Look it up. Hastings, UK is right where it’s always been – or is it? Hastings is located in Sussex, on the southern coast of England, about midway between Brighton and Dover. It’s an old, old town. King Alfred the Great designated it in about 880AD as a burh, which was a fortified town. There are only thirty-three burhs listed in the circa 941AD document titled Burghal Hidage. So we know Hastings had been around at least 1100 years. To me, that is not only old, that is ancient.
A lack of appreciation of the “ancient-ness” of Hastings led me to make some erroneous assumptions. I figured that historians had it all figured out. The Battle of Hastings was a pretty major battle, a turning point (or so I’ve read) for England. Everything there is to know about Hastings was already known. All I needed to do was find some good books.
Wrong on all accounts.
No significant or validated artifacts from the Battle of Hastings have ever been found. This one fact left me stunned. How can so little be known about a battle in which thousands of men and, I assume, horses were killed; in which thousands of weapons fell to the ground, trampled into the mud; and in which tens of thousands of arrows were launch? And yet not one shred of physical evidence of the battle has ever been found?
Apparently, the soil in southeast England is very acid, and the reason for not finding artifacts of the battle has been blamed on the steel from all those soldiers and all those weapon dissolving over the past millennium. I cannot say whether this is true, or whether, as some have claimed, that the archeologists were not searching in the right place. Yes, you heard me right. Serious controversy exists with respect to the site of the Battle of Hastings, famously located at Battle Abbey. And this controversy will not be resolved in a few month, nor, I fear, even in a few years. It may well continue past my lifetime.
To add to the confusion, agreement cannot even be reached on the location of the burh of Hastings. Where was this town that the Normans burned down until not a shred of it was left?
How can I write a book about a historic battle, about a turning point in the history of England, and even in the history of Europe, without knowing where the battle and town were located?
I’m a researcher, I’ve spent forty years as a research engineer, so my solution was to start searching for answers. I’m on the wrong continent to do any real, in-person, research, but I started looking up every book and every website I could find. I did visit Hastings briefly. I talked with a local historian. I joined in discussions on the internet. In the end, it all rests on individuals’ reputations. I have accepted the fact, finally, after months of reading and listening, that there is no easy answer. The trained historians firmly believe Hastings is and was where it has always been, that the Normans built their castle on the ashes of the burh, and that the battle was fought at Battle Abbey.
Whether I agree or disagree with these positions isn’t relevant. I have decided to use the advice of a writing instructor I had. With apologies to researchers and historians alike, I’ll stay as much within the historic framework as I can, but in the end, it is all about what makes a good story.
Regardless, I’ll continue the search.