Seven things you didn’t know about the Battle of Hastings

King Harold didn't die from an arrow in the eye, and six other curious facts

(Image credit: Spencer Arnold/Getty Images)

Nine hundred and fifty years ago today a bloody battle took place near the south coast of England to resolve a succession crisis after King Edward the Confessor died without leaving an heir.

King Harold of England had been elected to the throne by royal advisors, but Duke William of Normandy claimed the throne had been promised to him.

There was only one way to decide: fight!

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1. The Battle of Hastings didn't take place in Hastings

It took place in a field seven miles from Hastings. That spot grew, after being founded as the commemorative Battle Abbey in 1095, into the appropriately name town of Battle.

2. The battle took place over a working day, but did they have a lunch break?

The date of the battle – 14 October 1066 – was a Saturday, rather than a weekday. The English Anglo Saxon and French Norman clash lasted all day, starting at 9am and ending at dusk (which began at the 5pm sunset).

It is often suggested that a break for lunch may have taken place but there is absolutely no evidence to support this in accounts dating from that time. It’s possible that lulls in battle occurred and tactical decisions were made while dead bodies were cleared, but even that is pure speculation.

Many scholars now say that the notion that the Battle of Hastings had a lunch break came about because of Julian Rathbone's 1997 historical novel The Last English King. His fictionalised version of events subsequently leaked into the public consciousness as fact.

3. French archers ran out of arrows

According to historian Christopher Gravett, the battle began with Norman archers firing on the English, who had formed a protective "shield wall". The fact that the English army was composed almost entirely of infantry, with very few archers of their own, hampered the French attack because the Norman archers were unable to gather up arrows from the field to reuse.

4. The Normans won by pretending to be scared

Witness accounts suggest that the Normans pretended to run away in a tactic called “feigned flight” for which the ancient Norman armies are now well known.

The strategy tricked the English troops into breaking down their protective formation and heading after the “retreating” soldiers. Having opened themselves to attack, they were then cut down.

5. Did King Harold die from an arrow in the eye?

The first mention of an arrow in the eye killing King Harold was by a monk, Amatus of Montecassino, who in the 1080s wrote a history of the Normans. He was writing in Italy and scholars now believe he probably made it up. All those who fought on the actual battlefield made absolutely no mention of it.

An account by William of Malmesbury nearly 100 years later showed that the myth had come to be accepted as fact. Even the Bayeux Tapestry didn’t originally depict an arrow in the eye. Contemporary evidence shows that this was added in a 19th Century restoration.

6. Harold's army was split in two

Harold's army had two separate branches. Although the numbers of each are unknown, the army consisted of "housecarls" and "fyrdmen".

Housecarls were paid, highly trained full-time soldiers who would lead the charge from the frontline, while the fyrdmen were unpaid peasants and other land workers, drafted in to fight for their king.

According to historians, the Housecarls battled even after Harold's death, upholding their promise to fight until the very last man was killed.

7. William had a post-battle language problem

After the battle, William pushed north to London and was crowned king of England on Christmas day 1066. However, there was a significant language barrier between him and his subjects.

William was illiterate and could not speak English so changed the language of the court to French. The resulting change introduced hundreds of French words into English as the latter evolved into its modern form, with many still being used today.

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