The Battle of Hastings was fought on October 14th 1066. In the lead up to the Battle of Hastings, William's men had done considerable damage to the area around Hastings as the Domesday Book was later to show.
William, Duke of Normandy, was a skilled and experienced military leader. His troops, with both infantry and cavalry, were feared and respected. He had fought and defeated the king of France in 1054 and 1057. William did not believe in being merciful to those who fought against him.
His soldiers were well trained and well equipped. They wore chain mail armour which gave them much protection. His cavalry rode specially bred horses which could carry the weight of these horse soldiers and still ride at speed. The cavalry rode on special saddles that effectively locked them in place as they rode and all but allowed them to keep their arms free to fight with. They were the elite of William's army.
William's elite cavalry
Harold's army was made up of a mixture of professional soldiers that were Harold's bodyguards, and men who had been collected on the march south from Stamford Bridge to Sussex. Why would men wish to fight in Harold's army? At that time, soldiers were poorly paid and anything that they took in battle they could keep at part of their payment. This was called “spoils of war”. Therefore, a poor peasant had the chance, albeit limited, of 'collecting' horses, armour, expensive swords etc. Fighting the Normans was a good opportunity for some peasants to increase their wealth. William was also an invader, so for many men, fighting against an invader was the right thing to do.
Also, Harold was a fine soldier and leader in his own right. He had commanded the army of Edward the Confessor when Edward was king and he had greatly impressed the Normans with his fighting skills when he was kept - against his will - in the court of William.
William had landed at Pevensey Bay in September. Legend has it that when William jumped from his boat, he slipped and fell onto the beach. Some of his soldiers took this to be a sign of bad luck, but William picked up a handful of shingle and said “See !! I have taken England already.”
William built a motte and bailey castle on Pevensey Bay and held a feast to celebrate the Normans safe arrival. After this he moved east and inland - a few miles from the coastal fishing town of Hastings.
After his desperate march south, Harold set up his defence on Senlac Hill. This gave him an advantage over William as the Normans would have to fight up a hill wearing heavy chain mail armour. Also his horses would have to climb this hill with the weight of the riders on them - thus losing a lot of valuable speed.
Harold's view of the battlefield
Why William assembled his men at the bottom of a hill is not known. Why he allowed Harold to set-up his army on top of Senlac Hill is not known. Perhaps he was too confident about defeating an army made up of men who had just marched over 250 miles from Stamford Bridge in Yorkshire after fighting an exhausting and bloody battle. Regardless of this, we do know that Harold picked a good spot to fight from. He had height advantage and the slopes of the hill on his side. He ordered his men to build a shield wall around Senlac to protect themselves from Norman archers.
We know that the battle started at about 9.00 in the morning. We do not know exactly what happened during the battle itself. We only have the story from the Normans side as the English were eventually slaughtered. Most of our information comes from the Bayeaux Tapestry. This was produced to celebrate the victory probably around 1077 - some 11 eleven years after the battle. It is thought that nuns may have done the tapestry and that it was made for Odo - William's half-brother who was also a bishop. How accurate is the tapestry? Does it show what happened or have those who produced it used their imagination? How much is accurate?
We do know the following happened :
the Normans could only fight through a narrow gap up Senlac as there was heavy marshland either side of the hill. Therefore, Harold could plan to use his fire power on a certain strip of land knowing that the Normans would have to use this.
we know that the Normans charged up the hill but suffered many casualties as English arrows showered down on them. Both Norman infantry (foot soldiers) and cavalry suffered.
we know that the cry went up that William had been killed. The Bayeaux Tapestry claims that William lifted up his helmet to prove to his men that he was still alive.
we believe that if Harold had kept his shield wall intact, he could have won the battle.
we know that the English broke down their shield wall to chase after retreating Normans. Why did they do this ? It is possible that the men who did this were the peasants in Harold's army who saw a chance to get horses, weapons etc. Some historians believe that William ordered his men to 'retreat' - an old Norman trick to move their enemy out of heavily fortified places - so that the shield wall had to be broken down by the English.
whatever the truth, the shield wall was broken down and the English chased after the Normans.
once this happened, the Normans simply regrouped at the bottom of Senlac and charged at the English. Without the protection of the shield wall, the English were helpless.
Harold had kept his bodyguards - the housecarls - with him but they could not stop the onslaught and Harold and his men were slaughtered by the Normans.
Harold hit by an arrow in the eye - according to the Bayeux Tapestry
The battle lasted all day but it would be wrong to assume that the Normans had an easy victory. For the first part of the battle, the Normans suffered heavy losses and they only took charge of the battle once the peasant soldiers of Harold had broken down the shield wall that protected them.
After this battle, William marched through Sussex and Kent crushing any resistance to him. He had himself crowned King William I on Christmas Day in Westminster Abbey.