One of the most cataclysmic and influential conflicts in British history, the Battle of Hastings marked both the demise of the last Anglo-Saxon king of England as well as the commencement of a transformative period of Norman rule!
The Battle of Hastings was the culmination of a fierce conflict over who would succeed Edward the Confessor as the king of England. Initially this contest was between three potential heirs: Edward’s cousin, Duke William of Normandy; Harold Godwinson, the most powerful man in England after Edward; and the Norwegian king Harald Hardrada.
However, after Harold defeated Harald at the bloody battle of Stamford Bridge, there were but two potential candidates left.
This battle followed Harold declaring himself King of England, an act that incited William to invade, as he believed Edward had promised him the throne before his death. Landing unopposed within weeks of the Battle of Stamford Bridge, William then proceeded to march his troops – consisting of men from Normandy, Flanders, Brittany and France (modern-day Paris) – towards London. Harold, hearing of the landing and advance, rushed his troops down the country from Stamford Bridge (near the city of York) to meet them in battle.
The two forces finally met just south of Senlac Hill, roughly ten kilometres (six miles) northwest of Hastings. King Harold deployed his force astride the road from Hastings to London, his back to Senlac Hill along with the great forest of Anderida. Holding the higher territory, before the Anglo-Saxon troops lay a long, glacis-like slope that culminated in a low plateau. Upon this plateau William deployed his troops.
Tactically, Harold’s troops deployed a shield wall – a formidable defensive setup where each soldier on the front ranks locked their shields together in order to mitigate attack by projectile weapons – with Harold’s cavalry and standard behind, higher up the slope. William, on the other hand, arranged his troops with archers to the fore, infantry behind and with cavalry to the rear. This basic offensive arrangement signaled the start of the battle, which proceeded to last an entire day and culminated with the death of Harold.
William’s victory at the Battle of Hastings heralded a landmark transition in the history of England and Britain in general. Ascending to the throne as King William I, the Norman Conquest began, leading to the vast majority of the ruling class of England to be displaced by Norman landholders, who monopolized all senior positions in the new government and Church. Further, due to William and his nobles all conducting court and administrative business in Norman French, the Anglo-Saxon language began to be phased out in key sections of society. Indeed, this sea change in language by the aristocracy – with Anglo-Norman increasingly favoured – still resonates today, with many French words adopted into the English language.
Ties to France and Normandy were also strengthened – something that the isolated island had in a large part lost since the collapse of the Roman Empire – leading to increased trade and monetization of English produce such as wool. Administration on a national level was also modernised significantly, with articles such as the Domesday Book shedding light on areas of the country that were still operating in the Dark Ages and allowing taxation to transcend to a new level of efficiency.
These transitions were to lead England into a new era of financial power in Europe, which despite centuries of civil war and political intrigue, would see the country emerge as a world power in the Early Modern Era and beyond.