Famously misnamed (the conflict actually took place six miles north-west in the small town of Battle), the battle of Hastings, fought on 14 October 1066, is the most famous date in English history. The decisive defeat and death of England’s King Harold II by the forces of Duke William II of Normandy marked the transition of the kingdom from Saxon to Norman rule.
The political background to the battle began in January 1066, when King Edward the Confessor died childless, leaving a power vacuum that was filled by three rival claimants to the throne.
In London, Harold Godwinson was crowned king by his own Saxon peers, but his outlawed brother Tostig allied with King Harald Hardrada of Norway to stake a Viking claim. Meanwhile, Duke William assembled a fleet in the bay of the Seine and awaited for a favourable wind to transport his troops across the Channel.
A war on two fronts
Harold defeated and killed Hardrada and Tostig and was resting his exhausted army in York when he heard that William had landed his forces at Pevensey in East Sussex.
Harold marched his weary army south, and a week later lined them astride a long ridge known as Senlac Hill to confront the invaders. Both armies were fielding around 7,000 men each, but if the English held the higher ground, William had the advantage of having both cavalry and trained archers to augment his infantry, while the English fought only on foot.
Walking the battlefield
Visiting this famous battle site today is a memorable experience. Start with a stroll around the spectacular and partially ruined Battle Abbey, which William was ordered to build by Pope Alexander II as penance for killing so many people in the battle. Its high altar is said to mark the spot where Harold fell.
Here, you’ll be able to enjoy an informative exhibition in the visitor centre, complete with interactive displays that tell the story of the battle, before heading out into the battlefield itself. Walking the same land the two armies marched is a moving and atmospheric experience, and if you wish to find out more while on foot, you can enjoy an audio guide as you go.
Repelling the charge
The Normans repeatedly charged uphill, but were dashed against the seemingly invincible Saxon shield wall. As the casualties fell – “soiled with their own gore” according to a contemporary chronicle – the English were lured to their doom when they broke ranks to pursue the Normans downhill as the invaders feigned a panic flight.
King Harold’s bodyguards, the Housecarls, fought to the end with their fearsome giant axes, but after their king was killed – by an arrow to the eye according to the Bayeux Tapestry – English resistance finally crumbled. The day-long battle had cost 2,000 Norman lives, and twice as many English. Harold’s hacked body, identified by his mistress, Edith the Fair, by “certain intimate marks” was buried at Waltham Abbey in Essex.
The battlefield is now owned by English Heritage, which runs regular guided tours around the battleground and abbey from the visitor centre. There are also a number of walks that take in the surrounding countryside.
HOW TO GET THERE
Battle lies on the A2100, seven miles north-west of Hastings. The town’s railway station has train services to Hastings and London Charing Cross, and there are buses to Hastings, Hawkhurst, Bexhill-on-Sea
and Tunbridge Wells.
FIND OUT MORE
High Street, Battle TN33 0AD
Open 10am-5pm daily until
3 Nov, then 10am-4pm from
4 Nov-16 Feb 2014. Adults £7.80, children £4.70, concession £7, family £20.30.
17 High Street, Battle
The Netherfield Arms
Netherfield Road, Battle
The PowderMills Hotel
Powdermill Lane, Battle