could be more typically British than ‘a cuppa tea’? And, almost
a thousand years ago a break for tea (in a manner of speaking!)
changed the course of English history.
family and I are in Sussex, England. It is a glorious summer morning
with a light breeze playing through the trees. We are on a knoll,
and beyond the slope is a tranquil Constable landscape: a field
cross-stitched by hedgerows, which merges into distant woodland.
The only sounds are chittering sparrows, and the far-off rumble
of traffic floating up from a thread-like highway.
back to 14th October 1066. The field in front of us was in turmoil.
Norman archers spewed arrows, Saxon battle-axes flashed murderously
and the thunder of cavalry hammered against the consciousness
of the wounded and dying.
of Normandy was getting the worst of it. The Saxons had the advantage
of being positioned on the hill (where we now stand), while the
Normans on the field below were being steadily pushed back. It
was mid-afternoon, and a group of Saxons attacked a flank position,
chasing the fleeing Normans with whoops of Ut, Ut,
(Out, Out) and Gutemite (God Almighty).
In desperation, a small group of Norman soldiers unexpectedly
turned around to defend themselves. The Saxons, unable to run
uphill fast enough to get back to their own lines, were slaughtered
the day wore on, both sides were exhausted. It was time to take
stock and nibble on some refreshments. Tea time chaps!
(or the equivalent!) brought about a mutual lull in hostilities.
Thats when William of Normandy came up with a brilliant
idea. The earlier flank attack had ended in disaster for the Saxons.
What if the entire army feigned retreat? The Saxons would, no
doubt, pursue them, and once lured onto a level playing
field (so to speak) the Normans could then do an about-faceand
fight to the death.
worked. King Harold, pierced in the eye by a stray arrow, lay
dead on the battlefield, following which Saxon morale collapsed,
and William of Normandy became king of England. He was the last
invader ever to successfully occupy Britain.
Battle, the actual site of the conflict, is a small hamlet, about
ten miles north of the better known town of Hastings. Massive
entrance gates with crenellated towers leads onto this, one of
Englands most significant historical sites. We explore the
ruins of Battle Abbey, built by William the Conqueror in celebration
of his victory or (depending on who you talk to) in atonement
for the thousands of soldiers slain on the battlefield on that
fateful day in October 1066.
VIII, who had scant patience with the Abbeys significance,
all but destroyed it in his drive to eradicate Catholicism in
England in the 16th Century. With the dissolution of monasteries,
the Abbey church was reduced to skeletal walls and we pause to
read a slab at the site of the original High Altar which marked
the actual spot where the Saxon King was slain. The ancient Cloisters
and Dorters in the Abbey grounds, where the monks once had their
living quarters and dormitories, still has an aura which makes
for hushed conversation.
market square outside the Abbey grounds is busy and we decide
to slake our thirst at a medieval pub, Ye Old
Kings Head whose signpost has an artists impression
of an impressively moustachioed King Harold. Over a pint and a
ploughmans lunch a group of local “regulars”
strike up a conversation with us. They are regretful that we have
missed the big event of the year—the two week Battle Festival,
held either at the end of May or in early June.
a grand time to visit. One of them says . People dress
up in medieval costumes. There are jugglers and street musicians
and everyone has a jolly good time.
one adds, And you can listen to concerts, come to poetry
readings and watch plays....
see the Maypole dancers. And jousting tournaments. interrupts
a third. You dont have that in Canada, do you?
we probably dont. And, therefore, what better excuse can
there be to return another time? Perhaps next yearwhen Battle,
the site of Britains most profound historical event in this
millennium, celebrates its pastand looks towards its future
over the next thousand years.