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On the Tuesday after Easter a monstrous light appeared in the sky, silently moving with a trail of fire. All over England it was seen that night and seven nights after. Monks, more learned than most, said it was a star called a cometa, the hairy star.
Modern astronomers agree that it was Halley's comet. But in spring 1066, everyone saw the star as an omen of doom, a heavenly sign of wrath and fire on earth.
1066 THE YEAR OF THE CONQUEST
After fifty years of peace as a single country England had become wealthy. Then in 1065 the king, Edward the Confessor who had been brought up in Normandy, died leaving no heir to the throne. The only prince with a direct blood line to a previous English king was a thirteen year old boy. Our early parliament consisting of leading nobles, the Witan, effectively voted on who should become the king. Faced with rival claimants from Norway, Denmark and Normandy, holding the country together seemed far beyond a teenage boy and the Witan turned to the most powerful family in the land - the Godwins - and despite his lack of royal blood, asked Earl Harold, whom they respected for his proven courage and natural diplomacy to become the next king.
Duke William of Normandy's claim to the throne was by marriage through a great aunt. Moreover, of all the claimants he was the most foreign. Although from Danish Viking stock, after a century the Nordmen or Normans had adopted the local culture, become French speaking, formed continental alliances through diplomacy and marriage. They remained warriors by default as the only way to keep their small patch of northern France.
Treasured as Stonehenge, completely unspoilt, largely unknown.
The field of Hastings and town of Battle where William of Normandy defeated Harold of England on the 14 October 1066.
King Harold's army of English held the ridge where the Abbey ruins stand today - just right of centre in the air photograph. A combination of streams, boggy ground, exposed slopes and dense woods made the ridge extremely hard to outflank. Beyond the Abbey ruins, top right hand quarter of the photograph, Battle High Street reveals where once the track to London snaked through the thickest forest in England. Duke William's army of Bretons, Normans and French attacked up the steep slope - centre of photo - many times before finally overcoming the English after Harold and his brothers, Gyrth and Leofwine were killed. Folklore claims that battle and ridge became known as Senlac through a corruption of old Norman French for Lake of Blood. The name was not used before 1140 and more likely derives from the old English words - santalache or sand lacu - for a sandy brook and thus after the valley's original name.
Looking down the slope from the centre of the English position
Throughout summer Harold kept his army ready. He knew that William assembled a fleet at the mouth of the River Dives across the Channel. When there was no sign of William putting to sea towards the end of summer, nor any sign of the other threatened invasion from across the North Sea, Harold released his army to gather in the harvest.
These were the last days of a peaceful, prosperous, in many ways democratic Saxon kingdom.
When Duke William landed in Sussex at the end of September, Harold was 250 miles north, resting his army after heavily defeating his brother Tostig and King Harald Hardrada of Norway at Stamford Bridge near York. Five days earlier at Fulford outside the gates of York an invading Viking army had destroyed an army commanded by Edwin and Morkerer, the two young northern earls of Mercia and Northumbria. York had surrendered. About one-hundred-and-fifty hostages were taken and more promised by the city elders - these further hostages would be handed over within a few days not far from York at Stamford Bridge over the River Ouse.
News had reached Harold of the northern invasion though not yet of the disaster at Fulford. The King marched out of London on the same day as the battle.
Four days later his army reached Tadcaster, 190 miles from London and only 10 miles from York. Now he learned of the defeat of his young northern earls. He rode on to York and secretly entered the city. The Viking army had remained outside the city walls. Taking advantage of surprise, unknown to Harald Hardrada and Tostig, the King gathered every man he could from the surrounding countryside and on the following day wiped out the Viking army at Stamford Bridge. The Vikings had left much of their armour and weapons on their ships - believing they were about to take over more hostages, not fight a pitched battle against a large army. They were slaughtered. Four hundred Viking ships had sailed up the River Ouse, twenty-four escaped down the river and reached the North Sea.
The King remained in York for a few days sorting out the local political leadership while his troops recovered. Then news came of William's landing on the Sussex shore. Only days later the King repeated his epic march and gathering troops en route, arrived on a ridge which he probably had reconnoitred during the summer as an ideal defensive position from which to block an invasion force advancing inland from one of several natural harbours along the neighbouring coast.
At least six near enough contemporary accounts of the eventual battle exist, not least the famous Bayeux tapestry. While they reveal much of the story and many clues, not one provides a detailed and truly reliable description of what took place. This task is difficult enough with modern battles. Even the highly detailed version on the Bayeux tapestry has to be viewed with an open mind because the designer left out significant aspects - aspects for which several sources exist.
Shortly after the battle, prompted by the Pope, William gave orders to build an abbey on the site to atone for the loss of life. A great amount of earth was moved while shaping the slope into terraces for the abbey and its various buildings. For the next 440 years the battlefield formed part of the land around Saint Martin's abbey and the monks and their tenants farmed the long ridge and its sheltered valley. Then came the Reformation and King Henry the Eighth dissolved St Martin's Abbey along with every other monastery throughout England. Many houses in Battle are made from sandstone blocks taken from the crumbling abbey and the Abbot's Palace became a private house.
More recently, during Victorian times, the Duke and Duchess of Cleveland lived at Battle Abbey. They landscaped the grounds to create more pleasing views. Consequently the slope and valley are no longer the same as when the battle took place. Battle Abbey is now a boarding school and the town of Battle has spread along the top of the ridge during the last 940 years. Not surprisingly few archaeological digs have been carried out across the battlefield and surrounding countryside. Thus the battle still provokes debate among military historians.
A few years ago thanks to private American generosity the battlefield was purchased for posterity and now belongs to English Heritage.
We know something of the tactics employed by William but the main sources tell us much less about Harold's generalship. We don't know why he decided to attack rather than stay in London while the Norman invaders starved during winter. We can speculate and that's part of the fascination when touring the battlefield.
Most accounts of the battle were written to flatter the victors and vivid descriptions of their opponents' courage more likely intended to enhance the Normans' achievement. Other sources not directly concerned with 1066, such as the accounts of earlier Saxon battles against the Vikings and the history of the Normans in Italy and France, tell us a great deal about the fighting methods of both armies; but we do not know, for example, how the shield wall was organised and commanded at the tactical level.
Looking towards the western flank of the slope with grassy earthworks in the foreground. This picture taken about a week before the 940th anniversary of the battle gives an idea of the oak foliage at this season of the year. According to contemporary accounts the weather was unseasonably hot on the day of the battle.
Grassy mounds on the battlefield might prove comparatively modern drainage improvements, defensive earthworks, possibly mass graves. Until we know the answers to such riddles we are left with many questions about the size of the opposing armies and the extent of the ground fought over, before we can solve, more or less what took place on that other longest day.
One of the best places to understand the defensive strength of Harold's position on the Senlac Ridge is from the parish church of Saint Mary the Virgin. From the churchyard it is easy to see how difficult a task faced an army trying to outflank the ridge.
The view eastwards from the rear of the main ridge - left photo - then in the right photo looking westwards from the same place in the churchyard towards the wall of Battle Abbey. The photos show how steep the slopes are on both flanks of the ridge which is visible for miles. In the right hand photo a white sign stands on a concrete block - to its right is another block - tank traps against the threat of invasion in summer 1940 when Senlac Ridge once more served as a strongpoint.
From the air the ridge stands out from many miles away.
One also sees how Harold chose the highest point along the reverse slope for his command post so he could watch the whole front as his army faced repeated Norman attacks.
Sunday morning looking north towards Battle market square. The wall of Battle Abbey grounds is at your left. The right hand picture taken from the same spot looks southwards and the wall is now at your right. Both photos show the middle crest of Senlac Ridge.
Harold was killed about a hundred yards to the west ( leftwards ) behind the Abbey wall - directly in line with the white car leaving the church gates in the left hand photo. Now look at the right hand photo. The English shield wall ran from east to west ( left to right ) across the ridge and the white house further down the slope marks a point near the shield wall's centre though the start of its left flank. There is little alteration in these gradients along the entire ridge and one gains an idea of the way Harold exploited a natural strong point. This was open grass in 1066 thus the gentle slope offered Harold a clear view of his entire battlefront. Once contact was made with the opposing Normans the die was cast and his tactical options reduced to withdrawal or advance - both requiring great discipline to keep the shield wall unbroken.
We explore these fascinating questions, the background causes of the dispute, and its impact on British and World history while showing you the 1066 countryside both from the air and on the ground.
A stone marks where Harold was killed towards late afternoon. Until the Reformation the altar of Battle Abbey stood on this place but only the ruins of the monk's dormitory and refectory survive.
Every October the battle is re-enacted by local enthusiasts and seems to grow more popular with a larger crowd each year!
Harold's army gather along the Senlac Ridge while modern children keep watch for the Norman army from an oak tree as legend claims - the highest point in the town of Battle is called the Watch Oak.
The English ready to form their shield wall
The Bretons, Normans and French attack
Some of the three thousand enthusiasts who dressed up this year
About two miles east of the battlefield is Sedlescombe village where Harold's handfast wife, Edith Swan-neck, may have spent the day. Sedlescombe was a tidal port in 1066 and linked by an old Roman road to the port of Rochester in Kent.
Adrian's house is just outside Sedlescombe and in his garden are trenches dug in 1940 to ambush modern invaders.
As with all our tours, we pick you up from your London hotel, deliver you to Biggin Hill. After a day's flying and touring - with lunch in a Sussex inn - we land back at Biggin Hill and deliver you safely to the hotel front step.
Although only 60 miles from Central London the 1066 countryside remains one of the best kept secrets in the British Isles.
Here's a taste!
Kipling's home Batemans near Burwash in Sussex and Peasemarsh Place
- residential home for the elderly owned by its most senior resident! Sir Paul McCartney is a near neighbour.
The most beautiful racecourse in England - Glorious Goodwood on top of the South Downs
BRITISH SKY TOURS
To find out more about our tours just click the photos. We take families by air/land to the Normandy D Day beaches and even fly you beside the Swiss Alps.
More pictures and an article about a visit to the 1066 battlefield by Andrew Summersgill of the magazine Armchair General