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
on this patch of land in England two great armies clashed.
Over 15,000 soldiers from England and France fought a bloody struggle
over one of the greatest prizes in Europe - the throne of England.
The battle lasted only one day, but it was to change the face of Britain for ever.
It took place just down there.
It was a fight to the death between Harold, the Saxon,
and William, the Norman, and it led to a cultural revolution in Britain.
Together with my son Dan, I've come to one of the most famous battlefields in Britain
to find out exactly what happened.
It was an amazing day. The whole of Britain's history went down a different path.
I'll be analysing the tactics the two commanders used
and what it was that finally swung the battle.
And I'll be finding out for myself what it was like for the Saxon and Norman soldiers
who had to fight it out hand to hand on the front line.
We'd just pick up anything, anything we could, to hurl down,
axes, spears, javelins, rocks.
For the soldiers, this battlefield was the scene
of one of the bloodiest and most fiercely fought struggles on British soil.
It ended with the annihilation of the brightest and best of Saxon England
and it crushed the spirit of a nation.
For the leaders, Harold, King of England and William, Duke of Normandy,
this final showdown had been brewing for years.
This was a battle between two of the most formidable commanders in our history,
two men fighting for one throne.
The year was 1066 and it was the Battle of Hastings.
In 1066 the crown of England was as vulnerable as at any time in its history.
Anglo-Saxon England was one of the wealthiest countries in the whole of Europe.
Some of the most ambitious men in Europe had their eyes on its throne.
In January that year, there was only one thing the people of England were talking about...
Who would be their next king?
The man currently holding the crown, Edward the Confessor, was on his deathbed.
With no son or heir to step into his shoes, the throne of England was quite literally up for grabs.
There was one Englishman who believed he was the obvious man for the job.
Next to the king, he was the most powerful man in the land.
His name was Harold Godwinson, Earl of Wessex.
All we know about Harold from the shreds of evidence available is that he was a tall, striking man
of about 45.
He probably had longish hair and a typical Saxon moustache.
The Godwinson clan had dominated English politics for a generation.
Together with his brothers, Harold ran most of the country.
He wasn't just a politician, he was also a warrior.
As the king's right-hand man, he spent much of his time driving out invaders
and keeping law and order, especially on the border of England and Wales.
To the people, he was the natural choice to take over as king.
Nowadays he'd be seen as a ruthless warlord
but, back then, if you were one of his followers, he was generous and charismatic.
SPEARS DRUM ON SHIELDS
He could organise men and he could...
You know - he could get a good army together...
And he fought in the front line.
He was a... He was a very generous,
generous man and a brave, brave commander.
With all this popular support, small wonder that Harold thought he was the obvious successor
for the throne of England.
But there was one man across the Channel with other ideas,
William, Duke of Normandy.
We know that William was a tough, stocky man of 38 with red hair.
Like most Normans, he was clean-shaven.
He was one of the most formidable leaders in Europe.
He ruled Normandy with an iron fist but he was hungry for more land.
But it wasn't just naked ambition that made him cast his eye across the Channel.
The fact was that the King of England, Edward the Confessor, was a blood relation of his,
and it seems that Edward had even promised William the throne of England after he died.
The people knew that William was hard and uncompromising, but he was also popular.
11th-century Europe was a violent place, a world of constant insecurity.
In Normandy, you were in a corner of France where, thanks to William,
you could live out your life in peace.
Both William and Harold were powerful, both were ambitious,
and both believed they had a claim to the English crown.
So, there they were, two men, one throne. The showdown was inevitable.
That showdown was triggered in 1066.
News reached William that Edward the Confessor, King of England, had finally died
and that Harold had had himself crowned.
William was outraged.
He saw Harold's coronation as a declaration of war.
He decided to invade.
William needed a strategic port in Normandy
where he could gather his troops and supplies and build his ships.
He settled on a place called Dives, just here.
Over the next two months he assembled a fleet
that was to grow into more than 700 ships. It was a staggering task.
William's preparations for invasion here in Normandy were closely watched by Harold's spies.
Back in England, Harold started gathering a defence force of his own ships and men.
Harold made his base on the Isle of Wight
because he believed it was the most likely place for William to invade.
The sheltered water behind the island was a natural harbour.
Harold also sent his ships to patrol the south coast
and stationed his land forces and scouts at vital points
to give early warning of an invasion fleet.
Like any modern army,
the heart of Harold's army was made up of a corps of full-time, professional soldiers.
They were called the housecarls.
These elite troops had a reputation of being one of the finest fighting forces in Western Europe.
They were always on call to serve their king
and would even lay down their lives for him if necessary.
We were very much fired up by patriotism and just wanting to defend our land from invaders.
We weren't about to stand for anyone coming over and trying to take our land away and rule us.
The housecarls were supported by the fyrd,
a body of part-time troops recruited from every village in England.
The fyrd were obliged to give two months of service every year, bring their own weapons and transport.
They may not quite have had the skill and commitment of housecarls, but there were plenty of them.
Thousands of housecarls and the men of the fyrd assembled on the south coast
and prepared themselves for battle.
Everyone had to master the art of locking together their shields to form a wall.
It was the Saxons' fundamental defensive tactic. Their survival would depend upon it.
Even today, we have the legacy of the shield wall.
Here we are, looking at a force that keeps civil order in a democracy. They look terrifying enough!
Makes you realise how much of it is psychological impact. They're a breaking force to terrify the enemy.
-GET BACK, GET BACK, GET BACK!
Even a very determined crowd trying to get through that shield wall of yours
-would find it mighty hard, wouldn't they?
-It is a very strong wall.
It does differ to what the Saxons and Vikings used to do.
They used to have all their shields interlinked,
and used just all long shields together to act as a wall.
And we don't do that, because we'd become one major target,
and obviously we need gaps in-between
so we can manoeuvre out of the way of missiles - petrol bombs etc.
-Still very effective.
GET BACK! GET BACK!
-Obviously, some equipment's changed, but some ideas are still the same.
The Saxon shield is made of wood, and you've got a metal bar here,
where you grip the handle, with the leather strap that goes across your shoulders.
It's very, very heavy. There's no flexibility in it. There's no trauma pad so, if any missile hit it,
you get all the trauma through your arm and shoulder.
So the 11th-century warrior carried one of those huge wooden shields
-and about 50lb of chain mail, we reckon...
-Yet they were fighting all day.
-They'd be very fit and very strong.
An average person would be tired after a couple of hours of fighting, but they just fought to their death.
Obviously slightly different nowadays. We get a rest, but it's still physically tiring.
Although the police don't normally lock shields together in one long line as the Saxons did,
they agreed to give it a try. And I was going to experience what it was like.
Try it... Try it with your arm under the hook.
Dan, if you go to the middle. ..Adam, can you come round on this one, mate? That's it.
Push your thing out, please, Dan, at the bottom.
OK. That should be about right. Jane, get your shield, Jane, you're coming in the backup.
Well, my goodness! You stood up to some treatment there! ..What was it like, Dan?
You can see the strength is coming from everyone working together.
If everyone's tied together, you've got quite a solid force behind it.
-You had your arms around each other. That helps?
-Yeah, you're quite tightly packed.
-So you can meet the momentum, throw them back.
-Not a chink of light between those shields.
-No, but it's highly trained officers there.
-Including yourself, eh(?)
-Well, you looked impressive.
By summer 1066, Harold had amassed the biggest army in living memory
along the south coast of England.
But the months passed
and still there was no sign of the massive Norman invasion fleet everyone was expecting.
We were wanting them to come, weren't we? We were like,
"Where are they, what are they doing? Why don't they come? Because we have to get back to our crops."
All that, all that, you know... you try and summon up the blood and stiffness in you, if you like,
and then, you know - nothing. So we all started fighting each other.
Harold was beginning to run out of supplies for his army.
His men were getting restless with all the waiting, and the harvest needed to be brought in.
Harold made his fateful decision.
He took one last look across the empty sea, dismantled his army and headed back home to London.
It was there, only a few days later, that he heard some shocking news.
England had been invaded, but not in the south and not by William.
Vikings from Norway had staged a lightning strike in the north of England.
They were rampaging through Yorkshire and had already captured the city of York.
The news hit Harold in London like a bombshell.
Harold had no choice. He had to deal with the new threat
and he did so with characteristic decisiveness and speed.
He reassembled his army, turned his back on the threat of invasion from Normandy
and began the long march north.
It was essential that the Saxon army moved north as quickly as possible.
If they attacked early enough, they might catch the Vikings on the back foot.
Harold's elite troops, his housecarls, galloped up this Great North Road
gathering the ordinary men of the fyrd as they went along...
..everyone pushing himself to the limit to drive the Viking threat from England once and for all.
There was a lot of men travelling up north.
Harold had a lot of commitment for that battle.
And...then, we hadn't had a fight previously in the summer,
so, you know, tensions were...high
and they had to be released somehow, you know.
It was going to be the crushing of Norwegian skulls, I'm afraid.
The fyrd were tired, we were tired,
but there was a tide, a building tide of...
a sense of...this was "our time". The Fates were with us.
The blood was up.
By the time they reached a river crossing called Stamford Bridge, just east of York,
the Saxon army had swollen to several thousand men.
They had covered about 180 miles in a staggering five days
but they were still ready to fight a long and bloody battle.
We got to Stamford Bridge...
..and we couldn't believe our luck. All the Vikings were there.
As we got closer, we could see they weren't wearing any armour.
They were completely unprepared. They thought we would come up days later.
We'd travelled very fast to Stamford Bridge.
They were handed to us on a plate.
They weren't expecting us so soon. We got up there very fast.
The Vikings couldn't have been in a more disastrous position.
Not only were they completely unprepared to fight, their army was split in two by the river
just behind that little line of trees.
I'm standing here on the west side of the river, where some of the men were sitting relaxing in the sun.
Here's where I am - the meadows where part of the Viking army were lazing about.
But their main force was there, on the east side of the river.
Joining the two was just a narrow wooden bridge,
much narrower than the one that crosses the river today.
As the Saxons moved in on them from the west
these Vikings were effectively trapped in a lethal bottleneck.
Some Vikings resisted,
but, heavily outnumbered, they were slaughtered without mercy.
Others frantically tried to escape over the small bridge
in a desperate attempt to join up with the rest of their army on the other side of the Derwent.
The Saxon axes just steamed in there and they were just chopping off limbs left, right and centre.
Heads were flying. It was carnage.
By now, every Viking who'd been on that west bank was either dead or had fled back across the river...
The story goes that a giant Norseman held up the entire Saxon army.
He blocked the narrow wooden bridge and single-handedly cut down over 40 Saxon warriors.
He himself was only brought down
when one cunning Saxon drifted under the bridge in a barrel
and stabbed his spear up through the wooden slats of the bridge
right into the Viking's unprotected groin.
Now it was the Saxons who poured over the bridge in their thousands
in hot pursuit of their panic-stricken enemy.
Here on the east bank,
the remaining Vikings hastily retreated up this slope with the Saxons hard on their heels.
This is the slope just here.
This was to be the decisive phase of the battle of Stamford Bridge.
The Vikings, way over on the right here, had no armour.
All they could do was to lock their shields together to form a defensive wall.
On their side, the Saxons did the same.
The two armies were now poised to launch themselves at each other.
It was to be a fight to the death.
The first to break through their opponent's shield wall would win.
We were literally face to face with the enemy.
You could... You could smell the rancid breath of these Vikings.
You... You could smell what they had for breakfast.
We headed towards them at quite a pace
and we clashed together.
And the noise! I mean, the noise is...phenomenal.
Because they were so badly protected, it was...
Your cutting and thrusting, it was like knives through butter.
The Saxons had thrown all their strength at the Viking shield wall, and it was breaking.
Without their armour, the Vikings were exposed to Saxon steel.
Their lines began to fragment.
We created a chink in their wall,
and once you've created a chink it's easy to push it apart.
And it'll grow bigger, and then you can get in and round and behind.
More and more of Harold's men started to stream through the Viking shield wall.
The Saxons now had the advantage.
Seeing Norse blood flow, it really does...
warm your heart, you know.
The battle raged on for hours.
The Viking leaders were killed, their army annihilated.
The Saxons had won.
Harold was still King of England and his realm was safe.
He had achieved a staggering military feat.
He'd closed for ever the door on a Viking conquest of Britain.
But things are about to change.
Within days, he would be fighting an even fiercer battle for his nation's survival.
When Harold had crowned himself king back in January, William of Normandy had taken it personally.
In fact, he regarded it as a declaration of war.
Two years earlier, William had rescued Harold from a shipwreck
and, in return, he'd made Harold swear a sacred oath that backed William's claim to the throne.
That oath had been broken.
So now William was out to conquer England and take what he considered was rightfully his.
But there was a problem. The Norman army was simply not powerful enough.
So nobles and mercenaries from as far afield as southern Italy were summoned to meet William
at this cathedral in Caen. Here they were given the hard sell.
He promised them rich pickings and told them this was a religious war backed by the Pope himself.
Everyone was clear.
We were going to get England as much for God as for William.
It sounded like the chance for a good fight, a pile of plunder
and, with the backing of the Pope, a guaranteed place in the afterlife.
The nobles and mercenaries signed up in droves.
We felt that with such a force,
so many people brought together for one objective,
that there was no way we could fail.
It would be hard, it would be a...a difficult fight,
but...we would be successful, we would win.
William had now got his invasion force united under a papal banner.
He also had a formidable weapon that Harold did not.
Horses were at the heart of the Norman battle plan.
They regarded their horses as fighting machines
and they prided themselves on the strength and skill of their cavalry.
The Norman horses were carefully bred and specially selected.
The mounts were stallions, agile enough to perform nimble turns on the battlefield.
The horses were warriors in their own right, trained to head-butt, kick and bite their enemy.
The Saxon army fought only on foot
and would never have faced a mounted attack on this scale before.
A line of charging horses would be as unnerving for them 1,000 years ago as it would be for anyone today.
-OK, Dan. Now, this is a heart monitor.
-We're going to get this one round you, this belt.
-Hand it over...
-That's the transmitter, OK?
That tells us what your heartbeat's like with these guys charging at you... And this is the receiver,
-which tells us what rate your heart's going at when you're facing the horses.
-Now, what are you normally? What's your normal heart rate?
-Well, probably about 65.
-So let's see how nervous I am.
-In anticipation, what are you beating at now?
A-ha, about 75.
-75. Already a little apprehensive.
-Right, young man!
-Let's see what happens to you out there. OK?
And the horses are just forming up over there.
I'm very happy I'm standing at the side watching,
and not standing in front of those horses, I must say!
Here they go.
And they're moving into the charge.
rather Dan than me!
Swords now absolutely levelled at Dan!
And that is...pretty scary.
Well, that WAS pretty terrifying.
All right Dan, still standing up?
Well, just about. My heart rate went up to about 95 or 100 beats per minute,
so fairly scared. When they're ten metres away, charging towards you,
the ground does shake. Pretty terrifying.
William's 2,000 mounted knights gave him an awesome fighting machine.
By the end of August 1066,
William had gathered his entire invasion force of men and horses at Dives harbour.
William had accomplished an astonishing logistical feat -
assembled and ready to go, and all within 24 hours' sail of England.
Everything was ready,
everything except one element that William could not control.
Every sea voyage depended on a favourable wind
but day in, day out,
the wind William needed infuriatingly refused to blow.
He moved up the coast to be closer to England but still he had to wait.
With all that waiting around, the multinational force of unruly warriors began to get restless.
They wanted to get on with it. Sitting around in Normandy wasn't what they'd signed up for,
especially not with the duke exerting his strict discipline.
He was very good at controlling the people, I think.
There were very strict rules about what we could and could not do.
We could not...trespass on property, we could...
we could not loot property from the local people,
we couldn't do any violence to the local people at all,
particularly to the women.
And I think it was good, there was no problem. Just boredom.
All this time, while the Normans were waiting impatiently,
Harold's troops were busy in the north of England, fighting off the Vikings at Stamford Bridge.
The south coast of England was left totally vulnerable.
The only thing saving England from a Norman invasion was the wind.
But then, on 27th September 1066, the wind changed.
A southerly breeze filled the Norman sails.
700 ships were hurriedly loaded with troops and horses
and at sunset, William's mighty invasion fleet left harbour
to the sound of trumpets and cymbals.
-The wind we've got today would have been perfect for it.
-The wind is just about perfect.
With square sails, it would blow him straight from the mouth of the Somme estuary to Hastings.
Just stay off these green buoys here.
Yeah, I can head straight for that red buoy on this tack.
..And they had a very small window in which to get those ships out.
-The tide here rises and falls a huge amount, about ten metres.
And he had to get out of this estuary, giving his men two or three hours' notice -
wham! - before the tide started going down again.
-At that time of the year, it would have been dark about six or seven?
-October. So, about 6.30, yeah.
They didn't have any compasses or satellite navigation, obviously,
but they would've known the coast extremely well.
A lot of them would have made their living from fishing and trading.
There was lots of trade, even before the Romans, between England and France.
As soon as they got to the English coast, they'd recognise where they were.
The Duke of Normandy was coming to claim the English crown.
One of the largest invasion fleets in British history
was now only a few miles from her unguarded shores.
All of William's hopes and ambitions were riding in those ships.
This is the spot where all those ships were heading -
Pevensey in East Sussex.
Anybody suggesting landing an invasion at Pevensey today would be laughed off this beach.
It's now a completely straight coastline exposed to wind and sea.
A thousand years ago,
a whole series of bays here offered shelter to William's invading fleet.
The Normans landed on the English coast at Pevensey Bay on the morning of September 28th.
The archers were the first off the ships, arrows ready in their bows.
They were expecting fierce resistance.
They had no idea the English army was miles away to the north.
They couldn't believe their luck.
This was one of the easiest D-days in history.
When we arrived on English shores first thing in the morning,
the beach was completely empty.
A beach of stones.
Of course, we were overjoyed, because we had expected an army and there was no-one.
News of the Norman invasion took several days to reach Harold,
who was still celebrating with his weary army in the north.
It was a devastating blow for Harold, but worse was to come.
William was burning and pillaging villages
in the area of his landing point.
He was deliberately trying to provoke Harold into an early battle.
Harold felt he had no choice
but to order his exhausted army to move south.
Morale wasn't high,
having just fought the battle at Stamford Bridge,
and then to be turned right back around and marched...with speed...
..down to fight William...
..who had a formidable reputation.
Just five days after victory over the Viking invaders,
Harold's army now had a journey of 250 miles in front of them to fend off an even bigger invasion.
Over 7,000 English soldiers started on the road south.
It's one of those enduring myths
that the Battle of Hastings actually took place in Hastings. It didn't.
It happened here at Battle, about six miles inland from Hastings.
This is the spot, where I'm standing, just here.
Battle Abbey stands on the place today.
Six miles to the south,
William, who'd left his ships in these bays over here,
had assembled his troops at Hastings.
And now, hearing that Harold was on his way,
at first light of dawn, William ordered his troops up this road.
Meanwhile, further up the road, Harold was assembling his army
on this prominent ridge
that stood slap across the Normans' route to London.
Harold's plan was to wait on this ridge
and allow his ranks to be swollen by reinforcements that were coming in all the time.
But William seized the initiative. He wasn't going to give Harold any time to gather strength.
Just an hour or two after dawn, his troops arrived from Hastings.
He was determined to force a battle.
Harold's strategy was to line up his men, more than 7,000 of them,
several rows deep along the top of the ridge.
His front line ran along the crest of the ridge for about half a mile.
Behind this tight-packed wall, six to ten men deep,
the main body of the army, with the less well-armed irregulars at the back.
Harold ordered his men to step forward.
The integrity of that shield wall would be critical.
Harold gave orders that no-one was to open so much as a chink in it.
Finally, the mile-long front line locked shields.
So there's where Harold's army was, on that high ground up there where Battle Abbey is today.
His strategy put William at a disadvantage.
It meant that he and his Norman army down there would have to fight uphill.
William had about the same number of men as Harold, but he split them into three separate divisions.
He stood with his Normans in the centre, on the left there, the forces from Brittany
on the right, a mixture of troops from the rest of France and from the Low Countries.
William's battle plan was to put his archers in front.
He hoped that their arrows would soften up the enemy shield wall
so the infantry and the 2,000 knights on horseback behind could break through.
The papal banner reminded the Normans that God was on their side,
and their hunger for victory was reinforced
by the promise of rich plunder.
At 9am on the 14th October 1066,
the battle began
with massive roars of defiance from either side.
The Saxons on the hill, bellowing and beating their shields with their weapons,
must have left the Normans looking up at them in no doubt that this would be a long and bloody day.
Harold's men held their ground, the shield wall defiantly blocking the way north to London.
The Normans would have to make the first move.
THEY CHANT AND DRUM ON SHIELDS
Legend has it that a Norman minstrel named Taillefer had persuaded William
to give him the honour of starting the battle and striking down the first Saxon.
He rode ahead of the army brandishing his sword, singing a heroic song.
Then he threw himself on the English line, killing two Saxons before eventually he was killed.
Right behind Taillefer came the archers,
hoping to soften up the opposition.
But the archers made little impact on the Saxons.
Look at the landscape. You can easily see their problem.
The trouble was in shooting uphill.
So when the archers fired their arrows straight up at their enemies,
they either buried themselves in their shields
or sailed harmlessly over Saxon heads.
His archers alone were not going to win the battle for William.
He would have to get his men in closer if he was going to dent the Saxon wall.
He gave the order for his whole army to move forward.
There was a huge cry from all the men.
It was like nothing I've ever heard, it was like a storm,
it was like thunder, it was huge.
The Norman infantry began to advance up the hill.
The Saxons at the top stood rooted to the ground behind their massive shield wall,
waiting for the impending clash.
We were fired up, the blood was boiling, we were ready for it. We were going to let it come to us,
and when it came, there would be hell to pay.
As the Normans grew closer and closer, the Saxons began to hurl a barrage of missiles.
We'd just pick up anything, anything we could, to hurl down,
axes, spears, javelins, rocks,
anything that would inflict any damage.
But this bombardment by the Saxons was not going to stop the determined Normans.
The Norman attackers threw themselves at the Saxon shield wall.
They knew they had to carve a gap in it
if they were to get at the mass of the Saxon army behind it.
But the foot soldiers could not break through.
William had to order in his cavalry.
The Norman knights were in the thick of it,
charging uphill with their lances pointed at the Saxons.
The Saxons held their ground. They thrust their swords and spears through the shield wall.
Faced with this bristling wall of steel, many of the horses simply shied away.
And any that did get too close exposed themselves and their riders to the massive Saxon battleaxes.
It was...it was like hitting a stone wall.
It was very difficult for... for the cavalry, for the infantry.
They couldn't get through the shields. They wouldn't move.
The ferocity of the hand-to-hand battle they were fighting up there was so savage
that one side simply had to give.
And the first sign of weakness came here on the Norman left.
Suddenly the Bretons panicked, turned around and ran.
They ran for their lives,
foot soldiers and horsemen fleeing headlong downhill and slightly off to the left of the way they'd come.
For the Saxons, the temptation was too much.
Some of the less disciplined troops on Harold's right wing smelled victory, broke ranks
and chased the Bretons down the hill.
You can hardly blame the Saxon soldiers for breaking ranks.
It must have been incredibly exhilarating,
seeing the terrified enemy scattering down the hill.
Harold must have despaired at the sight.
He knew his only chance of victory was to keep his shield wall solid
but, true to the Saxon tradition, he was on foot in the front line
and he couldn't race over on horseback to restore control.
Fighting shoulder to shoulder with his men,
what he gained in morale he lost in mobility.
It was one flaw in the Saxon tactics.
Harold had no way of stopping his men from pursuing the fleeing Bretons.
He remained fighting with the rest of his army to maintain the integrity of his shield wall.
He could only look on in despair
as hundreds of his men ran down the hill after the Bretons.
But by now, the Saxons who had given chase to the Bretons
found themselves in a small, marshy area behind the Norman line.
The Saxons who had chased the Bretons into this death trap
were now cut off from the rest of their army.
They were alone and vulnerable.
What happened in that rough ground was a pivotal moment in the battle.
Harold could have ordered his men off the ridge to charge down
and attack the entire Norman line spread out along this slope here.
But Harold decided to stay on the ridge, and it was William who took the initiative.
The Duke of Normandy galloped over to the marshy area with his knights.
Soon, the Saxons were surrounded.
They didn't stand a chance.
They were cut down one by one. It was a terrible slaughter.
After the carnage of that attack,
the Normans pulled back and both sides drew breath.
What happened next is open to debate.
Some believe that William used this lull to plan a new strategy.
He'd seen what had happened when this group of Bretons had panicked and run down the hill.
He'd seen that the Saxons had been lured out of the shield wall
and exposed a gap that he could exploit.
So why not stage faked retreats
to tempt even more Saxons to come running down the hill where they'd be totally exposed, in the open
and at the mercy of his cavalry?
Whether or not they were faked, this is exactly what happened.
Over the next few hours, a series of Norman attacks and retreats did take place.
The Saxons ran out after them.
Caught out in the open, away from the protection of the wall,
they were exposed and cut down by Norman infantry and horsemen.
Lack of discipline was costing the Saxons dear.
Their casualties soon started to mount up. And time was marching on.
The soldiers would never have seen anything like it.
Usually, medieval battles were short, sharp affairs
where one side quickly saw the other off the field.
But this was turning into one of the longest and closest-fought battles in medieval history.
Despite the constant onslaught, the Saxon shield wall was still holding.
If they could just keep it together until nightfall,
it could win them enough time for reinforcements to arrive.
As the day drew to a close, the relentless Norman pounding began to thin the Saxon ranks,
and the less experienced men were being forced to serve in the front line.
We were so tightly packed together in the shield wall.
I mean, the dead couldn't even fall to the ground, you know,
they were just pressed up against us because we were crushed together.
I looked round and I didn't recognise
anyone I was fighting with.
William's strategy was grinding down the Saxons, but he wanted to seize victory before nightfall.
He had to try something new, and quickly.
With the light beginning to fade,
William decided to make one final, superhuman effort to break through Harold's line.
He changed tactics completely.
He put every man who could still walk or ride into one solid mass.
Behind them, he placed his archers,
and he gave them new orders which were to change the course of the battle.
At the beginning of the day,
the archers' attack hadn't been very effective
because of the slope of the hill.
The arrows had either bounced off the shield wall or skimmed over the Saxons' heads.
This time, William ordered his archers to raise their sights and shoot up into the air.
This way, the arrows would fall
on the more exposed Saxon ranks behind the shield wall.
What followed was one of the most famous moments in British history.
On this spot, Harold, the last of the Anglo-Saxon kings,
was shot in the eye by an arrow.
As Harold lay wounded, a hail of arrows caused chaos among the Saxon army.
The Normans seized the moment and charged the shield wall one last time.
The weary Saxons could no longer hold their shields together.
Chinks began to appear everywhere,
and the Normans started to overpower the English army
and flood through the shield wall.
One group of knights sought out the English king.
They went straight through a break in the shield wall, straight for him,
and completely took him about -
his right leg, half of his left leg,
The faithful housecarls were true to their word
and fought till the end over Harold's body.
But the news of his death spread
and broke the morale of much of his army.
The ordinary men who made up the rear ranks began to slip off into the gathering dusk.
Once we saw that banner go down,
a lot of us, we lost heart at that point.
You could tell that we were a beaten side,
and people were just... walking around shocked.
I mean, us Saxons, we were a force to be reckoned with,
and we had just...
..we had just been beaten.
Thousands died that day at Hastings
and, by morning, this field was covered with hacked and mutilated corpses
stripped of their armour by looters.
But more than that, the bodies that lay here marked the death of Saxon England.
And somewhere amongst them lay the body of its last king.
We couldn't find Harold's body.
It must have lain there for quite a while.
It had been literally hacked, hacked to bits.
We heard that Harold's body was thrown into the sea.
I wouldn't be surprised if the French stooped that low.
They didn't have much respect for us and definitely not for a fighter like Harold.
'After his victory at Hastings, William pushed on to London.
'He was crowned King of England two months later,
'on Christmas Day 1066.
'This wasn't just a change of ruler.
'It was to be the biggest political and cultural upheaval in Britain for the next thousand years.'
Overnight, the people of England had a new band of rulers who didn't even speak their language.
Englishmen who'd previously owned their land were now told they held it merely as a gift from the King.
For the ordinary Saxons, the years ahead would be a time of great uncertainty and fear.
Look at it, look at us. We're occupied.
And I lost a lot of friends. And a king. And a country.
I don't have much future here any more.
I've got no leader to follow, I've got no army to belong to.
I don't know what I'll do.
Over the next few years, 10,000 Normans would set about imposing their rule
on one and a half million Britons.
It was the beginning of a new age of conquest that would last for centuries,
in which William and his successors fought
to bring England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland under their control.
In the next programme, we tell the story
of how a battle on a Welsh hillside was the turning point
in a rebellion that ravaged a nation.
600 years ago, Wales stood on the threshold
of freedom and independence.
Led by Owain Glyndwr, the rebellion brought English rule to its knees
in the battle for Wales.
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.