We disembarked from the Caribbean Princess for the last time yesterday morning, having said our farewells to the group at dinner the previous night. (We met up again with some of them for breakfast, but that was largely coincidence.) My wife and I then picked up a rental car at the port of Southampton and headed off eastwards, just inland from the southern coast of England.
We stopped in Chichester, where we strolled through the older part of the city, including a visit to the ruins of a medieval priory set in a beautiful town park. The poet, painter, and mystic William Blake once stood trial in the priory for sedition, because, having surprised a drunken soldier who was relieving himself in his (Blake’s) garden, he uttered some picturesque words about the government and the military. Fortunately, he was acquitted.
We spent most of our time in the Chichester Cathedral. It was very pleasant, not least because it’s not on the usual tourist itinerary. Accordingly, we had it almost to ourselves. One noticeable aspect of it was the virtual omnipresence of Bishop George Bell, a major pioneer in the twentieth-century ecumenical movement. A special treat was a display of very interesting sculptures by Philip Jackson. Incidentally, Gustav Holst, the composer of The Planets (one of my favorite pieces of music), is buried in Chichester Cathedral.
We then drove on to our intended destination: the town of Battle. It takes its name from Battle Abbey, which was established by William the Conqueror to atone for all the blood shed at his 1066 AD victory in the Battle of Hastings. Which, by the way, wasn’t fought at Hastings, but in Battle; tradition claims that the high altar of the abbey was built at the very spot where King Harold of England was killed.
Many years ago, in 1982, to be exact, I read a novel entitled The Golden Warrior, by Hope Muntz. At least, that’s how I recall the title and the author’s name. (I know the year because I had finished my Arabic studies in Cairo and was waiting for my wife to finish teaching so that we could go back to the States.) I had never heard of the book before, and have never seen it nor heard it mentioned since. It was about Harold, and cast him as a tragic figure, caught in an impossible situation. I found it fascinating. I suppose that’s one of the reasons I’ve always wanted to visit the battlefield.
A few days ago, my wife and I were walking the battlefield of Culloden, where the fate of Scotland and, to a remarkable degree, of Scots culture was decided. An important place. But “Hastings” is several orders of magnitude more important. It’s a truly world-historical place.
The Norman conquest of England ended Anglo-Saxon dominance, and created the England and the English culture that we know today. And that hybrid has, in turn, decisively affected much of the rest of the world – the rest of the British Isles, of course, and most of North America, and South Africa, and Australia, and India and Pakistan, and New Zealand, and almost everyplace else. The English language alone, a unique and uniquely rich and flexible blend of Germanic and Romance tongues, of Anglo-Saxon and Norman French (and Latin), has been a remarkable influence worldwide. It’s impossible, of course, to know how things might have been different had Harold defeated William, but one has to wonder whether Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton would have existed at all. What if today’s English had descended from the Beowulf poet alone?
Incidentally, we stayed last night in the Claverton Country House, just outside of Battle. It is a perfect English bed and breakfast, a beautiful old place set in an idyllic little park awash with rabbits, quiet, away from the bustle, with a friendly hostess and a marvelous breakfast. They also offer a fine restaurant for dinner. Alas, though, after nearly two weeks aboard a cruise ship, we just weren’t hungry for a big and elegant meal – so we ended up spending just as much money in town for something smaller and probably less well prepared.
Near Heathrow Airport, England.