October 14 dawned early, with armies prepping for battle on Caldbec Hill and the surrounding area beneath. Harold had made no formal attempts to diplomatize with William, perhaps assuming that such attempts would have been futile. Battle, it seemed, was the only recourse. William’s troops had been arriving for a few days; Harold, on the other hand, had rushed to the scene, fresh from his victory over the Norwegians at Stamford Bridge.
Rushing seemed to be in his nature, as is illustrated by his decision to force the issue by camping very near William’s positions by October 13 and by basically starting the fight the next day, before all of his forces had arrived. This decision of Harold has been debated for centuries: If he had waited, would his reinforcements have arrived in time to make a difference; if he had waited, would more innocent civilians have died at the hands of William’s invaders; if he had waited, would more Normans have arrived to have tipped the scales the other way? Fascinating What-ifs like this fill the history books. The facts of the matter are that Harold forced the fight with an inferior force.
Harold watched William’s force march from their positions out to what would become the battlefield, then marched out to meet them. It wasn’t a direct confrontation, however, because Harold still held a slight edge by positioning his troops on ground elevated from William’s positions. Greeting Harold’s Saxon troops on the battlefield was a combined force of Flemish, Bretons, and Normans. William had a dedicated archer force, as well as the vaunted cavalry. The Saxons had neither.
Such a deficit proved to be not so much trouble, at least as far as the archers were concerned. The Saxons had seen archers before, even though they didn’t employ any of their own. The first Norman barrage of arrows did a bit of damage but mainly clanged off the vaunted Saxon shield wall. More arrows flew, more shields were raised, and the archers soon ran out of arrows; because they were in the front lines, these archers now had to turn on the defensive in the face of a Saxon army assault. Seeing this, William ordered his cavalry into action, with the intent of breaking up the shield wall with a hard charge and spear thrust maneuver. The well-trained Saxons, however, held their ground and forced William to reconsider his battle plans. So far, Harold had maintained the upper hand (and the high ground). Was William on the verge of defeat before he had really gotten started?