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|
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.
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.
|Water-logged terrain plagued William's left flank, limiting his cavalry's |
mobility to straight up the middle against Harold's toughest troops.
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 Breton cavalry may have retreated through here, |
unfortunately what lies beyond is boggy terrain and certain death!
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 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.
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!|
Thanks for reading!