It was no secret that William intended to invade England. He had sent an insulting demand that Harold pay him homage and the gathering of the troops and ships had northern France in turmoil, causing Harold to assemble a powerful army along the Sussex coast in defence.
William’s fleet lay ready to cross the Channel, after being held in port for the duration of the summer by contrary winds, when Harold received the news that a Norwegian army led by King Harald Hadrada with Harold’s renegade brother Tostig had landed in Yorkshire after sailing up the Ouse. Harold marched his army north and routed the invaders at the battle of Stamford Bridge, in which both Harald Hadrada and Tostig were killed.
The timing could not have been worse for the Saxons. The winds changed and William’s fleet crossed the Channel, landing on the Saxon coast unopposed on 28th September 1066. Harold received the news of the Norman landing in York soon after his triumph over the Norse invaders and determined to march south immediately to do battle with William. Harald Hadrada’s army had been nearly annihilated in the savage fighting at Stamford Bridge but the Saxons had suffered significant losses. The King’s brother, Earl Gurth, urged a delay while further forces were assembled but Harold was determined to show his country that their new king could be relied upon to defend the realm decisively against every invader.
Safely landed at Pevensey Bay, William built a fortification and then moved further east to Hastings; his troops ravaging the countryside which was known to be part of Harold’s personal earldom. The Saxon army arrived in the area on 13th October 1066 and established a position on a hill north west of Hastings, known subsequently as Senlac (sang lac or lake of blood); putting up a rough fence of sharpened stakes along his line, fronted by a ditch. Harold issued orders as compelling as he could make them that, when throughout the battle, his army was not to move from this position, whatever the provocation. Early on 14th October 1066 William moved forward with his army to attack the Saxon position, the Normans in the centre flanked on the left by the Bretons and on the right by the rest of the French.
The battle was fought over the rest of the day, a savage fight with heavy casualties on each side. The issue in the balance until late in the afternoon; marked by repeated cavalry attacks on the Saxon position by William’s cavalry, violently repelled until the final assaults. The Normans found the Saxon warriors with their battle axes, and in particular Harold’s “housecarles”, a formidable enemy. There were many accounts of knights with their horses being hacked in pieces by these terrible weapons wielded in great swinging blows.
At around midday an assault developed on the Saxon camp causing a section of Harold’s line to retreat in confusion. Reaching the top of an incline the Saxons turned on the pursuing Normans, held up by a ditch across their front, and drove them back with considerable loss. In the early afternoon William’s left flank of Bretons gave way, to be pursued down the hill by the fyrd they had been attacking. This break in the line, that Harold had so adamantly warned against, gave the Normans the opportunity to break into the Saxon position at the top of the slope. The incessant Norman attacks began to break up Harold’s army; the barrage of arrows taking a heavy toll, in particular wounding Harold in the eye.