The 950th Anniversary of the Battle of Hastings McCausland

The 950th Anniversary of the Battle of Hastings

The moment that transformed Britain and prepared it for greatness

The sun neared the horizon in southern Sussex on Oct. 14, 1066, casting an eerie light on the dead scattering the gently rolling landscape of Senlac Hill. One man knelt beside the body of his fallen adversary, King Harold, as the last beams of daylight passed over the victor and the vanquished. The setting sun seemed to perfectly signal the end of Saxon England. Standing over his body was the man who would lead England into a new age: William the Conqueror.

Nine hundred fifty years ago, the Battle of Hastings changed the course of English history. At its core, the Norman invasion of England was a matter of royal succession. The victory of William the Conqueror laid the groundwork to fulfill an ancient promise. Norman leadership also prepared Britain for greater aspirations. Without the invigorating force of Norman character, there would be no Magna Carta, William Shakespeare or British Empire.

Today, we again find ourselves at a turning point in world history. We can look back on the past nine centuries and reflect on the momentous events since Hastings. By studying the history of the Saxons and Normans, we can capture a better idea of British character. We may glean some lessons on the rise and fall of kingdoms and the leadership necessary to affect change. Most of all, the history serves as a witness on how God governs world affairs, and that turning points often have a divine authorship.

Saxon England

During the fifth and sixth centuries a.d., Britain experienced a great wave of invasion from Europe. The main tribes to move across the North Sea were the Angles, the Jutes and the Saxons. These Germanic tribes pushed the native Britons west and settled throughout the island. By the end of the seventh century, they were religiously unified by a brand of Roman Catholicism, though still politically divided.

The most important Saxon king by far was Alfred, who saved Saxon England from Viking invaders in the ninth century and transformed the kingship from regional to national. His family, the Royal House of Wessex, became the rulers of a united kingdom. For the first time Saxon England had institutions, and it was from this early birth that the seeds of English freedom would bloom. He established what became English Common Law, inspired the creation of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and sought to spread education throughout the kingdom.

Over the next few centuries, the Wessex kings continued to rule over Saxon England as it waged its long war against the Vikings.

11th-Century Europe

At the beginning of the 11th century, Europe still lived in the shadow of Charlemagne. The Holy Roman emperor had united the Continent for the first time since the days of the Roman Empire. After he died in 814, the Frankish kingdom was divided; this fragmentation was the beginning of France and Germany.

The western kingdom, Francia, suffered from internal dissension and regionalism. In the north, along the English Channel, Norsemen invaded and established a colony. These warlike people would become known as the Normans. They adopted the language and culture of the Carolingians and agreed to defend western Francia against further Viking attacks in exchange for peace on their southern border. The Normans quickly established themselves as one of the dominant powers of Europe. The political, legal and military culture they developed gave them an edge in the chaotic Middle Ages.

The 11th century was the high point of chivalry. The armored knight dominated the battlefield, though sound military strategy was often substituted by suicidal individual attacks and displays of showmanship. The Normans, however, were able to adopt effective methods of combat and had skilled military leaders. By the beginning of the century, they were the greatest soldiers in Europe. Norman castles were reminders to the people of northern Francia of the iron grip this robust race had on the land. These military exploits would serve them well later in the Crusades and in the conquest of England.

The Genesis of a Conqueror

The origins of William the Conqueror can be no more humble. They began with a young woman dangling her feet in a cool brook in Falaise. The tanner’s daughter would change the course of world history. As Sir Francis Palgrave observed, if a history were written about the romances that dramatically affected the course of history, this young lady would be foremost in its pages. When Duke Robert of Normandy saw the young woman, he lifted her onto his horse and carried her to his castle to be his mistress.

From this union one of Europe’s greatest soldiers was sired. William, known as a bastard, faced persecution and derision as a youth. In a society where reputation and family name were everything, the boy was almost certain to fail. Robert died in 1035, when William was only seven years old. The boy would have to fend for himself.

Most of his protectors were murdered. Through plots, assassinations and rebellions, the reviled young boy survived and became a young man who held the fate of nations in his hands.

With the help of the king of France, William successfully established himself as the duke of Normandy. Under his leadership, Normandy became one of the powerhouses on mainland Europe. As Field Marshal Montgomery wrote:

In 1066, the year of his invasion and victory at Hastings, Duke William of Normandy had already ruled 31 years. He had acquired a reputation as an able general, as a good tactician but even more resourceful in strategy and ruses, and as a far-sighted, patient and masterful ruler of men. He was ruthless in execution of his policy. As was later written in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: “He caused castles to be built, and oppressed the poor. The king was also of great sternness …. The rich complained and the poor murmured, but he was so sturdy that he recked nought of them ….” On the other hand, “… the good order that William established in not to be forgotten; it was such that any man … might travel over the kingdom with a bosom-full of gold unmolested; and no man durst kill another.”Such a peaceful state was attained only after many years of war, rebellion, and struggle.

William’s decision to invade England was part of a larger plan of expansion, but he also saw it as his legal right. He had been promised the throne of England, and William was ready to fight for that future.

The Godwin King

By 1066, Edward the Confessor was the last of the Wessex kings. Edward had been chased to Normandy by Norse invaders before becoming king, and had secretly promised William the crown upon his death. When he returned to England to assume the throne, he married the daughter of Godwin, Earl of Wessex, in 1045. The Godwins were the most powerful nobles in England and held a powerful sway over the people.

The Godwins proved more popular than the king—since he had lived in Normandy so long, he was not viewed as a true Saxon. Edward exiled them in 1051, but a year later, they returned to their powerful position in England. The earl died in 1053, leaving the title to his son Harold. Harold was a brave warrior and much loved by the people.

When Edward’s health began to fail, he had yet to produce an heir. The future of the country was murky. There were three possible successors: 1) William of Normandy, to whom Edward had promised the crown; 2) Harald Hardrada, King of Norway, who believed he had a claim to the thrones of both Denmark and England; and 3) Harold Godwinson, Earl of Wessex, who had no serious claim by blood, but was the most powerful man in the country. Matters were further complicated by Edward himself, who, despite his earlier promise to William, indicated that he wished Harold Godwinson to be the next king.

When Edward died on Jan. 5, 1066, the race to claim the throne began. Field Marshal Montgomery explained:

[W]hen Edward the Confessor died, … William, as the result of an obscure history of marriage connections and secret oaths, had a better theoretical claim to the throne of England than had Harold—earl of Wessex, and the most powerful man in England. On 6th January, Harold was chosen as king by the witan, or national council, and crowned, but he was in no real sense a national leader.

King Harold of England had little royal blood, but was the choice of the Saxon people. Harold realized the difficulty of his position: Not only had the claims of two others been spurned, but both were kings of powerful armies who could invade England from two different directions.

Harold knew William’s attack was inevitable. For William, it was a matter of national expansion and personal vendetta. A couple of years earlier, while Harold was a guest in the Norman court, William had made him take an oath (on the literal bones of dead saints) that when Edward died, Harold would honor the promise of succession made to William.

Thus, for nine months, Harold prepared the nation for war.

The Invasion

The entire coast of Normandy in 1066 was busy at work constructing an armada of 450 ships to take William to England. The Duke of Normandy had secured the blessing of the pope and the emperor of Germany, giving his claim even more legitimacy. On the opposite coast, Harold had the English fleet patrolling the Channel, waiting for the first sign of William’s fleet. Of the two threats to Harold’s crown, Norman and Norwegian, the Norman was far more severe. Thus Harold concentrated his military forces in southern England. Although vigilant, Harold would suffer miraculous setbacks. Liddell Hart explains the strategic situation:

William of Normandy’s invasion of England profited from strategic distraction, and thereby gained at the outset the virtues of an indirect approach. This distraction was the landing of King Harold’s rebel brother, Tostig, and his ally, Harold Hardrada, king of Norway, on the Yorkshire coast. This has seemed less immediate a danger than William’s invasion. But it matured earlier, and thus gave added effectiveness to William’s plans, even though it was promptly defeated. Two days after the annihilation of the Norse invaders at Stamford Bridge, William landed on the Sussex coast.

The Battle of Stamford Bridge does well to illustrate Harold’s character: brave, confidence inspiring, driven by impulse and apt to make brash decisions. With the elimination of Harald Hardrada, Harold and his army were busily celebrating their victory 250 miles away from Pevensey Bay where William landed on September 27. While Harold had quickly defeated one foe, the other invaded unopposed.

These early stages of the invasion do much to illustrate the Normans’ military genius. Upon their unchallenged arrival, the Normans unloaded a prefabricated fort, which they quickly assembled and established as their base of operations. With William were 7,000 soldiers. Around 1,500 were Norman knights, the rest were mercenaries.

William started a systematic ravaging of Sussex and eastern Wessex. William knew Harold personally and had perceived his weaknesses. The lands William’s men were burning were those of Harold’s home territory. This strategy may seem to be an act of cruelty, but was more of a well-thought-out strategy to bait Harold into brash action. The longer William was in England, the more precarious his position became. He hoped to lure Harold away from a patient strategy to a quick, decisive battle. It proved a brilliant stroke.

When Harold heard of William’s landing, he force-marched the 200 miles to London in seven days with his personal bodyguard. He stayed in London for five days, raising troops and recalling local militias. Upon hearing the ravaging of his beloved Wessex lands, he marched straight for William’s army, hoping to catch the Normans by surprise as he had done at Stamford Bridge. Harold ordered that the rallying spot be on a place called Senlac Hill, seven miles north of Hastings.

The Battle

Harold arrived on October 13. When William heard that Harold’s army had arrived a short distance away, he decided to take the initiative. While the Saxons were resting after another forced march, the entire force was taken by surprise by the sudden appearance of the Norman knights.

Before the battle began, William sent a monk to offer Harold three possible actions: 1) step down as king and allow William to assume kingship; 2) allow the pope to decide who should be king; or 3) let the issue be decided in battle. William sought to demoralize the Saxons, and via the monk told them that the pope had excommunicated them. The Saxon lords answered:

We must fight, whatever may be the danger to us; for what we have to consider is not whether we shall accept and receive a new lord, as if our king is dead; the case is quite otherwise. The Normans have given our lands to his captains, to his knights, to all his people, the greater part of whom have already done homage to him for them; they will all look for their gift if their duke becomes our king; and he himself is bound to deliver up to them our goods, our wives and our daughters; all is promised to them beforehand. They come, not only to ruin us, but to ruin our descendants also and to take from us the country of our ancestors. And what shall we do—whither shall we go, when we have no longer a country?

With a unanimous vote, the English promised to die or drive away the Normans rather than make peace.

The Saxons awoke October 14 and arrayed themselves for battle. There were no cavalry or archers, but only the hastily raised infantry. Militias occupied the left and right wings; in the center were the king’s personal guard. The guard had the reputation of being some of the best infantry in Europe. Heavily armored and skillful in combat, they believed they could turn the tide of battle if needed. The other Saxon troops had lances, spears, swords and battle axes. Every soldier had a shield, usually kite-shaped and brightly ornamented. The heart and core of Saxon strategy was the shield wall, where the amassed infantry in the front ranks would interlock shields, making an almost impossible barrier. Those behind would throw missiles or hack at the enemy.

King Harold established the shield wall along the whole front. He had between 6,000 to 7,000 troops, about the same as the Norman army. He could have raised a more substantial force had he not marched so hastily south. Field Marshal Montgomery paints the scene before the Saxons entered battle:

When the line of battle had been drawn up, Harold rode along it, reminding his men that nothing could go wrong so long as the solidity of the shield-wall was maintained. In this he was right; but let us see what happened.

William established his line of battle into three divisions: the Bretons on the left flank, the Flemish and other mercenaries on the right flank, and the Norman knights under his personal command in the center. William also created three lines of order in each division: the archers in front, next the heavy infantry, and then the knights.

The position heavily favored the Saxons. The hill gently sloped down away from the Saxons to the east and west, and their flanks were protected by woods and boggy marshland. The tactics of the shield wall were magnified by the only course open to William: frontal assault.

At 9 o’clock, the battle began. The Normans began with a salvo of archery fire. The flat angle made it difficult for the archers to make their fire effective, and most of the arrows went harmlessly overhead or into the awaiting shield wall. Then the knights charged with a full assault on the entire length of the Saxon line.

Each Norman knight was armored from head to toe, had a lance he could throw, a sword, and then either a mace or ax. At this stage in warfare, knights would not charge as one mass—they would attack and enter into individual battles. Personal skill in combat was key, and the better man would win the duel of fates.

The Norman knights beat upon the shield wall, wielding their weapons and raining blows upon the front ranks of the Saxons. Sweat and blood covered the combatants. Each Norman tried to drive a wedge in the shield wall, while each Saxon desperately tried to maintain the wall and kill the exposed knights.

Eventually the left wing of William’s army retreated, sending panic and dismay through the ranks. While the Norman knights retreated, some of the raw militiamen charged down the hill in pursuit, intoxicated by the success of battle. Those few souls died quickly. Harold maintained the shield wall and gave strict orders for no one to break the line.

William of Poitiers, the duke’s chaplain, recorded an account of the battle:

The shouts of both of the Normans and of the barbarians were drowned in the clash of arms and by the cries of the dying, and … the battle raged with utmost fury. … [The English] bravely withstood and successfully repulsed those who were engaging them at close quarters.

William’s leadership reenergized the battle. Having been unhorsed, a rumor had spread that William had died. Finding another horse, William took off his helmet and rode in front of his men, showing his face and organizing another attack by his knights, which he led personally. As William of Poitiers wrote: “[William] dominated this battle, checking his own men in flight, strengthening their spirit, and sharing their dangers.”

Both William and Harold understood that the battle would be decided by the Saxon shield wall. As long as the shield wall was maintained, the Saxons were an immovable object. Another historian wrote: “Both sides stood so firm and fought so well that no one could guess which would prevail.”

At midday, William reassessed his strategy. Realizing that pure force could not break the English lines, William employed a brilliant counter tactic: a feigned retreat. The Norman right was instructed to attack the Saxons and then retreat quickly. William hoped the Saxon left would be baited to pursue, then the Norman knights waiting in reserve could cut down the running infantry.

The strategy worked, and the Norman knights cut down the Saxon infantry. But King Harold’s personal guard holding the center did not flinch—the Saxons still held the line.

As the sun began to lower, most of the Norman knights were exhausted and discouraged. Once again William reassessed his strategy. His only fresh troops were his archers, and thus William had another stroke of genius: high-angle archery.

The Norman archers ran toward the Saxon line, followed closely by the heavy infantry. When they were only 100 yards from the Saxons, each archer pulled back his bow and aimed nearly straight upward and released. Every Saxon eye followed the arrows as they rose into the sky, pausing briefly directly over the Saxon army. Confusion reigned as every Saxon sought to shield himself from the rain of death.

An arrow struck King Harold in the right eye. But he was not dead, and he broke the arrow in half and pulled it out despite the agony. Harold then planted himself next to the standard as he sought to rally his men.

In the confusion, William launched his final attack.

A Norman chronicler recounted the last drama of the struggle:

Loud now was the clamor, and great the slaughter; many a soul quitted the body it inhabited. The living marched over the heaps of dead, and each side was weary of striking. He charged on who could, and he who could no longer strike still pushed forward. The strong struggled with the strong; some failed, others triumphed; the cowards fell back, the brave pressed on ….And now the Normans had pressed on so far, that at last they had reached the standard. There Harold had remained, defending himself to the utmost; but he was sorely wounded in the eye by the arrow, and suffered grievous pain from the blow. An armed man came in the throng of battle, and struck him on the ventaille of his helmet, and beat him to the ground; and as he sought to recover himself, a knight beat him down again, striking him on the thick of his thigh down to the bone.

As the sun was setting, the Saxons, having lost their king, retreated. They fled into the north woods with Normans in pursuit. The victory belonged to William. Several hours of fierce combat placed the destiny of England into the hands of the Normans. However, perhaps there was no more glorious end to a king than Harold of the Saxons.

Birth of a Nation

Hastings did not end the Saxon resistance. William spent many months subduing the land. But the Battle of Hastings fundamentally transformed England from Saxon rule to Norman rule. Although many of the Saxon institutions, such as Common Law, would remain, the leadership of the government and church passed to the Normans.

With the benefit of hindsight, we see the Normans brought about some of the greatest achievements in British history. David Soud writes in Kings and Queens of Great Britain:

One can only imagine how different the history of England might have been if, on that October day in 1066, Harold Godwinson’s soldiers had not broken the shield wall atop Senlac Hill. The victorious Normans brought with them—good and bad—that came to define English life in the centuries that followed.Most fundamentally, William’s conquest inaugurated a turn southward in English consciousness; instead of Scandinavia, England became tied to France, and that relationship, more often hostile than amicable, has been a main feature of European history and culture ever since. …His view of the kingdom as his personal property led him to establish vast preserves for his own pleasure. … That sense of privilege, combined with the linguistic gulf between Norman rulers and English populace, heightened the sense of distance between the landed aristocracy and commoners that, despite the moderating influences of time and reform, persists to this day.Perhaps most importantly, William’s conquest of England permanently transformed its language. The Old English of the Saxons, a Germanic tongue, gradually merged with the Normans’ French, becoming the Middle English of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and eventually the Early Modern English of Shakespeare. The English language as we know it, and the complex and scintillating culture that uses it, would never have taken shape had William, Duke of Normandy, not bent his will toward the conquest of the lands across the Channel.

The great link between France and Britain, the literary achievements of Shakespeare, and the social structure of England all have some debt to the Norman influence.

The Battle of Hastings put Saxon England on a course toward a greater destiny. Although the legal institutions of the Saxons were the foundation of British legal culture, the Normans brought with them the force of character to change the world. Sir Edward Creasy, in his book Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World, reaffirmed this point: “It may sound paradoxical, but it is in reality no exaggeration to say, with Guizot, that England’s liberties are owing to her having been conquered by the Normans. It is true that the Saxons’ institutions were the primitive cradle of English liberty, but by their own intrinsic force they could never have founded the enduring free English Constitution.”

Magna Carta, the Great Charter, on which all of our modern ideals of freedom came from, never would have materialized in 1215 without the Norman conquest of England. This unofficial English constitution is a major force which allowed Britain to become democratic and play a pivotal role in the history of the world. Even the American Constitution is derived from the principles established in the Great Charter. Creasy continued:

[The Norman’s] gradual blending with the Saxons softened these harsh and evil points of their national character; and in return they fired the duller Saxon mass with a new spirit of animation and power. As Campbell boldly expressed it, “They high-mettled the blood of our veins.” Small had been the figure which England made in the world before the coming of the Normans, and without them she never would have emerged from insignificance. The authority of Gibbon may be taken as decisive when he pronounces that “assuredly England was a gainer by the Conquest.” And we may proudly adopt the comment of the Frenchman Rapin, who, writing of the Battle of Hastings more than a century ago, speaks of the revolution effected by it as “the first step by which England is arrived to the height of grandeur and glory we behold it in at present.”

Without the Norman victory at Hastings, there would be no British Empire. The great achievements the English race were destined to reach, the world leadership and the creation of a global language and culture, were all in the balance at Hastings. Neither Harold nor William truly knew the stakes nor how we would still reap the benefits of the Norman victory 950 years later. However, there was One who did understand what hung in the balance at Hastings.

Hastings in Prophecy

The dramatic turning point of Hastings was not the result of human design or foresight. Those men who fought and died, both Normans and Saxons, could only dream that the consequences of the battle would last 950 years. It was not the product of vast impersonal forces shaping the outcome of nations. Hastings was the result of a very personal, direct force intervening in events.

The Great God used this battle to prepare the island race to fulfill some of the greatest prophecies in the Bible. The Norman conquest was the first phase of a systematic development of British character and institutions so that, when the time was right, the British were ready for world empire. All of the great historians quoted in this article point to the Norman invasion as the first step towards the development of English political liberty and the English language—the cornerstones of English genius.

Magna Carta was the foundation of the political culture of Britain and America—the two nations whose ideas of freedom and government now reach the four corners of the earth. The English language used by William Shakespeare, and the vision he sought to convey in his works, was the first consciousness of Englanders of a destiny beyond the borders of their island. Hastings was one of the first steps in God’s transformation of little England into Great Britain.

God guided the development of the English nation in order to keep an ancient promise. 3000 years before 1066 AD, a righteous man named Abraham was promised by God that his descendants would become a great people, controlling key sea gates and inhabiting the globe (Genesis 12:1-3, Genesis 22:16-18). The children of Abraham would come to be called the nation of Israel; because of their disobedience, these blessings were not given until the beginning of the 19th century. Herbert Armstrong wrote in his book, The United States and Britain in Prophecy:

“It may not be generally realized—but neither Britain nor the United States became great world powers until the 19th century. Suddenly, in the very beginning of the 19th century, these two—until then small, minor countries—suddenly spurted to national power and greatness among nations, as no nations had ever grown and multiplied in wealth, resources and power before.”

This may seem too fantastic to believe, but it is the plain truth. You can prove all of this for yourself by reading Herbert Armstrong’s book, The United States and Britain in Prophecy.

The Battle of Hastings was a dramatic turning point God used to prepare England for its prophesied empire.

Today, we are in the midst of another turning point in history. The future seems uncertain, and the outlook bleak. But this history shows the kind of bravery we need to withstand the worst of times when they come. We can gain some measure of courage from the conduct of our ancestors; we may also gain some hope. If God is indeed in control of world affairs, and if God can effect changes such as the conquest of a nation and the sudden turning of the historical tide, we may have hope that one day God will turn the tide of history back toward peace. This is sure. God changed the course of the world at the Battle of Hastings. He will also change the world in the near future.

“But when, in this work, I speak of probabilities, I speak of human probabilities only,” Creasy wrote. “When I speak of cause and effect, I speak of those general laws only by which we perceive the sequence of human affairs to be usually regulated, and in which we recognize emphatically the wisdom and power of the Supreme Lawgiver, and the design of the Designer.” Creasy saw God in history. We should do the same.