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18 September 2014
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Battle of Hastings: A Surprise Defeat?

By Michael Wood
Image of knights at Battle of Hastings
Normans knights, depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry, charging to victory at Hastings 

The Normans turned England upside down, as their army of occupation of some 20,000 men began their rule over a nation of maybe two million souls. How did they do it?

No heirs apparent

Less than a century after King Edgar's coronation at Bath Abbey in 973, the Anglo-Saxon state was overthrown by the Normans in 1066. But, importantly, its administrative structures were not swept away. And the fact that they remained meant that, in effect, the Anglo-Saxon state formed the basis of the Anglo-Norman and early modern English state. However, although the Normans took over the older machinery, they created an entirely new order.

'... the invasion of 1066 was achieved by a very small army.'

Considering what we know now about the power and wealth of the late Saxon state, its defeat at Hastings may seem to have been a surprising one. In fact, the invasion of 1066 was achieved by a very small army. William the Conqueror invaded England with fewer than 10,000 troops, perhaps as few as 7 or 8,000 initially.

At the end of his reign, they only ever had, as an army of occupation, 20,000 men holding down a nation of one and a half or even two million souls. It's a bit like the British in India with 350,000 troops and administrators holding down 350 million people. And yet the Normans turned the country upside down. In part this was due to their own undoubted military skills. But they were also very lucky.

Published: 2004-11-18

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