Battle & Canterbury  


There was some sort of English punk rock playing in the George's restaurant this morning. It was kind of bracing, like walking into cold water.   The elderly patrons seemed to think so too. I'm fairly sure the young waitress must have turned on the radio this morning.

Well, there was toast. I did not make it. I did not see it made. The young waitress at the George brought it to me, and I ate it. (Ox and Maggie as well, had toast). After this successful toast moment, we proceeded on with today's agenda.

The Battle of Hastings

So on the walk over to the battle field, (The George is very very close to Battle Abbey), Ox kept commenting that Harold was daft to go ahead and attack the Normans at Hastings, when his men had just finished a forced march of 40 miles a day, and a fair amount of his army hadn't mustered yet. Ox thinks he should have waited to gather his forces before attacking. Well, since at the end of the day, Harold was dismembered and his huscarl all killed, I suppose Ox is right. But the question still remains, why would he choose to do that?

Should we take a moment here to recap? Battle of Hastings, October 14, 1066?   Okay, so here's the short version, Edward the Confessor (he's a Saxon and the King of England) dies. On his death bed he leaves his kingdom to Harold Godwinson. However, William of Normandy, for reasons that are just too complicated to get into, says that he is Edward the Confessor's heir, and that he should be King.

So Harold is crowned, but knows that William will invade. (Oh, and Halley's comet appears that year.) So he gathers an army the summer of 1066 and then they just sit there waiting... and waiting... and waiting.   It seems William just couldn't get packed quickly enough. (You know how it is when you've hired a bunch of Flemish mercenaries and you've built a bunch of new boats. You just CAN'T seem to get them all ready at the same time. And then just when you think you can take off, someone has to go to the bathroom. So you have to stop and let them off to find a flush toilet)   And then William takes a bit more time to pack up the wooden castle he's decided to bring with him, and then he just can't seem to get good sailing weather.

So there's Harold, glum as can be, watching his troops eating there heads off with nothing to do. And there's William, waiting for good weather and trying to keep the various younger sons and mercenaries from raiding the nearby towns.   That's how they spend the summer. Well, on September 8, Harold's troops have a right to go home for harvest. (They are, after all, primarily landholders.)   So they all leave. William's troops on the other hand are younger sons with no lands and no place in particular they have to be. (Well, and then there are the mercenaries, but they'll stay till the money runs out.) So William continues to wait for good weather.

THEN it gets interesting. Harold Hadraada, the King of Norway, says to Harold Godwinson's brother Tostig, "What the heck, let's invade England."   Tostig agrees, so they invade the north of England in September.

Harold Godwinson says several unprintable things about his brother, and about everyone's lack of consideration when it comes to scheduling, and then raises an army as fast as he can. They trot on foot up to York and after a bit, kick the crap out of the invaders. Much beer and mead drinking ensues.

This doesn't last though because William finally gets a halfway favorable wind. (He also got a nice little pennon from the Pope earlier that says, "I ought to be King.") He lands at Pevensey, and then raids the countryside to feed all his troops. Doubtless they got sea sick on the crossing, and you know how the next day, you're just famished? And how you also get that strange urge to burn peasant cottages?

Well they moved on to Hastings and got out the wooden tinker-toy castle set. After a sleepless night or two they get it put together and then take pictures of each other standing in front of it.   They are particularly tickled because all the pillaging is happening on Harold's ancestral lands.

When he finds out, Harold Godwinson says several more unprintable things about William and about how really unfair this all was, since BOTH invasions have now happened well after the buzzer has gone off, and the invasion season has officially closed. (It's a summer sport usually.) But he gets all his men back up on their feet, tries to gather more, and marches them 40 miles a day to get back down to the southern coast of England. Evidently his bowmen have some trouble making it back from Stamford Bridge, and so they aren't there at the point that Harold arrives near Hastings.

Harold is pretty hacked about the pillaging, the invasion, the tacky Pope pennon, and the misbegotten wooden castle. So he sets up a camp on top of a hill, (near the modern town of Battle) and decides to sulk. It's possible that he was just going to try to contain William until the rest of his forces got there. But, William had been waiting all summer long for a chance at the crown. So he attacks, uphill, all day on October 14.

The fighting goes back and forth for a bit. Saxons get 10 extra points for being at the top of a hill. Normans get no bonus points for horses even though they'd lugged them along on the boats. However, the Normans gets 5 bonus points for bringing archers, and the Saxons have to take a 5 point deduction because they didn't bring archers.

There's a really exciting moment when there's a mix up over who's been killed, and both sides think that William is dead. Well, the mercenaries immediately pack up to go home. (Not much good making a bid for the throne, if you've just gotten your contender killed off.) So to keep his army from running, William takes off his helmet and rides the lines showing that his head is still on his shoulders.

Harold says more unprintable Anglo-Saxon swear words about people who just pretend to be dead, but aren't actually dead.

William also tries some sneaky French tricks on the gullible Anglo-Saxons. He has his troops pretend to lose and then start running away. This tricks some of the Saxons into running down the hill chasing them. Then the Normans circle them, cut them off from their army and cut them to pieces.

In the final windup, Harold gets killed that evening (some say with an arrow through the eye). The Saxons take heavy losses. (But then so did the Normans.)   And William refuses to allow Harold's family to take his mangled body away for proper burial. Instead he has him buried on the sea shore.

And ummmm! Boy did somebody get in trouble when the Pope found out how many people got killed, and about all the pillaging, and the meanness. So to show that he was sorry, William had an abbey built on the site of the battle, and the monks were to pray for the souls of the dead who fell in the battle. This sounds pretty contrite, but then he went and named the abbey, "Battle Abbey", and installed murder holes in the barbican of the gatehouse. So, that doesn't sound like he was very sorry.

The Saxons had to lump it, and accept him as king. But they had the last laugh, because within a few generations, they had screwed up the Normans' French to the point that people in France made fun of their accents. And that's just been going on ever since.

So, now that we've gone through a quick summary of the events, you're ready to look at the photos. They pretty well show how Harold was able to hold off the Normans even though he was outnumbered.


Have you read Chaucer's Canterbury Tales? It's about a group of people who set out from a tavern called the Tabard in Southwark London, and travel together to Canterbury. Then they return to London. Does this sound eerily like any little band of three people that you know?

Today while we were standing in Canterbury I realized, "Oh my gosh! I've done the Chaucer trip without knowing it."   Although, Chaucer's pilgrims probably didn't go to Canterbury by way of Wales. However, I dutifully went and saw the shrines to Thomas Becket inside Canterbury Cathedral.

As you might expect by now, the shrine was destroyed by Henry VIII, right before he had the church closed and the nearby abbey destroyed.   The strange thing is, that after the church reopened for business as an Anglican Church, they installed a stained glass window of Henry VIII.

If you are as amused as I am about the similarities, read this snippet that I translated for you. Remember, while I was in London, I took a photo of the spot where the Tabard Tavern stood. And I attended services at the Southwark Cathedral.

The Cathedral

You know, none of the three of us can figure out, are we just jaded? or is this one really not that pretty on the outside. It's exterior is really beat up in spots, and then renovated in spots. Of course, it has scaffolding around it, because that's just the natural state of Cathedrals in England. But it's just awfully symmetrical in it's decoration. Not as much delightful detail.   (After you've been looking at Gothic stuff for a while, your eye just gets used to the whole gargoyle thing.)

The inside is really different.   If you come in at the back of the nave, you see each level of the church ascending up staircases. Usually there is a little flight of stairs going to the altar, but at Canterbury, there are several big flights of stairs, so the back of the church seems to fade off into eternity. We went to Evensong, and it was lovely as it always is. But the acoustics made the voices sound too treble, almost tinny. We're not sure if it's the glass they put around the top of the choir area, or if it was the rising floor.

I also walked over to the ruins of St. Augustine's Abbey. When Augustine came in the late 6th century as a missionary to the Anglo Saxons, he established the cathedral of Canterbury and also the Abbey nearby. (Since he was a Roman, he didn't think you should bury people inside the city wall, so the Abbey is just on the other side of the wall, which still exists. So, the really old graves would have been over at the abbey.)

Cathedrals in General

One of the things I was really hoping to hear while I was in England was the medieval chanted psalms during evensong. But except for Southwark, I have only heard more modern services. I'm not sure how to research which of the Anglican churches are "high church" (i.e. have whiffs of medieval Catholicism in their traditions) and which ones are "low church" (more in keeping with the principals of protestantism.)   You'd think that the big old medieval cathedrals would be high church, but they are almost always low church. I think that it's because they are cathedrals, and so are the centers for their diocese; that they are self-conscious about being more modern. They have new stained glass windows that are modern, they have altar clothes that look like modern art, and sometimes they sing the oddly chromatic church music that is written in the 20th century.

At first I found it jarring, but now I think I've come to understand it a bit. They are seeking to show all of us who have come primarily to look at the building that they are still alive. They are living churches that are relevant to their communities. Salisbury with its demonstration on July 1, with all its members there in white shirts, holding hands and circling the outside of the cathedral to show support for the anti-poverty campaigns going on this month. York Minster with the Mother's Union, St. John's in Glastonbury with its sign out inviting people to pray for the people of London.

By throwing something modern into our line of sight, they can assert to the world that they are not a museum, not there to hold the Christianity of the Middle Ages safe, as if it were a fragile egg that they must pass from one generation to the other, through the centuries. Much as I am delighted when I do find glimpses of that fragile egg, that is not the church's main function. The buildings are designed to put people in. Indeed, the buildings really work the best when they are full of people.

Thomas Becket

Just a quickie. Thomas Becket was the Archbishop of Canterbury who was murdered in the cathedral by armed knights who thought they heard Henry II ask them to kill him. (Henry said otherwise.) Hugely popular saint in the Middle Ages. Big big pilgrimage destination. You just weren't a real pilgrim if you didn't have a Canterbury pilgrims medal. (I'm sure that all the people in the Canterbury Tales bought them in the Cathedral gift shop when they got there.)


The long day at the airport and then the flight home. Last time I had the never-ending day. When you fly into the sun you lose time, and so my night time on the flight was very very short. When I go home, I'll be chasing the sun, so my night time will be very very long. It will be good to see you all.

Today's Photos