Battle of Hastings, 1066

What was the Battle of Hastings?
The Battle of Hastings took place between the armies of William, Duke of Normandy and Harold Godwinson, king of England. It was a victory for the Normans.
When was the Battle of Hastings?
The Battle of Hastings took place on 14th October, 1066.
What happened at the Battle of Hastings?
The exact events of the Battle of Hastings are unclear, but some things are known.
  • William was aware of Harold's approach and there was a dash for the top of the hill, which the Anglo-Saxons won. Gaining the higher ground gave the Anglo-Saxons an advantage.
  • The Anglo-Saxons formed a shield wall at the top of the hill, which the Norman archers could not break. William sent his foot soldiers up the hill, followed by his cavalry, but they could not break the wall.
  • At one point, a rumour went round the Norman troops that William had been killed. He lifted his helmet to show his face and rally them.
  • Harold's shield wall was weakened when some Anglo-Saxons broke ranks to chase the retreating Normans. The Normans continued to reduce the shield wall until the remainder was broken.
How did the Battle of Hastings end?
With the shield wall broken, the Norman cavalry charged the Anglo-Saxons. Harold Godwinson, his brothers Gyrth and Leofwine and most of their housecarls were killed. The remaining troops fled.
What armies did Harold Godwinson and William have at the Battle of Hastings?
The fact that the Battle of Hastings lasted all day suggests that the two armies were fairly evenly matched. Both had a core of well-trained, well-equipped men, alongside ordinary soldiers.
  • William is thought to have had about 4,000-6,000 troops, with about 800 elite knights. His army included cavalry and archers.
  • Harold led about 6,000-7,000 soldiers, some of whom were housecarls.
How did the Anglo-Saxons use the shield wall at the Battle of Hastings?
The shield wall at the top of the hill protected the Anglo-Saxon army against arrows and the Norman cavalry. While it remained disciplined, it was very difficult to break.
  • It involved setting troops out in several close-set, parallel lines. The men at the front overlapped their shields and stuck their spears through the gaps.
  • The shield wall formed a strong defensive position, effective against archers and difficult even for cavalry to break.
  • It relied on discipline of the troops to hold the line.
  • It was an effective tactic that had been used by Harald Hardrada at the Battle of Gate Fulford.
What were the advantages of the higher ground in the Battle of Hastings?
Holding the higher ground was an advantage for the Anglo-Saxons. The Norman cavalry could not charge uphill at the strength needed to break the shield wall, and archers struggled to shoot up at Harold's troops.
How did the different sorts of soldiers help William in the Battle of Hastings?
The Norman troops had a variety of skills and tactics, while the Anglo-Saxons tended to fight in a similar way every time. This meant that William could try different methods of attack until he found one that worked.
How did the cavalry help the Norman army win the Battle of Hastings?
The Norman cavalry was a deadly force, with a strong charge and a height advantage in combat. Once the shield wall was broken, they devastated the Anglo-Saxon troops.
Why were the archers an advantage in the Battle of Hastings?
Once the shield wall was broken and the Norman archers could get closer to the Anglo-Saxon troops, they were able to cause great damage from a distance. Harold may have been killed by an arrow to the eye.
Did discipline make a difference in the Battle of Hastings?
The discipline of the Norman troops meant that they continued to form co-ordinated attacks using a variety of tactics, while the lack of discipline in the Anglo-Saxon army led to the breaking of the shield wall.
What was the feigned retreat tactic that William used at the Battle of Hastings?
During the battle the Normans feigned (faked) a retreat, causing the fyrd to break the shield wall and run down the hill to give chase. William's cavalry then doubled back and cut them down. This happened three times.
How did experimenting with battle tactics help William in the Battle of Hastings?
After his cavalry and archers' attacks on the Saxon position failed, William was able to use the feigned retreat to weaken the shield wall. Once it was weakened, he then deployed his archers and cavalry to break it completely.
What were the reasons for Harold Godwinson's defeat in the Battle of Hastings?
Although the Battle of Hastings was strongly influenced by luck and chance, some of Harold's decisions and tactics showed weakness. These included:
  • Poor discipline of his troops.
  • Poor timing of his defences.
  • His unreadiness for the battle.
  • His decision to leave London and meet William at Hastings.
How important was luck at the Battle of Hastings?
Although both the Anglo-Saxons and Normans had their strengths and weaknesses, the outcome of Hastings was also influenced by luck and chance. This was seen as 'God's will' by people at the time.
  • Harold was killed at Hastings, possibly by an arrow in the eye. This was a random event that gave William victory.
  • Harold was unlucky that the Vikings attacked shortly before the Normans sailed. Even though Harold had already disbanded the fyrd, this put the Anglo-Saxon troops at a disadvantage and meant they were exhausted by the time they arrived at Hastings.
  • The weather was bad enough to damage the English fleet and to convince Harold that William wouldn't strike, but not bad enough to stop the Normans from sailing to England.
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