No one is entirely sure if the Battle of Hastings in October 1066 was fought at Hastings, but we know two things for sure: that the Anglo-Saxon king of England Harold II (Harold Godwinson) was defeated by William, Duke of Normandy, and that Harold was killed with an arrow that struck him above his right eye.
Harold did not die at once, but he was in great pain and couldn’t move. As the force of the Norman attack gathered momentum over an unusually long day of fighting by medieval standards, Harold was hacked to death, at first by an unnamed Norman knight who smashed his leg at the thigh bone, then by others.
This momentous event in Norman history is also the tale of the reemergence of an advanced technology that was able to incapacitate Harold at a crucial moment in the battle.
In the remarkable Bayeux Tapestry, 70 meters long, Harold’s death is depicted. We can see the arrow striking him in the head:
In a follow-on frame, we see him on the ground being struck with a sword by a knight. A further image shows him dead. The tapestry says “HAROLD REX INTERFECTUS EST” (King Harold is killed).
Medieval knights wore chainmail armor, accurately depicted on the tapestry, and iron “nasal” helmets. These conically shaped helmets, thicker in the front than the back, were made from a single piece of iron with a nose covering. When placed on the head, as the tapestry shows, there is almost no space between the helmet and the knight’s eyes.
The tapestry image shows Harold struck by a short arrow on an upward angle. There are three other arrows embedded in his shield that did not penetrate. The shield itself is known as a kite shield because of its shape – it was made of laminated wood and stretched animal hide. It may have had iron for the arm buckles. The shield was good enough to stop arrows shot by typical bows of the period.
In 1066 the famous English longbow had not yet appeared. While requiring great skill, the longbow had considerable range and good speed.
In the Bayeux image the short arrow that wounded Harold penetrated at an upward angle. There is no exit visible because the helmet would have stopped the arrow after it broke through Harold’s skull.
It is almost certain that the arrow that struck Harold was, in fact, a 35-to-40-centimeter bolt from a crossbow, and that the crossbow was in the hands of a Turkish mercenary who had been hired by William for the battle.
Crossbow infantrymen were well paid and coveted. (Some of these mercenaries can be seen on the Tapestry; they are foot soldiers and have beards.)
The Catholic Church subsequently in the next century outlawed crossbows for use in Europe largely because they could kill armored knights and harm the social order. Because of that ruling, there were changes made in the next century to the Bayeux Tapestry, removing the crossbow imagery that had been depicted. These changes are visible because the type of thread used is different from what was used to make the original tapestry.
Crossbow use does not require extensive training, and the weapon is uncannily accurate.
Crossbows go back many centuries and may have first appeared in China and East Asia. The Bible in 2 Chronicles 26:15 tells us that King Uzziah “made in Jerusalem engines, invented by cunning men, to be on the towers and upon the bulwarks, to shoot arrows and great stones withal.”
Chronicles goes on to say Uzziah’s “fame spread far and wide, for he was greatly helped until he became powerful.”
Very large crossbow-type mechanisms can be used to launch heavy darts or bolts, or large stones. Man-sized crossbows typically fired a single bolt or quarrel, typically made of wood such as ash and fitted with an iron tip designed to penetrate mail armor.
The crossbow drawstring, which required considerable force to pull back (later crossbows had a crank to help do this), were made of linen, hemp and animal sinew. A medieval crossbow had a range of 180 meters and a dart speed of around 40 meters per second, or 145 km/h.
The real genius of the crossbow was how it was made.
A medieval crossbow consisted of the bow section, called a prod, and a frame, called a tiller. The prod was where most of the tension was and needed to be able to hold against considerable force. This was achieved by laminating together different woods and then wrapping the prod in sinew. The critical technology was the glue for the laminate. The glue had to be super-strong, but it also had to be able to bend and stretch.
The composite bow seems to have originated in the ancient Middle East. There is debate about the origin: Some attribute the technology to the Sumerians, others to the Canaanites. The Egyptians were overrun by the Hyksos, who used composite bows and fast-moving “iron” chariots.
Fish bladders are cleaned and cooked down to form the glue (isinglass) for such bows and for the crossbow. Fish-bladder glue is far superior to glue made from animal sinew. It can handle torsion forces, is mostly immune to moisture or heat and cold, and is very stable.
Both William and Harold were highly experienced warfighters. Both had previously been engaged in major battles and won. William, of course, had to cross over from Normandy. He had a smaller force of around 5,000 men, plus horses and equipment and stores. He used about 700 small boats for the crossing.
Had the crossbow not been used in the Battle of Hastings, it is uncertain, perhaps unlikely, that Harold would have been killed. Some experts think that Harold had trapped the Normans, and that his fighting force was superior and held the high ground at the battlefield.
It also appears that the Normans, because of the condition and elevation of the ground they were fighting on, had difficulty using their horse-mounted knights to smash Harold’s army. But when Harold was struck by a crossbow bolt, the game changed and, in some hours as Harold lingered in pain, the resolve of Harold’s forces faltered and finally broke.
The lesson, of course, for modern times is that once in a while there is a battlefield weapon that can, even for a short time, be a game-changer. We have seen some of that in Ukraine with weapons such as the Bayraktar drone, the Javelin and the Stinger. They have enabled a smaller force of Ukrainians to do heavy damage to the larger Russian force.
But just as the crossbow lost its influence as, first, the longbow and then gunpowder weapons came into use, so the Bayraktars, Javelins and Stingers in Ukraine are losing their importance as the battle shifts to heavy artillery and massive bombardment.
Volodymyr Zelensky should think of Harold’s fate.