In the summer of 1066 William of Normandy made preparations for the attack on England. To make sure he had enough Normans to defeat Harold, he asked the men of Poitou, Burgundy, Brittany and Flanders to help. William also arranged for soldiers from Germany, Denmark and Italy to join his army. In exchange for their services, William promised them a share of the land and wealth of England. William also managed to enlist the support of the Pope in his campaign to gain the throne of England.
William also had to arrange the building of the ships to take his large army to England. About 700 ships were ready to sail in August but William had to wait a further month for a change in the direction of the wind.
On 1st October Harold was celebrating his victory over King Hardrada at a banquet in York when he heard that William of Normandy had landed at Pevensey Bay. King Harold immediately assembled the housecarls who had survived Stamford Bridge and marched south. He travelled at such a pace that many of his troops failed to keep up with him. When Harold arrived in London on 5th October and there he waited for the local fyrd to assemble and for the troops of the Earl of Mercia and the Earl of Northumbria to arrive from the north.
Harold's brother, Gyrth, offered to lead the army against William, pointing out that as king he should not risk the chance of being killed. Harold rejected the advice and after five days Harold decided to head for the south coast without his northern troops.
When Harold realised he was unable to take William by surprise he positioned himself at Senlac Hill near Hastings. Harold selected a spot that was protected on each flank by marshy land. At his rear was a group of trees. He further strengthened his position with a ditch and a palisade. The English housecarls provided a shield wall at the front of Harold's army. They carried large battle-axes and were considered to be the toughest fighters in Europe.
The fyrd were placed behind the housecarls. The leaders of the fyrd, the thegns had swords and javelins but the rest of the men were inexperienced fighters and carried weapons such as iron-studded clubs, scythes, slings, reaping-hooks and hay-forks.
We have no accurate figures of the number of soldiers who took part in the Battle of Hastings. Historians have estimated that William had 5,000 infantry and 3,000 knights while Harold had about 2, 500 housecarls and over 6,000 members of the fyrd. Before the fighting started William spoke to his men reminding them they had never lost a battle under his command.
Stage 1: At nine in the morning the Norman archers walked up the hill and when they were about a 100 yards away
from Harold's army they fired their first batch of arrows. Using their shields, the housecarls were able to block most of this attack. The Norman infantry then charged up the hill.
Stage 2: The English held firm and the Normans were forced to retreat. Members of the fyrd broke ranks and chased after the Bretons. William ordered his cavalry to attacked the English who had left their positions on Senlac Hill. English losses were heavy and very few managed to return to their place at the top of the hill.
Stage 3: At about twelve noon there was a break in the fighting for an hour. This gave both sides a chance to remove the dead and wounded from the battlefield. William, who had originally planned to use his cavalry when the English retreated decided to change his tactics. At about one in the afternoon he ordered his archers forward.
This time he told them to fire higher in the air. The change of direction of the arrows caught the English by surprise. The arrow attack was immediately followed by a cavalry charge. Casualties on both sides were heavy. Those killed included Harold's two brothers, Gyrth and Leofwine. However, the English line held and the Normans were eventually forced to retreat. The fyrd, this time chased the Flemings down the hill. William of Normandy ordered his knights to turn and attack the men who had left the line. Once again the English suffered many casualties.
Stage 4: William decided to take another rest. He had lost a quarter of his cavalry. Many horses had been killed and the ones left alive were exhausted. William decided that the knights should dismount and attack on foot. This time all the Normans went into battle together. The archers fired their arrows and at the same time the knights and infantry charged up the hill.
Stage 5: It was now four in the afternoon. Heavy English casualties from previous attacks meant that the front line was shorter. The Normans could now attack from the side. The few housecarls that were left were forced to form a small circle round the English standard. The Normans attacked again and this time they broke through the shield wall and Harold and most of his housecarls were killed.
Stage 6: With their king dead, the fyrd saw no reason to stay and fight and retreated to the woods behind. The Normans chased them into Malfosse Wood but suffered further casualties themselves when they were ambushed by the English.
The next day Harold's mother, Gytha, sent a message to William of Normandy offering him the weight of the king's body in gold if he would allow her to bury it. He refused, declaring that Harold should be buried on the shore of the land which he sought to guard.