Most of us are somewhat familiar with an ancient battle in England, in 1066; the Battle of Hastings. Very few of us know what actually happened there so many years ago. The battle took place on the 14th of October, 1066, but it never happened at Hastings! The battle to rule England occurred at Senlac Hill, a few miles away. Nobody knows where Senlac Hill is, but there happens to be an abbey at Hastings, so it was given the more easily recognizable place-name.
To set the stage, England was ruled by Harold II, Harold Godwinson, the last Saxon king of England. I use the term “King of England” loosely, because there was no united English realm at this time. Scotland, Wales, and Ireland weren’t yet part of what today is known as the United Kingdom. Landing with his army to give a go at defeating Harold, was William, the Duke of Normandy-that same Normandy which features so prominently in World War II. William was of Norse (Viking) descent, as was Harold. The English like to claim that it was the only time that their island kingdom was successfully invaded, but that’s not true; Celts, Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Romans and Norse all invaded in their time. All brought archers with them, by the way.
No one knows for certain what types of bows were available to these invaders, but since all their territories were once part of the Roman Empire, which employed many mercenaries from among the conquered lands, the bows would have ranged from self bows all the way to Asiatic composite bows. Certainly these different types of bows would have been known in Harold’s time, as well as in William’s lands. It doesn’t really matter which type of bows were at the battle though. It’s sufficient to know that an arrow felled the mighty Harold late in the afternoon.
Back then, battles almost never lasted past sundown, and whoever still held the field at the end of the day won the fight. Harold and his “housekarls”, his warriors, were on the top of Senlac Hill protected by their great shield-wall, and had done a very good job of keeping the Normans at bay. late in the afternoon, wanting to see how much light was left-it’s Fall, and the days were shorter-Harold pushed back his helmet and stole a glance at the sun to gauge how much time before sundown was left.
Armor of the time provided protection from arrows fired from a distance-for the most part-but not from a close-in shot. Helmets of the era were certainly up to the task of easily deflecting arrows falling from the sky, but they had to be correctly positioned on the body to do this. By pushing his helmet back and looking upward, Harold exposed his face-if only for a moment-to a falling arrow. As he glanced upward, a descending arrow struck him in the eye and felled the king. And as we all know, William of Normandy became William the Conqueror.
And here’s how that one arrow changed history for us: William of Normandy spoke what today is known as French. When he became king, he imposed French rule, French customs regarding feudalism, and most importantly, French language on what prior to his invasion, was essentially a Germanic-speaking people. If you look at the English language even today, you’ll notice many similarities between English and French. Many or our words are interchangeable, with just the addition of a little French accent. Words like accord, approach, battle, saint, tradition, amiable, liaison and a host of others. The English syntax is the same, similar to today’s German, but the vocabulary is different in many ways
In terms of warfare, this battle also showed the value of a combined force rather than a single force composed mostly of infantry, a lesson the English had forgotten since Roman times. Even though it was a lucky break as far as William was concerned, it was still a single archer who determined the outcome of the war, and changed the makeup of the western world.
Next, another King of England falls to an arrow (well, a crossbow bolt, actually), and the beginnings of the Hundred Years’ War.
Contributed by Jerry Griffin, Adjunct Lecturer for Medieval History, University of California, Davis. I rotated between teaching and acting as the Senior Adviser to Undergraduate Admissions.