William rallied his troops:
"The Normans, enflamed, surrounded some thousands of those who had pursued them and annihilated them in an instant, not one of them surviving."  Note
Inspired by their success, William's knights twice feigned flight to lure many more Englishmen to their deaths.
"It was now a strange kind of battle, one side attacking with all mobility, the other enduring, as though rooted to the soil."
"... the king, nevertheless, fought hard against him with the men that would support him; and there was a great slaughter made on either side. There was slain King Harold, and Earl Leofwine his brother, and Earl Gyrth his brother, with many good men ..."
'Anglo-Saxon Chronicle' Manuscript D
William of Poitiers claims that Duke William had three horses killed under him. The 'Carmen' says it was two horses, and that it was Harold's brother, Gyrth, who killed the first one. William rushed Gyrth and killed him ("Hewing him limb from limb"). Leofwine is not mentioned by either source.  Note
"Now as the day declined the English army realized beyond doubt that they could no longer stand against the Normans. They knew that they were reduced by heavy losses; that the king himself, with his brothers and many magnates of the realm, had fallen; that those who still stood were almost drained of strength; that they could expect no help. They saw the Normans, not much diminished by casualties, threatening them more keenly than in the beginning, as if they had found new strength in the fight; they saw that fury of the duke who spared no one who resisted him; they saw that courage which could only find rest in victory. They therefore turned to flight and made off as soon as they got the chance, some on looted horses, many on foot; some along the roads, many across country."
William of Poitiers
William of Poitiers goes on to describe a last stand made by a group of retreating Englishmen "in a steep rampart and a labyrinth of ditches". The English were defeated, but at great loss to William's knights ("their valour nullified by the impossible terrain").  The Bayeux Tapestry comes to a tattered end with a depiction of the English in flight.
"Only darkness and flight through the thickets and coverts of the deep forest availed the defeated English. The conqueror, resting meanwhile, passed the night among the dead and waited till day should return."
'Carmen de Hastingae Proelio'
"Of that battle the French who took part in it do to this day declare that, although fortune swayed now on this side and now on that, yet of the Normans so many were slain or put to flight that the victory which they had gained is truly and without any doubt to be attributed to nothing else than the miraculous intervention of God, who by so punishing Harold's wicked perjury shewed that He is not a God that hath any pleasure in wickedness."
William had Battle Abbey built on the site of his victory, with the high altar, purportedly, on the spot where Harold had been killed. See: Harold and the Arrow.
"... and Earl William returned to Hastings, and waited there to know whether the people would submit to him.
'Anglo-Saxon Chronicle' Manuscript D
William the Conqueror    
Robert Wace 'Roman de Rou' by Glyn S. Burgess
Orderic Vitalis 'Historia Ecclesiastica' by Marjorie Chibnall
Eadmer 'Historia Novorum in Anglia' by Geoffrey Bosanquet
'Anglo-Saxon Chronicle' by Rev. James Ingram/Dr. J.A. Giles
'The Ship List of William the Conqueror' by Elisabeth van Houts
Geffrei Gaimar 'L'Estoire des Engleis' by Rev. Joseph Stevenson
'Carmen de Hastingae Proelio' by Catherine Morton and Hope Muntz
William of Jumièges 'Gesta Normannorum Ducum' by R. Allen Brown
'The Chronicle of Florence of Worcester' edited and in part translated by Joseph Stevenson
William of Malmesbury 'Gesta Regum Anglorum' by Rev. J. Sharpe, revised by Rev. J. Stevenson
William of Poitiers 'Gesta Guillelmi ducis Normannorum et regis Anglorum' by Raymonde Foreville/R. Allen Brown