1066 and Warfare

Today, 14 October, marks 950 years since the Battle of Hastings and the Norman Conquest. 1066 saw a pivotal change for England and Western Europe, changing the course of our history forever. To celebrate the 950th anniversary, the Royal Armouries is hosting a special out-of-hours lecture and two day conference at the Tower of London – 1066: Interpreting the Norman Conquest in 2016.

The conference aims to present the huge changes that have taken place in the interpretation of the Norman Conquest, over the last fifty years in particular, bringing together distinguished scholars who are specialists in many fields. The conference will focus on both the history of the year 1066 itself and on the general significance of the Conquest for English, British, and French history.

In this special guest blog, Professor (Emeritus) John Gillingham, London School of Economics and Political Science, who will be speaking on day one of the conference, discusses the Battle of Hastings itself and warfare in 1066 and the questions we still have to answer…

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1066 is a year like no other in English history. During its course, both York and London surrendered to an invader and two kings were killed in battle. War is at the heart of the story, and the historian of warfare is extraordinarily fortunate for the amazing survival of the Bayeux Tapestry, which offers a uniquely wide range of vivid scenes.

We see castle warfare in France.

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We see – in some ways, most extraordinary of all – the routine of gathering supplies for a great army; logistical business too mundane to be described in written sources.

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We see the landing at Pevensey; men and horses disembarking.

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We see the invaders foraging and ravaging.

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We see, of course, the Battle of Hastings itself: Norman cavalry against English shield wall.

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We also catch glimpses of the horror of battle, for men and horses alike.

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And, perhaps most signifcant of all, we see the battle’s climax: the death of King Harold. But how exactly was he killed?

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And finally, as the tapestry breaks off, no longer complete, we see the English break in flight.

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But what happened afterwards? Were prisoners taken or not? And if not, why not?

For all the Tapestry’s extraordinary vividness, these and many other questions remain. Even, most simply but still controversial, where exactly did the battle take place? And plenty more important questions too. How unusual was the scale of the slaughter that day? Was Hastings a typical ‘medieval’ battle? If, as is widely believed today, commanders usually tried to avoid battle – why were there three major engagements (Fulford Gate, Stamford Bridge and Hastings) within a few weeks in the autumn of 1066? If William, as the invader, wanted to bring a reluctant King Harold to battle, how did he manage it? Or did Harold also want a decisive battle? How important was the Norman cavalry? Did the Normans win because they were better trained and better equipped? Or was it just that on the day luck was in Duke William’s favour?

Professor (Emeritus) John Gillingham.

Biography

Professor (Emeritus) John Gillingham, London School of Economics and Political Science.

Specialisms

Medieval history: narrative sources, primarily in north-western Europe in the 11th to 13th centuries, as evidence for the perceptions and values that shaped war and politics.

Principal publications

From ‘Civilitas’ to Civility: Codes of Manners in Medieval and early Modern England, 2002
The English in the Twelfth Century. Imperialism, National Identity and Political Values (Woodbridge), 2000
Richard I, 1999
William II. The Red King, 2015
Christian Warriors and the Enslavement of Fellow Christians, 2011
Conquests, Catastrophe and Recovery. Britain and Ireland 1066-1485, 2014