It’s the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings this year. Jack Watkins looks back at an event that continues to remind us of our inseparable links to the continental mainland of Europe...
Amongst the many nonsenses spouted by both sides in the recent EU referendum campaign was the one about how a vote to come out would allow us to ‘take back’ control of our own destiny. Oh, those wicked, corrupt, inefficient and anti-democratic Europeans! England, as a friend of mine used to put it, has been connected to Europe since the Ice Age, but this deeply unattractive strain of nationalism, this idea that we are somehow a people apart, has been a recurring theme for centuries. You see it in the approach of past historians to the Norman Conquest.
For many years the Anglo-Saxons were cast as ‘us’ and the Normans as ‘them’ – Harold, the tall, blond, brave and upstanding Englishman, versus the squat, cruel, cropped-topped thug William. The facts that Harold had Germanic forefathers and his mother was a Danish noblewoman, were blissfully overlooked, just as was the point that the origins of the Normans were more Viking than French.
Today we take a more nuanced view of the events of 1066, historically speaking, even while certain politicians are still prepared to pander to latent prejudices when it suits them. And in any case, amidst all the contemporary uncertainty, it’s actually a relief to take an escapist’s journey into the age of castles and kings. The Battle of Hastings took place 950 years ago on the 14th October 1066 but, just in time for the school holidays, English Heritage, which cares for a welter of sites up and down the country with a connection to the Normans, is kicking off the commemorative events early.
Pride of place must go to Battle Abbey, which has been subject to a £1.8m re-presentation, just unveiled. After William the Conqueror’s victory here at Senlac Hill, he founded the abbey as an act of penance for all the blood-letting, and as a memorial to the warriors of both sides who lost their lives. The high altar of the abbey church, of which nothing remains above ground, was situated on the spot where Harold fell at the foot of his standard.
However, the memorial stone marking the spot where he was slain – possibly hacked to pieces, rather than felled by a bowman’s arrow as depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry – has now been moved after new research placed the location of the altar some 6m to the east of where it was previously believed to have stood.
English Heritage has also opened a new exhibition about the battle, taking you through those tense moments leading up to it, how it unfolded, and its aftermath. Additionally, the public now have access to two previously unseen areas of the abbey.
Visitors can climb sixty-six steps to the top of the remarkably well-preserved14th century Great Gatehouse to the roof, for a sweeping 360 degree view of the surrounding Wealden landscape. There’s long been a debate about the exact location of the battleground, but while it possibly happened further up the hill than in the fields below, the imagination inevitably pitches it in those green, tree-fringed meadows. You may find yourself reflecting on the incongruity of such a peaceful setting once bearing witness to a scene of such carnage that a myth arose that the hills seeped blood after heavy rain. ‘Senlac’ itself means ‘blood lake’. Carved oak warrior figures – the Weald, the most tree’d area of Britain, is full of oaks – evoke a sense of the drama of 950 years ago.
Battle Abbey grew to be one of the richest religious foundations of the medieval period before the Dissolution, and visitors can now pass through an immense 13th century doorway into the huge dormitory of the Benedictine monks.
The annual re-enactment of the Battle of Hastings takes place on Sat-Sun 15-16 October, with over 500 performers and re-enactors gathering to recreate the drama of the one of the most famous days in our history.
Some enthusiastic souls are taking celebrations even further than that. Over three weeks in the autumn a group of re-enactors is recreating the 300-mile march Harold’s army had to undertake to get to Battle, having previously been fighting his own disgraced brother Tostig at Stamford Bridge, after the latter allied with the Viking Harald Hardrada to invade northern England.
A variety of events are taking place at other Norman properties, most obviously the castles which, along with the beautiful religious foundations subsequently ransacked in the Dissolution of Henry VIII and now surviving as romantic ruins, are the most visible Norman legacy on the ground.
Everyone will have their favourites, and some are quite close to home. It was the Normans who brought the castle to Britain, the most familiar and simplest being the motte-and-bailey type. These generally comprised a mound, either artificially created or taking advantage of a natural feature, and encircling wall (the motte), topped by a tower of stone or wood, with accommodation for the lord, soldiers and servants. It was connected by a flying bridge or gangway to an outer court (the bailey) which contained various domestic structures, stables, and perhaps a chapel. One of the earliest surviving examples is Berkhamsted Castle. It was to Berkhamsted, as William moved to secure London after victory at Hastings, that the English nobles rode out to offer their submission after the collapse of Anglo-Saxon rule. The castle was built in 1070. Though now a ruin, the earthworks are still impressive, and the motte-and bailey form is still visible.
Alternatively, for something grander, there are the rectangular stone keeps, so thick walled they had no need of a defensive mound to stand upon, even though they retained the walled bailey plan. The most famous example – and possibly the most famous castle in the world – is the White Tower of the Tower of London. Unfinished at the time of the Conqueror’s death in 1087, it was built both as a royal residence, as a statement of Norman power to Londoners, and as a deterrent to potential invaders sailing up the Thames. Yet, the White Tower has subsequently been incorporated into the major tourist attraction that is the Tower of London, the windows enlarged and cupolas added to the corner towers. Its intimidating impact on people of the day, as a building type never seen before, as a result is harder to appreciate.
Better to go to my favourite of all the Norman castles, Rochester, glowering 113ft high above the Medway. The walls of this castle, built early in the twelfth century, were so thick that it was able to put up a lengthy resistance to King John’s army after rebels took it in 1215. The king had to bring in engineers to mine underneath the south east corner tower, eventually bringing down the wall. Even then the rebels were able to hold out for a few more days, resisting behind the inner keep’s sturdy cross-walls.
Devoid of a roof, and its inner floors gone, Rochester seems a dark, brooding sort of place now. It retains its martial impact. In its day, however, the interior would have been considered almost palatial, the surviving round-arched arcading of the Great Hall providing the clue to this, the area where the lord would have entertained the king in his state apartments. The Normans were a stern, warrior people, but they still let their hair down occasionally.