Evolution of the traditional Battle of Hastings narrative

We believe that the Battle of Hastings was fought near Sedlescombe, as we explain here. This seems to contradict every reputable historian that has ever written about the battle, which makes our theory sound implausible. In reality, we contradict historians less than they contradict each other. In this blog, we will briefly discuss the evolution of the battlefield theories. To set the scene, here is A H Burne's summary of some of best known English shield wall dispositions devised by some of Britain's most famous military historians.

Until the 19th century, historians did not try to locate the Battle of Hastings battlefield, beyond that it encompassed Battle Abbey. No need to exercise the Sherlocks to work this out because seven contemporary accounts say, or can be interpreted to be saying, that Battle Abbey was built on the battlefield, perhaps on the very spot where Harold died. It seems reasonable too, because the contemporary accounts also concur that the English army was deployed on higher ground, which could easily describe Battle Abbey's location near the crest of a hill on the Hastings Ridge.

There is more geographic information about the battlefield in the contemporary accounts.  Perhaps the best known is that the Normans attacked up a steep slope. Presumably this was through necessity rather than choice, so it follows that they could not attack on a shallow slope and that they could not outflank the English shield wall. Another is that they were deployed in three divisions, William in the centre, the flanks close enough to receive commands by voice and hand gestures. It hints that the battlefield was narrow because William would otherwise have tried an oblique order attack, and John of Worcester specifically says that the English were "drawn up in a narrow place". A third is that William was coming from his sea camp at 'Hastingas', from which historians deduce that the Normans were heading WNW on the Hastings Ridge from modern Hastings town.

These clues sound like more than enough information to pinpoint the exact English troop disposition, the contact points and the killing zone. Historians just have to devise a matching shield wall disposition that cannot easily be outflanked. Many have tried, but it has proved tougher than it sounds.

H B George prefaced his effort with the excuse that the terrain must have changed significantly since the battle. Others imply the same by saying, for example, that the English flanks were protected by impenetrable woodland, swamps or ravines that are no longer there. It is all nonsense. There is no such thing as impenetrable mature deciduous woodland in temperate latitudes. There is not enough water close to a ridge crest to create ravines. The ridge sides are too steep for swamps. Inland geography, unsurprisingly, changes at geological speed, nowhere near fast enough to have made any significant difference to the traditional battlefield oveer less than 1000 years. There has been some human impact, including flattening of the ridge crest for the modern road and flattening south of the ridge for the Abbey, but it can easily be reversed for analysis and nothing has changed elsewhere.

The real reason why historians have had so much trouble is that the terrain around Battle Abbey is a poor match for the contemporary account battlefield descriptions and for contemporary military tactics. We will briefly run through some of the best known matching attempts.

Here is the battle theatre heat relief map showing Battle Abbey (marked x) on the Hastings Ridge, roughly 1km SSE from where it joins the Isthmus Ridge. Note that there is a dip in the Hastings Ridge to the southeast of Battle as far as the railway line cutting, and that the Abbey is at the junction of a 2km long ESE-WNW ridge that crosses the main Hastings Ridge at roughly 60º. Every reputable historian that has written about the battle proposes that the English shield wall defended some or all of this cross ridge, with the Normans attacking from south and/or the southeast. In general, the earlier the study, the larger the assumed size of the armies, so the longer the English shield wall, and the more of the cross ridge it defended.

As far as we know, the first person to attempt a match between contemporary accounts and the geography at Battle was Frenchman Augustin Thierry in his 1824 book 'Histoire de la Conquête de l'Angleterre par les Normands'. He says that Harold decided to camp at a place that "has ever since borne the name Battle" where the English army occupied a "long chain of hills". The Hastings Ridge is so long that it could not be occupied by the entire fighting age English male population. We assume then that Thierry was referring to the cross ridge we describe above.

The first detailed analysis appears in E S Creasy's 1851 book 'Fifteen Decisive Battles'. He says that he was determined to match the geography to the contemporary account descriptions: "It is not difficult to compose a narrative of its principal incidents, from the historical information which we possess, especially if aided by an examination of the ground". Nothing in the text. Perhaps he was referring to his hachure map (above), the first graphical depiction of the battle theatre geography and troop dispositions. If so, a bit more time examining the ground would have been helpful. His map is nowhere near as accurate as Yeakell & Gardner's some 75 years earlier, not least in that it completely omits the eastern part of the cross ridge.

Creasy shows the Normans attacking from the south and southeast, with William's middle division on the Ridge crest, which explains how he was able to command his flanks by voice and hand gestures. He depicts the English shield wall on the middle and western part of the cross ridge, straight and extending about 650m WSW from Tony Robinson's bench (which is at the roundabout junction of Marley Lane, Upper Lake and Lower Lake).

Mark Anthony Lower proposed a subtly different engagement scenario for his paper 'On the Battle of Hastings' which was published in the 1852 Sussex Archaeological Collections. His theory is rooted in the Chronicle of Battle Abbey for which he was the first translator. CBA says that the Normans dressed for battle at a place named Hechelande. It goes on to say that Hechelande was at or near Telham Hill. Lower suggested that the Normans attacked from this battle camp rather than along the Hastings Ridge crest.

One clue Lower might be right is that Wace says the Normans cross a valley and a stream during their attack. Some historians, Ramsay for one, think this valley refers to the dip in the Hastings Ridge between Battle and Starr's Green. But the dip is just a 15m downward undulation in the constantly undulating crest of the Hastings Ridge. It is not a valley in the normal sense of the term and it has no stream. Wace and Carmen say that the enemy camps are visible to each other. Carmen says that the battlefield was untilled because of its roughness. Notwithstanding ambiguity about the valley, none of this would apply if the Normans attacked along the Hastings Ridge crest, but they would all apply if the Normans attacked from Telham Hill. If Lower is right, William's middle division would be to the Abbey's south rather to its southeast.

Lower's battlefield better matches the contemporary account battlefield descriptions, but makes less military sense. Why would William choose to fight on gloopy fields to the Abbey's south rather than the firm dry and relatively shallow Hastings Ridge crest to the Abbey's southeast? Creasy's narrative makes more military sense, but fails to match any but the most general of battlefield descriptions and it still has major holes. Perhaps the biggest flaw is that, like his predecessors, he proposes a straight shield wall with no flank protection. Faced with this defence, the Norman cavalry would simply ride around the open ends of the shield wall to lop off Harold's head in the first 15 minutes.

Edward Augustus Freeman was the first to describe a plausible defensive disposition, hidden away in his enormous three-volume 1869 reference 'The History of the Norman Conquest, Its Causes and Its Results'. His idea (above) was to stretch the English shield wall to the cross spur tips, where he says that the western flank would be protected by a ravine and the eastern flank by a boggy stream confluence. He proposed that the front of the shield wall was protected by a 2km palisade, the rear by the edge of the Andredsweald. His shield wall would have been 2km long and 150 metres deep, stretching from Saxon Wood in the west to Battle Sewage Works in the east (50.912, 0.477 to 50.917, 0.504). He clearly thought that John of Worcester's description of the English being "drawn up in a narrow place" was a mistake. His battle front is so long that William's middle division is attacking from the south and along the Hastings Ridge crest.

Freeman was the greatest Battle of Hastings scholar of his generation. His erudite and detailed analysis of the Norman Conquest became the standard reference for decades, although the section on the battle is probably the weakest part of his work. His towering reputation suppressed naysayers, even about some of his wilder speculations, most famously that the English contructed the palisade in a day. Tolerance of critics did not improve much after his death in 1892 because he left Thomas Archer as a Huxley-esque champion to swat detractors in his stead.

It is unfortunate then that nearly all of Freeman's novel battlefield theories are faulty. His nemesis was J H Round who had a running feud with Freeman and Archer. Round documented Freeman's errors in his 1895 book 'Feudal England'. His main gripe - other than that Freeman tried to bully historians into renaming the Battle of Hastings to the Battle of Senlac - was that the English had nowhere near enough time to build a 2km palisade. After all, Freeman says that the English were at Battle for less than a day. It is more likely to have taken a month to fell and trim 4000 trees with soft iron axes, drag the logs 2km uphill on a single track ridgeway, roll the logs to their ultimate location, and assemble the palisade. Practical considerations aside, as Round said, there would be no point in having a shield wall behind a palisade. Alas, this part of Freeman's theory could not be redacted because it was the base for the the rest of his battle narrative.

More relevant here, Round spotted that Freeman had passed off speculation as fact, supported his theories with falsified translations, hid weak reasoning with Homeric rhetoric, used biased interpretations of some contemporary account statements, and retrospectively hid retractions of false claims in footnotes. Round does not mention, perhaps because it would have been ungentlemanly, that Freeman also invented the ravine that is supposed to have protected Harold's western flank and that the 'boggy stream confluence' is easily firm enough to support mounted horses. It also transpired that the Andredsweald, which Freeman claims to have protected the English rear, was no closer than three miles from Battle. His theory that Harold chose to camp at Battle because it was on the Roman road to London got debunked when Ivan Margary found that the Rochester Roman road crossed the Brede at Sedlescombe and did not pass within 4km of Battle. And his right flank is out of viewing and hailing distance on the other side of the Hastings Ridge.

Hereford B George was an expert in mapping military history to geography. He applied this technique to many battlefields in his 1895 book 'Battlefields of English History'. Like everyone else, he struggled with the Battle of Hastings, failing to match events to the geography at Battle. His excuse was that: "the appearance of it [the landscape] has been so much changed, that reconstruction of its condition at the date of the battle must again be imperfect". He was also frustrated by apparent conflicts in the contemporary account battlefield descriptions: "Beyond this one can only conjecture, as one statement seems more probable than another". His compromises resulted in an engagement scenario very similar to Freeman's. His shield wall is similar to Freeman's only shifted west by 30m (above). It is open enough at the eastern end for the Normans to ride around unhindered. Presumably, he thought that something now removed was there to prevent flanking in 1066.

Freeman says of the army size that: "I fear that the exact number, or even any approach to the exact number, either of the Norman invaders or the English defenders, is one of the things that historians must, however unwillingly, leave uncertain." Yet, he was clearly hedging because a 2km shield wall would need 3000 men per rank and it was many ranks deep. Freeman points out that some contemporary accounts describe the English spears as looking like a forest, so perhaps 8 to 10 ranks deep. Oman reckoned 10 to 12. Using the same model, in the first edition of his book, Oman estimated that Harold had 25,000 men. Presumably, whatever he said, Freeman was thinking along similar lines.

The larger the armies, the easier it is to devise a defendable position at Battle but the worse the match to the contemporary account battlefield descriptions and the more fanciful the logistics of getting men and horses across the Channel to disembark in less than a day. It is generally accepted now that the armies were much smaller, usually between 6,000 and 8,000, and almost never more than 10,000. The first to calculate the logistics that impose the 10,000 cap was Sir James Ramsay, published in his 1898 book 'The Foundations of England'.

Ramsay's book also contained a new engagement scenario. He noticed that while some contemporary accounts say that the English were attacked in their camp, others reckon that they were on the move when they encountered the enemy. He therefore deduced, for the first time as far as we know, that the English camped at Caldbec Hill. He proposed that they were heading towards Hastings when they encountered the Normans coming the other way. As Carmen suggests, he thinks they immediately occupied the nearest hill, which happened to be at the place now known as Battle. This part of his theory has a wide following, including English Heritage.

Based on this, Ramsay devised new troop dispositions (above), with the English deployed as "three sides of a square" on the southern side of the Hastings Ridge. His proposed shield wall is more compact than predecessors, closer to the summit and followed the contours to make it all on rising ground. If he had enclosed the fourth side, it would not be dissimilar to the enclosed loop shield wall that we once considered as by far the least unlikely troop disposition at Battle Abbey. As it stands, totally implausibly, it allows the Normans to ride up the Hastings Ridge crest unhindered and lop off Harold's undefended head while the shield wall faces in the wrong direction.

One of Freeman's confederates was Major E. Renouard James who provided topographic advice. It sounds like he was ashamed of his involvement. Forty years later he said:  "As to my share in it, I can only vouch for the comparative topographical accuracy (the Ordnance 6-inch map did not then exist), but disclaim all responsibility for the way in which the position of Harold and the details of the battle are shown." He commissioned Frank Henry Baring to make a new topographic survey - above with extract below - and wrote a military study with troop dispositions for the 1909 Royal Engineer's Journal. It is still popular today. R Allen Brown considered it the standard engagement scenario as recently as 1982 according to his book 'The Battle of Hastings'.

 

James subscribes to Lower's theory that the Normans attacked from the south with William's middle division south of the Abbey. He reckons the English had 8,000 to 10,000 fighting men in a gentle curve south of the Abbey. He depicts the shield wall with what soldiers refer to as 'refused' flanks that bend back on themselves. The idea is that they come close enough to streams that the Norman cavalry could not squeeze through the gap. They could still have outflanked the English line by crossing downstream and James offers no explanation for why they did not. He just says that Harold must have known that they would not try to outflank the defence, so something must have been there to discourage them. Nothing springs to mind.

Baring wrote his own Battle of Hastings analysis as an Appendix to his Domesday Tables, first published in 1909. His engagement scenario is broadly similar to James' but he expands that that the slope north of the English line was steep enough to discourage the Normans from outflanking the English line. Baring does not give a reason why they would not simply ride 200m past that slope onto the ridge crest from where they could attack Harold from behind and above. It has not stopped lots of his successors jumping on his bandwagon, claiming that the steep slope north of the church prevented the Normans outflanking the defence. But it is crossed by two public footpaths - ending at St Mary's graveyard and Tony Robinson's bench - that even geriatric old crocks like ourselves can climb. Virile Norman treasure hunters would barely have noticed it was there.

James was not the only Freeman associate to have a change of heart. In the first edition of his standard military reference 'A History of the Art of War 378  - 1515', published in the mid-1880s, Charles Oman agreed with pretty much everything that Freeman said. For example, he describes the shield wall as "a mile long and 150 yards broad". In the second edition, published in 1924, the shield wall had been reduced to 1km by 50m with deeply refused flanks. Considering that the non-fighting part of the refused flanks would have thinned the line by 25%, presumably Oman was thinking that it is more difficult to outflank. As far as we can see, it just means the Norman cavalry would have to ride an extra 250m, which is nothing in this context. Never the less, Oman's 1924 disposition was adopted by the U.S. Military Academy, whose reworking (below) is used by Wikipedia.

So, by the end of the 1920s, nearly all the variables were in place. Everyone puts the pivot point of their shield wall 80m or so south of the Abbey. Everyone extends their shield wall east and west along the cross ridge. Some think the armies had 25,000 or more fighters, others as few as 5,000, and all sorts in between. Some have the shield wall as long as 2km, some as short as 400m, and all sorts between. Some have the shield wall straight, some curved. In later years, some had it doglegging. Some have refused flanks, some not. Some have the Normans attacking along the Hastings Ridge crest to the Abbey's southeast, some have them attacking from the Abbey's south. Some have the English attacked in their camp, some while they were on the march. Each relies on a different combination of ravines, bogs, steep slopes and/or impenetrable woodland - none of which are there now - to prevent the Normans outflanking the English line. There is no consensus beyond that the battlefield surrounded Battle Abbey.

A H Burne did a thorough review of earlier engagement theories, contemporary and modern, in his 1950 reference book 'Battlefields of England'. He reached much the same conclusion as us, that there is a "disparity of views". His summary of the best known shield wall troop dispositions is shown at the top of this blog. As he says: "How are we to judge between such eminent authorities? When the doctors disagree, who shall decide?"

Burne tried to be Surgeon General himself, going back to basics to recalculate the most likely events for himself. Alas, it just begat yet another different engagement scenario (above) with one of the shortest shield walls. It is similar to that described, but not depicted, in Frank Stenton's standard reference book 'Anglo-Saxon England' first published in 1943. They, like most post-war studies accept Spatz's calculation that neither army had more than 7,000 fighting men, although Lawson is a noticeable recent exception.

According to the staff at Battle Abbey, Colonel Lemmon's 1956 engagement scenario (above) is the most credible, perhaps because he ingeniously places William's middle division between the Hastings Ridge crest and the line from Telham Hill, trying to encompass both the main attack theories. In our opinion, it fails to match either of them. We suspect that it was the only battlefield map that the Abbey had for sale ... in which case the pitch worked because we bought it.

The dogleg shaped shield wall (above) was derived by Stephen Morillo as a synthesis of other proposed shields walls and published in his 1996 book 'The Battle of Hastings: Sources and Interpretations '. Other engagement scenarios get published every few years. Here are the diagrams from Lace, McLynn and DeVries, bringing us up to date.

Historians are too polite to openly criticize each other, although the spat between Round, Freeman and Archer came close. In this case, actions speak louder than words. The constant flow of new and different shield wall dispositions shows that none of them accept any of their predecessors' theories. Nor should they. The fact is that there is no way to match a majority of the contemporary account battlefield descriptions to the geography at Battle. Each proposal, exactly as H B George says, arbitrarily favours one set of accounts over the others. The are enough variables for there to be hundreds of permutations, none more credible than the rest.

None of the above makes much difference because the elephant in the room is that all the shield wall dispositions shown here and elsewhere are susceptible to a Norman loop attack, allowing them to attack Harold from behind and above. One possible route is depicted above, superimposed on our interpretation of the shield walls described above. This route is entirely on dry ridgeways, bar a two foot wide stream in a shallow valley. The photo below is of us standing astride this stream where the Normans would have crossed. They would not not even have noticed it. The route is under two miles long. Given any of the shield wall disposition that has been proposed at Battle hitherto, the battle would have been over in less than 30 minutes.

Historians have an explanation for all this, excusing William’s failure to outflank, envelope or oblique order attack by saying it was uncommon in 1066. James, for example, says: Flank attacks were but little practised in 1066, and Harold did not think of one as possible”, Burne that: “Enveloping or flanking moves were seldom attempted”. This is true of pure infantry battles because both sides are similarly mobile, but it is patently not true when infantry comes up against cavalry. Forming hollow squares or circles to prevent getting flanked by cavalry was standard military practice for Romans and Byzantines. Harald Hardrada looped his shield wall just two weeks previously, to prevent getting flanked by the English cavalry. In our opinion, medieval military commanders were obsessed by protecting their flanks or attacking the enemy's flanks. William and Harold would be no exception.

Hanging over all these battlefield location theories is Margary's discovery that the main road from the Hastings Peninsula to London (via Rochester) did not pass along the Hastings Ridge, which means that Harold is unlikely to have chosen it for a camp. Then there are the eleven clues that suggest the English were fighting in an enclosed loop, Baudri's claim that the shield wall was wedge shaped, Malmesbury's claim that the English used rolled stones as deadly weapons, and so on. We list some 30 such clues in our main Sedlescombe Battlefield blog that do not match the traditional battlefield. Most historians ignore them, while others say that they must be mistaken for no reason other than that they do not match the topology at Battle. It would be an awful lot of mistakes.

In our opinion, the battlefield clues in the contemporary accounts do not match the geography at Battle because the battlefield is not at Battle. This is not contradicting historians any more than they contradict each other, because they all contradict - in actions if not in words - every single one of the other proposed troop dispositions. As Burne says, it is a case of "quot homines tot sententiae", there are as many opinions as there are men.

The only aspect of the battlefield upon which all historians agree is that it surrounds Battle Abbey. The only reason they believe this is the seven contemporary accounts that say, or can be interpreted to be saying, that the Abbey was built on the battlefield. So, we are not contradicting historians but the meaning and/or the integrity of these seven accounts. It is a whole other story that we address in our Traditional Battlefield blog here.


Extracts used from our Battle of Hastings library

Augustin Thierry - Histoire de la Conquête de l'Angleterre par les Normands, 1827
Creasy - Fifteen Decisive Battles, Richard Bentley, 1851
Lower - Observations on the landing of William the Conqueror, Sussex Archaeological Collections, 1849
Lower - On the Battle of Hastings, Sussex Archaeological Collections, 1852
Freeman - The History of the Norman Conquest, Its Causes and Its Results, Clarendon, 1869
Oman - A History of the Art of War 378  - 1515, Methuen; First Edition 1885, Second Edition 1924
Round - Mr. Freeman and the Battle of Hastings, EHR, 1894
Round - Feudal England, Swan Sonnenstein, 1895
George - Battles of English History, Methuen & Co, 1895
Ramsay - The Foundations of England, Swan Sonnenschein, 1898
Round - The Battle of Hastings, Sussex Archæological Collections, (vol. 42) 1899
Major James - The Battle of Hastings, The Royal Engineers Journal, January 1907
Stenton - Anglo-Saxon England, Oxford University Press, 1943
Burne - The Battlefields of England, Methuen, 1950
Fuller - Military History of the Western World, 1954
Colonel Lemmon - The Field of Hastings, Budd & Gillatt, 1956
R. A. Brown - The Battle of Hastings, Anglo-Norman Studies, 1980
Lace - The Battle of Hastings, Greenhaven Press , 1996
Morillo - The Battle of Hastings. Sources and Interpretations, 1996
McLynn - 1066 The Year of Three Battles, Pimlico , 1999
DeVries - 1066 The Battle of Hastings, Medieval Warfare, 2017
Lawson - Observations upon a Scene in the Bayeux Tapestry, the Battle of Hastings and the Military System of the Late Anglo-Saxon State, Society for Medieval Military History, 2017