On 14th October 1066 a Saxon army under the command of King Harold of England stood at Sentlache Ridge, some 7 miles north of Hastings. Duke Guillaume of Normandy led his army from the port to fight the decisive battle of the year.
The Normans had invaded England on 28 September, but King Harold was in Northumbria having fought the Battle of Stamford Bridge only 3 days earlier. Guillaume appears to have been totally ignorant as to this occurrence. Having captured Hastings to use as a base the Normans could do little more but wait for the Saxon army to appear.
Harold moved south on hearing of the invasion. He returned first to London and spent about a week there. It is probable that he sent out messengers to call for more men to join him while also deciding on how to respond to the invasion. Perhaps influenced by his great victory at Stamford Bridge Harold decided to go onto the attack. He moved his army to Caldbec Hill, where he camped on the night before the battle.
The numbers for each army are not known but it is generally accepted that they were roughly equal and somewhere between 5,000 to 13,000. The disposition of the armies was very different, however. The Saxons consisted entirely of infantry and would fight in a shield-wall some 5 rows deep if sufficient men were available. The first row would be made up of warriors in heavy armour, nobles, theigns, and huscarls. The second row would be similar, but only if there were enough of these class of warriors. The fyrdmen, the peasant soldiers raised to fight for their theigns and eorls, made up the bulk of the army. They would be supported by archers who generally fought individually.
The Normans arranged themselves into three groups. The largest were the infantry. They fought in a much looser formation that than the Saxon shield-wall. They were supported by a large number of archers who were better organised than their Saxon counterparts. The most radical and dangerous element of the Norman army was the mounted knight. The Saxons did not use cavalry of any description.
The battle began with a Norman attack that proved entirely ineffective. The Saxons were placed at the top of a hill, which gave them a defensive advantage, and their formation was solid. The Saxon army was both experienced and well trained in their version of warfare, which mainly consisted of holding a position and then exploiting any apparent weaknesses in the enemy. The Normans had experience of a more fluid form of combat and found the Saxon position difficult to attack.
It is known that after one unsuccessful attack the Norman left flank began to panic, apparently believing that Duke Guillaume was dead. They started to flee down the hill and were pursued by a large number of Saxons. The Norman cavalry came to the rescue and killed the exposed Saxons. It is known that Harold’s brothers, Gyrth and Leofwine, died close to this point in the battle.
The actual turning point came much later, however. Late in the afternoon King Harold was killed during a Norman assault. The popular story is that he was shot in the eye with an arrow, but this relies mostly on the scene from the Bayeux Tapestry. How he died is not as important as the effect that his death had on the Saxons; they crumbled. The Normans proved pitiless in their destruction of Saxon resistance and slaughtered them even as the fled the battlefield.
Despite his overwhelming victory in the battle Duke Guillaume would not be crowned King of England until 25th December.