The Battle

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The Battle

Post by DIESEL on Fri Jun 12, 2009 11:33 am

William relied on a basic strategy with archers in the front rank weakening the enemy with arrows, followed by infantry which would engage in close combat, and finally culminating in a cavalry charge that would break through the English forces. However, his strategy did not work as well as planned. William's army attacked the English as soon as they were ready and formed up. The Norman archers opened fire with several volleys, but many of the arrows hit the shield wall and had very little effect. Believing the English to have been softened up, William ordered his infantry to attack. As the Normans charged up the hill, the English threw down whatever they could find: stones, javelins, maces. The barrage inflicted heavy casualties amongst the Norman ranks, causing the lines to break up.

The infantry charge reached the English lines, where hand-to-hand fighting of very heavy ferocity took place. William had expected the English to be faltering, but something was going wrong. The arrow barrage had little to no effect, and nearly all the English troops still stood, their shield wall intact. As a result, William had to order his cavalry charge far sooner than planned. Despite their careful breeding and training, faced with a wall of axes, spears and swords, many of the horses simply shied away. After about an hour of fighting, the Breton division on William's left faltered and broke completely, fleeing down the hill. Suffering heavy casualties, and realising they would be quickly outflanked, the Norman and Flemish divisions retreated along with the Bretons. Unable to resist the temptation, many of the English broke ranks, including hundreds of fyrdmen and Harold's brothers, Leofwyne and Gyrthe. In the following confused fighting, William's horse was killed from underneath him, and he toppled to the ground. Witnessing the apparent death of their leader, the Normans panicked and took to flight. However, William took off his helmet to show he was alive and rallied his army.

William and a group of knights attacked the pursuing, now dispersed English, who were no longer protected by the shield wall, and cut down large numbers of fyrdmen. Many did not recognise the Norman counter-attack until it was too late, but some did manage to scramble back up the hill to the safety of the housecarls; others, including Harold's brothers, were not so fortunate. The two armies formed up, and a temporary lull fell over the battle. William took advantage of this lull to ponder a new strategy. The Normans' near-rout had turned to William's advantage, since the English lost much of the protection provided by the shield wall. Without the cohesion of a disciplined, strong formation, the individual English were easy targets. Keeping this in mind, William launched his army at the strong English position yet again. What happened next is open to debate. Some historians state that the Normans attempted several feint retreats, but this seems unlikely, as it would have inflicted too heavy casualties and would have been very complicated to carry out. The strategy worked either way, and many of the English housecarls were killed.

With a large number of English fyrdmen now holding the front rank, the disciplined shield wall that the housecarls had maintained began to falter and this presented an interesting opportunity to William. At the start of the battle, William's bowmen had fired directly into the English force, and the hail of arrows was thus ineffective because of their shields. Though many on the front ranks still had shields, William ordered his archers to fire directly over the shield wall, so their arrows landed in the clustered rear ranks of the English army. The archers did this, and with great success. Legend states that it was at this point that Harold was hit in the eye by an arrow, though that is speculated from a scene in the Bayeux Tapestry. Many of the English were now weary, and lost the discipline of the shield wall. William's army attacked again, and managed to make small chinks in the shield wall. They were able to exploit these gaps, and the English army began to fragment. William and a handful of knights broke through the wall, and struck down the English king. Without their leader, and many of the nobles now killed, hundreds of fyrdmen fled the field. The housecarls kept their oath of loyalty to the king, and fought bravely until they were all killed.

The bodies were cleared from the battlefield, William's tent pitched and a celebratory dinner held. Though casualties are entirely speculative, it seems likely that around 5,000 English and 3,000 Normans were killed during the battle.[
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