THE BATTLE OF HASTINGS
Ask anyone about English history and the one date which appears imprinted on everybody’s mind is 1066. The Battle of Hastings was a major historical event and its reverberations are still felt today. Concorde 1066 is part of a programme of events taking place in Battle during 2016 to commemorate this conflict which took place 950 years ago. Simon Alexander, Chairman of the Concorde 1066 Committee says: “The Battle of Hastings was a hugely significant affair and its repercussions have echoed down the centuries. Here in Battle we tend to take it all for granted but we feel Battle itself is ‘a child of conquest’. Every trip down Battle High Street reminds us what happened here in 1066.”
Various interpretations of the battle may be disputed by historians but it is known that Duke William of Normandy led an invading army of Normans, Bretons and French/flemish against King Harold. The defending Saxon army took up a position in three sections on Senlac Ridge and formed a shield wall. Harold had maybe 7,000 weary men aligned against a Norman force comprising an equivalent number, but of very different composition: not just infantry, but also archers and cavalry.
During the battle William made numerous attacks against the Saxons but failed to break their defensive line. The battle was protracted, lasting all day, which was unusual for those times. At one period it even seemed as if the Saxons would be victorious when the Bretons on the left flank retreated. Eventually William decided to have his archers shoot high so that the arrows rained down on those behind the shields. King Harold was killed.
The earliest description of Harold’s death occurs in the Gesta Normannorum Ducum by William of Jumièges, written in, or about, the year 1070, which says “Harold himself...fell covered with deadly wounds.” His death signified the end. The leaderless Saxon line broke, leaving most of its nobility
slain, and so marked a momentous turning point in our island’s history.
Not only did the battle change the direction of English history from Scandinavian/saxon to Norman/french but its outcome also had major consequences in the ensuing centuries in shaping a new English identity. In some cases the Normans obliterated the old order, but in other ways they fused two distinctive cultures into a new national identity.
The change was rapid. Within two generations the Norman influence was firmly stamped on the landscape. William oversaw the building of 86 royal castles with up to 500 castles built by other Normans. Norman churches with their distinctive architecture soon replaced the Saxon equivalent which were often demolished. A rigid feudal system of landbased obligation arose between nobles, knights and villeins and placed power in the new ruling elite and the King which continued well into the Middle Ages. A manorial field system with Norman hedgerows became a feature of the countryside, with its imprint still recognisable today.
Major landholdings were now in the hands of the Norman nobility, the King and the Church, with the virtual absence now of an Anglo-saxon elite. William retained an established system for levying taxes which was similar to the Anglo Saxon witenaġemöt (Witan) and some believe the information for the Domesday Book was collected by a network of local officials which was implemented first by the Saxons. Again William was pragmatic in retaining much of the former laws but clarified the respective roles of the ecclesiastic and civil courts. Just as the Saxons provided fyrd troops to the Saxon King, so William employed this former system through his Norman lords to do the same and levy troops.
Language defines a nation and its heritage. From the outset the Normans required all official documents to be in French or Latin. For over 300 years French remained the language of power, spoken by royalty, aristocrats and officials. Gradually Norman and Anglo-saxon families intermarried and cultures started to blend. English continued as an oral language which
gradually became infused with Norman French words, giving root in part to the rich language of Chaucer and Shakespeare.
The Battle of Hastings took place, not in Hastings as some people suppose, but in the nearby town of Battle in East Sussex. The town grew up as a support system for the Abbey which was built by William the Conqueror to atone for the bloodshed. The Abbey complex is a partial ruin today and stands at the centre of the landscape where England’s future was decided nearly a millennium ago.
Concorde 1066 has designed a programme of events to commemorate the 950th anniversary; it is hoped that a member of the Royal Family will be present for the opening ceremony. Other organisations and groups are organising 1066 events throughout 2016.
On Friday 14th October 2016, the anniversary of the battle, a number of connected events will take place organised by the Concorde 1066 committee. Events will start with a luncheon for specially invited guests, many of whom will be invited from Normandy and further afield.
A commemorative service will then take place at St. Mary’s Church to remember the fallen on both sides, followed by a smaller ceremony in Battle Abbey, near the site where King Harold was killed. A military Gurkha band will perform in Market Square and parade down the High Street accompanied by local people and schoolchildren. This will culminate in the lowering of the flags at sunset. Trumpeters on the Abbey Gatehouse will then signal the end of the performance and announce the Vin d’ Honneur: guests will depart to the Abbot’s Hall for a reception and speeches for the close of commemorations.
The Battle and District Historical Society (BDHS) is producing a souvenir book entitled 1066 and the Battle of Hastings — Preludes, Events and Postscripts, containing a series of articles, which are both historical and reflective. The group will also host a series of inspiring lectures on historical themes to coincide with the anniversary.
Meanwhile Battle Museum of Local History is organising a fascinating exhibition until the end of November. The museum has successfully completed a loan of the Alderney Tapestry for September and October 2016.
It is a little-known fact that the Bayeux Tapestry is incomplete. The famous embroidery portrays 58 scenes leading up to the Battle of Hastings, but never highlights its conclusion: the coronation of William the Conqueror in London on Christmas Day 1066. Most experts now believe that a piece between 8-10 feet, depicting a scene of the coronation of William I, would have been included in the original work. Now an embroidered panel produced on Alderney in the Channel Islands has delivered what is the missing chapter of this important story.
Battle’s community of embroiderers will be leading the creation during 2016 of the 10ft Battle Community Tapestry, which will describe the beginning of the town in 1066.
As well as adding to existing displays, a new case for the Battle of Hasting axe and a replica axe will be on show along with newly generated educational materials.
Kate Mavor, English Heritage’s Chief Executive, said: “English Heritage will mark the 950th anniversary of the Norman Conquest with an exciting programme of events and activities throughout the year. Central to this will be our representation of the most famous battlefield in England.”
This year’s re-enactment of the Battle of Hastings will take place on Saturday 10th and Sunday 11th October. From 11am each day visitors can enjoy the atmosphere of Norman life by wandering through an authentic market and seeing living history demonstrations including chain mail and weaponry production and medieval falconry. The battle between the Normans and Saxons will take place in the afternoon on