Saturday, October 29, 2016

One in the Eye

Half-term week. Three children to entertain, two of them studying the Normans at school, only one place for it: pop down the road and visit Battle Abbey and look upon the scene of the Battle of Hastings and William Duke of Normandy's triumph over poor old Harold, who had only been King of England for nine months.

Ordered by the Pope in 1070 to do penance for so much killing during his conquest, William built the Abbey to commemorate the battle, and the town subsequently grew up around it. The gateway to the Abbey is still an imposing presence at the end of the High Street but many of the original buildings are now gone or in ruins and have been since the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 16th Century. The Abbot's quarters were exempted from the destruction of that time and given to one of King Henry VIII's mates to use as a country house. Today, the building houses a private school. Nice to see that privilege succeeds privilege.

One building not spared demolition was the Abbey's church, the Church of St. Martin. William had built this with the high altar marking the spot where King Harold died in 1066. All that remains of the church now is a commemorative plaque where the altar stood and Harold fell. The myth - entirely derived from an image on the Bayeux Tapestry - that King Harold was killed by a crackshot Norman archer who managed to hit a bullseye is an enduring one with my kids and they were drawn to the plaque more than almost anything else.

The battlefield at the rear of the Abbey site was, of course, the biggest draw. Two weeks ago, there had been a reenactment here to commemorate the battle's 950th anniversary and, even though it was deserted when we went, the kids enjoyed gazing down across the valley from Senlac Hill, where the English troops had formed their shield wall, and imagining the advancing massed ranks of the French invaders.

Exiting through the gift shop, the kids could not be tempted by the Ladybird book of William the Conqueror despite my telling them, misty-eyed, that I had had that book when I was a child. Instead, they continued their gory fascination by buying sharp and barbed souvenir arrow heads. "Careful," I had to stop myself from saying. "You'll have someone's eye out with one of those."

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