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Harold Godwinson versus William of Normandy: Fresh off a recent battlefield victory, an English army under Harold occupies favourable defensive terrain to block the advance of an invading Norman army under William. William must defeat Harold and break out of the peninsula he has established a base on before the weather worsens and morale deteriorates. Will the Norman army’s combined arms approach be able to overcome the English army’s shield wall in a literal uphill battle?
The Battle of Hastings is rightly assessed as one of the most important, decisive battles in world history. This is because the battle significantly altered England, which eventually transformed into the British Empire, which indisputably changed the rest of the world. Davis, in his well-conceived list of decisive battles, writes of the impact of Hastings:
The Norman conquest completely altered the nature of England. Dominated by the Saxons since the Roman Empire fell more than five centuries earlier, England had made but little progress in relation to the rest of Europe. From 1066 that changed. The feudal system that had been developing in France since the days of Charlemagne in the eight century became the basis of English society and politics as well, although adapted somewhat. Before the invasion, England had been a loose confederation of nobles more than a country; afterward it became a real kingdom. This mean a country going in one direction, able to focus on its internal needs as well as foreign relations from a single point of view. The unification that William accomplished strengthened that concept, for the British Isles had been occupied by multiple Scandinavian and north European populations, usually antagonistic to each other. (1999: 117)
Fuller adds that “In the place of a loosely-knit and undisciplined country was substituted a unified and compact kingdom under a firm and hereditary central authority, a king who knew how to combine feudalism with personal government” (1954: 276).
While English land has featured many history-altering battles, Hastings stands out as not only “the most decisive battle ever fought on her soil, but also the most decisive in her history” (Fuller, 1965: 276). The large impact of the Norman victory can be partly explained by simple fact that virtually the entire English army and all of the significant competitors for power were killed in the battle, allowing William to fill the political vacuum (Gabriel and Boose, 1994: 516). The Norman Conquest of England is truly unique in how rapidly it was accomplished. Whereas previous invaders such as the Romans or Vikings usually had to fight for every piece of the country, “William of Normandy, thereafter known to history as William the Conqueror, had completely decapitated the English political and military system [in one swift blow]” (Gabriel and Boose, 1994: 516-517).
William as “the Conqueror”
The reference of William as the Conqueror is an interesting one. Michel Foucault, the provocative philosopher-historian, spends a lot of time exploring the Norman Conquest in his lecture series compiled in Society Must Be Defended. The passage below is part of a much grander discussion but is worth quoting at length because it illustrates the importance of military history in broader political, economic, and social histories. Foucault writes that
Basically, what the new history is trying to show is that power, the mighty, the kings, and the laws have concealed the fat that they were born of the contingency and injustice of battles. After all, William the Conqueror did not want to be called “the conqueror,” for he wanted to conceal the fact that the rights he exercised, or the violence he was inflicting on England, were the rights of conquest. He wanted to be the seen as the legitimate dynastic successor and therefore hid the name of “conqueror” . . . These unjust and biased kings tried to make it look as though they were acting on behalf of all and in the name of all; they certainly wanted people to talk of their victories, but they did not want it to be known that their victories were someone else’s defeats. (1997: 72).
In other words, the basis of legitimacy for every regime, past, present, and likely future, is victory in a violent struggle. This fact is often concealed for the same reason William did not wish to be known as “the conqueror”: to consolidate power over the defeated. When studying military history’s great battles, think of what each battle or campaign legitimizes and what it tries to eradicate.
The battle appears to be a vindication of modern combined arms concepts in which a commander must possess and use all types of arms together effectively to win on the battlefield. William possessed all three of this age of warfare, missile troops (archers), fixing troops (infantry), and shock troops (knights) while Harold possessed only infantry. William’s initial plan of attack illustrated some understanding of combined arms tactics, using his archers to disrupt the enemy formation, infantry to pin and create gaps in the enemy line, and then knights to punch through those gaps and rout the enemy. However, this combined arms-savvy plan did not win the day and had little effect on the English shield wall. It was instead William’s flexibility to adapt to the conditions on the battlefield that won the battle, particularly leading his center to destroy the pursuing English infantry and adopting feigned retreats to lure others off the ridge and thin out the English line.
For the English side, Harold had out-generaled William at the operational level before the battle began. Harold isolated William’s army by interdicting Norman supply by sea and blocking its advance out of the peninsula. The English army occupied a ridge flanked by steep slopes and overlooking marshy ground. This successful isolation by Harold forced William to launch a frontal assault uphill on ground far from ideal for shock cavalry charges. Gabriel and Boose praise Harold’s tactics here, writing that
Proper use of the terrain and the tactical defensive can be important force multipliers, especially so for a smaller force. Harold’s army was smaller than William’s and lacked a number of important combat capabilities that William’s possessed. Harold chose to fight a battle of attrition from a strong defensive position to offset William’s significant military advantages. It almost worked. (1994: 594)
Harold’s mistakes occurred during the execution of the battle at the tactical level.
Despite being known for his mobile offensive operations, Napoleon is known to have said that “The whole art of war consists in a well-reasoned and extremely circumspect defensive, followed by a rapid and audacious attack” (quoted by Greene, 2006: 121). Harold certainly conducted a successful defensive but never switched over to the offensive. Harold’s only real opportunity to attack was during the confusion of William’s initial failed attack when the Norman troops fled down the slope rumours of their commander’s death spread throughout the ranks. Fuller writes that this juncture
was Harold’s chance, and he failed to seize it. He has often been blamed for not having rigidly maintained his shield-wall throughout the battle. Though to have done so might have saved him from defeat, it could not have gained a victory. Had he now seized his chance, he would have ordered a general advance, and pouring down the slope on both sides of the Hastings road would, almost certainly, have annihilated the Norman archers and infantry. True, the Norman cavalry would have got away, but bereft of their infantry, in all probability they would not have drawn rein until they had found security behind their stockade at Hastings. The victory would have been Harold’s, and it might well have been decisive enough to have compelled William to re-embark and abandon the campaign. (1954: 271-272)
To be fair, Napoleon also stated that “the transition from the defensive to the offensive is one of the most delicate operations in war” (Bonaparte quoted by Burnod and D’Aguilar, 1869: 57).
I had never intended to animate this battle as The History Channel had already animated it in its Line of Fire series of battle animations, which actually helped inspire my efforts. For some reason, these well-done animations disappeared from The History Channel’s website, leaving a serious gap I decided to fill (Austerlitz and Waterloo were among other animations to disappear that I decided to recreate). So if you are ever wondering why it took me so long to animate this great battle, that is why.
The actual composition of the English “shield wall” is somewhat open to interpretation. Gravett tells us that a 10th century poem about the Battle of Maldon mentioned the term and the Tapestry shows infantry overlapping shields (1992: 64). Some sources also suggest this formation may have been paired with a palisade or ditch of some sort (Whyte, 2015: 12). However, Gravett points out an obvious flaw in the formation or contradiction in the accounts:
In this form [of overlapping shields] it would have been an effective barrier against missiles. However, this formation would have had to be broken up in order to wield weapons in close combat, especially the great double-handed axe that needed room to be swung. (1992: 64)
With accounts placing Harold’s best troops most likely to use a double-handed axe in the front-lines, it leave some questions unanswered. It is possible Harold sacrificed the lethality of his best troops, the household huscarls, in order to maintain the cohesion of his largely militia shield wall.
Quick note on the map and scale: I moved Ashen Brook 150-200m south to make room to properly deploy the Norman army.
I found no estimate of casualties for either side and so I put them as unknown for both sides.
– Jonathan Webb
Bonaparte, Napoleon. The Officer’s Manual: Napoleon’s Maxims of War. Translated by George C. D’Aguilar and annotated by M. Burnod. Richmond: West & Johnston, 1869.
Davis, Paul K. 100 Decisive Battles from Ancient Times to the Present. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Delbrück, Hans. History of the Art of War Within the Framework of Political History: The Middle Ages Vol. 3. Translated by Walter J. Renfroe Jr. Westport: Greenwood, 1982.
DeVries, Kelly. ”Hasting, 1066.” In Battles of the Medieval World 1000-1500. London: Amber, 2006: 18-29.
Fuller, J.F.C. The Decisive Battles of the Western World Vol. 1. London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1954.
Gabriel, Richard A. and Donald W. Boose Jr. The Great Battles of Antiquity: A Strategic and Tactical Guide to Great Battles that Shaped the Development of War. Westport: Greenwood, 1994.
Goodenough, Simon. Tactical Genius in Battle. Oxford: Phodian Press, 1979.
Gravett, Christopher. Hastings 1066. London: Osprey, 1992.
Greene, Robert. The 33 Strategies of War. New York: Viking, 2006.
Whyte, Brendan. “1066: The Year of Three Battles.” Strategy & Tactics 293 (2015): 7-20.
English heavy infantry: http://www.dbaol.com/armies/army_113_figure_1.htm
Harold Godwinson: http://www.shakespeareandhistory.com/harold-godwinson.php
Map of the British Isles: http://erenow.com/ww/warfareinthemedievalworld/12.html
Map of the world: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_map_projections
Norman bowmen: http://www.dbaol.com/armies/army_134_figure_1.htm
Norman cavalry: http://www.dbaol.com/armies/army_102c_figure_1.htm
Norman infantry: http://www.dbaol.com/armies/army_102c_figure_1.htm
William of Normandy: http://familypedia.wikia.com/wiki/William_I_of_England_(1027-1087)
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