Battle of Hastings

14th October 1066

by Kevin Regan

Tapisserie de Bayeux – Scène 57 : La mort d’Harold (attr. Myrabella, Public domain)

28th September 1066

This was the date that the Norman fleet of some 700 ships made landfall from St Valery sur Somme (almost due South) in Pevensey Bay.

All summer, King Harold II had mustered the English (Anglo Saxons) along the South coast and a substantial English fleet had been waiting to fight off the expected attack from Duke William. It was at the end of the fighting season, with autumn approaching when a devastating gale scattered much of the English fleet (who also needed no excuse to decamp, claiming not to have been paid). Seizing the opportunity, Harald Hardrada of Norway, who also believed he had a claim to the English throne (and also supported by Harold’s renegade brother, Tostig who had been exiled from the kingdom of Northumbria) then landed on the east coast with some 300 ships, sailing up the Humber and Ouse to Riccall, initially scattering a hastily summoned force and on the 29 September, Earls Morcar and Edwin of Northumbria inflicted heavy casualties on the Vikings, but suffered serious losses themselves and were unable to drive the Vikings back. The Vikings then took the major city of York and after the obligatory pillaging, settled down for a good old knees up.

Harold, meanwhile, had broken up the English camps in the south on 8th September and returned to London, assuming that Duke William would also disband his forces at the end of the “fighting season”. He then assembled an army and marched quickly north, so fast that he surprised the bulk of the Vikings who had left much of their chain mail armour in their boats at Riccall. Overcoming a stalwart defence over a bridge by a few Vikings, Harold inflicted such a defeat on Harald that some 60 years later it was recorded that the battlefield was still a heap of white bones. Tostig and Harald were killed. Having arrived in a fleet of 300 ships, the survivors left in 20, such was the scale of loss.

Duke William, having heard of the Viking invasion and Harold’s march north, then took advantage of his absence to invade. He avoided the major ports as there were still ships in the English fleet able to inflict damage, and settled instead on Pevensey, being a little known tidal backwater, but large enough to provide a safe harbour for his fleet.

Landing at Pevensey, he had three pre fabricated castles erected, one within the walls of the old Roman fortress of Anderida and presumably others to protect his flanks from the east and north.

Which brings the village of Ninfield into the story! A major consideration for any army is to capture the immediate high ground and easily defensible sites. Pevensey was on a peninsular, so having a fort there makes sense. Apparently they also erected a fort close to Hastings, which leaves one other fort.

The highest ground was what is now known as Standard Hill and also where St Mary’s Church now stands (and by all accounts an earlier wooden church was there in 1066). It would have made an excellent site, able to interrupt any movement along what is now the A269 and A271, which would have been an approach route from Bosham for an attacking force. Harold, meanwhile had now heard of the Norman landings and that William was burning the coastal villages, destroying crops and killing the populace (gulp, that’s us folks!). He made an astonishingly fast return from his victory at Stamford Bridge (no, NOT the football one) and seems to have taken the more easterly route presumably to link up with the Kent fyrd and then down through Whatlington (which was one of his manors) and took the high ground at the “place of the hoary apple tree” which became the site of Battle Abbey on 14th October 1066. To have fought two major battles within 2 weeks and 250 miles apart is an incredible achievement. William then moved to take the high ridge opposite and the battle began, according to what accounts survive at about 9 am. The English formed a shield wall all along the crest, which stood firm for practically the entire battle. The Normans had cavalry and archers, including cross bowmen, one of the earliest recorded instances of their use. The English had few archers and generally fought dismounted, not having much use for the lance, relying mainly on the long sword and fearsome 2 handed battle axes.

William found it a hard fight and his allies the Bretons at one time fled from the English shield wall, when it was believed that William had been unhorsed and killed. Mounting another, William rallied his troops by raising his helmet so they could see he was still alive. Part of the English shield wall had broken away and chased after the fleeing Normans but were then surrounded and gradually hacked down. This may have been when one of his brothers (Leofwine?) may have been killed, anticipating a rout of the Normans.

Using his cavalry and archers to continually thin down the English shield wall, as night began to fall the English shield wall began to break up and some knights (allegedly including William) fought through to the English standard and killed the standard bearer, and Harold had his shield pierced by a lance thrust into his chest, a sword blow to the head below the helmet and his thigh was allegedly hacked off and carried away. There is no actual proof that he was hit in the eye by an arrow, the Bayeux Tapestry seems to have had the flight of an arrow added to what looks to have been a spear being held by Harold, as the shaft appears to be missing his head! However, it is possible that he was wounded by an arrow catching him in the face, as after the earlier failure of arrows to get the height of the English line, the archers were ordered to fire them over the shield wall to hit those in the ranks behind, thus weakening the strength of the wall.

The most interesting aspect is that the battle lasted so long, and it is thought by some that Harold expected William to retreat and return to his ships and leave.

Even after the main body was broken up, there was a further slaughter of Normans pursuing what they believed was a defeated foe, at a deep defile described as “the Fosse” possibly at what is now Town Creep near Netherfield. The site of the battle has been disputed but cannot disprove why William would have chosen this site, had the English centre of resistance been elsewhere. Senlac hill is variously attributed to be the “Sand Lake” or more likely Sang Lac, the Lake of Blood. Certainly there doesn’t seem to be a lake or other water feature there! Caldbec Hill is apparently where during the fighting the men were “called back” by Harold.

More of a mystery is why Harold fought William at all. The Normans were running out of sources of fresh food, having been plundering and burning the area for 3 weeks, so supplies were running low. He could have waited for more reinforcements, simply bottling up William against the coast while his army would be swelled by fresh troops following down from Stamford Bridge and the surrounding countryside. Whilst the English shield wall was a fearsome defence, it wasn’t sufficiently mobile until the enemy had been broken, and the rush downhill would give the attackers sufficient momentum to smash down what scattered resistance there was, enabling the battle axe to wreak its havoc. Without any real mobility, Harold was pinned onto the hill, gradually being worn down by arrows and cavalry charges. After a fairly forced march, for men to even stand around for 9 or so hours in full chain mail and equipment is exhausting, let alone having to brace into the shield wall and face constant blows and missiles.

Harold could easily have won, had a large body of archers (which the English did have) arrived and, using the extra range provided by their height advantage, have created huge slaughter amongst the Normans, bringing down the horses of the cavalry and penetrated the chain mail at close range. That alone would have prevented the Norman cavalry charging into the line of shields at will.

But it didn’t, and thus ended the battle, a victory for the Normans and the imposition of French speaking kings and nobility, replacing the English nobles and language at Court for almost 200 years. Perhaps just one arrow may have decided the fate of a Kingdom. So much more important than Richard III’s “For the want of a nail”…

Hastings and Pevensey both had Norman castles built, but where is Ninfield Castle! Oh well, at least we had our moment in history!

Hundred: Ninfield. Total population: 11 households (quite small). Total tax assessed: 3 units (medium). Taxable units: Taxable value 3 units. Taxed on 2.5.

Value: Value to lord in 1066 £6. Value to lord in 1086 £5.3. Value to lord c. 1070 £1.

Households: 8 villagers. 3 smallholders. Ploughland: 12 ploughlands (land for). 3 lord’s plough teams. 6 men’s plough teams.

Other resources: 1 church. A Church on the present site is likely to have been built in the eighth century, following the conversion of the South Saxons by St. Wilfrid. The only material evidence of this early building consists of three large ancient stone blocks, now built into the exterior of the modern north wall. They were taken from a doorway in the old north wall of the nave when it was pulled down and the present north aisle was built in 1885. Mr. George Gilbert Scott, who surveyed the church in 1874, was of the opinion that the doorway belonged to a period certainly before the Norman Conquest and possibly before the Danish invasion. The earliest written record of the Church in Ninfield is in the Domesday survey of 1086 and apart from the aforementioned ancient stones, the earliest structural work now remaining is the thirteenth century stonework in the south and west walls of the nave.

Lord in 1066: Blaec. Lords in 1086: Osbern; Reinbert the sheriff; Robert, Count of Eu; Robert the cook; Warin; villager, one. Tenant-in-chief in 1086: Robert, Count of Eu.

Robert of Eu probably was the origin of the name of our adjacent village, Hooe.

By comparison, Hooe, which also existed before the Norman Conquest is reported as being much larger and more valuable…

LAND OF THE COUNT OF EU (Hastings Rape) [In NINFIELD Hundred]

The Count of Eu, holds the manor called HOOE in lordship. Earl Godwin held it before 1066 and now it answered for 12 hides. Land for 44 ploughs. In lordship 2 ploughs. 44 villagers with 12 smallholders have 28 ploughs. A small church; 1 mill at 7s; meadow, 71 acres; 30 salt-houses at 33s; woodland, 10 pigs from pasturage; from grazing, 7 pigs. Reinbert holds  hide of the villagers’ land of this manor; Robert 2 virgates; Osbem 2 virgates; Alfred 2 virgates; Gerald 2 virgates; Ingelrann 2 virgates; Withbert 4 virgates; Waring (?) 2 virgates; another Robert 2 virgates. Between them they have 3 ploughs in lordship; and 12 villagers and 3 smallholders with 7 ploughs.

Value of the whole manor before 1066 £25; later £6; now the Count’s lordship £14; his men-at-arms’ £7 7s.

LAND OF BATTLE CHURCH The Abbot has: In the manor of HOOE, which the Count of Eu holds,  hide. 2 villagers with 1 plough. Value 5s.

LAND OF THE COUNT OF MORTAIN (Pevensey Rape) In HOOE the Count holds 4 salt-houses in lordship, value 20s.

Name of manor Value before 1066 Value in 1066 Value in 1085/86

Hooe £25 £6 £21

Ninfield £6 £116s

Which probably reflects that Hooe was mainly salt pans, marsh and sheep pasture, easily rebuilding flocks, whereas Ninfield was more forested and more deaths, so slower to rebuild.  

The Normans probably used both the Pevensey and Combe Haven (Bulverhythe) bays due to the size of their fleet and for the rapid unloading of horses and men. As can be seen, it would be a prudent action to secure all approaches to the shores of the bays, and villages in the direct path would be reduced to empty burnt out shells, with the population either fled or dead, and their livestock and food stores raided or destroyed. Both the east and west approaches are protected by Hastings and Pevensey Castles, so the third would logically be on the northern shore and what better place than Ninfield?

In my opinion Domesday supports the view that the invading army went through Ninfield on the way from Pevensey and as such must have either forded the inlet or used a bridge at the bottom of Boreham Hill. Any alternative route would have greater logistical problems, because Waller’s Haven, (the tidal inlet to the west of Ninfield, below Boreham Hill) divides into a number of tributaries to the north and west and would require crossing traveling to or from Pevensey and Hastings. It further supports the argument that the bulk of William’s army landed between Ninfield and Hastings, especially when compared to the values of the manors before and after 1066. Those around Hastings drop practically to nothing, whereas those around Pevensey not only hold their value but dramatically increase. Therefore the foot of the invader trod heaviest where they first landed and less heavily the further away from the initial landing sites.

The Domesday entry for Pevensey, for example, indicates that the value before the invasion was 76 shillings and 9 pence. There is no mention at all of loss in value, except when the Count of Mortain was given the manor by William, there were 27 burgesses instead of 28 previously. The value at the time of the survey, 20 years later, was over three times as much, at 323 shilling and 9 pence. This is hardly consistent with being ravaged by an invading army, contrary to what was experienced in the Hastings area.

Aerial photograph of Pevensey castle and surroundings, England (attr. Lieven Smits, 2011).

1066 Country Walk

Click on the map to download a file of the 31 mile 1066 walk from Rother District Council.

The 1066 Country walk map from Rother District council.