History is all around us: Battle Abbey and the Battle of Hastings reenactment

In the first Chester Bentley novel, The Last Treasure of England, the teacher Mr Briggs describes how “history is all around us and you, my lucky few, are living in some of it.” History was certainly all around when I visited Battle Abbey for the Battle of Hastings reenactment on Saturday 13 October.

The Battle of Hastings reenactment at Battle Abbey is one of the major heritage events that takes place in Sussex each year. It includes falconry displays, reenactments, and talks, before finishing with the ‘Battle Royale’. The event takes place on the weekend nearest to the anniversary of the Battle of Hastings, which took place on 14 October 1066. I’ve visited the reenactment for a number of years now, sharing the event with friends. This year I was lucky enough to introduce my friend Alex (who blogs over at My Autistic Dance) to the event.

The death of Edward the Confessor was one of the key events that led to the Battle of Hastings. King Edward had no direct heirs, which led to a power struggle between multiple contenders for the English throne: Harold Godwinson, Harald Hardrada, Tostig Godwinson, and William of Normandy. The Witan named Harold Godwinson King of England after the death of Edward the Confessor. Harold was a logical choice for king: he was the Earl of Wessex, and was a capable administrator and commander, and held significant lands throughout England. Harold was crowned King on 5 January 1066, the day before Epiphany.

In early 1066, Harold’s brother Tostig raided England from Flanders with a small fleet, but was pushed back by the English fleet, which had been stationed in that part of the English Channel. Tostig moved up the coast, raiding East Anglia and Lincolnshire, where he was defeated by Edwin, Earl of Mercia and Morcar, Earl of Northumbria. Tostig then fled to Scotland, where he allied himself with Harald Hardrada. With forces formed of three hundred ships and fifteen thousand men, Hardrada and Tostig met the English forces, under the command of Edwin and Morcar, on 20 September 1066. The English were defeated.

When he received word of this defeat, Harold had already dismissed forces on 8 September to gather in the harvest. He then summoned his housecarls and as much of the English fyrd as he could as he marched north, meeting Tostig and Hardrada’s forces in battle at Stamford Bridge on 25 September 1066. The English army, under the command of Harold Godwinson, this time defeated Tostig and Hardrada. Both Tostig and Hardrada were killed at the Battle of Stamford Bridge, thus eliminating their claims to the English throne.

Soon after the Battle of Stamford Bridge, William of Normandy landed his troops near Pevensey, on the Sussex coast, establishing a foothold on the south coast from 28 September 1066. This meant Harold, had to quickly march from Stamford Bridge to Sussex, again gathering forces as he went. Harold stayed overnight on Calbec Hill, and attempted to surprise William’s army. However, William’s scouts had told him of the approach of the English army, which meant Harold was forced to confront William in a more formal battle. Harold lined his troops up on Senlac Ridge to form the near impenetrable shield wall. The result of most battles at this time was decided within a couple of hours; however, the Battle of Hastings began at 9am and was not decisively concluded until dusk.

‘Harold Rex Interfectus Est’ – King Harold was Killed. Section from the Bayeux Tapestry depicting the death of Harold Godwinson,

The death of Harold Godwinson decisively turned the tide of battle in William’s favour. Popular legend says that Harold was killed by an arrow to the eye; indeed, this is the image that is given to us on the Bayeux tapestry. It’s more likely that he was initially injured by a spear, with the arrow depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry the product of an overly zealous restoration. The line of the arrow fits ‘right’ with the arms of one of the figures to Harold’s left, who should be holding a spear. After being injured by the spear/arrow, it is likely that Harold’s body was dismembered. This is reflected in the next ‘frame’ of the Bayeux Tapestry, where we see a man in mail, being stabbed by a member of the Norman cavalry.

Harold being killed and dismembered also fits with historical accounts of the Battle of Hastings, which describe how Edith Swanneck was brought on to the battlefield to identify Harold’s body using marks ‘known only to her’. Edith Swanneck, or Edith the Fair, was the common law wife of Harold Godwinson, and her role in the events of 14 October 1066 are often underplayed or not effectively recognised by historians. That’s why the work of the Campaign for a Roof for Edith (CARE), spearheaded by the one-man wonder that is Ian Jarman, is so important. CARE aims to rescue a statue of Edith and Harold which is on the seafront at St Leonards-On-Sea, and it’s also having the added effect of educating people about the role women played in the history of this period, specifically around the Battle of Hastings.

Ian Jarman at Battle Abbey
Ian Jarman, founder of CARE, the Campaign for a Roof for Edith, with his book ‘Edith’s Last Stand’.

I caught up with Ian Jarman in the local history groups area at the abbey, located near the historic cloisters. We discussed the role of Edith in the events leading up to the Battle of Hastings, the fact she is often overlooked in the traditional telling of the battle, and what we can do to rehabilitate her into the story – and of course, raise the profile of Edith Swanneck. As Ian said, she is, after all, our current Queen’s thirty-one-times great-grandmother…!

After chatting with Ian, we then went to explore the Abbey itself more closely, taking a look at the cloisters, dairy, and old chapel area. It was a chance to admire some of the craftsmanship that went into the building of Battle Abbey. We also investigated the different ‘camps’ at the reenactment, full of reenactment societies and people demonstrating traditional crafts. I was particularly impressed by the smith, wood-turner, and the fletcher.

On our travels around Battle Abbey, and the Battle of Hastings re-enactment, we also ran into PCSO Daryl Holter, who I’ve collaborated with to create The Heritage Hoot, a forum for those interested in heritage to network informally. It was a chance to chat about heritage, public engagement, and partnership working. We also ran into Peter Hibbs, who does a lot of interesting work around pillboxes in Sussex. You can follow them both on Twitter here and here.

It was also fantastic to see that the town of Battle had its Arts Festival in full swing when I visited on 13 October – there is nothing quite like seeing a whole town yarn bombed, and a giant pair of painted wings outside a one thousand year old Abbey! If you’re interested in the Battle of Hastings – and fancy a visit to Battle Abbey – you can find out more by visiting their website here

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