Recreation of Vikings Fighting at Stamford Bridge

3 Famous Battles in British History

Read about famous British battles in history. Here are the stories of two victories and one defeat from Agincourt, Hastings, and the Battle of Stamford Bridge.

3 Famous Battles in British History

15 December 2022

Of all the famous battles in history, British history has more than its fair share.

Among the most famous British battles are the Battle of Agincourt, where King Henry V defeated a superior French army; the Battle of Hastings, which established Norman rule in England; and the Battle of Stamford Bridge, where Harold II defeated a Norse army after marching nearly two hundred miles in four days.

You may have heard of one or all of them, but if not, read on to learn more about these famous British battles.

Battle of Stamford Bridge (25 September 1066)

Edward the Confessor’s death in January 1066 was the catalyst for a power struggle in England. The Norwegian king, Harald Hardrada, had his own claim to the English throne, supported by Tostig Godwinson, the brother of King Harold II. With Edward gone, Harald launched an invasion with 10,000 men. While he found early success in his campaign throughout the north of the country, this would not last once news reached King Harold.

Harold II, rightly fearing a Norman invasion to establish their claim to the throne, maintained his army in the south, and so was unprepared for an attack from the north. This was supported by feints made along the south coast in early September. Harold was right to believe believe an attack was imminent, but he was wrong about the location.

Upon hearing the news of Harald’s invasion, Harold gathered his army and rode to Yorkshire at such a speed his army was able to cover 185 miles in only four days. The Norwegian forces were taken by surprise, completely unaware Harold’s forces were in the area.

The battle couldn’t start until Harold’s army crossed the choke point of Stamford Bridge. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a single Norseman blocked the way, until he was finally killed by an English soldier attacking from under the bridge.

Once across the bridge, the English attacked the Norse shield wall. Over the course of the battle the English began to breach the wall and outflank their enemy. Norwegian reinforcements arrived later in the battle, but were ineffective against the army defending its homeland. Harald and Tostig were both killed in battle, and a truce was agreed upon between Harold II and the invader’s sons.

The Battle of Stamford Bridge signalled the end of the Viking age, but at the other end of the country the Norman age was about to begin. Although Harold retained the field this day, his fear of Norman invasion from the south was about to be realised, and so Harold rode back south, gathering forces along the way, for what was to be his final battle...

Bayeux Tapestry Scene William the Conquorer Battle of Hastings

Bayeux Tapestry Scene of the Battle of Hastings

Battle of Hastings (14 October 1066)

Perhaps one of the most famous battles in British history, the Battle of Hastings in the 11th century established Norman power in England through the defeat of Harold II. The Duke of Normandy (his title before he became known as William the Conqueror) claimed the right to rule thanks to deep Norman interests established during the reign of Edward the Confessor. Harold II, Edward’s immediate successor, contested the Norman claim. Following his victory over the Norwegian invaders at the Battle of Stamford Bridge, only weeks earlier, Harold raced south to see off this new challenge to his throne.

Records and accounts vary, but William’s forces were probably at least 10,000 strong; with a mixture of infantry, cavalry, and missile troops. He deployed these into three fighting groups with archers to the front and infantry at the rear. He held his mounted troops in reserve, which historians believe was probably so they could exploit openings in the English line.

Less is known about the defending English forces. Some fanciful Norman accounts record Harold’s army as being over a million strong, but the reality is more likely to have been around 10,000 infantry according to modern historians.

Harold took advantage of the terrain in preparing his defence and made use of a hillside to position his soldiers; while marshy ground and woods guarded their flanks. To protect themselves and each other, the tightly packed English soldiers formed a shield wall. This, plus their height advantage over the French army frustrated the Norman archers.

The English line held against the Norman infantry and cavalry , at least at first. A rumour soon spread amongst the invaders that William had died and they began to retreat. It was William himself who stopped the retreat by riding through his forces to show them he was still alive and then turned and led the counterattack against the pursuing English forces.

Later that day, William deliberately used this same tactic by sending in his cavalry and then withdrawing. This encouraged the English to give chase and thereby introduce breaks into their line which William could exploit in the counterattack. It seems unlikely that this would have been a viable tactic if it was not for the speed and flexibility of the cavalry. Infantry troops attacking uphill and then retreating would surely have been overrun by the English pursuit. While the record does not show this action to have been a decisive turn in the battle, it is an established military tactic still valid on the modern battlefield. Even Sun Tzu warned against this in The Art of War: “Do not pursue an enemy who simulates flight.”

The real victory in the battle came with the death of Harold himself. Famously remembered as having been shot in the eye with an arrow, the real cause of his death is still unknown. What we do know is that without his leadership, the English army began to flee. Only his royal guard, who formed a wall around Harold’s body, stayed to fight till the end; and the Normans were victorious.

William’s victory over Harold shows the value of how courageous leadership, cunning tactics, and the flexibility of combined arms can defeat an entrenched defensive position—and perhaps a little bit of luck.

Battle of Agincourt (25 October 1415)

Over six hundred years later, the Battle of Agincourt remains one of the most famous British battles and impressive victories of all time. William Shakespeare even used it as the backdrop for part of his play, Henry V.

One of many events during the Hundred-Years’ War (1337-1453), Agincourt’s key inciting incident was Henry V’s claim on Aquitaine through his great-grandfather Edward III. Open to negotiation over the land, Henry offered to renounce his claim for the price of 1.6 million crowns, and marriage to Catherine, daughter of Charles VI; which included a dowry of a further 2 million crowns. Henry refused the French counteroffer, which reduced the dowry to only 600,000 crowns, considering their terms an insult. Finally, with the backing of the Great Council, Henry went to war.

When Henry’s army reached Agincourt on 24th October 1415, they had marched 260 miles in under three weeks and found themselves greatly outnumbered. The French, anticipating the arrival of more troops, attempted negotiations to delay the battle. Henry declined and ordered preparations for the battle.

The English army now numbered around 8,500 men, of which 7,000 were longbowmen. Henry arranged his forces with missile troops in long lines on the flanks and the knights and men-at-arms in the centre. Innovative English tactics involved the use of sharpened stakes in front of the archers to ward off attacking knights and corral them into the centre.

Estimates of the size of the French army vary, but most accounts agree it numbered at least 15,000 fighting men. This included two cavalry forces, one to break the English centre and one to harass the English rear. French lords, seeking glory and valuable ransom, demanded places in the front line, and got them.

Had the battle taken place on open ground, the story could have been very different. French cavalry would have been able to move more freely about the battlefield. As it was, the terrain, weather, and tactics favoured the English.

The initial French charge was so disorganised that some of the Knights did not even take part as they weren’t ready. English archers were able to shoot at this charge from both flanks and be well-protected by their defensive fortifications. The French horses, almost entirely unarmoured, took the brunt of these missiles. The injured animals panicked and fled through the French soldiers, causing more disruption. Then came the French assault on foot by Knights far better protected from the longbows thanks to their high-quality plate armour. They reached the English line, but were exhausted by their march through the muddy conditions, and they struggled to fight in their heavy armour.

Although by now out of arrows, the English archers were only lightly armoured and better able to cope with the muddy conditions. They fell upon the French knights with swords and tools, overwhelming them, and breaking the French attack. As a result, it was only a matter of time before Henry V claimed victory.

Agincourt shows how better tactics and positioning, as well as some fortunate rain, can help an outnumbered and tired force to defeat a numerically superior opponent which should, in theory, have carried the day.

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