Battle, England (1066 AD)
The Battle of Hastings was the pivotal engagement of the Norman conquest of England during the Middle Ages. Fought in 1066, it also marked the last successful invasion of England, a feat not repeated in nearly a thousand years. The battle was followed swiftly by the occupation of London, after which most of the rest of England fell in the ensuing decade. It is also one of the best depicted battles of the Middle Ages, as made famous by the Bayeux Tapestry. As a result of the Norman victory, William I (the Conqueror) of Normandy established a new kingdom and royal dynasty that lives on day in the present British monarchy.
Like much of the rest of Western Europe, the isle of Great Britain had endured wave after wave of invaders since ancient times, including the Romans, Danes, Saxons and others. Generally, following a few decades of conquest and pillaging, each wave of invaders was ultimately absorbed into the populace, only to turn around and face a new onslaught. By the 11th century, the ruling Saxons had long been assimilated, and it was their turn to defend their island kingdom against invaders.
In 1066 it was the turn of the Normans. The Normans, which were the last and greatest wave of Viking invaders from Scandinavia, had long since established a powerful realm in northern France centered around Caen. According to some sources, William, Duke of Normandy, had been promised the crown of England by his relative Edward the Confessor. Upon Edward’s death the kingship of England was seized by Harold II, and William decided to contest this through force of arms.
Thanks to a Viking raid that distracted the Saxons, the Normans landed in England unopposed in September 1066. It took several weeks for the Harold to rally and move his forces. Unfortunately, due to the major battles that they had already recently fought, the Saxons were in poor shape to face the Normans. The two sides met on the road to London just outside of the city of Hastings on October 14, 1066. Despite being tired from fighting and forced marches, the Saxons held a strong defensive position on better ground, and were well armed and ready when the Normans arrived.
At first it seemed as though the Saxons would carry the day. After failing to overcome the defenses, the Normans were forced to retreat. The overzealous Saxons broke ranks and chased them down the hill. However, William rallied his troops, turned and slaughtered the pursuing enemy. The surviving and exhausted Saxons were not able to mount an effective defense, and by the end of the day were driven from the field. London, effectively unprotected, fell shortly afterward, securing the kingship for William and his successors to the present day.
In honor of their victory at Hastings, the Normans constructed Battle Abbey supposedly on the spot where the Saxon king Harold was killed by an arrow. The abbey grounds have become the centerpiece of most visits to the battlefield, and are home to a visitor center and museum dedicated to the battle. A stone marker commemorates the site of Harold’s death. Most of the rest of the abbey are now in ruins, though the surrounding hill where the battle took place is still a pristine site.
The Hastings Battlefield is actually located in the small town of Battle just outside of the city of Hastings approximately fifty miles southeast of London. The opening hours of the abbey vary widely seasonally, though it is generally open weekends from 10:00am to 4:00pm. The cost of admission is L7.50. Web: www.english-heritage.org.uk/daysout/properties/1066 (official website)