Thursday, July 20, 2006

Good evening, this is Michael Anthony, and you’re listening to British History 101. This episode brings us to part 2 of our 3 part series on the Battle of Hastings. Last time, we ended with the backgrounds of the 4 people I think of as the most important in this event – Edward the Confessor, Harold Godwinson, Harald Hardrada, and William of Normandy. Now, we’re left with three of them alive; one is in England, one across the Channel in Normandy, and one in Norway. Our Norse contender, Harald Hardrada, was the first to move, invading England with Harold Godwinson’s exiled brother Tostig in late summer 1066.
Hardrada first sailed to the Orkneys and the Isle of Man, gathering recruits, and then landed on the northeast coast of England. In September, Harald sailed up the Humber and defeated the armies of the Edwin, Earl of Mercia and Morcar, Earl of Northumbria, at Gate Fulford near York. He then made camp at Stamford Bridge, preparing his army to penetrate England deeper to the south.
Harold Godwinson would have none of this in his land. When he heard of the action at Gate Fulford, he headed up the road from London to York, gathering local armies as he went, and arrived just five days after Edwin and Morcar had been defeated. That same day, Harold marched out the 10 miles to Stamford Bridge to confront the Norse invaders. On September 25, the English and the Norse armies met, and so began the last ever Scandinavian offensive against the English. The Norsemen, fighting without their cumbersome armor, initially held their ground against the English. However, the King of England soon employed a common tactic by feigning a retreat, which Hardrada’s men easily fell for. At this turn of the tide, Harald Hardrada was killed, supposedly by an arrow to the throat, and Harold Godwinson offered his brother Tostig peace, along with quarter for all surviving Norsemen. However, the Norwegian army declared they would rather die than accept quarter from Englishmen, and the battle raged on. Reinforcements that had been left on the Norse ships actually arrived, but, tired from the march to the battle, they shucked their armor and soon paid for that mistake with their lives. They, along with most of the rest of the Norse army and Tostig, were destroyed. Godwinson spared the life of Olaf, Hardrada’s son, and allowed him and the few Norwegian survivors to return home alive. This marked one of the most decisive victories in English history. However, the joy at success was short lived – immediately after the Battle of Stamford Bridge, the King of England was informed that William, Duke of Normany, had landed at Pevensey on the southern coast. A second invasion had begun.
Throughout the summer of 1066, around the time that Harald Hardrada was preparing his expedition, William of Normandy built up an army around St. Valery on the mouth of the Somme. However, although his army was ready to go, the winds on the water were unfavorable and wouldn’t allow the force to set sail. Calling in the greatest force he knew, William had the bones of St. Edmund brought from the church at St. Valery and carried across the beach in prayer for seaworthy winds. Sure enough, the next day, a strong wind grew up, and William set sail for the island nation he was determined to take possession of. On 20 September, William landed at Pevensey with his invasion force. He was completely unopposed – the local army had been called out four times already that year, and thinking a false alarm, it didn’t bother to greet the Normans. Legend has it that William fell flat on his face when he came off his ship – turning this goof around, William said, “See, I have taken England with both my hands!”
William spent the next 2 weeks organizing his army, raiding the lands of Sussex for supplies, and building up a fortification to protect his fleet and army. Harold, learning of this, marched from York to London in seven days with what remained of his army. The local nobles in Kent and Wessex joined with their armies and retainers, and Harold stayed in London for another five days, gathering all the forces he could. Once he built up his army, Harold Godwinson marched toward Pevensey to defend the island nation he called his own.
Harold made camp on the evening of October 13 on Senlac Hill, with the great forest of Anderida at his back, on a line between Pevensey and London. The next morning, October 14, Harold formed his shield wall, a defensive line made up of his best troops, armed with swords, spears, and the devastating Danish axes. Behind this wall were the less trained troops, local levies called out along the way to London, armed with whatever weapons they could make or find. Regardless of their level of training or armament, all the troops were exhausted from the marathon march to meet William, and none were in great shape to fend off an invasion.
That same morning, William set out from Pevensey with an army comparable in size to Harold’s, made up of Breton, Norman, and Flemish nobles and their vassals, along with freebooters from as far away as Italy. The nobles had been promised English lands and titles upon victory, and the common troops were to be given cash and the “spoils of war”. Upon arriving at the English line, William arrayed his forces in the common medieval formation of three groups, or “battles”, facing the defenders. The Breton battle took the left, the Norman group the center, and the Flemish were on the right. So stood the opposing lines of armies prepared to decide the fate of England.
According to legend, William’s knight and minstrel Ivo Taillefer begged permission to charge out first against the English, and his request was honored. Taillefer rode out on his horse before the English lines, throwing his weapons in the air and catching them while singing an early version of the epic The Song of Roland. There are two versions of what then became of the Duke’s minstrel. One says that an English soldier rode out to challenge Taillefer, who killed the Englishmen and took his head as a trophy and proof that God favored the Norman invaders. The other version says that Taillefer charged the English ranks and was, of course, killed. Either way, upon this, the battle began.
William’s archers had little effect on the English lines – the shield wall prevented Norman arrows from doing much damage. As Norman archery tactics relied a great deal on launching arrows already fired at them by their enemies, and the English weren’t using archers, dwindling ammunition supplies soon caused the Normans to cut back their hail of arrows. William’s cavalry then charged the English, learning firsthand just how resilient Harold’s shield wall was.
Again and again, the Duke of Normandy’s forces charged against the English shield wall, and they were repeatedly turned away, unable to force their way through. However, the Bretons in the left battle soon saw that they could successfully employ a feigned retreat – the same tactic that Harold had used to defeat the Norsemen at Stamford Bridge. The Bretons then staged a retreat, and William’s Norman battle charged the English soldiers who had pursued the Bretons away from the safety of the shield wall. This proved to be Harold’s downfall. This feint was used over and over, slowly wearing down the English until little more than Harold’s personal bodyguard and some local levy troops remained.
William then ordered his archers to shoot high into the air, and traditionally, Harold, King of England, was killed by an arrow in the right eye. There are numerous versions of Godwinson’s death, but they all lead to the same point – once the King was dead, his troops were drained of their fighting spirit, and soon started being slaughtered by the Normans. Many of them fled into the forest at their backs, desperate to escape the battle.
William was victorious, but the bloodshed was not over for the day. His cavalry pursued the English army over Senlac Hill, only to fall into the deep ditch on the other side. Here, the frustrated English that remained in the forest cut the incapacitated Normans to pieces, saving what dignity they could and fighting to the last.
Learning of his death, Harold Godwinson’s mother offered his weight in gold to William for the chance to bury Harold in holy ground. William decided it was better to bury Harold on the Saxon shore, laid to rest in the ground he gave his life to defend. Later, Harold’s remains were transferred to Waltham Abbey, a church which he himself had founded.
So began the next era on the island nation William took by storm. The Saxon king was dead, and a Norman would soon take his place, thus setting into motion a change of life for the people living in William’s new country. Next week, we will wrap up our series with an examination of the aftermath of the Battle of Hastings – how easy was the transition? And what really changed throughout the land? If you’d like to look back over the battle, check out my blog at for a transcript of this and every other episode. Send suggestions, questions, comments, rants, and raves to Our music tonight is Geminiani’s “Sonata V in A Minor: Part 3, Allegro" performed by the Brook Street Band and available on Magnatune is an independent online record label that equally shares all revenue from album sales with their hand-selected artists while allowing them to retain full rights to their works. Visit for great music at low prices and support the many wonderful artists hosted there. Until we talk again, my best to you all, and thanks for listening. If you liked what you heard in this episode, please subscribe to British History 101 and catch each episode fresh every week. Again, thanks for listening, and have a great night. I’ll look forward to learning with you next week.

MP3 File


Post a Comment

<< Home