Senlac Hill, Battle, East Sussex
Senlac Hill, Battle, East Sussex

October 14, 1066

Battle, East Sussex

Saxons under Harold, King of England vs. Norman French under Duke William of Normandy

When Edward the Confessor died he left no direct heir, and the throne of England passed to Harold. However, William of Normandy claimed that Edward had promised the crown to him, and indeed that Harold himself had sworn a sacred oath to relinquish his claim in William's favour.

William prepared an invasion fleet and, armed with a papal bull declaring his right to the throne, he crossed the English Channel to land near Pevensey.

Harold, in the meantime, had another threat to concern him; his brother Tostig allied with Harald Hardrada of Norway and landed in the north of England. They took York, but Harold defeated them soundly at the Battle of Stamford Bridge.

No sooner had the battle dust settled than Harold received news of William's invasion in the south. He marched his tired men from York to Sussex, arriving there on October 13 to face the Normans.

Harold took up a defensive position on a high ridge known as Senlac. The battle began with devastating volleys of stone missiles hurled into the Norman infantry by the Saxon "fyrd", or irregular troops levied from the shires.

William himself led the centre of the Norman army, and it is said that he carried into battle some of the holy relics upon which Harold had sworn to cede the crown to him.

The Norman infantry made no dent in the Saxon lines, and the cavalry fared no better. But when some of the Norman horsemen turned and fled, a large group of Saxons left their position to chase them. It was a fatal mistake, as William rallied his men and routed the unprotected attackers. The Saxon lines quickly closed, but they had not learned their lesson, and they repeated the same folly of chasing an apparently fleeing enemy twice more as the day wore on.

By late afternoon the Saxon lines were wavering under continued Norman attacks. It is then that the most famous arrow in English history was released by an anonymous Norman archer.

The arrow took King Harold in the eye, and a final Norman onslaught killed him where he stood. The rest of the leaderless Saxons ceded Senlac ridge yard by grudging yard, but eventually they had no choice but to turn and flee the field. The day belonged to Duke William, soon to be dubbed, "the Conqueror". The body of King Harold was eventually buried in Waltham Abbey.

Although there were sporadic outbreaks of Saxon resistance to Norman rule after the Battle of Hastings - notably in East Anglia under Hereward the Wake, and in the north of England - from this point on England was effectively ruled by the Normans.

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