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9.18: The Norman Invasion of 1066 CE

  • Page ID
    253557
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    Learning Objective

    • Evaluate the extent to which Harold’s loss at the Battle of Hastings was due to the fact that he was ill-prepared for battle and whether it might have been possible to mitigate the circumstances that led to that fact

    Key Points

    • Harold was crowned king after the death of Edward the Confessor in January 1066. Shortly after he was crowned king, Harold faced invasions by his brother Tostig, the Norwegian King Harald III of Norway, and Duke William II of Normandy.
    • Harold defeated Tostig and Harald III at the battle of Stamford Bridge on September 25, 1066.
    • Harold’s army marched south to confront William at the Battle of Hastings on October 14, 1066. Harold was defeated by the strength of William’s attack and because his army was still recovering from Stamford.

    Terms

    Normans

    The Normans, a people descended from Norse Vikings who settled in the territory of Normandy in France after being given land by the French king, conquered other lands and protected the French coast from foreign attacks.

    Battle of Hastings

    The decisive battle in the Norman Conquest of England fought on October 14, 1066, between the Norman-Fench army of Duke William II of Normandy and the English army under Anglo-Saxon King Harold II.

    Background

    The Norman conquest of England was the 11th-century invasion and occupation of England by an army of Norman, Breton, and French soldiers led by Duke William II of Normandy, later styled William the Conqueror.

    William’s claim to the English throne derived from his familial relationship with the childless Anglo-Saxon King Edward the Confessor, who may have encouraged William’s hopes for the throne. Edward died in January 1066 and was succeeded by his brother-in-law Harold Godwinson. Harold faced invasions by William, his own brother Tostig, and the Norwegian King Harald Hardrada (Harold III of Norway).

    Preparations and Early Battles

    The English army was organized along regional lines, with the fyrd, or local levy, serving under a local magnate—an earl, bishop, or sheriff. The fyrd was composed of men who owned their own land and were equipped by their community to fulfill the king’s demands for military forces. As a whole, England could furnish about 14,000 men for the fyrd when it was called out. The fyrd usually served for two months, except in emergencies. It was rare for the whole national fyrd to be called out; between 1046 and 1065 it was done only three times—in 1051, 1052, and 1065. The king also had a group of personal armsmen known as housecarls, who formed the backbone of the royal forces. The composition, structure, and size of Harold’s army contributed to his defeat against William.

    Harold had spent mid-1066 on the south coast with a large army and fleet, waiting for William to invade. The bulk of his forces were militia who needed to harvest their crops, so on September 8 Harold dismissed the militia and the fleet. Learning of the Norwegian invasion, he rushed north, gathering forces as he went, and took the Norwegians by surprise, defeating them at the Battle of Stamford Bridge on September 25. Harald of Norway and Tostig were killed, and the Norwegians suffered such great losses that only 24 of the original 300 ships were required to carry away the survivors. The English victory came at great cost, as Harold’s army was left in a battered and weakened state.

    Meanwhile, William had assembled a large invasion fleet and gathered an army from Normandy and the rest of France, including large contingents from Brittany and Flanders. William spent almost nine months on his preparations, as he had to construct a fleet from nothing. The Normans crossed to England a few days after Harold’s victory over the Norwegians, following the dispersal of Harold’s naval force, and landed at Pevensey in Sussex on September 28. A few ships were blown off course and landed at Romney, where the Normans fought the local fyrd. After landing, William’s forces built a wooden castle at Hastings, from which they raided the surrounding area. More fortifications were erected at Pevensey.

    Battle of Hastings

    The deaths of Tostig and Hardrada at Stamford left William as Harold’s only serious opponent. While Harold and his forces were recovering from Stamford, William landed his invasion forces at Pevensey and established a beachhead for his conquest of the kingdom. Harold was forced to march south swiftly, gathering forces as he went.

    Harold’s army confronted William’s invaders on October 14 at the Battle of Hastings. The battle began at about 9 a.m. and lasted all day, but while a broad outline is known, the exact events are obscured by contradictory accounts in the sources. Although the numbers on each side were probably about equal, William had both cavalry and infantry, including many archers, while Harold had only foot soldiers and few archers. In the morning, the English soldiers formed up as a shield wall along the ridge, and were at first so effective that William’s army was thrown back with heavy casualties. Some of William’s Breton troops panicked and fled, and some of the English troops appear to have pursued them. Norman cavalry then attacked and killed the pursuing troops. While the Bretons were fleeing, rumors swept the Norman forces that the duke had been killed, but William rallied his troops. Twice more the Normans made feigned withdrawals, tempting the English into pursuit, and allowing the Norman cavalry to attack them repeatedly.

    The available sources are more confused about events in the afternoon, but it appears that the decisive event was the death of Harold, about which differing stories are told. William of Jumieges claimed that Harold was killed by William. It has also been claimed that the Bayeux Tapestry shows Harold’s death by an arrow to the eye, but this may be a later reworking of the tapestry to conform to 12th-century stories. Other sources stated that no one knew how Harold died because the press of battle was so tight around the king that the soldiers could not see who struck the fatal blow.

    image
    The Bayeux Tapestry: The controversial panel depicting Harold II’s death. The tapestry depicts the loss of the Anglo-Saxon troops to the Norman forces. Here, a figure some think to be Harold Godwinson is shown falling at the Battle of Hastings. Harold is shown with an arrow to the eye.
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