Yesterday (14th October) was the anniversary of the Battle of Hastings in 1066. English Heritage presented a re-enactment of the battle on the 11th-12th October at Battle Abbey and battlefield in Sussex, and a ‘King Harold Day’ was held on the 11th October at Waltham Abbey in Essex. Also yesterday, the BBC posted a news item on their web-site titled ‘King Harold “may have survived Battle of Hastings” claim’. King Harold was killed at the Battle of Hastings and it is thought that he was buried at Waltham Abbey along with two of his five brothers (although a site in Sussex is also suggested). (The two brothers were Leofwin, Earl of Kent and Gyrth, then Earl of Essex, and they were also killed at the Battle of Hastings.) The news item is about the survey which is being undertaken in the grounds of Waltham Abbey to discover Harold’s remains, by the same survey team which worked on the site in Leicester where the remains of Richard III were found in 2012. Harold II or Harold Godwinson was king of England from the 6th January 1066 until his death at the battle.
One of Harold’s titles was ‘Earl of Essex’, and he held a number of manors in Essex, including Brightlingsea, Lawford, Lexden, Writtle, Havering, Hatfield Broad Oak, Maldon, Latchingdon, the Rodings, Great Chesterford, Great Sampford, Wethersfield, Benfleet, Fingrith in Blackmore, Childerditch, Margaretting, Studly in Woodham Ferrers, Rickling, Newport, Woolston in Chigwell, Steeple, and Waltham. Colchester was a royal vill and burh. Harold rebuilt the church at Waltham and endowed it as a ‘college’ (later the abbey) in 1060. Waltham Abbey eventually became the most important Augustinian abbey in England and Waltham itself became ‘Waltham Abbey’.
In September 1066, a force led by the King of Norway, aided by another of Harold’s brothers, invaded England in the north, but Harold defeated them on the 25th September at the Battle of Stamford Bridge, near York. The Normans, led by William, Duke of Normandy, landed at Pevensey on the 28th September. Harold and his force headed south to tackle these invaders. On the 6th October, Harold stopped at Waltham to conduct negotiations with William in Hastings. Then he led his force to confront the Normans and was defeated at the Battle of Hastings. William the Conqueror – William I – was crowned king of England on the 25th December at Westminster Abbey in London.
The Trust is currently conducting an excavation at Brightlingsea, one of Harold’s royal manors, and our discoveries include evidence of an Anglo-Saxon farmstead. We recently undertook fieldwork on a site to the rear of 97 High Street in Colchester, near Colchester Castle, and there we uncovered important evidence of Norman works in the town after the Conquest. The works seem to have included the demolition of surviving Roman remains and the construction of a defensive earthwork to the castle. Colchester is associated with Eudo de Rie, an important member of William the Conqueror’s ruling elite. He built Colchester Castle (started in circa 1074), and it was deliberately sited on the remains of the Roman Temple of Claudius and also, perhaps, where the centre of the pre-Conquest royal manor was. Colchester Castle is the largest Norman keep in England and it is similar to the royal White Tower at the Tower of London. The original line of Colchester High Street was altered by the Normans so that they could construct the outer bailey of the castle. Eudo also founded St John’s abbey in Colchester: both the castle and the abbey were part of the Norman system of power and control. Colchester has its own high-status historic burial: Eudo was buried at St John’s abbey in 1120. The Trust has conducted several fieldwork projects within the site of St John’s abbey in the past few years, and we have identified the site of the abbey church, but we have not found Eudo’s grave.
The effects of the Norman Conquest on Colchester can be interpreted as both positive and negative; for example, the castle itself was probably built by forced labour of local people and using money levied from the inhabitants. But, in the long term, it probably contributed to the development of Colchester.
‘… In the years after 1066 the towns of Saxon England were subjected to a whirlwind programme of castle-building as William the Conqueror sought to suppress the populations of regional centres, creating a network of fortified power-bases which dominated the pattern of communications and government nationwide. These castles disrupted urban road networks, infringed on ecclesiastical property, displaced housing, and doubtless overawed civilian populations …
Imposed within extant communities, urban castles also fulfilled important administrative, economic and legal functions, and many of these centres emerged as county towns …’ – by O H Creighton, 2003, at www.historytoday.com/oh-creighton/castles-lordship-and-settlement-norman-england-and-wales
Read the BBC item at www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-sussex-29612656
All the Trust’s reports on our fieldwork projects are published online at http://cat.essex.ac.uk/ .
The image shows the coronation of Harold in the Bayeux Tapestry.