The Battle of Hastings: fact and fiction
- Article written by: Alison Hudson
On 14 October 1066, one of the most significant battles in English history took place in Sussex, known to later generations as the Battle of Hastings. During this encounter, King Harold II, the last Anglo-Saxon king of England, was killed. William, Duke of Normandy – also known as William the Conqueror or William the Bastard – was the victor, and so began the Norman Conquest of the kingdom of England.
In the years that immediately followed, the Battle of Hastings became the subject of numerous re-tellings, composed by English and Norman writers. Many of these accounts are contradictory. Their writers were trying to justify or condemn the Conquest, and this shaped the way they portrayed the battle.
One of the most famous descriptions is found in an 11th-century English chronicle.
Count William came from Normandy to Pevensey on Michaelmas Eve [28 September 1066], and as soon as they were able to move on, they built a castle at Hastings. King Harold was informed of this and he assembled a large army and came against him at the hoary apple-tree.
And William came against him by surprise before his army was drawn up in battle array. But the king nevertheless fought hard against him, with the men who were willing to support him, and there were heavy casualties on both sides.
There King Harold was killed and Earl Leofwine his brother, and Earl Gyrth his brother, and many good men; and the French remained masters of the field, even as God granted it to them because of the sins of the people ... and always after that it grew much worse. May the end be good when God wills!
Translated by Dorothy Whitelock and others, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: A Revised Translation (London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1961), pp. 142–45.
What happened before the Battle of Hastings?
In January 1066, King Edward the Confessor (reigned 1042–1066) died childless. This sparked a contest for the throne of England. Edward was initially succeeded as king by his brother-in-law, Harold Godwinson. Harold was a member of an ambitious and powerful family that had controlled most of the important English earldoms.
There were other claimants to the throne. England was attractive to invaders because it was a relatively wealthy and organised kingdom. The king of Norway, Harald Hardrada (reigned 1046–1066), led an attack from the sea, supported by Harold Godwinson’s own brother, Tostig. At the Battle of Stamford Bridge (located in the East Riding of Yorkshire) on 25 September 1066, King Harold defeated the opposing forces and both Harald Hardrada and Tostig were killed. The English king immediately marched south, since William, Duke of Normandy had landed on the Sussex coast and was devastating the surrounding countryside.
William was a distant cousin of Edward the Confessor, since his great-aunt was Edward’s mother, Emma of Normandy. After the death of his father, King Æthelred the Unready, Edward spent much of his early life in exile in Normandy.
There were many close links between England and Normandy in this period, as churchmen, nobles and traders travelled back and forth. William had visited England before the Conquest, in 1051, and Harold Godwinson had probably stayed at William’s court in Normandy on his travels to the continent. After the Conquest, William’s supporters claimed that both Edward and Harold had promised the throne to William, but there is no way of corroborating this.
Medieval accounts of the Battle of Hastings
On 14 October 1066, William’s forces clashed with an English army near Hastings. Within a century of these events taking place, over a dozen writers had described the battle and its aftermath. Some of these accounts are lengthy, but they contradict each other and do not allow us to reconstruct the battle with any certainty.
English perspectives on the Battle of Hastings are found in the Old English annals known as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. In one version, perhaps copied in the 1070s, it was claimed that William built a ‘castel’ at Hastings before Harold arrived. Harold then gathered a large army but William attacked before Harold could organise his troops. There were heavy casualties on both sides: among the dead were King Harold himself and his brothers, Leofwine and Gyrth.
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle manuscript D
End of the entry for 1066 in the D manuscript of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (British Library, Cotton MS Tiberius B IV, f. 80v)View images from this item (6)
Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.
Although many details are given, the accuracy of this description is unclear. The chronicler may not have been an eyewitness to the battle and their account may have been written more than a decade afterwards, perhaps at a northern monastery, such as York, or in western England, such as at Worcester.
From the Norman perspective, there is a lengthy account by a probable eyewitness to the Battle of Hastings. William of Poitiers was the chaplain of William the Conqueror, and he wrote ‘The Deeds of King William’ in the 1070s. William of Poitiers gives many details about the battle, such as the names of the contingents from Maine, Anjou and other regions outside of Normandy.
But this version of events was also designed to flatter William the Conqueror. William of Poitiers compared the victor to Julius Caesar and he emphasised the Conqueror’s skill in single combat, while portraying Harold as a coward.
How was King Harold killed?
There are also differing accounts of one of the most iconic yet debated parts of the battle: the death of Harold. Was he killed by an arrow to the eye, as claimed by Amatus of Monte Cassino, writing in the 11th century? Was he hacked to bits, as recounted by Bishop Guy of Amiens (died 1075)? Or was he shot with arrows and then put to the sword, as described by the 12th-century chronicler, Henry of Huntingdon?
Even the Bayeux Tapestry does not offer a clear answer. Near the phrase ‘King Harold was killed’ (‘Haroldus rex interfectus est’), there are images in the tapestry of men being shot with arrows and cut down with swords. All we know for certain is that Harold was killed in the battle. William the Conqueror then advanced towards London, and he was crowned at Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day, 1066.
Remembering King Harold
Although King Harold was defeated, sympathy for the English army at Hastings continued long after the Conquest. The monks at St Augustine’s Abbey, Canterbury, commemorated the Battle of Hastings in a martyrology made at that abbey. This martyrology listed the saints and other important people to be commemorated every day. Each year, on 14 October, the anniversary of the battle, these monks remembered the deaths of ‘Harold, king of the English, and many of our brothers’, who were presumably benefactors of the monastery.
After his death, Harold even became the subject of a chivalric romance. In the 13th century, an account of his life was produced for Waltham Abbey, where Harold’s remains were supposedly kept. This text claims instead that Harold was merely wounded at Hastings. He escaped and recovered with the help of a ‘Saracen lady’ at Winchester, before travelling to Saxony and Scandinavia. Eventually, Harold is said to have returned to England in disguise, and to have lived out his life as a hermit in a cave.
There is no evidence to support the claim that Harold survived Hastings. Although he lost his life on the battlefield, he was remembered in some quarters as a swashbuckling and saintly hero.
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.