Was October 14th 1066 the Very Good Thing or was it the Very Bad Thing of our history books?
950 years ago today, an invading army of Normans and associated mercenaries defeated King Harold and his Saxon fyrd at the Battle of Hastings.
The battle took place in Battle, rather than Hastings. Yet the site was only called Battle much later, when William I built an abbey there to atone for his sins and for his slaughter. (The high altar, indeed, rested where Harold was allegedly shot in the eye – or hacked to death – depending on your reading of the Bayeux Tapestry.)
But at the time they called it Senlac hill, or Sangue Lac, meaning the hill of the lake of blood.
Tolkien thought that the battle and its consequences marked the greatest tragedy to befall these islands. He was a professor of Anglo- Saxon, so perhaps had his own axe to grind.
For such changes were brought in by the new conquerors! They are still with us now. The Normans build in stone, you see. Castles and cathedrals had a symbolic as well as a strategic resonance. Imagine being a farmer somewhere in the Fens and seeing a stone skyscraper break the horizon and point to the heavens. The world would never be the same again.
The bishops and barons were Norman French. They owned the land. They also ate rather well whilst the Germanic Anglo-Saxons worked unimaginably hard. We hear this hierarchy in our language today. You may dine on boeuf or mouton, but the cows and sheep that calmly graze in the fields have distinctly German sounding names for a very good reason.
The invasion and the story behind it would put Hollywood blockbusters to shame. The childless king of England who leaves no heir to spite his father-in-law causes a succession crisis. One of the claimants to the throne is revealed to have promised to support the claim of another but he protests that he has been duped, and tricked into swearing an oath over concealed saints’ bones.
The oathbreaker would then face a Norman army, desperately seeking to get at him by slicing through the tightly packed shield wall but to no avail. Feint retreats, full scale assaults and long range archery do not appear to be working so Duke William orders his archers to march right into the shield wall and shoot high, eventually forcing the Saxons to raise their shields.
Carnage ensues. By the evening, the Normans are through and King Harold is dead.
But there is still a twist in this tale.
Williams cousin, Eustace of Boulogne, is reputed to have chased the retreating Saxons from the field with a group of Norman cavalry. He returned with a broken and bloody nose and very few knights. The story goes that he met organised Saxon resistance in the Malfosse, or ‘evil ditch’, which probably lies towards the London Road (or Watling Street) heading out of East Sussex. These men were unlikely to have been exhausted Saxons fleeing the field but rather the Saxon reinforcements, who, it would appear, spun on their heels and went back to London.
What would have happened if they had arrived a few hours earlier?
English History is a collection of close run things. It’s what 1066, 1815 and 1966 all have in common.