Well, here we are — the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings. I’m not sure that 950 is a big milestone, but since I wasn’t around for 900 and can’t guarantee I’ll be around for 1,000, I’ll take it.
Hastings is a story told so many times it assumes the quality of legend: the frantic march, the feigned retreat, the shower of arrows. We all have somewhere in our heads the idea that it’s a romantic moment, a tale of doomed heroism, a day when a sympathetic character lost and a scoundrel one, but both villain and hero are so attenuated by time and cultural distance that there’s no real pain in the thought. Karbala it ain’t, or even Gettysburg.
And yet it’s a fundamental part of the national myth, seeming heavy with importance even though over the years it’s shifted meaning. I was astonished when I learned that the stereotypical storybook narrative of the battle used to be about what a good guy William was — or maybe I just read a lot of Catholic authors. I don’t know. My point is that everyone knows that Hastings was important, but unlike a lot of historical battles that nebulous importance has never really settled into a single meaningful narrative. We just … care about it. There’s something about the moments where a kingdom hangs in the balance, something so fascinating and horrible that it blinds us to the fact that the balance would be a problem for years to come — and that the kingdom hanging in the balance had been the norm for a while.
Anyway, Hastings. Good to see the attention being paid to it, both in class by the kids I tutor and nationally by the media. More history without clear narratives is probably a good thing.