KENT: Battle

Battle lr

By Tim Saunders

We live in troubled times and my little son Henry (6) is worried about Russia invading England. History is so vital to our learning and so when my wife and I take him and his sisters to Battle in East Sussex we learn how England, a little island on its own, was in a similarly vulnerable state back in 1066.

To our surprise King Harold was replaced by a Frenchman, William the Conquerer – a man who always got what he wanted. Caroline and I had obviously heard of William the Conquerer but we had not realised that he was French. “He was a bastard,” the powerful audio guide informs us, adding that if anyone said that to his face they had their hands chopped off.

King Harold had won a bloody battle in Yorkshire and his men had marched the 250 miles to Battle where these tired souls fought the Normandy invaders and unsurprisingly lost. However, think of how tired the opposition must have been having sailed across from France. We learn that the Battle of Hastings - this major battle in British history - took place on October 14, 1066. A date that I won’t forget for the simple fact that my dad was born on that date but obviously not in 1066.

There’s a gripping video in the Discovery Centre and then the audio guide is with us as we walk through history, around the site. It really does allow us to immerse ourselves. Although admittedly it is difficult to devote 100 per cent of your attention as a parent of three rascals aged 11 and under you glean enough to relive the experience back at home.

We walk to the actual battlefield and imagine those shattered troops climbing the steep hill. We are told that it would have been much steeper than it is today. The archers and the arrows; Harold is thought to have been killed by an arrow in the eye but this is conjecture. The armour is awe-inspiring. Made up of little circles of metal that are welded together and that was all the protection these fighters received apart from their distinctive helmets. “Weren’t they cold?” asks Caroline. Probably. We visit in February and the wind is biting, not that dissimilar to some October weather. So being out in the elements gives a good idea of how those 7,000 British troops must have felt. They all died. We learn that a typical town at that time would have had around 2,500 residents. So it puts it into perspective what a bloodbath it must have been. The Normans got each and every one of them. Even William’s horse was killed. To think that we walk around a site where so many men fell, makes you shudder. The ugliness of war. Yet we do not learn.

Perhaps as a way of seeking God’s forgiveness once William was on the throne he set about building the abbey, installing monks and creating a community. It is quite a substantial site, today surrounded by much traffic. The children thoroughly enjoy exploring the site and Henry likes to take the lead, absolutely engrossed. In the abbey some of the pillars of Sussex stone would have been polished to create a shiny black marble effect and it is possible to still see small traces of this. Apparently the monks all slept in a single dormitory and at a time when there was no central heating, this would have made complete sense in terms of warmth.

It’s an excellent day out and one that needs to be revisited because we don’t have time to climb to the roof to look out over East Sussex. An English Heritage annual pass makes it possible to visit over 400 historic properties as many times as you wish in a year for around £111 for two adults and up to 12 children.

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