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(1)  1066 was a very important year for Anglo-Saxon England. There were 3 Kings, 2 Battles and a comet. There hasn't been another y...

Saturday, 16 July 2011


Medieval Warriors

(1) 1066 was a very important year for Anglo-Saxon England. There were 3 Kings, 2 Battles and a comet. There hasn't been another year quite like it. By the end of 1066 England would never be the same again.

Firstly, let's see how Anglo-Saxon England originally came about. The name "Anglo" comes from one of the Germanic tribes from Angeln, a district in Schleswig-Holstein, Germany. The Angles were one of the main groups that settled in Britain during the 5th and 6th centuries, in the post-Roman period. Ultimately, they set up many of the kingdoms in Anglo-Saxon England. England also takes its name from the Angles, which is the root of the name "England."

The Saxons, who were closely linked to the Angles tribe, took part in the Germanic settlement of Britain, at about the same time, which gives us the Anglo-Saxon. They subsequently participated in the Celtic ways of life in the southern and central parts of England. Thereupon, contributing to the creation of Anglo-Saxon England and the use of the Old English language.

In 927 AD England became united at the Treaty of Eamont Bridge under the rule of King Athelstan, who was the son of King Edward the Elder, grandson of Alfred the Great and nephew of Æthelflæd of Mercia. Although during the next few decades Northumbria repeatedly changed hands between the English kings and the Norwegian invaders, but was finally brought under English control by King Edred in 954 AD, thus completing the unification of England. At about this time, Lothian, the northern part of Northumbria, was relinquished to the Kingdom of Scotland. England has remained in political unity ever since.

Edward the Confessor was of course the last accredited Saxon king. He ruled from 1042 to 1066 and in 1161 was regarded as one of the national saints of England, until Edward III adopted Saint George as our patron saint in 1350. Edward died on 5th of January 1066. Soon after his death, Halley's comet appeared in the skies over England, but was not known at the time to be a comet. The beginning of the Bayeux Tapestry shows Halley as a fiery star, which shone so bright that millions of people were terrified. For that reason, it was considered a bad omen by the people of England.

The Bayeux Tapestry - Halley's comet appears in the skies over England in April 1066
The Bayeux Tapestry - Halley's comet appears in the skies over England in April 1066  
After Edward died, there was no clear succession to the throne, which caused a lot of problems in 1066. Harold Godwinson claimed that Edward had named him as his successor, but he could not just become King on the word of Edward. What he needed was to be declared King by the Witan, who were the decision making body on who would be king, in Anglo-Saxon England. He quickly gained the support of the Witan and was crowned at Westminster Abbey, on 6th of January 1066. Harold had to now prepare to defend his throne.

A number of people tried to claim the throne of England including Harold Hardrada, the Viking King of Norway and William, the Duke of Normandy, who strongly believed that Edward gave him the rightful claim to the throne. Harold Hardrads believed that an agreement made between the previous kings of England and Denmark gave him the rightful claim. The Viking King was a fierce warrior and strove to take England by force. In a time to come, the Vikings would be defeated at Stamford Bridge by King Harold, who had marched his army up north, unaware that William Duke of Normandy was landing in the south. 

There were also a couple of Scandinavian Kings named Sweyn Estrithsson, King of Denmark and Magnus of Norway. Magnus of Norway died in 1047. Sweyn continued with his pursuit of the English throne, but was overshadowed by the Viking King, Harold Hardrada. In 1069 Sweyn sent a large fleet which sacked York. William, who was King of England by this time, accepted the defeat and decided to buy him off. Sweyn died in 1074. There was one more claimant to the throne, Edgar Aetheling, a distant relative of Edward the Confessor. Edgar's father died in 1054 under suspicious circumstances, which left Edgar, who was too young to enforce his claim.

William Duke of Normandy claims he was promised the throne in 1051 by Edward, as Normandy had helped in looking after his family. Edward was aware that Harold was against a Norman taking the throne of England, as Harold wanted the throne himself.

There are now two different accounts of what happened next:- the Normans claim that Edward forced Harold to go to Normandy in 1064 and swear an oath to support William's claim.

The Saxons version of events differ from this:- they claim that Harold had been sent to Normandy to rescue hostages, but was shipwrecked and captured. Harold was then forced to meet William, to swear an oath to support his claim.

The Bayeux Tapestry showing Harold swearing oath on holy relics
The Bayeux Tapestry showing Harold swearing oath on holy relics  
We do not know which account is correct, but we do know Harold swore an oath to William in 1064. The Bayeux Tapestry shows Harold swearing loyalty on holy relics. It was considered that breaking an oath sworn in this way, was breaking an oath with God. As far as William was concerned, Harold had broken that oath, which gave him the reason to invade.

Harold was one of the most powerful men in England, aside from the King. After becoming the Earl of Wessex, in 1053, he now ruled the majority of the south-east. He was considered a brave warrior and men who followed him would lay down their lives for him. William ruled Europe with an iron fist. These were two formidable characters that would come together to fight one of the most bloodiest battles ever fought on English soil, for the greatest prize in Europe, the throne of England.

A Saxon Housecarl
A Saxon Housecarl
When word reached William in Normandy that Harold had been crowned King, he assembled his troops and built around 700 ships. Harold, who had his spies closely watching William, immediately assembled his own troops and fleet. Harold's base was on the Isle of Wight as he believed that is where William would invade. Harold also sent ships to patrol the south-coast and stationed his land forces and scouts at vital points to raise the alarm of an invasion fleet.

The English army was partly made up of professional soldiers called Housecarls, who were well trained and paid for their services. They wore a pointed helmet which helped to deflect blows from sword attacks. Their main weapon was the battle-axe, the heavy, curved blade and long handle meant that it had to be held with both hands. Housecarls also used a long double-edged sword, with a shallow groove running along the blade on both sides to make it lighter, while carrying a long, kite shaped shield. They were by far, the best in Europe.

The majority of the Saxon army was made up of part-time soldiers, called the Fyrd. They were working men who would be called up to fight for the King in times of danger. The leaders of the Fyrd, the Thegns (Noblemen) had swords, bows and spears, but the rest of the men were inexperienced fighters and carried weapons such as iron clubs, slings, axes, scythes, sickles and haymaking forks. The Fyrds were recruited from every village around. Harold had no problem in recruiting men as the English were very patriotic and wanted to protect their land from anyone who tried to invade.

Thousands of soldiers assembled on the south-coast of England and prepared for battle. They had to master the art of locking their shields to form a wall. This was the Saxons main defense tactic. Their lives would depend on it.
A Viking Warrior
A Viking Warrior

By the summer of 1066, Harold had assembled the biggest army in living memory, along the south-coast. The months passed, but there was no sign of the huge Norman fleet coming to invade that everyone had expected. The part-time soldiers needed to get back to their villages for harvest. The men grew restless and started to fight with each other. Harold was running out of supplies, he took one last look across the empty sea, dismantled his army and headed back to London.


A few days later, Harold received the news that an army had invaded England, but not by the Normans in the south, by the Vikings in the north. The Vikings was a fierce army and were rampaging through the villages of Yorkshire, capturing the city of York. The news hit Harold, like a bolt from the blue. He had to act quickly and he did so with speed. He reassembled his army and marched north, gathering his part-time soldiers on the way. Everyone was committed to ridding the threat of the Vikings from England, forever.

By the time Harold reached Stamford Bridge, in the north-east, his army had swollen to several thousand men. They had marched more than 180 miles in five days, but were still ready to fight a long and bloody battle.

The Vikings were completely unprepared, when the Saxons arrived. Thinking it would be another couple of days, they had spent their time lazing in the sun. The Viking army was also split into two, on each side of the river. Their main force was on the east and the rest were on the west. Joining the two was just a narrow wooden bridge, unlike what is there today.

As the Saxons moved along the west side of the river, the Vikings were trapped in a lethal bottleneck. Some Vikings resisted, but were heavily outnumbered and slaughtered without mercy. Others tried desperately to escape over the bridge and join the rest of their force on the other side, but the Saxons were unyielding, and brutally hacked their way through the invading army. A Viking, without his armour, was no match for a Saxon battle-axe. Their hacked and mutilated bodies laid strewn all over the west side of the river. It was absolute carnage, with nowhere to run.

By now every Viking, who had been on the west side was either dead or had fled across to the east. All except for one, a GIANT Norseman, he held up the entire Saxon army by blocking the narrow, wooden bridge and single handily cut down over forty Saxon warriors. Upon which, one cunning Saxon, drifted under the bridge in a barrel and proceeded to stab his spear up through the slats of the bridge and brought down the Norseman. The Saxons then poured over the bridge in their thousands, the panic stricken Vikings fled up a slope to the east.

At the top of the slope, the Vikings could only lock their shields to form a defensive wall. The Saxons did the same. The two armies stood poised, ready to launch themselves at each other. This would be a fight to the death, the first to breakthrough their opponent's wall, would be the winner.

The Saxons moved forward at a fast pace and clashed heavily with the Vikings. The noise of steel on steel, the roars from the Saxons and blood-curdling cries from the Vikings, was piercing. The Vikings were so badly protected that the Saxon swords cut through them, with ease. The Saxons put all the strength they had at breaking the shield wall and it was working, the wall began to break. Harold's men streamed through a got behind their enemy. The Saxons now had the advantage.

The battle raged on for hours. The Viking King, Harold Hardrada, was killed, along with King Harold's brother, Tostig, who had joined forces with the Viking King, against his brother. The Viking army was annihilated. The Saxons had won and Harold was still King of England, but within days, things would change dramatically. Harold would be fighting an even fiercer battle for his country's survival.


A Norman Knight of 1066
A Norman Knight of 1066

When William decided to invade England, he needed a bigger and stronger army in order to take on the Saxons. He summoned all the Noblemen and mercenaries of Europe and told them that this was a religious war, backed by the Pope. The Nobles signed up in their droves, thinking they would have a better place in the afterlife.

William's fleet was ready by the end of August. The only thing that was keeping the Duke from his 'crusade', was the lack of wind. He had to wait. His men grew bored, but William was strict, he forbid anyone from looting or committing violence on the local people. That was saved for the English, to entice Harold into battle.

On 27th of September the wind changed. William and his mighty fleet, carrying 2000 cavalry, 800 archers and 3000 infantry, set sail. The Duke of Normandy was coming to claim the English throne, one of the largest invasion fleets in British history.

William landed in East Sussex on 28th of September 1066. First off the ships, were the archers, with arrows ready in their bows. They were expecting fierce resistance, but the beaches were empty. They had no idea the English army was fighting in the north. They couldn't believe their luck.

The news of William's landing took a couple of days to reach Harold, who was still celebrating with his men at York. It was a devastating blow, but worse was yet to come. William was burning and pillaging the villages in the south. He was deliberately trying to provoke Harold into an early battle.

It worked, Harold had no choice but to move his weary army south. The morale of the men was so low. They had fought the battle at Stamford Bridge, then to be told that they had to march, with speed, back-down south to fight the Normans, was crushing. Just five days after the victory over the Vikings, Harold's men had to march a staggering 250 miles to fend off an even bigger invasion. Over 7000 Saxon soldiers now started on the road, headed south.

Map of England showing Hastings

Harold was a man on a mission. He was marching at such a pace that many of his men couldn't keep up. He arrived in London on 5th of October and waited for the local Fryd to assemble and troops from the Earl of Mercia and the Earl of Northumbria, to arrive from the north. Meanwhile, William had moved his army to Hastings, a few miles to the east, where he built a wooden castle for a base and waited for Harold to arrive.

Harold was growing extremely impatient while waiting for troops from the north. He decided to continue south against the strong advice of his brother, Earl Gyrth. Gyrth tried to persuade Harold not to engage in battle with William, he even offered to lead the English into battle himself, so as not to break the oath that Harold had made to William. Harold ignored this advice, he was determined to show his people he could defend his new Kingdom against every invader. Harold departed from London on 12th of October and headed to the south-coast, picking up more men on the way.

On 13th of October Harold arrived at 
Caldbec Hill, six miles inland from Hastings and set up camp. Pre-battle negotiations between the Saxons and the Normans hadn't gone too well. William demanded that Harold either: renounces his claim as King, in favour of William; refers it to the arbitration of the Pope; or for it to be decided by a single combat between Harold and himself. Harold declined all these offers, he was not about to renounce anything, apart from William's demands. The scene had now been set. The battle for England was to commence.

On the morning of 14th October, Harold moved his troops to what is now referred to as Battle Hill, about 200 yards from Caldbec Hill, which blocked the road from Hastings to London. This 
gave the Saxons a great advantage over the Normans. It has always been believed that the battle took place at Senlac Hill, but some historians now believe the battle took place on the edge of the town of Hastings on Battle Hill, strategically a better position for Harold to block the road to London. 

William had assembled his troops at Hastings, a few miles from the harbour, where his ships had been anchored. On hearing Harold was stationed at Caldbec Hill, he ordered his men the short distance up the road. Just a few hours after dawn, the Normans arrived at Battle Hill, but could go no further. 

The Norman army was a mighty force. William had a formidable weapon that Harold didn't have, the horse. The Normans regarded their horses as soldiers in their own right, they trained them to kick, head butt and bite their enemy. William's 2000 mounted knights gave him an incredible fighting machine. The Saxons only ever fought on foot, they had never come up against a cavalry before. The horses, however, were not armoured, which made them especially vulnerable when attacking a shield wall. The rider was forced to turn his horse side on, to be able to use his sword effectively. As a result, the body of the horse was open to attack by his opponent, a role for which the Saxon axe was well suited. If his horse was cut from under him, a Norman knight, in his heavy armour, was defenceless until he could regain his footing.

The cavalry was the élite of the Norman army, like the infantry, their main weapon was the spear (a lighter version) and the sword for close combat. Similar to the Viking sword, it was made for cutting rather than thrusting. Blunt instruments such as the battle mace were also used. Both infantry and cavalry alike, used the kite shaped shield.

William had about the same number of men as Harold, but he split them up into three separate divisions. William stayed with his Normans in the centre, on the left, where the forces of Brittany and on the right, was a mixture of troops from France, Belgium, Luxembourg and other low countries.

William's battle plan was to put his archers in front, he hoped that their arrows would weaken the Saxon shield wall, so that his infantry and 2000 knights, could breakthrough.

Harold's plan had been to wait on the ridge to allow for reinforcements to arrive that were coming in all the time, but William wasn't going to give Harold any time to gather strength.

At 9 am on 14th of October 1066, the battle began. There was massive roars of defiance from both sides. The Saxons on the hill, bellowing and beating their shields must have left the Normans looking up, knowing that this was going to be a long and bloody day.

Harold's men held their ground, their shield wall defiantly blocking the road to London. The Normans had to make the first move. William's jester, Taillefer, decided he would sacrifice himself for God and rode out to Battle Hill, sang the Song of Roland while juggling a sword. He then attacked and killed a Saxon warrior, before being killed. Right behind the jester, came the archers, but their arrows made little impact on the Saxons as they were shooting uphill. The arrows either went straight into the Saxons' shields or went straight over their heads. William was not going to win this battle with his archers alone. He would have to get in closer if he was going to dent the Saxon wall.

William gave the order for his whole army to move forward. There was a huge cry from the Norman soldiers. The Norman infantry began to advance up the hill. The Saxons stood rooted to the ground behind their shield wall, waiting for the impending clash. The men on the front line were all fired up, ready for it to come. As the Normans grew closer, the Saxons started hurtling spears and rocks down the hill, but this would not put off their determined attackers.

The Normans threw themselves at the wall, they knew they had to break it, in order to get at the main army behind, but the infantry could not breakthrough. William then ordered in his cavalry. The Norman Knights charged up the hill towards the Saxons. The Saxons held their ground and thrust their swords and spears through the shield wall. Many of the horses shied away and if they did get to close they were cut down by the Saxon battle-axes. They just could not breakthrough. The ferocity of the hand to hand combat was so savage that one side had to give.

The first sign of weakness came after about an hour of fighting, on the Normans left side. Suddenly the Bretons panicked, turned around and ran for their lives. Foot-soldiers and horsemen fleeing headlong down the hill, but as they ran they didn't realise they were running slightly to the left from where they came up.

Seeing the backs of their terrified enemy scattering away down the hill was too much of a temptation for the Saxons. Harold's brothers, Leofwyne and Gyrth, along with some less experienced troops on Harold's right side, smelt victory, broke ranks and chased the Bretons down the hill. Harold despaired at the sight, he knew that his only chance of victory was to keep the shield wall solid. True to Saxon tradition, Harold was on foot, standing shoulder to shoulder with his men, ready to fight. Harold didn’t have a horse to run up and down his ranks, to keep his men in line. What he gained in morale, he lost in mobility. This was one major flaw in Saxon tactics. Harold had no way of stopping his men from pursuing the fleeing Bretons. He remained fighting with his army, retaining the strength of the shield wall.

Battle of Hastings
By now the Saxons who had given chase to the Bretons, found themselves in a small marshy area, behind the Norman line. They were cut off from the rest of their army and had unwittingly ran into a death-trap. This was now a pivotal moment in the battle. Harold could have made the decision to charge down the hill with his men and attack the entire Norman line, but he decided to stay on the ridge. William then took the initiative and galloped over to the marshy area, with his Knights. Soon the Saxons were surrounded. They didn’t stand a chance. They were cut down one by one. It was a terrible slaughter. After the carnage of that attack, the Normans pulled back and both sides drew breath.

William's quick thinking changed the course of the battle. Seeing the Saxons break the shield wall, chasing after the Bretons, gave him an idea. He decided to change tactics and stage fake retreats to tempt more Saxons down the hill. Once the Saxons where at the bottom of the hill, they would be totally exposed and at the mercy of the Norman Knights.

The Saxons fell for it and over the next few hours a serious of Norman attacks and retreats took place. Away from the protection of the wall, the Saxons were caught out and cut down by Norman knights and infantry. The lack of discipline was costing the Saxons dearly. Their casualties were mounting up and time was marching on.

In medieval times battles rarely lasted more than a couple of hours before one side would see the other off the field. This battle was different, this was proving to be the longest and close fought battles in medieval history. It went on for nine hours. Both sides were exhausted. The Saxons, despite the constant onslaught, was still managing to hold the shield wall. If they could keep it together until night-fall, it could win them enough time for reinforcements to arrive. As the day drew to a close, the relentless pounding from the Normans began to thin the Saxon ranks and the less experienced men were being forced to serve on the front line. They were so tightly packed that the dead couldn’t even fall to the ground, they remained upright, pressed against the living.

Norman archers
William's strategy was grinding down the Saxon wall, but he wanted victory before night-fall. Battles of the day normally ended at sunset, regardless of who was winning and resumed again at sunrise. William didn't want Harold to receive fresh reinforcements, he had to try something new and quick.

He changed tactics completely, he decided to put every man who could still walk or ride, into a one solid mass. Behind them he placed his archers and gave them new orders to raise their bows and shoot up into the air. This way the arrows would fall on the more exposed Saxons, behind the wall.

What followed is one of the most famous moments in British history. King Harold was shot in the eye by a Norman arrow. As he laid there wounded, a hail of arrows caused chaos among the Saxon army. The Normans charged at the wall, the one last time. The exhausted Saxons could no longer hold their shields together. Gaps in the wall began to appear, the Normans were starting to over-power the English and flood through the shield wall. One group of Norman knights sought out the English King and went straight for him. They literally took him apart. They hacked off his right leg, half of his left leg, then finally his head.

Bayeux Tapestry showing Harold with an arrow in his eye
Bayeux Tapestry showing Harold with an arrow in his eye  
The faithful Housecarls fought to the end over Harold's body, but the news of the King's death spread and broke the morale of  the English army. Once they saw the Kings banner go down they lost heart and started to slip away. Most of the men were in shock, they were Saxons, a force to be reckoned with and they had just been beaten.

Thousands died that day at Hastings. The field by morning, was covered with hacked and mutilated bodies, stripped of their armour by looters. More than that though, the bodies that were lying there, marked the death of Saxon England and somewhere amongst them, laid the body of, 'Its last King'. Harold's body was never recovered, rumours at the time suggested William had ordered for it to be thrown into the sea. It was one of the darkest moments in Medieval England.


William may have won the battle and defeated his enemy, Harold Godwinson, but if he was thinking England would just roll-over for a Norman overlord, he was very much mistaken. William and his army waited at Hastings for the English Lords to come and submit to him, but no one came.

The remains of the English government had quickly elected Edgar Atheling as King. He was young and weak, but a weak king was better than no king at all, they thought. After Edgar had been elected, the Northern Earls, Edwin and Morcar, left the city and returned with their forces to their respective Earldoms.

William marched his army along the south-coast of England and captured the ports of which he needed to control. In time, more men and supplies would be arriving from Normandy. He then went on and advanced through Kent, devastating Romney and on to Dover, all of which eventually had to submit to him. William and his army rested in Dover for about a week and on 29th of October, received the submission of Canterbury. From there, the Normans advanced to Southwark towards the river Thames. After being prevented from crossing London Bridge, they destroyed the town and moved to Wallingford. There the Normans crossed the Thames and advanced into London, from the north-west.

The Normans eventually reached Berkhampstead in late November 1066. William's army had been dramatically reduced since the battle, due to dysentery, but still managed to destroy the counties of London. Eventually an agreement was made between William and the Lords that the city of London would be spared any more atrocities if Edgar abdicated and William was recognised as king.

In early December, Ansgar, the Sheriff of Middlesex, the Archbishops of York and Canterbury and the deposed Edgar Atheling, came out and submitted to the Norman invader. William was crowned King on Christmas Day 1066, at Westminster Abbey. He became known, in polite terms, as William the Conqueror, in not so polite terms he was known as William the Bastard due to his illegitimacy at birth, but whatever he was, he was now WILLIAM I, King of England.


  1. verry interresting and amazing storry described of you and please accept my congratulations and grattitude from my part ! i hope you will describe another nice part of historry with dettails and more informations like this.good luck and all thanks !marius

  2. "At about this time, Lothian, the northern part of Northumbria, was relinquished to the Kingdom of Scotland. England has remained in political unity ever since." ..... well apart from the War of the Roses and Cromwell,etc ;-)

    Very good read though,would like to see some more tie ins with Scottish/Celtic Kings and Queens though.Look forward to reading about James VI...or James 1 as hes also known :-)

    1. I will be adding more on the links with Scottish kings as I go along. Thanks for the comment, much appreciated :-)

  3. Just to clarify, England HAS remained in political unity, ever since. Meaning, England has not had separate Kingdoms since it 954 AD. During the Wars of the Roses and Cromwell, the people were fighting, but England was still one whole country. Some folks supported Cromwell and some supported the Crown, but never again has England actually been split and ruled by separate Kings.