1066 - William the Conqueror crosses channel, conquers Britain

On January 5, 1066, King Edward, the Confessor, of England, died. Three men claimed the right to succeed him as the king of England - Harold, a Saxon earl; King Harald Hardrada of Norway; and Duke William of Normandy.
On January 7, 1066, Harold became king of England. William sent envoys to convince Harold to relinquish the crown; Harold refused. Consequently, William prepared a cross-channel expedition to invade and conquer England. Preparations went forward throughout the spring and into the summer.

In September, the Norwegian king landed a force in Yorkshire, and proceeded to march on York. He won a battle near York, and the city fell to him. Harald Hardrada's victory deep in Harold's rear compelled the latter to hasten from London, where he had been preparing for William, and move north. Harold's army left London September 16, and covered approximately 200 miles in nine days, arriving near York September 24. His army attacked Harald Hardrada's the very next day at Stamford Bridge. On September 25, the King of Norway fell, along with the core of his army's, and country's, leadership. Harold had defeated the Norwegian threat to his crown, and now had to move back into position to repel the Norman threat.

In the meantime, William had assembled a formidable expeditionary force at St. Valery. Sources and estimates conflict, but it is likely his force included approximately 5,000 men. Perhaps 2,000 or so were mounted knights, the rest archers and heavy infantry. The Norman expeditionary fleet waited for favorable winds to leave port for the cross-channel voyage. Around the autumnal equinox, the wind shifted favorably, and the fleet set out. The favorable wind became a gale, and a number of Norman vessels were driven along the coast and lost. William regrouped the fleet at St. Valery, and once the wind turned in his favor, and it set out again.

The delay was actually fortuitous for William. The fleet of warships that Harold had had patrolling the coast for months had returned to port for re-supply and was not in position to attack William's troop transports. Further, when William did arrive on the English coast, Harold was not there, having been forced to respond to the more immediate threat from the Norwegians. Consequently, William was able to land unopposed on September 28, 1066, at Pevensey Bay in Sussex.

Hastings and surrounding area, including Pevensey Bay landing beaches.

Harold was still at York settling local affairs in the aftermath of the Stamford Bridge battle when he learned of William's landing. His forces had suffered significant losses in leaders and men during the battle, and when he left for London, it was with a diminished force. The Saxon leader hurried his forces back to London, arriving by about October 9 or 10. There he regrouped, ordering forces to be assembled from the midland and southern counties of England, and sending the fleet back to the Sussex coast.

Harold did not wait to assemble a larger force than William, as he could have done. He may have expected that the same speed that had surprised Harald Hardrada would provide the same advantage over William. He set out from London with a force of some 5,000 housecarls, thanes and citizen levy called the fyrd. The housecarls were
Harold's core of noble Saxon retainers who rode to battle, but typically fought dismounted, using spear, sword or long handle Danish axe. The housecarls had sustained a number of casualties at Stamford Bridge. The thanes were representative of a small professional class of foot soldiers. The fyrd were akin to militia - liable for service only 40 days a year, variously armed and not well trained.

William moved deliberately after his orderly landing. The Normans had brought with them three prefabricated wooden castles, and, before evening of their first day ashore, had assembled one by the coast so that they had a secure base. The next day, William marched along the coast to Hastings and set up a fortified camp using the other two wooden castles.

As Harold drew nearer to the Normans, he knew that he would not be able to surprise William as he had Harald Hardrada. He moved his force to a defensible piece of high ground near Hastings, called Senlac Hill on October 13, so that William would have to attack him. The English built a fence of shields and wooden stakes so as to make a formidable barrier for the numerous opposing Norman cavalry and supporting infantry to attack.
The battle of Hastings began around nine o'clock in the morning on October 14, with William's force arrayed in three divisions against the English solid front. William placed his archers in the front line, his heavy infantry in the second, and his cavalry in the third. The Norman attack opened with a barrage of arrows, followed by a vain foot assault. Hours of grueling hand-to-hand combat ensued, with sword, spear, and axe, and - from a distance - Norman arrows, with no decisive advantage to either side.

In the late afternoon, the Normans began to employ "high-angle fire" so that their arrows would rain down on the less protected heads and faces of the English. Not long after that, the Normans appeared to slowly fall back. William has been credited with feigning a retreat with the intent of drawing the English down from their strong hilltop position, out into the open field where Norman cavalry could work to advantage on scattered infantry. The stratagem succeeded in drawing a good number of the English levies out, and the Norman knights decimated the disorganized, fatigued English.

Harold and his core of housecarls stood fast on the hilltop, but as a result of the Normans' high- angle archery, Harold was mortally wounded. He took an arrow by his right eye, and he struggled, in great pain, to keep his place and exercise command. By dusk, he was dead. Meanwhile, his exhausted army lost it cohesion as a fighting unit and dissolved into the woods north of the hill. That night William camped on the hilltop the English had defended. The next day his expeditionary force continued north towards London. William was crowned king of England on Christmas day, 1066.

The map shows the present road layout with the coast line as it was in 1066

Updated: Saturday, October 4, 2014 8:59