Battle Part 2
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Part II




 

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The High Ground

he English being on the high ground had the advantage. The Saxon line was virtually untouched. The arrows had done little damage. William ordered his foot soldiers forward. The English now responded. Not only were traditional weapons used but anything that could be collected in the vicinity. This would include rocks and home made slingshots which were particularly effective on the higher ground which afforded extra range. The barrage was very effective and caused serious problems to William's men. Heavy casualties were inflicted on them and forced William to use his cavalry probably earlier than he wanted to. Ordering them to charge on the still intact shield wall, their tactics would have been to advance as close as possible and release their spears whilst turning back down the slope where a fresh spear could be collected. This was a difficult thing to achieve against a well drilled shield wall, especially on a slope as steep as this. Horses would have panicked or fallen under this onslaught by the Saxons who would have used their spears and axes to good advantage. The cavalry and infantry charges continued. The Saxons still held the upper hand. As hard as the Normans tried, they could not break down the shield wall. The use of the large Danish battle axe particularly came into its own on the cavalry. This weapon had the ability to bring down the rider and the horse with a single blow. The housecarls were particularly well trained in its use. By about 12:00, the Normans were feeling the effect of the Saxon tactics. The Bretons on the left were having a particularly difficult time. They began to retreat back down the hill. William saw this from his command post and realised that this left his rear vulnerable from a pincer movement. Panic was now beginning to trickle from left to right. William had to do something or the battle would soon be over and his claim to the English throne in tatters.

William Is Dead

rumour started to spread along the ranks that William had been killed. If this was so the battle would have been over. The panic was now widespread amongst the Normans. The Bretons were now in full retreat back down the hill. The Saxons followed in hot pursuit inflicting carnage on them. The Bretons were slowed down on the lower slopes by the stream and marshy ground below them. This allowed the Saxons to inflict more casualties on them.



No, I Am Not Dead

illiam made a bold decision. He decided to expose his face to his men to prove that he was still alive. Removing or lifting his helmet, he rode along the ranks that still existed to dispel the rumour. He was alleged to have reminded his men that there was no way back and that they were fighting for their lives. This seems to have had some effect. Odo seeing what was happening on the left flank, gathered up a number of his confused cavalry and rode to the area where the Saxons had advanced to. Seeing the horses advancing, they broke off battle and tried to return to their lines. The uphill trek was too far and they were cut down by the cavalry before they reached there. It is almost certain that this advance on the Saxon right was not sanctioned by Harold as it goes against all military strategy. He must have seen what was happening on the right and seems not to have taken up the challenge of a full frontal assault which would surely have defeated the Norman army. Harold's brothers Gyrth and Leofwin were possibly killed at this time. This is included in the Bayeux Tapestry. It may be they who ordered this counter attack and therefore paid the consequences.

Battlefield

Southern slope of the battlefield that would have been occupied by the Normans prior to battle. This photograph was taken about the same time of year as the conflict and in late afternoon



Everything Stops For Tea

hat happened next is not completely clear. It would seem that there must have been a lull in the fighting. The Normans had begun to retreat and the advance Saxon force had been destroyed. There must have been some form of air gap between the forces. This would have given time for both sides and especially William to regroup, re-arm and to take some food and drink. The absurdity of the whole situation is highlighted by this episode. The time would have been around 14:00. Harold knew that he could win this battle if he just held on until darkness. William cold not stay in the area all night and would have to retreat. Harold knew that retreat meant defeat for William. William very well understood this also. Apart from his right flank, Harold and his men were in very good shape. William must have been at his lowest ebb at this time. He had to think of a new tactic to break down the Saxon defences.

Feigned Retreat

illiam was rather stuck for ideas mostly because of the terrain. He could not try a flanking movement because of the trees and forest on either side. He was finding it difficult if not impossible to break the Saxon shield wall tactic, especially on a slope as steep as this. What he planned to do was to entice the Saxons forward using a tactic that has been discussed ever since. It has been called the "feigned retreat". Observing what had happened on his left flank with the Bretons. If he could simulate that, and draw the Saxons forward, he might have a chance. Many historians have debated whether such a thing can possibly be pre-arranged in the heat of battle. Usually those that have had any military experience say in can't. But the fact is that it was supposed to have been the deciding factor in this battle. The English lost, so something drastic must have gone dreadfully wrong with Harold's tactics. Whatever was the truth, this is the story that survived nearly a thousand years.

abbey Wall

This part of the abbey wall can be seen in the distance in photograph 1. It faces towards the Norman position and would have been about the location Harold's command post and standards.
 

Broken Ranks

illiam had to decide, if he was going to attempt the feigned retreat tactic. How could he draw the Saxons forward by giving the impression that it was a genuine retreat, and not what it actually was, a tactic.? To this end he resumed battle. His infantry advanced but with limited success. He had briefed his cavalry, who would be responsible for putting his plan into operation. There was no way his infantry could all have been informed of this plan and were probably used as cannon fodder to the overall picture. The cavalry advanced up the hill and engaged the Saxons and gave the impression that they were turning and running. How the Saxons came to this conclusion is still unclear in the melee. It must have been pre planned that they all turned away at the same time to make it seem as though some order to retreat had been given. Whatever the Norman cavalry did, it forced the Saxon army to break ranks and follow them down the slope. Another question surrounds whether Harold gave the command to pursue them or not. I have been very critical of Harold so far. If he did make this crucial decision, he could be accused of total stupidity. The true facts will never be known, only the result. The Saxon line broke and the Normans were followed down the hill. Many housecarls and fyrd were killed in their enthusiasm to finish the fight. Harold must have become very worried at this development.

The Archers

p until this stage in the late afternoon, things had been going very well for Harold but now were about to change. It is written that William used the feigned attack at least twice. Harold still held a reasonably strong position at the high point of the ridge. It was at this point that William risked everything. It was getting late, and the battle had to be concluded one way or another. William decided to use another plan. His archers who had run out of arrows in the early stages, were brought up close to the battle lines where they could collect their arrows. Firing over the heads of their own men so that they would land on the rear English lines, caused a number of casualties.

Harold Is Dead

t was at this point in the battle it is thought that a stray arrow killed or injured Harold by inflicting a wound in the eye. There is scant evidence to show that this is how Harold died. It is mainly taken from scene in the Bayeux Tapestry. The death of Harold soon spread amongst his men, causing derision. William ordered his infantry to stage a full frontal attack on the Saxon line. Fighting to the point of impossibility, the Saxons retreated up the hill and into the forest on the other side, possibly in the direction of London taking any horses that had been withdrawn for safety. The battlefield was littered with the dead and injured of both sides and Norman horses. The Saxon line was now broken. All that was left was a mopping up operation and the Kings housecarls who were prepared to continue the fight. They valiantly surrounded their dead or dying king and with their battle-axes and swords, fought almost to the last man, as was their tradition. The Normans finally broke through where they saw the King lying. A knight run his sword through his thigh or decapitated his leg. This so infuriated William that he stripped him of his knighthood and threw him out of the army. The ridge was captured. William had won against all the odds.

The Malfosse Incident

here remains one incident that occurred after the main battle had finished. It is known as the Malfosse incident. It was becoming late in the afternoon and it was beginning to darken, so around 17:30, when in pursuit of fleeing Saxons they encountered a number of Saxons who obviously had not been involved in the battle but had arrived later. It would appear that these men taunted the Normans into charging them. If they chose where to stand beforehand it was a good choice because it was behind an invisible ditch or pit, which later became known as the Malfosse or evil pit. Many of the horses and men tumbled into this pit where presumably they were finished off by the Saxons. This was a side issue that would have made no difference to the overall outcome of the battle. By 18:30 it would have been too dark to proceed with rounding up any more Saxons. The injured had to be tended and the dead buried. The Malfosse incident is strange because nobody has been able to locate its position or confirm that it ever really happened at all. Harold's Standards of the Fighting Man and the Red Dragon were captured and sent to the Pope in Rome.
 


t was not the end - but the start of a new beginning for England.


Battle Part 1

Re-enactment

Battlefield

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copyright Glen Ray Crack - Battle - East Sussex - United Kingdom
Submitted 10th January 1998
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