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No. 312:
The Battle of Hastings

Today, another look at the year 1066. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

The stirrup was made a weapon of war in 8th-century France. It created mounted combat by fixing a rider firmly on his horse. By 1066, horse cavalry was a way of life in Europe, but it hadn't made a dent in isolated England. For years Saxons turned back Viking raids with swords, spears, battle-axes, and stone missiles. They first faced armored cavalry on a hill near Hastings when William the Conqueror claimed the English crown.

The year began when King Edward died and left no clear successor. William, then Duke of Normandy, thought he'd be made king, but the crown went to a nobleman named Harold. William's claim to the crown was weak, but he was furious. He thought Harold had snatched it from him and tried to rally Europe to his side. Finally, William promised the English Church to the Pope, who armed him with three powerful weapons: the papal banner, a relic of St. Peter, and excommunication for the English who resisted.

That September, a large Viking force attacked England near York. Harold made an astonishing four-day march, 200 miles across England, and beat the Vikings soundly at Stamford Bridge. Four days later, William landed, and Harold had to repeat the march -- all the way down to the south coast of England. He took up a strong position near Hastings and waited for William. The great clash of two technologies, separated by 300 years, was set.

William's armored horse might well have blown Harold away, but they were fighting uphill and their timing was bad. Harold's men, fighting from behind shields, savaged the horses with battle-axes. Harold won the first round and then didn't follow up.

Historian David Howarth thinks Harold was destroyed, not by end-to-end history-making marches, nor by superior armor. In his view, the papal flag, the threat of excommunication, and Harold's own exhausted confidence lost the battle. He let his men sit still in a defensive position while William lofted arrows over their shields and into their ranks. He sat dispirited in a battle he might have won. Even then, William didn't win England at Hastings. He won the war when people like Harold's sister and the Archbishop of Canterbury joined him.

Viet Nam reminded us that superior technology alone won't win a war on the high ground of a determined people. William's mounted knights were a frightening weapon, but they had no tactics for fighting primitive Saxon weapons. William won only when the English faltered. Technology, after all, is a creature of the human spirit. But it is less than the human spirit.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Howarth, D., 1066, The Year of the Conquest. New York: Penguin Books, 1981. For more on stirrups saddles, see Episode 476.


Sketch by John Lienhard


The lateral force exerted on the rider by the impact of his lance must be absorbed. That could only happen after the invention of the stirrup. Then the knight could take up the torque imposed by the lance by pressing his left foot against the stirrup. The French knights at Hastings had such equipment, but it took more than that to win the day.