October 14, 1066: The Battle of Hastings

[OCTOBER 14, 1066]

THE morning of the decisive day, Saturday, October 14, at last had come. The duke of the Normans heard mass, and drew forth his troops for their march against the English post. Then in full armour, and seated on his Spanish war-horse, William led his host forth in three divisions. The Normans from the hill of Telham first caught sight of the English encamped on the opposite height of Senlac.

First in each of the three Norman divisions marched the archers, slingers and cross-bow men, then the more heavily armed infantry, lastly the horsemen. The reason of this arrangement is clear. The light-armed were to do what they could with their missiles to annoy the English; the heavy infantry were to strive to break down the palisades of the English camp, and so to make ready the way for the charge of the horse.

Like the Normans, the English had risen early. The king, after exhorting his troops to stand firm, rode to the royal post; he there dismounted, took his place on foot, and prayed to God for help. The battle began at nine in the morning. The trumpet sounded and a flight of arrows from all three Norman divisions was the prelude to the onslaught of the heavy-armed foot. The French infantry had to toil up the hill, and to break down the palisade while a shower of stones and javelins disordered their approach, and while club, sword and axe greeted all who came within the reach of hand-strokes.

Both sides fought with unyielding valour. The war-cries rose on either side. The Normans shouted 'God help us!' The English called on the 'Holy Cross.' The Norman infantry had soon done its best, but that best had been in vain. The choicest chivalry of Europe now pressed on to the attack. The knights of Normandy and of all lands from which men had flocked to William's standard now pressed on, striving to make what impression they could with the whole strength of themselves and their horses on the impenetrable fortress of timbershields and living warriors.

But all was in vain. The English had thus far stood their ground well and wisely, and the tactics of Harold had so far completely answered. Not only had every attack failed, but the great mass of the French army altogether lost heart. The Britons and the other auxiliaries on the left were the first to give way. The whole of William's left wing was thrown into utter confusion.

The strong heart of William, however, failed him not, and by his single prowess and presence of mind he recalled the fleeing troops. Order was soon restored, and the Norman host pressed on to a second and more terrible attack. The duke himself, his relics round his neck, sought out Harold. A few moments more, and the two might have come face to face, but Gyrth, the noble brother of the English king, hurled a spear at William. The missile narrowly missed the duke, but slew the Spanish steed. But William could fight on foot as well as on horseback. He rose to his feet, pressed straight to seek the man who had so nearly slain him, and the earl fell, crushed beneath the blow of William's mace.

The second attack, however, failed, for the English lines were as unyielding as ever. Direct attack was unavailing. In the Norman character fox and lion were equally blended, as William now showed. He ventured on the daring stratagem of ordering a pretended flight, and the unwary English rushed down the slope, pursuing the fugitives with shouts of delight.

The error was fatal to England. The tide was turned; the duke's object was now gained. The English were no longer entrenched and the battle fell into a series of single combats. As twilight was coming on an arrow, falling like a bolt from heaven, pierced Harold's right eye, and he sank in agony at the foot of the standard. Round that standard the fight still raged, till the highest nobility, the most valiant solidery of England were slaughtered to a man.

Had Harold lived, had another like him been ready to take his place, we may well doubt whether, even after Senlac, England would have been conquered at all. As it was, from this moment her complete conquest was only a matter of time. From that day forward the Normans began to work the will of God upon the folk of England, till there were left in England no chiefs of the land of English blood, till all were brought down to bondage and sorrow, till it was a shame to be called an Englishman, and the men of England were no more a people.

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