I woke early this Christmas morning, not only to greet a special day, but also for a much more mundane reason. I’m caring for a dog over the holidays and it must be let in every night and out every morning. The dog is large, sweet and rambunctious, and there’s no way she can stay at our house, not with our eleven year old, rather protective, also large, dog. So I travel eleven miles across town each morning and night. The drive gives me time to ponder things, such as what Christmas must have been like in Hastings, England in the years before the Norman invasion.
England was largely Christian by the eleventh century, guided by monks and priests, many of whom had come across the sea from Normandy. King Edward had grown up in Normandy during his exile, and was very much influenced by their customs. By 1064, he had been on the throne of England for twenty-one years, and although he was given the name “Edward the Confessor” when, almost hundred years after his death in 1066, he was declared a saint, there is no evidence that he was particularly saintly or religious. However, he did embrace Christianity and encouraged its spread throughout England.
Much of the life of the freemen of England, high or low born, revolved around the church in ways I haven’t fully been able to imagine. Heather Grief, secretary of the Hastings Local History Group, and an Historian who has studied this period for many years, wrote me recently about a year-round pilgrim trade attached to the St Mary-in-the-Castle church in Hastings. In post-conquest years, canons rang the bell of the church for an hour every morning, summoning pilgrims. Ms Grief suggests that this pilgrim trade existed even before 1066. The daily bell-ringing may have been established later, although I imagine bell-ringing to call people to Sunday services, and to the services for saint days and special religious days.
On Christmas 1065, the year before the conquest, I imagine the monks at the church ringing the bell, summoning pilgrims and villagers to perhaps the Lauds service that was held in the early morning, and celebrating the birth of their savior. In the early dawn gray and cold, a crowd would have gathered in the church in Hastings, candles flickering in wall sconces. The church might have been a small stone structure, the only stone structure in all of the Hastings area. I imagine it with a bell tower, much like the one shown in the picture above of the Anglo-Saxon church in Yorkshire built in the tenth century.
The mood of those attending the Christmas service would have been restrained, somber, but at the same time joyous; villagers and pilgrims taking time out of their arduous lives to worship. Perhaps they would think about the past year, feeling blessed to live through another year of peace. There may have been an awareness of the frailty of their king, and the monks would have prayed for his recovery and good health. Men wise in the way of wars and politics may have wondered what was next, who would become king, and whether peace would continue; but I imagine most people on this day being too absorbed in their own hard-scrabble lives to worry about such things.
The people would have stood in the church, and a priest or canon would give a sermon about renewing their faith, about living a life closer to the church’s teachings, about the birth of Christ. Chants would have echoed off stone walls warmed by the yellow light of candles and the mass of bodies pressed together.
After the service, the villagers and pilgrims might have gone to the large longhouse, where breakfast and drinks were available and fires glowed in braziers. Men, women and children, in their tunics, scarves, hats, shawls and cloaks to ward off the December cold, might have drank a bit too much, and have grown rowdy as the day progressed. The villagers would have finally staggered home to take care of livestock and normal daily chores. A duck or goose may have been roasted, and eaten with root vegetables. I then imagine the people attending another church service in the evening, maybe Vespers.
I’m sure life for many revolved around the church in this bustling community. I’m also sure that there were those who hung tenaciously onto the “old ways.” Druidism, although rare in the late eleventh century, still existed. Hasting was surrounded by marshes and the Weld, a dense forest full of mystery and legends, and perhaps home to those of alternative beliefs who lived among the old oaks trees. So in my imagining, I enjoy the contrast of blossoming Christianity and waning old ways.