Battle of Hastings, The Finale


The Battle of Hastings had raged on for most of the day, and Harold and the Saxon defenders still held the high ground, despite repeated attempts by William and his Normans and Bretons and others to shake the Shield Wall. Even a feigned retreat and subsequent pursuit that resulted in Saxon slaughter couldnt shake Harolds determination to keep his crownand his kingdom.

As it has been seen, not all of the Saxon defenders broke ranks and pursued the feigned pursuit; these Saxons stood their ground and still held their ground and still followed Harolds orders. With the Sun setting and the situation even more desperate, William called for his archers to loose another round of arrows, in the vain hope that something wild and unanticipated might occur. Such are the whimsical (and, for some, tragic) twists of fate that one of the arrows launched in this volley struck Harold squarely in the eye, killing him instantly and shattering what remaining confidence his men had in being able to win out the day. (It should be said here that not all historians agree on whether this is how Harold died. The main evidence, of course, is the depiction of said occurrence on the Bayeux Tapestry. Other historical accounts make mention of Harolds death, of course, but the evidence to support the conclusion is scant.)

So Harold has fallen dead and his men have lost their nerve. What is left? The Saxon defenders broke ranks and retreated, some more orderly than others. Seeing this, William ordered another full frontal assault from the infantry; this one was successful, driving the Saxons back into the trees at the top of the hill and making them martyrs for the cause of their independence from foreign rule. Pockets of resistance were successful at standing and fighting, as miniature Shield Walls did some damage to the finally advancing Normans and Bretons. But without Harold to rally them, the Saxon troops were doomed to defeat.

William, for his part, kept the victory noble. A small body of Saxons rallied around their king (who was either dead or dying at this point), standing to the last man in defense of their leader. When this desperate defense was crushed, William ordered Harolds body treated with respect. This order was not followed, so intent were the victors on relishing the spoils of their triumph. One soldier who disobeyed and rashly thrust his spear through Harolds leg was stripped of his weapon, his armor, and his title and sent packing, never to follow orders from William again. The new king intended to press his claim to the throne in dignity.

He was disappointed in this endeavor at the moment, though, because Harolds body had been mutilated almost beyond recognition. The following day, Harolds longtime mistress identified the body, and William had it transported into his own ranks, there to receive a proper burial. Historians conclude that William had not real hatred for Harold but rather a disdain for his political choices.

But as with other episodes in this saga, it was not easy in this for William, either, as Harolds mother came forward, demanded, and got her sons body back, so she could bury him herself. An exasperated William agreed and went to look after his beleagured army.