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The Battle of Hastings: Now and Then


After getting a taste for all things Middle ages at Hadleigh Castle, we couldn’t resist planning a little trip down to Hastings, a place where British history was changed forever. So much so, that almost a thousand years later the locals still spend the whole year putting together a spectacular fireworks display and re-enactment. Why was this event so important? We decided we needed to find out. And after we discovered that Hastings was the new “Shoreditch of Sussex” (think new cool part of town for those not in London), we thought that was even more of a reason to head down there to soak up some culture and history.

The Battle: Then

On the 14th of October, 1066, a battle took place in England. The last Saxon king, Harold II, died in the midst of the heavy battle. Who killed him? How did he die? History won’t tell us exactly, but most likely one of William, Duke of Normandy’s knights, who had invaded the country for the crown.

The battle of Hastings on October 14th, 1066 , was not just an invasion of the usual kind, though. It was a dispute over the succession of the English crown. Edward the Confessor, the King of England, had promised to hand his title down to William of Normandy when he passed away. He had also promised Harold of East Sussex that he could be King. What a mix up! After King Harold II put himself on the throne, William of Normandy spent 9 months setting up his invasion. The battle that killed the last Saxon King of England kicked off early on the morning of the 14th and came to an end that evening. It is said that the soldiers of his household surrounded King Harold’s body and fought to the end, never giving up. All that could be seen in the evening was a field of blood and fallen bodies. William of Normandy marched on to London, and was made King on the 25th of December that year.

The Bonfire: Now

Every year, around the 14th of October, a re-enactment of the battle takes place. It doesn't change history, but it honours all those who fell in that battle, which brought about great changes for the people of England, and the English language.

The bonfire societies of the area put together an annual torchlit procession that goes through the streets of Hastings to commemorate the battle that happened nearby. From 6pm, the streets in the area close for the procession to begin around 7pm. There are drums and flares that lead to a bonfire on the beach and a firework display at 9pm.

English today: Changes brought about by the Battle

When William of Normandy won the battle, France ruled over the English isles. There are now so many French words in the English language because of the outcome of the battle on this day. In the history of English, we see three time periods, and the battle marks the start of middle English. The upper classes all spoke French, while the Clergy used Latin. The people of the land, the Anglo-Saxons, all spoke English. It was not quite the English of today, which is known as modern English.

300 years after the Battle of Hastings, there was the 100 year war to get the French out of England. To do so, the English had to come up with a cunning plan. Legend has it that the English came across a way to stop the French from understanding them. How did they do it? They created a secret language, using verbs with particles (adverbs and prepositions) to create a (sometimes) completely new meaning. Our Anglo-Saxon ancestors had come up with phrasal verbs. That's right. Phrasal verbs. Perhaps the French had no idea what the English were on about, and so the English were able to drive them out in surprise battles, eventually winning back their island. Hooray! But sadly for English learners (like you), phrasal verbs stuck around. Perhaps a bit of the famous French style stuck around too, which is why Hastings is considered “The Shoreditch of Sussex”. Ooh la la!

English is over 2000 years old, and the language has been shaped by the many invasions the English isles have seen. If King Harold had not died that day, but had driven the Normans out, would there be Modern English at all? Would we have the many French words that we do? Je ne sais pas (that’s French for “I don’t know”)! The battle of Hastings in 1066 ushered in a new historical era, and it is not forgotten by the locals of the area. Its re-enactment in the procession is a sight to see and experience if you are anywhere near the south east coast of England on October 16th.

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