Battle of Hasting: Outline

Background to the Battle of Hastings

(1) King Harold's army was made up of housecarls and the fyrd. Housecarls were well-trained, full-time soldiers who were paid for their services. The fyrd were working men who were called up to fight for the king in times of danger.

(2) When Harold realised he was unable to take William by surprise he positioned himself at the top of Senlac Hill, a high ridge seven miles from Hastings. Harold selected this position because it was at the top of a steep hill and was protected on each side by marshy land.

(3) The English housecarls provided a shield wall at the front of Harold's army. They carried large battle-axes and were considered to be the toughest fighters in Europe.

(4) The fyrd were placed behind the housecarls. The leaders of the fyrd, the thegns, had swords and javelins, but the rest of the men were inexperienced fighters and carried weapons such as iron-studded clubs, slings, scythes, sickles and pitchforks.

(5) We have no accurate figures of the number of soldiers who took part in the Battle of Hastings. Historians have estimated that William had 5,000 infantry and 3,000 knights. King Harold had about 2,500 housecarls and over 6,000 members of the fyrd. Before the fighting started, William spoke to his men and reminded them they had never lost a battle under his command.

(6) On 14th October, at 9 am, the Norman archers walked up the hill and when they were about 90 metres (98 yards) away from Harold's army they fired their first batch of arrows. Using their shields, the bousecarls were able to block most of this attack. The Norman infantry then charged up the hill.

(7) The English held firm and the Normans were forced to retreat. Members of the fyrd broke ranks and chased after the Bretons. William ordered his cavalry to attack the English who had left their positions on Senlac Hill. English losses were heavy and very few managed to return to their place at the top of the hill.

(8) At about 12 noon there was a break in the lighting for an hour. This gave both sides a chance to remove the dead and wounded from the battlefield. William, who had originally planned to use his cavalry when the English retreated, decided to change his tactics.

(9) At about 1 pm William ordered his archers forward. This time he ordered them to fire higher in the air. The change of direction of the arrows caught the English by surprise.

(10) The arrow attack was immediately followed by a cavalry charge. Casualties on both sides were heavy. Those killed included Harold's two brothers, Gyrth and Leofwine. However, the English line held and the Normans were eventually forced to retreat. The fyrd this time chased the Flemings down the hill. William ordered his knights to turn and attack the men who had left the line. Once again the English suffered many casualties.

(11) William now decided to take another rest. He had lost a quarter of his cavalry. Many horses had been killed and the ones left alive were exhausted. William decided that the knights should dismount and attack on foot. This time all the Normans went into battle together. The archers fired their arrows and at the same time the knights and infantry charged up the hill.

(12) It was now 4 PM in the afternoon. Heavy English casualties from previous attacks meant that the front line was shorter. The Normans could now attack from the side. The few housecarls that were left were forced to form a small circle round the English standard.

(13) The Normans attacked again and this time they broke through the shield wall. A group of knights that included Guy of Ponthieu, Eustace of Boulogne, Hugh de Montfort and Walter Giffard were able to reach the English king. After a few minutes they managed to kill Harold.

(14) With their king dead, the fyrd saw no reason to stay and fight, and retreated to the woods behind. The Normans chased them into Malfosse Wood where they killed as many as they could find.

Battle of Hastings Map