On Sunday, the children went with me on the train to Battle. To celebrate the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings. When William the Conqueror of Normandy defeated Saxon King Harold, and became the King of England. The rest, as they say, is history. Yes, I know, East Sussex is nowhere near London, how can I possibly pull this off as a London passion? Oooh, but I can. And I will. Following his win, William went about the country conquering, which is a more polite word for the rampaging and oppression that followed, until he came to the City of London. By that I mean the City. The Square Mile, the financial district, the footprint (more or less) of Roman Londonium, the corporation from which I have my official, red, City of London guide badge. A place with its own identity and opinions, just look to the ongoing Brexit debate, its own rules, own police force, own money and own history. A history that predates Greater London. A history that includes William realizing he had discovered the cash machine of the country. And, being no fool, he didn’t conquer. Instead, he scrawled, in French, on a scrap of paper, a few words acknowledging the City’s rights and privileges. The golden goose was spared. In the City, this Norman invader is known as William I, a friend.
And it would have been nothing short of churlish to refuse to celebrate the 950th anniversary of a friend. Connection made. Train tickets booked. For the town of Battle. The actual fight took place on 14 October, not in Hastings, as its name would suggest, but in this bit of land about 6 miles to the north. Clearly the villagers were too weary after all the fighting to bother with a fancy name to mark the location of this pivotal point in history, and called it “Battle.” Accurate anyway. The 14th was a Friday in the 2016 calendar. But we are flexible species and so the celebrations were simply moved to the weekend. We went along for the Sunday, 16 October. 950 years on, two days is hardly a bother, in fact it was gorgeous. Literally tucked into the rolling hills of East Sussex with that ever-changing sky the Dutch 17th century painters captured so well, it was easy to pretend that nothing much had happened in the intervening 950 years. The land itself is surprisingly, shockingly untouched. To imagine it as the great battlefield that changed the course of English history doesn’t take much work. Oooh, but to have it transformed into THE battlefield, now that was a true treat!
This make-believe was made all the easier with the re-enactors. Hundreds and hundreds of re-enactors. Their white, cloth tents picturesquely dotting the landscape and their impossibly adorable little children dashing about in costume, clutching bits of food their equally kitted out mothers had just whipped up on small fires. Who knew re-enacting was a family affair? For the men, with the armour and swords and beautiful, beautiful shields, this weekend must have been the highlight of their re-enacting lives. Why wouldn’t it be? Not only was it THE battle that changed the course of western history, it took place almost 1000 years ago. A Millennium. That doesn’t happen too often. And most of us won’t be around for the actual 1,000 year celebration, so good idea to make the most of this one. And they did. We did.
We spent much of the day strolling round the camps. It took us a while to realize why some of the men were happy to smile and wave and pose for photos but were a little reticent with the chat. Because they didn’t speak English. They spoke French. No, really, they are Normans after all. Ok, ok, the purists among you are growing agitated. Yes, yes, I know the Normans wouldn’t have considered themselves French and they probably didn’t speak French either, more likely a Scandi dialect as they were most likely Vikings. But those geographical details have been worn away through the centuries of conflict and friendship and today the people who fought as Normans spoke French. “Real French,” as one of my children informed me solemnly. I overheard a fair amount of German as well. Had I been really paying attention, instead of just plotting to get myself a hand-painted shield (failed), I am sure I would have noticed more languages. The modern day 1066 battlefield was plenty European.
In the Saxon camp English was spoken. In more regional accents than I could possibly identify. And such a visceral sense of camaraderie, laughter, singing and general feeling of good fun. You couldn’t help but feel envious of their involvement in such living history.
Of course English Heritage put on a proper good show. For those who didn’t think stalking people who like to dress up as medieval warriors was the order of the day, there were talks and falconry demonstrations and have-a-go-archery. The gatehouse holds the permanent Battle of Hastings exhibition with gorgeous rooftop views. The ruins of the Abbey are stunning. The high altar was built on “this very spot” where Harold got the ole arrow in the eye, so gruesomely portrayed in the Bayeaux tapestry, which ended the fight and won the country for William. I convinced my youngest to do a little role play for the camera. The large stone tablet marking both the altar and the death spot was strewn with flowers. At first I thought perhaps people were still mourning Harold, but in fact the cards were in memory of re-enactors who were now playing on the big field upstairs. Some were quite touching. I suppose if this was your great passion in life, and I am ALL for passions, what better spot to be remembered than THE spot.
But these were all merely daytime distractions. What we were waiting for, what all the guests were waiting for, what all the re-enactors were waiting for, what English Heritage had created the entire weekend for was THE BATTLE. Everyone took their places. Nervous marshalls moved small children off the ropes at the sides. Cameras were held aloft. A hush of sorts fell. And at 3 o’clock it began. And what a superb spectacle it was!! Helmets glinting in the sun. Horses racing up and down the hill. Banners waving. The clank of steel on steel. The Normans got to run round a lot. The Saxons seemed to do a lot of just standing, which seemed much less fun. The “dead” lay still for a few moments before turning over and inching themselves along to get better views of the action. Boys and women rushed round with jugs of water for the fallen. For a while it all seemed rather chaotic. “What is happening?” I kept demanding of my children, who wisely ignored me. And then William, rumoured to be dead, rode triumphantly by, helmet off, hair waving in the wind, proving to friends and enemies alike that he was still in it, and intended to win it. Things went rather badly for the Saxons after that. And suddenly it was all over. Or perhaps more accurately, suddenly it all began, for all primary school history lessons anyway. 14 October, 1066. It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day, it’s a new life…..and 950 years on we were all feeling pretty good.