1066 And All That! Here's another sample chapter from Elizabeth Wallace's travel book Extraordinary Places … Close to London, which takes readers to some 30 truly exceptional destinations in Southeast England. She has graciously consented to my posting whole chapters from the book here on my blog, so enjoy!
On October 14, 1066, life in England changed forever. The Britons, accustomed as they were to invasions from Vikings as well as internal rivalry between its earls, now faced their most formidable opponent. The Duke of Normandy, otherwise known as William the Bastard, had amassed an army to invade England and take its crown as his own. William believed the sovereignty had been unjustly taken from him after his distant cousin, Edward the Confessor, had died. King Harold, his two brothers, Leofwine and Gyrth, their castle guards and thousands of knights and foot soldiers met the duke on Senlac ridge. Harold’s men were tired. They had marched 195 miles north to fight King Hardrada of Norway at Stamford Bridge and then turned southward and fast marched 250 miles to defend their beloved king and country.
King Edward the Confessor was dying and with no heir. The Witan, a group of wise men whose primary duty was to advise the king, met to decide who should be his successor. There were several candidates, including the Duke of Normandy who was related by marriage. He had a legitimate claim but he was a foreigner and the Witan felt they needed to look closer to home. They believed their prayers were answered when the dying king took Harold’s hand and said, “…I also commend to you those men who have left their native land for love of me and served me faithfully. Take an oath of fealty from them if they wish, and protect and retain them…” With these words, the Witan believed the king had voiced his wishes that Harold should succeed him and they planned the coronation of the new king.
A military man, Harold was over 40 years of age and his devotion to the king was well known. He was not of royal blood but his military prowess, proven so often on the battlefield, was legendary. He was crowned King of England at Westminster Abbey on January 6, 1066, but it would be a short-lived reign. His style of commanding men was very different from his predecessor, who had never traveled far from home and was out of touch with his armies. When Harold heard that people living in Northumbria did not accept his sovereignty, he took a small party of men and traveled north to meet with them and gain their loyalty. The earls of Northumbria were amazed by the king’s visit and pledged their fealty, which would be desperately needed in the months to come.
According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, a “long haired star” appeared in the sky on April 24, and shone there for 7 nights. This was seen as an ill omen by the king’s astrologers but if Harold was disturbed by it, he did not show his concern and simply continued with the duties of state.
It was not long before news came that William, Duke of Normandy, was building ships and amassing an army. The ominous threat of an invasion had been rumored for months but now the king’s sources told him an attack was imminent.
The battle at Stamford Bridge on September 25, 1066 against the king of Norway was victorious for the British army but they had little time to celebrate, as news came that William intended to land at Pevensey. Harold had marched his army 195 miles north in five days to battle the Norwegian king and now the threat came from the south coast of England. He immediately turned his army around and fast marched southward to Pevensey, a distance of 250 miles. The trek was accomplished in 13 days, an unbelievable military maneuver for those times.
William landed on the coastline of Pevensey and marched approximately 6 miles inland. Waiting to meet him, Harold and his men took the advantage on Senlac ridge a natural, defensive position. As day broke on October 14, the two armies faced each other. The English had a distinct advantage with 11,000 troops against possibly only 8,000 Norman soldiers. The Norman army used their expert archers to fill the sky with waves of arrows that pierced the English troops’ armor and they dropped in the hundreds. Still, the English were able to advance and counterattack. If Harold had taken a more disciplined and strategic approach at this point, he may well have won the battle. Instead, his weary men chased a group of Norman knights and by doing so, left their posts unguarded. William, seeing this tactical advantage, gave signals to his knights to appear as though they were retreating. The English soldiers once again took off after the Norman knights leaving their positions undefended. It was not long before both flanks of the English army were in complete disarray and vulnerable to attacks from the rear.
Some have said that Harold’s life was taken by a small band of Norman knights who stormed the defensive lines and hacked Harold to death, but the most common belief is that he died from an arrow in the eye. Perhaps both theories are correct because his body was so badly mutilated that his wife Edith had to identify him by personal marks on his body.
The famous Bayeux tapestry (portion depicting Harold's death, right) fully describes the battle on Senlac ridge and its aftermath. The tapestry was most likely inspired and commissioned by Bishop Odo, William’s half-brother, in 1070. The bishop was given a good part of Kent as a reward for his services, but he was a cruel and ambitious man who soon fell out of favor with William. The type of stitches and colors of yarn that were used indicates the local women of Kent probably made the tapestry. There are over 70 scenes of shipbuilding, farming and other everyday activities providing a valuable, detailed account of everyday life during those times. The tapestry was badly treated for hundreds of years but it was finally given to the Bishop of Bayeux in 1792. It now hangs in the museum at Centre Guillaume le Conquerant, Rue de Nesmond, Bayeux, France. The tapestry holds a wealth of information from the depiction of the death of Edward, from his wife cradling his feet in her lap to Harold trying desperately to pull an arrow from his eye. The tapestry also provides an insight into the battle itself, the lives of the people, their trades and how they earned their living.
William the Conqueror was crowned King of England on Christmas Day 1066. In 1086, he sent his scribes throughout England to document every village and town, every inhabitant, their homes, barns, livestock against which a tax could be levied. As the information documented, the scribes entered the information into a large book. The people of England were so afraid of this development they called it the Domesday Book after God’s final Day of Judgment. The Domesday Book measured land by “hundreds,” meaning a parcel was large enough to support 100 families. Each family unit was called a “hide,” but the actual size was vague and varied from county to county. For instance, a hide in Sussex was about 40 acres and in East Anglia it was about 120 acres.
What to see and do today:
The town is a bustling, busy place with a 14th-century majestic gatehouse at the entrance to the town. It is still intact and almost appears to be a small fortress from the octagonal turrets and narrow windows suitable for firing arrows at opponents. Besides the wonderful gatehouse and the ruins of the abbey beyond, there are an abundance of antique and specialty shops in the town.
The gatehouse is considered one of the finest in the country and replaced an earlier gatehouse on the same site. It was built in 1338 by Abbott Retlynge and is complete with double archways, ribbed vaulting and portcullis through which the soldiers could defend their stronghold. The abbey fell during the Reformation under King Henry VIII, but part of it is now used as a school.
A tour of the Abbey ruins is assisted by an audiovisual account of the Battle of Hastings. The actual site of the battlefield between Harold and William the Conquerors’ armies on Senlac Ridge is still clearly visible. The spot where King Harold died is indicated by a plaque stating, “…the victory of Duke William on 14 October 1066, the high altar was placed to mark the spot where King Harold died…”
There are many events held in and around the town of Battle. Call the Battle Tourist Information Center for more details.
Telephone: (0) 1424 773721. Address: High Street, Battle.
1066 Country Walks
The 1066 walk takes in the towns of Pevensey, Rye and Battle. There are links with other coastal villages and towns such as Bexhill-on-Sea and Hastings. The 1066 Country Walk is segmented into four parts allowing individuals to choose a walk as to their ability and interest. There are several brochures that can be obtained from the Battle Tourist Information of the walks, restaurants and even accommodation along the way.
Telephone: (0) 1424 773721. Address: High Street, Battle.
Museum of Local History
The museum is small but has some wonderful attractions. A copy of the Bayeux Tapestry, a battle scene of the fateful day on 1066, a copy of the Domesday Book as well as other interesting and unique items. There is also a history of the gunpowder industry that was so important to the livelihood of the town.
Telephone: (0) 1424 775955. Address: Memorial Hall, High Street, Battle.
Food for thought:
The Pilgrim’s Rest Restaurant
The restaurant was built in the 14th century and was once an almshouse where the monks from the abbey distributed alms to the poor and gave spiritual guidance. It has changed hands and uses over the centuries but now provides wonderful meals to visitors. The specialties of the house are the savory pies, such as chicken and leek and steak and onion pies with a light and delicious crust. They are served with mountains of mashed potatoes and fresh vegetables. They also offer a splendid assortment of cakes, tarts and fruit pies that are homemade. The Pilgrim’s Rest is located next to the gatehouse.
Telephone: 01424 772314. Address: 1, High Street, Battle.
If you decide to stay:
The George Hotel
The George is an elegant 19th-century coaching hotel located in the center of the town and is ideally situated for sightseeing in Battle and the surrounding areas. The inn has an unusual oval, spiral staircase and 22 guest rooms, some with bathrooms en suite, a licensed bar and restaurant. Morning coffee and afternoon tea is also served.
Telephone: (0) 1424 774466. Address: 23 High Street, Battle.
How to get there:
There is train service to Battle from London Bridge station.
By car: Take A21 south out of London to John’s Cross, where you take the A2100 to Battle. Battle is approximately 62 miles away from central London.
Copyright © 2004 Elizabeth Wallace
More can be found on Elizabeth's website, extraordinaryplaces.blogspot.com.
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