The comet streaked through the sky on April 24, 1066, and stayed in the night sky for 7 days. The monks called it cometa, the hairy star, but King Harold and the Witan believed it was a bad omen and that they were doomed. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles mentions this event as William the Conqueror, otherwise known as the Duke of Normandy, amassed an army to invade England and take the crown he believed had been unjustly refused him. It would be the last time England was invaded and conquered, changing the course of history and the life of every Briton.
The key events that led to the invasion of England during the year of 1066 varies from Anglo-Saxon and Norman accounts but one thing is clear: William believed the crown of England was his and his alone. There is some evidence to suggest that Harold had met with William years earlier and implied that William’s claim was appropriate since he was a distant cousin of King Edward the Confessor, whose marriage to Edith was childless. In any event, it had been clearly understood by William that he would inherit the crown when Edward died.
As King Edward lay dying on January 4, 1066, passing in and out of delirium, the Witan, a group of wise men that advised the king, pondered an heir. They believed their prayers had been answered when the king took Harold Godwin’s hand and proclaimed, “…I also commend to you those men who have left their lands for love of me…” he then gave instructions for his burial. The comment could have meant he intended Harold to continue his lifelong devotion to the crown but the Witan seized the opportunity to place an Englishman on the throne. They prepared for the coronation the following day. It was be a short and turbulent reign that ended on the battlefield ten months later.
The news of Edward the Confessor’s death and the hasty coronation of King Harold spread quickly across the channel. It is said that William was infuriated as he received the news and shut himself away for days as he pondered what should be done. He had made it known throughout Normandy that he would be crowned King of England and now that the crown had been refused him, he would be seen as a weak and ineffective leader.
During the next few weeks, envoys were dispatched back and forth across the channel suggesting the coronation had been a terrible mistake and that he, William, was ready to assume the responsibility of the monarchy. He reminded Harold that he had sworn on holy relics of his intention of placing William on the throne of England, but these pleas went unanswered.
The Normans were a particularly fierce and combative people. William’s father, Robert I, Duke of Normandy, saw to it that his illegitimate young son, born as the result of his relationship with Arletta, the daughter of a tanner, would be trained as a skilled knight.
William (image, left) was born in either 1027 or 1028. It is said that he was a difficult young man who often challenged authoritative figures. When he was very young, his father left Normandy to fight in the Holy Land. Before he departed, he spoke to his counsel and advised them that his son William was the rightful heir to the title of Duke of Normandy and although he was small, he would grow into a fine and worthy leader. He must have seen his own fate because he died on route to the Holy Land and young William inherited the title of Duke of Normandy.
The following years in Normandy were turbulent times and, with no strong leader to guide them, the barons took full advantage of the chaos. They began building personal armies to protect themselves and their assets. Influential families sent their sons off early in their lives to be trained as hardened knights, but most of them had no formal education and were illiterate. William’s family protected him by placing him with various family members at secret locations. He bloomed early and showed an interest in politics and military affairs, taking the Truce of God when he was 14 years old. The Truce of God was a prelude to knighthood where specific guidelines of chivalry and honor were learned and sworn to uphold. He was knighted when he was only 16 years of age.
William distinguished himself as he fought for the King of France as his vassal. He showed that he was a ruthless and cruel man capable of inflicting terrible punishment on those who opposed him. Although illiterate, he was an extraordinary military tactician, which was not lost on the king. Over the following decades William became a strong leader and was well regarded by the knights of Normandy.
During this relatively harsh and combative time in Normandy, the English people had led a contented life under the reign of Edward the Confessor, who was not a strong monarch and left the guidance of the country in Harold’s care. The people were reluctant to fight even if the king demanded it, as they had grown accustomed to living in harmony with their neighbors.
The Anglo-Saxons had laws that they firmly believed no man was above, even the king himself. There were also severe laws regarding weaponry such as the use of the bow and arrow. It was seen as a gentleman’s sport and, therefore, not suitable for the regular soldier. The English soldiers fought hand-to-hand combat with swords and axes; even their horses were no more than shaggy ponies, normally used to carrying loads.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles and the Bayeux Tapestry describe the weeks following Harold’s coronation. It is said that William sulked for some time and then decided he would attack England and seize the crown for himself. The chronicles describe how he courted the sympathetic barons of Normandy with promises of untold wealth if they joined him with their armies. Many agreed to accompany him, and he began to build an armada of considerable size, but some were skeptical since an endeavor of this magnitude had never been attempted. Crossing the channel was difficult under the best weather conditions, but to cross with thousands of men, their specially bred stallions, armory, food and water seemed ridiculous to contemplate.
It is not known whether William was aware that the Viking King of Norway, Harald Hardrada, also intended to invade Britain before the winter. It was September 25 and both invading armies were restless and eager for battle. Winter was looming and unless the weather turned in their favor soon, they would have to retreat and wait until the spring.
Harold heard that the Vikings had landed on the East Coast of England while he was in London and so set off at once, marching 195 miles north to Stamford Bridge. Harold and his men were victorious but they had little time to celebrate, as news came that William had landed at Pevensey. Harold immediately turned his army around and fast-marched them southward for a distance of 250 miles. The trek was accomplished in 13 days, an unbelievable military maneuver. During this time it was learned that William had the blessing of the church, and that the pope had excommunicated Harold. This lay heavily on Harold’s shoulders, and it is believed that a change came over him as he traveled to Pevensey.
After landing at Pevensey, William marched his men six miles inland and camped for the night. It is said that William’s army spent the evening in prayer while Harold’s men drank beer, told stories and sang songs. At dawn the following morning on October 14, 1066, the two armies faced each other. Harold had the logistical advantage atop the Senlac ridge and had a larger army. The Norman soldiers fought as they had in Normandy; their expert archers filled the skies with waves of arrows that pierced the English troops’ armor and they dropped by the hundreds. Still, the English army would not be deterred and they continued to move forward mounting a counterattack. Several Norman knights on horseback turned as if in retreat and some of Harold’s men foolishly pursued them, leaving their posts unguarded. William immediately saw the tactical advantage and instructed others to do likewise causing more disruption to the English troops as they left their flanks unguarded.
The battle continued for the whole day and it is said the English were brave and met their death honorably. In a recent article in the Daily Mail, William was quoted as saying, “They stood firmly, as if fixed to the ground, the dead by falling, seemed to move more than the living.” King Harold died alongside his men from an arrow in the eye and was then cut to ribbons by Norman knights because he was unable to defend himself.
William was crowned King of England on Christmas Day 1066, and he swore, as part of the coronation oath, to preserve the “good and ancient laws” of the Anglo-Saxon kings. Part of those laws was the tradition of calling several men to swear an oath endorsing a litigant’s claim. This, in turn, developed into the jury system we see today.
William had promised himself that if he defeated Harold, he would build an abbey in his opponent’s honor. After the triumphant battle, he kept his promise and built an abbey at Battle on the site where Harold lost his life. The two men were of similar age and it is believed they liked and respected each other. However, records tell us that William did not like the English people or the countryside and never tried to learn their language. He honored his commitment to the knights of Normandy who followed him into battle by awarding them various parts of England. They became the new gentry, married Anglo-Saxon women and settled down to a less combative life.
The Domesday Book (compilation of which began in 1086) documented every village, inhabitant, cattle and building upon which a tax could be levied. The sheriff collected the taxes that were presented to the Treasurer on a table covered with a checkered cloth, eventually leading to the title of Chancellor of the Exchequer used today. The people of England were so afraid of the information collected in the book that they called it The Domesday Book after God’s final day of judgment.
William spent very little time in the country after the invasion, preferring to leave the administration to his half brother, Bishop Odo. He returned to Normandy and fought with the king whom he had served as a vassal.
It is suggested by chronicles of the day that William was unhappy at the outcome of the battle with Harold, and that he was impressed with the loyalty and dedication of the men to their king. William had conquered Britain but not the people who remained defiant and stubborn. On his deathbed, he repented his treatment of the English people but they would never forgive him and his cruel punishment. Although they refused to speak French and assimilate Norman customs, their lives were never the same.
What to see and do today:
The strategic location of Pevensey was not lost on William the Conqueror or the Romans before him. The castle was one of many Shore Forts that were built by the Romans throughout England, and William simply used what was left of the castle for his own purposes. He gave the stronghold to Bishop Odo, who built a castle of his own within the walls of the Roman structure.
The castle walls are more than 12 feet thick in places and there are still walls over 20 feet high today, giving an excellent idea of what the castle would have looked like a 1,000 years ago. Pevensey castle has a moat that made a frontal attack and underground assault almost impossible. The most common way to attack an apparently impregnable castle was be to mine underground. The men were called sappers or miners who tunneled towards the castle wall or tower, shoring the tunnel as they went with posts impregnated with hog grease. Once the tunnel was completed, the posts and other combustible materials were set alight; causing an inferno that would collapse the wall or tower and provide access to the castle.
The village of Pevensey is small, with several half-timbered and flint houses. In addition to being an ancient town mentioned in the Domesday Book, the Romans inhabited the town between A.D. 250 and 300. When the Romans abandoned the village around A.D. 408, the Anglo-Saxons seized the castle.
Open: Daily 10:00 a.m. until 5:00 p.m. from March to October and from October to March from Wednesday until Sunday 10:00 a.m. until 5:00 p.m.
The Tudor Mint House (Antique Shop)
The mint stands close to the walls of the castle and is believed to be where the first coins were struck during William’s reign. It is also mentioned in the Domesday Book. The original building is rumored to have had a secret passage that led from the castle to the mint as men carried the products back and forth. Coins were struck at this site through the reigns of William the Conqueror, William Rufus, Henry I and King Stephen from 1076 until 1154. Several of the coins minted at this location are exhibited at the British Museum and other museums around the country.
The present building was built in 1342 and is a splendid half-timbered house with dark red tiles and overhanging eaves. It is rumored to be haunted by a young woman who was the mistress of Thomas Dight, who rented the house. Dight returned home unexpectedly one evening to find his lady in the arms of another. Retribution was swift and the poor girl died slowly and painfully; it is her ghost that appears dressed in a close-fitted dress and a ruffle around her neck.
The Old Mint Antique Shop is one of the largest wholesale antique distributors in the country, and they ship worldwide. They have approximately 10,000 items in the shop and warehouse behind the property. The merchandise changes frequently and offers a wide display of antiques of every kind.
Telephone: (0) 762337. Address: High Street, Pevensey.
Court House and Gaol
It is said to be the smallest town hall in England, with the gaol on the ground floor and the courtroom above. The courthouse is now a museum and is only open at special times for viewing. Call for details.
Telephone: (0) 1323 411400. Eastbourne Tourist Information Center.
The 1066 walk from Pevensey Castle via Battle and on to Rye is a 31-mile hike through the countryside that William himself walked after he landed at Pevensey. The walk can be broken into smaller segments with refreshments or even accommodations en route. There are several brochures available from the tourism office that advises walkers of the points of historic interest, flora and wildlife.
Telephone: (0) 1424 781111. Hastings Tourist Information Center.
Food for thought:
The Smugglers Inn
The Smugglers Inn was built in 1541 on the main road in Pevensey. It is listed on the official ghost tour of Pevensey but the landlord has never seen a ghost. The inn has retained the character and charm of centuries passed with low ceilings, heavily wooden beams and two fireplaces. It is decorated with traditional horse brasses, unusual china plates and accessories. The inn serves a wonderful roast dinner on Sundays as well as a varied menu throughout the week. It is a favorite for the local people in winter, with a roaring fireplace, and in summer when the beer garden is used.
Telephone: (0) 1323 762112. Address: High Street, Pevensey.
If you decide to stay:
The Smugglers Inn
The Smugglers Inn has three guest bedrooms, all with bathrooms en suite, tea or coffee facilities and televisions in each room. The rooms are decorated in a soft, comfortable style and kept in character with the low ceilings, small windows and wood-beamed ceilings and walls. A traditional English breakfast is served each morning and an evening meal can be arranged on request.
Telephone: (0) 1323 762112. Address: High Street, Pevensey.
How to get there:
There is direct train service from London Victoria to Pevensey. Travel time is approximately 1 hour and 45 minutes.
By car: Take A21 south out of London to Hastings. In Hastings take A259 west directly to Pevensey. Pevensey is approximately 63 miles away from central London.
Text Copyright © 2004 by Elizabeth Wallace
Photos of Pevensey Castle and Pevensey High Street are by Brian Voon Yee Yap, used under GNU Free Documentation License.
More can be found on Elizabeth's website: extraordinaryplaces.blogspot.com
OTHER PLACES close to London on this blog include: Battle, Bluebell Railway, Cookham, Docklands, Faversham, Pluckley, Richmond, Romney, Hythe & Dymchurch, Royal Tunbridge Wells, Rye, Windsor & Eton. Click on names to open files.