In 1066, this hillside hosted a world-changing battle.
On Sunday we made a pilgrimage to Battle, where the invasion of 1066 took place, near Hastings. Ever since I took a class on The Normans I've been wanting to go, so I dragged the family out with me.
I don't know if you've ever wondered what today's world would have been like if William the Conqueror hadn't been successful in his bid to usurp the throne of England from Harold, but I think about that all the time. (Which perhaps indicates that I have too much time on my hands, although I like to think it's just a vivid imagination.)
Harold Godwinson was a pretty good king, one who'd acted almost as regent under the pious Edward the Confessor. William, the Duke of Normandy and descendant of Vikings, was a bastard in all the ways that counted. Having been promised the throne by Edward years before, he was furious when Harold, Edward's nephew, took it instead. It didn't take him long (or too much gold) to raise an army and receive the pope's blessing.
While William waited in France for the prevailing winds to blow him across the channel, England was invaded from the north, by Harold Hardrada of Norway, aligned with Harold's brother Tostig. (All those Harolds probably sent the poor scribes mad.) Harold rushed to defeat them at Stamford Bridge, but had hardly rested from his victory when he heard that the winds had changed, and William had landed at Pevensey.
His troops worn out, Harold nevertheless rushed back south to face William and defend the crown. But his tired troops were defeated after a whole day of fighting on a steep hillside that's now one of the most famous battlefields in the world. If you go, there's a pretty good exhibition centre with a film narrated by
Richard David Starkey. Also the audio guide is very well narrated, properly casting doubt on the notion that Harold was shot in the eye by an arrow.
After William defeated Harold at Hastings, he slowly circled southern England, subduing the local populace as he went. Finally the leaders of London met him at Berkhamsted and offered him the crown of England. Even then he still spent numerous campaigns subduing the northern counties. Vast parts of Yorkshire and Northumberland were listed as "waste" in the Domesday Book of 1086, due to the "harrying" of the North that William was responsible for.
So what would have happened if Harold and his men had been a little more rested?
If William hadn't been victorious that day, the Anglo-Saxons would have continued to rule England. (For who knows how long—the Norwegians may well have attacked again.) The legal system that the Normans instituted, the basis of English common law, wouldn't exist, nor would the feudal system the Normans were so fond of have flourished. Women, who had more rights under the Anglo-Saxons, probably wouldn't have had to wait another 900 years before finally gaining the right to vote. The Anglo-Saxons were also great artists and artisans, responsible for the beautifully illustrated religious texts now housed in the British Library.
Had the Normans not stamped out everything Anglo-Saxon, imposing their own Norman French customs and language on England, our language too would be quite different. Modern English is full of Norman-influenced words, giving us more synonyms than most writers know what to do with: female instead of the Anglo-Saxon woman, cottage instead of hut, profound instead of deep, ponderous instead of weighty. Our language is incredibly nuanced because of its Norman influence.
For this, we can thank William, but I don't imagine the Anglo-Saxons who felt his sword that day, or in the years of Norman rule afterward, would be grateful for a few extra synonyms.
You can read more that I've written about William and Harold, and if you're really interested in the Bayeaux Tapestry, you can read the paper I wrote in which I compared it to modern literature here (pdf). (Hardcore stuff, that.) I still think the tale would make for a fine novel. All it needs is a strong female protagonist....
Later I'll post some photos of our next stop that day, Bodiam Castle.