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On Tuesday, our Year 8 History students stepped back in time 953 years, to re-enact the Battle of Hastings between King Harold of England and William, Duke of Normandy.
It was all part of a Medieval History incursion day, which brought the battle to life in all its fascinating and gory detail, as well as giving the students a colourful overview of medieval times.
Student volunteers stepped into the roles of the newly enthroned Anglo-Saxon King, Harold Godwineson, William Duke of Normandy (who became more commonly known as William the Conqueror) and their soldiers. They had to put on the heavy chain mail suits and conical helmets (or helms as they were called) with their flat, fixed nasal plates that were typical of the time. They also had an opportunity to wield proper steel swords, heavy axes and fierce looking spears.
As the students learnt, Harold and his troops had already successfully fought off a challenge from Harold Hardrada, King of Norway, by winning the Battle of Stamford Bridge in Yorkshire. His forces were tired and depleted when, only three days later, they had to face a second challenge. They were forced to march down south to do battle with William, Duke of Normandy, who had landed with his army at Pevensey in Sussex.
The students were fascinated to learn that half the army in medieval times were women. And while they fought for the honour of protecting their homeland and families, one of the biggest drawcards was the opportunity to loot the dead bodies on the battlefields afterwards.
Students were interested to find out how to successfully swing a sword while riding a horse – without decapitating their steed in the process!
They also found out why the kite-shaped, wooden shields, with their colourful coats of arms, had sheepskin padding. Apparently, without this, the force of a sword strike could turn a person’s arm black at the very least!
The Battle of Hastings, which was fought on open land, south of the dense Wealden forest on 14 October 1066, is one of the best-known events in England’s history. Here William of Normandy defeated the army of King Harold of England. This battle changed the entire course of not just English, but European history. England would be ruled by an oppressive foreign aristocracy, which in turn would influence the entire ecclesiastical and political institutions of Christendom.
The students learnt how the English army, led by King Harold, took up their position on Senlac Hill near Hastings, forcing William to attack with cavalry, as well as infantry. In the classic English manner, Harold’s well-trained troops all fought on foot behind their mighty and virtually impenetrable shield wall.
The fighting continued for most of the day with the shield wall unbroken, until a rumour ran through the Norman ranks that William had been killed. The sight of retreating Normans lured the English away from their defensive positions. As they broke ranks in pursuit of the enemy, they were vulnerable to cavalry attack. The shield-wall now had breaks in it.
And as Harold was to discover, ‘When you play the game of thrones you win or you die!’
Of course, Harold’s death at Hastings by an arrow to the eye remains one of the most enduring ‘facts’ in English history. Accounts from the years immediately following Hastings make no mention of an arrow when describing Harold’s death and although the Bayeux Tapestry supports the ‘arrow in the eye’ story, it remains the subject of much dispute.
For the students, learning about ‘1066 and all that’ made for a fascinating day! And whether it was one in the eye for Harold or not, they all learnt a lot about Medieval times.
Bravo History Department!