This commentary is based on the classroom activity: The Battle of Hastings
Q1: Study source 3. Select examples from the passage where the author expresses (i) facts, and (ii) opinions.
A1: A fact is something that has actually happened. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle includes several statements of fact. These include "Then came William duke of Normandy into Pevensey" and "King Harold was killed". (ii) An opinion is a view or judgement formed about a particular matter. An example of an opinion being expressed is "William came against him unawares".
Q2: There is some doubt about how Harold was killed. Describe how sources 3, 4, 6, 7 and 8 help to answer this question. How reliable is this evidence? Before you answer this question it will help you read about the authors of these sources and the Bayeux Tapestry.
A2: William of Malmesbury claims that Harold's brain was "pierced by an arrow". William of Poitiers was unable to say how Harold died. In fact, he points out that they had difficulty recognising his body. Under the word "Harold" on the Bayeux Tapestry is a soldier with an arrow in his head which seems to support the view expressed by William of Malmesbury. However, some historians have argued that Harold could be the figure underneath the word killed (interfec). Another possibility is that both men are Harold as William of Malmesbury said that after he was hit by an arrow he was cut in the thigh with a sword. Both William of Poitiers and William of Malmesbury did not witness the death of Harold. However, William of Poitiers was friendly with several people who had taken part in the battle. His book was written only five years after the event and was probably based on eyewitness accounts. William of Malmesbury did not write his version until about 70 years after the battle took place. It is possible that his account was based on documents that have not survived. The Bayeux Tapestry was produced fairly soon after the Battle of Hastings. Bishop Odo, who organised the making of the tapestry, also took part in the battle. However, the problem with this source is it is not clear which one of the figures is Harold.
Q3: Compare the value of sources 1, 3 and 8 to the historian writing a book about the Battle of Hastings.
A3: The value of source 1 would depend on the research carried out by the people who took part in the re-enactment. It is likely that the individuals involved studied pictures and written documents about warfare during this period. It would be more important for the historian to study these sources rather than rely on other peoples' interpretation of them.
The problem with source 3 is that it provides few details of the Battle of Hastings. As it was written by a monk in Worcester or York it is highly unlikely that the author was at the battle. The lack of detail suggests that the monk did not even talk to people who were at the battle.
The value of source 1 would depend on the research carried out by the people who took part in the re-enactment. It would be more important for the historian to study these sources rather than rely on other peoples' interpretation of them.
William of Poitiers (source 8) was in Lisicux, Normandy when the Battle of Hastings took place. However, before writing his book lie interviewed several Normans who took part in the battle. William of Poitiers' book is the most detailed and reliable account that we have of the Battle of Hastings.
Q4: Study sources 2, 3, 4 and 6. Make a list of the reasons why these writers believed that the English lost the Battle of Hastings. Then explain whether you think these reasons are (a) very important, (b) fairly important, or (c) not very important in explaining Harold's defeat.
A4: Source 2 and 6 both suggest that William of Normandy's army outnumbered Harold's soldiers. William of Poitiers claimed that William of Normandy had sixty thousand men in his army and William of Malmesbury points out that the English "were few in number". If this was true, it would be a very important reason why Harold was defeated. However, other sources suggest that the two armies were similar in size. Source 3 argues that William attacked Harold before his men were ready. This claim is not supported by other sources. Even if it was true it would not be very important in explaining Harold's defeat. As the text points out, the English were able to hold their ground during the early stages of the battle. William of Malmesbury claims that Harold and his army were tired when the battle started. He suggests that the reason for this was that the English spent the night drinking and singing. A more important reason for their tiredness is that they had been forced to take part in a fast, long march before the battle started. The English army must have been very tired during the Battle of Hastings and this was an important factor in explaining why they lost to the Normans.
The Battle of Hastings
Although they’re probably busy trying to forge a lucrative YouTube career ask any British schoolchild when the Battle of Hastings was and they will – should – reply as one 1066.
Perhaps the most famous date in British history, the battle pitched Anglo-Saxon king Harold Godwinson’s army against a Norman-French army led by William, Duke of Normandy, and it was a fight for the ultimate prize – the crown of England.
It’s no understatement to say that the day-long battle changed the course of history and brought about a cultural and political transformation that fundamentally altered how the country was governed, its language, laws, customs and, as we can still witness to this day, its architecture.
1066: The Battle of Hastings – The Norman Conquest of England
The famous Battle of Hastings took place on this day in 1066. William the Duke of Normandy, later known as the Conqueror, defeated the army of Anglo-Saxon King Harold II (also known as Harold Godwinson). The Battle of Hastings was one of the most important decisive battles in world history, because the Normans became the ruling class in Britain after William’s victory, which shaped the destiny of that country for centuries to come.
An interesting fact concerning the Battle of Hastings was that the English had a somewhat better starting position. Namely, they were deployed on high ground, and thus William the Conqueror’s invading troops were forced to move uphill to engage them. It is important to note that the battle didn’t actually take place in the town of Hastings, but some 10 kilometers farther away, near the present-day small town of Battle in the county of East Sussex.
The English troops consisted almost exclusively of infantry, while the invading army also had large contingents of cavalry and archers. The English troops initially stood fast and even broke part of the Norman army, but then they made a fatal mistake: they pursued the fleeing Normans, leaving their elevated position and thus breaking cohesion with the rest of their army. Even King Harold II was killed near the end of the battle, leaving the English troops leaderless. Although the Normans took heavy casualties, their victory was so decisive that William crowned himself King of England during the very same year.
William Duke of Normandy, had set his sights on England. Wanting to conquer it, he gathers an army of 8000 and on September 28th, set sail for England. Upon arrival, he began to ravage the landscape, even winning a few battles against local nobles. With Harold and much of them English army in the north, William had plenty of time and plenty of space to make sure any confrontation would be on his own terms. He began to build a temporary wooden castle as his headquarters with temporary barracks erected nearby. He also began to pay off local farmers and merchants to keep an eye on any aggressive movements the English might make.
Meanwhile, as William sought to secure the South, Harold was returning from securing the north. He had just defeated a major Norse attack, and had gone to London to recover from the battle, leaving the bulk of his army behind. However, upon learning that William had landed an army in England, he quickly began to rally an army from around London, and called his existing troops down from York. By the time his troops arrived, William had been in England for almost a month, and was pretty dug in. However, Harold had an army more than twice the size of Williams, and with this in mind, the English began to march south.
As he marched south, Harold used William's tactic of paying off locals to his advantage, gathering informants and making sure they gave false reports to William. By doing this, Harold ensured any reports that got back to William vastly understated the size of the English army. After only about a week of marching, Harold's army moved into position to attack the next day on the night of October 7th. Wanting to conceal the true size of his army until the very last moment, Harold stationed more than half his army almost a mile behind him. With this setup, Harold and the English were ready to try and take back their nation.
The Battle of Hastings
On the morning of October 8th, Harold had his army roused early, probably by three or four in the morning. After a brief meal, 8000 of the 18,000 English troops marched about a mile to a hill nearby. By 6 in the morning, their position was solid, and they began a bombardment William's temporary castle. Because the castle could serve as shelter for no more than 2000 of William's force, the bombardment forced William's hand. By seven in the morning, the two armies were assembled, and faced each other down.
The first charge was William's initial charge against Harold. About 900 mounted troops charged the English. Harold, who had left most of his mounted troops behind, was forced to deploy all 400 of his mounted fighters. The two forces met at the middle of the field, where after 10 minutes of fighting, the remaining English force, perhaps 150 men, half with horse retreated, leaving about 450 Norman troops for the main assault. The assault came crashing into the center of the English line, causing light casualties, but being repulsed within 10 minutes.
After the first charge The English were essentially emptied of mounted troops, While the Normans had upwards of 1800. With this in mind, at about 8:00, William began to move his army forward, supported by the horses on the flanks. At this point, the armies were pretty evenly matched in size. The English army, however, was much less diversified. They had about the same amount of archers, but other than that, the English were mostly Swordsman and Spearmen, while the Normans still had cavalry, and probably a significant contingent of axe men.
The armies collided at around 8:30. Moments before the Normans had arrived, the English had plunged their army down the hill. While they still maintained the high ground, this significantly blunted the advantage of the horse, but also guaranteed hours of bloody combat. for hours, chaos reigned. The horses gave the Normans an advantage on the flanks, but the English position and their weakness in the middle made it impossible to profit from this.
As the battle wore on, William's mounted troops started to fall - forced to dismount, or otherwise removed from combat. This gave the English a huge advantage. They had more troops on the ground, and a stronger center. By 10:00, the Normans had lost almost all of their cavalry, and it was starting to look like a rout. William, desperate and fighting a losing battle, pulled his army back, leaving the English to control the hill.
At this point, both sides had about 7000 men in fighting shape left on the battlefield. Both were out of any significant number of cavalry, and it is doubtful either side had any horses by this point, except for perhaps officers. Because of this, the pace of the battle slowed, and until noon, it was more of a skirmish, with around 500 men on each side engaging.
As the day wore on, it became apparent to William that this was a battle he could not win, but one he couldn't afford to lose. By 1:00, he realized his only option was a final stand - he needed to put Harold off balance to escape an recoup, but given the current situation, that might be an impossibility. Unbeknownst to him, William had one more thing to worry about - on both his flanks, 5000 fresh English troops lay in wait, ready to attack.
After about another hour of skirmishes, William had his army form up and begin marching toward the English position. Much to his surprise, instead of waiting for him to arrive, the English charged straight at his army, apparently to meet him in the middle. The English force slammed into William's army, causing upheaval on both sides.
Only then did the 10,000 English troops Harold had left behind break their cover and charge in on either side of the Norman army. Taken of guard and grossly outnumbered, the Normans had no chance to fend off this assault. After less than ten minutes of fighting, the Norman formation broke, the English in close pursuit. While the English had undoubtedly won the battle at this point, a crucial mistake was made in the pursuit of the Normans.
Harold himself led the charge, riding in front of his army. This meant when the English caught up to the back of the Norman army, Harold found himself and was thrown off his horse. While he survived this endeavor, he would go missing until the conclusion of the war, allowing Edgar to take the throne, and inciting the English civil war. Some even argue this made the English the "losers" of this battle - ultimately, they were indeed worse off as a result. For all practical purposes though, the English won the battle.
Besides that obvious loss of Harold, the day was very successful for the English. The English lost around 2500 men to death or wounds, While the Normans lost about 2000, with 800 of their troops captured to boot. William's remaining 4700 troops were spread apart, with as little as 2000 actually near William. By this point, William's invasion was basically an abject failure, and his only goal was to get his troops of the island.
Following William's defeat at Hasting, his army was spread across southern England, While the English army, now under control of Leofwine and Gyrth, was in one location and began to hunt down the remainder of the Normans. The fighting that too place was minimal, and William mostly tried to get his army together to make his escape. None of the fighting included more than around 1000 people on both sides, and because of this, casualties were low.
The major conflict after the battle of Hastings came after much of the fighting had concluded, and William was preparing to leave. Much of his army was assembled hear were he landed, and the English army was closing in. With no plausible way to fight the English onslaught, William was forced to start boarding his troops onto the boats they arrived on. However, at the same time, Gyrth led a small force around the Norman army.
Upon arriving at the shore, Gyrth and his force of perhaps 500 troops began to set dozens of Norman ships ablaze. Before the army could even react, they had retreated back to English lines. While about half the ships were saved, many had been lit in the first place, and thus a large portion of William's army was left without transportation. This created a mad rush for the non-burned ships, effectively doing the job of the English army for them.
The English army didn't even attack, and William escaped with 3,500 of his men left, though many were wounded. The remaining 1,200 or so Normans were captured by the English army. This effectively destroyed William's chances of ever taking over England, and largely discredited him across Europe. The 500 German mercenaries that remained, along with many Normans, abandoned William, leaving him with just 2,500 loyal troops.
William, with only a fraction of his army remaining, knew he would not be accepted again as Duke of Normandy. Instead, he sailed west to Norway, where he requested the protection of Olaf III. The Norse king accepted, and made William part of his court, thus sowing the seeds of an eventual Norman dynasty in Norway. This would shape the future of Norway, Sweden, and even Scotland, and would lead to the eventual creation of the famed Northern Empire.
Meanwhile, in England, Edgar ascended the throne after the supposed death of Harold. After executing all 2,000 of the captured Norman soldiers, he dispersed the army Harold had raised. Harold would eventually be discovered in a field hospital put together in Kent, and after Edgar refused to resign his crown to Harold, the English Civil war would start. Essentially, after fighting to save England from invaders, Harold would have to fight to save his crown from Edgar.
The Battle of Hastings (Commentary) - History
From: Niven Sinclair [email protected]>
Date: Tue, 15 Jun 1999 10:53:18 +0100
Of one thing you may be certain: Neither Walderne nor his brother, Hamon, were at Hastings. They had been killed at the Battle of Vale-es-Dunes (1047) when they were contesting the right of William 'the Bastard' to become the next Duke of Normandy. Their other brother, Hubert, actually fought on the side of William 'the Bastard' at Val-es-Dunes and, as a result of this, his family received huge grants of land after the Conquest and became the King's 'dapifer' as you will gather from the St Clairs of the Isles.
Strangely, the sons of Walderne (except for William 'the Seemly' who had gone to Hungary with Edgar 'the Atheling) and Hamon 'the Teeth' were also at Hastings even although William (who was now 'the Conqueror') had killed their fathers.. Blood unites. Blood divides. Religion unites. Religion divides.
Professor Philippe Champy (with whom I have had a lengthy corespondence) does not think that Walderne, Hamon and Hubert were brothers but he has failed to convince me on this point. Hubert may have had a different mother which may have accounted for his decision to side with William rather than with Walderne at Val-es-Dunes. Mothers exert great influence. There may have been sibling jealousy (again prompted by the mothers) and, as Hubert would never have been Duke of Normandy (whoever won the battle) he may have decided to ensure that his sibling rival, Walderne, didn't get it. so he supported 'the Bastard'. If the Battle of Val-es-Dunes had swung the other way (and it was a closely run thing) the Sinclairs would have become the Royal Family of England and eventually of quarter of the World. If that had been so, would there have been a Boston tea-party? I doubt it! There would have been a Northern Commonwealth of Nations as had been envisaged by Prince Henry Sinclair and Queen Margrette of Norway as early as the end of the 14th Century when trade across the Atlantic was already taking place on a considerable scale.
English Sinclairs / 9 companions of William the Conqueror
From: "Richard Lower" [email protected]>
Date: Fri, 18 Jun 1999 11:26:48 -0700
Dear Donald: Andrew Sinclair says they were: Hubert Sinclair, Earl of Rye, and four of his sons, Radulph, Hubert, Adam and Eudo. Walderne, Earl of St Clare with his three sons, Richard, Britel and William. He adds the Earl of Senlis, then notes that "he was a Frenchman and not a Norman" He says that "it is not improbable" that Senlis added his name with his sons on the Roll of De Sancto Claro, but there is no record to support this. Note that Hubert and his sons were Englishmen from East Sussex, while his brother and nephews were Norman. This and much more from Andrew's book The Sinclairs of England.
William ``the Seemly'' and the Athelings
From: "Spirit One Email" [email protected]>
Date: Fri, 18 Jun 1999 17:58:55 -0700
According to Niven, and I have his message before me: "Of one thing you may be certain: Neither Walderne nor his brother, Hamon, were at Hastings. "
I think that this is consistent with William the Seemly's actions of being linked with the bringing of Edward the Athling from Hungary in 1057 at the request of King Edward the Confessor to replace him when he should die.
I hope to get people to see that the MOST important person in Edward Athling's family was Edward himself and not his daughter, Margaret. She was of very minor importance in the wider picture of the English throne. Of course, as things turned out in 1070 she just happened at the age of 24 to be at the right place at the right time when Malcolm Canmore decided to get married again.. Edward's son, Edgar, would have been next in importance as another person in line for the English throne.
William the Seemly and everyone knew that William the Bastard had his eye on the throne and this certainly would have have been a hostile action on William the Seemly St. Clair's part and shown that his sympathies were with the English monarchy and not the Norman. (If William the Seemly couldn't have the Norman Dukeship, then he was going to make sure that cousin William the B. didn't get the English throne)
The Battle of Hastings, 1066
Date: Sat, 08 May 1999 13:15:59 -0700
From: Rick Sinclair [email protected]
From the book The Great Battles of All Nations vol.1 publ. 1899 Chapter XI: The Battle of Hastings
Conquest of England by Duke William of Normandy,
Afterward styled William The Conquerer
The Battle of Hastings is recognized as the first step by which England reached her present strength. Previously the importance of the country had been meager. Afterward it emerged from insignificance into power.
The interest of this eventful struggle, by which William of Normandy became King of England, is materially enhanced by the character of the competitors for the crown. They were three in number. One was a foreign prince from the north one was a foreign prince from the south and one was a native hero of the land. Harald Hardrada, the strongest and the most chivalric of the kings of Norway, was the first Duke William of Normandy was the second and the Saxon Harold, the son of Earl Godwin, was the third. Never was a nobler prize sought by nobler champions, or striven for more gallantly. The Saxon triumphed over the Norwegian, and the Norman triumphed over the Saxon but Norse valor was never more conspicuous than when Harald Hardrata and his host fought and fell at Stamford Bridge nor did Saxons ever face their foes more bravely than Harold and his men on the fatal day of Hastings.
During the reign of King Edward the Confessor over the land, the claims of the Norwegian king to the crown were little thought of and though Hardrada's predecessor, King Magnus of Norway, had on one occassion asserted that, by virtue of a compact with the former king, Hardicanute, he was entitled to the English throne, no serious attempt had been made to enforce his pretensions. But the rivalry of the Saxon Harold and the Norman William was foreseen and bewailed by the Confessor, who was believed to have predicted on his deathbed the calamities that were impending over England. Duke William was King Edward's kinsman. Harold was the head of the most powerful noble house, next to the royal blood, in England and, personally, he was the bravest and most popular chieftain in the land. King Edward was childless, and the nearest collateral heir was a puny unpromising boy. England had suffered too severely, during royal minorities, to make the accession of Edgar Atheling desirable and long before King Edward's death, Earl Harold was the destined king of the nation's choice, though the favor of the Confessor was believed to lead toward the Norman duke.
A little time before the death of King Edward, Harold was in Normandy. The causes of the voyage of the Saxon earl to the Continent are doubtful but the fact of his having been, in 1065, at the ducal court, and in the power of his rival, is indisputable. William made skillful and unscrupulous use of the oppurtunity. Though Harold was treated with outward courtesy and friendship, he was made fully aware that his liberty and life depended on his compliance with the duke's requests. William said to him, in apparent confidence and cordiality, "When King Edward and I once lived like brothers under the same roof, he promised that if ever he became king of England he would make me heir to his throne. Harold, I wish that thou wouldst assist me to realize this promise." Harold replied with expressions of assent and further agreed, at Williams request, to marry William's daughter, Adela, and to send over his own sister to be married to one of William's barons. The crafty Norman was not content with this extorted promise he determined to bind Harold by a more solemn pledge, the breach of which would be a weight on the spirit of the gallant Saxon, and a discouragement to others from adopting his cause. Befor a full assembly of the Norman barons, Harold was required to do homage to Duke William, as the heir apparent of the English crown. Kneeling down, Harold placed his hands between those of the duke, and repeated the solemn form by which he acknowledged the duke as his lord, and promised to him fealty and true service. But William exacted more. He had caused all the bones and relics of saints that were preserved in the Norman monasteries and churches to be collected into a chest, which was placed in the council-room, covered over with a cloth of gold. On the chest of relics, which were thus concealed, was laid a missal. The duke then solemnly addressed his titular guest and real captive, and said to him, "Harold, I require thee, before this noble assembly, to confirm by oath the promises which thou hast made me, to assist me in obtaining the crown of England after King Edward's death, to marry my daughter Adela, and to send me thy sister, that I may give her in marriage to one of my barons." Harold, once more taken by surprise, and not able to deny his former words, approached the missal, and laid his hand on it, not knowing that the chest of relics was beneath. The old Norman chronicler, who describes the scene most minutely, says, when Harold placed his hand on it, the hand trembled, and his flesh quivered but he swore, and promised upon his oath to take Ele (Adela) to wife, and to deliver up England to the duke, and thereunto to do all in his power, according to his might and wit, after the death of Edward, if he himself should live so help him God. Many cried, "God grant it!" and when Harold rose from his knees, the duke made him stand close to the chest, and took off the pall that had covered it, and showed Harold upon what holy relics he had sworn and Harold was sorely alarmed at the sight. Remembered having read this recently. Hope it helps. The story goes on to cover the Battle of Hastings.
The Battle of Hastings: The Last Successful Invasion of England
The Battle of Hastings was a turning point in English history. It decided the fate of the English monarchy and shaped the country’s language, laws, and culture for a millennium.
The Cause of War
In January 1066, Edward the Confessor, King of England, died without leaving a direct heir. The Witan, England’s noble council, selected the Earl of Wessex, Harold Godwinson, as his successor. The strongest native claimant to the throne, Harold faced competing for the claim from two men. One was Harald Hardrada, King of Norway, whose claim to the throne was inherited from his father. The other was Duke William of Normandy.
13th-century version of Harold Godwinson’s crowning
William was a cousin of King Edward and had spent time with him while Edward was living in exile. Edward may have promised William that he could be his successor, though Edward didn’t have the right to make this offer. This was the basis on which William would make his bid for the English throne.
This claim was strengthened by a more recent incident when Harold Godwinson was shipwrecked on the continent. William rescued him from the Count of Ponthieu. While in William’s hands, Harold promised not to oppose William’s accession to the English throne.
When Harold took the throne, William took up arms to take his throne and punish Harold’s betrayal.
William Duke of Normandy
The Hastings Campaign
William gathered the support of Norman nobles and of the Pope, who gave the expedition his blessing. On the
coast of Normandy, he gathered 8-10,000 soldiers, with thousands of newly built boats to carry them, their supplies, their horses, and their non-combatant support.
Meanwhile, another invasion fleet under Harald Hardrada ( King of Norway) landed in Yorkshire. Harold Godwinson rushed north and defeated Hardrada at the Battle of Stamford Bridge on the 25 th of September.
Harald at the Battle of Stamford Bridge
The south of England was now exposed. All William needed was a favorable wind, which arrived on the 27 th of September. The next day, his invasion force landed in southern England, and on the 29 th they reached the town of Hastings, which had a good harbor and line of retreat. They built a wooden fort and started pillaging the surrounding area.
Word of the invasion reached Harold in York on the 1 st of October. He rushed south, assembled an army in London, and sent orders for others to meet him on the way to confront William. On the 13 th of October, his army assembled at Caldbec Hill, just north of William’s position.
The Battle Begins
Early on the 14 th , Harold’s army occupied a strong defensive position on Senlac Hill, a ridgeline blocking the Norman advance towards London. Above them flew the golden dragon royal standard of Wessex and Harold’s personal banner, that of the Fighting Man. The elite of the army, the housecarls, formed the heart of the line, supported by the fyrd, a levy of lower quality troops.
View of the Battlefield looking towards Senlac Hill. By Ealdgyth-CC BY-SA 3.0
Following a swift advance to the land below Senlac Hill, William assembled his army into three divisions. His elite included mounted knights carrying lances and shields. They were supported by more numerous infantry, including archers. The sides were quite evenly matched, though the Normans may have had slightly fewer men than the Saxons.
William first sent his archers forward. Though better equipped for ranged combat than the fyrd, they suffered from a bombardment of rocks and javelins, while causing little damage to the English line. After running short on arrows, they withdrew.
Norman knights and archers at the Battle of Hastings depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry
Next, William advanced his heavy infantry. Once again, they suffered from the missiles flung by the fyrd. On reaching the English lines, they engaged in a brutal struggle with the housecarls.
The English lines held. Having borne the brunt of the day’s fighting, the Norman infantry withdrew.
This part of the Bayeux tapestry shows a fight between a Norman knight and an English housecarl, wielding a Dane ax with two hands.
The Cavalry Attack
Now William joined the charge, leading his elite cavalry into an attack.
The Norman cavalry usually delivered a high-impact charge, but the terrain robbed them of this. On the left, the ground was boggy, and on the right, they had to attack uphill. Their charge failed to break the tough English line.
The Norman line, which consisted primarily of Breton knights, broke. Retreating away from the English, they trampled their own infantry, leaving that flank of the Norman force in chaos. The English right flank broke ranks and pursued them. William himself was caught up in the panic and unhorsed. A cry went down the lines that the Duke was dead.
William Duke of Normandy leading a charge
But William was not so easily beaten. He raised his helmet, proving that he was still alive, and rallied the broken cavalry. They charged straight into the disordered English right and devastated it.
Fortunately for Harold, he had troops to plug the gap. As William advanced again, the English line was once again intact.
William flung his cavalry back onto the offensive. Twice more, parts of the Norman line retreated, whether broken or feigning a route. On both occasions, William made the most of the opportunity to attack English troops who pursued them.
Here Norman and Saxon men fall at the same time in battle.
The End of Saxon England
By four in the afternoon, time was running out for William. There were only a few hours of daylight left and the Saxon line stood strong. Determined to win, he flung all his forces into one last assault. Archers fired high over the army, forcing the English to raise their shields. Then all of the Norman cavalry and infantry attacked at once.
At last, cracks showed in the Saxon line. Harold had run out of reserves to plug the gaps. The Norman cavalry drove wedges into holes in the English line. Slowly but surely, William’s men were getting a hold on the heights of Senlac Hill.
As night was falling and the fighting was at its height, Harold was hit in the eye by an arrow. Norman knights rushed in to finish off the wounded king.
Part of the Bayeux Tapestry, Depicting King Harold being slain.
Some of the housecarls fought on, battling to the end beneath the banners of the Royal Dragon and the Fighting Man. But the cause was lost. As most of the English force fled through the last of the fading light, they were pursued and cut down by Norman cavalry.
Bayeux Tapestry depicting the Saxon’s fleeing the Battle
The battle was over and with it Saxon rule of England. Duke William of Normandy became King William of England, bringing in French language, customs, and laws.
The impact of the Battle of Hastings
Hastings is one of the most famous battles in English history. Modern historians continue to debate its impact. The Norman Conquest brought many social, economic, political and cultural changes, but some people living in 11th-century England did not even consider this battle to be the most important event of 1066.
A monk writing at Christ Church, Canterbury, recorded just two events for that year in a chronicle kept at the cathedral: ‘Here King Edward died. In this year, Christ Church burned.’ Another scribe then added the words, ‘Here came William’. This is a good reminder that that the Battle of Hastings did not affect everyone in the same way, even if it became part of English folklore.
Alison Hudson is Project Curator of Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts at the British Library, working on the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition. Her doctoral research at the University of Oxford focused on the English Benedictine reform movement in the 10th century.
Battle of Hastings: The Armies and TacticsReconstruction drawing by Jason Askew.
Posted By: Dattatreya Mandal February 6, 2020
The Battle of Hastings, fought on 14 October 1066, proved to be a pivotal event in the long run – with medieval continental Europeans gaining their foothold in the political affairs of the British islanders. And while the battle in itself was not as decisive as one would be inclined to think (English resistance continued till 1070 AD), the encounter was surely hard fought with the Normans just about managing to clinch their victory from the jaws of defeat. To that end, in view of this historically interesting (and rather notable) episode, let us take a gander at the armies and tactics of the Battle of Hastings.
The Opposing Armies at the Battle of Hastings
The ‘Profusion’ of Norman Knights –
In the 11th century AD Europe, the role of the knight extended far beyond the battlefield and ranged into seemingly mundane avenues like petty judges, political advisers to even glorified farmers. During these transformative years, fiefs were introduced as alternatives to tenures for the heavily armed horsemen, while the length of service rarely went beyond 40 days a year. As for the typical Norman military system, most of the lords rather hosted their own household knights within large halls (at their own expense). There were also wealthier knights who while settling inside the lord’s estate, kept to their separate holdings. Some of them were even expected to bring their own followers to serve as infantry or lightly-armed cavalry.
In essence, the statuses and roles pertaining to knighthood in 11th century AD Normandy were not defined by stringent requirements (like in later centuries), except for their ‘noble’ births. And while the hierarchy system of feudalism was beginning to extend its roots during the epoch, the majority of the lords actually kept more knights than their dukes would need during times of wars and crisis. This political scope rather alludes to a decentralized state of affairs, with various power centers stretched across the Norman realm, nominally headed by the duke.
The Various Troop Types in the Norman Camp –
While popular culture portrays the Battle of Hastings as a momentous encounter between the ‘English’ Anglo-Saxons and the continental Normans, in reality, the conflict brought forth other nationalities into the fray. For example, on the Norman side, the left-wing of Duke William’s army was largely composed of Bretons, who interestingly traced their lineage from the ancient Brittonic speakers of southwestern Britain, while combining elements of both Gauls and Viking raiders.
Likewise the right-wing of the Normans were composed of Franco-Flemish troops. Another overlooked point in the case of the Norman invasion force was how it also included large numbers of infantry troops and mercenaries, including spearmen, archers and even crossbowmen.
Pertaining to the latter, literary works like Carmen de Hastingae Proelio (Song of the Battle of Hastings), attributed to the Bishop Guy of Amiens, and often viewed as the earliest known source of the battle, clearly mention bolts with square-shaped heads. And if crossbow seems ‘exotic’ to the scope of Hastings, historians have also painted the possibility of slingers being used by William. Typically used as screening troops, these men could have still unleashed their lethal volleys, especially on armored targets at an effective range of around 30 m (around 100 ft).
The ‘Viking’ Legacy of the Normans –
In terms of history, complemented by some semi-legendary anecdotes, Rollo was a Viking chieftain (his name being probably derived from Ganger Hrólf) who commanded a large band of followers and operated in the Seine valley with their usual bouts of raiding and plundering.
Afflicted by such military actions, Charles III (also called ‘the Simple’) – the King of West Franks, invited Rollo and his followers to settle on the eastern side of Normandy (Upper Normandy) in 911 AD, in return for nominal allegiance and possibly Rollo’s conversion to Christianity. And so by the time the first ‘batch’ of Vikings settled in the land, the rich French territory previously known as Neustria was rechristened as ‘Normandy’, derived from the Latin Nortmanni – denoting the Northmen (or Norsemen) raiders.
In the 11th century, the Normans, while replicating the customs, religion and feudal tendencies of their continental brethren, still cultivated the war-like tendencies and military resourcefulness of their Viking forefathers. Part of their ‘northern’ lineage also saw its expression in the form of flags and banners at the Battle of Hastings. For example, the Bayeux Tapestry depicts a particular flag with a raven, which was earlier thought to be a chalice representing the holy papal banner. Furthermore, in 10th-11th century medieval Normandy, the preferred battle cry was ‘Thor aid!‘ rather than ‘Dex Aie!‘ (God’s Aid).
The Norman Numbers –
While the Battle of Hastings is a relatively well-documented event that shaped the future of the British Isles in the medieval times, the chroniclers of history were vague in their assessment of the actual numbers involved in the encounter their notions often skewed by tales of exaggeration.
Even the Norman poet Wace, whose accounts are often comprehended as more appropriate in terms of practicality, talked about how the Normans left for the shores of England in 696 ships. But considering the scope of Norman logistics, which was rather complex with the influence of the Eastern Romans (Byzantine), some of these ships surely would have carried provisions and animals, instead of troops.
However, unlike many famous battles in history, the battlefield at Hastings has been identified (though recent research has put forth the conjecture that the very battlefield was on Caldbec Hill, a mile from the forest edge). Historians have gauged the feasible area of the field that was probably used during the encounter, while also making an educated guess of the formations and tactics used in the battle.
The results have shown that the Norman invasion force probably didn’t number more than 10,000 men, among which around one-fourth were possibly non-combatants, like sailors, cooks, traders, and baggage carriers. In essence, at the Battle of Hastings, the Normans probably brought forth 7,500 troops – comprising 2,000 horsemen, 4,000 infantrymen (including heavy infantry wearing the loricatos mail) and around 1,500 missile troops (including archers, crossbowmen and slingers).
The Anglo-Saxon Cavalry Confusion –Source: Bennos Figure Forum
Coming to the Anglo-Saxon side, much has been said of the (probable) absence of English cavalry at the Battle of Hastings. And the credible reason for such a hypothesis hinges on two factors. The first factor intrinsically relates to the battlefield itself and how the English forces arrayed themselves defensively on the ridge. Having cavalry at his disposal probably wouldn’t have mattered much for Harold Godwinson, since his forces had already occupied the higher ground during the encounter.
The second, and arguably more important, factor relates to the Anglo-Saxon mode of warfare in the medieval times. To that end, from the perspective of military history, Anglo-Saxons were not really known for their dedicated shock cavalry (though some of the high ranking huscarls possibly arrived at the battlefields on horseback), given their derivation of influence from the east Germanic warbands of the late Roman era.
On the other hand, Normans continued the legacy of both the Roman equites and Frankish scarae, thus showcasing the influence of continental France in the early feudal age. In essence, the Normans were well suited to the rigors and training of horsemanship and cavalry-based tactics, fueled by their penchant for adaptability, as opposed to the ‘secluded’ Anglo-Saxons of the British isles who continued the military traditions of their forefathers and the Scandinavians.
The Axe Effect and Numbers on the English Side –Source: Deadliest Blogger/ Credit: Osprey Publishing
Much like the presumed difference in cavalry fielded by the two opposing forces at the Battle of Hastings, historians have also put forth their hypothesis regarding the primary weapons used by the elite forces of the Anglo-Saxons and the Normans.
To that end, as opposed to the medieval status of the sword, the royal hearthweru (or heath-guard) and huscarl (derived from Old Norse húskarlar) warriors on the English side preferred their axes – possibly of the heavy kind, known as the broadaxe. The imposing weapon, used by two hands, had a cutting edge of more than 10-inches while being supported by a hard shaft. Many of the fyrd (conscripted) soldiers also used the lighter Danish ax as a single-hand wielded melee weapon, with its cutting edge of around 3-inches.
As for the numbers on the English side, Harold might have just had a slight advantage over his Norman adversary with around 8,000 men. Among them, around 800-1000 men comprised the royal hearthweru troops of the king and his brothers. These elite household troops were supported by around 6,500 men of the fyrd and a small number of militias from Sussex and Kent.
Now once again reverting to the size of the battlefield, the ridge and its surroundings would have actually made the space cramped for the English forces. Furthermore, it should be also noted that many of the Anglo-Saxon warriors marched 241 miles (386 km) to intercept William, and that too after dealing with a massive army fielded by the ‘last great Viking’ Harald Hardrada only 19 days before the Battle of Hastings.
The Tactics Involved in the Battle of Hastings
The Failed Volley of the Normans –Source: British Battles
Coming the very scope of the battle itself, the encounter possibly began at 9 am in the morning with a blaring of trumpets. And given the better defensive position of the English forces atop the ridge (around 730 m or 2,400 ft in length), protected on the flanks by woods and at the front by marshes, the initial Norman plan was to ‘soften’ up the opposition with projectiles.
But unfortunately for the Duke of Normandy, the very gradient of the slope made the trajectory of the arrows quite harmless for the forces concentrated on the ridge, with most arrows probably passing over the heads of the (possibly) adopted shield-wall – and few only hitting the latecomers to the English party on the rear.
On the other hand, the Anglo-Saxons had very few archers among their ranks, which in turn would have made it difficult for the Normans to re-use the fired enemy projectile. In essence, the preliminary archery volley was more-or-less a failed tactic on the part of the Normans, which interestingly led to some bold maneuvers initiated by their commanders to turn the tide of the ‘disadvantaged’ battle.
The Ridge Defense of the Anglo-Saxons –
Thus came forth the crucial part of the Battle of Hastings when Duke William desperately sought to change the balance of the encounter. As a result, he ordered his infantry to move forward and clash with the enemy through the inconvenient slope. The English buoyed by their elevated position on the battlefield greeted the approaching Normans with javelins, arrows, sling-bullets and possibly even throwing axes (of the smaller variety).
To their credit, in spite of considerable losses, the still-fazed Norman infantrymen managed to finally close in with their foes. But the closed-packed columns of the English shield-wall didn’t buckle under the already tired onslaught – so much so that the Duke was forced to call upon his cavalry forces to support their allies.
But the seemingly determined cavalry charge (a well-known tactic espoused by the Normans) came to naught, once again partly slowed down by the slope, and rather afflicted by various types of projectiles discharged from the English positions. And while the Norman knights tried their best to wheel around and continue with their disparate charges, the Anglo-Saxon lines held together with the front-line troops deftly welding their axes to mitigate the Norman impact.
So after being under pressure for nearly two hours, with injuries, fatalities and fatigue, the left-wing of the Normans, mainly comprising the Bretons and auxiliaries, finally wavered. The anxious center affected by their flank also pulled back due to the combined effects of panic and self-preservation.
And if the chaotic scene was not adverse enough for the Normans, a rumor began to spread that their Duke was killed in the battle. Consequently, the Anglo-Saxon right-wing pushed forth and began to pursue the routing Bretons, while even managing to catch up with some of the enemy horsemen who were left floundering in the marshy grounds.
The ‘Resurrection’ of William –Duke William showing his face. Illustration by Angus Mcbride for Osprey Publishing
However, as with many of the momentous encounters recorded in the annals of history, it was ironically this chaotic scene that offered Duke William the opportunity to strike back at his foes. But first, he had to prove his own existence in front of his troops – a job done with aplomb when William rode through the ranks of the invasion force with his helmet pushed-back.
According to the Bayeux Tapestry, Count Eustace of Boulogne (also known as Eustace aux Gernons) helped the Duke in his ‘resurrection’ efforts by pointing towards him with a papal banner. And meanwhile, William roared about the desperate Norman position with the inescapable sea to their back, and thus rather made a grandiose presentation of himself – which would have surely raised the morale of many of the proximate Norman troops.
The ardent words were soon followed by action, with the Duke leading his chosen company of horsemen to dash into the English forces who had come down to pursue the Bretons. These unarmored men were most likely cut down by the swift cavalry of the Normans, in spite of a ‘mini’ last stand made by some of the detached Anglo-Saxons by the slope.
Now intriguingly enough, historians are still not sure of the nature of the pursuance conducted by the English from their right flank. Some have hypothesized that it was an impetuous action, which might have even resulted in the deaths of Harold’s brothers Gyrth and Leofwine – (possibly) due to William’s timely counter in the form of a cavalry maneuver. Others have conjectured that the advance of the English down the slope was possibly an organized counter-attack to score a crippling blow on the Normans, in a bid to decide the battle outcome.
The Decisive Turnaround –Painting by Tom Lovell. Source: AngelFire.
In any case, the Duke’s charge gave the much-needed breather to the Normans, while the English forces also stalled their activities to assess the damage on their right flank – and thus both armies rested for a while from the rigors of the encounter. After some time, the Normans once again pushed forth against the slope with their mixed infantrymen and cavalry – and the result panned out in a similar fashion with the English stubbornly holding their ranks.
But this time around, the Duke devised the ‘continental’ Norman tactic of feigned retreats, rather encouraged by the presumed levels of Anglo-Saxon impulsiveness. Probably inspired by the 9th century Bretons, the Norman formations entailing smaller groups of horsemen (conrois) were suited to such flexible ruses. In essence, the feigned flight was made to lure out the enemy soldiers, which in effect disturbed the opposing tight formations of heavy infantry (or knights), thus providing the initiative to strike from the Norman side.
Suffice it to say, these maneuvers, though requiring high levels of skill and precision on the part of the horsemen, were actually successful in eliminating many of the restive fyrd members along with even some hurcarls and thegns. But while the Norman resourcefulness resulted in the thinning of the English lines, William still couldn’t gain a foothold on the ridge, with rear-guard Anglo-Saxons taking up the formerly defensive positions of their ‘lured’ comrades.
At the same time, the Norman cavalry forces were dwindling in numbers, with many of the horses being killed or crippled, which forced some knights to fight on foot (even William had three horses killed under him, according to William of Poitiers). The dreadful situation was rather exacerbated by the fallen bodies of men and horses strewn across the slope – that hauntingly acted as obstacles to the Norman advance.
Do or Die –
In essence, in spite of the recent reversals, the English still held on to their elevated positions, albeit in thinner lines. The Normans, on the other hand, knew that their cause was lost if the Anglo-Saxons were successful in defending their positions till the sunset. Thus William took the last gamble and let loose all his forces onto the English lines. Intriguingly enough, the Bayeux Tapestry depicts this part of the Battle of Hastings with Norman archers and their larger quivers – possibly to emphasize the availability of fresh supply of arrows to the invading force.
Now while the historicity of events is a bit vague in regard to this phase of the battle, it can be hypothesized that the archers played a bigger role than before, especially since the English lines were already battered by repeated Norman advances and feigned retreats. And since the gap between the two armies was already beginning to close, it may have been the case that the crossbowmen took advantage of the short-range required to further maul the English troops.
As for the conventional archers, most of their shafts would have still fallen into the rear-ranks of Harold’s forces, thus avoiding their own allied soldiers while successfully pelting the English from upper angles. At the same time, the now-frantic Norman infantry and cavalry troops (by this time merging into ‘mixed’ groups) continued to push their adversaries on the ridge.
The Death of the English King –Harold Godwinson falls at Hastings – as depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry.
It was then that the English king met his inglorious demise, apparently when one of those arrows struck him through his eye (or above his eye). And while near-contemporary sources oddly remain rather vague on this momentous episode, the Tapestry depicts a Norman knight who may have injured the already prostate English king with his sword in a ‘cowardly’ manner. Unfortunately, modern historians are still not sure of the exact cause of the English king’s death – with theories ranging from literal representations to symbolic depictions of blinding.
But one thing the scholars are sure of is that the death of Harold Godwinson marked the acute erosion of the English resistance, with many members of the fyrd undoubtedly taking to flight on hearing news of the demise of their ruler, thus mirroring the Norman situation of the earlier hours. Many of these soldiers probably wanted to hide in the forested regions in proximity to the battlefield. The overall effect of this partial routing led to the shrinkage of the English flanks, which finally allowed the Normans to get their coveted foothold on the crest of the ridge (possibly from the western side).
It should be noted however that most of the remaining few Anglo-Saxon hearthweru warriors must have gathered around the fallen body of their king to make their last stand. But unfortunately for the English, with the passage of time, turmoil already gripped the morale of the bulk of the army. Many of the other troops (including some higher-ranking soldiers) tried to make their escape into the nearby wooded areas, especially near the Caldbec Hill.
Contemporary sources also make mention of the Malfosse incident, which entailed a large group of Englishmen making their desperate stand by an old rampart north of the battlefield. Intriguingly enough, most of the accounts of this incident vary, which suggests that the defense was possibly either made by latecomers or by desperate survivors of the battle. In any case, this last pocket of defense was finally wiped out by William, and thus the Normans won the Battle of Hastings.
Honorable Mention – The Fall
While not pertaining to the battle itself, it is mentioned by 12th-century historian William of Malmesbury (and also Robert Wace) that Duke William fell as he stepped on the shores of England at the head of the invasion (by the Pevensey Bay). But instead of ‘deducing’ it as a bad omen, a nearby knight humorously interpreted the incident, by saying how William already had the earth of England in his hands. Consequently, in a usually resourceful Norman manner, the army went on to reinforce the existing Roman fortifications (comprising a stone fort known as Anderida) – though William finally decided to leave this area, and made his way to Hastings along the coast.
Visual Reconstruction of the Battle of Hastings –
The incredible political scope leading up to the battle, the encounter itself, and its aftermath on Britain – all of these ‘parcels’ of history are explained in a nifty manner by Francis Glenday in his short and simple animated video titled as “A Young Person’s Guide to the Battle of Hastings” –
And in case you are interested in a more detailed visual representation of the battle itself, YouTube channel BazBattles has provided an insightful overview of the tactical scope of the momentous encounter in circa 1066 AD –
Featured Image: Illustration by Jason Askew
Book References: Hastings 1066: The Fall of Saxon England (by Christopher Gravett) / The Battle of Hastings: The Fall of Anglo-Saxon England (by Harriet Harvey Wood)
And in case we have not attributed or mis-attributed any image, artwork or photograph, we apologize in advance. Please let us know via the ‘Contact Us’ link, provided both above the top bar and at the bottom bar of the page.
Date: 14th October, 1066
War: Norman Conquest
Location: Battle, East Sussex
Belligerents: English Anglo-Saxons, Normans
Numbers: English Anglo-Saxons around 8,000, Normans between 5,000 – 12,000
Commanders: Harold Godwinson (England – pictured to the right), Duke William of Normandy (Normans)
In October 1066, William, Duke of Normandy, staged the last successful invasion of England. Considering himself the rightful heir of Edward the Confessor, the King of England who had died early in 1066, William received papal confirmation of his position and sought to overthrow the new occupier of the throne, Harold Godwinson. Harold, the son of the Earl of Wessex, had been chosen by the nobles of England to replace Edward. However, these were not the only candidates for the throne, as Harold’s brother Tostig also fancied himself as ruler, as did the King of Norway, Harold Hardrada. The latter claim is not as strange as it might appear, as England had been ruled by Scandinavian rulers from 1014 to 1066, the result of the last of the Viking raids on England. All of these men were prepared to fight for the throne.
While William prepared a fleet to sail from Normandy to the coast of England in late September and early October 1066, Harold had first to battle an army of Harold Hardrada’s and Tostig’s men in Northern England at the Battle of Stanford Bridge on 20 September. Here he was
victorious and both the King of Norway and Tostig were killed. At the moment of Harold’s victory, the winds changed, allowing William’s ships to sail.
/>A fortunate combination of timing, bravado, and military skill allowed William to prevail over Harold at the Battle of Hastings on 14 October 1066. The victory made William the king of England and ushered in a new age of Norman dominance in England and indeed most of Britain for the next 150 years. After 1066, England was no longer tied firmly to the Northern Scandinavian world, as it had been for much of the early medieval period, and was now united with Normandy and the continent with momentous consequences for medieval Europe.
The Bayeux Tapestry: History or Epic Poem?
Banquet scene from the Bayeux Tapestry
Historians often look to the Bayeux Tapestry as an illustration of the events leading up to the famous Battle of Hastings that brought William the Conqueror to power in 1066. But can we take it as straightforward history?
In fact, it more closely resembles the sort of epic poetry that would be performed by bards at a banquet and probably owes much of its narrative structure to one of the earliest epic poems written in the Anglo-Norman vernacular, La chanson de Roland.
The Song of Roland (reportedly sung during the Battle of Hastings) recounts the rout of Charlemagne’s army in 778 AD when his army was decimated by a Muslim force in northern Spain and the French knight Roland, a paradigm of knightly virtues, died a heroic death.
Translated, as it were, from word to image, we can speculate what kind of audience the unknown makers of the Bayeux Tapestry hoped to entertain by adopting the form of the epic poem.
The Bayeux Tapestry: Art of the Loom and the Needle in Women's Hands
Detail of the Bayeux stitch
Although it is called the Bayeux “Tapestry,” the nearly 230 foot long textile is actually not woven, but is made of linen embroidered with eight different colored wools. And although the scenes show an almost exclusively masculine society of warfare, castle and shipbuilding, and political maneuvering, we know that the anonymous artists of most textile production in the Middle Ages were women.
Who made the tapestry? Did women design the scenes or were they given patterns to follow by male supervisors? Was there one person in charge of the entire design, or did the tapestry narrative evolve over time?
Women sewing linen from the Tacuinum Sanitas of Vienna, late 14th century
The main scenes are heroic and historic, but what about the events taking place in the top and bottom margins? Some of them point to moralizing stories from Aesop’s Fables while others are downright naughty.
Was it made in Norman France, where William came from, or was it made in Anglo-Saxon England, famous for high quality embroidery production?
By looking at other media in Medieval art, such as manuscript illuminations and luxury goods, we can speculate about the roles of women as artists and about the type of society that would have produced such a visually rich object.
The Bayeux Tapestry: Historic Chronicle or Norman Propaganda?
Death of Edward the Confessor
The Bayeux Tapestry depicts numerous historical events, including the death of King Edward the Confessor, Harold swearing loyalty to William on holy relics, the amassing of William’s invasion fleet, and the death of Harold at the Battle of Hastings, to name just a few.
Harold swearing the oath of loyalty to William
In addition, the Tapestry is packed with details both routine and extraordinary, such as clearing forests, preparing banquets, making ships and loading them for the crossing of the Channel, but also the flight of Halley’s Comet across the sky as a portent of disaster for Harold’s endeavor.
Harold’s men see Halley’s Comet and fear it is an evil omen
This raises the question of who commissioned the Tapestry, because if it was William’s half-brother Bishop Odo, as is often suggested, then it also puts the Saxons in a favorable light.
Who was the audience for the Tapestry and who decided to include subversive elements that subtly undermine the triumph of William’s military achievement?
Harold impaled by an arrow to the eye on left and then slain by a knight on horseback
Considering the various audiences and actors in the years following the Battle of Hastings, the Tapestry proves to be a complex mix of historical fact, narrative license and, perhaps, political propaganda.
The Bayeux Tapestry: Visual Sources from the Near East to the Far North
Detail from Trajan’s Column in Rome
The Bayeux Tapestry is often described as a sort of medieval comic book, but, in fact, it shows a narrative type called “continuous narrative,” meaning that the story flows from one event to another with very few framing devices. It resembles the modern medium of film more than it does a comic book.
The most famous instance of “continuous narrative” being used in a monumental work of art can be found on the Trajan’s Column in Rome. Here, the events of the Roman Emperor Trajan’s defeat of the Dacians in the 2nd century AD are described in a 625-foot long carved relief that winds around the column showing over 2500 figures engaged in the everyday activities of the Roman soldiers as well as the numerous battles that brought victory to the Romans.
/>A clear inspiration for the Tapestry, this tells us that the artists who made the Tapestry took their sources from as far away as Rome, and even Byzantium, as can be seen in the heraldic decorations, or from Scandinavian metalwork and wood carvings, evident in much of the abstract patterning and border devices.
By looking at various artistic borrowings in the Tapestry, we can gain a deeper understanding of the incredibly rich visual culture that converged in this one artifact through trade and conquest.
The Bayeux Tapestry in History: from Victorian Romanticism to Nazi War loot
William Morris’ passion for the Middle Ages was evident in his work, including the illustration for his fantasy novel, The Wood beyond the World (1894)
Art objects don’t just exist in one moment in time. The reactions and appropriations of later generations and civilizations can tell us much about our own, more recent, histories.
It is first recorded as hanging in the Cathedral of Bayeux in 1476, but most art historians agree that it was probably originally meant to hang in a banquet hall. By understanding the Tapestry through the lens of “reception theory” we can see how Victorian writers and artists used it to create their own nineteenth century sense of nationhood and history.
German soldiers marching in Paris during World War II
The Nazis, on the other hand, were highly invested in acquiring, preserving and documenting it in order to support their own narrative of Arian superiority, which they associated with a Viking past through the lens of the Normans (or Norsemen), who were, after all, Vikings with a French veneer.
Textiles are incredibly delicate and rarely survive as long as the Bayeux Tapestry. Its survival for over a millennium is a testament to the importance it has held for the self-fashioning of identity for English, French, German, and now, American, audiences.