Several months after preparing an invasion force of 9,000 men and 700 transport ships, Duke William finally landed in England. The Normans came ashore at Pevensey bay in Sussex on 28 September and immediately built a motte and bailey castle. Duke William’s forces used the castle at Pevensey as a base from which to raid the south of England whilst they prepared for the decisive, winner takes all, battle with King Harold II and his force of exhausted Anglo-Saxons.
Harold II marched back from Stamford Bridge with an exhausted army. A third of his men had died at Stamford Bridge and another third were left behind during the march south, because they could not keep up. Harold did add to his army with the fyrd. They were not fully trained soldiers but had to fight for the king when called upon. Although they boosted Harold’s army to roughly 7,000, they were inferior to the men he had left behind on the road south to Hastings.
The Norman invasion
October 14th 1066: The day of battle
Harold had tried to catch the Norman army by surprise, like he’d done with Harald Hardrada at Stamford Bridge, but Norman scouts warned Duke William of King Harold’s advance. Harold and his army then decided to take up the best defensive position in the area, a small hill which the Normans later called Senlac Hill which means ‘blood-lake’ in French. They probably gave it this name because it sounded similar to the English name for the site, scen-leag, and because so many died there.
How did the battle unfold?
After being spotted by Duke William’s scouts Harold and his army took up a defensive position on Senlac Hill and formed a shield wall.
William and his army rode out of their castle in Hastings to fight at 9am.
William ordered his archers to fire at Harold’s army but the shield wall prevented any damage to the English army. William later sent in his infantry but they were again forced back by the shield wall.
William’s cavalry also failed to break the shield wall and some men even began to retreat after they heard rumours of William’s death. William rode to the front of his army and lifted his helmet to show his men that he was still alive and he led another attack on the shield wall.
In the late afternoon William’s cavalry tried to move the English away from their defensive position by feigning retreat. After many attempts some of the inexperienced English infantry left the shield wall and tried to attack the Norman cavalry who they believed were retreating.
The Norman cavalry turned round and cut the English to pieces. As more of Harold’s army came down from the hill to join the battle, the Normans had the opportunity to break the shield wall.
Around 5pm an arrow hit King Harold, who was fighting with his men on foot, and on hearing of his death his army lost all their discipline and were massacred by the Norman infantry and cavalry. Harold’s brothers Gyrth and Leofwine died beside him and as the sun began to set the battle was clearly over. Duke William had won.