This Week in History

The Battle of Hastings (9-17 Oct)

Click on Essential Norman Conquest for a day-by-day reconstruction of the days between William’s landing at Pevensey on 28 September and his victory at Hastings. This website includes animated maps, 360 degree panoramas of the battlescene, 3D Norman and Saxon soldiers and 11th century soundbites.

Further reading

Essential Histories 12: Campaigns of the Norman Conquest (extract below) places the battle in its full historical context.

Campaign 13: Hastings 1066 (Revised Edition)  describes the campaign and battle in greater detail.

Warrior 1: Norman Knight AD 950–1204 explores the recruitment, training and lifestyle of the invaders.

Men-at-Arms 85: Saxon, Viking and Norman examines the equipment and lifestyle of the defenders.

Elite 9: The Normans expands on the crucial and formative effect that the Normans had on Britain and Europe.

An extract from Essential Histories 12: Campaigns of the Norman Conquest

The battle


The duke deployed his forces in the traditional three ‘battles’ (divisions) described by their regional affiliations. So, on his left flank were the Breton troops led by their count, Alan. In the centre were the Normans, and to the right his French allies. The front line was made up of bowmen, followed by footmen armed with spear and shield, then his cavalry were held in reserve. William needed to break up the shield-wall before sending in his knights.

At first, this seemed an unlikely result. Shooting uphill, the archers, together with some crossbowmen, saw their missiles either hit the shields of their enemies or sail over their heads. They then retired and allowed the spearmen to conduct the assault. The defending English sent down a barrage of missiles against them, described not as arrows (archers seem to have been mysteriously absent in their army) but as ’spears and weapons of every kind, murderous axes and stones tied to sticks’. The foot soldiers fell back in disorder, requiring the knights to charge up the hill. But William’s cavalry were equally ineffective against the determined English. The huscarls, with their two-handed axes, were capable of cutting through any armour and even of decapitating the knights’ horses. As a result, a general movement began to the rear, although the Bretons were blamed for starting the flight. As the left wing gave way the cry went up that William had been killed. Acting quickly to prevent a rout, the duke rode across the front of his army, his helmet raised to show his face, shouting that he would not be beaten. On the English right, many men raced downhill in pursuit of the Bretons.

Whether this was an intentional pursuit or not is uncertain, but once on the lower ground and in disorder, they found themselves counter-attacked and cut down by enemy cavalry. Some scrambled up to the top of a hillock (which can still be seen on the battlefield today) where they were surrounded and neutralised or killed.

This incident seems to have given William an idea as to how he could win the battle: by sending his cavalry against the hill and then withdrawing as if afraid. Norman sources describe two of these feigned flights which weakened the English line. As men left the shield-wall and rushed down the hill in pursuit, they were then counter-attacked on the level ground, surrounded and killed. The result of this tactic was that there were no longer enough defenders to cover the top of the ridge. As evening approached, Harold was struck in the eye by an arrow (although it was two generations later that a historian first attributed this to the duke’s ordering the archers to shoot high into the air). The English faltered, and the mounted knights drove their tired horses into gaps in the shield-wall, cutting down the defenders, Harold amongst them. The king’s death precipitated a rout and, apart from a rearguard action at a still unidentified site (‘The Malfosse’), the battle was over. A twelfth-century tradition has it that William vowed to build a monastery on the site, placing the high altar at the spot where Harold fell. This thank-offering to God became known as Battle Abbey, the ruins of which still stand on the hill.

Sekigahara (17-23 October)

Further reading

The battle is described in detail in Campaign 40: Sekigahara 1600 The Final Struggle for Power and placed fully in the context of the 150 years of war that it brought to a close in Essential Histories 46: War in Japan 1467-1615, (extract below). An earlier major clash of between rival samurai, which extended to five battles over 11 years, is vividly chronicled in Campaign 130: Kawanakajima 1553-64 Samurai power struggle (published next month).

An Extract from Essential Histories 46: War in Japan 1467-1615

The triumph of the Tokugawa


Following the successful outcome of the siege of Odawara in 1590, Tokugawa Ieyasu was granted the Hojo territories in fief, and moved his capital to Edo. The distance of his domains from Kyushu allowed him to avoid service during the invasion of Korea - a futile and bloody war that sapped the strength of many of his contemporaries. The invasion had ended when Hideyoshi died in the manner that all dictators dread, leaving his infant son Toyotomi Hideyori to inherit newly unified Japan. The


who had survived or avoided the decimation of the Korean War then divided into two armed camps and fought each other at the famous battle of Sekigahara in 1600. On one side was a coalition under the command of Ishida Mitsunari, who supported the cause of the infant Hideyori. They were called the Western Army. Opposing them was Tokugawa Ieyasu, who believed that only he had the resources to manage the newly unified empire. His supporters were called the Eastern Army, and they marched towards Osaka from Edo.

Great danger was caused for Ieyasu when his son Hidetada was delayed at Ueda, one of several sieges that took place as the two sides tried to capture each other's castles, but the final outcome of the contest was decided not by a siege but by an epic field encounter in a narrow valley through which ran the Nakasendo road. The battle of Sekigahara proved to be one of the most decisive battles in Japanese history. Ishida Mitsunari advanced his army to block Ieyasu's advance towards Kyoto and Osaka, and the issue was settled with much bloodshed.

When the fighting commenced that foggy October morning, Ieyasu's vanguard advanced under Fukushima Masanori and Ii Naomasa. The latter led his 'Red Devils', so?called because of their red?lacquered armour, who first moved against the troops of Ukita Hideie, and then switched their attack to the Shimazu of Satsuma. The outcome of the battle was very much in the balance until Kobayakawa Hideaki (one of Ishida Mitsunari's best generals) dramatically changed sides in favour of the Tokugawa and attacked the western contingent nearest to his position. This was the turning point in the struggle. Ishida Mitsunari tried to hold firm, but the Shimazu pulled back and, as the Western Army began to withdraw, the Shimazu began a gallant rearguard action. The pursuing Ii bore the main brunt of their brave and stubborn endeavour. When contingents of the Western Army were seen withdrawing, Tokugawa Ieyasu ordered a general advance. Up to that point he had not worn his helmet, but with the words 'After a victory tighten your helmet cords,' he completed his arming and followed his troops to victory. Ishida Mitsunari was captured alive, and his castle at Sawayama was burned to the ground.