In one violent day of battle, England was transformed from an Anglo-Saxon land of earls and peasants to a conquered island nailed down by the will of a single man—William, Duke of Normandy. The 14 October 1066 Battle of Hastings was the final defeat for the Anglo-Saxon King Harold II, and at the moment he died, England became Norman ever after.
While the battle is well documented, there are still gaps in accounts of the amphibious invasion itself. How, in only a few months, did William assemble a huge army of 8,000 infantry and cavalry and—above all—build a fleet capable of carrying them across the stormy English Channel? “Aye,” as Shakespeare wrote, “there’s the rub.” Nearly a thousand years later, it remains, to the nautically minded, the most compelling element of the Norman Conquest.
In 1064, the heir apparent to the English throne—Harold Godwineson, the Earl of Wessex—traveled to Normandy, likely to secure the release of two kinsmen being held hostage. A land of Norse descendants with a rich warrior tradition, it was under the control of William, Duke of Normandy, bastard son of a noble father and commoner mother. He was thin-skinned, ambitious, and known as an ill man to cross.
William was convinced that Edward the Confessor, England’s king, had promised him the throne during a visit to England in 1051. Now, as King Edward’s nominal heir apparent, Harold, was brought before William in 1064, this earlier pledge allegedly was reaffirmed: According to Norman accounts, Harold swore on holy relics that upon Edward’s death, he would concede the crown to William. Whether he did this willingly or under duress is not known.
But when King Edward died in January 1066, the man who seized the throne was not William, but Harold. To a man as proud and ambitious as William, this was intolerable.
He began planning a daring and daunting invasion from the sea—an invasion destined to be a turning point in history.
The Pope’s Blessing—and a Need for Ships
Duke William faced an almost insurmountable challenge. In addition to forming an army of infantry and cavalry, in itself no small task, he had to assemble and build a fleet of ships capable of carrying his troops across the stormy English Channel and landing them on hostile shores. And it had to be done before winter. But William would prove to be gifted with the requisite amounts of capability and audacity to achieve the seemingly impossible.
Initially, this man who would be king was unsuccessful at raising the support of the Norman nobles for his invasion. Historian David Howarth claims in his book 1066: The Year of the Conquest that William’s “outraged pride gave them too much assurance and not enough persuasion.”
It was generally known that the English could mass a large fleet and at least 10,000 men at arms. But William declared, “Wars are not won by numbers but by courage.” He finally convinced Normandy’s nobles that Harold indeed had sworn on holy relics to give William the crown. Then he used two very powerful incentives—greed and the church. An invasion of England would mean great riches for the barons who supported him. But his greatest coup was in convincing Pope Alexander II of the righteousness of his claim. Receiving a papal blessing for a now ostensibly holy crusade was his most potent weapon in the war to come.
The Regent of France, Count Baldwin, provided French cavaliers and their horses, while William’s representatives scoured Brittany, Flanders, Burgundy, Aquitaine, and Poitou for veteran foot and mounted men-at-arms.
As for the vessels William would need for the channel crossing, his half-brother Bishop Odo promised 100 ships, while another half-brother, the Count of Mortain, pledged 120 more. The nobles of Montgomery and Eu offered 30 each. Soon the number rose to more than 800, but actually obtaining and building them was a far greater challenge. Thousands of woodcutters, carpenters, blacksmiths, and teamsters were recruited to cut and transport the timber for the fleet.
While the nobles bought, begged, borrowed, and probably stole every craft capable of carrying men or supplies to England, the woodcutters and carpenters began to build.
Ad Hoc Armada
William’s armada was a fleet in name only. Very few of the vessels were of a single type. Some were small wide-hulled fishing smacks of 20 feet with a crew of four, while others were 50 or more feet long. The largest were modeled on the classic Viking longships, while others were purely for carrying goods and cargo. One thing they all had in common was their basic construction: clinker-built with high stems and sterns, graceful with shallow draft. They could be elaborate with beautiful carvings or slapped together with no embellishment. According to Howarth, they “were economical in labor, but extremely wasteful of timber.”
The first challenge was in finding sufficient timber. Normandy, unlike most of France, had few large forests, actually less than 12 percent of the land area. Even a vessel of moderate size—that is, 40 feet or so—needed at least 20 large trees for the keel, stems, ribs, and planking. Larger ships required as many as 50 trees.
Before the invention of the pit saw, the only means of fashioning long planks was to cut the limbs from a sufficiently tall straight-grained oak tree, use wedges to split the trunk down its length, then use a broad axe to hew the outer curve down to a plank. But since only the heartwood was suitable for planks, the task required large-diameter trees. Few medieval woodcutters could make more than four planks from a single tree.
The sound of splitting wood and the sharp rings of mallets and axes reverberated as the smell of resin and fresh wood suffused the sea air. Blacksmiths toiled at forges to make thousands of iron pins and rivets. Keels and stems were fashioned from solid oak and T-shaped in cross-section, the wider dimension forming the outer surface. This provided a secure ledge for the clinker planking and attachment at bow and stern.
All rough shaping was done by axes and then refined with chisel and mallet. Keels were finished first and coated with linseed oil until the stems were attached by hook and scarf joints with three iron pins. The joins were caulked with tarred wool.
The planks were attached to the keel and bent to fit into the stems. Each plank slightly overlapped the one under it. Only after they had all been fitted were the ribs or frames put in. Usually formed of a single piece of timber, they provided transverse support to the hull and kept its shape. The lower curve of the ribs was “stepped” to fit snugly against the planks. All timbers were attached with iron rivets.
If a ship was to have a deck, beams and knees were fitted for the purpose, then planked.
Only the larger ships had a rudder—a large-bladed oar fitted on the right side of the stern, since most helmsmen were right-handed. The smaller boats could be steered by the oarsmen. Masts were single trunks of at least 30 feet for the large craft. Simple rigging guyed the mast, while the base fitted into a square hole cut into the thickest part of the keel.
Howarth believes most of the midsized vessels were built on a sort of assembly line. Some men cut ribs while others only hewed stems and keels. The Duke’s own ship, the Mora, was a gift from his wife, Matilda of Flanders. As seen in the Bayeux Tapestry, the Mora bore a stern figurehead of a small boy aimed toward England with a horn to his lips. At the masthead was the papal cross, declaring the blessing under which the invasion fleet sailed.
While all the craft had masts and a square sail made of colorful coarse wool reinforced with rope, many also had oarlocks, with the largest having at least 12 pairs.
Oars presented a problem. While they did allow a ship to be moved when the wind died, they required room for the oarsmen to sweep forward and aft. This made it imperative that the soldiers also serve as oarsmen, a task many must have felt far beneath their station. As for the large vessels carrying horses, oars were a serious encumbrance. The horses, already skittish on a rolling and pitching deck, would have shied at the rows of oars sweeping at their legs. It is likely the horse-carrying ships only had a sail or were towed by smaller vessels.
How many ships William had under his command is not known, but historical estimates range from 696 to several thousand. The Duke had an army of 4,000 infantry, 1,000 archers, and 3,000 cavalry. With the larger ships carrying 60 men and 10 horses, at least 300 would have been needed to carry the horses alone.
In a remarkably short time, by early August, the work was largely complete.
A Wind-Thwarted Crossing
Normandy’s coastline extended from the Cotentin Peninsula east past the Seine and Dives rivers, a distance of 165 miles. There were strong tides and few sheltered harbors. During the summer, the winds were nearly always out of the north or southeast—and William needed southwest winds to carry his fleet to the shores of England.
The army and fleet assembled at the mouth of the River Dives, just east of Caen and 100 miles from Beachy Head, William’s intended landing area on England’s shore.
It would take a day to load the ships, and, with a speed of about 5 knots, he needed a full night of steady winds. Every day, Duke William prayed in a Norman chapel and watched the weathervane on its tower for his prayers to be answered.
When on 12 August the weather seemed to be turning into the northeast, William had the ships loaded and manned. Food and weapons, armor and arrows, barrels of wine, sacks of dried meat and grain—all the impedimenta of medieval war were loaded as fast as possible. Pre-cut timbers were loaded for constructing a fort at the landing site. When the horses and their riders at last took their places on board the ships, William sent the word to sail north out of the mouth of the river and head for England.
But this first attempt at a crossing was ended when winds from the north forced them to seek shelter at Saint Valery at the mouth of the Somme, 60 miles from the English coast. While this was fortuitous, William was no longer in his own land. Even more frustrating was that he was trapped and unable to leave as long as the winds remained from the north.
Another month passed as the discouraged army remained encamped along the river estuary. Time was running out for the Duke. He was certain King Harold was aware of the impending invasion and assembling his own army.
William was right. After convincing the earls of Sussex, Hull, Wight, and Dover of the danger, Harold had been amassing a force of about 8,000 foot soldiers. They were the earls’ professional housecarls and militia fyrds armed with axes, swords, spears, and clubs, and outfitted with helmets, chain mail, and leather armor. The army was contracted for two months of service, meaning in the event that no invasion materialized, the soldiers could go home in mid-August.
With the square sails in use across northern Europe, ships could not sail close to the wind. At best they could sail with the wind abaft the beam. Therefore, southwest winds on the Channel guaranteed the Normans would have to land somewhere east of the Isle of Wight.
Logically assuming William would arrive off the English coast in the early summer, Harold used his fleet of 400 boats and ships to carry the majority of his army to the south shore of the Isle of Wight and east to Hyde, Hastings, Beachy Head, and Pevensey.
Harold’s vessels were light and easy to row. With most of them pulled up on shore and a few remaining in the water for rapid use, the army watched and waited. It took only one man to raise the alarm while the others called in the troops.
Harold never intended to use his fleet to intercept William at sea and fight him there. The Norman and English ships were intended only to move troops and, in William’s case, horses.
King Harold waited in Bosham in Chichester (where he had been raised). The town was on a peninsula only 60 miles from London. As the summer dragged on with no invasion in sight, his troops became bored and impatient to return to their homes. Yet, even though their period of enlistment had ended on 14 August, they remained longer. And by early September, it appeared that Harold had miscalculated.
His plan had been to pinpoint the landing site, then send the army at the Isle of Wight east by sea to cut off and destroy the invading fleet while his land troops cut off the Norman advance. All in all, it was a sound plan. But as history often proves, no plan survives first contact. And in this case, that contact came from an entirely unexpected enemy.
In what has to be one of the most extraordinary coincidences in history, another invading fleet was landing—200 miles north of London.
Enter the Vikings
The invaders were Vikings under King Harold Hardrada of Norway. The new king of England’s exiled brother, the mentally unstable and devious Tostig Godwineson, had recruited the Vikings to invade so he could overthrow his brother and claim the crown. Hardrada’s men were always ready to attack and invade England and were, even more important, experienced seamen. They had a ready fleet of 300 longships and an army of battle-hardened warriors. After two days’ sailing across the North Sea, the Vikings landed at the mouth of the River Tyne in Northumbria.
The date was 9 September, the day after Harold Godwineson’s troops began returning home, convinced there was no chance the Normans could invade before the vernal equinox and summer’s end. On that very day, Duke William was contemplating his disgrace. If the winds did not shift into the north, he would have to disband his army and abandon the fleet.
Hardrada’s fierce warriors, meanwhile, stormed into Scarborough and began a rampage of burning, looting, and killing. King Harold was in London, planning what to do now that his army was going home. Upon hearing the alarming news, he sent out a call, hastily assembled a force of 6,000 men, and marched north to fight the invaders. After a savage battle at Stamford Bridge on 25 September, both Hardrada and Tostig were dead. The Norsemen had been decimated, with less than a tenth surviving to limp back to Norway.
On the evening of 26 September, the day after the battle, William spied the banners fluttering over his ships. The wind was hard, steady, and right out of the south. God at last had heard his pleas. Without pausing for more than a fervent prayer of thanks, he ordered the ships loaded and prepared to move out. Amid shouts and curses, the whinny of horses, the flapping of sails, and the creak of wood, the feverish loading continued until the entire army was on board. William and his staff, which included his half-brothers Bishop Odo and Robert of Mortain, climbed aboard the deck of his flagship Mora.
Landfall at Pevensey
It was late afternoon on the 27th when the Mora’s sail was loosed and she slid north out of the Somme estuary. “The Duke,” Howarth writes, “sent a herald to the other ships to wait until they saw the lantern at his masthead in the night. They were to make sail and follow.” The invasion fleet was on its way, with the Mora’s pilot steering by Polaris, the North Star.
At that time of the year the nights were long. William did not want to reach the English coast until dawn, so that visibility would be better for landing. At an average speed of 5 knots, it would take about 12 hours to cross the 60 miles of open sea. The night was bitterly cold, and the soldiers, not being accustomed to boats, were nervous but eager. The months of work and waiting were over.
The invasion army’s objective was a sheltered harbor with a sufficient beach for landing and a serviceable route inland. William was aiming for Hastings. But navigating blindly across the Channel at night while staying close together was not an easy task. The Mora’s pilot had to find a known landmark and use it to guide him while the other ships followed.
Hours passed with the sound of water under the hulls, flapping sails, and the murmur of voices. Horses snorted and oars creaked. The only light visible was the yellow glow of the Mora’s masthead lamp.
But when the early glow of dawn erased the stars to the east, there was no sign of the white cliffs of Dover. Even worse, the Mora was alone. Not a single mast or sail could be seen.
The sail was lowered, and the Mora waited while the Duke, concealing his frustration, ate breakfast. As the fastest ship in the fleet, the Mora had simply outdistanced the others, especially the heavily loaded cavalry transports. And as dawn rose, a forest of masts and acres of sail now appeared to the south. The fleet rejoined the flagship.
With Beachy Head finally sighted, the fleet headed in. The ships made landfall at Pevensey at about 0900. An ancient Roman fort dominated the harbor, but no English soldiers were waiting to oppose the invading force. The cavalry took to their mounts, jumped into the shallow water, and moved ashore—the first Normans to invade England. William had done the impossible.
A Kingdom Gained
As Harold and his men marched south—victorious but tired after their clash with the Vikings—a courier arrived with the portentous news that Duke William of Normandy had landed his army at Pevensey. At that moment, Harold must have begun to doubt that God had anointed his reign. With no other choice, he urged his men forward and sent out a call for more troops.
After his unchallenged landing at Pevensey, the Duke ordered the timbers unshipped to construct a wooden fort as a bastion against an attack from the sea. Then he led his 8,000 archers, soldiers, and cavalry into Sussex, arriving at Hastings a day before Harold. The date was Friday, 13 October 1066.
Hastings was in a narrow valley between two hills, Caldbec and Telham. King Harold’s army of 8,000 housecarls and fyrd militia took positions on Senlac Ridge. Exhausted but angered by yet another invasion, his troops were ready to fight. But the Duke of Normandy had significant advantage: heavy cavalry, archers, and the blessing of the Pope. After the remarkable summer and subsequent events, William had absolutely no doubt that God was with him. Fair winds, following seas, and a quickly built but most worthy fleet had brought him to the hour of victory and the conquest of a kingdom. And the following day, the two armies of King Harold and Duke William met for the fateful battle that would change the course of history.
Lars Brownworth, The Normans, From Raiders to Kings (Surrey, UK: Crux Publishing, 2014).
David Howarth, 1066: The Year of the Conquest (New York: Dorset Press, 1993).
“How to Organise a Norman Invasion Fleet,” English Heritage.
Bjorn Landstrom, The Ship (London: Allen & Unwin, 1961).
Marc Morris, The Norman Conquest, the Battle of Hastings and the Fall of Anglo-Saxon England (London: Atlantic Books, 2008).
Rudolf Poertner, The Vikings: Rise and Fall of the North Sea Kings, 9th to 13th Centuries (New York: St. Martin’s, 1975).
“Viking Ship Construction,” Regia Anglorum.
“William the Conqueror and the Channel Crossing of 1066,” Medievalists.net.