HERITAGE - 37: DAY TO THINK BACK, 950 Years On We Still Mark Harold's Last Fight

To mark the 950th year since Harold's shieldwall held Caldbec Hill near Hastings against Duke William
To mark the 950th year since Harold's shieldwall held Caldbec Hill near Hastings against Duke William | Source
The men of Harold's shield wall wait for the signal to move into line atop Caldbec Hill near the town of Battle
The men of Harold's shield wall wait for the signal to move into line atop Caldbec Hill near the town of Battle | Source

Tickets were sold out this year, the event well patronised...

The re-enactors came from around Europe and further afield 'across the Pond' both as Harold's warriors and William's allies.

In the Dormitory range to the east of the main building I spoke to Bretons, Italians, Germans, I heard Canadians and Americans and had a long conversation with a Danish visitor about Ivar and his place in the scheme of things.

On making my circuit of the site to find vacant facilities, I took in all the colours of the rainbow in costumes, although leather and chain mail predominated. Near the Author Area was a musician and his wife, not far beyond a drama unfolded where people took the roles of Harold and his sister Queen Eadgytha laying into one another verbally - over Harold's lack of support for Tostig the year before no doubt - and people wandered about looking at everyone else in their costumes.

I wandered about taking pictures, close-ups where possible. To my mind the best images of people or people on horseback are close-ups. Photographers often say "Fill the frame! - it doesn't help to be shy, go for it!"

The weekend develops...

Close to the Dormitory block at Battle Abbey, the musician and his wife take a rest after setting the scene for their performance
Close to the Dormitory block at Battle Abbey, the musician and his wife take a rest after setting the scene for their performance | Source
Guarding the way into the Norman camp... Amongst the 'Norman' contingent, William's mercenaries hold off the inquisitive - including yours truly. The cast is cosmopolitan. These two, and many besides, come from across Germany
Guarding the way into the Norman camp... Amongst the 'Norman' contingent, William's mercenaries hold off the inquisitive - including yours truly. The cast is cosmopolitan. These two, and many besides, come from across Germany | Source
Here's one of his friends. The outfits are historically well researched. William brought many men from the Rhineland offered by the Emperor Henry to help take the crown from Harold
Here's one of his friends. The outfits are historically well researched. William brought many men from the Rhineland offered by the Emperor Henry to help take the crown from Harold | Source
Outside the Dormitory Range a re-enactor demonstrates how he'll hold the Normans at bay on the hill nearby
Outside the Dormitory Range a re-enactor demonstrates how he'll hold the Normans at bay on the hill nearby | Source

So here are some 'frame-fillers'. The musician and his wife take the lead...

Below them two shots take in a pair of 'sentries' at the mercenaries camp These two were from western Germany, from around the Rhine/Ruhr. Whilst we chatted - the one in the first picture and I - another pair joined them. I learned there was a large contingent of Germans and others. This would have been true at the time, when along with others taken in by William's claim that he was to come here on a 'crusade' the Emperor Heinrich sent armed men.

The fourth picture was taken beside the Dormitory Range, of one of Harold's men. The weight of the shields these men carried about with them, let alone their chain mail and weaponry would test many a fit man today. They needed their big dinners with lots of meat to build the body and fight weariness!

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The Battle of Hastings

An authoritative work on the battle that changed the nature of the kingdom - for better or worse. I have four books on the theme, two are out of print. More than one book is needed to achieve a 'rounded' picture of the event that cost Harold and his younger brothers Gyrth and Leofwin their lives. A salutary lesson on strategy and intentions with site views, diagrams and maps.

Was it really Harold's folly, or was there a calculated risk that paid off against Harald Sigurdsson - 'Haradradi' - weeks earlier in the North? .

A touch of colour on a day that began grey

The man on the left came as a Flemish bowman. William had many Norman and Flemish bowmen. Harold had few. In southern England the bow was mostly used for hunting, smaller than those used in warfare even in the midlands and north of England
The man on the left came as a Flemish bowman. William had many Norman and Flemish bowmen. Harold had few. In southern England the bow was mostly used for hunting, smaller than those used in warfare even in the midlands and north of England | Source
Close the the English camp, a huscarl shows off his kit-shaped shield.  Harold adopted this shape of shield after his 'visit' to Normandy a year or two before taking the crown
Close the the English camp, a huscarl shows off his kit-shaped shield. Harold adopted this shape of shield after his 'visit' to Normandy a year or two before taking the crown | Source
Whilst most of the men gather to form the shield wall on Caldbec Hill, in the camp this well attired fellow - perhaps a thegn - regales me with background information
Whilst most of the men gather to form the shield wall on Caldbec Hill, in the camp this well attired fellow - perhaps a thegn - regales me with background information | Source

Was this Father Christmas in fancy dress?

I think the fellow with him (first picture) was meant to be a Flemish archer, although I wasn't so sure of the outfit - despite being a bit on the dark side for Lincoln Green, it might have passed for Robin Hood's. The old boy was a character who filled the room by himself, whether about a century out or not. Below them is a fellow who seemed ready to pose for passing cameras, so I obliged and we were both happy. Next, the man in blue kept up an interesting patter about his ancestry which - in common with 'Who Do You Think You Are' candidates Alexander Armstrong and Matthew Pinsent - included William fitzRobert, the Tanner's Grandson. (Herleva was a busy Lizzie). We chatted on a bit longer, about his other forbears and a Huguenot link in his blood-line. He gave me his card, I gave him mine. Which reminds me, I should e-mail him the image. Might come in use for him.

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Although a relatively short book, 170 pages plus references and index, Peter Marren's work is thorough, amply illustrated with views of the sites. York, or rather Gate Fulford was only a short ride from the city walls. Stamford Bridge was a few miles to the east. Hastings occupies a larger proportion of the narrative, with a list of higher-born participants. Descriptions of the fighting forces and the hazards they faced are interspersed with diagrams of the sites. My copy is well-thumbed, having been in my collection since I bought it about eight years ago.

Gathering for the shield wall...

A sense of purpose pervades as Harold's huscarls and fyrdmen gather to swell the ranks
A sense of purpose pervades as Harold's huscarls and fyrdmen gather to swell the ranks | Source
A time to collect one's thoughts before the fight to come
A time to collect one's thoughts before the fight to come | Source
Closing on the ranks, one of the men scowls at the outsider - me - in a show of defiance, "They shall not pass!".
Closing on the ranks, one of the men scowls at the outsider - me - in a show of defiance, "They shall not pass!". | Source
A sea of steel catches the light in mid-afternoon, helms, mailcoats, swords and axe-heads
A sea of steel catches the light in mid-afternoon, helms, mailcoats, swords and axe-heads | Source
A shadow cast - surely no omen? This fellow leans on his thrusting spear. There were two types of spear, thrusting and throwing. The thrusting spear would be of better quality, maybe an heirloom passed from father to son - or even grandson
A shadow cast - surely no omen? This fellow leans on his thrusting spear. There were two types of spear, thrusting and throwing. The thrusting spear would be of better quality, maybe an heirloom passed from father to son - or even grandson | Source
The re-enactors, English or Norman side, come from many walks of life and from many countries. Some that joined Harold's shield wall came from Milan in northern Italy to swell the numbers in this 950th year
The re-enactors, English or Norman side, come from many walks of life and from many countries. Some that joined Harold's shield wall came from Milan in northern Italy to swell the numbers in this 950th year | Source

And then there was this lot, gathering to be shepherded into line by their chief barker...

I managed to capture some of the atmosphere with these shots (above), of men standing, waiting, biding their time before being ushered into place for the forthcoming clash. As with the real thing, some think, some chat with their fellows, others take in their surroundings. The young fellow gave me a passable glare on request, to make the portraiture a bit less 'posed'. Others seemed unaware of my being there.

The call came, Caldbec Hill came to life and everyone stood in line to join the shield wall, whacking their shields with their swords, Dane-axes or spears as they would have done 950 years ago. The noise echoed around the deep valley, bounced back by the wooded Telham Hill where the Normans and their allies assembled.

Here's the king. Harold, astride his handsome mount

Harold and those closest to him will dismount, their horses taken to safety away from the fighting. Englishmen prized their mounts, looked after them unlike their Norman, Breton and Flemish counterparts
Harold and those closest to him will dismount, their horses taken to safety away from the fighting. Englishmen prized their mounts, looked after them unlike their Norman, Breton and Flemish counterparts | Source
His standard bearer at the time was his 'stallari' (field marshal), Ansgar the shire reeve of Middlesex. There were also his younger brothers Gyrth and Leofwin
His standard bearer at the time was his 'stallari' (field marshal), Ansgar the shire reeve of Middlesex. There were also his younger brothers Gyrth and Leofwin | Source

Three riders sat astride their mounts on one side of Harold's host as it gathered on the hill

Well, it's not written anywhere that they didn't, although I think Harold already had his mount taken to the safety of the woodland behind.

He would have walked clear of the thickly forested Andred's Weald after a possibly sleepless night, his thoughts banishing sleep, to the crest of the hill with his brothers, his huscarls and nobles to their command posts. They had a tiring fortnight behind them, a long ride from London through the wooded hills of Kent and Sussex, and the prospect of a hard fight ahead. It would be a long day, he knew. He hoped for a victory, as did William. A lot rode on it!

Ansgar, his 'stallari' (field marshal) and shire reeve of Middlesex was with him, as were many nobles, land holders, even clergymen or canons summoned as part of their duties to 'do their bit' from as far away as Hampshire and Berkshire, Essex and Hertfordshire (beyond Middlesex). His brothers, Gyrth Earl of East Anglia and Leofwin, Earl of Essex and part of North Kent, would have their huscarls (household warriors) with them and fyrdmen (militia in modern terms) would have come on foot from the nearest shires, West Kent, eastern Hampshire, Surrey, Sussex.

We live in hope - and hope to live without flinching from our duty to uphold the king, defend the kingdom - through the hard fight ahead

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6 comments

MizBejabbers profile image

MizBejabbers 6 weeks ago

Alan, what a fantastic account of the re-enactment of a world-changing event! Your great photos really bring this great story to life. We can clearly see the uniforms, and your great descriptions point out what we should look for. When history comes to life in this manner, it is so much more interesting than the dry stuff we were taught in school. Most of us who are of Northern European descent probably descended from someone who participated in this battle.

You have educated me today. For instance, I thought a huscarl was a house servant. How wrong I was. Thank you for a really great photo article.


alancaster149 profile image

alancaster149 6 weeks ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) Author

Hello MizBejabbers, it's what a huscarl was originally - a household servant, except not in the general understanding of 'servant'. [See the page in the 'DANELAW YEARS' series about Knut's introduction of the role to England in AD 1016 (he was king a thousand years ago from around this time of year)].

It's a very colourful event that maybe one day you'll get to see personally. It was sold out this year days before the event because it was the 950th year since the original day. See also 'CONQUEST - 4: 1066, A YEAR OF STRUGGLE... ' (there's currently a link on the right, although it might not be there long, they have a habit of moving regularly).


lawrence01 profile image

lawrence01 2 weeks ago from Hamilton, New Zealand

Alan

Thoroughly enjoyed this little glimpse into the re-enactment world.

Lawrence


alancaster149 profile image

alancaster149 2 weeks ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) Author

Lawrence, glad you dropped by to take a dekko. The site was as well saturated with people as I suspect it was with rose-growing compost left by a hundred horses or more. Traders selling memorabilia, jewellery, 'weaponry' and - in some cases - chain mail came from across the UK and the Continent. On the way back to my car on the Sunday I spotted an outfit that looked like (that of) a Varangian Guardsman and had a chat with the Pole whose booth it was the outfit was displayed at.

There were Germans, 'real' Normans, Dutch, Flemings and Italians with the Norman contingent, and Danes, Italians and all sorts with the English.

Many of Harold's huscarls in reality were Danes and Anglo-Danes, and Flemings fought side by side with the Norsemen in September, 1066 at York and a few miles to the east at Stamford Bridge. History repeating itself.


lawrence01 profile image

lawrence01 2 weeks ago from Hamilton, New Zealand

Alan

I used to work with a guy who's hobby was making early medieval weapons, his favorite was the two bladed 'Battleaxe'

With my enthusiasm for history you can imagine the discussions we used to have!

Blessings

Lawrence


alancaster149 profile image

alancaster149 2 weeks ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) Author

Lots of scope for injury, Lawrence. I saw a number of participants with bandages after the main event as I walked back to the car park. Sometimes someone gets carried away - literally - during the re-enactment. I remember seeing an ambulance on the hill on my way back to the Author Event for the debate. and questions.

Good to see you drop in.

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