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
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