1066 is the most memorable date in English history. On October 14th that year Harold, the last Anglo-Saxon king of England, and most of his army were cut down at the Battle of Hastings, and William, Duke of Normandy earned his nickname “William the Conqueror”.
‘1066 and All That’ is the title of the greatest historical pastiche in English, but that title enshrines a truth – the “all that” was extensive and enduring. A wine-drinking, French-speaking, castle-building aristocracy took over England in 1066.
Unlike the Scots who sing national anthems (unofficial) about fighting the English and the Welsh can’t get over the military campaigns and begrudge the castles of Edward I (even though they generate lots of tourist revenue) it is a curious fact that the English actually celebrate and embrace the 1066 Battle of Hastings. I suppose this says a lot about the nature of the English because instead of sulking behind a defensive nationalist barrier and bristling with rage and resentment we have actually hijacked the event and reorganised our subsequent history around it.
14 October (now, unofficially, Hastings Day) was the date in 1066 when King Harold lost the Battle of Hastings. William Duke of Normandy, who was using Hastings as his base, then claimed the crown and changed the way England was governed forever.
After the successful invasion William and the Normans set about imposing their military domination and completely reforming the previous administrative and political Anglo Saxon regime and they were so successful that modern English history really starts from that date. The subjugation and the transformation was so completely successful because the English (except Hereward the Wake of course) recognised the benefits of this, allowed it to happen and simply got on with their lives. They didn’t sit in caves watching spiders or retreat to Anglesey to brood and get angry about it. Today the French irreverently refer to the English as Anglo-Saxons (in the same way that we refer to them as Frogs) but their description is entirely incorrect because for a thousand years we have been Norman-English.
In 1966, I was twelve years old and England went into a frenzy as the 900th anniversary was celebrated and it was such a success that Hastings Borough Council decided to mark the date every year as Hastings Day.
On the build up to the event there were commemorative stamps and gold coins, tea towels, pencil sets and mugs and everyone got in on the act: “Battle of Hastings 1066—Bottle of Guinness 1966” frothed a thousand billboards. ‘Whoosh! It’s another big breakaway conquest,’ proclaimed the makers of Bri-Nylon clothing in advertisements showing mounted Bri-Nyloned models setting forth against the Saxons; another version of the battle showed the Norman warriors armed with Desoutter Power Tools. Heinz offered its soup buyers a chance to enter an archery contest in which the first 1,066 winners would be rewarded with Kenwood Chef food mixers and Arrow shirts. Every English town that could claim the remotest connection with either Harold or William beckoned tourists with such quaint attractions as Conquest puppet shows, town-crier contests and dancing on English Channel piers.
In the forefront of all this of course was Hastings, which, as its local newspaper proudly pointed out, ‘is better known internationally than almost any other town.’ To give the anniversary its deserved importance (and attract 250,000 extra tourists to boot), the Hastings Town Council spent a small fortune building a triple-domed exhibition hall called the Triodome. The principal exhibit of the Triodome was intended to be the great Bayeux Tapestry but the tapestry is the property of the town of Bayeux in Normandy, which, fearing damage to the precious artefact, refused to lend it for the occasion, and so Hastings produced its own.
The Hastings Embroidery was commissioned by Group Captain Ralph Ward and made by the Royal School of Needlework in 1965. It took twenty-two embroiderers ten months to finish and it was intended to be a modern day equivalent of the Bayeux Tapestry. The embroidery consists of twenty-seven panels, each nine by three foot, and shows eighty-one great events in British history during the 900 years from 1066 to 1966.
The Embroidery is worked in appliqué by hand, with the addition of couched threads and cords, tweed from Scotland, fabrics from the Victoria and Albert Museum, and feathers from London Zoo. When completed it went on public display in Hastings, firstly in the Town Hall and then at the White Rock Pavilion. The Hastings Embroidery is currently in storage, and, despite local campaigns to protestt, apart from two panels on permanent display in the Town Hall, cannot be publically viewed . It has been said that to preserve the cloth and appliqué that special storage displays would have to made and the cost would be prohibitive.
I began this article by trying to rise above patriotic smugness but I cannot finish without reminding the French that, in a delicious twist of fate, less than three months before the 900 year celebrations of a French victory over the Anglo Saxons, England beat France in the World Cup group stages by two goals to nil. France finished bottom in the group, England finished top and went on to win the Jules Rimet trophy!