Writer’s Deep Dive: The Battle of Hastings

For our third and final historical battle, I am covering the Battle of Hastings. This engagement shows how an army can start in a dominate position and still lose.

Now, let’s dive in!

The Basics

The battle of Hastings was fought on October 14th, 1066 between the Anglo-Saxon King Harold Godwinson and the invading Norman-French William, Duke of Normandy. The previous king of England, Edward the Confessor, had died on January 5th, 1066, leaving no heir. [1]

Harold was crowned king of England on January 6th, 1066 and immediately braced for a challenge from William. He raised the fyrd across England. [2] The fyrd was a system of obligation and service, a variation of “calling vassals” or “raising the banners,” as George R. R. Martin puts it in A Song of Ice and Fire. To read more about this method of raising an army, please see my Writer’s Guide Raising a Medieval Army. The entire national fyrd had only been raised three times in the previous nineteen years. [3] The fyrd was supplemented by the king’s personal soldiers, known as housecarls. Several nobles also had housecarls. Most of these forces fought on foot and the English had few archers.

Harold being crowned king of England. Bayeux Tapestry. Image source.

Harold was surprised by an invasion by the Norwegian King Harald Hardrada and his own brother, Tostig, in the north. He defeated them at the Battle of Stanford Bridge on September 25th, 1066 after an impressive forced march. William landed his forces from France at Pevensey on September 28th, 1066, and Harold had to race his army south to confront them. Unfortunately, we are not certain of the size of each army since the contemporary accounts vary widely. [4] Half of Williams’ forces were foot soldiers, the other half equal numbers of cavalry and archers. [6]

Harold tried to surprise the Normans but was spotted by William’s scouts. The English took up a defensive position at the top of Senlac Hill, with their flanks protected by woods. They formed a long shield wall. The duke led his army out of the castle he had hastily constructed in the ruins of a Roman fort. [5] He divided his army into three groups, with archers in the front ranks and foot soldiers behind with the cavalry held back in reserve. [7]

The Norman knights charging the English shield wall.
“Stand fast! Stand fast!” The Battle of Hastings, 1966 by Kenneth M. Setton. Image source.

William began the battle with volleys of arrows from his archers. However, the steep uphill angle caused most of the arrows to either bounce off the English shields or fly harmlessly over their heads. [8] They also quickly went through their supply of arrows and since there were few archers among Harold’s army, they couldn’t gather and reuse English arrows. [9]

The Norman spearmen attacked next but were hampered by the steep slope and pummeled by spears, axes, and stones. William sent the cavalry next but they also had little effect. The Normans began retreating and a rumor flew through the ranks that William had been killed. The duke had to remove his helmet and ride around his forces to prove that he still lived. [10] Several of the English pursued the retreating Normans and were cut off from the shield wall and killed.

William removing his helmet to show his men he still lived. Image source.

William sent his cavalry against the English line again in the afternoon. They charged and then withdrew twice, drawing English soldiers into pursuit, thinning the line. [11] Harold was killed late in the battle and the English line collapsed with many soldiers fleeing. The soldiers of the royal household, however, defended Harold’s body to the last man. [12]

In some accounts, Harold was killed by an arrow to the eye. Image source.

The Write Angle

Harold nearly pulled off one of the greatest victories in English history. He marched his army from London to York in four days to confront Harald Hardrada and Tostig only to turn around and march it back to confront William. If the English had held their shield wall and not been baited into pursuing the Normans, it’s possible they could have won the battle of Hastings. They also had a moment to turn the tide when the Normans thought that William had been killed but didn’t take advantage of it.

Hastings proves that battles can hinge on small things and that an army can go from winning to loosing in a moment. As a writer, this battle can be such a source of inspiration in crafting events that organically swing from victory to defeat and back again.

I hope this was helpful. Let me know if you have questions or suggestions by using the Contact Me form on my website or by writing a comment. I post every Friday and would be grateful if you would share my content.

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Let’s get writing!

Copyright © 2022 Rebecca Shedd. All rights reserved.

[1] Higham Death of Anglo-Saxon England pp. 167–181
[2] Nicolle Medieval Warfare Sourcebook pp. 69–71
[3] Marren 1066 pp. 55–57
[4] Gravett Hastings pp. 20–21
[5] Lawson Battle of Hastings pp. 180–182
[6] Gravett Hastings p. 27
[7] Bennett Campaigns of the Norman Conquest p. 41
[8] Bennett Campaigns of the Norman Conquest p. 41
[9] Gravett Hastings pp. 65–67
[10] Gravett Hastings p. 68
[11] Marren 1066 p. 130
[12] Gravett Hastings pp. 76–78

2 Comments on “Writer’s Deep Dive: The Battle of Hastings”

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