The Battle of Hastings
Decisions on the Spur of the Moment? (groan)
This activity was devised by Ian Luff who is currently an assistant head-teacher in Suffolk. I’ve always been wary of suggesting to teachers that they re-enact battles because of the potential for the mock-battle turning into a real one but Ian shows here how to do it and why it’s worth doing. Note the follow-up particularly – repetition of the activity really helps develop pupils’ knowledge and understanding.
This activity can be used in conjunction with another activity on this site, The Events of 1066.
Now over to Ian’s description.
Many key decisions were made throughout 1066, each of which influenced the events of that year enormously. For example, William’s decision to take the gamble of cooperation with Tostig stretched Harold’s forces to the limit. His decision to bring a substantial cavalry force across the channel, even at the cost of much time, ensured that the Normans were able to play to their strengths when they did eventually land in England. The brilliant decision to remain in the south after invasion - thereby forcing the English army to come to him. Equally influential was Harold’s initial decision to entrust opposition to Hardrada’s invasion face to the Northern Earls then to undertake a hasty forced march to save a desperate situation. Harold’s decision to face William in person without delay – taken in the knowledge that other experienced English commanders were present in London – has been much criticised in that Harold’s presence made Hastings a decisive battle.
By the time William’s force faced Harold near Hastings on the 14th October 1066 much had happened to tip the scales in William’s favour. Too often though, teachers find themselves tempted to study the actual battle cursorily as if William’s victory was inevitable. Frequently the Norman approved version in the Bayeux Tapestry is followed exclusively or a narrative sequence of events is presented to pupils with no opportunity to analyse or to think for themselves. This is a mistake. In battle nothing is certain. Even today in an electronic and psychologically aware age battlefield communication is inadequate and confused and the behaviour of men under extreme stress is always unpredictable to some extent. How much more so in 1066? This re-enactment takes your pupils into battle and highlights the key moments where the outcome hung in the balance.
My primary aim here is to promote discussion on the battle’s turning points – particularly the alleged feigned retreats carried out by William’s cavalry. My secondary aim is to give pupils confidence in the recall of the sequence of principle events. Without such confidence meaningful discussion can often be stilted as pupils constantly refer back to text or tapestry. The activity was inspired by the account of Hastings given in the Longman text ‘Medieval Minds’ (Byrom, Counsell and Riley)
This activity can be carried out in a normal classroom, but works better in a slightly larger space such as an activity area, gym or small hall. My advice is not to use too big a space since you lose the ‘close proximity’ feel of medieval combat.
1. Push all the desks and most chairs to one end of the room. Retain ten chairs lining these up across one of the narrow sides of the room.
2. For a class of thirty divide the forces up as follows: ten with Harold lined up behind the chairs which represent Senlac Hill (do not allow pupils to stand on the chairs, however much they ask); twenty with William consisting of five archers, five foot soldiers, ten horsemen – and you! You will take the role of William.
3. Instruct the class in combat techniques. All weapons will be imaginary. Sword/axe fighting is a non-contact mime punctuated by ‘chop/chop’ noises. Archers mime firing a bow whilst saying swish…swish..swish. Don’t worry, they’ll do it if you act the motions and make the sounds first! Cavalry ride horses a la ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail’.
4. Brief one of William’s cavalry to yell out in panic on the first cavalry attack “William is dead, we’re bound to lose”. You then respond with the classic rallying cry “I live and will conquer yet” before pulling your cavalry back to regroup. Draw up William’s army in three lines facing the hill: archers in front, foot soldiers next, then cavalry in the rear.
5. You will direct the action with voice and gesture in detail in the first run through. You orchestrate the action, mostly in role as William but occasionally you’ll step out of role to be yourself and tell the English what to do next. As William a diabolical French accent is optional but does keep the kids attention really effectively.
[Editorial addition - To add conviction to your role as William you might buy from English Heritage a cloth ‘chain-mail’ coif for about £3.99. The best way to simulate Ian’s terrible French accent is to watch re-runs of the BBC comedy ‘All! Allo! and model yourself on that! I.D.]
1. Bring Harold’s men in through the classroom door. Instruct them to shuffle in wearily then ask Harold (the tallest or most distinctive pupil) why his army is tired. As you are carrying out this activity after studying the other events of 1066 the response “We’ve just marched from Stamford Bridge near York” should be forthcoming readily. Harold’s men should then take up position behind the chairs.
2. In role as William, rally your army by reminding them of the Pope’s favour and send your archers forward. Tell Harold’s men to raise their imaginary shields. After a few ‘swish swish swishes’ from the bowmen, trace the path of an arrow with your finger towards Harold then raise Harold’s shield arm. Point out severely that the archers have failed and send three to one side of the room and two to the other. Instruct them to wait – they will be needed again.
3. Order the foot soldiers forward. Give them a speech along these lines “Men, ‘zis will be easy …..advance up ‘zat steep ‘ill and attack ‘zose huge men who are waiting there. Ignore ‘zeir sharp axes” Say aside to your cavalry “’Zey ‘ave no chance but they will soften Harold up for we formidable ‘orse soldiers”.
4. Mimed combat takes place between Harold’s men and the Norman foot soldiers. After several ‘Chop, chop, chops’ instruct the Norman foot soldiers again with disgust that ‘zey have failed’. Lie them down as corpses then instruct them to shuffle away - thus clearing the floor for the forthcoming cavalry action. Harold’s men remain secure and intact behind their chairs (on the hill)
5. Lead the cavalry into action in best Monty Python style. On arrival at the hill your pre primed pupil will panic as follows “William is dead, we’re bound to lose”. You then respond with the classic rallying cry “I live and will conquer yet”. You mime raising your helmet (as in Bayeux Tapestry) and reassure your troops, moving them back to re-group.
6. At this point, as teacher, tell two ‘foolish’ members of Harold’s army to leave the hill in pursuit. (This represents Harold’s brothers’ impetuous and premature pursuit that tempted a whole wing of his army off the hill to their deaths). As William, turn your Normans with the command “turn and kill ‘zem” and set upon the two in mimed combat with all of your cavalry.
7. Now say “Zat was effective” “Let us pretend to retreat a few tahmes mooore”. Repeat the advance and retreat twice more, each time tempting two of Harold’s men off the hill and dispatching them.
8. Now order your archers back into action. As they fire come out of role, move towards Harold and hold his shield arm down saying “You are too tired to raise your shield. Pretend to poke a finger in his eye and beckon one of your knights to push two chairs aside to cut down the reeling Harold. The other knights swarm forward and dispatch two more of Harold’s army in mime. The final soldier left on the hill flees.
9. As William shout “God be thanked, Ah ‘ave won”. If you have a crown available, get one of your soldiers to put it on your head.
Run through the sequence twice more. (It only takes five minutes each time). On the second run through direct the action by pointing. On the third try to give no instructions but just play your own part. By this time the pupils will have the basic sequence of the battle in their heads. Then replace the furniture or return to your room.
Debrief the pupils in role. Suggested prompting questions can be:
- Why were you tired?
- Why do you feel your position was a strong one?
- When did you feel at your most confident?
- When did the battle turn against you?
- Make and support a claim that you were unlucky to lose.
- Why were you ineffective at first?
- What made your second sequence of shots more effective?
- Make a claim why you deserve the glory of this victory.
Norman Foot Soldiers
- Make excuses for your total failure.
- What was your worst moment?
- Of what are you most proud?
- Why would it have been very difficult to feign retreats on horses in the thick of the battle?
- Is it likely that the first retreat was a feint?
Point out that Normans had used the tactic before but never on such a scale and never in such a long exhausting battle. Hastings was a battle of extraordinary length by medieval standards.
Ask all pupils which of these statements are easiest to defend:
- Harold could easily have won.
- William could easily have lost
- William’s leadership contributed to his victory
- The retreats were a deliberate, planned tactic
- The retreats began by accident but were cleverly exploited by William
- The retreats were genuine.
- The outcome of the battle was never in doubt
- Individual actions and decisions affected the final outcome.
Notes & Variations
Editorial addition - Further work which would prepare pupils for looking at the sources would be to ask them, either as Normans or English, to tell the story of the battle from their perspective and think about e.g. whether they would tell it quickly or dwell on the detail, what kinds of adjectives they would use to describe William, how they would describe the result. Role-playing the chroniclers in this way helps them to understand what the sources do and don’t say
- How effective was your use of space and movement? Would you do anything differently in terms of organization next time? (and don’t be afraid to pat yourself on the back!)
- What’s the best way of students’ recording or consolidating what they have learned?
- How did tackling Hastings through this physical activity affect students’ learning? e.g. did they learn anything different? was understanding of the events deeper?
- What could students learn from this about evidence and/or interpretations?