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A Race of Predators (William the Conqueror, 2/3)

Updated: May 12

How Norman Knights forged an innovative martial culture that won the Battle of Hastings, conquered England, and changed medieval warfare forever.


“Fortune favors the bold”

– Ovid, Ancient Roman Poet


Seven Thousand Men


In his swashbuckling History of the English Speaking Peoples, Winston Churchill writes this: “During the summer of 1066… a great gathering of audacious buccaneers, land-hungry, war-hungry, assembled in merry company.”  

 

On the northwest French coastline at the port of Saint Valery, seven thousand of these merry men along with their leader William, Duke of Normandy, boarded seven hundred ships destined for the southeast coast of England. Onto the gangplanks they boarded, men-at-arms pulling warhorses, pack horses, livestock, and barrels of wine.  They carried food stuffs, amor, arrows, swords, spears, shields, and even a prefabricated fort they’d reassemble on the English coast.  

 

Unfurling their sails, these seven thousand thrill seekers sought to do the impossible: conquer an island kingdom of 2 million people.


Completed just after the Battle of Hastings and stretching 70 meters long, the Bayeux Tapestry documents William's conquest of England, including his crossing of the Channel. That's William standing at the bow, looking back to his men.

Sailing with favorable winds across the English Channel, William and his Normans landed unopposed on September 28, 1066. In just over two weeks, they’d defeat the Anglo-Saxon (English) Army at Hastings.  Within months, they’d seize and subdue the native populations in London and towns throughout southern England.  Within a few years, all of England would bend the knee to William and a new nobility of Norman lords and knights. 

 

So how did they do it?  How in the world did so few conquer so many? 


The short answer lies in Norman vigor and innovation.  Through vigorous training and a "whatever works best" ethos, they not only hardened their bodies, but they also opened their minds to innovation. And through their innovations, they made tactical and material improvements.  And through these improvements, they achieved their strategic goals. This flywheel of grit and improvement became the Norman way.  And because no one at the time innovated like them, no one conquered like them either.   

 

It started with just seven thousand men.  Here’s how they did it and why it matters to me, and maybe after reading this, why it matters to you too.  


Training


“I was schooled in war since childhood.”

 – William the Conquer 


In The Forge of Christendom, historian Tom Holland writes that Norman boys were “raised within a world of sweat and iron.”  Through grueling military and physical training, he says, the Normans became a “race of predators.” 


By the time a noble boy turned eight, he’d leave his family home to join another household. He’d join a new family led by a new lord and his retinue of knights.  Like enlisting in the Marine Corps at age eight and undergoing a twelve-year boot camp, this boy would emerge as a Norman knight trained for war. 


Arriving on horseback, the trepidatious boy would ride through the castle gate with his father or uncle. With wide eyes, he’d see a courtyard of boys and men training with edged weapons.  Soon after, he’d tell his family goodbye and enter that world of sweat and iron, Holland describes.  


Starting as a “page” -- meaning “young servant” in Old French -- he’d pour wine, fetch water, milk cows, clean horse hooves, and shovel shit. He’d also run long distances, wrestle his peers, hunt wild beasts, shiver in icy rivers, and learn the basics of swordcraft and horsemanship.  


Once a teenager, this disciplined and physically conditioned adolescent would become a “squire,” meaning “shield bearer” in Old French.  At this point, his training would accelerate and intensify.   


Mentored by an assigned knight, the squire would train with weighted swords to build his strength and stamina. He’d learn to move in armor, parry blows, block with his shield, and develop a clear head during the headbanging violence of close-quarter battle. He’d also learn to kill without mercy.  Knowing how to split a skull, cleave a limb, or impale a torso were all job requirements.  


When away from the supervising knights, this teenager would learn how to solve problems and “figure things out” with his peers. In doing so, they'd make little discoveries and innovations along the way – just like you did as a kid when you practiced your free throws or baseball swing. 


In the century preceding William, the Normans shared these little discoveries and innovations with one another. Over time, and with each succeeding generation, these little innovations manifested into big changes and eventually launched a revolution in medieval warfare.  Most notably, the Normans contributed two pivotal innovations that changed warfare.  The first were castles (which we will discuss in Part 3). The second, which we’ll focus on here, were knights. 


Knights


When the Normans were just “Northmen” under their first Duke, Rollo, more than a century before William, they fought like Vikings and not like knights on horseback. Sure, they rode horses like so many warriors before them, but only to get from A to B.  When it came time to line up for battle, however, they dismounted their steeds and fought on foot. Just like the Anglo-Saxons, these Northmen used a shield wall to brace their enemy and the frontal attack to destroy him.  


But when these pagan Northmen became Christian Normans in the century following Rollo, they began to embrace the Carolingian (i.e. French) tradition begun by Charlemagne in the late eighth century.  In short, the Norman nobles became “knights,” derived from the Old German word, “Knecht,” which over time came to mean a mounted warrior of noble birth.  


Buy why did the rise of the knight begin in France and not England?  According to historian Dan Jones, as Charlemagne’s empire grew from France into Germany, he (like the Huns centuries before him) needed “highly mobile armies that could… ride to and into battle," suppressing uprisings across his great swath of empire.  As a result, the medieval knight was born.  Wearing helmets, wrapped in chainmail, and carrying spears and broadswords, these mounted warriors were born like so many innovations throughout history: out of necessity.  


Norman Knights in the Eleventh Century. (Illustration by Christina Hook from realmofhistory.com)

Yet, the Normans still saw room for improvement.  Always tinkering and looking for ways to innovate, they made two key improvements in knightly warfare.


First, they improved the heavy cavalry charge by massing their knights into tight wedged formations of fifty, turning themselves into the medieval equivalent of a Panzer attack.  By the twelfth century (a few decades after William), this innovation evolved into the classic image in our minds – a knight charging ahead with a fourteen foot lance under his armpit. This improvement, Dan Jones writes, turned the charging knight into "a guided missile,” delivering the same force at the tip of his lance as “a round fired by a standard twentieth-century military service rifle.” 


The second Norman innovation that revolutionized warfare was the stirrup.  By attaching metal loops for a rider’s feet on either side of the saddle, a knight gained the stability and leverage needed to pull a bow, swing a sword, or drive a spear into the enemy line from his charging steed.  Not only that, in combat a knight's hands were already occupied. Think of it: you're charging ahead, spear in your right hand and the reigns in your left. Suddenly, hundreds of enemy arrows shriek down on your formation. "Shields up!" somebody yells. Using your left arm and hand to hold your shield, and soon your right hand to slay the enemy, you have no hands on the reigns. You're effectively driving the horse with your legs and feet. In these instances, stirrups become a force multiplier for any knight.  


Combine these two knightly innovations (the wedge and stirrups) with Norman vigor and constant drill, and you’re left with an elite cast of warriors whom Tom Holland calls “superior in both their discipline and training to any in Christendom.”


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Before we return to William’s invasion of England, let’s take one last minute to let our imaginations run wild. Picture what it must have been like to face a thousand Norman knights barreling down on you.  You and your mates, each behind a torso-sized oak shield, are standing shoulder to shoulder and several rows deep in your shield wall.  Soon you feel the earth shake beneath you as a thousand 2,000-pound warhorses and their armored killers are closing in. They lower their spears, push into their stirrups, and lean forward.  You dig your boots into the dirt for leverage, lean into your shield, and brace for impact.  Slam!  Like a thousand motorcycles with 8-foot spikes from their handlebars, the charging knights bull into your line.  Bones snap, teeth crack, swords strike, and the fight for your life has begun.  


This all happened at Hastings. Buckle up, barbarians.  Here we go. 


The Battle of Hastings


Before dawn on October 13, 1066, Duke William, along with approximately three thousand knights and four thousand archers and infantrymen, broke camp and advanced in a long column along a dark ridge a few miles from Hastings, a coastal town along the English Channel.  Through his network of spies, William knew the Anglo-Saxon army was close, an army that hoped to drive him back into the sea. 


Cresting upon a hill, William and his column of seven thousand descended that hill’s gentle slope into a valley. On the other side of that valley was a second hill.  As the sun broke behind them, William and his Normans saw the entire Anglo-Saxon army, also seven thousand strong, formed six hundred meters across the hill in a giant shield wall. Led by King Harold of England, their spears and axes glittered against the new morning sun.  Within hours, many of those blades would be dripping with Norman blood.


According to Tom Holland, the Anglo-Saxons were “the most formidable foot soldiers in all Christendom.” Just three weeks before, they had defeated an invading Norwegian force at the Battle of Stamford Bridge in Northern England and then marched nonstop to Hastings. These were battle-hardened men who had just defeated the last Viking army to invade England.  At the heart of this army were the “housecarls,” an axe-wielding professional bodyguard and killer elite skilled “in the arts of evisceration,” according to Holland. Defeating this army, William knew, would not be easy. 


Axe-wielding Housecarls served as the bodyguard for Anglo-Saxon kings.


With his banners whipping and warriors digging in, Harold would use the same tactic the Anglo-Saxons had always used against the Northmen who’d been invading their island for the last three centuries. They’d use the shield wall.  What they wouldn’t use was heavy cavalry.  Instead of “the solace of horses,” a chronicler wrote at the time, Harold and his men would “trust in their strength to stand fast on foot.” In short, they’d fight as infantry. 


Medieval Shield Wall

Soon the Normans trudged through the morning dew, spreading out across the valley into their battle formation. So began the most consequential battle of the Middle Ages and all of English history.  


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The best analogy I can give you for the Battle of Hastings is when Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed beat the living shit out of each other for twelve straight rounds. While most medieval battles lasted an hour or two, this slugfest went back and forth for nine hours, ending with the death of one king and the ascendence of another.  


The battle is defined by three great cavalry charges, two heroic stands, and perhaps the most consequential arrow since Paris killed Achilles at Troy. 


The combat begins when the Norman left flank, perhaps a thousand men on horse plus infantry, spurred their one-ton snarling tanks into a full charge up the valley slope towards the most formidable shield wall in Europe. 


The Bayeux Tapestry portraying the Norman charge at Hastings

To get into the heads of those knights charging an Anglo-Saxon shield wall, I offer Bernard Cornwall’s take from his novel, The Last Kingdom:  


You look ahead and see the overlapping shields, the helmets, the glint of axes and spears and swords, and you know you must go into the reach of those blades, into the place of death, and it takes time to summon the courage, to heat the blood, to let the madness overtake caution.” 


And so the Normans let the madness in.  


With banners cracking, hoofs beating, and their jaws bracing for impact, the charging knights and infantry crashed into the English shield wall like a thousand cars colliding into a brick wall. Mayhem!  Spears whizzed by impaling shields and throats.  Axes swung like a hundred baseball bats, knocking knights from their saddles.  Helmets flew, blood sprayed, and a cacophony of banging steel deafened the ears. Inside this serrated steel jungle, medieval brutality took hold. This was war, these were young men, and it was as violent as violence gets.    


Despite all their innovations, the Normans got nowhere on their initial charge and King Harold’s housecarls began cleaving the jammed knights with their axes.  “Never,” Winston Churchill wrote, “had the Norman knights met foot soldiers of this stubbornness.” Losing men fast inside this entangled blender of blades, the Normans sounded retreat.


Soon a rumor spread down the Anglo-Saxon line that the Normans were retreating because William was dead.  This was their chance to end the battle now! Smelling victory, many of them broke ranks and charged down the hill after the fleeing Normans.  But William wasn’t dead, though his horse was.  Grabbing another mount, the Duke ordered a reserve force from his center to counterattack the pursuing Anglo-Saxons.  Moments later, William’s heavy cavalry hit the English infantry in the open like bowling balls dropping pins, leaving hundreds of dead men in their wake.     


With the counterattack neutralized, the Normans charged once again up the hill -- this time with an even larger force.  In a wedged formation, they smashed into King Harold’s line, and once again the English held firm, and once again, the Normans sounded retreat. But this was no retreat. 


After years of drilling in the saddle, Norman knights could pull off maneuvers few in Europe could match. One such maneuver was the feigned retreat.  Watching the Norman cavalry and infantry flee into the valley, the Anglo-Saxons once again pursued them.  


As the English careened down the hill, they were no longer in a tight shield formation. Just as before, they were dispersed and more vulnerable to a sweeping cavalry attack.  All at once, William’s signal flags waved and his horns blared.  On a dime, the entire retreating Norman force swung their horses back around and attacked the pursuing Anglo-Saxons from all directions.  Like scythes cutting down a wheatfield, the Norman knights mowed down the attacking foot soldiers, slaughtering them across the valley floor.

  

Looking up the slope with just an hour of daylight remaining, William saw Harold’s banner still flying. Around that banner were the elite housecarls, hoisting their axes towards the invaders, taunting them to test them one last time.  But the clear-headed William chose another course.  


Instead of ordering another charge, William raised his fist and brought down his arm. As he did, a thousand archers loosed volley upon volley at a high angle of fire, so the steel darts rained down vertically on the Anglo-Saxons, just behind their initial line of shields.  


Then King Harold looked up when he shouldn’t have.  Amidst the swarm of arrows pouring down, one found its mark, piercing through Harold’s right eye and nailing itself into his brain. The king fell dead. 


Yet this story is disputed. According to the famous Bayeux Tapestry, Harold is seen grasping an arrow in his eye.  But other sources at the time, say a death squad led by William, zeroed in on Harold's bodyguard, laid waste to his axe men while running a spear through the last Anglo-Saxon king of England, and then mutilating his body.


King Harold grabbing the arrow in his right eye, as Norman Knights kill the bodyguards around him.

Either way, Harold died at dusk on that hill in 1066.  He left behind an army without a commander, and a people without a king.  As “a heap of corpses piled around the toppled royal banner,” Tom Holland writes, what remained of the Anglo-Saxon army “fled into the gathering darkness.”  


As night fell over the fields of Hastings, William of Poitiers wrote, “far and wide the earth was covered with the flower of English nobility and youth, drenched in gore.”  Amidst that gore stood a new king. In his chain mail, exhausted from nine-hours of combat and exhaling hot breaths into the cold autumn night, William became the Conqueror.  


The Normans charged this hill. William built the abbey you see on the spot where Harold died to commemorate his victory. One day I'll charge this hill while my observing wife rolls her eyes and calls me Peter Pan.

Final Thought


Ideas, innovations, and creations come to us through effort, i.e. when we do the work. Because the Normans trained like Rocky and innovated like Rommel, they conquered England.  So why does this matter to us?


Besides the sheer wonder of it all -- which if I'm honest, is why it matters most to me -- the Norman victory also reminds us about how grit, insight, and results are all tied together.


Whatever it is that you want to learn, do, make, discover, improve, or finish requires barbarian vigor and a clear head. Only by doing the work, like the Norman knights who trained for war and innovated along the way, can any us hope to find our way to victory.


Nothing worth having is free, barbarians. Keep charging that shield wall.


Part 3


In the final installment of this series (I promise), we’ll explore the most lasting of all Norman innovations: the castle.  Picking up where we left off in Part 2, we will see how in the months and years following their victory at Hastings, the Normans built five hundred castles and forts across England, using them like stationary aircraft carriers to deploy knights and dominate England.

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