Battlefield Britain - medieval warfare at The Battle of Hastings

By Corinne Field
BBC Battlefield Britain

The BBC series Battlefield Britain spanned 2000 years and told the story of eight key battles fought on and over British soil. See the spoils of war and discover the story behind these violent clashes at a museum or historic site with Culture24's Battlefield Britain trails.

Shows a photograph of a painting of the Battle of Hastings.

The Battle of Hastings (1820) by Frank W. Wilkin, fully restored after a two-year intensive conservation programme by English Heritage © English Heritage

The Battle of Hastings

The Battle of Hastings was one of the bloodiest and most important battles fought on British soil. It heralded the beginning of the Norman Conquest, which brought about a cultural revolution in Britain that would ultimately see England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales under one ruler.

Everyone knows that 1066 was the year of the Battle of Hastings - but what they might not know is that the battle in fact took place in nearby Battle and not Hastings. Today the ruins of Battle Abbey, erected as a memorial to the battle soon after by William the Conqueror, mark the site.

Visitors to the Abbey and the battlefield will see a 10-minute introductory film giving details of the events leading up to the battle before following an audio tour of the site. The audio guide tells the story of the battle from the Norman point of view, the Saxon version and finally that of Harold’s lover, Edith of Swanick.

Shows a photograph of the exterior of Battle Abbey.

Battle Abbey. Jonathan Bailey © English Heritage Photo Library

Custodian of Battle Abbey, Juan Pablo, thinks the impact of the Norman conquest cannot be stressed enough. "Nearly 1000 years later, 80 per cent of English country churches are of Norman origin," he says. "The language we speak today is Norman/Saxon French, which is why we have so many French words.

"Even the fact we are called the English is down to the Normans. The Normans ruled for 120 years, then tried to create racial harmony: we became the English, not Normans and Saxons."

"Basically the conquest established Britain as a feudal kingdom," he adds. "I personally believe that without the conquest there wouldn’t have been a British Empire."

Shows a photograph of a drama reconstruction of Harold's men dressed in armour, looking agressive with their pikes and round shields.

In BBC TV's Battlefield Britain, Harold's elite Housecarls stand under the Dragon Banner of Wessex shouting their battle cry at the advancing Norman army © BBC

In 1066 Edward the Confessor died without an heir so the throne of one of the wealthiest countries in Europe was up for grabs. Harold Godwine, Earl of Wessex had been Edward’s right-hand man but, a year or two before the King’s death, he went to Normandy and swore an oath in support of William Duke of Normandy’s claim to the throne.

However the dying Edward changed his mind and named Harold his heir. Harold was crowned King Harold II at Westminster Abbey on January 6, 1066.

Edward was buried at Westminster Abbey and after his victory at the Battle of Hastings, William the Conquerer chose to be crowned there. However, today the only part of the abbey that the protagonists of 1066 would recognize is the part housing . Visitors can enjoy Romanesque architecture dating back to medieval times as well as a replica of part of the Bayeux tapestry which represents the Norman Conquest of England.

Shows a photograph of a section of the Victorian copy of the Bayeux tapestry on show at Reading Museum.

Section of Bayeux tapestry at Reading Museum showing Harold with an arrow in his eye © Reading Museum Service

Probably commissioned in the 1070s by William’s half brother, Bishop Odo of Bayeux, the original is on show at Bayeux in Normandy, France. At over 70 metres long it is in fact an embroidery and not a tapestry.

A good place to find out about the tapestry in Britain is at Reading Museum where they have a replica on show created by 19th century Victorian embroiderers. Richard Worthington is ICT and Access Officer at Reading Museum – he’s responsible for the official website about the Bayeux tapestry,

According to Richard, "the only difference between this tapestry and the original is anything naked in the original has pants on now!"

Reading Museum also boasts late Saxon and early Norman artifacts in its Bayeux Tapestry Gallery. It's an impressive collection that includes axes and swords of the type used at the Battle of Hastings and recovered from the Thames.

Shows a photograph of a Saxon sword.

Saxon sword, Museum of Reading © Reading Museum Service

1066 was a time of great political and royal intrigue and it wasn’t only William Duke of Normandy who was intent on dethroning King Harold. King Harald Hardraada of Norway also decided to stake his claim. The Battle of Stamford Bridge near York put paid to the Viking King’s plans but it also prevented the Saxons from defending the coast against a Norman invasion in the South.

As a result of this diversion for Harold, William and his 7,000 strong army arrived more or less unchallenged at Pevensey Castle in September. Some of the medieval fortifications survive today and an audio tour gives visitors a chance to find out about the role Pevensey played in the Battle of Hastings.

The Saxons did not have a standing army and relied on local farmers to defend the coast. Visitor operation team member at Pevensey Castle, Alison Muir says, "William arrived in September when the farmers were gathering their crops so he was met with very little resistance".

Shows a photograph of Pevensey Castle as it is today - a ruin.

Pevensey. Pat Payne © English Heritage Photo Library.

On the night of October 13, 1066 Harold’s army of around 6,000 men camped about 12 miles from Pevensey, close to Hastings. The following morning at dawn the Normans marched out to meet them.

The Normans possessed a large cavalry formation of about 2,000 men and horses. Harold knew how fierce a fighting force the Norman cavalry could be, having seen them in action in Brittany. His own army rarely fought mounted so to counter this threat, he positioned his men on the steep-sided Senlac Hill. Overlapping their shields the English formed a shield wall along the ridge.

William began his assault with a volley of arrows. Then he sent his infantry up the slope into a hail of javelins, spears and hammers. Unable to penetrate the shield wall the Bretons that formed William’s left flank fled back down the hill and it wasn’t long before the Norman centre decided to follow. William was forced to withdraw to regroup.

Shows a photograph of a drama reconstruction of Harold's army lined up, ready for battle, on the ridge.

Harold's army stands on the ridge of Hastings, re-enacted in Battlefield Britain. Few of these men would leave the field alive © BBC

Harold’s right flank broke ranks to pursue the fleeing Bretons and cornered them in swampy ground at the foot of the hill. This unauthorized manouevre was to be their undoing. William’s cavalry moved in and the splinter group was cut off from help and cut down one by one.

William advanced again: this time, his infantry were supported by his knights on horseback wielding lances. In this second advance, William’s horse was killed by a javelin thrown by one of Harold’s brothers. William commandeered the horse of one of his knights but could not penetrate the shield wall and was forced to retreat a second time.

Shows a photograph of a drama reconstruction of Norman archers, bows poised to fire.

William's large number of archers open up on Harold's army. Haroldhimself was felled by one of these arrows © BBC

The Museum of London has a display in its Dark Age, Saxon and Medieval London Gallery all about everyday life in Saxon and Norman cities. It includes a graphic panel on the Battle of Hastings and battle axes from this period.

However the best place to find out about the weapons and armour used by the Norman and Saxon armies in 1066 is the Royal Armouries, Leeds where they have a tableau of the Battle of Hastings on show in their Early Medieval Gallery. They also have a computer interactive of the battle as well as a conical helmet of the period excavated from Eastern Europe.

Shows a photograph of a drama reconstruction of the bloody aftermath of the battle. There are bodies strewn across the field, many with arrows in them.

The aftermath of the massacre. Norman and Anglo-Saxons lie together after fierce fighting. In the background Harold's army, though exhausted, are occupying the ridge © BBC

For his third assault William changed tactics. This time his cavalry lead the charge, screaming their war cry 'Dex Aie' (God’s Help). More headway was made on this occasion against the weary English but again the Normans were driven back.

With fresh supplies the Norman bowmen launched another attack and if the Bayeux Tapestry is to be believed, this is how King Harold was killed - by an arrow in the eye. However other accounts say the arrow merely wounded him and he was in fact taken down by four knights – the first stabbed him in the chest, the second decapitated him, the third pierced his stomach with a lance and the fourth cut off his leg.

Shows a photograph of a helmet of the period recovered in Eastern Europe.

Helmet, Polish, 11th century. (Similar to the helmets worn by Norman and Anglo-Saxon soldiers.) © The Board of Trustees of the Armouries

The Battle of Hastings lasted almost all day. It was one of the longest and closest fought battles in medieval history. It was a blood bath - with around 4000 killed. It is thought each side lost around 2000 men.

It is generally believed that no artifacts from the clash have been recovered from the battlefield probably because the site has been looted or because what remained has dissolved in the soil.

However nearby Battle Museum of Local History claims to have the only axe ever recovered from the battle on show. They also have on display a watercolour engraving of the Bayeux tapestry from 1818 by Charles Stothard of the Royal Society of Antiquaries who went to Bayeux to copy it.

Shows a photograph of the battle axe at Battle Local History Museum, believed to be from the Battle of Hastings.

Battle axe, Battle Museum of Local History. Courtesy of Battle Museum of Local History

There are many myths surrounding the Battle of Hastings and King Harold. One of the most potent claims is that the body of the last Saxon King was buried at Waltham Abbey Church and Dina Dean, the church historian, is convinced the claim is true.

The story goes that King Harold II was buried at the altar sometime after the battle. However his body was moved on several occasions when the church was rebuilt.

In the 18th century his coffin ended up in the cellar of a local town house, whose owner liked to take his guests to have a drink round it. When the house burnt down, the coffin inside, which was made of lead, melted. Today visitors can pay their respects to the last Saxon King at a memorial stone in the graveyard at Waltham Abbey Church.

Shows a photograph of Waltham Abbey Church.

Waltham Abbey Church where visitors can see the tomb of Harold, the last Saxon King. Photo: Helen Demay. Courtesy of Epping Forest Museum

To find out more about the BBC television series visit the BBC Programme Archive.

Read more Battlefield Britain trails on Culture24

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