Odd things happen during battle, and the Battle of Hastings was no exception. In fact, the battle was full of odd occurrences, including the way in which Harold died. But first things first.
William had had to trot out his cavalry sooner than he wanted, meaning while the battle was still raging. The Saxons were holding the high ground and doing a good job of making the Bretons and Normans march across a marsh to attack. This meant, of course, that a Breton-Norman retreat would naturally have to pass back across the same marsh. That is exactly what happened, of course, allowing the defending Saxons to inflict even more casualties on their opponents, much of it done with homemade slingshots and primitive missiles known as stones.
It was about this time, when things were going badly for the invaders, that the rumor began to circulate that William was dead. Who started it or spread it is immaterial really. Word began to spread through the lines that the leader, the claimant to the throne, was dead. (One can assume some skullduggery on the part of Saxon spies had some hand in this series of events.) The lines began to falter, and William took the extraordinary step of removing his helmet and riding up and down the lines, exhorting his men to keep on fighting for the glory of Normandy and for a new home, in England. Unbelievably, he completed this venture without being killed or even wounded. Inspired, his men fought on.
William had saved the battle so far, even though things continued to go badly for him. Could he save it again? His men were having absolutely no success in breaking through the Saxon Shield Wall, and the day was getting long. Desperate for some sort of breakout, he hit on the idea of a feigned retreat. Whether the infantry ever found out that it was to be sacrificed on the altar of military experimentation will perhaps never be known. What is known is that the attack was renewed, cavalry in tow, and then suspended, with the cavalry appearing to be in full flight to the rear.
The success so far of the Saxons in defending their land might have played some part in their rather rash decision to abandon their defensive positions and take part in what looked to be a rout. Whether Harold ordered this pursuit isn’t well documented and is, therefore, argued over by historians. What is known for certain is that the Saxons, who had stood on the high ground all day long and bled for every inch of their adopted home soil, threw down their defensive positions in favor of a full-tilt pursuit, charging down the hill after what they perceived to be Normans who had lost their nerve.
The cavalry, especially, and certain of the infantry then turned right round and began fighting anew. The Saxons, who were rushing pell-mell toward victory, suddenly found themselves on the brink of defeat. Without time to set up their defensive positions again, they were slaughtered where they stood, the Shield Wall being cut to pieces by marauding cavalry and newly inspired Breton infantry.
Not all of the Saxons had pursued, however, and Harold still held the high ground. It was getting very late in the day, and William would need a stroke of luck to gain his sought-after victory.