Harold had positioned his 7000 strong Anglo-Saxon army on the high ground at the top of a ridge. His army fought on foot and formed a defensive shield wall many men deep to counter the charge of the Norman cavalry.
Duke William's 7000 men of Normans, Bretons and Flemish were formed in three sections of infantry and there was also a contingent of Norman cavalry. They faced the Anglo-Saxons up the hill that had a steep gradient.
The positioning of the Anglo-Saxon troops at the top of the hill gave them a distinct advantage. Not only did it give them a bird’s eye view of the battlefield, but also a physical advantage as the onus was on the Norman army to meet the shield wall and break through it after an arduous uphill climb. Even the Norman cavalry had to fight uphill!
At the beginning of the battle at approximately 9am, the tactics of Harold and William were simple. Harold’s shield wall had to stand firm and not break, whereas William had to breakthrough the wall.
The initial Norman assault of infantry failed miserably and so did the first cavalry charge. It was during this first cavalry charge led by William at the head of his Mathilda squadron that a rumour spread that William had been unseated and killed. His horse had been killed, but William survived with a few bruises and made it back amongst his men. After mounting his second horse of the day, William had to raise his visor to show his face to his men and prove he was alive.
|The steep hill of Senlac Ridge|
William’s first piece of luck occurred in the next phase of the battle. The Anglo-Saxon shield wall was holding firm and the Norman left flank was taking such a beating that the Flemish infantry fell and back and began to run down the hill. Approximately 1000 Anglo-Saxons saw that they were winning and ran down the hill to chase the fleeing Flemish. William quickly saw an opportunity and sent his cavalry to encircle the marauding Anglo-Saxons and trapped them between the Norman lines and the cavalry. This breakout from the wall left it severely weakened and encouraged William to mount another assault.
The second major assault also met fierce resistance and ended with severe losses to the Norman troops. It was at this point at about 1pm that modern military strategists believe that Harold should have forced home his advantage and moved the shield wall down the hill about 50 yards. This action would have been totally demoralising to the Normans’ as they were no nearer breaking through the shield wall. To see it advancing toward them may have broken their resolve. It is now believed that Harold chose to remain static as he was receiving small numbers of reinforcements during the battle. He firmly believed that the Northern army promised by Earl Morkere and Earl Edwin would arrive during the battle. A few more thousand men would have changed the outcome of the battle, but as we now know, it never arrived.
However, William was not to know this, so his initial objective remained the same; he had to breakthrough the shield wall before any Anglo-Saxon reinforcements arrived or the battle would be lost and with it the English crown. He employed a two-pronged attack that would win him the day. William’s archers were running out of arrows, but he insisted on one last salvo to be timed at a precise moment. William instructed his archers to aim at the shield wall just as his infantry would meet it simultaneously. The Anglo-Saxons could raise their shield to defend a falling arrow, but not keep it against their body to defend a thrusting sword at the same time. This tactic was executed perfectly and the shield wall began to falter.
The next phase of the Norman attack involved the cavalry crashing through the weakest point of the shield wall therefore causing panic amongst the Anglo-Saxons. It was during this phase in the fighting that Harold was probably killed and the battle won.
Although William did receive a certain amount of good fortune during the battle, it could be argued that he employed the more creative tactics. William was mounted on a horse during the battle and had a good view of the battle as it took place, whereas Harold’s view was restricted to looking over and around the soldiers in front of him.
|Battle Abbey as it stands today|