The difficulties in the way of his enterprise were indeed enormous. He could reckon on no support within England itself. At home he had to extort the consent of his own reluctant baronage; to gather a motley host from every quarter of France, and to keep it together for months; to create a fleet, to cut down the very trees, to build, to launch, to man the vessels; and to find time amidst all this for the common business of government, for negotiations with Denmark and the Empire, with France, Britanny, and Anjou, with Flanders and with Rome. His rival's difficulties were hardly less than his own. Harold was threatened with invasion not only by William but by his brother Tostig, who had taken refuge in Norway and secured the aid of its king, Harald Hardrada. The fleet and army he had gathered lay watching for months along the coast. His one standing force was his body of hus-carls, but their numbers only enabled them to act as the nucleus of an army. On the other hand the Land-fyrd, or general levy of fighting-men, was a body easy to raise for any single encounter, but hard to keep together. To assemble such a force was to bring labour to a standstill. The men gathered under the King's standard were the farmers and ploughmen of their fields.
The ships were the fishing-vessels of the coast. In September the task of holding them together became impostible, but their dispersion had hardly taken place when the two clouds which had so long been gathering burst at once upon the realm. A change of wind released the landlocked armament of William; but before changing, the wind which prisoned the Duke had flung the host of Harald Hardrada on the coast of Yorkshire. The King hastened with his household troops to the north, and repulsed the invaders in a decisive overthrow at Stamford Bridge, in the neighbourhood of York; but ere he could hurry back to London the Norman host had crossed the sea, and William, who had anchored on the 28th off Pevensey, was ravaging the coast to bring his rival to an engagement. His merciless ravages succeeded, as they were intended, in drawing Harold from London to the south; but the King wisely refused to attack with the forces he had hastily summoned to his banner. If he was forced to give battle, he resolved to give it on ground he had himself chosen, and advancing near enough to the coast to check William's ravages, he entrenched himself on a hill known afterwards as that of Senlac, a low spur of the Sussex Downs near Hastings. His position covered London, and drove William to concentrate his forces.
With a host subsisting by pillage, to concentrate is to starve; and no alternative was left to William but a decisive victory or ruin.
Along the higher ground that leads from Hastings the Duke led his men in the dim dawn of an October morning to the mound of Telham. It was from this point that the Normans saw the host of the English gathered thickly behind a rough trench and a stockade on the height of Senlac. Marshy ground covered their right; on the left, the most exposed part of the position, the hus-carls or body-guard of Harold, men in full armour and wielding huge axes, were grouped round the Golden Dragon of Wessex and the Standard of the King. The rest of the ground was covered by thick masses of half-armed rustics who had flocked at Harold's summons to the fight with the stranger. It was against the centre of this formidable position that William arrayed his Norman knighthood, while the mercenary forces he had gathered in France and Britanny were ordered to attack its flanks. A general charge of the Norman foot opened the battle; in front rode the minstrel Taillefer, tossing his sword in the air and catching it again while he chaunted the song of Roland. He was the first of the host who struck a blow, and he was the first to fall.
The charge broke vainly on the stout stockade behind which the English warriors plied axe and javelin with fierce cries of "Out, out," and the repulse of the Norman footmen was followed by a repulse of the Norman horse. Again and again the Duke rallied and led them to the fatal stockade. All the fury of tight that glowed in his Norseman's blood, all the headlong valour that had spurred him over the slopes of Val-ès-dunes, mingled that day with the coolness of head, the dogged perseverance, the inexhaustible faculty of resource which had shone at Mortemer and Vara-ville. His Breton troops, entangled in the marshy ground on his left, broke in disorder, and as panic spread through the army a cry arose that the Duke was slain. "I live," shouted William, as he tore off his helmet, "and by God's help will conquer yet." Maddened by repulse, the Duke spurred right at the Standard; unhorsed, his terrible mace struck down Gyrth, the King's brother; again dismounted, a blow from his hand hurled to the ground an unmannerly rider who would not lend him his steed. Amidst the roar and tumult of the battle he turned the flight he had arrested into the means of victory.
Broken as the stockade was by his desperate onset, the shield-wall of the warriors behind it still held the Normans at bay till William by a feint of flight drew a part of the English force from their post of vantage. Turning on his disorderly pursuers, the Duke cut them to pieces, broke through the abandoned line, and made himself master of the central ground. Meanwhile the French and Bretons made good their ascent on either flank. At three the hill seemed won, at six the fight still raged around the Standard, where Harold's hus-carls stood stubbornly at bay on a spot marked afterwards by the high altar of Battle Abbey. An order from the Duke at last brought his archers to the front, and their arrow-flight told heavily on the dense masses crowded around the King. As the sun went down a shaft pierced Harold's right eye; he fell between the royal ensigns, and the battle closed with a desperate melly over his corpse. While night covered the flight of the English, the Conqueror pitched his tent on the very spot where his rival had fallen, and "sate down to eat and drink among the dead". submission. Eadwine and Morkere retreated hastily home from London, and the city gave way at once.
Eadgar himself was at the head of the deputation who came to offer the crown to the Norman Duke. "They bowed to him," says the English annalist pathetically, "for need." They bowed to the Norman as they had bowed to the Dane, and William accepted the crown in the spirit of Cnut. London indeed was secured by the erection of a fortress which afterwards grew into the Tower, but William desired to reign not as a conqueror but as a lawful king. He received the crown at Westminster from the hands of Archbishop Ealdred, amidst shouts of " Yea, Yea," from his new English subjects. Fines from the greater landowners atoned for a resistance which was now counted as rebellion; but with this exception every measure of the new sovereign indicated his desire of ruling as a successor of Eadward or aelfred. As yet indeed the greater part of England remained quietly aloof from him, and he can hardly be said to have been recognized as king by Northumberland or the greater part of Mercia. But to the east of a line which stretched from Norwich to Dorsetshire his rule was unquestioned, and over this portion he ruled as an English king. His soldiers were kept in strict order. No change was made in law or custom.
The privileges of London were recognized by a royal writ which still remains, the most venerable of its muniments, among the city's archives. Peace and order were restored. William even attempted, though in vain, to learn the English tongue that he might personally administer justice to the suitors in his court. The kingdom seemed so tranquil that only a few months had passed after the battle of Senlac when William, leaving England in charge of his brother, Odo Bishop of Bayeux, and his minister, William Fitz-Osbern, returned for a while to Normandy.