Sunday, 16 October 2011

Battle -- A Return to 1066

What a day!  I happened to notice in my regular English Heritage magazine a few weeks back that there would be a re-enactment of the 1066 Battle of Hastings this weekend (the actual battle was 10/14/1066).  Sounds like a fun way to learn some history, so why not go?  The major drawback is the fact that we are a couple of hours north of London and Battle/Hastings are down south . . . about 4 hours away.  Marathon day trip here we come.

1066.  Almost 950 years ago.  Even for the UK that's a long time ago.  It's a whole order of magnitude compared to our history (1941, 1861-65, 1776, etc.).

A quick history lesson:  As with many historical moments, the trouble started with death of a king (King Edward the Confessor) while having no logical heir to the throne.  Three men (Earl Harold of Wessex, King Harold Hardrada in Norway, and Duke William of Normandy) had some claim to the throne.  Edward chose Earl Harold of Wessex and the other two weren't happy about it.

First, Harold Hardrada came across from Scandinavia and eventually landed near York (in the north).  King Harold acted with astonishing speed, "drove" his army to the north and quickly took him out.  One down.  William some how caught wind of this (how I don't know--it was certainly before the internet!) and decided the time was right to attack from the south.  He and his Norman army ("France") and a few other groups landed in Hastings and made their way to the site that is now Battle.  Harold, going for the surprise attack again, quickly marched his army almost 200 miles to defend his turf.

From the English Heritage guidebook:  The battle of Hastings was the most famous battle fought on English soil and resulted in the last wholly successful hostile invasion of England.  The triumph of Duke William (later William "the Conqueror") marked the end of the Anglo-Saxon England and the imposition of a new and more cohesive ruling class.  Society became bound by ties of feudal loyalty, leading to a greater concentration of power in royal hands. [William put all his people in charge, continued to sack any areas of rebellion and built numerous churches, abbeys and castles out of stone rather than wood to show/defend his power and prominence.]

King William I marked his victory be establishing the Benedictine abbey of Battle on the northern part of the battlefield (alledgely where King Harold was killed).  It flourished for over 400 years until Henry VIII wanted all the church proceeds for himself (or his cronies).

It should be noted that the details from this time period are surprisingly good.  One primary reason for that is because of the Bayeux Tapestry.  The tapestry is 230 feet long and describes the history leading up to and including the Battle of Hastings (largely pictorially and with Latin inscriptions).  As with most things, it is from the point of view of the victors (Bayeux is in Normandy, France).

Back to our trip and the re-enactment . . .

Given the distance and the decision to try to do this in a day, it made sense to use public transportation.  It all started with a 6:01 train to London St Pancras.  There are many train stations in London.  This is essentially the one that receives the trains from the north (or at least the ones from East Midlands).  We needed to get to the south bound trains out of London Bridge.  That would normally be a quick Tube (London Underground) ride between the 2 stations.  However, being the weekend, that line was down so it took 2 Tube trains.  So, train/tube/tube/train.  The journey was supposed to take about 4 hours.  However, there was a slight problem on the first leg on the way down and it took a little longer (and we had to get the next train to Battle from the one we had planned).  The idea that trains are always on a time is a fallacy, at least in England.

The hearty crew (Alex was cold).  We were joined by recent (short term) transplants and Indy friends Tanner and Yuka.  It was nice to be able to share the day with them.

again waiting on the platform before the 1st train (rare shot of me in the photo)

and we made it . . . about 5 hours later.  The time went quickly on the train as conversed with our friends.  Still plenty of time to enjoy the day.

Here's a portion of the ruined abbey.  You'll notice it was a gorgeous day; not a cloud in the sky, about 60F though cooler in the shade.

After a quick picnic, we headed to a falconry show.  There were various activities on the grounds to entertain us until the actual battle started later in the day.  This was an impressive show starting with this hawk and later ending with a peregrine falcon (no photo -- amazing flying though).

resting in the tree

and back with the handler.  I didn't get a photo, but they had a kid volunteer drag a stuffed bunny along the grass and the hawk swooped down and "killed" it.  They did something similar for the falcon (though the object was swung in the air by the handler) and it was quite amazing to see.

Here are some to the preliminary activities where they explained the various weapons and styles.  Quite a feat to ride a horse with one hand, hold a shield and a spear or sword.  These are the "Normans" who utilized calvery in battle.

A few crash test dummies that were later used for practice and demonstration.

 close up, front view

close up, side view

killing the crash test dummy

introduction to the infantry and their weapons (and Alex's head)

Here they did a practice skirmish to show us some of the fighting a little closer up.  This was our first re-enactment of any kind.  There's a certain amount of geekiness involved in dressing up and living out your youthful dreams of sword fighting.  In some ways, it seems a little corny.  But give these guys a lot of credit.  There were hundreds of them, all volunteers, giving up their weekend and sweating it out while the rest of us enjoyed the day.  I learned quite a bit and we will likely look for other such opportunities.
We took a quick walk around before the main event.  This is the view up the hill/battlefield from the south. Recall that the abbey was built after the battle.  The hill would have extended further up and was where the English were intrenched.  The Normans had to fight their way up the hill and overtake it to become king of the hill (and England).

And another shot from a similar view

Alex in front of a display of the battle gear

example Norman ship with shields

and a view from the other side of the hill

Here's some of the gang settling in before the main event.  There were a few rows of folks in front of us so we ended up standing through the actual action.

the battle begins . . . the re-enactment was portrayed east-west for visual reasons I presume.  I'm sure the actual battle would have been north-south (uphill/downhill).  Here are the first few English scoping things out.

 . . . and they are met by the first Norman knights/scouts on horses

the wall of defense forms . . . 

. . . the archers assemble (w/ rubber tipped arrows)

the first major thrust (and a guy's head . . . sorry.  It was very difficult to position for photos and see the view screen due to the sun (not complaining about that!))

the Norman (and Breton??) flags

 more fighting (note the smoke in the background is from the camps, not the main action)

some spectators took the higher vantage point.  Also note the all important ice cream stand.

One key part of the battle is when the Norman troops start to lose hope and perhaps panic that Duke William is dead.  William lifts his helmet to show that he is alive and well (and in control).  It was mentioned that these battles were typically over quickly (an hour or so) but that this one was different.  The two sides were evenly matched and it took most of the day (back in 1066).  [Our battle was contained in an hour -- I don't think the actors could take much more!]  William knew that more English reinforcements were on the way so he had to finish the deal that day (and he did).
some of the "dead"

the final surge

and finally victory!

Curtain call.  There was well informed commentary before hand to set the stage and during the event itself.  We all enjoyed it.

Here's a view of the gatehouse after the event was over.  Actually this was on our way back to the train station after having a beer in a pub and a surprisingly good Italian meal in town.

family shot

Wiped out.  We had a similar journey (without the snafu) on the way back:  train/tube/tube/train.  We got back around 11:45 and we were all knackered.  I think everyone dozed off at some point (I spared the others of a photo).  It was nice not to have to drive while being so tired.  It was a long day, but in a good way.  We'll get caught up on sleep shortly and have the memories to stay with us a long time.

Well done (glad I thought of it! :-) )

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