Hastings Battlefield Britain


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Hastings

Peter and Dan Snow on the battles that shaped our nation, using state-of-the-art graphics. The story of the turbulent events culminating in the Battle of Hastings in 1066.


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A thousand years ago

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on this patch of land in England two great armies clashed.

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Over 15,000 soldiers from England and France fought a bloody struggle

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over one of the greatest prizes in Europe - the throne of England.

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The battle lasted only one day, but it was to change the face of Britain for ever.

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It took place just down there.

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It was a fight to the death between Harold, the Saxon,

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and William, the Norman, and it led to a cultural revolution in Britain.

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Together with my son Dan, I've come to one of the most famous battlefields in Britain

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to find out exactly what happened.

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It was an amazing day. The whole of Britain's history went down a different path.

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I'll be analysing the tactics the two commanders used

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and what it was that finally swung the battle.

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And I'll be finding out for myself what it was like for the Saxon and Norman soldiers

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who had to fight it out hand to hand on the front line.

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We'd just pick up anything, anything we could, to hurl down,

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axes, spears, javelins, rocks.

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For the soldiers, this battlefield was the scene

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of one of the bloodiest and most fiercely fought struggles on British soil.

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It ended with the annihilation of the brightest and best of Saxon England

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and it crushed the spirit of a nation.

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For the leaders, Harold, King of England and William, Duke of Normandy,

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this final showdown had been brewing for years.

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This was a battle between two of the most formidable commanders in our history,

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two men fighting for one throne.

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The year was 1066 and it was the Battle of Hastings.

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In 1066 the crown of England was as vulnerable as at any time in its history.

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Anglo-Saxon England was one of the wealthiest countries in the whole of Europe.

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Some of the most ambitious men in Europe had their eyes on its throne.

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In January that year, there was only one thing the people of England were talking about...

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Who would be their next king?

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The man currently holding the crown, Edward the Confessor, was on his deathbed.

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With no son or heir to step into his shoes, the throne of England was quite literally up for grabs.

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There was one Englishman who believed he was the obvious man for the job.

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Next to the king, he was the most powerful man in the land.

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His name was Harold Godwinson, Earl of Wessex.

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All we know about Harold from the shreds of evidence available is that he was a tall, striking man

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of about 45.

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He probably had longish hair and a typical Saxon moustache.

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The Godwinson clan had dominated English politics for a generation.

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Together with his brothers, Harold ran most of the country.

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He wasn't just a politician, he was also a warrior.

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As the king's right-hand man, he spent much of his time driving out invaders

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and keeping law and order, especially on the border of England and Wales.

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To the people, he was the natural choice to take over as king.

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Nowadays he'd be seen as a ruthless warlord

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but, back then, if you were one of his followers, he was generous and charismatic.

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SPEARS DRUM ON SHIELDS

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He could organise men and he could...

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You know - he could get a good army together...

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And he fought in the front line.

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He was a... He was a very generous,

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generous man and a brave, brave commander.

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With all this popular support, small wonder that Harold thought he was the obvious successor

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for the throne of England.

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But there was one man across the Channel with other ideas,

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William, Duke of Normandy.

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We know that William was a tough, stocky man of 38 with red hair.

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Like most Normans, he was clean-shaven.

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He was one of the most formidable leaders in Europe.

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He ruled Normandy with an iron fist but he was hungry for more land.

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But it wasn't just naked ambition that made him cast his eye across the Channel.

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The fact was that the King of England, Edward the Confessor, was a blood relation of his,

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and it seems that Edward had even promised William the throne of England after he died.

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The people knew that William was hard and uncompromising, but he was also popular.

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11th-century Europe was a violent place, a world of constant insecurity.

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In Normandy, you were in a corner of France where, thanks to William,

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you could live out your life in peace.

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Both William and Harold were powerful, both were ambitious,

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and both believed they had a claim to the English crown.

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So, there they were, two men, one throne. The showdown was inevitable.

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That showdown was triggered in 1066.

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News reached William that Edward the Confessor, King of England, had finally died

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and that Harold had had himself crowned.

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William was outraged.

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He saw Harold's coronation as a declaration of war.

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He decided to invade.

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William needed a strategic port in Normandy

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where he could gather his troops and supplies and build his ships.

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He settled on a place called Dives, just here.

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Over the next two months he assembled a fleet

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that was to grow into more than 700 ships. It was a staggering task.

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William's preparations for invasion here in Normandy were closely watched by Harold's spies.

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Back in England, Harold started gathering a defence force of his own ships and men.

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Harold made his base on the Isle of Wight

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because he believed it was the most likely place for William to invade.

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The sheltered water behind the island was a natural harbour.

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Harold also sent his ships to patrol the south coast

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and stationed his land forces and scouts at vital points

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to give early warning of an invasion fleet.

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Like any modern army,

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the heart of Harold's army was made up of a corps of full-time, professional soldiers.

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They were called the housecarls.

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These elite troops had a reputation of being one of the finest fighting forces in Western Europe.

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They were always on call to serve their king

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and would even lay down their lives for him if necessary.

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GUNSHOTS

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We were very much fired up by patriotism and just wanting to defend our land from invaders.

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We weren't about to stand for anyone coming over and trying to take our land away and rule us.

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The housecarls were supported by the fyrd,

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a body of part-time troops recruited from every village in England.

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The fyrd were obliged to give two months of service every year, bring their own weapons and transport.

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They may not quite have had the skill and commitment of housecarls, but there were plenty of them.

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Thousands of housecarls and the men of the fyrd assembled on the south coast

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and prepared themselves for battle.

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Everyone had to master the art of locking together their shields to form a wall.

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It was the Saxons' fundamental defensive tactic. Their survival would depend upon it.

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Even today, we have the legacy of the shield wall.

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GO...!

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GO!

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Here we are, looking at a force that keeps civil order in a democracy. They look terrifying enough!

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Makes you realise how much of it is psychological impact. They're a breaking force to terrify the enemy.

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-ARGH! MOVE!

-GET BACK, GET BACK, GET BACK!

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Even a very determined crowd trying to get through that shield wall of yours

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-would find it mighty hard, wouldn't they?

-It is a very strong wall.

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It does differ to what the Saxons and Vikings used to do.

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They used to have all their shields interlinked,

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and used just all long shields together to act as a wall.

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And we don't do that, because we'd become one major target,

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and obviously we need gaps in-between

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so we can manoeuvre out of the way of missiles - petrol bombs etc.

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-Still very effective.

-Very effective.

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GET BACK! GET BACK!

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-Obviously, some equipment's changed, but some ideas are still the same.

-Yeah.

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The Saxon shield is made of wood, and you've got a metal bar here,

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where you grip the handle, with the leather strap that goes across your shoulders.

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It's very, very heavy. There's no flexibility in it. There's no trauma pad so, if any missile hit it,

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you get all the trauma through your arm and shoulder.

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So the 11th-century warrior carried one of those huge wooden shields

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-and about 50lb of chain mail, we reckon...

-Mm-hm.

-..weapons...

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-Yet they were fighting all day.

-They'd be very fit and very strong.

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An average person would be tired after a couple of hours of fighting, but they just fought to their death.

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Obviously slightly different nowadays. We get a rest, but it's still physically tiring.

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Although the police don't normally lock shields together in one long line as the Saxons did,

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they agreed to give it a try. And I was going to experience what it was like.

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Try it... Try it with your arm under the hook.

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Dan, if you go to the middle. ..Adam, can you come round on this one, mate? That's it.

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Push your thing out, please, Dan, at the bottom.

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OK. That should be about right. Jane, get your shield, Jane, you're coming in the backup.

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FIERCE ROARS

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Well, my goodness! You stood up to some treatment there! ..What was it like, Dan?

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You can see the strength is coming from everyone working together.

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If everyone's tied together, you've got quite a solid force behind it.

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-You had your arms around each other. That helps?

-Yeah, you're quite tightly packed.

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-So you can meet the momentum, throw them back.

-Not a chink of light between those shields.

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-No, but it's highly trained officers there.

-Including yourself, eh(?)

-No!

-Well, you looked impressive.

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By summer 1066, Harold had amassed the biggest army in living memory

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along the south coast of England.

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But the months passed

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and still there was no sign of the massive Norman invasion fleet everyone was expecting.

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We were wanting them to come, weren't we? We were like,

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"Where are they, what are they doing? Why don't they come? Because we have to get back to our crops."

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All that, all that, you know... you try and summon up the blood and stiffness in you, if you like,

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and then, you know - nothing. So we all started fighting each other.

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Harold was beginning to run out of supplies for his army.

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His men were getting restless with all the waiting, and the harvest needed to be brought in.

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Harold made his fateful decision.

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He took one last look across the empty sea, dismantled his army and headed back home to London.

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It was there, only a few days later, that he heard some shocking news.

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England had been invaded, but not in the south and not by William.

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Vikings from Norway had staged a lightning strike in the north of England.

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They were rampaging through Yorkshire and had already captured the city of York.

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The news hit Harold in London like a bombshell.

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Harold had no choice. He had to deal with the new threat

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and he did so with characteristic decisiveness and speed.

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He reassembled his army, turned his back on the threat of invasion from Normandy

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and began the long march north.

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It was essential that the Saxon army moved north as quickly as possible.

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If they attacked early enough, they might catch the Vikings on the back foot.

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Harold's elite troops, his housecarls, galloped up this Great North Road

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gathering the ordinary men of the fyrd as they went along...

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..everyone pushing himself to the limit to drive the Viking threat from England once and for all.

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There was a lot of men travelling up north.

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Harold had a lot of commitment for that battle.

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And...then, we hadn't had a fight previously in the summer,

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so, you know, tensions were...high

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and they had to be released somehow, you know.

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It was going to be the crushing of Norwegian skulls, I'm afraid.

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The fyrd were tired, we were tired,

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but there was a tide, a building tide of...

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a sense of...this was "our time". The Fates were with us.

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The blood was up.

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By the time they reached a river crossing called Stamford Bridge, just east of York,

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the Saxon army had swollen to several thousand men.

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They had covered about 180 miles in a staggering five days

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but they were still ready to fight a long and bloody battle.

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We got to Stamford Bridge...

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..and we couldn't believe our luck. All the Vikings were there.

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As we got closer, we could see they weren't wearing any armour.

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They were completely unprepared. They thought we would come up days later.

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We'd travelled very fast to Stamford Bridge.

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They were handed to us on a plate.

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They weren't expecting us so soon. We got up there very fast.

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The Vikings couldn't have been in a more disastrous position.

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Not only were they completely unprepared to fight, their army was split in two by the river

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just behind that little line of trees.

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I'm standing here on the west side of the river, where some of the men were sitting relaxing in the sun.

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Here's where I am - the meadows where part of the Viking army were lazing about.

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But their main force was there, on the east side of the river.

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Joining the two was just a narrow wooden bridge,

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much narrower than the one that crosses the river today.

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As the Saxons moved in on them from the west

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these Vikings were effectively trapped in a lethal bottleneck.

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Some Vikings resisted,

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but, heavily outnumbered, they were slaughtered without mercy.

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Others frantically tried to escape over the small bridge

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in a desperate attempt to join up with the rest of their army on the other side of the Derwent.

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The Saxon axes just steamed in there and they were just chopping off limbs left, right and centre.

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Heads were flying. It was carnage.

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By now, every Viking who'd been on that west bank was either dead or had fled back across the river...

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except one.

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The story goes that a giant Norseman held up the entire Saxon army.

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He blocked the narrow wooden bridge and single-handedly cut down over 40 Saxon warriors.

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He himself was only brought down

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when one cunning Saxon drifted under the bridge in a barrel

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and stabbed his spear up through the wooden slats of the bridge

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right into the Viking's unprotected groin.

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Now it was the Saxons who poured over the bridge in their thousands

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in hot pursuit of their panic-stricken enemy.

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Here on the east bank,

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the remaining Vikings hastily retreated up this slope with the Saxons hard on their heels.

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This is the slope just here.

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This was to be the decisive phase of the battle of Stamford Bridge.

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The Vikings, way over on the right here, had no armour.

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All they could do was to lock their shields together to form a defensive wall.

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On their side, the Saxons did the same.

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The two armies were now poised to launch themselves at each other.

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It was to be a fight to the death.

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The first to break through their opponent's shield wall would win.

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We were literally face to face with the enemy.

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You could... You could smell the rancid breath of these Vikings.

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You... You could smell what they had for breakfast.

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We headed towards them at quite a pace

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and we clashed together.

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And the noise! I mean, the noise is...phenomenal.

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Because they were so badly protected, it was...

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Your cutting and thrusting, it was like knives through butter.

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The Saxons had thrown all their strength at the Viking shield wall, and it was breaking.

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Without their armour, the Vikings were exposed to Saxon steel.

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Their lines began to fragment.

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We created a chink in their wall,

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and once you've created a chink it's easy to push it apart.

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And it'll grow bigger, and then you can get in and round and behind.

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More and more of Harold's men started to stream through the Viking shield wall.

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The Saxons now had the advantage.

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Seeing Norse blood flow, it really does...

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warm your heart, you know.

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The battle raged on for hours.

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The Viking leaders were killed, their army annihilated.

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The Saxons had won.

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Harold was still King of England and his realm was safe.

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He had achieved a staggering military feat.

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He'd closed for ever the door on a Viking conquest of Britain.

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But things are about to change.

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Within days, he would be fighting an even fiercer battle for his nation's survival.

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When Harold had crowned himself king back in January, William of Normandy had taken it personally.

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In fact, he regarded it as a declaration of war.

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Two years earlier, William had rescued Harold from a shipwreck

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and, in return, he'd made Harold swear a sacred oath that backed William's claim to the throne.

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That oath had been broken.

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So now William was out to conquer England and take what he considered was rightfully his.

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But there was a problem. The Norman army was simply not powerful enough.

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So nobles and mercenaries from as far afield as southern Italy were summoned to meet William

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at this cathedral in Caen. Here they were given the hard sell.

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He promised them rich pickings and told them this was a religious war backed by the Pope himself.

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Everyone was clear.

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We were going to get England as much for God as for William.

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It sounded like the chance for a good fight, a pile of plunder

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and, with the backing of the Pope, a guaranteed place in the afterlife.

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The nobles and mercenaries signed up in droves.

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We felt that with such a force,

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so many people brought together for one objective,

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that there was no way we could fail.

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It would be hard, it would be a...a difficult fight,

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but...we would be successful, we would win.

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William had now got his invasion force united under a papal banner.

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He also had a formidable weapon that Harold did not.

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Horses were at the heart of the Norman battle plan.

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They regarded their horses as fighting machines

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and they prided themselves on the strength and skill of their cavalry.

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The Norman horses were carefully bred and specially selected.

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The mounts were stallions, agile enough to perform nimble turns on the battlefield.

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The horses were warriors in their own right, trained to head-butt, kick and bite their enemy.

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The Saxon army fought only on foot

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and would never have faced a mounted attack on this scale before.

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A line of charging horses would be as unnerving for them 1,000 years ago as it would be for anyone today.

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-OK, Dan. Now, this is a heart monitor.

-Right. OK.

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-We're going to get this one round you, this belt.

-Hand it over...

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-That's the transmitter, OK?

-OK.

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That tells us what your heartbeat's like with these guys charging at you... And this is the receiver,

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-which tells us what rate your heart's going at when you're facing the horses.

-OK.

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-Now, what are you normally? What's your normal heart rate?

-Well, probably about 65.

-65, OK.

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-So let's see how nervous I am.

-In anticipation, what are you beating at now?

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IT BLEEPS

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A-ha, about 75.

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-75. Already a little apprehensive.

-Apprehensive.

-Right, young man!

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-Let's see what happens to you out there. OK?

-OK.

-Good luck.

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QUIET CHUCKLE

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And the horses are just forming up over there.

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I'm very happy I'm standing at the side watching,

0:27:050:27:07

and not standing in front of those horses, I must say!

0:27:070:27:11

Here they go.

0:27:110:27:14

And they're moving into the charge.

0:27:140:27:16

HOOVES THUNDER

0:27:160:27:18

Gosh...

0:27:180:27:20

rather Dan than me!

0:27:200:27:21

Swords now absolutely levelled at Dan!

0:27:280:27:31

And that is...pretty scary.

0:27:310:27:33

(Crikey!)

0:27:370:27:39

Well, that WAS pretty terrifying.

0:27:500:27:52

All right Dan, still standing up?

0:27:520:27:55

Yeah.

0:27:550:27:56

Well, just about. My heart rate went up to about 95 or 100 beats per minute,

0:27:560:28:01

so fairly scared. When they're ten metres away, charging towards you,

0:28:010:28:05

the ground does shake. Pretty terrifying.

0:28:050:28:07

William's 2,000 mounted knights gave him an awesome fighting machine.

0:28:110:28:17

By the end of August 1066,

0:28:220:28:25

William had gathered his entire invasion force of men and horses at Dives harbour.

0:28:250:28:31

William had accomplished an astonishing logistical feat -

0:28:330:28:37

700 ships,

0:28:370:28:39

7,000 men,

0:28:390:28:42

2,000 horses

0:28:420:28:44

assembled and ready to go, and all within 24 hours' sail of England.

0:28:440:28:48

Everything was ready,

0:28:480:28:50

everything except one element that William could not control.

0:28:500:28:55

Every sea voyage depended on a favourable wind

0:29:030:29:06

but day in, day out,

0:29:060:29:09

the wind William needed infuriatingly refused to blow.

0:29:090:29:13

He moved up the coast to be closer to England but still he had to wait.

0:29:130:29:19

With all that waiting around, the multinational force of unruly warriors began to get restless.

0:29:250:29:31

They wanted to get on with it. Sitting around in Normandy wasn't what they'd signed up for,

0:29:310:29:36

especially not with the duke exerting his strict discipline.

0:29:360:29:40

He was very good at controlling the people, I think.

0:29:400:29:44

There were very strict rules about what we could and could not do.

0:29:440:29:48

We could not...trespass on property, we could...

0:29:480:29:52

we could not loot property from the local people,

0:29:520:29:57

we couldn't do any violence to the local people at all,

0:29:570:30:00

particularly to the women.

0:30:000:30:02

And I think it was good, there was no problem. Just boredom.

0:30:020:30:07

All this time, while the Normans were waiting impatiently,

0:30:130:30:17

Harold's troops were busy in the north of England, fighting off the Vikings at Stamford Bridge.

0:30:170:30:24

The south coast of England was left totally vulnerable.

0:30:400:30:45

The only thing saving England from a Norman invasion was the wind.

0:30:450:30:51

But then, on 27th September 1066, the wind changed.

0:30:550:31:01

A southerly breeze filled the Norman sails.

0:31:010:31:05

700 ships were hurriedly loaded with troops and horses

0:31:130:31:18

and at sunset, William's mighty invasion fleet left harbour

0:31:180:31:23

to the sound of trumpets and cymbals.

0:31:230:31:26

-The wind we've got today would have been perfect for it.

-The wind is just about perfect.

-Absolutely.

0:31:510:31:57

With square sails, it would blow him straight from the mouth of the Somme estuary to Hastings.

0:31:570:32:03

Absolutely.

0:32:030:32:04

Just stay off these green buoys here.

0:32:080:32:10

Yeah, I can head straight for that red buoy on this tack.

0:32:100:32:14

..And they had a very small window in which to get those ships out.

0:32:160:32:20

-Yeah.

-The tide here rises and falls a huge amount, about ten metres.

0:32:200:32:24

And he had to get out of this estuary, giving his men two or three hours' notice -

0:32:240:32:29

wham! - before the tide started going down again.

0:32:290:32:33

-At that time of the year, it would have been dark about six or seven?

-October. So, about 6.30, yeah.

-Yeah.

0:32:330:32:39

They didn't have any compasses or satellite navigation, obviously,

0:32:390:32:44

but they would've known the coast extremely well.

0:32:440:32:47

A lot of them would have made their living from fishing and trading.

0:32:470:32:50

There was lots of trade, even before the Romans, between England and France.

0:32:500:32:55

As soon as they got to the English coast, they'd recognise where they were.

0:32:550:32:59

The Duke of Normandy was coming to claim the English crown.

0:33:090:33:14

One of the largest invasion fleets in British history

0:33:140:33:18

was now only a few miles from her unguarded shores.

0:33:180:33:22

All of William's hopes and ambitions were riding in those ships.

0:33:260:33:31

This is the spot where all those ships were heading -

0:33:490:33:53

Pevensey in East Sussex.

0:33:530:33:55

Anybody suggesting landing an invasion at Pevensey today would be laughed off this beach.

0:33:570:34:02

It's now a completely straight coastline exposed to wind and sea.

0:34:030:34:08

A thousand years ago,

0:34:100:34:12

a whole series of bays here offered shelter to William's invading fleet.

0:34:120:34:17

The Normans landed on the English coast at Pevensey Bay on the morning of September 28th.

0:34:200:34:27

The archers were the first off the ships, arrows ready in their bows.

0:34:270:34:32

They were expecting fierce resistance.

0:34:320:34:34

They had no idea the English army was miles away to the north.

0:34:340:34:38

They couldn't believe their luck.

0:34:380:34:40

This was one of the easiest D-days in history.

0:34:400:34:44

When we arrived on English shores first thing in the morning,

0:34:440:34:49

the beach was completely empty.

0:34:490:34:52

A beach of stones.

0:34:520:34:55

Of course, we were overjoyed, because we had expected an army and there was no-one.

0:34:550:35:00

News of the Norman invasion took several days to reach Harold,

0:35:010:35:05

who was still celebrating with his weary army in the north.

0:35:050:35:09

It was a devastating blow for Harold, but worse was to come.

0:35:090:35:13

William was burning and pillaging villages

0:35:130:35:16

in the area of his landing point.

0:35:160:35:19

He was deliberately trying to provoke Harold into an early battle.

0:35:190:35:23

It worked.

0:35:250:35:27

Harold felt he had no choice

0:35:270:35:29

but to order his exhausted army to move south.

0:35:290:35:33

Morale wasn't high,

0:35:330:35:35

having just fought the battle at Stamford Bridge,

0:35:350:35:39

and then to be turned right back around and marched...with speed...

0:35:390:35:45

..down to fight William...

0:35:460:35:49

..who had a formidable reputation.

0:35:500:35:52

Just five days after victory over the Viking invaders,

0:35:540:35:58

Harold's army now had a journey of 250 miles in front of them to fend off an even bigger invasion.

0:35:580:36:05

Over 7,000 English soldiers started on the road south.

0:36:050:36:10

It's one of those enduring myths

0:36:260:36:29

that the Battle of Hastings actually took place in Hastings. It didn't.

0:36:290:36:33

It happened here at Battle, about six miles inland from Hastings.

0:36:330:36:38

This is the spot, where I'm standing, just here.

0:36:390:36:43

Battle Abbey stands on the place today.

0:36:430:36:46

Six miles to the south,

0:36:460:36:48

William, who'd left his ships in these bays over here,

0:36:480:36:52

had assembled his troops at Hastings.

0:36:520:36:54

And now, hearing that Harold was on his way,

0:36:540:36:57

at first light of dawn, William ordered his troops up this road.

0:36:570:37:01

Meanwhile, further up the road, Harold was assembling his army

0:37:030:37:08

on this prominent ridge

0:37:080:37:10

that stood slap across the Normans' route to London.

0:37:100:37:13

Harold's plan was to wait on this ridge

0:37:130:37:16

and allow his ranks to be swollen by reinforcements that were coming in all the time.

0:37:160:37:21

But William seized the initiative. He wasn't going to give Harold any time to gather strength.

0:37:210:37:26

Just an hour or two after dawn, his troops arrived from Hastings.

0:37:260:37:31

He was determined to force a battle.

0:37:310:37:33

Harold's strategy was to line up his men, more than 7,000 of them,

0:37:330:37:38

several rows deep along the top of the ridge.

0:37:380:37:42

His front line ran along the crest of the ridge for about half a mile.

0:37:420:37:46

Behind this tight-packed wall, six to ten men deep,

0:37:490:37:53

the main body of the army, with the less well-armed irregulars at the back.

0:37:530:37:58

Harold ordered his men to step forward.

0:38:030:38:06

The integrity of that shield wall would be critical.

0:38:140:38:19

Harold gave orders that no-one was to open so much as a chink in it.

0:38:190:38:25

Finally, the mile-long front line locked shields.

0:38:250:38:30

So there's where Harold's army was, on that high ground up there where Battle Abbey is today.

0:38:420:38:48

His strategy put William at a disadvantage.

0:38:480:38:51

It meant that he and his Norman army down there would have to fight uphill.

0:38:510:38:57

William had about the same number of men as Harold, but he split them into three separate divisions.

0:38:570:39:03

He stood with his Normans in the centre, on the left there, the forces from Brittany

0:39:030:39:08

on the right, a mixture of troops from the rest of France and from the Low Countries.

0:39:080:39:13

William's battle plan was to put his archers in front.

0:39:150:39:19

He hoped that their arrows would soften up the enemy shield wall

0:39:190:39:23

so the infantry and the 2,000 knights on horseback behind could break through.

0:39:230:39:29

The papal banner reminded the Normans that God was on their side,

0:39:320:39:37

and their hunger for victory was reinforced

0:39:370:39:40

by the promise of rich plunder.

0:39:400:39:42

At 9am on the 14th October 1066,

0:39:450:39:47

the battle began

0:39:470:39:49

with massive roars of defiance from either side.

0:39:490:39:53

The Saxons on the hill, bellowing and beating their shields with their weapons,

0:39:530:39:57

must have left the Normans looking up at them in no doubt that this would be a long and bloody day.

0:39:570:40:04

Harold's men held their ground, the shield wall defiantly blocking the way north to London.

0:40:170:40:24

The Normans would have to make the first move.

0:40:290:40:33

THEY CHANT AND DRUM ON SHIELDS

0:40:330:40:35

Legend has it that a Norman minstrel named Taillefer had persuaded William

0:40:410:40:46

to give him the honour of starting the battle and striking down the first Saxon.

0:40:460:40:51

He rode ahead of the army brandishing his sword, singing a heroic song.

0:40:510:40:55

Then he threw himself on the English line, killing two Saxons before eventually he was killed.

0:40:580:41:04

Right behind Taillefer came the archers,

0:41:060:41:10

hoping to soften up the opposition.

0:41:100:41:12

But the archers made little impact on the Saxons.

0:41:150:41:18

Look at the landscape. You can easily see their problem.

0:41:180:41:22

The trouble was in shooting uphill.

0:41:230:41:26

So when the archers fired their arrows straight up at their enemies,

0:41:260:41:31

they either buried themselves in their shields

0:41:310:41:35

or sailed harmlessly over Saxon heads.

0:41:350:41:38

His archers alone were not going to win the battle for William.

0:41:380:41:42

He would have to get his men in closer if he was going to dent the Saxon wall.

0:41:420:41:48

He gave the order for his whole army to move forward.

0:41:480:41:52

There was a huge cry from all the men.

0:41:570:42:01

It was like nothing I've ever heard, it was like a storm,

0:42:010:42:06

it was like thunder, it was huge.

0:42:060:42:08

The Norman infantry began to advance up the hill.

0:42:110:42:15

The Saxons at the top stood rooted to the ground behind their massive shield wall,

0:42:340:42:40

waiting for the impending clash.

0:42:400:42:42

We were fired up, the blood was boiling, we were ready for it. We were going to let it come to us,

0:42:420:42:47

and when it came, there would be hell to pay.

0:42:470:42:50

As the Normans grew closer and closer, the Saxons began to hurl a barrage of missiles.

0:42:540:42:59

We'd just pick up anything, anything we could, to hurl down,

0:43:060:43:10

axes, spears, javelins, rocks,

0:43:100:43:12

anything that would inflict any damage.

0:43:120:43:15

But this bombardment by the Saxons was not going to stop the determined Normans.

0:43:160:43:22

The Norman attackers threw themselves at the Saxon shield wall.

0:43:560:44:00

They knew they had to carve a gap in it

0:44:000:44:03

if they were to get at the mass of the Saxon army behind it.

0:44:030:44:07

But the foot soldiers could not break through.

0:44:180:44:21

William had to order in his cavalry.

0:44:210:44:24

The Norman knights were in the thick of it,

0:44:340:44:37

charging uphill with their lances pointed at the Saxons.

0:44:370:44:41

The Saxons held their ground. They thrust their swords and spears through the shield wall.

0:44:560:45:01

Faced with this bristling wall of steel, many of the horses simply shied away.

0:45:040:45:08

And any that did get too close exposed themselves and their riders to the massive Saxon battleaxes.

0:45:140:45:21

It was...it was like hitting a stone wall.

0:45:210:45:24

It was very difficult for... for the cavalry, for the infantry.

0:45:240:45:28

They couldn't get through the shields. They wouldn't move.

0:45:280:45:32

The ferocity of the hand-to-hand battle they were fighting up there was so savage

0:45:360:45:41

that one side simply had to give.

0:45:410:45:43

And the first sign of weakness came here on the Norman left.

0:45:430:45:47

Suddenly the Bretons panicked, turned around and ran.

0:45:470:45:52

They ran for their lives,

0:45:520:45:54

foot soldiers and horsemen fleeing headlong downhill and slightly off to the left of the way they'd come.

0:45:540:46:02

For the Saxons, the temptation was too much.

0:46:020:46:05

Some of the less disciplined troops on Harold's right wing smelled victory, broke ranks

0:46:050:46:10

and chased the Bretons down the hill.

0:46:100:46:14

You can hardly blame the Saxon soldiers for breaking ranks.

0:46:140:46:18

It must have been incredibly exhilarating,

0:46:180:46:20

seeing the terrified enemy scattering down the hill.

0:46:200:46:24

Harold must have despaired at the sight.

0:46:270:46:30

He knew his only chance of victory was to keep his shield wall solid

0:46:300:46:35

but, true to the Saxon tradition, he was on foot in the front line

0:46:350:46:40

and he couldn't race over on horseback to restore control.

0:46:400:46:44

Fighting shoulder to shoulder with his men,

0:46:440:46:47

what he gained in morale he lost in mobility.

0:46:470:46:51

It was one flaw in the Saxon tactics.

0:46:510:46:54

Harold had no way of stopping his men from pursuing the fleeing Bretons.

0:46:590:47:05

He remained fighting with the rest of his army to maintain the integrity of his shield wall.

0:47:100:47:15

He could only look on in despair

0:47:180:47:21

as hundreds of his men ran down the hill after the Bretons.

0:47:210:47:25

But by now, the Saxons who had given chase to the Bretons

0:47:370:47:41

found themselves in a small, marshy area behind the Norman line.

0:47:410:47:46

The Saxons who had chased the Bretons into this death trap

0:47:460:47:50

were now cut off from the rest of their army.

0:47:500:47:53

They were alone and vulnerable.

0:47:530:47:55

What happened in that rough ground was a pivotal moment in the battle.

0:47:550:48:00

Harold could have ordered his men off the ridge to charge down

0:48:000:48:03

and attack the entire Norman line spread out along this slope here.

0:48:030:48:08

But Harold decided to stay on the ridge, and it was William who took the initiative.

0:48:080:48:13

The Duke of Normandy galloped over to the marshy area with his knights.

0:48:170:48:22

Soon, the Saxons were surrounded.

0:48:220:48:25

They didn't stand a chance.

0:48:380:48:40

They were cut down one by one. It was a terrible slaughter.

0:48:400:48:44

After the carnage of that attack,

0:48:470:48:49

the Normans pulled back and both sides drew breath.

0:48:490:48:53

What happened next is open to debate.

0:49:040:49:06

Some believe that William used this lull to plan a new strategy.

0:49:060:49:11

He'd seen what had happened when this group of Bretons had panicked and run down the hill.

0:49:110:49:17

He'd seen that the Saxons had been lured out of the shield wall

0:49:170:49:21

and exposed a gap that he could exploit.

0:49:210:49:24

So why not stage faked retreats

0:49:240:49:27

to tempt even more Saxons to come running down the hill where they'd be totally exposed, in the open

0:49:270:49:34

and at the mercy of his cavalry?

0:49:340:49:36

Whether or not they were faked, this is exactly what happened.

0:49:400:49:44

Over the next few hours, a series of Norman attacks and retreats did take place.

0:49:480:49:54

The Saxons ran out after them.

0:50:030:50:05

Caught out in the open, away from the protection of the wall,

0:50:050:50:08

they were exposed and cut down by Norman infantry and horsemen.

0:50:080:50:13

Lack of discipline was costing the Saxons dear.

0:50:230:50:26

Their casualties soon started to mount up. And time was marching on.

0:50:260:50:31

The soldiers would never have seen anything like it.

0:50:310:50:35

Usually, medieval battles were short, sharp affairs

0:50:350:50:38

where one side quickly saw the other off the field.

0:50:380:50:41

But this was turning into one of the longest and closest-fought battles in medieval history.

0:50:410:50:47

Despite the constant onslaught, the Saxon shield wall was still holding.

0:50:470:50:52

If they could just keep it together until nightfall,

0:50:520:50:55

it could win them enough time for reinforcements to arrive.

0:50:550:50:59

As the day drew to a close, the relentless Norman pounding began to thin the Saxon ranks,

0:51:020:51:08

and the less experienced men were being forced to serve in the front line.

0:51:080:51:13

We were so tightly packed together in the shield wall.

0:51:130:51:17

I mean, the dead couldn't even fall to the ground, you know,

0:51:170:51:21

they were just pressed up against us because we were crushed together.

0:51:210:51:26

I looked round and I didn't recognise

0:51:260:51:29

anyone I was fighting with.

0:51:290:51:31

William's strategy was grinding down the Saxons, but he wanted to seize victory before nightfall.

0:51:340:51:41

He had to try something new, and quickly.

0:51:410:51:44

With the light beginning to fade,

0:51:460:51:48

William decided to make one final, superhuman effort to break through Harold's line.

0:51:480:51:53

He changed tactics completely.

0:51:530:51:56

He put every man who could still walk or ride into one solid mass.

0:51:560:52:00

Behind them, he placed his archers,

0:52:020:52:04

and he gave them new orders which were to change the course of the battle.

0:52:040:52:09

At the beginning of the day,

0:52:100:52:12

the archers' attack hadn't been very effective

0:52:120:52:16

because of the slope of the hill.

0:52:160:52:19

The arrows had either bounced off the shield wall or skimmed over the Saxons' heads.

0:52:190:52:25

This time, William ordered his archers to raise their sights and shoot up into the air.

0:52:250:52:31

This way, the arrows would fall

0:52:310:52:33

on the more exposed Saxon ranks behind the shield wall.

0:52:330:52:36

What followed was one of the most famous moments in British history.

0:52:360:52:41

On this spot, Harold, the last of the Anglo-Saxon kings,

0:52:510:52:55

was shot in the eye by an arrow.

0:52:550:52:58

As Harold lay wounded, a hail of arrows caused chaos among the Saxon army.

0:53:030:53:09

The Normans seized the moment and charged the shield wall one last time.

0:53:140:53:20

The weary Saxons could no longer hold their shields together.

0:53:300:53:35

Chinks began to appear everywhere,

0:53:420:53:44

and the Normans started to overpower the English army

0:53:440:53:47

and flood through the shield wall.

0:53:470:53:49

One group of knights sought out the English king.

0:53:580:54:01

They went straight through a break in the shield wall, straight for him,

0:54:030:54:07

and completely took him about -

0:54:070:54:10

his right leg, half of his left leg,

0:54:100:54:13

and finally...

0:54:130:54:15

his head.

0:54:150:54:16

The faithful housecarls were true to their word

0:54:160:54:19

and fought till the end over Harold's body.

0:54:190:54:22

But the news of his death spread

0:54:220:54:25

and broke the morale of much of his army.

0:54:250:54:27

The ordinary men who made up the rear ranks began to slip off into the gathering dusk.

0:54:270:54:33

Once we saw that banner go down,

0:54:330:54:36

a lot of us, we lost heart at that point.

0:54:360:54:40

You could tell that we were a beaten side,

0:54:400:54:43

and people were just... walking around shocked.

0:54:430:54:47

I mean, us Saxons, we were a force to be reckoned with,

0:54:470:54:50

and we had just...

0:54:500:54:52

..we had just been beaten.

0:54:540:54:56

Thousands died that day at Hastings

0:54:560:54:58

and, by morning, this field was covered with hacked and mutilated corpses

0:54:580:55:04

stripped of their armour by looters.

0:55:040:55:07

But more than that, the bodies that lay here marked the death of Saxon England.

0:55:070:55:12

And somewhere amongst them lay the body of its last king.

0:55:120:55:17

We couldn't find Harold's body.

0:55:170:55:19

It must have lain there for quite a while.

0:55:190:55:22

It had been literally hacked, hacked to bits.

0:55:230:55:26

We heard that Harold's body was thrown into the sea.

0:55:260:55:30

I wouldn't be surprised if the French stooped that low.

0:55:300:55:35

They didn't have much respect for us and definitely not for a fighter like Harold.

0:55:350:55:40

'After his victory at Hastings, William pushed on to London.

0:55:550:56:00

'He was crowned King of England two months later,

0:56:000:56:04

'on Christmas Day 1066.

0:56:040:56:06

'This wasn't just a change of ruler.

0:56:060:56:09

'It was to be the biggest political and cultural upheaval in Britain for the next thousand years.'

0:56:090:56:16

Overnight, the people of England had a new band of rulers who didn't even speak their language.

0:56:170:56:22

Englishmen who'd previously owned their land were now told they held it merely as a gift from the King.

0:56:220:56:28

For the ordinary Saxons, the years ahead would be a time of great uncertainty and fear.

0:56:280:56:33

Look at it, look at us. We're occupied.

0:56:330:56:36

I...

0:56:380:56:39

And I lost a lot of friends. And a king. And a country.

0:56:390:56:43

I don't have much future here any more.

0:56:430:56:47

I've got no leader to follow, I've got no army to belong to.

0:56:470:56:52

I don't know what I'll do.

0:56:550:56:58

Over the next few years, 10,000 Normans would set about imposing their rule

0:56:580:57:03

on one and a half million Britons.

0:57:030:57:06

It was the beginning of a new age of conquest that would last for centuries,

0:57:060:57:11

in which William and his successors fought

0:57:110:57:14

to bring England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland under their control.

0:57:140:57:19

In the next programme, we tell the story

0:57:290:57:31

of how a battle on a Welsh hillside was the turning point

0:57:310:57:34

in a rebellion that ravaged a nation.

0:57:340:57:36

600 years ago, Wales stood on the threshold

0:57:380:57:41

of freedom and independence.

0:57:410:57:43

Led by Owain Glyndwr, the rebellion brought English rule to its knees

0:57:450:57:50

in the battle for Wales.

0:57:500:57:51

Peter and Dan Snow tell the story of the turbulent events of 1066. Peter gives a blow-by-blow account of how the Saxons led by King Harold were pitted against the Norman army, led by their duke, William. Dan tells the soldiers' stories, faces a cavalry charge head-on and joins the Metropolitan Police Public Order Unit to experience the crush of a shield wall, the Saxons' favoured tactic.