We know most about the training and equipment of those who fought on horseback. It was the custom, in Normandy as in other parts of France, for a boy of good family to be sent for a knightly education in the household of the ruler (if the boy was of sufficiently elevated rank) or of one of the great lords, and he would presumably find himself there in the company of other boys of his own age and rank, all training for the same future. It was rather like going to public school. The lord who undertook the training of the youngsters would have the pick of them to join his household retainers in due course. From their ranks he would provide the knights who would be called for by his own lord when he needed an army; those whom he did not need or want, or who did not wish to remain with him, would probably have found employment elsewhere quite easily. Those of them who were eldest sons would in due course inherit family estates and would then look for their own retainers. The younger sons on the whole had to fend for themselves, and large numbers of them did so outside Normandy – in Spain, in Byzantium, and most of all in Italy. The Norman conquest of Apulia was largely the work of younger sons of noble families, looking for lands and heiresses outside their homeland. While they were training they would learn horsemanship, the use of weapons, the techniques of war and, in theory at least, manners and chivalric behaviour. They would be trained in hunting and tournament, the main education and diversion of the knightly families if there did not happen to be a war in progress. And they would learn to fight together as a team, usually in squadrons, or conrois, of ten.
The costs of a knightly profession were high. A young man would not, unless he were extremely lucky, be considered for employment by any lord unless he possessed a hauberk or coat of mail, helmet, shield, sword, lance and at least one well-trained war-horse, preferably more (in fact, very similar equipment to that of the English thegn Ketel). But this would be the minimum. Moreover, he would need an esquire or servant of some kind who would also have to be mounted, and presumably a baggage horse as well. All these things were extremely expensive and, in time of war, would frequently have to be replaced. William is said to have had three horses killed under him at Hastings, and this cannot have been unusual. To some extent, replacements could be found on the battlefield. The discrepancies between the differently shaped shields (some round, some kite-shaped) of the English at Hastings, as illustrated in the Bayeux Tapestry, have been hypothetically attributed to the fact that the bearers of the round shields had replaced their damaged kite-shaped shields with those of the dead Norwegians at Stamford Bridge, since round shields were used in Scandinavia later than in England; the borders of the Tapestry show Norman soldiers stripping the English dead of hauberks and swords in the later stages of the battle. But if a father wanted to send his younger son out into the world as a freelance knight, he would have had to spend a great deal of money on his initial equipment. It was to the freelances of this kind that William looked to make up his ranks, and it is not hard to see how his promises of land and wealth in England attracted them.
What the system did produce was an excessive number of testosterone-fuelled young men, unqualified and unsuited for any profession other than fighting and killing, and regarding any other occupation as below their dignity. While the average English thegn, when not required for the defence of his country, would perfectly happily settle back into a routine of agriculture and possibly even a little trade, the young Norman knight would have regarded any such occupations as totally inconsistent with his chivalric training. It is this outlook that explains the large number of necessitous Norman knights that are to be found in the wars of southern Italy, Spain, Constantinople, the Crusades later on – and, of course, in William’s army.
We know least about the infantry parts of his army. We know that he did have foot soldiers, with and without body armour, and also quantities of archers; it has been estimated that he probably had no more than 2,500 cavalry. The infantry would have formed the largest part of his force. It is less clear where they came from and on what basis they were raised. Some of them were probably mercenaries, like the freelance knights, but what kind of training and experience they had (especially the archers) and how they were found is not so easy to establish. If some of them came as part of the service provided by his barons and landowners, what were the terms on which they were sent? Who was responsible for their keep? There seems to have been no such clear arrangement for their provision and payment as there was in the English hidal system. William of Poitiers makes it clear that in this particular case the duke himself paid for their keep to prevent them from ravaging his land for subsistence (he does not say whether they were paid anything more than that, and one must deduce that his promises of money and land in England were in lieu of more orthodox payment), but this cannot always have been so; indeed, it is implied that it was an exceptional arrangement. In enemy territory, of course, they would be expected to live off the land, as they did after they landed in Sussex. But if they were on campaign within Normandy, during the invasions of the King of France, for example, how were they normally maintained? Off the land again, one must suppose. They may, in everyday life, have been professional men-at-arms, huntsmen, peasants; we can only guess. There is nothing to show where the infantry came from or under what conditions they served, and yet they formed the greater part of the army. One of the most remarkable of William’s achievements during the invasion was that he managed to keep his men together during the lengthy period at Dives and St Valéry while he was waiting for favourable winds without allowing any plundering or foraging. To organize a commissariat on this scale must have been a mammoth job, and awed calculations have been made of the amount of meat, grain and ale that would have been necessary for the men, of the amount of fodder for the horses, and of the tons of excrement, human and equine, that would have had to be disposed of in the interests of health (B. S. Bachrach estimated 9,000 cartloads of grain, straw, wine and firewood, 700,000 gallons of urine from the horses and 5 million pounds of horse- droppings, for a month’s staylxi). Yet, if we are to believe William of Poitiers, he did it, and ‘the cattle and flocks of the people of the province grazed safely, whether in the fields or on the waste. The crops waited unharmed for the scythe of the harvester, and were neither trampled by the proud stampede of horsemen nor cut down by foragers’.lxii It was indeed a remarkable achievement, and one in which William is considered to have outgeneralled his rival, who had to disband his forces in August through lack of food. Still, Harold had held his together for four months, a longer period.
In the end, the outcome was determined not by what each man might normally have been able to raise, but by circumstances. If Harold fought at Hastings without archers (one small miserable archer is shown in the English ranks in the Bayeux Tapestry, almost in mockery, though it has been suggested that his appearance is symbolic in character, and that he represented a larger contingent), it was almost certainly because he had used them at Stamford Bridge (the Norwegian king was killed by an arrow), and could not get them south quickly enough, or could not get fresh men in time. Whether they would have made a difference to the final result can never be known.
It may be helpful to add a brief note on the armour and equipment that both sides would have had.lxiii The term ‘body armour’ may imply more to twenty-first century ears than it meant to eleventh-century wearers. For many soldiers, a coat of mail or hauberk probably merely signified metal rings sewn to a leather or boiled leather foundation. For those of higher rank, the hauberk was more likely to be interlinked chain-mail, worn over some sort of padded undergarment, which both cushioned blows and protected the body from having the mail driven into it by sword or axe cuts. Sometimes the hauberk incorporated a sort of hood, which protected the neck and was covered by the helmet. This is, interestingly, one way in which the Bayeux Tapestry designer seems to betray his English nationality. He depicts both sides in hauberks that appear to be trousered. These would have been very impractical (indeed, agonizing) for cavalry wear; the Norman hauberks would probably have been skirted, slashed fore and rear, so that they would divide on horseback and protect the legs. This is borne out by the story that when William was arming on the morning of the battle, he was accidentally handed his hauberk back to front and put it on over his head that way. The English, on the other hand, fighting on foot, did indeed need the trousered variety to protect the groin and other areas that would be more vulnerable. How the wearer got into and out of this kind of mail is still a matter of conjecture. The problem is not solved by the pictures of the Norman soldiers stripping the English dead in the final scenes of the Tapestry. Snorre Sturlason tells us that Harald Hardrada’s coat of mail ‘was called Emma. It was so long that it reached below his knee, and so strong that no weapon could pierce it’.lxiv He was probably not wearing it at Stamford Bridge, but Emma would not have saved him in any event; he was reportedly killed by an arrow in the throat.
Helmets were conical and made of iron, with a nose-piece at the front (clearly shown in the Tapestry) and, in some cases, a metal flap or curtain of mail at the back or sides to protect the neck and cheeks; they seem to have been identical for all ranks. Surviving examples are either cast in one piece, with the addition of the nose-piece and neck-protector, or are constructed from four joined plates coming together in a point at the top and bound by metal or possibly, in some cases, leather, around the head at the foot. Some of those found have traces inside that suggest that they were sometimes lined or padded. Such a helmet is a far cry from the magnificence of the reconstructed Sutton Hoo helmet; but this was more likely to have been a piece of royal regalia (primitive kings are thought to have been crowned with a helmet rather than the later crown, a symbol of their role as protector of their people) than a working helmet. It probably never saw service on the battlefield.
The shield would have been made of wood (lime was generally favoured), covered in many cases with leather and edged with either leather or metal. A round hole in the centre was fitted with a metal boss (round or conical) that covered the grip for the hand and could be used for thrusting. Towards the end of Beowulf, the aged hero orders a shield of iron to be made for his last fight with the dragon, knowing that a wooden shield would provide little protection from the beast’s fiery breath. That the English army at Hastings still had wooden shields is indicated by the Tapestry’s portrayal of the Norman arrows piercing them like pincushions; arrows would have been more likely to have rebounded from metal shields. William of Poitiers’ remark that the English battle-axes had no difficulty in shearing through them suggests that the Normans also used wooden ones.
As for weapons, it is clear from the Tapestry that the Norman knights charged with spears or javelins rather than the lances that became the chief cavalry weapon very shortly afterwards. The ones we see are sometimes wielded overarm, for throwing or piercing, sometimes underarm, as the lance would later be held. But the weight of the couched lance and the discipline of the concerted charge that could pierce the walls of Babylon, as Anna Comnena, the historian daughter of Byzantine Emperor Alexius I, was later to write, were not available at Hastings. There was probably little difference between the spears carried by the two sides. Some surviving spears have wings a short way below the head, presumably to prevent the weapon penetrating so deeply that it could not be drawn out and reused. It was obviously a weapon common to all ranks; it was part of the basic equipment of the English thegn Ketel, and Duke William was found with a broken spear in his hand at the end of the battle. Snorre Sturlason gives an account of Harald Hardrada’s instructions to his men at Stamford Bridge: ‘those in the front rank are to set their spear- shafts into the ground and turn the points towards the riders’ breasts when they charge us; and those immediately behind are to set their spears against the horses’ chests.’lxv Since it is almost certain that the English did not fight on horseback at Stamford Bridge, this has been read as a confused memory of what actually happened at Hastings; at any rate, it is a very plausible account of how spears were used by the English there.
The most feared English weapon was the two-handed bearded axe (so called because of the shape of the blade), the weapon of choice of the housecarls but of other warriors as well, since the king is shown with one in his hand as he is cut down. Indeed, he is shown carrying one earlier, when he is offered the crown, which suggests that some royal or sacramental association may have attached to the axe. In battle, it was normally wielded to strike from the left, to attack the side of the opponent that was not protected by his shield, but in fact it must easily have cut through wood and even through chain-mail, as reported by William of Poitiers. The biggest disadvantage of the axe was that, since it had to be swung with both hands, the axeman could not use his shield to protect himself (unless it was simply hung around his neck), and was therefore very vulnerable at the top of his swing. It is possible that the line included spearmen interspersed among the axemen, who, fighting in the way Snorre described, could provide some cover for them. In addition to this fearsome weapon, there would have been smaller lighter axes for hand-to-hand fighting and for throwing. One weapon that seems to have been peculiar to the Normans at the battle was the mace. The Tapestry shows both William and his half-brother, Odo, Bishop of Bayeux, carrying what appear to be club-like maces, but these may have been symbols of authority (perhaps ancestors of the field-marshal’s baton) rather than weapons.
As for swords, all free men who could afford them would have carried them, Norman and English, and there were enormous variations in quality and strength. It was very much a question of what you had inherited or what you could pay. Those of the English who did not aspire to a double-edged sword, and no doubt also many of those who did, probably carried the seax, a sort of single-edged cutlass or long dagger.
One last point needs to be noted. Snorre Sturlason, in his account of the battle of Stamford Bridge, speaks of the English horses of the housecarls wearing chain-mail. There is no hint in the Bayeux Tapestry of any kind of protection, chain-mail or otherwise, for the Norman horses. If armour for horses was generally in use in 1066, and the English mounts had it, it is incomprehensible that the cavalry-obsessed Normans should not have had it too. By the time Snorre wrote two centuries later, its availability would have been taken for granted. His assumption that it was available in 1066 is a further reminder that we should not be seduced by his readability.