The Battle of Hastings, Jim Bradbury. New York: Pegasus Books, 2021.
Summary: A historical account of Anglo-Saxon England, the rise of Normandy and the precipitating events leading up to the Norman invasion and the Battle of Hastings in 1066 and the aftermath.
The year 1066 was a turning point in English history, the transition from Anglo-Saxon to Norman rule. Jim Bradbury helps us understand the Anglo-Saxon dynasty that preceded Hastings, the rise of William the Conqueror in Normandy, and the unfolding of the battle and why William prevailed over Harold Godwinson. Bradbury also explores the aftermath as William continued to extend Norman influence.
The story begins with Alfred the Great who brought together different regions under Anglo-Saxon rule against the periodic threat of Vikings. We see the gradual weakening of his line and their control until at one point their rule is interrupted by Cnut the Dane in 1015. Another descendent of Alfred gains the throne in 1042, Edward the Confessor. He had a long and relatively peaceful reign, keeping the powerful Godwin family, connected by marriage to Cnut, at bay and maintaining good relations with the Normans. But Edward had no children, and was rumored to have not consummated his marriage, leaving a vacuum to be filled in 1066, when he died. The two possible claimants were Harold Godwinson, and William of Normandy, known as the Conqueror. Harold, being in England, gained the crown.
Bradbury also describes the rise of Normandy, in northwest France and the decision of William to contest Harold’s claim. As was the case in reverse nearly 900 years later, a cross-channel invasion was daunting. Would weather conditions permit sailing? Dare they try so late in 1066? And would his force be slain on the beaches? One understands the apprehensions of D-Day.
One break William received was a competing invasion of Hardrada the Dane at York. Harold took a force north and dealt him a decisive defeat only to have to turn around, come south to London and continue on to meet William at Hastings. Another break was the lack of archers and cavalry in Harold’s forces, both present in quantity among William’s forces. Bradbury traces the unfolding of the battle including where exactly it occurred, the succession of actions culminating in the third advance of William where the archers and cavalry played a decisive role, resulting in Harold’s death and the rout of the English.
Bradbury outlines and evaluates the sources we have for the battle from the Bayeux Tapestry to the Domesday Book, which likely wouldn’t have been written otherwise. He also considers the aftermath. William spent the rest of his reign putting down resistance, sometimes quite violently, extending his control over the aristocracy and the church.
This book strikes a great balance, providing far more depth than an encyclopedia article for the battle and its context without the tedious minutiae appreciated only by academic historians and battle aficionados. Bradbury offers a lively, interesting narrative that fixes the main contours of the battle and its context in our minds, unobscured by a blizzard of detail.