The most anticipated gaming event of the year took place last weekend, when we gathered at a friend´s summer cottage to re-fight the battle of Hastings. I had been preparing miniatures all year, contributing over 300 of the roughly 700 miniatures involved. Several club members had built a custom, pro-level ridge specifically for the game, whilst our host Kalle had put together a great barbecue and heated the lake-side sauna. The perfect weekend was rounded out with some top quality single malt, cuban cigars and banter with the mates. This is wargaming at its best!
Anyway, on to the gaming part. Our scenario was a pretty straight-forward pitched battle using Hail Caesar rules. The Normans had a daunting task of attacking up-hill against the formidable Anglo-Saxon army - aiming not only to break the enemy, but also to kill the three Godwinson brothers who had usurped the English crown. Deployment can be seen in the diagram below. The full scenario, together with orders of battle can be found here..
As the sun´s first golden rays crested the woods to the east, the Anglo-Saxon army was a bustle of excited action. Harold had reached Senlac Hill late in the evening together with his vanguard of huscarls and thegns. His elite warriors had taken up positions along a neck of land between two woods, where they had spent the night. All through the night detachment of the fyrd and stragglers had joined Harold´s army, which had grown to a formidable size. And then the enemy had been sighted.
The Norman army had crested the opposite hill just moments before and, with remarkable alacrity, started to form up ready for battle. "Blasted invaders!" -Harold thought to himself. He needed more time, for much of the Fyrd had yet to arrive. The Normans were eager for a fight, and Harold´s men knew it. Skins of ale were being passed around to bolster morale and many were anxiously fidgeting with their equipment. Some of the men started a raucous song whilst others were content to simply cheer or bang their shields. A few of the braver Normans rode out to throw their javelins or to issue a challenge, whilst a few of the more fool-hardy thegns broke ranks to meet them.
Whilst this show was taking place, the Norman army had marshalled itself into position. A Norman lord on a magnificent white destrier, whom Harold assumed to be his nemesis, strode in front of the invader´s ranks and held a short speech. Harold could not make out what was said, but the baying of the Normans told him that the speech had been a good one. The Anglo-Saxons started a cry of their own to echo the enemy and soon horn blowers on both sides joined in. With that, the Normans started their advance and the battle was under way.
Accompanied by the cacophony of noise, but in good order, the Norman army advanced. In the fore were a scattering of archers and crossbowmen, who were followed closely behind by rank upon rank of spearmen supported by William´s best troops - his cavalry. At 150 paces the advance slowed down and at 100 paces it came to a halt. The Norman archers commenced their deadly work and released flight after flight of steel-tipped death upon the foe. This barrage lasted for no longer than 10-15 minutes, but for the defenders the hellish ordeal seemed an eternity. With few archers of their own, the Anglo-Saxons were forced to weather the storm cowering under their shields. The scared warriors could see little, but had to endure the terrible noises of death: the fluttering of volley after volley followed by the thumps and rattle of shafts striking shields and the screams of those that were hit. The centre of the Anglo-Saxon line bore the brunt of the barrage, but all-in-all the shooting did little damage.
William did not have the luxury (nor the ammunition) to stand back all day and let his archers do the dirty work. Besides, such a tactic might be seen as craven by some! The order was given for the infantry to advance. As the archers retreated to get more ammunition, the spearmen behind them pushed forward and started scaling the hill. Unfortunately, the assault did not proceed in as concerted a manner as William had hoped. Both flanks dithered: the Bretons on the left being thrown into some confusion by Anglo-Saxon skirmishers on their flank, whilst the Flemish on the right seemed to have brought larger reserves of arrows and thus continued to fire even as they should have been advancing.
As the spearmen approached to within 20 paces, the Anglo-Saxons finally got a chance to retaliate. A torrent of spears and rocks pelted the Normans, who advanced into contact with the enemy centre. The clash proved brutal, with both sides taking heavy casualties. A few Norman units were thrown back in disarray, but the bulk refused to yield their toe-hold on the ridge. The dead and dying lay in heaps, trampled under foot with no way to get out. The dew-wet grass was becoming slick with blood, and warriors that slipped did not get up again.
Despite fighting up-hill, William´s men were slowly gaining the upper hand. Foot by foot the Anglo-Saxon shield wall fell back until suddenly, a breaking point was reached. What had started with a few slinkers and supposedly wounded warriors leaving the back ranks turned into a full rout in the blink of an eye. Seeing the thegns to their front fleeing was too much for the levy behind them, which joined their superiors in abandoning the field. The Anglo-Saxon line had been breached!
Harold was quick to react to the crisis however, and sent in half of his huscarl reserve. The worst was averted, the breach was closed. Exhausted by the effort, the Normans did not press their advantage and were content to reform and rotate the units. Fresh infantry was brought forward.
The lull was only momentary, and soon the lines clashed for a second time. The Anglo-Saxon centre buckled again, but this time it did not break. The battle ebbed and flowed on the crest for some time but, together with the rising sun, Harold´s men found their courage. Soon it was the Norman´s turn to retreat, tripping over the dead from the first engagement. The exertion and horrors proved too much as first one and then a second unit of Normans discarded their weapons and fled the field. Other units retreated in good order and some even managed to cling onto the ridge. The jubilant Anglo-Saxons did not pursue down the hill, where William´s knight and archers waited. Re-supplied, the archers resumed their deadly trade, raining death on the tired defenders while the infantry rallied behind them. For the moment, the centre had come to a stand-still.
At the same time as the centre clashed for a second time, the Norman flanks finally managed to close with the enemy. Late to the fight, these flanks tried to make up for their tardiness with ferociousness. Where the centre had come into contact with a measured advance, the Flemish spearmen on the right hurled themselves at the enemy. This was a fight worthy of the bards, had they not all been killed in that epic clash. Many men fell on both sides but in the end, the Flemish were thrown back in disarray just like the Normans in the centre. The silver lining was that the jubilant defenders were not much better for wear.
Meanwhile on the left, the Bretons tried something different. Count Brian, commander of the Bretons, decided to commit his cavalry early on and assaulted the ridge with a mixed force of infantry and knights. The tactic proved better than that employed by the Flemish, but with pig-headed stupidity the stubborn defenders endured. Expecting to cut through the enemy like a knife goes through butter or a lance goes through a peasant, the Breton knights were horrified at the resolve of the enemy. Victory turned into ignominious defeat as the two elite knight units routed (as it was, this happened while their commander - our host - was away heating the sauna)! This set-back forced William to commit two thirds of his cavalry reserve to the left flank to aid the Bretons.
AfternoonThe Norman attack had been repulsed on all sectors, but William was far from beaten. Although dilatory combat continued on both flanks, the Normans spent the early hours of the afternoon regrouping their spent forces and peppering the Anglo-Saxons (who were also regrouping) with arrows and crossbow bolts. At the same time, William was marshalling his cavalry in preparation for a renewed offensive.
The majestic call of ten silver clarions pierced the air, signalling to all that it had come time to settle the matter once and for all. The thunder of hooves drowned out all other sounds save for those ten angelic horns, and with that the heart of each and every Saxon was gripped by fear.
And right they were to fear the cavalrymen! Half a lifetime and generations of upbringing had gone into moulding these knights into the ultimate tool of war. This fusion of steel and sinew directed by a single, steady hand and keen warrior-instinct, was a power that could move mountains. These were the angels of retribution who would chastise Harold and his minions for usurping the crown.
Like a thunderbolt the formidable knights struck. All along the line the steel-clad angels of death clove into the enemy. One by one the Anglo-Saxon units crumpled up like rotten apples under the horses´ steely hooves. A second, larger breach had been made in the centre of Harold´s line whilst the Bretons on the left had started to turn the enemy´s flank. Victory was at hand, and the only thing slowing the knights down were the heaps of dead that the horses had to scale to get at the recoiling enemy. It was glorious!
Yet, fortune is fickle. We decided to take a break and head for the sauna. Half a bottle and a very fine cigar later we were back, and suddenly the situation didn´t look so rosy any more. True, the Anglo-Saxons were all but routed, but the Normans weren´t much better for wear. For some reason a lot of "shaken" and "disordered" markers had cropped around the victorious Normans - and it was the Anglo-Saxon´s turn (again?). During the interval, Harold had cooled his nerves by taking a dip
in the almost freezing lake outside. Gone was the fear. Gone was the hesitation. Gone was the Normans´ great moment.
The usurper committed his final reserve - the last of the huscarls. Promptly these stalwart warriors charged the exhausted knights and hewed them down with their great axes. Like the curtains closing at the end of some sick Greek tragedy full of incest and death, William saw the breach in the Anglo-Saxon line shut. Only the court jester stood to clap as everything William had fought so hard to accomplish was snatched from him. With a cry of rage, the mighty warrior charged the enemy with what knights he had remaining - his closest companions. The Anglo-Saxon army was near breaking point, and perhaps one last charge would tip the scales.
The enemy were near. 60 paces ... 50 ... 40... William could hear the panting of his destrier, could feel its flanks heaving and the rhythmic beat of its hooves ... 30 ... 20 ... he could feel his heart racing, hear his hoarse cry as if coming from afar ... 10 ... this was it ... 0.
With a horrendous crash the Norman lord and his men slammed into the enemy. William´s right shoulder jolted backwards as his lance struck a large man square in the chest. Splinters were everywhere and instinctively he dropped what remained of his lance and went for his sword. Something struck William´s shield. The warlord instinctively directed his mount left and forward. The weight of the horse drove the assailant backwards and a low jab was enough to slay the stunned man.
The triumphant moment was short-lived, however, for suddenly the destrier let out a horrible scream and reared backwards. The Norman hero gripped the rains tighter and leaned forward but there was little he could do. Down went man and beast. The horse, which had been struck by one of the large dane-axes, came crashing down on William´s leg and hip, and a searing pain told him that something had broken. "This is it" - he thought, as two of the Saxon barbarians closed in with axes ready.
Yet it was not the end. Seeing their lord felled, Raymond fitzOsbern and several squires raced to the rescue. The Normans pushed the huscarls back with the weight of their horses, while several others hefted the mangled destrier off William and helped the lord onto Raymond´s horse. William struggled to stay conscious as he was led backwards. On the ground lay the dead, so many dead, and from somewhere far away he could hear a clarion. "We must attack!" - was his final thought, as darkness overwhelmed him.
EpilogueTwo weeks had passed since Harold´s great victory, yet Osbreth had little to celebrate. He had been forced to quarter some of the victorious soldiers at his farm ever since, as Harold kept his army mobilized in case of future attacks. Rumour had it that that frog-eating bastard William was alive and that he had been ferried across the sea a few days after the battle. Many of the enemy ships had certainly departed, though some still remained to garrison the motte at Hastings. Whatever the case, the jubilant soldiers were intolerable "guests" - eating up the winter stores, abusing the womenfolk and wrecking places.
While the soldiers spent the time drinking and enjoying the comforts of his home, Osbreth and other peasants were forced to dig graves and bury the dead. The soldiers originally tasked with this had been content to bury their own, after which the peasants had been put to work. There was not even anything left to loot on the now bloated corpses, after Harold´s jubilant men had picked the dead and dying clean. With a sigh, Osbreth hoisted another poor soul into the mass grave. From the corner of his eye, he caught something glimmer amongst the bundle of foetid flesh and bones below. The ragged man scrambled to the bottom of the pit and inspected the corpse which had opened up with the fall. There were five silver coins within the dead man´s belly. The wounded man must have swallowed them before his death in the hopes of keeping them from looters. Osbreth smiled, perhaps this would be a good day after all.