Saturday, October 6, 2012

The Battle of Battle (1066)

If you are in the United Kingdom, and you follow this blog, the Battle of Hastings should be at the very top of your list of places to visit for several reasons. First, its well preserved for a 900 year-old site (When 900 years old you reach, look as good you will not!). There are so many battlefields of the Dark Ages that have simply disappeared without a trace. The exact location of major battles such as Stamford Bridge, and Brunanburh are lost to archaeologists.



I had the opportunity to ask my archaeologist brother-in-law about how such important sites could simply go AWOL. His answers were simple. First, geography and places are simply unreliable as the landscapes and names shift and change over time. Battlefield artifacts are exceedingly rare as the battlefields were picked clean of all weapons and armor left by the dead. Bodies of the victors were interred in sometimes distant cemeteries or cremated according to custom. The bodies of the dead were often left to rot into oblivion on the battlefield or taken away and dumped in large pits. In short, very scant evidence was left behind, if any at all.

The Ruins of Battle Abby
The exact location of the Battle of Hastings would likely have slipped into oblivion as well if it weren't for William's order to build Battle Abbey on the exact spot where Harold was killed. However, there is debate that the battlefield is actually a few miles away from the current location. But when William ordered the abbey to be built on the hill where Harold drew his battlelines, the architects objected because the hill was too steep for such a structure. So they started building it down at the base of the hill some miles distant. Furious that his orders were not being followed, William personally identified the location of the battlefield and insisted that the abbey be placed where it is today. Personally, I'd trust the guy who had that bloody hill and ground forever engraved in his memory over some excitable academics looking for a controversial thesis topic.

Anyway, back on topic!

Last month I had the opportunity to visit this battlefield and was completely blown away with the experience. Far from the busy crowds and inconsiderate tourists of London, the aptly named village of Battle sits quietly several miles to the north of Hastings were Duke William of Normandy made his war camp in the autumn of 1066.

The park was running some events for children. Here a group recreates the
Battle of Hastings using foam swords and wooden shields.
I won't lie, I wanted in on that action too.
1066 is one of those watershed years in British history. Some of the characters in this event are well known: William the Conqueror (or The Bastard), King Harold, and Bishop Odo. Others, though further from the limelight are no less part of one of the greatest battles fought on English soil.

To make a long story short, Edward the Confessor, king of England, died in 1066 having promised the throne to two people, William of Normandy and Harold Godwin. Naturally this was going to end in a clash of arms. Harold, having the benifit of being the closest geographically to the dead king, claimed the throne, setting William off to prepare his invasion. Harold Hardrada, a Norwegian king, also had a claim and decided to invade with the help of Godwin's own brother Tostig. The two landed and pillaged in Yorkshire and settled their army at Stamford Bridge to await the city of York's ransom and capitulation.

Harold force marched his trusty hearthguard, known as housecarls, and gathered a levy army of fyrd men. The host launched a surprise attack on Tostig and Hardrada, slaughtering the Viking invaders nearly to the man. With Tostig and Hardrada dead, Harold was forced back to London to counter William's invasion fleet, recently arrived at Hastings. Harold pushed his men south to meet the new threat, arriving at a bit of land he felt was highly defensible a few miles north of Hastings. He established his camp atop Senlac Hill and awaited Williams army which was moving to meet them.

Looking down from Harold's extreme right flank atop Senlac Hill.
Harold used the thick terrain on this side to anchor his flank. 
Harold's army outnumbered the Norman army, however much of it was still enroute to meet the king's force, so Harold had to play for time. All he needed to do was slow William's advance long enough to bring his numbers to bear. Senlac Hill offered the perfect place to do just that.

Water-logged terrain plagued William's left flank, limiting his cavalry's
mobility to straight up the middle against Harold's toughest troops.
Harold's position at the top of the steep hill was well chosen. to the east and west stood thick woods unsuitable for the Norman cavalry. In front of him was marshy ground, further reducing Norman mobility. Only a small stretch of dry, firm, and clear land stood between the Anglo-saxon shield wall and the Norman army. If the Norman cavalry and infantry wished to hit him, they would have to do so here and climb a very steep hill first.

Meanwhile, William's international army of Flemish, French, and Norman troops advanced toward Senlac hill. When they arrived in the fresh morning hours of October 14, 1066, William saw Harold's shieldwall formed atop the incredibly steep hill. William ordered his archers forward, backed by dismounted men-at-arms. The cavalry took up positions behind the foot troops to wait for an opening in the shieldwall and crash through.

The bushes would have been absent in 1066, giving William a good view of Senlac Hill. It doesn't look to steep, but it really is. I can only imagine what it would have been like to climb that hill with a full suit of armor and then have to attack! 
The die was cast and the battle began early that morning with the sound of trumpets and a hail of Norman arrows, which fell harmlessly into the hill before the Saxons. William's archers simply did not have the elevation or range to reach the top of the hill, so in went the men-at-arms to bludgeon their way through the shield wall. A violent to-and-fro gripped both sides as the Saxon line bent, but refused to break.

The Breton cavalry may have retreated through here,
unfortunately what lies beyond is boggy terrain and certain death!
William sent in his Breton cavalry to add a little extra weight. This not only failed to punch a hole in the shield wall, it actually brought about a rout of the Breton cavalry who turned tail and fell back into the marshy ground at the base of the hill. While the veteran housecarls of Harold's army stood firm, the far less professional Saxon militia chased down the hill and caught the retreating Norman infantry and Breton cavalry. The duke saw this going on and while he cursed the Breton's retreat, he quickly saw an opportunity. A group of Norman cavalry galloped into the Saxon militia and hacked them all down, significantly reducing Harold's manpower atop the hill.

Despite this turn of events, Harold was still solidly in possession of the hilltop and William still had to deal with the tough housecarls and remaining militia on the eastern flank. Further assaults of foot soldiers and feint attacks by the cavalry succeeded in drawing out more of the Saxon militia until the Normans were able to put a sizable amount of the steep hill behind them.

Looking along the Norman lines (the Saxons would have been stationed just to the left of this picture), this little clearing was the center of William's command. The bench marks the approximate spot where he ordered his trick attacks.
The Norman archers, who had run out of arrows early in the battle, ran forward and picked up their arrows from their first barrage that morning. Now closer to the action and re-loaded with arrows, the archers loosed another volley, this time with devastating results. Holes opened up in the Saxon shieldwall and it was said that Harold himself had received an arrow through the eye. William's cavalry stormed the line in one last great effort and penetrated the shield wall.

The site of William's final charge up the hill. The Anglo-saxon shield wall would have been deployed where you see the stone wall and tower.
My wife and child demonstrate the difficulties of
charging up Senlac Hill, while I demonstrate
the relative ease of taking a picture from the top.
One group of horsemen, perhaps ordered by William himself, galloped through a small gap and rode down Harold's bodyguard before hacking down the mortally wounded king. There's a wonderful debate about the death of Harold that is worth a read, but the point remains that he was killed dead... or was he, according to another legeand. It's all good stuff!

By nightfall the battle was over. Over 7000 dead were said to have littered the battlefield, one of the largest body-counts for a battle in the Dark Ages. The king, two of his brothers, and nearly all of the Anglo-saxon youthful nobility lie dead on the field. The age of Anglo-saxon rule over England was thoroughly finished.

William returned to Hastings to await the English aristocracy's submission. When this did not come, he marched on London, burning and conquering until the nobles finally crowned him on Christmas Day 1066.     


William had Battle Abbey build it's high altar straight on top of the site where Harold was killed. Today, this is marked by this stone inscribed in Latin.

A second marker was erected to commemorate the death of Harold in 1903. It lies only a few yards from the other.

A view from the top of Senlac Hill looking down to the Norman lines. It must have felt pretty amazing to have finally won this commanding view of such a history-changing event.

Like my visit to Hastings Castle, I've taken a series of photographs aimed at helping terrain-builders and model bases. My trip was in late August, so the colors may be similar to those found in October. However, only a villager from Battle can really confirm or deny the truth in that statement. So for what its worth, here a photo-dump for your modelling needs. I hope you find it helpful!

Barbed Wire, Harold's secret weapon!







Monastic toilets.










Thanks for reading!

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