There are many reasons why the Normans defeated the Anglo-Saxons at Hastings in 1066. William’s abilities on and off the field are a major factor, but other reasons may lie in the mistakes that Harold made, and the consequences of these. On one hand I agree that it was William’s abilities on and off the field that secured his victory. Firstly, William’s army was highly skilled and included archers and cavalry which the English lacked.
This was a clear advantage as they could shoot arrows to attack the English army and charge towards them on horseback to push their shield wall back, whilst the English could only fight a defensive battle. William of Poitiers explained the Norman use of weapons in the ‘English Historical Documents II’, ‘… In the van he placed foot soldiers equipped with arrows and crossbows; in the second rank came more heavily armed infantry clad in hauberks; and finally came the squadrons of knights in the midst of whom he rode himself showing invincible courage… .
From this, we can also understand that not only was William’s army well equipped, they were also in good formation for battle making good use of it’s variety of weapons for attack on the English. It is important to note however, that a source from William of Poitiers would be from a Norman perspective which therefore explains his view that William ‘… rode himself showing invincible courage… ‘. Secondly, William had a marvellous reputation as a good leader and warrior. William of Poitiers illustrates this by describing his leadership skills ‘… n such a position that he could give his orders by hand or by voice… ‘.
This describes William’s power over his men, and could also indicate that his army followed his orders religiously. With leadership skills like this, William could control his army effectively to use tactics in the best possible way in order to gain victory. His army believed in him, which is proved as when rumour came that William had been killed he took off his helmet and said ‘… Look at me well. I am still alive and by the grace of God I shall yet prove victor… ‘.
It has been understood that with this, Williams’ men had their courage restored and carried on their battle. Thirdly, William had received the papal banner which gave him a psychological advantage as he would believe that God was on his side and believed that he should be successful in battle. Religion was extremely important at this time, and the belief that he had God’s support for the battle would have encouraged William to fight at his best. The Bishop of Amiens describes William as ‘… the humble and God-fearing duke… ‘ which explains Williams’ belief in his faith.
Fourthly, the skill of the Norman army proved to be of huge importance to their conquest. The Norman’s feint fooled the English twice, breaking their shield wall of defence. Until then, the English had been able to keep the Normans at bay as their attacks against them proved to be insignificant. William of Poitiers explains this event as the Normans ‘… suddenly wheeling their horses surrounded them and cut down their pursuers so that not one was left alive. Twice this ruse employed with the utmost success, and then they attacked those that remained with redoubled fury… ‘.
This contemporary source is not entirely true as it is known that even after Harold was killed in battle, his fyrd carried on fighting so the statement that ‘… not one was left alive… ‘ is untrue. However, as this is a Norman source it is not surprising that it provides this account of the Normans feint against the English. Whether the Saxons being tempted from their shield was from ill-discipline or a terrible decision by Harold is not known. Lastly, due to Harold being in the North of the country when William landed, he had the advantage of having a well rested army and full army compared with Harold’s weary and outnumbered fyrd.
This was an obvious benefit to William as they had time to make sure they were fully prepared for the battle, with an army which was well equipped and ready to fight. William had yet another advantage over Harold. He had an army of skilled men and ‘… also brought with him powerful help from all parts of Gaul… ‘ [Florence of Worcester]. Harolds army therefore proved no match for Williams army even before the battle had started. On the other hand, I do not believe it was Williams’ abilities on and off the field that secured his victory, but rather the disadvantages of Harold and his mistakes.
Firstly, after his battle against Harald Hardrara at Stamford Bridge, Harold did not wait to rest his army, nor did he recruit anymore men to help his cause ‘… although he well knew that some of the bravest Englishmen had fallen in the two former battles, and that one half of his army had not yet arrived, he did not hesitate to advance with all speed into Sussex against his enemies… ‘. Instead, on hearing of Williams landing at Pevensey Bay, he marched his men down to Hastings to meet him.
This is described in a source from Florence of Worcester as ‘… the king at once and in great haste, marched his army to London… . Had Harold taken some time to re-arm and get more men to fight, he may have been able to keep the throne and his country. His weakened and badly equipped army was no match for Williams. Secondly, Harolds preparation was not as good as it could have been because he was organising is coronation very soon after the death of Edward the Confessor. At this time, there was no certain rule as to who would take the throne after the death of the existing King. Harold’s coronation was suspect as there was usually a period of time between the death of the past King and the crowning of a new one.
Perhaps Harold believed that as he was married to Edith Swan-Neck, he had a right to the English throne, regardless as to whether he had previously made an oath to William or not. It was also shown in the Bayeux Tapestry that, on his death bed, Edward the Confessor had named Harold as his successor, how truthful this is however, is unknown. This decision obviously angered William, as he believed that he had the right to become King. Thirdly, Harold used out dated methods during the battle. Although their defensive shield wall was successful in the beginning of the battle as described in Florence of Worcester’s source ‘… e bravely withstood the enemy, and fought so valiantly and stubbornly in his defence that the enemy’s forces could make hardly any impression… ‘,, they did not have any form of attack and relied heavily on the Normans being unable to attack them to overcome their defensive techniques. The Normans charged towards them mounted on horses which gradually pushed the Anglo-Saxon wall back. The English front was slowly being weakened, even without the feint that tricked the English into breaking their defensive method.
Lastly, in comparison to William’s papal banner as a good psychological factor, it was rumoured that Harold’s army saw ‘Haley’s Comet’ and believed that this was a bad omen, if this is true, the men may have lost confidence that they would win the battle against William as they would have been very superstitious. To conclude, I believe it was a mixture of all these factors. Whilst Harold had made mistakes and the consequences of these were bad, William was well prepared and had the knowledge and skill to organise his army effectively, as well as being a good leader.
However, I believe that the fundamental reason for Williams victory at the Battle of Hastings was the use of the feint which broke the Anglo-Saxon shield wall. Until then, the English had held out well and had managed to keep its defences against the Normans. William obviously had an advantage against Harold to begin with due to his well equipped and highly skilled army, nevertheless perhaps if Harold had used more updated tactics and had waited to re-arm and re-gain men, he may have been able to keep the throne.
His ability to fight can not be undermined as he did defeat Harald Hardrara at Stamford Bridge. Overall, William’s victory was due to luck and skill both before the battle and during it. His preparation and organisation was far better than that of the English army, but also the successfulness of the feint was both because of his highly skilled tactics, and the stupidity of the English army.