By Stephen Morillo
The Haskins Society Journal, Vol. 2 (1990)
Introduction: Historians have refought the battle of Hastings regularly since the days of Freeman and Round, and its importance justifies the attention paid it. Part of the reason academic warriors have covered the ground so often is that the battle is by no means easy to understand. It was unusual in a number of ways; so unusual, that the battle demands special care in interpretation. Hastings must be placed in broader context of medieval military history than it sometimes has been. Only thus can we see the unusual features of the battle clearly and understand better what the battle ‘means’.
Hastings was unusual. It was unlike the vast majority of medieval battles (and, in fact, most ancient and early modern battles) in three major ways. First, it was unusually long. We are told that fighting lasted from ‘the third hour of the day until dusk,’ at least nine hours. It is difficult to find more than a handful of ancient and medieval battles that last more than hour or two. Tinchebrai, the other great battle in Anglo-Norman history, was decided fairly quickly, for example; in about an hour, according to one source. In fact, it is hard to find a longer battle until well into the age of gunpowder.
The length of the battle reflects the second unusual feature: how hard and evenly matched the fighting was. Two phases of the battle stand out in this respect. First, both armies came close to breaking fairly early in the day. The Normans, believing William dead, fell into a general panic after the failure of their first attacks. William, baring his head, rallied them and led a counterattack on those Saxon who had pursued. Now it was the Saxons turn to hold steady despite this setback. Thus passed the moment when most battles would have been won – one side panics and flees, or one side panics, rallies, and the other side breaks. At Hastings neither side broke, for even the Saxons’ final collapse was not sudden and panic-stricken but grudgingly slow and stubborn.