11 October 2016

1066 re-enacted

The14th October 2016 is the 950th Anniversary of the Battle of hastings (which was actually fought seven or so miles from Hastings at a place which, back then, was merely a nameless hillside meadow  bordered by thick woodland on one side and deep marsh on the other, and the track from the coast to London marcging up through it. 
Today, the place is called Battle...
The Place of Battle...
A Re-enactor's View of The Battle of Hastings 
    by re-enactor Man At Arms Phil Berry

I reenact 15th Century battles. The Hundred Years War, and War of the Roses etc. But as a Man at Arms, I'm interested in all historic combat, including that not insignificant Battle of Hastings, which took place quite near where I live! Until the advent of effective modern firearms, the basic elements, i.e. weapons and tactics, with occasional modifications, remained the  same.   While helping my Dark Age friends, at the annual 1066 Battle of Hastings re-enactment, I naturally take great interest in all things martial.

Saxon, Viking, and Norman re-enactors are scrupulous about their accurate living history standards, and the quality displayed in their camp set-up, and equipment, is very high.  On one occasion  my job was to assist my friends to don their mail hauburks, helmets, and weapons.  Armour has always been heavy, and mail armour is no exception. My friends in this instance carried a  heavy load. Their mail, depending on whether it was a full length hauburk, or a shirt, could  be as heavy as my 15th century plate armour ( 5/6 stones) when worn over a padded gambeson. A full length hauburk would need to be additionally supported at the waist, otherwise the full weight would be born on the shoulders of the warrior.

Next, belt on a sword, seax (long knife) and strap, so that his shield may be worn on his back if necessary. My Saxon friends bore kite shaped shields, in which respect they differed little from their Norman counterparts. There is some speculation that the few round shaped shields depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry may have been trophies from the recent victorious battle by the Saxons over the Vikings, at Stanford Bridge. So at this point, with heavy mail armour, shield, weapons (a spear is very handy too) and helmet, our warrior is going to know all about the uphill walk to the battlefield!

The photo of me, on a photo shoot for Pevensey Parish Council, representing a Saxon housecarl, with light mail (minus a gambeson - it was a very hot day on the beach!) 

photo shoot for Pevensey Parish Council
The second pic is of my friend Adrian Pinn, who is much more authentic, and is dressed appropriately as a Norman lord. He will be leading his men at the 1066 re-enactment. As you can imagine he is carrying considerable weight.

As part of the support team I wound my way up, with my friends, to the site of the re-enactment, below Battle Abbey, passing on the way a very impressive troop of Norman cavalry, resting under the trees. Half way up to the battlefield, on a small grassy knoll, a group of foot soldiers were engaged in practice swordplay (which held my attention for a bit!). A good ploy, if you work with an axeman, and the opposition has shields, is for him to hook a shield down with his axe, and expose the man behind to your sword, or spear.

Good move!
I blocked the Norman spear thrust, and had this been
 for real would have taken his arm off! 
So with my band of sweating soldiers, we emerged into the area that the public get to see - the battlefield, and living history encampment. Sited just below the abbey, and above the battlefield, the living history encampment is always a fascinating place to look around, so are the traders.

Given what I have already said about the heavy load of a warrior (or in this case a re-enactor) the Normans had to advance up the hillside to meet the Saxons which made this effort even harder. Not so bad for their cavalry though. Speaking to a Norman cavalry man, on a particularly wet and muddy occasion, I was surprised to learn that the slippery hillside presented no problem to him, as the horse's hooves sank into the mud, and gave it grip. Not so my shoes! I had been reading up on medieval cavalry prior to this occasion, and discovered that a warhorse in the medieval period was typically only 14 1/2 hands, which, I am told, by today's standards is pony height. What made it special was it's powerful, muscular build, and I saw a pair being led into the paddock, which fitted that description perfectly. I didn't have time to ask just then, but someone had obviously taken authenticity to a commendable length.

although the Exmoor
 is not the right height for 1066 mounts,
they do give an idea of the stocky, sure-footed mounts
used by the Norman cavalry
It is hard not to view the Battle of Hastings without preconceptions, except that I know that if we accept the Saxons occupied the high ground, there are self evident forms of attack the Normans must make. In order to show the Norman cavalry in action to the public, in the close confines required for a re-enactment, they normally make a frontal assault. This may work on level ground, but uphill, they  would take a lot of casualties trying to break through the Saxon shield wall, not least from spears and other missiles thrown with the advantage of being uphill, so it is unlikely. Given the fact that the battle lasted all day, I would say the Norman cavalry must have probed the Saxon flanks continuously, and repeatedly assaulted the shield wall on foot. The Saxons were famously lured into chasing the fleeing Normans (a feint) [Helen: I disagrees, I don't think it was a feint, I think they were fleeing - but William took advantage of it.] and thereby breaking ranks, and the Norman cavalry  exploited it. This may well have been the beginning of the end. [Helen: I don't agree with this either - more men would have been arriving during the day to re-inforce the shield wall] 

It  was a grueling battle, as evidenced by the fact that most later medieval battles were over in one to three hours, and this one took all day. Fighting in armour on foot is hard work. Even for the most skilled and fit. Three minutes of full-on effort against an opponent is taxing. It must have been one of the advantages of the shield  wall, that as long as it held, the effort was shared.

It is often said, that in a battle situation you must endeavour to kill your opponent in three moves, or risk being killed, whilst occupied, by one of his friends. But in truth the Norman advantage must have been the maneuverability of their cavalry, and the static formations of the Saxons.

The annual 1066 re-enactment is well worth seeing, and this year's event - October 15/16th - is the 1066 950th anniversary, so it should be special! 

(Titled I Am The Chosen King in the US)

Helen: unfortunately for the first time in about ten years I will not be there at Battle. Instead, I will be at Waltham Abbey for King Harold Day on 8th October (at the Museum in Sun Street) and on 14th October I will be celebrating the 950th anniversary live on Radio Devon with David FitzGerald!

Harold is crowned King
Halley's Comet
what if Hardrada had won?



  1. What a wonderful post - and how polite the disagreements as to what happened and why!

  2. Very interesting read. Thanks!

    Query; I thought the Housecarls used axes?

    1. I am may be wrong, but I assume that even amongst the Housecarls those wielding long hafted axes were specialists. In the shield wall it is possible to hold a shield, and also wield a sword, or spear. A long axe requires both hands. In the event of a Norman cavalry man actually getting close enough to use his lance, instead of coming into range, and throwing a spear, a long axe would be devastating to man and horse! On the Bayeux Tapestry long axe men are shown attacking Norman horsemen, but not in the shield wall. I'm sure that Housecarls were expert with the axe, as professional soldiers. I'm also sure they had many skills as Harold's elite troops. In my token Housecarl get-up I carry a shield, spear, sword, short axe, and seax. Probably enough to keep a Norman busy!

  3. May I weigh in for the retreat by the Bretons being a deliberate tactic. I base this on precedent. The Bretons were preeminent cavalry soldiers, skills learned from Sarmatian / Alan soldiers settled during the Roman period. The feigned retreat was already a decisive factor in a number of battles before Hastings.

    1. Thank you for this - how interesting! Harold was no fool, however, so surely he would have known of this tactic - hence his apparent determination to instil into his men the importance of standing firm - a pity they did not listen!

  4. I met a Viking reenactor in the Saxon camp at Battle yesterday. I mentioned something about making up the numbers, to which he replied that after the Viking defeat at Stamford Bridge, there is speculation that those still alive, and able to fight were offered money to join Harold's army as mercenaries. 5 or 6 hundred in fact. This makes sense, as they were here for what they could accrue, and it was better than death. However, it raises another question. Did they change sides when the going got tough, and swing the balance? It could have done, they were hard professional soldiers.

    1. Goodness Phil - that is SO interesting! Did William offer them more money I wonder...????

    2. I have always thought there was something more devious going on Helen. This sort of turncoat thing was certainly not unknown in the centuries to come among our own elite.


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