Thursday, October 14, 2010

Pop History Moment: The Battle of Hastings

Late in September, 1066, William the Bastard, Duke of Normandy, decided it was time to act in support of his claim to the throne of England*. To his mind, the current King, Harold Godwinson, was a usurper, despite having the support of the Witenagemot.

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Having spent the summer amassing an army (600 ships and 7000 men) at Saint-Valery-sur-Somme in Normandy and staring across the English Channel at a similarly powerful Saxon force, intelligence reached him that the English militia had begun to retreat so as to take in the harvest, and that Harald III of Norway had just landed in the North of England, drawing most of the remaining English troops out of the area.

William waited for the last of the summer's storms to pass, and then set out...

His force landed in England between Hastings and Bexhill, then marched a few miles east to the area near Pevensey Bay, where he built a wooden castle for a garrison. Harold, having been victorious in the North, rushed south to defend his realm yet again, arriving in the area on the evening of October 13th.

With Harold's troops poised on Senlac Hill, and William's opposite on Telham Hill, the fateful Saturday dawned... The battle lasted all day, and early on it looked like the tight ranks of the similarly-sized but weaker Saxon force might win the day. However, by the afternoon, some of Harold's men broke ranks to pursue retreating Normans (possibly a tactical ploy) and William charged his knights up into the remaining ranks.

Volley after volley of arrows followed; in one of these King Harold fell, and with it England's Anglo-Saxon age...

The events of the Battle of Hastings are most evocatively rendered on the Bayeux Tapestry, images of which are available here online.

*William insisted he'd been promised the throne by Edward the Confessor, although that promise might have been wrought with coercion; Edward had also taken as his queen Edith of Wessex, daughter of the powerful noble Godwin, Earl of Wessex, and sister of Harold Godwinson, which to many indicated his desire to keep the House of Wessex both alive and English. Alas, the one thing he never did do was specifically name his heir while actually on his deathbed...
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