The Day the Normans Came to Town

It's been a joke between me and C that the reason I'm so lacking in historical knowledge is because I grew up in the American Northwest and nothing important happened before the Gold Rush.  About the oldest thing I'd ever encountered before I was 12 were the totem poles outside Ivar's Acres of Clams. Even when my family moved to Idaho, and I was determined to apply myself academically instead of fretting about my wardrobe, I don't remember thinking much happened before the Great War and my history teacher's idea of a lesson was showing "All Quiet on the Western Front."  The fact is, I have a very poor memory so if the lesson wasn't delivered in rhyming stanzas with the most important bits sung repeatedly with a catchy chorus, I was unlikely to remember it. 

The Battle Abbey entrance. More form than function

The Battle Abbey entrance. More form than function

On the other hand C spent his childhood on the east coast excavating 18th century artifacts out of the pile of displaced dirt from a hole that became their swimming pool. Just about every house in their neighborhood was on the historic preservation list and his father has spent the past 15+ years tracing their family's lineage to at least the 16th Century. The only relics in my backyard we're pull tab beer cans left by teenagers hiding out in the blackberry bushes and my father told us repeatedly that our relatives crawled out from under a rock in Tennessee. 

Didn't those Normans have building codes? Sheeezz.. 

Didn't those Normans have building codes? Sheeezz.. 

Now that we live in England, I'm faced with well over twenty centuries of in-your-face history. Since I've finally completed four seasons of The Tudors on Showtime, I've got a brief mental image of English history, at least during the reign of Henry the Eighth. Only 20.5 centuries to go and then I'll move on to the rest of Europe. But recently, on our way to Hastings by the Sea, we stopped in the town of Battle, at the center of which stands an imposing Abbey on the site of England's crushing defeat at the hands of Norman foreigners who had sat in their ships for nearly a month, in a stagnant French harbor, waiting for the winds to take them across the channel so they could kill and die for the sake of a lie, or a misunderstanding, depending from which blood lines you descended.

For those of you who, like me, don't remember your history lessons, the 1066 Battle of Hastings (in fact, fought six miles north of Hastings) was a turning point in the history of England, when the sovereignty of an Anglo-Saxon kingdom was upended by a French-Norman invasion and French became the language of polite society in England for the next 300 years. Duke William of Normandy was convinced that the celibate and thus childless - and recently deceased - King Edward the Confessor had promised him the English throne but Harold, the King's brother-in-law, assumed the throne upon Edward's demise, claiming it had been promised to him. That was what I understood from the little I'd read ahead of time as we walked into Battle Abbey, perched upon the highest point in town and built to commemorate the 10,000+ chaps who were slaughtered during that one October day in 1066.

 Descendants of the battle's surviving doves

 Descendants of the battle's surviving doves

We ventured into the visitor's center to pick up the self guided audio tour, which also came in a kids version, though we're fairly certain Z may have been experiencing his history out of sequence since he was in charge of advancing the numbers himself. We watched a short film re-enactment of the battle, complete with scenes depicting the effectiveness of presenting a wall of shields against a sea of spears and swords, and the folly of believing your enemy was in retreat when, really, they used the moment to circle back around and slaughter you. We got detailed descriptions again, complete with metal clanging audio, as we walked the hillsides of the battlefield. C and I were transfixed with the narrative coming from the plastic box pressed against our ears. Z was much more interested in working out how the remnants of the abbey's communal latrine, standing 20 feet off the ground, would serve him when he needed to go to the bathroom. 

Grainary cellar

Grainary cellar

There have been numerous books written about this battle and though I haven't read all of them (hehe) the summary presented at Battle Abbey seemed a nice amalgamation of several theories. Since Harold (the English king) had literally just marched his troops 250 miles south in a few short days after having raced to his Northern shores to defeat a Norse invasion, his army was understandably exhausted. It's suggested that Harold believed he only need hold William's army at bay overnight, by which he believed fresh troops would arrive. But then, the Normans feigned their retreat, the English took the bait and were suddenly surrounded. Sometime in the melee, Harold was struck in the face with an arrow and fell, not quite dead, but was quickly hacked, disemboweled and decapitated. I have no idea how much of this gory detail was included in the children's version, but given the extent of tyrants and historic battles across this land, I had better get over my fear of exposing Z to violence, at least the sword and arrow kind.

 Torturing pilgrims with songs from the 70's since 1988

 Torturing pilgrims with songs from the 70's since 1988

We were energized by the experience, so much so that we joined the English Heritage Foundation and will work our way through a fair number of the 426 Heritage Sights dotting this one country - that does not even include Wales or Scotland. We capped off our visit with tea at The Pilgrims Rest, serving patrons continually since 1420 and which now plays The Carpenters and Bee Gees over the sound system proving that torture, in one form or another, continues well into the 21st century.