When visiting England, it is easy to be overwhelmed by wall-to-wall history, castles, museums and cathedrals. It is also easy to get caught on the typical tourism treadmill just focusing on the ‘big’ sites like Stonehenge, Buckingham Palace and Madame Tussaud’s.
Getting slightly off the beaten track, if such a thing is possible in England, definitely has its rewards, as we found out in the small town of Battle. I am not sure how we stumbled across this destination but it turned out to be equal parts fascinating and hilarious.
Battle is located around 90km south east of London. As the name indicates, its origins are inextricably linked to the famous Battle of Hastings. The battle, fought between Harold the Saxon king and William the Conqueror (from Normandy) in 1066, changed the course of English history. It is believed that after he was victorious, William promised to build an abbey in memory of the people who died in the conflict. The town then grew out and around the Abbey.
The thing I really loved about our year in England was that all the fabulous history was digestible and easily accessible. England ‘does’ history well. A staid castle or cathedral is transformed into a ‘living and breathing’ snapshot of an ancient time, place and people.
We found Battle Abbey to be the perfect example of making history interesting and understandable, regardless of age or education level. Rather than being yet another pile of mouldy stone and religious artefacts, the handheld audio guides took us back to its very origins and the daily life of its inhabitants.
The original Abbey was populated by the Benedictine Order, and was a tangible symbol of the power of the new Norman rulers. Despite its awkward location on top of a narrow, waterless ridge, William insisted that the high altar of the abbey church be located where Harold had been killed. Unfortunately, Battle Abbey could not escape the destruction of the monasteries by Henry VIII, and the remaining monks of Battle surrendered in May 1538. Sadly, the church and parts of the cloister were then demolished.
What really appealed to my quirky sense of humour though was the fact that our visit was timed to coincide with the annual celebration and recreation of the Battle of Hastings. Returning the audio guides to the museum attendant, we ventured out of the Abbey and into the grounds and, at the same time, stepped 950 years back in time.
There is something highly amusing and satisfying about seeing grown men and women dressed up in ‘silly’ clothes and pretending to be something they are not. Maybe it is a combination of them not taking themselves too seriously, plus a passion for a specific slice of history and their willingness to preserve it.
It became immediately obvious to us that this historical occasion had struck a seriously strong chord with a whole bunch of modern-day men and women who had literally invaded Battle for the day. We were surprised to find that participants had travelled from all over Europe and even the USA for the opportunity to dress up, dance or die!
A lush, rolling paddock was turned into a Saxon village with women and children supporting their men before going into ‘battle’. Apparently this was how it worked in times past, with whole families going on tour with their warring men folk rather than waiting at home. The camp was made up of traditional tents and lean-to camping structures, forges to make and repair their weapons (and various tourist trinkets), and smoky fires to prepare their food.
There was falconry, cavalry, piping music, dancing and ancient craft, but the highlight of the day had to be the re-enactment of the actual battle. The audience stood behind a temporary barrier and the announcer explained what was happening on the field. The Normans advanced menacingly towards us from the river while the Saxons attempted to slow their progress by bringing in their archery team.
As you can imagine, there was a lot of ‘angry’ shouting and heckling between the warring sides which balanced out the laughter from the audience. Eventually the two sides met in a flurry of swords and clashing of shields, and a fair dose of good-natured pushing and shoving. I suspect many of the warriors struggled to keep a straight face and some opted to be killed or wounded simply to have the chance to lie down and catch their breath!
The classic absurdity came at the very end of the conflict when the Normans were victorious. Picture the field, littered with the dead and dying, and bloodied soldiers leant exhaustedly on their swords. Over the loud speaker, the announcer called ‘Would the dead please arise?” and all the bodies came to life again, sat up, looked around, sprang to their feet, and dusted themselves off. There was much cheerful banter, back-slaps and handshakes between the opposing sides. If only all wars could end this way.
In a nice nod to serendipity, a trip to France a little later in the same year took us to Bayeaux. After our happy day in Battle, we made a beeline for the museum housing the Bayeaux tapestry. It depicts the events preceding the Battle of Hastings including Harold’s deception and seizure of the English throne, as well as the battle itself. It is remarkable that such a fragile piece of handicraft has survived all this time.
After 13 years, this day trip still brings a smile to my face. History does not have to be all dry, dusty and fact-riddled. This experience, and the crazy people involved, brought history to life and made it more than worthwhile to ignore the big name tourist sites, even if just for a day.
Have you ever experienced history coming to life?
What: Battle Abbey includes a museum, café and shop and children’s play area. It is open daily, 10a.m.-5p.m. Entry to the Abbey and Re-enactment costs £15.60 (£9.00 for children). If you intend to visit a number of English Heritage sites when you are in the UK, consider joining English Heritage for discounted entry. For a sneak peak of the day, have a look at this YouTube clip.
Where: Battle Abbey and Battlefield, High Street, Battle, East Sussex, United Kingdom – here
When: Re-enactments are held each October around the middle of the month.
Why: The perfect way to see history come alive! Literally! And a great way to engage children in history.
How: We drove from Byfleet, Surrey to Battle, East Sussex via the A21 and M25. Plenty of parking is available on site for £3.50 per vehicle.
Who: Two big kids and two little kids – all in love with history – even if only momentarily.
Related Posts: Watch this space…
Related Blogs: For two completely different perspectives on the Battle of Hastings and re-enacting history generally, have a look at: https://secretsofthenormaninvasion.wordpress.com/ and http://historicallyspeaking.driftingfocus.com/