The Battle of Hastings: Analysed From Several Historical Contexts
The following article consists of my recent academic essay in the course ‘The History of the British Isles’ as part of my MA degree in British culture and civilisation at Ștefan cel Mare University of Suceava (USV).
The Battle of Hastings which took place in the year 1066 was undoubtedly a very important event in the history of the British Isles, and, more specifically, in the history of England, as well as in the history of Europe during the Middle Ages from several historical perspectives. The aim of this essay for the course of the History of the British Isles at Ștefan cel Mare University of Suceava (USV) is therefore to briefly analyse the importance and implications of the Battle of Hastings in both English and European medieval history at large given its enduring and remarkable historical legacy which is still relevant to this day.
1. The main historical context
In order to better understand the implications of the Battle of Hastings which unfolded on 14 October 1066 and its tremendously important aftermath in both English and European medieval history, one needs to understand the main historical context revolving around the battle per se as well as the year 1066 in general in historical terms, that is with respect to kingship and that year’s military developments on English soil.
First and foremost, the main aspect pertaining to the historical context is represented by kingship. In this regard, Edward the Confessor of the House of Wessex, one of the most important English monarchs of all times, passed away on 5 January 1066, leaving a certain significant royal turmoil in England after his reign as he did not previously clearly appoint any successor to the English throne (being also heirless), thereby leaving it up for grabs to several key historical leaders/figures of this year who would have the right to claim it, both internally/domestically and externally (i.e. from abroad).
Although Edward the Confessor, while still well alive and healthy, might have promised the English throne to William the Conqueror (known in French as ‘Guillaume le Conquérant’), then still Duke of Normandy, he had subsequently changed his mind on his deathbed, promising it instead to Harold Godwinson (or Harold II as he is also known). Nonetheless, this promise has been debated by historians regarding its seriousness and it wasn’t entirely conclusive as to whom it was rightfully or clearly made. Regardless, what’s for certain is the fact that that there was no peaceful transfer of power after Edward the Confessor’s death, on the contrary, the succession was carried out by bloody military means and, ultimately, a large scale conquest later on.
In England, Harold Godwinson and his brother, Tostig, who was Earl of Northumbria (Northumbria being one of the seven early medieval Anglo-Saxon kingdoms also referred to as the ‘heptarchy’), were at odds one with another to the point where Tostig would be forced to flee to the Kingdom of Norway, eventually banding up with the King of Norway at that time, more specifically Harald Hardråde (also known as Harold Sigurdsson, i.e. son of Sigurd, more specifically Sigurd Syr, former king of Ringerike in Buskerud), his last name literally meaning ‘hard ruler’ given his reputation both domestically and abroad as a former very skilled mercenary in the Varangian Guard, the elite personal guard of the Byzantine Emperor which was mostly formed of Swedish Vikings.
The conjunctural alliance which was forged between Tostig and Hardråde was based on mutual interests and a common enemy in the person of none other than Harold Godwinson, the treacherous brother of Tostig and the then still Anglo-Saxon king of England (albeit disputed by the two and also William, Duke of Normandy as well). This alliance therefore paved the way (or the maritime voyage, shall I better put it) to the Battle of Stamford Bridge in northern England on 25 September 1066.
2. The Battle of Stamford Bridge – a ‘prequel’ to the main battle of 1066 that would follow shortly afterwards for English hegemony
The Battle of Stamford Bridge was fought in northern England between the Anglo-Saxons led by Harold Godwinson on the one hand and the Norwegian Vikings led by Hardråde and Tostig on the other hand. While initially fighting well and winning in the first part of the battle, the Norwegian Vikings under Hardråde and Tostig were subsequently defeated after the former had been slain by an arrow shot at him (lucky arrow, lucky shot, I might add as well). Tostig was also slain and out of an impressive fleet of 300 ships (according to Simon Schama in his BBC TV series historical documentary entitled ‘A History of Britain’, episode 2, ‘Conquest!’) which previously set sail from southwestern Norway to northern England, only 30 of them (or 10%) returned back to Scandinavia. Regardless of how skilled Hardråde was as a powerful longtime mercenary or how motivated Tostig was to avenge himself after he was humiliated and exiled by his brother, both of them and their army were defeated by Harold Godwinson’s Anglo-Saxons in a decisive manner. However, in the long run, this would prove to be a certain pyrrhic victory as Harold’s troops also took a considerable death toll, were exhausted, weakened, but nevertheless had to quickly regroup and march southward towards Hastings in order to face the next major invading threat represented by Duke William of Normandy and his Norman knights.
3. How the Battle of Hastings was won and what it meant beyond English soil: conclusions
The Battle of Hastings that followed (at a difference of approximately two weeks and a half from the previous one fought by Godwinson at Stamford Bridge) was (and still is) one of the most important dates in both English and European medieval history. Harold Godwinson’s exhausted troops faced William the Conqueror’s powerful Norman knights and, although dominating them through a skilful strategy of placing his troops on the hills in a defensive manner, winning the first part of the battle, the Normans bounced back as Godwinson’s troops left their positions atop the hills, chasing the Norman knights who then fought back and decimated the Anglo-Saxons along with King Harold Godwinson himself.
Therefore, Duke William of Normandy emerged victorious and in the wake of the battle a new age was brought about in England, namely that of the Normans through their Norman conquest, paving as such the way towards the High Middle Ages, leaving the Early Middle Ages behind, introducing knights, more strongholds/castles, new laws (many which were discriminatory against the native Anglo-Saxons), and the Old French language as the court and nobility language in England.
Duke William of Normandy became William the Conqueror and was crowned on Christmas Day in 1066, making this day one of the most important dates in both English and European medieval history.
The mounted Norman knights would eventually prove very efficient and victorious over the Anglo-Saxon housecarls (essentially also Scandinavian troops introduced in England by Danish King Cnut the Great as occupation force earlier on in the first part of the 11th century). The surviving Norman troops would continue their triumphal march after the end of the battle towards London where their leader, Duke William of Normandy would be crowned King of England on Christmas Day in 1066.
In conclusion, the main implications of the Battle of Hastings were the following ones:
- The death of Harold Godwinson meant the end of the Anglo-Saxon rulership over medieval England
- The Battle of Hastings also mostly marked the end of the Viking Age (and, at large, the end of the Early Middle Ages as well), though the Viking period lingered on for several additional decades in the near future both in Scandinavia as well as overseas in the Norse colonies established by the Norwegian Vikings in the North Atlantic Ocean (i.e. in the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland, and North America in Vinland or present-day Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada)
- The Battle of Hastings marked the beginning of Norman rule in medieval England, and, by extension, later on also in Ireland
- The Norman conquest included (but was not limited to) a harsh, ruthless rulership wherein the Anglo-Saxons would be subdued by the Norman conquerors, their properties overly taxed or confiscated, a strong military rule with many strongholds/castles built throughout the kingdom, the famous forest laws (hence the legend of Robin Hood as well), the introduction of the French language as the language of the nobility/aristocracy
- Internal family feuds (at a smaller level) between Harold Godwinson (Harold the Saxon) and his brother Tostein, on the one hand, and at a broader level, between the Anglo-Saxons (of mixed northern German and Danish descent) and the Norwegians on the one hand as well as the Anglo-Saxons and the Normans (an ethnic mixture of Norse and French) on the other hand, all of them being, more or less, related Germanic peoples. Also, if the Norwegians did not directly conquer England through their King Harald Hardråde, as the Danes previously did, establishing the Danelaw in the process, they indirectly did so through the Normans (who were partly Norwegian by descent) and were sort of avenged by William the Conqueror, if you will
- A date which changed English history as we know it forever and came with the Norman conquest, for both good and bad for the English people and England
Bibliography and external links
- The Viking Hondbók by Kjersti Egerdahl, pages 133–134
- Encyclopædia Britannica online
- Istoria: Enciclopedie pentru întreaga familie, Teora publishing house (in Romanian), page 123/alternatively known in the English-speaking world as the Kingfisher History Encyclopædia
- Simon Schama’s BBC TV Series historical documentaries ‘A History of Britain’, namely
episode 2 entitled ‘Conquest!’: https://watchdocumentaries.com/a-history-of-britain/
- The context of the Battle of Hastings and the earlier Battle of Stamford Bridge as depicted in
popular culture through the real-time historical strategy video game Age of Empires II: The Conquerors expansion pack: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3p9NPjixV1A
- Slaget ved Hastings on www.wikipedia.no (in Norwegian Bokmål)
- Harald Hardråde on www.wikipedia.no (in Norwegian Bokmål)
You can also download my academic essay in the course ‘The History of the British Isles’ here.
P.S. Not that I would like to be braggadocious (far from it, in point of fact), but I scored a 10/10 with this at my recent history exam. You might ask yourself however (and rightfully so), what’s the moral of the story? Well, the moral of the story is that playing Age of Empires II from your teenage up until your young adulthood eventually pays off very well when you want to successfully pursue your higher education.