In the town of Battle, Sussex – April 2018
Thanks to the hand-held electronic guide that I carried that day, I now know far more about the Battle of Hastings than I did previously. Despite having learnt about it in history lessons (the very act of learning about it now confined to history itself, of course) my knowledge was scant. i.e. On 14th October 1066 – William, Duke of Normandy, beat the English Saxon King, Harold who took an arrow in the eye. That was the sum of my knowledge on the subject.
Now, thanks to the excited commentary that accompanied my walk around the ancient battlefield, I have a better feel for the entire event.
As we walked, Dave was listening to his own device and indifferent to my gasps as my guide set off on her moment by moment account of one of the bloodiest and longest battles in English history. While the lady in my ear, reported and described everything in detail, as though she was commentating a football match, (a Cup Final at that) growing ever more excited by the second, Dave remained calm and contemplative.
After one particularly grizzly and breathless description, I commented that, well, whew! That was a bit over the top wasn’t it? Dave failed to respond. The sound track was a little too realistic for my liking. Well, hey ho, here I was.
The weather was very warm and sunny. We walked for an hour and a half, passing landmarks where soldiers stood, sculpted from wood, caught in the act of combat, looking oddly vulnerable in the now empty fields.
My guide grew breathless with excitement,
“The battle is beginning, no, yes, it is, it must be, this must be it…”
(Well was it or wasn’t it? It is now 2018, surely they have established when the battle started by now?)
We trod along boarded pathways and made our way across open grass between the strategically placed information plaques. Wooden figures, Norman and Saxon soldiers, stood mid pose, amongst the bluebells, one on his horse, another poised with shield and sword to face his foe.
In our ears, well, in mine at least, the battle began to heat up. I almost flinched as my guide screeched that there were soldiers with axes to my right and blood all around. She was sure now that the battle was on.
“The stench of torn flesh and fear envelops us. Horses rear up and riders fall…the English lunge with their weapons – it is mayhem!”
The battle had been raging for half an hour apparently, (that was a quick half hour although I was quite exhausted with the woman’s exclamations and gory descriptions it must be said). William’s army were outnumbered if not outwitted.
“There must be thousands of soldiers on either side…the noise is deafening as horse and armies converge, I can barely see through the dust.”
I felt and heard the battle raging around me as I walked.
“They are saying the English King is dead!” my guide shrieked at one point, “Harold has fallen! But wait, no, they are wrong, he is not dead, he’s alive, the King is alive!” Whew! Well, thank goodness for that.
We trudged on to the next plaque.
“The English are being joined by their countrymen from far and wide, wielding their terrible two handed axes, their most feared weapon. The French have only the men they came with…but they have arrows, the English do not. The English stand fast. Can William get his archers within bowshot of the English? There are soldiers all around no – oh no! It is impossible to see who is who. It’s carnage…here on this hill, surely the French cannot win, Just listen to that noise!”
Yes, I could hear the noise, in fact it almost deafened me.
“They cannot go on much longer…”
(A done deal presumably?)
“But the French are moving back – what’s happening? William, William is dead, they are saying the French leader is dead – there is confusion!”
As she continued to describe troops in disarray I trudged on, following Dave who was listening to goodness knows what. Shouts of agony echoed in my head. Blood curdling screams rent the air. All around me the bloody battle raged, raucous and quite frightening to be honest.
“Look, look! William is alive – he has had to take off his visor to show his troops it is him…” cue William shouting above the tumult, “It is I, I am alive, fight on!” (Didn’t sound very French to me).
Things really began to get going now. As we rounded the bend and started moving up the hill, we were accompanied by a thousand knights on horseback and a random Frenchman who had been thrown off his horse and having no other had decided to leave the battle and join my roving reporter/football commentator. I now had his version of events to contend with too.
Behind me, the English were roaring, fierce and bloodied, sure of victory. Ahead, William was preparing for the final assault. He had lost hundreds of men and appeared to be in retreat.
“The French are on the run! They are retreating, yes, it is won! It must be won!” shrieked my guide, her voice heavy with emotion. Around us the sun almost blazed down, a warm Spring day in a Sussex Field. The Battle raged in October – with the vagaries of the English weather, it could have been just such a day as this.
I waited for the inevitable.
“It is a trick! The English are surging forward but the French are not retreating at all, they are now surrounding the English…it is carnage…Ooh, the blood, the screams…where is Harold? Where is the English King? Three men are upon him, now a fourth, arrows are flying…” Crucially, the guide went quiet at this point, leaving us to trudge up the hill to the next information point. We pressed the corresponding button on our respective machines.
“Harold is dead…it is true…the English are retreating, bloodied and cowed. William is victorious. After nine hours, the Battle is finally won. The hill runs with the blood of the English. Our country will never be the same again, everything will change…”
I am exhausted. I blink up at Dave who is looking quite chilled.
“She was a bit excitable,” I comment.
“Who? Oh, I didn’t have the same commentary as you then…I had a man speaking, telling me what happened.”
What had I been listening to for the last hour and a half – or was it 9 hours?
As we handed in our electronic guides at the tourist desk, I wondered who would get mine next. I still didn’t know what Dave heard as he walked round the battle field. I only knew that I had just witnessed the bloodiest of battles and been dragged through the proverbial wringer, emotionally.
Good luck to the next person to pick up my guide…or was it just meant for me?
Long live England!