This is a big day for battles. On October 14, 1066, William the Conqueror and his Norman army defeated King Harold II’s exhausted troops, essentially beginning the Norman Conquest of England.
The Battle of Hastings—which was actually fought a good six miles northwest of Hastings at Senlac Hill, capped off a pretty chaotic year in England. Edward the Confessor died in January, and his throne was claimed by Harold Godwinson with the support of the Witenagemot, the assembly of nobles. Edward had, allegedly, promised the throne to William of Normandy, his cousin, who had been establishing policy in England for about 15 years. Harold’s crowning pissed William off enough for him to plan an invasion with an army of men gathered from all over Europe. They packed themselves into nearly 700 ships and sailed at the end of September. Harold, meanwhile, had his hands full up north defeating a Viking army led by King Harald Hardrada and Tostig Godwinson, Harold’s brother. He defeated them and rushed back south, arriving at Senlac Hill the night of October 13. There, the mostly infantry army faced an enormous force driven by the best cavalry in Europe. They didn’t stand a chance.
At 9 a.m., William’s jester kicked things off by riding to Senlac ridge, singing a song while juggling a sword, and then killing an English soldier before being killed himself. Unsurprisingly, this didn’t make it onto the Bayeux Tapestry. Initially, the battle didn’t go William’s way. His barrage of arrows failed to fell many of the English troops, and the cavalry horses shied away from the intimidating wall of shields and spears they met on the English side. Eventually, however, the English broke ranks to pursue the Normans, allowing the Normans to effectively counterattack. William had his archers fire again, and this time the arrows found their mark. It’s said that one of those marks was King Harold, who, according to legend, was shot through the eye. With his death, the English army began to fall apart. Hundreds of soldiers fled, while their leaders stayed behind out of loyalty to the king and were slaughtered.
Following the battle, William cut a destructive swathe through the country on his way to London. The city submitted to him in early December, and he was crowned king on Christmas Day.
Just over 250 years later, Edward II failed to follow in his ancestor’s footsteps and was defeated by Robert the Bruce of Scotland at Byland in Yorkshire. The defeat forced King Edward to accept Scotland’s independence.
Robert the Bruce had been hard at work trying to wrest Scotland from English control, and after the Scottish victory at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, he set England in his sights and started raiding in the north of the country, meeting little resistance but chipping steadily away at English morale. Edward II, who apparently wasn’t quite the warrior his father was, was incapable of dealing with the problem, which went on for more than seven years. By 1322, the English barons had had enough, and many were ready to enter into an alliance with the Scots.
Edward started to focus on those barons he viewed as traitors, and he attacked and defeated them at the Battle of Boroughbridge, completely ignoring the fact that three Scottish nobles were raiding three separate areas of the north. The win gave him a boost of confidence, which he used to launch a disastrous invasion of Scotland. The army was stricken with illness and starved because the Scots took the initiative to remove and destroy all crops and livestock in their path. National morale crashed as the starving army retreated back to England, giving the Scots their cue to counterattack. They thoroughly routed the English at Byland, and Edward fled. He essentially stopped messing with the Scots, and six years later, his son, Edward III, signed the Treaty of Edinburgh-Northampton, which recognized Scotland’s independence. It would remain a separate country until James VI inherited the English throne in 1603.