The Normans

Their history, arms and tactics

An article by Patrick Kelly

I have always been fascinated by those energetic people from northern France, known to history as the NormansIn the space of two centuries the duchy of Normandy stood as a prime mover in European affairs, not only completing the conquest of England but also stretching its arms out to southern Italy and Sicily.  Even after the duchy lost its autonomy and was absorbed into the Kingdom of France-proper it still exerted great power and influence within that realm.  Many of these men were larger than life figures who led lives even Hollywood could not imagine.  Not only have I had a life-long interest in the Normans themselves but I have also had a particular fascination with their arms and equipment. 

Who were these people and what made them such a significant force upon the European stage?  What equipment and techniques made them so effective on the battlefield?  Can their lethality really be a result of superior technology or was it something more intangible like national pride?  Perhaps it was simple greed and ambition that fueled the fires of conquest? 

Here we will discuss the Normans and their history and I will outline my own personal attempt to recreate the arms and equipment of a Norman warrior of the 11th century.  Perhaps in that last respect this is just as much my story as it is theirs.         

A detail from the Bayeux Tapestry


As the 10th century began Europe was at the height of the so-called ‘Viking’ age. (The term ‘Viking’ being more illustrative of their raiding activities than of the people themselves.)  Seafaring warriors from the Scandinavian countries of Norway, Denmark, and Sweden had made incursions into northern Europe and the Slavic regions, as well as penetrating as far as Asia minor and the North American continent.  In many areas these nordic raiders had ceased their plundering and had become colonists and traders.  In 911 a Danish invasion fleet under the command of Hrolf the Ganger (‘Ganger’ meaning walker as apparently Hrolf was rather tall and long-legged for the age) sailed into the Seine Valley intent on stripping the region of its worth. 

At this period in history France as we know it today did not exist.  The region was divided into duchies and counties that owed only nominal allegiance to the French King Charles II, known as ‘the Simple’.

Charles seems to have come to the conclusion that he could not deal with the Danish invaders on a military level and decided to buy them off.  This had become a common practice in Europe when dealing with ‘Viking’ invaders.  However, instead of offering the Danes gold or silver, (hence the term “Danegeld”.) Charles offered them land instead.  The land around Rouen was thereby ceded to Hrolf and his army.  This act can be seen as a rather pragmatic decision by Charles since this area was already under Hrolf’s control and the King  had no effective means to dislodge the invaders.  

In 912 Hrolf converted to Christianity and allowed himself to be baptized, changing his name to Rollo in the processThus Rollo effectively became the first Duke of Normandy (meaning “land of the northmen”.) and by the time of his great-great-great grandson, Duke William, the Normans had consolidated their rule over a large area that stretched from the Cherbourg peninsula to the River Somme.  Normandy retained its autonomy until 1144 when it was invaded and taken by Count Geoffery of Anjou.  The duchy then became part of an Angevin empire that lasted until 1204 when King Phillip used military force to bring Normandy back into the French fold, along with Brittany, Touraine, Anjou, Poitou, and Maine.  For the first time in three hundred years Normandy was again under Royal control.

The Southern Empire

The Normans are best known to history as the conquerors of England in the year 1066.  While this operation was certainly no mean achievement it was far from the first example of Norman expansion and conquest.  Long before Duke William fell onto his face while disembarking on the beach at Pevensey and cried, “I have the earth of England in my hands!” the Normans were penetrating into southern Italy. (Sources vary as to whether this statement was made by William himself or another Norman knight in the invasion force.)

According to the contemporary chronicler Amatus, in the year 999 a group of approximately 40 Norman pilgrims were returning from Jerusalem and were at Salerno when it was attacked by Saracen forces.  Saracen being the generic term used by Europeans for those of Islamic faith.  Apparently these ‘pilgrims’ were astonished and offended at the lack of resistance by the local populace and obtained arms and horses from Gaimar IV, the prince of Salerno.  The Normans then succeeded in driving away the attacking forces and were invited to remain in Gaimar’s service.  The travelers declined this offer and instead returned to Normandy with an Italian envoy that was apparently quite successful in recruiting volunteers “to come to this land that flows with milk and honey and so many beautiful things.” 

While there are various sources that give opposing dates for an ‘official’ start of Norman incursion into Italy this is the earliest documented case of Norman involvement on the peninsula.  Another source, written by William of Apulia, speaks of a meeting in 1016 between Norman pilgrims and a disenfranchised Lombard noble by the name of Melus.  According to William this Melus had been involved in an unsuccessful rebellion against the Byzantine Empire and was now in exile.  At this time most of southern Italy was under Byzantine control and apparently Melus styled himself as something of a revolutionary.  In his account William states that Melus was successful in convincing the pilgrims that the freedom of southern Italy could be achieved with their help.  It is unknown whether their willingness was due to a sense of religious piety on the part of these Norman pilgrims or simply a case of blatant opportunism.  It must be observed that the Normans were always ready and willing to combine religion and opportunity if it was to their advantage.

Due to the political nature of Norman society the oldest son of a house would inherit all and younger sons were forced to depend upon their own initiative, their choices usually being limited to military service or a life with the church.  Consequently, the envoy’s efforts at recruitment were quite successful, with many younger sons making the journey south along with those who had fallen out of favor with the Norman Duke.  Unlike the conquest of England the Italian enterprise did not occur in piecemeal fashion.  There was no single climatic battle that decided everything like that which occurred at Hastings, nor was there a quick follow-on campaign to consolidate rule.  Over the proceeding decades there was a steady flow of manpower towards the Italian peninsula, and by 1046 the Normans had moved into southern Italy in force.  Sergio IV of Naples had granted them a “prime concession of land”.  This meant they were allowed to hold whatever land they could retake from the invading Arabs of North Africa.  These opportunistic and energetic northerners were all too willing to take full advantage of the situation.  By 1053 the Normans had taken the entire southern region of Italy, thereby creating a new empire. Unfortunately this aggressive expansion had come to the notice of the current Pope, Leo IX.  It was indeed unfortunate for the Pope himself as he would discover. 

In 1035 members of one particular family entered the Italian scene.  This family, the Hautvilles, would become one of the greatest driving forces of the Norman kingdom in Italy.  Three of the younger Hautville sons: William, Drogo and Humphrey arrived in Aversa to seek their fortunes. The Hautvilles entered Gaimar’s service and in 1038 were part of a 300-strong contingent of Norman knights sent to aid the Greek Emperor of Constantinople, Michael IV, in an invasion of Moslem Sicily.  The expedition itself was without success but the Normans in general, and the Hautvilles in particular, distinguished themselves before leaving the campaign in disgust.  William d’Hautville himself was afterwards known as William Bras-de-Fer, or William of the Iron Arm, due to his personal abilities.  The Hautvilles would become one of the primary forces in expanding the Norman holdings in Italy.  In 1046 another Hautville arrived who would become perhaps the greatest member of the family and bend the very pillars of Christendom to his will. This man was Robert Guiscard, known as “the Resourceful”, “the Weasel”, or “the Wary” depending upon the source.  Anna Comnena, daughter of Alexus I of Constantinople, described the Guiscard in the following manner:

This Robert was Norman by descent, of insignificant origin, in temper tyrannical, in mind most cunning, brave in action, very clever in attacking the wealth and substance of magnates, most obstinate in achievement, for he did not allow any obstacle to prevent his executing his desire.

Upon his arrival Robert was disgruntled over not being given what he felt was his proper due by his older brother Drogo.  Instead of being given a ‘proper’ fife his brother sent him south to Greek Calabria, an area that had barely been penetrated by the Normans.  Whether Drogo expected his brother to expand their holdings, or was simply intending to rid himself of a brother who was by all accounts villainous and highly ambitious we will never know.  Whatever Drogo’s motivation may have been Robert Guiscard succeeded in taking the region and established a base of power at San Marco Argentano.  From this location Robert steadily increased his holdings, and his power, over the intervening years.  In 1051 Count Drogo was assassinated in his own chapel and was immediately succeeded by his brother Humphrey.  This change of command did little to change matters that had been growing increasingly hostile for the Normans.  The native Italian populace had grown weary of the Norman’s strong-arm tactics and it was now dangerous for even pilgrims to travel alone for fear of attack. 

Thus it was that the new Pope, Leo IX, felt obliged to intervene and in 1053 the Pope assembled a Papal army and allied himself with Constantinople, with the intention of ridding Italy of this Norman ‘problem’.  The Normans, under Count Richard of Aversa, Count Humphrey d’Hautville and the wily Robert Guiscard, moved to intercept the Papal army before it could combine with its Byzantine counterpart.  Contact was made on June 17th 1053 near the city of Civitate.  The Normans were rejected in negotiations and reluctantly engaged the Papal forces. The Pope himself did not participate in the battle but instead watched from the walls of the city as his army went down to defeat.  Civitate has been compared to the battle of Hastings for its significance in the history of Norman Italy and in that respect the comparison is appropriate.  In a world-wide context this comparison really doesn’t hold water since, unlike Hastings; it had very little direct effect on the world outside of the region.  Still, many comparisons can be made with the elite of the Papal infantry being defeated by Norman cavalry, just as the axe-wielding Huscarls of Saxon fame saw defeat at Hastings.  The Byzantine army then withdrew without further hostility and the Normans held victory in their hands.

The Normans then exhibited the resourcefulness and opportunism for which history has made them famous.  According to William of Apulia, in spite of the fact that they now held the religious leader of Christendom as their virtual prisoner, they knelt before Leo IX and begged his forgiveness.  We will never know if this outward show of religious submission was sincere or merely a medieval example of strong-arm tactics covered by publicity spin and political correctness.  Regardless of the Norman motivation the result was Papal recognition of Norman holdings in Italy.  When Leo died the next year the new Pope, Gregory VII, immediately allied the Papacy with the Normans at Melfi in 1059.  In spite of Robert Guiscard being excommunicated by the Pope no less than three times, the Normans thereafter retained Papal approval in their activities.  This association with the Papacy would continue throughout the rest of the ‘Norman’ era and would play a key role in the launching of the Crusades at the end of the 11th century.

Count Humphrey had died in 1057 and was succeeded by Robert Guiscard, first as regent and then as count.  Apparently the hereditary rights of Humphrey’s young son Abelard were of no consequence.  Two years later Robert also ascended to the position of duke of Apulia and Calabria.  In 1056, Roger, the eighth and youngest of the Hautville brothers arrived in Italy.  Robert immediately sent his younger brother off to Calabria with a force of sixty knights.  At the age of 26 Roger d’Hautville would gain either experience or a grave in southern Italy.  The younger Hautville did indeed find success and became his brothers most trusted lieutenant.  In an era of dubious family loyalties the two brothers remained steadfastly devoted to each other throughout the remainder of their lives. Whether this was due to any sense of familial loyalty or simply shared ambition will have to be for the reader to decide.

After two probing incursions the conquest of Sicily was undertaken in 1061.  This operation would take thirty years to complete and was possible due to the divisions present between the Moslem factions inhabiting the island.  The Normans continued to face problems within the already conquered areas of Italy, as well as a chronic shortage of manpower.  When these factors are combined with very stiff Moslem resistance upon Sicily itself the duration of the conquest isn’t surprising.  Out of necessity the invasion of Sicily was an amphibious operation with men and horses traveling by ship to an area south of Messina.  The significance of this enterprise cannot be overemphasized.  A few years later a similar, though much larger, operation would be undertaken by Duke William of Normandy during the invasion of England.  Therefore, it would be logical to assume the lessons learned during the invasion of Sicily were put to good use in 1066.

The first landing south of Messina took place at night with a fleet of thirteen ships.  An original force of 270 knights under the command of Roger d’Hautville was joined the next day by a further reinforcement of 170 knights.  This force of less than 500 then took the city of Messina before Robert Guiscard had made landfall.  Over the next thirty years the Normans would expand their domination of Sicily through a series of successful campaigns, including the decisive defeat of a much larger army under the command of Ibn al-Hawas.  Contemporary sources list the Norman numbers at 700 with an opposing Saracen force of 15,000.  Of course these contemporary sources must always be taken with a grain of salt when it comes to hard statistics.  This battle was the first significant contact between Norman and Saracen forces and is interesting for this reason alone.  Many historians have credited the initial European success during the crusades to two factors.  The first, political disunity among the Moslem population is a logical and quite probable contributing factor.  The second, unfamiliarity with European military tactics, seems less valid.  This first contact between Norman and Saracen forces occurred over thirty years before the first crusade began.  Consequently, it is logical to assume that the opposing sides were quite familiar with each other’s tactics by 1096.  After the fall of Palermo in 1072 Robert Guiscard never returned to Sicily but instead concentrated on matters pertaining to mainland Italy.  The rest of the Sicily campaign was left in the hands of his brother Roger. The city of Noto finally fell in 1091 and marked the completion of the Norman conquest of the island.

During the campaign the Normans made heavy use of sea power to transport invasion forces as well as laying siege to cities like Syracuse and Palermo.  The ability of the Normans to use of these unfamiliar modes of transport and attack can be seen as evidence of their willingness to adapt to the circumstances at hand.   It was also during the conquest of Italy and Sicily that the concept of a Holy War against the Moslem world began to take shape in the Norman mindset.  So when Pope Urban II first preached of a holy crusade on November 27th 1096 the idea was far from unknown.  By the end of the 11th century the entire southern half of Italy, as well as the Isle of Sicily, was under the domination of the Norman adventurers.  Other famous names would follow such as Bohemond of Taranto, a son of the Guiscard himself who was apparently as cunning and ruthless as his father.  Bohemond would become a key figure during the first crusade and would rise to fame on his own abilities instead of resting in the shadow of his father.  When Robert Guiscard died of typhoid on July 17th 1085 he was buried alongside his brothers in the abbey of the Trinity at Venosa.  His tomb was inscribed with an epitaph that could, perhaps be fitting for the entire Norman experience of the 11th century:

Hic terror mundi Guiscardus’
“Here lies Guiscard, terror of the world”. 

Robert’s nephew, Roger II, would succeed his father and uncle by being crowned king at Palermo in 1130.  Roger II then ruled over a Norman kingdom that would endure until the death of King Tancred in 1194.  The southern kingdom the Normans had so miraculously created was then absorbed into the Hohenstaufen Empire of Henry VI.

What reasons can we find for the Norman success in Italy?  The Italian campaign was not a heavily supported European enterprise, nor was it an example of overwhelming an enemy with superior force.  The mercenaries, who would later become dukes and barons, were the lesser sons of Norman nobility. In many cases they were adventurers and exiles who could hope to receive little assistance from their homeland.  One contributing factor is undoubtedly the Norman’s military expertise.  It is a bit of a stretch to claim that the Normans were the originators of the use of heavy cavalry in the European context.  However, they undoubtedly perfected the concept and made the most of it.  While the Norman pedites, or infantry, surely played their part it is the milites, or knightly cavalry, that are spoken of in the contemporary chronicles.  Time and again we read of heavily outnumbered Norman cavalry smashing a superior enemy force.  While this may very well be propaganda we must remember that not all who wrote of these exploits were pro-Norman.  We must also remember that Norman cavalry could, and often did, dismount to fight as infantry when the situation demanded it. 

This tactical sense of flexibility was surely a strong weapon in the Norman arsenal. Nor should we underestimate the psychological factors when we speak of Norman success.  These descendants of Viking raiders had cast off the pagan religions of their forefathers and had embraced Christianity.  However, medieval Christianity was a far different thing than it is here at the dawn of the 21st century.  To the medieval mind God moved and worked in all things in a very absolute sense.  If the Normans gained success through military conquest it was simply God’s will that they should do so and if they received Papal blessing for it then so much the better.  The fact of that blessing being won at the point of a sword was of little consequence to the Norman mind.  Combine this sense of religious righteousness with a willingness to bend that same religion, and secular law, to fit their own needs and you have a very dangerous combination when combined with skill at arms.

Still, the Normans were not above sensing the reality their situation and molding it to fit their needs.  The Moslem inhabitants of southern Italy and Sicily did not endure the wholesale rapine and slaughter that would occur during the first crusade.  The Normans shaped the local forms of government with their own brand of feudalism, yet the local non-Christian populace was allowed to remain in positions of influence in trade and commerce. 

The modern mind may look upon these events of nearly a millennium past and view them as a form of enlightened tolerance.  In my opinion this would be a mistake.  The Normans knew they were sleeping among the enemy and if they were to succeed the local inhabitance would need to be placated, and brought into the fold as much as possible.  They simply did not have the manpower to rule with an iron fist that was completely closed.  Instead they were forced to change the circumstances to their advantage, a skill they honed to a razor’s edge.  Even though they faced unrest and rebellion on one scale or another during the entire time of the southern kingdom’s existence, it is a remarkable testament to their drive and skill that the Normans were able to rule effectively with so few numbers.  The Norman domination of the Siculo-Italian region also produced a type of architecture that combined elements of northern European, Greek and Moslem design into a unique style.  Many of the architectural works that still exist in Italy today are seen as classic examples of Norman achievement.    In the end all that can firmly be said is that a relatively small group of northern mercenaries achieved improbable success and carved out an empire by shear tenacity and force of will.  By helping to develop the crusading mindset, this kingdom would be partially responsible for moving the Christian and Moslem worlds onto a course that would consume them for the next two centuries.

The Conquest of England

By now it should be obvious there is much more to the Norman people and their history than the invasion of England.  Nevertheless it is this singular event for which they are best remembered.  If the common layman is asked about his knowledge of the subject he will generally comment on Duke William the ‘Bastard’ and his conquest of England.  It is a pity that the common perception of such an energetic people is usually distilled down to this one event.  Still, it must be admitted that, while this one event should not define the Normans, it is arguably their most significant contribution to world history in general and the geopolitical climate of the middle-ages in particular.  Not only is the conquest of England itself significant but the battle of Hastings is also equally worthy of study.  Very few battles of the medieval period were as long and hard-fought, or as decisive, as the one that occurred on a ridge some seven miles north of Hastings on October 14th 1066.  To fully understand this battle, the proceeding conquest of England and their importance to world history, it is necessary to examine the events leading up to them.

During the latter half of the 9th century English kings tenuously held onto the realm created by their predecessor Alfred ‘the Great’.  Alfred had gained a foothold in Wessex and from there his successors continued attempts at driving back their Nordic adversaries.  Despite these successes the country was still plagued by attacks from Nordic invaders and would-be colonists.  These attacks would continue throughout the later 10th century and into the first decades of the 11th.  Due to this unending pressure the rule of AEthelred II, known as the ‘Unraed’ or ‘Bad Council’ (later corrupted to mean ‘Unready’), was reduced to a state of irrelevancy.  Fearing the worst AEthelred sent his two sons, Edward and Alfred, to live in the relative safety of the Norman duchy. 

Then, after more than two decades of combat, AEthelred’s reign came to an end and he was deposed by the Danish-born King Cnut in 1016.   Edward and Alfred were then raised in the Norman court and this twist of fate would prove to have far reaching consequences for the English people.  When Cnut died in 1035 his two sons, Harold Harefoot and Harthacnut, quarreled over the royal succession.  Both would rule briefly: Harold Harefoot from 1037 to 1040 and Harthacnut from 1040 to 1042.  During the reign of Harold Harefoot tensions were further heightened by the arrival of an invasion fleet under the command of Edward and Alfred.  Duke Robert of Normandy had shown support for the Saxon brothers by supplying them with a fleet of approximately forty ships. 

Edward landed on the south coast and fought a battle at Southampton but later withdrew back to Normandy due to insufficient manpower.  The unfortunate Alfred faired far worse than his brother.  He landed at Kent and was captured by Earl Godwin of Wessex.  The Wessex had grown rich and powerful under King Cnut and was all too eager to turn the Saxon exile over to the then-reigning Harold.  Alfred was tortured and later died from the depredations committed upon him.  These events would lay the seeds of a deep and abiding hatred of Earl Godwin within Edward’s heart.  At this point none of the period chroniclers speak of any kind of widespread support for Edward among the Saxon people.  Consequently, a succession to the English throne must have seemed like nothing more than a dream to Edward.  Future events would prove otherwise.

By 1042 Cnut’s sons were dead and Edward found himself in a position that was both surprising and perhaps a bit unenviable.  With Cnut’s line extinguished Edward was now offered the English crown.  Even though he was now poised to assume the throne of England by all accounts he knew little of the country or its people.  We will never be certain but one can’t help thinking he accepted the crown with a bit of trepidation.  Edward had spent most of his adult life as an exile in Normandy and was probably more Norman at heart than Saxon.  He knew little of the great Earls who controlled England or the unique political structure of the countries government.  In many ways men like the hated Earl Godwin were the real power in Saxon England.  Godwin’s income and holdings were nearly equal to that of the king himself and he was a man of great influence. Such was the make-up of the Saxon system of government that the King did not rule with complete autonomy but instead depended upon the support, and to a certain extent the approval, of powerful Earls like Godwin of Wessex, Leofric of Mercia and Siward of Northumbria.  Edward did attempt to rid himself of the Godwin family in 1051 when he sent them into exile.  However, the Godwins returned the following year, armed and with a strong support cell.  Due to a legitimate fear of civil war Edward backed down.  From this point forward the king’s power was terminally weakened.   By all accounts this power struggle between the King and Earl Godwin continued until the Earl’s death in 1053, when the Earldom was assumed by his eldest surviving son Harold.  Godwin’s power was great enough that in 1045 he had manipulated King Edward into marrying his daughter Edith.  This was an obvious way to ensure the passing of the royal succession to the Godwin family. However, throughout the proceeding years it would become obvious that the marriage would prove to be fruitless.  By all accounts Edward was a pious man more concerned with his God and religion than most other things.  We shall never know whether the barren union was a result of the king’s disinterest, or came from a desire to deprive the Godwin’s of what they wanted most.  Regardless of Edward’s motivation, his lack of providing a successor would give the Godwin family its opportunity later in 1066.   

Upon ascending the throne Edward appointed several of his Norman friends to key positions throughout the realm.  According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle many of these men were highly unpopular with Edward’s subjects.  One of these men, Robert of Jumieges, was named bishop of London in 1046 and later elevated to archbishop in 1051.  Robert was then required to travel to Rome to receive Papal approval of his holding of the see of Canterbury.  If we are to believe the contemporary Norman chronicler William of Jumieges, the archbishop then stopped in Normandy to offer Duke William the position as Edward’s heir.  William, a distant cousin, had been a boy during Edward’s exile and Norman chroniclers tell us this offer was made as an expression of gratitude towards his Norman friends.  Saxon sources are silent on this point and tell us nothing.  This was not the only instance where Edward dangled the carrot of the English crown before a likely subject, so we will never know how serious his motives were.  The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells us that Duke William traveled to England that same year and contemporary Norman historians would have us believe this trip was made to confirm acceptance of Edward’s offer, but this remains unconfirmed.  After Edward’s death on January 5th 1066 it was this supposed offer that was used as justification for the Norman invasion of England. 

Another event which adds further mystery to the issue of succession is a journey made to the continent by Harold Godwinson in 1064 or 1065.  French sources such as the Carmen de Hastingae Proelio, possibly written by Bishop Guy of Amiens, state quite clearly that the purpose of this visit was to confirm Edward’s wish that William succeed him.  On the other hand English sources like the History of Recent Events in England, written by an English monk named Eadmer some fifty years after the battle, tell a very different tale.  According to Eadmer, Harold Godwinson had traveled to the continent with the express intention of securing the release of his brother Wulfnoth and one cousin Hakon.  Eadmer tells us these two members of the Godwin family had been held as hostages at the Norman court since 1052.  It seems unlikely that Harold would have subjected himself to such risk for two relatives who had already been in Norman custody for at least twelve years and the truth will never be known.  Regardless of his original motivation for the journey what is known is that, while enroute to Normandy, Harold’s ship was blown ashore and he was captured by Count Guy of Ponthieu.  Ponthieu had a long standing custom of taking captives in this fashion and a wealthy high-standing noble like Earl Harold Godwinson would have provided quite a windfall.  If contemporary sources such as the Bayeux Tapestry are to be believed Duke William learned of this situation and dispatched Norman emissaries to secure the Earl’s release.  The Bayeux Tapestry then shows Harold receiving arms from William, possibly as an indication of Harold paying homage to the Duke.  The Tapestry goes further to illustrate Harold participating in a campaign to quell rebels in Brittany and finally swearing an oath of fealty on holy relics.  Like most period sources the Bayeux Tapestry is strongly one-sided in its depiction of the events.  Most sources are violently pro-Norman or pro-Saxon with very little middle ground.  What does seem certain is that Earl Harold Godwinson, one of the most powerful men in England, and Duke William of Normandy, a man perhaps more powerful than the king of France himself, knew each other with something more than passing familiarity before that fateful day in October of 1066.

We could continue on with the complicated, and fascinating, story of Anglo-Saxon England in the later half of the 11th century but that is for a different time.  This story concerns the Norman people and our tale has now brought us to the most well-known one of them all: Duke William of Normandy.  William was born in 1028 as the illegitimate son of Duke Robert the Magnificent and Herleve, a local tanner’s daughter.  In 1035 Duke Robert died while on pilgrimage and the young William assumed his place.  Throughout the proceeding years he would survive several assassination attempts and would grow into a man who was as cunning as he was ruthless.  It is because of his base-born status that William was known as ‘the Bastard’ to his contemporaries.  While illegitimacy was common, and did not carry the stigma that it would in later centuries, this nick-name was surely not a sign of affection by his fellow Normans.  William’s feelings on the matter were evident while attacking Alencon in 1051.  The defenders insulted the Norman duke by beating tanned hides in reference to his base birth.  After the town was taken the offending parties were tortured and mutilated.  By the time he sailed for England in 1066 William was an experienced military leader, having achieved his first victory at Val-es-Dunes in 1047 when he assisted his nominal overlord, the French king, in suppressing a Norman uprising.  William achieved further victories over Geoffrey Martel, the Count of Anjou, at Mortemer in 1054 and again against the French King himself at Varaville in 1057, after the King had turned against him.  In 1066, at age 38, Duke William of Normandy was an experienced and intractable military commander with an iron will.

The validity of William's claim to the English throne has been hotly debated and undoubtedly this trend will continue until the end of time.  Earl Harold Godwinson assumed the English throne on the 6th of June, the day after Edward the Confessor’s death.  This ascension was not automatic.  Even though Harold claimed that he had been named as the old king’s successor, his appointment still required the approval of the Anglo-Saxon Witan or ‘Great Council’.  This seems to have been readily granted as strong anti-Norman sentiments had taken hold since the Godwin’s return from exile. 

However, according to the Life of Bishop Wulfstan II written by William of Malmesbury in the 12th century, Harold was forced to make a trip to Northumbria because they would not accept him as king.  Together with Wulfstan he was able to overcome the Northumbrian bias towards what they saw as southern decadence.   One can’t help but wonder if William was overly surprised by this turn of events.  Can we see his taking Harold on campaign in Brittany as a way to familiarize him with a potential enemy’s military abilities, fully realizing that they would one day meet in battle?  Can the oath-swearing on holy relics be seen as a way to further strengthen his own claim while attempting to neutralize an opponent’s?  This line of thinking may cause us to read too much into these events of so long ago.  However, when we take into account the political savvy for which the Normans as a whole were known, and William’s keen grasp of military affairs, it doesn’t seem too far outside the realm of possibility.

The Saxon army that met the invading Normans on that October morning in 1066 was a well established unified force backed by the complex governmental system of a wealthy nation.  In contrast the Norman army was something of a cosmopolitan affair.  By the time of the invasion Duke William had already won a well deserved reputation as a keen and successful military leader.  Because of his success he was able to attract men not only from his subjects in Normandy and Maine but also from Aquitaine, Brittany and possibly the Norman kingdom in southern Italy.  Most scholars view this later inclusion as a strong possibility rather than a definite fact, but if men from the Siculo-Italian region did indeed take part in the invasion their experience with amphibious operations would have been invaluable to their northern brethren.  The Bretons themselves were all too eager to take part in the conquest of England.  Their ancestors had settled in Brittany after having fled the Island during the Saxon conquest of centuries past.  There can be little doubt the Bretons saw the operation as not only an opportunity for profit but also revenge.  Upon learning of Harold’s perceived treachery William also appealed to Pope Alexander II for the one thing the Normans never wanted to go into battle without: the Papal blessing.  The blessing was granted and a banner given to William by the Pope accompanied the Norman army.  Oderic Vitalis describes it as ‘the banner of St. Peter the Apostle’ but the exact form is unknown.  Nevertheless, the Normans sailed for England with the all too familiar confidence that they were doing the work of God. 

The size of the Norman fleet, and the army it carried, has been widely debated by scholars.  William of Jumieges tells us that the fleet numbered 3000 ships, while the 12th century chronicler Wace gives a much lower number of 696.  A 12th century document known as the Ship List of William the Conqueror, apparently written between 1130-1160 and believed to be a copy of an older document possibly written as early as 1067, gives us a detailed list of the ships supplied to the invasion force by Duke William’s vassals.  Men such as the Duke’s half-brothers Robert of Mortain and Bishop Odo of Bayeux, William FitzOzbern and the bishop of Le Mans are mentioned as owing a specific number of ships.  The list sets the total owed by William’s subjects at 1000 and when we consider the possibility that the Duke’s other allies supplied their own ships it can be seen that the fleet was, in all probability, fairly large.  Likewise, the size of the Norman army will also never be known with any degree of certainty.  William of Poitiers puts William’s army at 60,000 men.  Most modern historians have discounted such large numbers and generally agree upon a figure of somewhere around 7000 men.  This is based upon the dubious premise that medieval armies were invariably small.  Whatever these numbers of ships and men may have been there is one thing we can be sure of: Duke William of Normandy was an astute military commander with a successful history.  He knew his opponent and the resources available to him.  As William does not seem to have been a man prone to rash and impetuous action we can assume that he assembled a force large enough to have some assurance of success.  The fact that he was able to assemble a large invasion force, and hold it together in encampment for an extended period of time, is a testament to his dynamic leadership qualities and organizational skills.

The Norman fleet then waited for favorable winds and finally departed in early evening from St. Valery on the 27th or 28th of September.  William’s personal ship, the Mora, was the largest in the fleet and a gift from his wife Mathilda.  Apparently the Mora was faster than the rest of the fleet and she soon left them over the horizon.  At dawn the duke realized they had left the fleet behind.  When the men with him began to despair he calmly ordered the ship to drop anchor and wait.  He then sat down to a leisurely meal, outwardly unperturbed at the course of events.  As soon as the rest of the fleet came into sight the anchor was raised and the course of history was set.  At some time before 9:00am the fleet sighted Pevensey bay and made landfall within the lagoon.  The Normans then commenced disembarking and immediately began to fortify the old Roman fort located there.  As Duke William stepped ashore he fell onto his hands and knees on the shale beach.  This would have been considered a bad omen by his comrades.  Fortunately either a nearby knight or the duke himself made the aforementioned utterance about him having England in his hands and the situation was diffused. When no serviceable road was found leading eastward from Pevensey the decision was made to move the army to Hastings, with the disembarked troops transiting around the lagoon and the fleet following down the shoreline.  Construction then began on a timber motte and bailey castle that would serve as a base of operations.

The news of the Norman landing could not have come at a worse time for King Harold and the Saxon army.  All through the late summer he had kept the fyrd on active duty along the southern coast of England watching for the invasion he knew would surely come.  He had lived and fought with this iron-willed Norman duke and knew he was not a man to be denied.  Harold held his army together as long as possible before finally releasing them for the needed fall harvest.  When an invasion finally came it was not from the south but rather from the north.  The Norwegian King Harald Hardrada had decided to force his claim on the English throne and had set sail with an invasion fleet of between 300 and 500 ships.  Along with additional ships commanded by Harold’s brother Tostig, they harried the northern coast of England, finally landing at York.  On the 20th of September, at Fulford, The invaders clashed with a northern contingent of the Saxon army under the command of Earls Morcar and Edwin.  The Norwegians gained the upper hand and the Saxons were defeated. 

Little has been written on this battle but most historians put troop numbers at between 5000 and 6000 on both sides, and casualties were assuredly heavy for both armies.  The invaders then set about consolidating their position and further ravaging the countryside.  On the 8th of September King Harold learned of the Norwegian landing and immediately sent out a recall.  Less than two weeks later, with whatever troops he had mustered, the Saxon king set out northward on an epic forced-march.  The morning of the 25th of September saw the Saxon army marching from York along the road to Stamford Bridge where the Norwegian army was encamped.  Apparently the Nordic invaders were casually basking in the morning sun and enjoying their good fortune when the Saxons took them by surprise.  The first hint of their doom came from the glint of weapons within a dusty cloud on the York road.  Hardrada quickly organized his army and battle was joined.  The invading army was decimated by the Saxons, with Hardrada and Tostig among the casualties.  The survivors were allowed to retreat to York where they departed for home in less than 30 ships.  Much could be written about the battle of Stamford Bridge.  In many ways it is as significant as the later battle of Hastings and just as dramatic.  The tale is full of dramatic dialogue between the key figures and heroic actions by individual warriors, as well as the treachery of King Harold’s brother, Earl Tostig.  However, this battle is not our primary concern here and must be left for a future tale.  King Harold must have been quite pleased at that point.  He had decisively defeated an invading army in the defense of his realm as well as finally dealing with his troublesome brother, so much for the Northumbrian hesitation at an overly soft king from the south.  However, his elation was to be short-lived and on the 1st of October a messenger brought word of the Norman invasion in the south.

Upon hearing the news Harold mustered his forces and repeated his epic forced-march, this time southward, and reached London within five days.  Here he waited for fresh troops to be gathered before proceeding south towards Hastings.  William himself had done something unusual for an invading army: instead of advancing inland he had consolidated his camps at Pevensey and Hastings while waiting for Harold to come to him.  Perhaps William was concerned about overstretching his lines of supply or being taken from ambush in the English countryside?  He also knew the timeframe for holding his army in position was short as supplies were limited.  Was William trying to provoke Harold into an engagement by harrying the Sussex countryside?  He knew the area around Hastings lay within the Godwin holdings and that Harold might see these actions as a personal affront.  William was aware of the English King’s capabilities from the campaign in Brittany and as the previous battle at Stamford Bridge shows, Harold was capable of quick action.  Most of the duke’s victories before and after Hastings were possible because of cold calculated planning on the part of the Norman lord.  He does not seem to have been a man adverse to taking chances as the invasion of England itself proves.  However, if chances were to be taken it seems that William tried to minimize them as much as possible, as would any good field commander.  What William needed was one decisive battle and he was about to get it.

According to the Carmen both leaders sent monks as envoys to parlay with the enemy.  These entreaties were rebuffed on both sides and battle was now inevitable.  King Harold moved his army out of London and, according to the E text of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, arrived on Caldbec Hill at a mustering point known as the Hoar Apple Tree on the 13th of October.  Here he was joined by further contingents of the Saxon army.  Both the Carmen and William of Jumiegies tell us that Harold attempted to take the Normans by surprise.  William of Poitiers states the duke had sent most of his men out foraging and fought before all of his men could be assembled, that he took communion, hung the relics Harold had sworn his oath upon around his neck and road to battle.  In reality it is very unlikely that William had most of his men out foraging when he knew battle was likely.  William of Poitiers is obviously a very pro-Norman chronicler.  As such he endeavored to elevate Duke William’s actions as highly as possible.  During Julius Caesar’s accounts of his invasions of the island in 55 and 54 BC Roman foragers figure very prominently in the action.  Consequently, in his desire to portray the Norman duke as a Caesar-like conqueror William of Poitiers may have used this creative device to form a comparison.  William of Jumieges’ more likely account states that William ordered his men to stand by their weapons throughout the night and as dawn broke he mustered them and marched north.  Accounts of the battle itself are as widely varied as they are uncertain.  Some sources describe a battle of tens of thousands taking place over a large area, while others describe it as a relatively small affair confined to a ridge afterwards known as Senlac.  As with so many other things concerning Hastings these details will never be known for certain.  What is relatively certain is that by the morning of October 14th 1066 the Saxon army had occupied a ridgeline some seven miles north of Hastings thereby cutting the north road to London and the Norman invaders marched to meet them.

The Saxon army fought in the time honored infantry shield-wall fashion.  The core of the army consisted of the Saxon noble’s household troops, known as housecarls, with the balance filled out by the Saxon fyrd or levy. While the housecarls were paid mercenary troops they showed extreme loyalty to their lord.  The Bayuex Tapestry shows Harold’s personal guard fighting to the death over their fallen lord while the common troops are retreating.  The percentage of these professional troops compared to the common fyrd soldiers is unknown.  The Bayeux Tapestry shows only a single archer among the Saxon troops, so while they seem to have been present their numbers are uncertain.  Harold had disbanded the fyrd before marching north to engage the Norwegians at Stamford Bridge.  Afterwards events proceeded rapidly enough that one has to wonder how much time he had to reassemble the bulk of his army.  Was the bulk of the Saxon force comprised of the hard bitten mail-clad housecarls or the less well equipped soldiers of the fyrd?  We shall never know.  In contrast the Norman army consisted of three separate sections of missile troops, infantry and cavalry.  How well William could exploit the greater versatility of his army would be limited by the battlefield’s terrain.  Some sources, both modern and contemporary, are of the opinion the battleground was chosen by William, with the Saxons being forced to battle before their army was fully assembled.  In my opinion this is incorrect.  Harold Godwinson was himself an experienced military commander with a long track record of success throughout his ten years of campaigning against the Welsh.  The chosen battleground would seem to favor the Saxons more so than the Normans.  In front of a strong ridgeline the field sloped down between the headwaters of two streams causing something of a bottle-neck and while the thickly wooded nature of the area would hinder any necessary retreat it would also prevent flanking attacks. Period sources such as William of Malmesbury and the 12th century Wace speak of ditches being dug and hidden by the Saxons.  One section of the Bayeux Tapestry would seem to corroborate them as it shows Norman horsemen falling into a watery ditch apparently lined with stakes.  If these sources are accurate they would indicate that Harold had occupied the ground first, with enough time to throw up significant defensive works.  From an offensive standpoint the Saxons were in the stronger position. 

William seems to have had no choice other that to make a full frontal assault on the Saxon position and the army attacked, with the French on the left (Saxon left), the Bretons on the right and the duke with his Norman followers in the center.  Thus began one of the longest and bloodiest battles of the medieval period.  The Carmen dresses up the battle’s opening with a tale of the juggler Tallifer juggling swords before the Saxon army and then killing one of their men before he was killed himself.  Whether this event actually occurred or whether it is merely dramatic elaboration by the Carmen’s author is unknown.  Guy of Amiens states that the duke ordered his missile troops, primarily armed with crossbows, to proceed up the ridge in the front rank.  Guy tells us the duke had intended for these archers to support the flanks of his cavalry, but due to the terrain he was forced to use them in this fashion.  While the Bayuex Tapestry does not illustrate a significant number of archers being present among the Saxons it does show hand-missiles, in the form of axes and maces, being thrown throughout the battle.  At this stage in the battle we can imagine missiles of varying types being launched by both sides in an attempt to soften up the enemy ranks.  Guy of Amiens further states that shields were no proof against bolts from the crossbows.  However, given the sloping terrain it is uncertain just how effective these weapons were against the Saxon shield wall.  Eventually William withdrew his missile troops and ordered his pedites, or heavy infantry, to attack.  These troops now clashed shield to shield in a straining contest of brute strength.  In the modern age we have become somewhat detached from warfare by our technology, which often allows us to deal death and destruction from hundreds of miles away.  Not so in October of 1066.  The on-going combat would have been an intensely personal affair with men glaring at each other over the rim of a shield, less than an arm’s length away, with warriors trying to deal death with the stroke of a Norman sword, or by cleaving an invader with the dreaded two-handed axe.  As little as a few miles distant the raging battle would have gone unnoticed. But there on that ridgeline the crisp morning air would have been filled with the curses of the enraged and the screams of the dying, from men defending their country as well as those seeking profit and conquest. 

This struggle probably continued for some time without advantage being gained on either side, at which point Duke William would have chosen to send in his cavalry, the armored Milites, to support the infantry.  The Bayeux Tapestry shows this cavalry as the prime player on the Norman side of the equation.  This is understandable since the tapestry was evidently made for one of the victorious Norman noblemen, supposedly Duke William’s half-brother Bishop Odo of Bayeux.  Whoever its owner was he was someone of note and would have been among the mounted contingent of the invading army.  In order to please its owner the tapestry’s makers would have emphasized this facet of the battle.  However, it is highly probable that the Norman cavalry did not play the all encompassing role portrayed on the tapestry.  The fact that the battle lasted so long may itself be an indicator of this.  Many battles between Saxons and Vikings that occurred from the 9th century onwards were contests of opposing shield wall formations, and many of these battles supposedly went on for hours, far longer than many medieval battles.  Chroniclers tell us that the battle at Stamford Bridge itself lasted well into the day.  Perhaps the lengthy duration of the combat at Hastings is an indicator of a major infantry engagement?  When the cavalry engaged in combat the terrain would not have allowed them to charge en masse.  They would have been forced to approach the Saxon shield wall alone or in single-line formation.  Period evidence like the Bayuex Tapestry, as well as accounts by William of Poitiers and others, tell us this is exactly the tactic employed.  The tapestry shows fully armored milites attacking the Saxon shield wall with sword and spear, the latter being used in an over-handed fashion.  If the Normans had already developed the tactic of using a massed cavalry charge with couched lances the terrain of the battlefield prevented them from using it.  The terrain also prevented William from using his cavalry to flank the Saxon position.  Consequently, these mounted troops were denied much of their effective shock power.  Instead they were forced to approach their enemy from a much weaker position, attacking the shield wall in-line with a frontal assault of spear and sword, all the while trying to avoid being cut down by the Saxon housecarl wielding his fearsome two-handed axe.  The Bayeux Tapestry shows this terrible weapon dealing death to both man and horse, it was surely a feared and respected weapon.

This shield to shield stalemate continued throughout the morning hours with neither side gaining an advantage.  Chroniclers then tell us the Breton wing of the duke’s army began to crumble and retreat due to heavy losses.  As the Bretons retreated they were pursued by contingents of the Saxon army.  To make matters worse, word that the duke had been killed now began to spread throughout the army.  Such was the importance of strong frontline leadership in medieval warfare that a general retreat down the slope now began.  William, now in a precarious situation with a crumbling army and the enemy on his flank, exercised the dynamic personality that had stood him in good stead throughout his life.  Raising his helmet to expose his face, he rode among his men and assured them he still lived.  According to the Carmen at this point William rallied his men and led them in another attack and the duke then killed King Harold’s brother Gyrth, who had unhorsed the duke with a spear cast.  The Bayuex Tapestry shows this rallying of the troops, with Count Eustace of Boulogne riding alongside the duke and shouting to the men that the duke is well.  The tapestry also shows Bishop Odo rallying a group of horseman who had begun to retreat from the battlefield.  We don’t know how much active participation the duke’s half-brother had in the fighting.  In all probability he was present mainly to add spiritual and emotional support to the venture and saw little frontline action.  William of Malmesbury speaks of a group of Saxon warriors who had been cut off during this pursuit. According to him they seized a hillock during the Norman counter-attack and by using spears and rocks killed the pursuing horsemen to the man.  Wace also describes how many Norman horsemen broke through the Saxon line only to be killed in a concealed ditch along with many Englishmen.  He then speaks of how more Normans died in this ditch than at any other point in the battle.  The Bayeux Tapestry seems to corroborate the basic points of the event of the ditch massacre in panel 52.  This section of the tapestry shows the aforementioned scene of Norman horsemen falling into a ditch lined with stakes while Saxon infantry defend a small hill. Apparently William had been able to avert disaster but only at a high cost.

Now that a general catastrophe had been averted William saw to the Saxon troops threatening his flank.  Wace states that William saw the situation on the army’s flank and led a group of horsemen down the slope, where they isolated the Saxons and cut them down.  Now, perhaps, the fighting paused as men were allowed to catch their breath and horses were watered in the nearby streams.  William must have been concerned at this point in the battle.  It was now mid-day and his army had achieved nothing more than a bloody stalemate.  Armored milites and groups of pedites could have briefly penetrated the Saxon position only to be thrown back or hacked down.  If victory could not be achieved by days end the situation would look grim indeed.  The invaders were far from home with limited resources and if the Saxons were allowed to retire they could then reorganize and rebuild their forces.  The duke needed a decisive victory before the sun set.  At this stage in the battle one of its most controversial events occurred: the retreat of the Norman cavalry.  William of Poitiers claims the duke organized several feigned retreats as a means of drawing the Saxons out of their position on the ridge.  Numbers of horsemen would charge the shield wall and then suddenly retreat, supposedly in feigned flight.  This action caused groups of Saxons to charge in pursuit, at which time the Norman cavalry would wheel around and counter-attack, thereby cutting down their pursuers.  Anti-Norman scholars stand by the opinion that these movements were indeed genuine retreats and William of Poitiers is simply attempting to cover up the less than stellar actions of his countrymen.  In my opinion this is incorrect and the military history of the Normans themselves supports this position.  These same tactics were used several times by the Normans in the years preceding Hastings.  The maneuver of feigned retreat was used with success at Arques in 1052, as well as Messina in 1060.  To make the claim that Norman cavalry was not capable of these maneuvers is to deny the history of the people themselves.  As we will later discuss, Norman military units, either cavalry or infantry, were tightly run professional machines.  These men had trained together for years for exactly this kind of operation so the concept of a feigned retreat is well within the realm of possibility.

By late in the afternoon the Saxon army still held their position on the ridge.  Their ranks had been thinned but so had those of the invading Normans.  Both men and horses in the Norman ranks would have been reaching the limits of their endurance.  William of Poitiers relates how the duke himself had three horses killed beneath him throughout the course of the day.  Wace also provides exciting bits of detail from this stage in the battle: how Duke William had his helmet dented by the blow from a Saxon axe, and how Robert Fitz Erneis managed to ride into the English lines and take the standard, only to be cut down by the huscarls guarding it.  The area around the ridgeline would have been littered with the bodies of the dead, causing a further hindrance to the attackers.  While things seemed desperate for the invading Normans they were equally so for King Harold and his countrymen.  Many of them had fought the Norse at Stamford Bridge and perhaps Fulford as well.  To say these brave men were exhausted would probably be something of an understatement.  They may have been as hard as the iron protecting them but previously fighting two major battles, as well as twice marching the length of England to engage an invading army, was surely proving to be too much.  Both of Harold’s brothers, Gyrth and Leofwine, had now been killed sometime during the day.  As the two were surely Harold’s main subordinates in the Saxon army the king would have no longer had a complete sense of command and control with which to direct his troops.  According to Wace, and Henry of Huntingdon as well, the duke now concentrated his archers upon the English position in preparation for the final assault.  The Bayuex Tapestry indicates this by illustrating many archers in its lower band at this stage in the battle.  How organized this final assault was is debatable.  The troops would have been intermixed due to the long duration and severity of the fighting and whether the last attack was a coordinated affair or a general melee can only be for the individual reader to decide.  When the death of King Harold finally came it was also the death knell for the defending Saxons.  Harold’s death has been one of the most hotly debated aspects of the battle.  The commonly held opinion is that Harold was killed by an arrow through the eye, as supposedly depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry.  Unfortunately the tapestry has been repaired on more than one occasion throughout its existence and the scene depicting the king’s death is one of these areas of repair.  Consequently, the figure that seems to be grasping an arrow protruding from its face may have originally been wielding a spear.  Other theories hypothesize that the figure being cut down to the immediate right of this scene actually depicts Harold being slain.  William of Malmesbury concurs with the arrow theory while Wace follows along but in more colorful detail, with the king being struck by the arrow then being given a sword blow on the thigh while lying prostrate.  The Carmen gives Duke William the honor of breaking through the lines and striking down his enemy personally.

Regardless of its manner, Harold’s death signaled the battle’s end.  Members of the fyrd began to break away in retreat while the housecarls of Harold’s personal guard chose to stand and die with their king.  By the time the sun set the battle had turned into a complete route and the duke was forced to recall his pursuing troops due to the falling darkness.  Legend has it that William then returned to the battlefield where he pitched his tent among the dead.  The Norman dead were recovered for burial but the Saxon slain were left where they lay, as a carrion feast unless family members came to claim them.  Unlike most of their countrymen the bodies of Harold’s brothers were recovered.  However, the king’s body had been so badly abused as to be unrecognizable.  Because of this William sent for Harold’s common law wife, Edith Swan-Neck, so that she could identify his body by marks known only to her.  The body was then taken to the duke’s camp where Harold’s mother, Gytha, supposedly offered William the body’s weight in gold for its return.  William refused and his Norman comrades joked that Harold should be buried on the shore he had tried in vain to defend.  Other sources state that William allowed the body to be buried at Waltham Abbey in Essex and today a plaque marks the spot of King Harold Godwinson’s supposedly final resting place.

After the battle William returned to his base at Hastings where he spent several days regrouping and then moved on Dover.  Enroute to Dover he sent troops to Old Romney for retribution.  Apparently two ships from the invasion fleet had been blown ashore there and the crews had been killed by the local militia.  The duke undoubtedly dealt with these citizens in the same ruthless fashion he had displayed in the past.  After fortifying Dover William moved on to Canterbury where its citizens submitted.  The duke then continued to take control of the countryside around London until the city itself finally capitulated and William, Duke of Normandy, now a conqueror rather than a bastard, was crowned King of England on Christmas day in Edward the Confessor’s Westminster Abbey.  There were still pockets of resistance throughout the country and the total conquest of England was not yet complete.  After the country seemed relatively secure William returned to Normandy in 1067.  He had left William FitzOzbern and Bishop Odo in charge of the country but rebellions immediately began to flare up after his departure.  The King then returned in 1068 and marched on the rebellious city of Exter with contingents of the Saxon Army already under his command.  William continued to deal with small cells of rebellion, as well as an invading Danish fleet of up to 300 ships.  The Danes were harassed until they withdrew and Wiliam used the centuries old practice of Danegeld to buy them off.  Evidently even the iron-handed conqueror was not above the realities of political expedience.  In 1069 a major rebellion flared up north of the Humber River and William marched to York.  The King now exercised his cruel will in an event that has come to be known as the Harrying of the North in which the king adopted a scorched-earth method of pacification.  Such was the severity of the devastation that, according to Orderic Vitalis, 100,000 people died of famine.  This figure is probably an exaggeration.  However, the devastation was great enough that the area is listed as uninhabitable in William’s Domesday survey of 1086.  By 1071 the pacification of England was complete and the country was forever changed.  The Normans introduced new systems of government and finance to England and a new hierarchy replaced the old Saxon witan.  England was a rich country and King William I added those resources to an already powerful Norman realm.  After the conquest of England was secure William encountered far more contention on the continent among his Norman subjects than he did upon the island nation.  Upon his death in 1087 he left a rich and influential kingdom to his sons.  In an age where rulers were judged primarily upon their military abilities William the Conqueror can surely be seen as one of the most capable.  While he may not be one of the most beloved kings in English history (or not loved at all) he was certainly one of the most efficient rulers the country has ever had. 

The battle of Hastings itself was unique for several reasons.  It was unusually long when compared to most battles of the period.  You will not find a battle that was harder fought or closer run than the events which took place on that ridge in the English countryside nearly a millennium past.  It was also incredibly decisive, more so than William could have probably hoped for.  In one stroke he had eliminated most of his political and military rivals and this made the quick operations of consolidation possible.  If Harold or the other Saxon nobles had survived organized resistance who have undoubtedly continued for quite some time, the total nature of the victory prevented this.  The Norman Conquest also took England out of the Nordic sphere of influence and made the country a significant player upon the European stage.  One could claim that the English empire began on the blood strewn slopes of Senlac Hill.   The common belief is that Hastings represents a clash of old and new methods of warfare, of the giving way of infantry combat to superior cavalry tactics.  This is really a gross oversimplification of the issue.  If their methods were indeed superior why did the battle last from nearly sunrise to sunset?  At Hastings the outcome lay in doubt right up until the last moments of the battle.  This in itself does not support the theory of total superiority in Norman arms and tactics.  If cavalry is superior why did infantry combat again rise to dominance in the later medieval period?  In reality there was little difference in Saxon and Norman equipment.  Both armies had an elite group of professional soldiers at their core who seem to have been equipped in nearly identical fashion, according to the Bayeux Tapestry.  Even if the Norman cavalry was a superior tactical instrument its input wasn’t the deciding factor, as the terrain at Hastings limited its effect.  If Norman effectiveness cannot simply be attributed to factors of equipment and tactics how were they so successful?  Can other things such as leadership, loyalty, aggression, opportunity and even luck be factors?  Some of these questions can never be fully answered and must be left to the sands of time.  However, hopefully we can gain a better understanding of Norman success as we discuss their military methods.

The Norman Military Machine

During the 11th century Normandy operated under the medieval form of government known as feudalism, or enfeoffment in exchange for obligation.  Within this system a knight would be given a grant of land in exchange for service to his overlord.  In the strict military sense, which is our focus here, the knight would be granted a fief, or fee, in return for a specified length of military service per year.  From a military standpoint this system of government has received far more attention than it deserves.  Exactly how much did this feudal system contribute to the Norman capability to wage war?  Were these feudal vassals the true backbone of the Norman military machine?  In his study of the knight’s fee historian J.H. Round could only find three instances where the feudal host was summoned to full service.  The payment of scutage, or money in place of physical service, seems to have been more common.  From this we can see that, while feudalism did indeed play an important role in administration and government, it was not a significant factor in Norman military operations.  Like most societies during the medieval period Normandy was a society organized for war.  Most grievances would have been resolved through military means, even if this only meant intimidation through the physical presence of an army rather than actual combat.  A strong and capable military structure was needed because of this ‘negotiation through force’ approach.  If the feudal host did not serve as the backbone of Norman military operations what did?

The true core of the Norman army was the familia regis, or kings military household.  The troops of the familia were professional mercenary troops who were paid for full-time military service.  It must be understood that, during the 11th century, the term ‘mercenary’ did not carry the negative baggage it does today.  The modern image of the mercenary is that of an untrustworthy and unscrupulous killer for hire.  In contrast the paid members of the familia often showed intense loyalty towards their lord and their lord to them.  The loyalty displayed by the familia was often far stronger than that shown to a lord by his feudal subjects.  Even when mercenary troops were not officially part of a lord’s familia they often displayed a sense of professionalism and loyalty far greater than their feudal counterparts.  During the siege of Bridgnorth in 1102 Robert of Belleme’s garrison was made up of a combination of mercenary and feudal troops.  Unknown to either Robert or his mercenaries, the feudal members of the garrison cut a deal with the besieging army and surrendered the castle, much to the dismay of the mercenaries and surely to Robert himself.  William FitzOzbern, one of the closest confidants of William I, was well known for bestowing lavish gifts upon the members of his familia, in spite of incurring the king’s displeasure over what he saw as excess.  Upon his deathbed Henry I, the Conqueror’s son, professed concern about the welfare and care of his familia troops.  Such was the bond of loyalty that one of Henry’s last thoughts concerned these comrades in arms.  The combination of money and shared loyalty created a strong bond between a Norman lord and his personal troops.  A lord’s feudal subjects often expressed contempt for these paid soldiers, since they saw them as inferior and of base station.  Apparently the familia often showed equal contempt for the lord’s ‘noble’ subjects, who they saw as dishonest and without honor.  This could undoubtedly lead to friction within an army and it would take a leader as strong as many of these Norman lords to maintain control.   To place the familia in a modern context we may view them as the professional active-duty arm of the Norman army, with the feudal host as a form of reserve that would be called into service in time of greater need.  The presence of familia troops in post-conquest England doesn’t seem to have been as great as in continental Normandy.  The size of a Norman army was limited due to issues of transport and supply, as such the Saxon fyrd continued to supplement Norman troops in England after 1066.  A soldier of the Norman familia shared much in common with the Saxon housecarl.  The principals of service and loyalty were much the same.  Perhaps this similarity is due to their common roots in the Nordic and Germanic areas of northern Europe.  As such, the professional soldiers of the familia formed the truly effective arm of Norman military might. 

I have tried to avoid using the term ‘knight’ and will continue to do so.  In later centuries the scope and basis of knighthood would change considerably, using it as a descriptor here may lead to a false impression of who the Norman warrior really was.  The Norman soldier took two basic forms: the milite and the pedite.  In their strictest interpretations these are translated into ‘soldier’ and ‘infantry’ respectively.  The term equites can be translated into ‘cavalry’, although milite seems to have served this definition in the broader sense.  In Stephen’s reign a miles was defined as one who held a knights fee, hence the use of miles as a descriptor for ‘knight’.  Consequently, we will define the miles, or milite, as a mounted soldier and the pedite as an infantryman.  During the 11th century these terms do not seem to have been used exclusively to describe those of noble birth, as we would come to expect from later definitions of knighthood.  A man’s equipment seems to have been the defining factor.  If a man possessed the required equipment of mail hauberk, helm, sword and horse he could be considered a milite.  In an age where the horse was a main symbol of wealth and status, undoubtedly most of the feudal nobility would have occupied this role.  Still, a professional soldier of the familia may not have been of noble birth but if his success allowed him to possess the required equipment he could also fill the role of the miles.  Likewise, a senior infantryman might possess helm, hauberk, etc. yet still play the part of a pedite.  The fact that Norman milites often dismounted and fought as pedites, or organized infantry, further muddies the waters between these two definitions.  Siege warfare was a far more common event than large set-piece battles like Hastings, which tended to be very costly affairs in both men and material.  Consequently, the Norman miles spent quite a bit of his time fighting on foot.  Henry I made good use of dismounted troops at the battle of Tinchebrai in 1106.  Henry was besieging the castle when his brother Robert arrived with an opposing relief force.  Henry dismounted a large number of his milites and used them to support the infantry, to good effect.  The common perception of the medieval infantryman as a simple peasant with a spear is a long standing fallacy.  While it is true that they were generally less well-equipped than their mounted counterparts, they still played a crucial role on the battlefield.  Infantry could, and often did, play a significant role in combat.  William I knew the value of infantry and recruited large numbers of them for the invasion of England.  If these professional mercenary pedites had not been present at Hastings the battle would have gone quite badly for the Norman cavalry.  The Norman’s willingness to adapt to the tactical needs of the situation, as well as having the capability of fielding a cohesive and professional military force, cannot be overemphasized.  The fact that Norman leaders were able to consistently command their mounted troops to dismount and fight among the infantry is also an indicator of their typically strong leadership.  A man on horseback would have been seen as having the greater chance at fame and reward, as well as being able to retreat if the battle went badly.  Only a leader with full command and control of his army could have accomplished this on such a routine basis.

Evidently the familia member was responsible for initially supplying his own equipment, with lost or damaged items being replaced by his lord as part of the service agreement.  A prosperous and successful familia soldier, or feudal noble, would have possessed a mail hauberk consisting of many thousands of interlinking, riveted, iron rings.  Mail was very time consuming to make and consequently quite expensive.  Given its cost, the percentage of soldiers actually possessing mail at any given time is open to debate.  While much of the surviving period artwork depicts large numbers of mail-clad warriors, its use undoubtedly varied with individuals as well as within familia unitsStill, possessing a mail hauberk was one of the requirements for service as a miles, so when medieval muster rolls list large numbers of these troops we might assume that its use was fairly widespread.  Whether or not a padded garment (gambeson, aketon, etc.) was worn beneath armor during the 11th century is a hotly debated subject within historical circles.  There is no evidence for this until well into the 12th century.  However, the effectiveness of a defensive system utilizing mail is much increased if padded underclothing is worn. An iron helmet, consisting of a conical skull and a simple nasal guard, would have supplemented the hauberk, although quite a few examples of period artwork show helms without nasal guards being used.  In spite of its obvious popularity very few examples of this type of helmet survive.  Nevertheless we can extrapolate from the surviving specimens that the helm took two basic forms: a segmented type in which individual plates were riveted together to form the skull, known by historians as the spagen form of construction, and the more expensive variety in which the helm’s skull was raised from a single piece of iron.  The nasal guard itself could either be integral to the helm or riveted in place.  Through period artwork it is obvious this seemingly simple helmet was quite popular for several centuries.  It provided good protection for the wearer as well as good visibility and no hindrance to breathing.  If contemporary sources like the Bayeux Tapestry are any indication this type of helm was the standard of the period.  The soldier’s final piece of defensive equipment was the shield.  The preferred shield for Norman use seems to have been the so-called ‘kite’, or teardrop, shaped shield, although the earlier round variety did remain in use.  Made of wood and covered with cloth or perhaps leather, this design offered increased protection for the user’s legs, both mounted and dismounted, and by the late 11th century it seems to have become the preferred type. 

The pattern-welded swords of the migration era and early Viking age had now given way to improved methods of manufacture.  Smelting techniques had improved to the point where homogenous steel blades were now easier to produce, with no loss in function, and by the 11th century the more complicated manufacturing process had been replaced.  The sword was still of a cutting dedicated design, with a broad, flat blade.  However, as the period progressed longer blades with an increased profile taper began to be introduced.  By the 11th century swords had become something of a general-issue item, no longer strictly the province of high born warriors of note.  This last point may be reflected in the more austere appearance of many surviving specimens from the 11th century, although the Normans themselves seem to have been more reserved in their general tastes, so this may only be an aesthetic issue.  The horse was the most expensive piece of equipment owned by the miles.  As with modern work animals, such as the law enforcement canine, only certain specimens were suitable for use.  A certain type of spirit and temperament was needed for a war mount, not every horse possessed such traits.  Once the horse was selected for these duties, like its rider, it would undergo extensive training to make it suitable for the task.  The miles would then ride this fully trained mount using a saddle with fully extended stirrup leathers that left the rider literally standing in the saddle, as well as a high front and rear cantle that did a good job of locking the rider in place.  The end result was the melding of horse and rider into a stable, secure, and lethal weapons platform. 

How the Norman soldier trained to use this equipment is itself cause for much debate.  There is the long held opinion that medieval weapons were crude and brutish affairs that relied on brute strength and bludgeoning power for their effectiveness, this viewpoint is incorrect.  Norman equipment was anything but crude and barbaric.  While the various items of a Norman soldier’s kit may look uncomplicated to the modern eye, much time and effort was spent in their design and manufacture and every item was well suited for its intended purpose.  The sword itself was a subtly complex killing instrument that, when properly made, possessed dynamic handling qualities perfectly suited to the required task. Surviving manuscripts from the later medieval period illustrate complex and dynamic methods of use.  There is no reason to believe the training methods of earlier centuries were any less-complex.  Likewise, modern medieval historians have found that training a horse to perform the task of running a tilt is a complex and time consuming affair. We can assume that training a horse to operate in tight formation, as well as performing in the confusion of the battlefield, would be even more so.  While these men were professional soldiers, and in spite of the aforementioned complexities of their profession, it is unlikely that they attended any kind of formalized school as we define it today.  From a very young age, men of medieval society were trained in the methods of warfare.  Training with weapons began as soon as the individual was old enough, likewise with horsemanship.  Norman cavalry operated in groups of 25 to 50 men known as conrois.  Unity and timing would have been essential when working in a closely packed cavalry formation. Therefore, it is logical to assume that, in order for these skills to be properly developed, training was conducted in a similar group fashion.  Young men may have been trained in the martial methods by assigned members of their lord’s garrison or court, perhaps a designated master of arms or castellan.  The popular sport of hunting from horseback was itself a means of military training used to hone the warrior’s equestrian skills.  Medieval societies were communities organized for war and life itself was their training ground.  By the time a man reached adulthood the use of his mount and weapons must have been second nature. 

While Norman military equipment was state-of-the-art for its time, it was not significantly different than that used by other European countries, nor was there a huge difference when compared to that used by their Moslem adversaries in the Italian campaign.  The Bayeux Tapestry itself shows little difference in Norman and Saxon equipment.  The Normans surely made the most of cavalry warfare. However, it would seem they simply adopted the small-unit cavalry tactics used by 10th century Byzantine armies.  How then were the Normans so successful in their conquests? 

One classic theory of Norman superiority relies on the invention of the stirrup.  The main problem with this theory is that it cannot explain why infantry returned to dominate the field later in the fifteenth century.  Why were formations of Swiss and German pikemen able to handedly defeat the best of European chivalry if cavalry was inherently superior?  The earliest date considered for the stirrup’s invention is around 500 AD.  By the 11th century the Normans were not the only people using the stirrup so this cannot be seen as any kind of special advantage.  Also, if cavalry was the ultimate medieval weapon why did Norman troops routinely dismount and fight on foot?  In reality cavalry is effective against other cavalry or disorganized infantry.  In ages of cohesive infantry tactics, such as those of Greece and Rome, cavalry served mainly in a supporting role, this had little to do with a lack of stirrups.  The battle of Hastings itself, as already mentioned, shows that massed infantry formations are quite capable of standing against cavalry attacks for extended periods of time.  Therefore the use of things like the stirrup, couched lance and massed cavalry tactics cannot be seen as any kind of Norman secret weapon.

To what then can we attribute their success?  As we have seen, the core of any Norman army consisted of a professional military arm.  Yet it would be rather narrow-minded for us to assume they were they only ones who possessed such a force.  We have already seen that the Saxon army itself was built around a similar group, so the Normans were not totally unique in this aspect.  Norman society was built around the concept of warfare and their elite saw themselves as a warrior society.  Still, the medieval world in general was a violent and war-strewn place and many of their enemies also possessed cultures with a warrior ethos.  In areas like Sicily we may attribute Norman success to the political division and disunity that existed within the local populace.  However, as with the conquest of England, the Normans sometimes faced a united enemy so this aspect cannot be seen as a catch-all solution.  In my opinion Norman success can be attributed to two things that are far less tangible: leadership and luck.  Throughout the 11th century Norman leaders showed themselves to be aggressive and capable.  Nearly all of them, from the cruelly charismatic Robert Guiscard to the iron-fisted William of Normandy, possessed a dynamic and forceful personality that allowed them to maintain complete control of their troops in the field.  Not only do they seem to have led from the front but they also believed in amply rewarding their men for loyal service, this practice can only have served to strengthen the motivation of their troops.  When they did face rebellion it often came from their troublesome feudal subjects and relatives, whereas the troops of their familia seem to have been consistently loyal.  In the modern world we tend to see law and religion as things which restrain us and govern our behavior.  The Normans were big proponents of law and religion.  However, they seem to have viewed these things as tools that could be bent to their personal use, not as legal or moral shackles.  When Norman leaders decided to exercise their ambition they did so with an unwavering determination that was unsurpassed by any other people in the 11th century.  They were also lucky.  In spite of their military and political abilities, all too often they were outnumbered and isolated from support.  In many instances where logic should have dictated a loss the Normans were victorious.  Most capable military commanders have given luck at least partial credit for their success and the Normans seemed to have had more than their fare share.  If there is any motto that could apply to them it is the old Latin phrase “Carpe Diem”.  Throughout the 11th century the Norman people did indeed seize the day and in doing so made it their own.

A Modern Norman Interpretation

Now, at last, this long and winding road has brought us to my own part in the tale.  While many medieval enthusiasts are fascinated by the plate harness of later centuries it is the age of mail that has always fascinated me.  As a child I possessed several old volumes of the tales of King Arthur.  These books were profusely illustrated with woodcut illustrations of Arthur and his knights.  The figures in these plates all wore the characteristic conical helm and mail hauberk of the 11th century.  I spent many an hour gazing intently at those illustrations and I have no doubt this had a huge impact on my personal vision of the medieval knight.  The Warlord, a movie starring Charlton Heston was also one of my favorites and continues to be so to this day.  This movie is also full of my favorite vision of the medieval warrior, that of Normans in mail.  I have long desired to create an accurate interpretation of 11th century Norman kit and have attempted this on several occasions with varying degrees of success.  Early in the summer of 2005 I decided to make the attempt once again.

In all honesty this project didn’t start with a specific goal.  I didn’t begin with a clear cut A to Z process in mind.  I initially purchased a mail hauberk from an on-line source and from this one decision the monster was born.  While surfing around the internet I happened to come upon a mail hauberk being offered for an affordable price by Wholesalearmor.com.  The advertisement listed the hauberk as being manufactured from 16 gauge flat rings, secured with round rivets.  Given the cost of quality mail the price was rather cheap and if nothing else it would serve as a diverting project.  In years past I had made several mail projects with the usual, butted, round-wire rings.  I had never been completely satisfied with the appearance or durability of butted rings.  Consequently, I decided to give riveted mail a try.  A truly accurate custom-made hauberk, while beautiful, will always be far beyond my financial reach so this one would have to do.  In short order I made the purchase and within the week I was in possession of one Indian-made mail hauberk.  As soon as I had the armor in hand I began to think of ways to improve it. The idea of the mail serving as the basis of a complete interpretation soon began to take shape.  When the decision was finally made to turn the project into a full-blown interpretation several issues had to be resolved.  The main question was, “How much am I willing to spend?”  This is the primary consideration of any re-enactor or living historian when starting a project like this one.  Many of the items necessary may have to be custom made and even quality production examples can be costly.  It is very easy to spend huge amounts of money on accurate equipment and, as with most hobbyists, expense was a main concern.  The next question in need of resolution was, “How accurate do I want to be?”  The 11th century is one period that really suffers badly in re-enactment circles.  When this period is being portrayed far too much of the equipment appears to be thrown together in a haphazard fashion, with little thought to overall look or proportion and the entire appearance of the interpretation tends to suffer.  On the other end of the spectrum is the ultra accurate “high fidelity” approach.  With this method the attempt is made to make the persona as accurate as possible, with much thought being given to everything from cloth dye and paint to hand-stitched garments.  In the end I decided on a median approach.  Historical accuracy would be given precedence in the choices of material, color, overall composition, etc.  However, for the sake of time management things like modern paints would be used and the clothing would be machine stitched.  My hope was to build an interpretation that would be convincing yet affordable.  This approach would be taken with the idea that any a-historic details could be changed and improved over time. 

The hauberk itself required the most time and effort to bring it to a reasonable level of appearance.  The standard method of mail construction during the 11th century seems to have been the use of alternating rows of solid and riveted rings, with the riveted rings being round in cross section.  The new hauberk was entirely made of flat, riveted, rings so there was nothing to be done in that respect.  However, there was still much that could be accomplished to improve its appearance and fit.  The first order of business was to remove the zinc plating that covered the mail.  While this kind of coating provided an effective way to protect the mail against corrosion it was neither attractive nor historically accurate in appearance, so the decision was made to remove it.  I did this by placing the mail in a bucket of muriatic acid.  Within seconds the zinc was removed from the mail and the acid was neutralized by placing the mail in a second bucket of water and baking soda. (The author does not encourage the use of hazardous chemicals and is only relating his experience for observational purposes.  This process is not recommended)

Once the zinc plating was removed the appearance of the mail improved considerably.  I then beganclosely examining the hauberk and replacing any rings that were missing their rivets, or possessed rivets that were not properly set.  For these repairs I used flat rings and wedge rivets that I purchased from Forth Armoury.  After these repairs were complete I starting performing major changes to the hauberk.  Most modern production mail consists of nothing more than a straight tube with sleeves and a hole for the wearer’s neck.  Original mail armor was tailored to the wearer much like a fabric garment would be.  I have never encountered modern, mass produced, mail that possesses these features.  This is understandable given the price point.  However, the result is a mail garment that doesn’t fit the way it should, be it a hauberk, coif, or chausses.  Not only does this method of manufacture ruin the physical appearance of the mail, it also hinders the wearer’s ease of movement and results in unnecessary weight. 

I then set about performing the two most time consuming aspects of this project: lengthening and expanding the hauberk’s skirt.  In its original form the hauberk was a bit too short for my taste.  The skirt only extended to mid-thigh and I felt it should reach to the knee for a proper ‘Norman’ look.  Lengthening the skirt was easy enough to do but expanding it required some consideration.  If I had been constructing a hauberk from the ground up I could have simply added expansion rings throughout the skirt.  However, since I was dealing with an assembled garment a more complicated process would be necessary.  I knew that increasing the skirt’s length would require me to put a slit in the front and back, this wasn’t necessary in its original, shorter, form.  Unfortunately, simply increasing the length without expanding the skirt would result in the slits spreading out into an, exaggerated, inverted v-shape.  This is a common trait in most modern mail efforts and something I wanted to avoid.  I finally decided to insert four gores into the skirt, one each in the front and back, as well as one on each side.  These would be triangular shaped gores, six inches wide and twelve inches high.  When this was finished I split the front and back gores up their center.  When I had finished I examined the hauberk and felt there was still too much spreading of the front and back slits.  I then added four more trapezoidal sections to the slits, with one on each side of the slits, front and back.  This did a good job of closing the slits and I was happy with the result.  After these alterations were complete I lengthened the skirt by approximately four inches.  I also continued the skirt’s expansion by adding three to four expansion rings to every row.  As I previously mentioned, 11th century mail seems to have been made from alternating rows of riveted and solid rings.  While doing most of these major alterations I decided to follow suit.  I purchased solid punched rings from The Ring Lord, an on-line mail supply source.  Utilizing these solid rings cut down the required work time to a considerable degree.  For anyone wishing to tackle an entire mail project I highly recommend using this method.  The final two alterations to the hauberk involved closing up the neck opening and shifting it to a more biased-forward position, as well as inserting a large diamond shaped gore into its back, positioned to lay between my shoulder blades.  The insertion of this gore eliminates any binding along the shoulders during violent movement and aids considerably in comfort.  There is still a bit of binding in the hauberk’s armpits and eventually I will insert gussets in these areas to eliminate this.  These alterations took over two months to complete but in my opinion it was well worth the effort.  The hauberk now possesses a much more accurate appearance, as well as being far more comfortable to wear and easier to move in.  As I have already mentioned, it is debatable whether padded garments were worn beneath mail during the 11th century.  I am of the opinion that some kind of padded garment was probably worn.  Eventually a gambeson made from appropriate materials will be added to the kit.  However, for now I will have to do without one.

The second element of my kit, and probably the most controversial, is the coif.  The controversy lies with the fact that I have chosen to use a separate coif.  The current popular opinion in historical circles is that, during the 11th century, the coif was an integral part of the hauberk.  While this does indeed seem to have been the newest development at that time I doubt that every single man wore a hauberk of this design.  A separate coif is specifically mentioned in 7th century Byzantine sources, so we know it was in use long before the 11th century.  The Bayeux Tapestry is often cited as primary evidence of the integral coif’s predominance.  However, this is far from the only style portrayed on the tapestry.  While many figures seem to be wearing an integral coif there are also quite a few who seem to have a clear delineating line between the coif and the hauberk.  This feature may be illustrative of separate mail garments.  There are also figures that appear to be wearing no coif at all, but rather some kind of soft hood, perhaps made of leather or cloth, beneath their helm. There are even a few figures that are bare-headed, with no evidence of an attached coif hanging from the hauberk’s neckline.  The Bayeux Tapestry is in itself a limited source of information.  Its rather crude medium limits the amount of detail possible and thereby limits its value as an historical resource.  However, there is clear evidence in the form of period statuary that illustrates Norman soldiers wearing hauberks with integral coifs, as well as the characteristic ‘bib’ ventail.  So, while I freely admit that this seems to have been the state-of-the-art system during the 11th century I don’t believe it was the only one.  In the end one of the major factors in this choice wound up being cost. 

I intend to use the individual mail garments in other interpretations, because of this versatility is a must, attaching the coif to the hauberk would seriously limit this versatility.  Eventually, time and money allowing, I will probably add an integral coif to this hauberk while using the detached coif for other purposes but for now this system will suffice.  For my use I chose a coif manufactured by Get Dressed For Battle, a relatively new company based in England.  I purchased the coif through Historic Enterprises, a company here in the United States.  The coif’s price was equal to that of the original hauberk but the quality was also much higher.  Upon examining the coif I found no evidence of missing rivets and for the most part the coif exhibited clean workmanship.  Unfortunately it arrived with a blackened oil finish which, while attractive, was very dirty and didn’t match the hauberk.  Fortunately, removal of this finish did not require the use of hazardous chemicals.  Instead it only required an overnight soak in vinegar to take the coif down to bare metal.  While the initial quality of the coif was acceptable it did require alteration, for this I purchased loose rings and wedge rivets of the same size from Get Dressed For Battle.  The coif’s facial opening was originally quite large.  When worn the lower edge of the opening hung down almost below my tracheal notch.  This resulted in a fit that was far too loose.  To remedy this I used the loose rings to close up the facial opening to a more appropriate fit.  I also added a leather strap around the forehead of the coif, when tied in the back this helps to secure it to my head during vigorous movement.  A padded arming cap made by Museum Replicas Ltd. is currently being worn beneath the coif.  This will eventually be replaced with one made from more appropriate materials.  Both the hauberk and coif were treated with vinegar after the alterations were complete. This caused the new rings to oxidize, thereby matching the coloration of the original rings. 

The last piece of armor needed was a helm; surprisingly this was the hardest item to find.  Purchasing a custom made helm was an option.  However, since affordability was an issue I decided to use a production version.  Unfortunately, finding a suitable version of this outwardly simple helm proved to be a difficult task.  Most production versions are too large and lack the shape and proportion of the originals.  All too often the end result is a helm that looks like nothing more than an overly large metal cone.  I finally turned, once again, to Get Dressed For Battle.  I examined the company’s available helms and settled on their Olmutz model.  This model is based upon an original example that was discovered in Olmutz, Moravia.  There are very few surviving examples of this type of helm and the Olmutz specimen is one of the best preserved.  I have always preferred the smooth one-piece construction of this helm over the segmented, or spangen, style of construction found in other examples.  I had initially attempted to acquire this helm through a US distributor.  Unfortunately this source fell through so I cancelled the order.  Stephen Brown, the owner of Get Dressed For Battle, apologized for the mix up and offered to ship the helm directly to me and pay for the shipping himself.  Stephen’s kind gesture literally cut the cost of the helm in half, something I was very grateful for. 

When the helm arrived I was quite happy with it.  The helm’s shape and proportion are quite nice, much better than other examples found at this price point.  Most mass-produced helms of this type will feature thinner 18 gauge steel in their construction.  In contrast the GDFB helm uses stronger 16 gauge steel.  The skull of the helm is shaped from two pieces of steel that have been welded together to simulate one-piece construction.  This construction method is used to maintain an affordable price point and does not affect the helm aesthetically.  The helm’s nasal guard also has an additional piece of 3mm steel welded to its underside as an added reinforcement.  This is a functional helm not merely a display piece.  The final feature is the welcome addition of a leather suspension system, something missing from most helms in this price range.  The components of the suspension system are riveted together while the entire unit is glued to the inside of the helm’s rim.  The glue is quite secure, to the extent that I believe the suspension would be damaged if an attempt were made to remove it.  However, I will probably secure it with rivets sometime in the future.  While the appearance of the helm was satisfactory I felt it needed something to give it more visual appeal. 

The Bayeux Tapestry portrays helms of this type in a multitude of colors, perhaps indicating the helms were painted.  The painting of armor is a long standing practice that dates back to ancient Greece.  Painting is an economical and easy means of protecting armor from the elements.  I have long felt this may have been a common practice during the 11th century so I decided to paint the helm. I had originally considered using traditional milk paint but due to coast and convenience I settled on modern spray paint.  Even though modern paints were to be used the colors still needed to be something that would not have looked out of place in the period.  I chose the basic colors of blue and white, both because of their basic nature and because their use doesn’t seem to be as widespread in living history circles, when compared to colors like red, yellow, black, etc.  After the helm was primed and painted several coats of clear finish were applied, this resulted in a hard and durable finish that has resisted chipping.  The end result is a helm that features a nice sense of shape and proportion as well as aesthetic appeal.

A Norman persona cannot be complete without the characteristic kite-shield.  This was another piece of equipment that proved elusive.  Many examples are of rather shoddy construction, many others feature glaring inaccuracies such as a metal rim.  Fortunately Allan Senefelder of The Mercenarys Taylor came to the rescue. 

Allan was as interested as I was in attempting to recreate the Norman soldier and he kindly donated a shield to my efforts.  The kite-shield, as supplied by The Mercenarys Taylor, proved to be a solid piece of work.  The poplar wood core is concealed by a front facing of 5-6 ounce vegetable tanned leather, while the back is completely covered with felted wool.  Rather than a steel rim the shield features the welcome addition of rawhide edging.  The rawhide is fixed in place with iron nails, with steel clips at the end of each length of rawhide.  Ideally, drilling holes through the shield’s edge and sewing the rawhide in place would have probably been a more historically accurate method of securement.  

However, this would have undoubtedly increased the shield’s cost.  The shield’s face is finished off with a boss that has been hand hammered from 16 gauge steel.  The hammering of the boss is a welcome feature that gives the boss a more traditional appearance, when compared to the machine spun bosses often found on the market. 

As with original shields of this type the boss is vestigial and serves no purpose other than aesthetic detail.  The straps used on the shield are modeled after those found on a surviving 12th century shield, as such they do not match the strapping arrangements found on 11th century pictorial sources.  Still, the strapping is solid and provides a secure hold, as well as allowing for a wide range of adjustment.  The strapping in finished off with an adjustable guige strap.  Regardless of any minor issues of historical accuracy, the kite shield as supplied by The Mercenarys Taylor is a solid piece of work.

The spear I have included in the kit has been in my collection for several years.  This piece is manufactured by Arms & Armor of Minneapolis Minnesota.  Arms & Armor calls this piece their 12th century spear.  However, its lugged-socket design was commonly found throughout the medieval period.  The spear consists of a cast steel head mounted on an ash shaft.  The shaft itself is a bit short for use by a Norman miles but this is a common issue with nearly all production spears.  Issues of shipping, storage, and transport make a spear of this length far more practical in the modern world.  The shield and spear were painted in the same color scheme as the helm.  This was done as an attempt to represent an example of early proto-heraldry.  Not only did the painting of armor serve as a means of protection, it also served as a way to identify the individual on the battlefield.  In its earliest incarnation this proto-heraldry took the form of simple geometric shapes that could be easily identified from a distance.  I chose to base the shield’s pattern on a 12th century Scandinavian painting that depicted a similar design.  I felt this design would compliment the shape of the shield while working well with the helm’s paint design.  The painting of these items not only increases the visual appeal of the kit but, in my opinion, it also enhances the historical value as well.

The last piece of needed hard kit was, of course, a sword.  Surviving European swords of the 11th century tend to be of the single-handed variety, with broad blades dedicated to the cut.  The classic medieval longsword had not been developed, nor do variants such as the falchion or messer seem to have been in use.  The sword I chose for this interpretation is the Reeve, manufactured by Albion Armorers of New Glarus, Wisconsin. 

The Reeve possesses the aforementioned broad cutting blade with a well defined central fuller.  In his typology of the medieval sword Ewart Oakeshott designated this design as his Type X.  The Type X is a classic blade design that saw widespread use throughout the Viking age and well into the medieval period.  The Reeve also features the distinctive form of early medieval pommel known to historians as the Brazil-nut style.  The sword’s guard is a simple unadorned bar with a slight swelling in its center section.  I have always considered this type of sword to be the archetypal European design of the 10th and 11th centuries.  Swords of this design saw widespread use throughout Europe and even into the Middle East during the first crusade.  Consequently, a sword of this type is a natural for use in an 11th century Norman interpretation. 

I chose Albion’s Reeve, not only for its classic design, but also because of the sword’s quality.  In terms of overall finish, construction and handling qualities Albion swords are some of the best in the production field, as well as being superior to many of the so-called ‘custom’ offerings.  Since this type of sword is one of my favorite designs I have owned several throughout the years and this one is the best by far.  The Reeve exhibits the high level of construction and handling qualities that Albion swords are known for.  The sword handles in a nimble and dynamic fashion that would make it deadly upon the battlefield.  Anyone subscribing to the theory that medieval swords were heavy and cumbersome bludgeoning instruments should examine a sword like the Reeve.  This one is a quick-handling butcher knife. 

Sadly, one of the items most lacking in today’s market is a quality sword scabbard.  Replica arms are of greater quality and variety than ever before.  Unfortunately there are less than a handful of makers producing historically accurate scabbards of quality.  A quality scabbard is nearly as time consuming to make as the sword it houses and re-enactors will often be seen carrying good swords in shoddy scabbards.  These kinds of details can ruin an otherwise attractive kit and I wanted to avoid falling into that trap.  Fortunately I already had an excellent scabbard, made by Swedish smith Peter Johnsson, in my possession. Peter does not make individual scabbards. However, this scabbard was made for a sword with the same general blade type as Albion's Reeve. It is of a pattern quite common from the 11th to the 14th century and fits the Reeve well.

It is very easy to ruin the effect of quality arms and armor by combining them with low quality, non-period correct, clothing.  Fortunately my wife has many years of experience as a seamstress so this was not a concern.  Other clothing items that my wife could not supply were purchased from Revival Clothing.  The standard materials used during the middle-ages were linen and wool.  Wool was typically used for outer wear and linen for undergarments.  However, my wife is extremely allergic to wool, so linen was used for both the outer and under tunics.  Norman clothing does not seem to have been overly elaborate, with status being displayed mostly through color and material rather than fancy trim and embroidery.  For the outer tunic I chose medium-weight green linen.  Once again, the color was chosen because of its uncomplicated palette, as well as providing a subtle bit of contrast with the armor’s color scheme.  The under tunic was made of white linen, to the same basic t-tunic pattern.  Both of these items were machine sewn due to convenience.  In the future I will add embroidery or tablet woven trim to the outer tunic in order to conceal the machine stitching.  When not in armor a simple pouch, of a design popular from the late 11th to the 15th century, is worn on the waist belt.  This pouch was made by Bohemond Bootmaker.  The belt fittings themselves were purchased from Raymond’s Quiet Press.  These fittings are based upon Nordic design, so they can’t be considered classically Norman.  These will be replaced as soon as appropriate belt fittings are acquired. 

Also worn at the belt while in civil dress is a pattern-welded scramaseax made by Vince Evans.  This knife is of Saxon design rather than Norman.  However, the knife might be justified as being an acquired war trophy, or trade good, in post-Saxon England. 

Traditional braies and chausses were purchased from Revival Clothing.  These have proven to be quite comfortable, providing the ties that secure the chausses to the braies are properly adjusted.  Wool winningas, or leg bindings, are worn on the calves.  The exact purpose of this item is unknown.  They may have been used to warm the legs, or to protect the calves from brush, and seem to have been worn out of personal choice.  I purchased a set of reproduction military puttees for this purpose.  I then dyed them with brown fabric dye in order to eliminate the 20th century olive-drab military appearance. 

The last piece of soft kit is one of the most important; the shoes.  I cannot express the importance of proper medieval footwear enough.  Inaccurate footwear can ruin the appearance of an otherwise accurate interpretation. If experimental archeology is the main goal accurate footwear will aid in the study, whereas modern footwear will prove to be a hindrance.  Accurate shoes will allow the wearer to move as his ancestors did, whereas modern shoes will provide a completely different impression.  I chose a pair of medieval low boots manufactured by Revival Clothing.  These boots are well constructed and the innocuous design fits in well with the 11th century kit.  I have worn them at several events and thus far they have proven comfortable and durable.

I have mentioned the factor of expense several times.  Here is a breakdown of the cost thus far.

Helm: $75.00
Coif: $285.00
Hauberk: $300.00
Spear: $180.00
Sword: $620.00
Scabbard: $600.00
Shield: No Charge
Tunics: $60.00
Chausses & Braies: $80.00
Boots: $75.00
Belt: $45.00
Total: $2,320.00

This may seem like a significant expense.  However, when you compare this with the cost of a quality plate harness the expense seems quite affordable.  So far I am pleased with the outcome of this project.  Several times since it began I have made the statement, “It's done!”   I have come to realize this is an on-going project that will never really be “done” so I will no longer make that mistake.  I have attempted to list the inaccuracies as I see them and these details will be remedied and improved upon as time permits.  This project has given me new respect for the men who fought and died while wearing this equipment, as well as the craftsman who were responsible for its manufacture.


One of the unfortunate circumstances of life is that we tend to judge the actions of the past by our modern standards.  When we adopt this viewpoint we deny ourselves much of what history can teach us.  Our values and morals would have been just as alien to the medieval mind as their sensibilities would be to us.  It’s true the Normans were violent men, but they were men who lived in a violent age.  Ambitions were realized through aggression and justice was often administered through violent means.  While no one would wish to return to a time as blatantly violent as the middle-ages, at times it would be nice to see that Norman sense of decisiveness displayed by our modern leaders.  One outlook that has become especially popular is to glorify the defeated while vilifying the victor.  Because of this many popular historians have chosen to label the Norman people as brutish conquerors, who subjugated the noble Saxon and the tolerant Muslim.  While it is true that the Normans were conquerors we must remember, those they conquered were once conquerors themselves.  History has much to teach us but only if we take it in its totality instead of choosing only the bits that agree with our modern viewpoints, while ignoring the rest.  I have not attempted to glorify the Normans.  Instead I have attempted to portray them as they really were: a dynamic and aggressive people, who brought new forms of government and architecture to other lands and in turn willingly adapted the useful aspects of indigenous cultures to their own use.  By attempting to recreate the kit of an 11th century Norman soldier I have tried to take my own learning experience to a new level.  I hope the reader may also gain some benefit from my efforts.

Recommended Reading

1066 The Hidden History of the Bayeux Tapestry, Andrew Bridgeford, 2005, Walker Publishing

1066 The Battles of York, Stamford Bridge & Hastings, Peter Marren, 2004, Leo Cooper Pub.

The Battle of Hastings 1066,  M.K. Lawson, 2002, Tempus Pub.

1066 The Year of Conquest, David Howard, 1981, Penguin Books.

Warfare under the Anglo-Norman Kings 1066-1135, Stephen Morillo, 1994, The Boydell Press.

The Normans In Sicily, John Julius Norwich, omnibus edition 1992, Penguin Press

The Normans, R. Allen Brown, 1984, St. Martens Press.

Equipment Sources

Albion Swords

Arms & Armor

Forth Armoury

Get Dressed For Battle

Historic Enterprises

The Mercenary’s Taylor

Raymond’s Quiet Press

Revival Clothing

The Ring Lord

Vince Evans

Wholesale Armor

The author would like to extend special thanks to Allan Senefelder of The Mercenarys Taylor and Stephen Brown of Get Dressed For Battle.  Their assistance in acquiring equipment is greatly appreciated.  Thanks also go to Jesse Bailey and Conroi FitzOzbern for allowing the use of their photographs depicting Norman horse equipment.

The author would like to extend his appreciation to the following people: to Greg Griggs for braving gale force winds and a mini sandstorm to man the camera during photography sessions for this article. Finally to his wife Dorathea, who's invaluable contribution as a seamstress, as well as a kindred spirit, have been invaluable.

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