1066: The Year of Battles That Transformed England

The year 1066 would see the Battles of Stamford Bridge and Hastings; events that would alter the course of England forever.

Mar 13, 2023By Greg Beyer, BA History & Linguistics, Journalism Diploma
battles of hastings and stamford bridge

 

The year 1066 was one of the most portentous years in European, and indeed, world history. The ripples of these events would be felt in centuries to come as the events that took place would set England on a path that would irrevocably alter the course of European history. For some, 1066 was a year that would end the way of life for one group, end the ambitions of another, and put the third on a course of achieving great power. The events that made these things possible will be forever etched into the psyche of the English people. They were the Battles of Stamford Bridge and Hastings.

 

The Events That Led up to the Battle of Hastings

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King Edward the Confessor, who died in 1066 without any heirs, via historic-uk.com

 

The Battle of Hastings did not happen without cause. Its context was complex. Before 1066, England was already a melting pot of cultures. The Anglo-Saxons had, centuries earlier, defeated the Celtic natives and set up their own kingdoms. Danish Vikings became the new invaders and immigrated en masse, waging war with the Anglo-Saxons. By 1066, the Danes and the Anglo-Saxons were still two very distinct groups of people with widely differing cultures, although integration had been happening.

 

From 1016 to 1042, the Kingdom of England was ruled by the Danes (Kings Cnut and Harthacnut). Upon the death of Harthacnut in 1042, the Anglo-Saxons once again ruled England with Edward the Confessor as king. He ruled England for 24 years until his death in the fateful year of 1066. Without any heirs, the kingdom was plunged into a confusing and dangerous interregnum, and several powerful lords had their eyes on the throne.

 

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Statue of King Harold II at Waltham Abbey

 

Edward had lived much of his life in exile in Normandy, and it is thought that he promised English succession to his cousin, Duke William of Normandy (also known as William the Bastard). This decision went down very badly with Edward’s court, and especially with his wife, Edith, who was from the House of Godwinson. In the end, it was Edward’s brother-in-law, Harold Godwinson, who was chosen to rule England, and on January 6, 1066, he was crowned. This, of course, went down extremely unwell with Duke William, who prepared to rectify the situation. It was also rejected by Harold’s brother, Tostig, who decided to travel north to pledge his allegiance to another contender for the English throne, the Norwegian King Harald Hardråda.

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Dealing with Harald Hardråda

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A lone Viking holds the crossing against the Anglo-Saxon army, via history-maps.com

 

Harold’s brother, Tostig, started the Viking Harald Hardråda’s campaign by raiding Harold’s possessions in southern England, and making it look like they would invade from Normandy. Harold’s forces, expecting an invasion from William, stayed in the south of England, and Tostig then sailed north to link up with Hardråda’s army, which had begun raiding in the north of England. Hardråda’s army was formidable and had been reinforced by 2,000 Scotsmen as well as Anglo-Saxons under the command of Tostig.

 

The Northumbrians and Mercians hastily mobilized an army to confront Hardråda but, heavily outnumbered, the result was a victory for the Norwegians, who broke Northumbria and Mercia’s ability to resist the Vikings further. Upon hearing of the defeat at the Battle of Fulford, Harold marched an army of Anglo-Saxons 190 miles (310 kilometers) from London to York. This feat was accomplished in under a week and was done so quickly that they gained the element of surprise on Hardråda.

 

Before the fighting began, the Icelandic chronicler Snorri Sturluson states that a rider from the Anglo-Saxon camp rode up to Tostig and offered his earldom back if he would turn against Harald Hardråda. Tostig asked what Hardrada would receive if he did so, and the rider commented, “Seven feet of English ground, as he is taller than other men.” Tostig refused, and after the rider departed, Hardråda asked who the rider was, and Tostig replied that it was Harold Godwinson himself.

 

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The Battle of Stamford Bridge by Peter Nicolai Arbo, 19th century, depicts the death of Harald Hardrada, who received an arrow in the neck, via History Nuggets

 

The quick arrival of the Anglo-Saxons forced the Viking invaders into making the decision to leave their armor behind in order to be able to form up in time. The bridge for which the Battle of Stamford Bridge was named was a small wooden affair, and to destroy the Norwegian forces, the Anglo-Saxons had to cross it. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Harold’s forces were held up by a lone Viking who defended the bridge, killing as many as 40 opponents who challenged him. It was only when an Anglo-Saxon soldier maneuvered beneath the bridge and thrust his spear through the planks of wood, mortally wounding the Viking, that the Anglo-Saxons were able to cross unhindered. The delay, however, gave Hardråda’s forces time to assemble and form a shield wall.

 

The two armies clashed, and the fighting was intense, with heavy casualties being sustained on both sides. Without their armor, however, the invaders were at a disadvantage, and cracks began to appear in the defenses. Able to exploit these weaknesses, the Anglo-Saxons broke through and completely outflanked the Vikings. Reinforcements arrived and organized a counterattack, but they, too, were overwhelmed. Tostig and Harald Hardråda were killed in the fighting, and the Norwegian army was completely routed.

 

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A section of the Bayeux tapestry that tells the story of the Battle of Hastings and the events surrounding it, from La Fabrique de Patrimoine en Normandie, via smarthistory.org

 

Many thousands died in such a relatively small area that it is said that the ground was white from bleached bones for 50 years after.

 

Of the 300 ships that carried the invasion fleet, only 26 were needed to ferry the survivors back home, and today, the Battle of Stamford Bridge is widely regarded as the end of the Viking Era.

 

Harold Marches South to Hastings

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Section of the Bayeux Tapestry showing Norman soldiers and horses being transported across the Channel to England, via telegraph.co.uk

 

The victory at Stamford Bridge was short-lived. Just three days after the battle, Duke William of Normandy landed his Norman army at Pevensey Bay in Sussex in the far south of England. King Harold had to spring into action again and march his army all the way back to do battle once more.

 

On the morning of October 14, King Harold’s army arrived at the site of the battle, which was actually seven miles (11 kilometers) north of the town of Hastings, and it wasn’t until 20 years later that the battle was known as “The Battle of Hastings.”

 

Harold had wanted to take the Normans by surprise, but scouts from the Norman army spotted the Anglo-Saxon advance and relayed the message back to William. The Normans were prepared and were already suited up and ready for battle by the time Harold’s army arrived.

 

The Anglo-Saxons took up good defensive positions on a hill with their flanks secured by woodlands and marshy ground. The Normans arrived at the battle site to find the Anglo-Saxons in shield wall formation. William knew that the key to winning the Battle of Hastings would be breaking that formation, which would be no easy task.

 

Sources vary on the size of the two armies at the Battle of Hastings, but it is believed that the Normans had between 7,000 and 12,000 soldiers, while the Anglo-Saxons had between 5,000 and 13,000. The Anglo-Saxon army was almost exclusively infantry, while the Normans fielded infantry, archers, and cavalry.

 

The Battle of Hastings Begins 

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Map showing the major battles of 1066 and the direction of the two invasions, via timeref.com

 

The Battle of Hastings started with the Normans firing volleys of arrows to try and break up the Anglo-Saxon formation, but this had little effect. William then ordered his infantry up the hill with cavalry in support, but they were pelted mercilessly by projectiles such as spears and axes and were forced to retreat. Buoyed by the helplessness of their foes, the Anglo-Saxons pursued.

 

In the confusion, a rumor started that William had been killed. Upon hearing this rumor himself, the Duke rode through his panicking troops and rallied them, leading a counter-attack that successfully pushed the Anglo-Saxons back up the hill. By this time, the two armies were tired and needed a break from the fighting. During the pause, William formulated a new battle plan.

 

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The Battle of Hastings, via thehistoryproject.co.uk

 

The Battle of Hastings resumed, and the Normans used successive cavalry feints to draw out the Anglo-Saxons and thin their lines while Norman archers used their remaining arrows to shoot over the enemy front line and into the mass of the Anglo-Saxon army. The tactic succeeded, and the Normans eventually gained success in managing to draw out small groups of Anglo-Saxons and engage in melee combat. Eventually, Harold’s position came under attack. His huscarls rallied around him, defending their king, but King Harold was cut down.

 

It is unclear how Harold died. Some accounts claim that he was slain in melee combat and dismembered. The Bayeux Tapestry depicts him receiving an arrow in his eye. It is suggested that this depiction was a later addition. Nevertheless, the latter belief remains ingrained in British memory, as it is more poetic.

 

With the death of their king, the Anglo-Saxons realized their hopeless position and began abandoning their positions. The Normans pursued and defeated an Anglo-Saxon contingent in a rearguard action. The Battle of Hastings was over. The Anglo-Saxon king was dead, and Duke William the Bastard became known as William the Conqueror.

 

The Aftermath of the Battle of Hastings

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King William the Conqueror, via Westminster Abbey

 

Despite the Norman victory at the Battle of Hastings, Anglo-Saxon resistance remained, but it was not enough to prevent William from being crowned King of England on Christmas day of 1066. The ceremony at Westminster Abbey was a disaster. Upon hearing that the new king had been crowned, the Anglo-Saxons cheered. They were simply happy that they had a new king and the times of strife were over. Norman soldiers mistook their cheers for jeers, and riots ensued. Buildings were set on fire and the abbey filled with smoke. The ceremony was, nonetheless, completed.

 

Enmity between the Anglo-Saxons and the Normans persisted for about two centuries before the two groups assimilated into each other.

 

The Legacy of 1066 & the Battle of Hastings 

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A reenactor at the Battle of Hastings reenactment event, from Angus Dunsire / PA, via apnews.com

 

The Battle of Hastings is of particular importance in British cultural memory. It is one of the events that virtually every Briton is aware of, and for most, its significance is not lost. It signaled the end of the Anglo-Saxon era and the beginning of the Norman era. With the new, ambitious overlords, England became a country more powerful than it probably would have been otherwise. The Normans were driven to war and conquest but were also extremely efficient governors with a bureaucratic system that streamlined the burden of running a kingdom.

 

England received many new cultural imports as a result of the conquest. Chief among them was a passion for building castles and the introduction of Norman French into England, which became fused with the Anglo-Saxon English of the day. The English spoken today is a direct descendent of this linguistic marriage. It is suggested by linguists that had the Normans not won the Battle of Hastings, English would have evolved to sound similar to Dutch.

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By Greg BeyerBA History & Linguistics, Journalism DiplomaGreg specializes in African History. He holds a BA in History & Linguistics and a Journalism Diploma from the University of Cape Town. A former English teacher, he now excels in academic writing and pursues his passion for art through drawing and painting in his free time.