What could be more typically British than ‘a cuppa tea'? And, almost a thousand years ago a break for tea (in a manner of speaking!) changed the course of English history. Or so a charming little tale goes.
I'm standing on a knoll in Sussex, England. It is a glorious August morning with a light breeze playing through the trees. Before me lies a tranquil Constable landscape: a field cross-stitched by hedgerows, which merges into distant woodland. The only sounds are chittering sparrows, and the far-off rumble of traffic floating up from a thread-like highway.
Scroll back to 14th October 1066. The field in front of me was in turmoil. Norman archers spewed arrows, Saxon battle-axes flashed murderously and the thunder of cavalry hammered against the consciousness of the wounded and dying.
William of Normandy was getting the worst of it. The Saxons had the advantage of being positioned on the hill (where I now stand), while the Normans on the field below were being steadily pushed back. It was mid-afternoon, and a group of Saxons attacked a flank position, chasing the fleeing Normans with whoops of "Ut, Ut," ("Out, Out") and "Gutemite" ("God Almighty"). In desperation, a small group of Norman soldiers unexpectedly turned around to defend themselves. The Saxons, unable to run uphill fast enough to get back to their own lines, were slaughtered en route.
As the day wore on, both sides were exhausted. It was a civilized thing in those days, to pause to take stock and possibly nibble on some refreshments. "Tea time chaps!" (or it's equivalent in Anglo-Saxon English) brought about a mutual lull in hostilities—or so the story goes. That's when William of Normandy came up with a brilliant idea. The earlier about-turn attack by the Normans had ended in near disaster for the Saxons. What if the entire Norman army on the flats at the bottom of the hill feigned retreat? The Saxons would, no doubt, pursue them, and once lured onto a "level playing field" (so to speak) the Normans could then do an about-face—and fight to the death.
It worked. King Harold, pierced in the eye by a stray arrow, lay dead, after which Saxon morale collapsed, and William of Normandy became king of England. He was the last invader ever to successfully occupy Britain.
Today Battle, the actual site of the conflict, is a small hamlet, about ten miles north of the better known town of Hastings. In celebration of his victory or—depending on who you talk to—in atonement for the thousands of soldiers slain on the battlefield on that fateful day in October 1066, William the Conqueror built nearby Battle Abbey.
Henry VIII, who had scant patience with the Abbey's significance, all but destroyed it in his drive to eradicate Catholicism in England in the 16th Century. With the dissolution of monasteries, the Abbey church was reduced to skeletal walls and I pause to read a slab at the site of the original High Altar which marked the actual spot where the Saxon King was slain. The ancient Cloisters and Dorters in the Abbey grounds, where the monks once had their living quarters and dormitories, still has an aura which makes for hushed conversation.
Battle's market square outside the Abbey grounds is busy and I decide to "slake my thirst" at a medieval pub, "Ye Old King's Head" whose signpost has an artist's impression of an impressively moustachioed King Harold. Over a shandy and a ‘ploughman's lunch plate' a group of locals strike up a conversation with me. They are regretful that I've missed the big event of the year—the two-week Battle Festival, held either at the end of May or in early June.
"It's a grand time to visit." One of them says . "People dress up in medieval costumes. There are jugglers and street musicians and everyone has a jolly time."
Another one adds, "And you can listen to concerts, come to poetry readings and watch plays...."
"And see the Maypole dancers. And jousting tournaments. " interrupts a third. "You don't have that in Canada, do you?"
I shake my head. "Nope, 'fraid not!"
"Ah...then, you must come back again!"
I nod. "Indeed, I must!"
Back on the street the weather has turned capricious. A steel-grey sky and thin drizzle sends me sprinting to my car. As I drive away a roll of thunder unfurls like distant gunfire. Perhaps the ghosts of Battle are at it again.
IF YOU GO:
PHOTOS: As attributed below
1. Battle Abbey viewed from across the battlefield of the Battle of Hastings. Photo: Ealdgyth Wikipedia Creative Commons
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