It is an odd feeling, being 950 years late for a battle.
Today it is just a field in southern England and the only sounds are Spring birdsong and the crunch of gravel under my feet. But this is where Harold and the English lost to William of Normandy in 1066. Those Normans, eh? Even back then they were a bit weird.
William buried Harold here and built a high altar over him and then an entire abbey around that. Supposedly this was done as ‘penance’, just as their abbey building efforts in the north were penance for the Harrying of the North. Probably, but it still speaks to a slightly off-book reading of how their comparatively-recently-christianised universe worked. There is more than a little whiff of the old Norse paganism of their ancestors behind it… penance looking a bit too much like offerings or sacrifice to stave off God’s anger for killing, you know, God’s people. It’s a familiar transactional superstition.
I keep thinking about how the field just looks like any other field. Like nothing important has ever happened there. Like nothing important ever happens in fields. The place is not thick with ghosts like other battlefields I’ve been on. Perhaps it is simply the weight of time? Perhaps it is the comparatively few people who actually died here versus in the Solomons, or Chuuk or other killing fields/lagoons in the Pacific Theatre that I’ve been to/dived on?
Because that’s the other thing. We were only talking about a gathering of a few thousand people. Hyde Park’s free concerts are smaller. And yet if a Frenchman hadn’t won in 1066, would so much of the world still be speaking English today?
What took the Normans to northern France in the first place was the better climate and growing opportunities compared to their native Nordic lands. Driving between Pevensey Castle -where William landed- through Sussex to Battle, you can also see why he wanted England. And why the Romans wanted it. I was raised in a much harsher climate and the reality of southern England is that you can grow anything here. It’s unlikely William’s mind would have been on the possibility of an empire emerging five centuries after his victory but as he rode to meet Harold he must have thought “holy shit, I’m gonna be rich“. You put seeds in the earth and plants positively leap out of it.
That’s the true importance of a field.
After the Dissolution, the Abbey became private land and in the nineteenth century was the home of Wilhelmina Powlett, Duchess of Cleveland. She was an historian, one of Victoria’s Maids of Honour and liked to grow apples, pears and at least one prime minister.
English Heritage has recently replanted her walled garden built on part of the battlefield with the heritage varieties it once contained, presumably so their annoying out-of-work actors don’t look so insane when wandering around the site in costume:
This really impressed me. Firstly, the Duchess of Cleveland made sure she had enough varieties so that the harvests were spread out as much as possible. (She and her husband also put in an ice cave and ultra-modern creamery.) The estate was completely food self-sufficient.
Whilst, looking with a permaculture eye, I can see they could have got probably five times the fruit trees in this space, it really surprises me that English Heritage doesn’t do this with all their stately home properties… same with the National Trust. Perennials are very low maintenance and these groups are always crowing about how little money they have -which is true and why I’m a member of both- but Prince Charles makes buckets of money selling the eggs and ham and whatever off his Cornish farms. I’m telling you the Waitrose crowd would buy stately home heritage apples whose profits support the upkeep of historic monuments. That’s what these properties actually were for centuries anyway… farms. There’s good magic in restoring that.
I think about Wilhelmina’s apples as we leave Battle and drive down to the ancient port town of Rye for our much-needed minibreak away from London. I think about what happens in fields, what they are for. I think about events of importance that leave no physical trace further down the timeline. And I think about that because this is the final day of the anniversary of the reception of the Book of the Law.
It has been terribly pleasing to see some of the positive reaction from Star.Ships’s attempt to move what happened to Crowley back into the wider historical sequence of mystics having extradimensional encounters. It frees us all up from having to say “I like Crowley but I’m not a Thelemite” and it frees him from the burden of having to be a failed World Teacher.
Those three days in 1904 took place in a Cairo hotel room. Alone. They positively define ‘nothing important’ happening on that day. Just some Englishman silently writing at a desk.
Famously, the phrase ‘nothing important happened today’ is one supposedly written by George III in his diary on July 4th, 1776, except it wasn’t because he never kept a diary. It’s American folklore rebounded from French folklore where Louis XVI wrote ‘nothing/rien‘ in his journal on the day of the storming of the Bastille. And it appears likely that Louis was actually referring to the fact he hadn’t landed anything when he went hunting that day.
I hope that’s the case. Observing an unsuccessful hunt on the day you lose Paris is like growing apples on a battlefield or celebrating a quiet bit of automatic writing more than a hundred years later. It’s the ‘not importants’ that have the greater depth, that survive the longest under the weight of history, when everything else has been turned back into a field of Spring daffodils. They seem to survive in the cracks and the misremembrances.
It’s quite a comforting thought, really. May every man and every woman’s lives be unimportant as the stars.