On September 28, 1066, William of Normandy, bent on asserting by arms his right to the English crown, landed unopposed at Pevensey. On hearing the news, the Saxon King Harold, who had just destroyed the Norwegian Viking army under King Harald Hardråde at the Battle of Stamford Bridge in Yorkshire, hurried southward, gathering what forces he could on the way. He took up his position, athwart the road from Hastings to London, on Senlac Hill some six miles inland from Hastings, with his back to the great forest of Anderida (the Weald) and in front of him a long glacis-like slope, at the bottom of which began the opposing slope of Telham Hill. The town called Battle in the modern county of East Sussex was named to commemorate this event.
The English army was composed almost entirely of infantry, and had just been through two forced marches and a battle. The shire levies, for the most part destitute of body armour and with miscellaneous and even improvised weapons, were arranged on either flank of Harold's guards (huscarles), picked men armed principally with the Danish axe and shield.
Before this position Duke William appeared on the morning of October 14. His host, composed not only of his Norman vassals but of barons, knights and adventurers from all quarters, was arranged in a centre and two wings, each corps having its archers and arbiasters in the front line, the rest of the infantry in the second and the heavy armoured cavalry in the third. Neither the arrows nor the charge of the second line of footmen, who, unlike the English, wore defensive mail, made any impression on the English standing in a serried mass behind their interlocked shields.
Then the heavy cavalry came on, led by the duke and his brother Odo, and encouraged by the example of the minstrel Taillefer, who rode forward, tossing and catching his sword, into the midst of the English line before he was pulled down and killed. All along the front the cavalry came to close quarters with the defenders, but the long powerful Danish axes were as formidable as the halbert and the bill proved to be in battles of later centuries, and they lopped off the arms of the assailants and cut down their horses.
The fire of the attack died out and the left wing (Bretons) fled in rout. But as the levies broke out of the line and pursued the Bretons down the hill in a wild, formless mob, William's cavalry swung round and destroyed them, and this suggested to the duke to repeat deliberately what the Bretons had done from fear. Another advance, followed by a feigned retreat, drew down a second large body of the English from the crest, and these in turn, once in the open, were ridden over and slaughtered by the men-at-arms.
Lastly, these two disasters having weakened the defenders both materially and morally, William subjected the huscarles, who had stood fast when the fyrd broke its ranks, to a constant rain of arrows, varied from time to time by cavalry charges. The huscarles endured the trial for many hours, from noon till close on nightfall; but at last, when the Norman archers raised their bows so as to pitch the arrows at a steep angle of descent in the midst of the huscarles, the strain became too great. While some rushed forward alone or in twos and threes to die in the midst of the enemy, the remainder stood fast, too closely crowded almost for the wounded to drop.
At last Harold received a mortal wound, supposedly pierced through the eye by an arrow. The English began to waver, and the knights forced their way in. Only a remnant of the defenders made its way back to the forest; and William, after resting for a night on the hardly-won ground, began the work of the Norman Conquest.
Battle Abbey was built at the site of the battle, and a plaque marks the place where Harold fell.
The Bayeux Tapestry depicts the events before and at the Battle of Hastings.