It is one in the eye for historians: the spot near the ruins of Battle Abbey where they have been telling us for centuries that King Harold was brought down by a Norman spear was in fact perfectly blameless – the fateful place where his His Maj was hit in the eye (or hacked to death, depending on what version you believe) was actually six metres away.
Which in the grand sweep of history might not matter too much, except that the slab marking the spot has been a shrine for flower-bearing pilgrims for much of the last 950 years. Harold might not be the greatest English hero – in fact he was England’s last king to let his country be invaded – but even if he was a regal muppet, he was our regal muppet.
The “new” site is the third identified as the fatal place ending the Battle of Sussex on October 14, 1066 – a bloody, nine-hour affair – when those beastly Normans came over here and pinched our country. It has not been an auspicious time for retired English kings these last few years, with another old HRH being dug up in a car park in Leicester of all places.
Confusion over Harold’s place of death has been a “comedy of errors,” according to Roy Porter, senior properties curator of English Heritage. The challenge has been to locate the site of the altar of the abbey church. Porter says: “Tradition says this was built exactly on the spot where Harold’s standard was erected and where he fell.” Insert your own joke here which ends in “should have gone to SpecSavers”.
The abbey fell into disrepair after the dissolution of the monasteries, but a 19th century excavation revealed a crypt. This is where high altars typically preside, and William the Conqueror is said to have demanded the altar be built on the exact spot where William’s boys socked it to our Harold – as if that somehow deified an act of death. However, some decades later archaeologists showed that the crypt was actually part of a 13th century extension to the abbey, so could not have been the site of the altar.
In the 20th century, experts – or perhaps that should read “experts” – posited that the high altar was actually several metres away. However, English Heritage now says those findings were based on a misunderstanding of the architecture of Romanesque churches. However, few would now confidently assert that future experts won’t charge onto the scene with other revisionist theories. But, Porter is quietly confident: “We are fairly happy saying this is the location.”
Still, other mysteries remain. Where, for instance, are the great burial pits of Norman soldiers who perished on the field, quite literally, of Battle?
Also, our main knowledge of the battle comes from the Bayeux Tapestry, complete with poor Harold taking one in the eye. But there is stitching on the back which suggests it could have been altered to fit the story.
Porter says: “Conceptually there is a problem with the site in that people think the battlefield is the grounds to the south. They do not understand that the battlefield is where the Abbey was built.”
To mark the little matter of the 950th anniversary, an exhibition has opened featuring the most incredible carved oak figures of Saxon warriors and (hiss) Norman knights which will help tell the story of England’s most famous battle. For the first time visitors will be able to have a really good sight – well, better than Harold’s anyway – of the entire 1066 battle by clambering to the ramparts of the great medieval gateway. You can now climb the 66 steps of the Great Gatehouse, affording a 360-degree panorama.
And while Sussex was, as so often, centre of the action, other castles, abbeys and historic sites across the nation will mark the anniversary – including Harold’s march from Stamford Bridge, which was probably rather swifter than commuter journeys today on Southern.
It is well worth taking a gander round the atmospheric ruins of William the Conqueror’s abbey.
The stonework of the 13th century rib-vaulted dormitory range, including the Novices Common Room, is pretty amazing. The acoustics aren’t bad either, which is why Keane used it for a live performance of Sovereign Light Café.
A stroll round the Duchess of Cleveland’s Victorian walled garden is also rather charming. It was recently recreated to provide a glimpse into a lesser known period in the abbey’s history.
In stark contrast to the battle, it is a tranquil retreat where you can admire the historic varieties of fruit trees and seasonal wildflowers. The garden is also host to the abbey’s beehives, producing honey for the shop and café.
But here is something to ponder on while chomping on a rock cake: one theory is that Harold actually survived the battle and scarpered, eye and all. Sure,
it is probably just another conspiracy theory, but
given all the various guesses and indeed blunders,
who would bet against that stone being on the march once more?
Experts have changed their minds over the spot where they long thought the King of England fell at the Battle of Hastings. Jasper Gerard reports