1066 and all that: a fateful taste for ale

Today is the 950th anniversary of perhaps the most famous day in English history, the Battle of Hastings.

Tapisserie de Bayeux - Scène 57 : La mort d'Harold

The death of King Harold at Hastings, there is some debate as to whether Harold is the figure with the arrow in his eye to the left, or the one being cut down by the mounted Norman on the right- or perhaps both.

In one long, bloody but decisive day the era of a purely Anglo-Saxon England was brought to an end and the rule of the Normans began.

The invasion of 1066 was the last great invasion of England and shifted the focus of subsequent English history away from Scandinavia and towards the much closer continent across the Channel.

The coming of the Normans changed the English language, introduced new names (William, Henry, Robert, Alice and Margaret) and their aggressive policy of expansion (which was not consigned solely to Britain) began the process of closer union between the nations of these isles.

But did the Anglo-Saxons lose the battle because they over-indulged in ale the night before?

Even before the coming of the Normans the Anglo-Saxons were renowned for their taste for booze. Beer and mead would have been the principal drinks for most people both before and after the conquest. Wine would not have been unknown in Anglo-Saxon England but would have been principally drunk by the nobility and high-ranking clergy and not in great quantities. Imported from the continent it would have been an expensive luxury.

Beer was not and the English already had a reputation for their brewing skill which continued after the conquest. Low in alcohol, clean and refreshing, English ale was in the wagon train of gifts Thomas Becket took to the king of France on a diplomatic mission in 1158. The French courtiers are said to have wondered at “such an invention, a drink most wholesome, clear of dregs, rivalling wine in colour and surpassing it in flavour,” as a contemporary chronicler related.

It was plentiful too; the average monk had a daily allowance of around three gallons a day and the numerous festivals held throughout the year provided ample opportunity for drinking copious amounts.

The Anglo-Norman bishop John of Salisbury noted in the 1170s: “The English are noted among foreigners for their persistent drinking.”

This taste for booze was perhaps the Saxon’s undoing on the fateful night before the Battle of Hastings. As is well known, King Harold and his men had fought and won a crucial engagement against an invading Danish army led by Harald Hardrada at Stamford Bridge on 25 September.

Three days later, Duke William of Normandy landed at Pevensey and Harold had turned his army south, marching the 200 miles from Yorkshire to Kent in under three weeks, a fast pace for the time.

On 13 October the English army took up a strong position on Senlac Hill. the Normans and their Breton and Flemish allies camped below them. Foot sore and weary the English army apparently geared itself up for battle by staying up late into the night drinking ale and singing songs.

The chronicler William of Malmesbury, writing some 50 years after the battle, says: “The courageous leaders mutually prepared for battle, each according to his national custom. The English, as we have heard, passed the night without sleep, in drinking and singing, and in the morning proceeded without delay against the enemy.…On the other hand, the Normans passed the whole night in confessing their sins, and received the communion of the Lords body in the morning.”

Malmesbury was half Norman and while we need not dismiss his claim the English spent part of the night drinking as an outright slur (he clearly refers to both Harold and William as “courageous”), as a Norman and a churchman it is likely he considered the English taste for alcohol and their neglect of prayers as a vital cause of their defeat. The pious Normans meanwhile who honoured God and confessed their sins were thus given victory.

He continues that the English prior to the conquest had wandered far from the path of righteous Christianity and their lords had fallen into the lap of luxury and wantonness. He writes: “Drinking in parties was a universal practice, in which occupation they passed entire nights as well as days. They consumed their whole substance in mean and despicable houses, unlike the Normans and French, who live frugally in noble and splendid mansions. The vices attendant on drunkenness, which enervate the human mind, followed; hence it came about that when they engaged William, with more rashness and precipitate fury than military skill, they doomed themselves and their country to slavery by a single, and that an easy, victory. For nothing is less effective than rashness; and what begins with violence quickly ceases or is repelled.”

It is a motif one sees throughout medieval history. Almost 400 years later at Agincourt, chroniclers make great pains to point out that the English army spent the night at prayer and confession and were thus victorious against the French who, in their hubris, passed the night drinking and toasting the battle they believed was as good as won.


A clever Guinness campaign for the 900th anniversary of the battle in 1966. Bishop Odo hands William the Conqueror a reviving glass of stout. As William of Malmesbury tells us of course, the Normans were very abstemious.

Divine will or not, lack of sleep and alcohol could very well have contributed to the Saxon defeat as Malmesbury says it did. Although the exact weather conditions for the 14 October 1066 are not recorded, it was apparently “unusually bright”. This is the time of the ‘Medieval Warm Period’ and it is possible the day was quite hot. The battle raged from 9am to dusk we are told and although there were pauses in the fighting as both sides drew breath, standing all day under the bright Sun and seeing off Norman assaults; exhaustion and dehydration must have taken their toll on the Saxons.

Towards evening, with the Normans having lured groups of Saxons down from the hill with their famous ‘retreats’, the English shield wall began to weaken. The Norman cavalry began probing for the weakest points, found them, exploited them and the Saxon line evaporated. Harold and his bodyguard, his huscarls, were isolated and cut down in a bloody heap. Perhaps already wounded by an arrow in the eye, Harold was likely singled out by several Norman knights who surrounded him and hacked him to death. His two brothers, Leofwine and Gyrth, also perished and with them the royal house of England.

The start of Norman rule was brutal. William, now king and ‘Conqueror’, laid waste to the north of England so terribly he later confessed it on his deathbed with shame. Anglo-Saxon lords were disinherited and their lands given to Norman barons. Although the Normans abolished slavery they introduced feudalism and serfdom instead and Anglo-Saxons became second-class citizens. In the end, arguably, Englishness won out. The Norman and then Anglo-Norman aristocracy retained French as their first language for several hundred years but, gradually, they adopted English and proudly, albeit a tongue by then much altered by the injection of Latin French. Old Anglo-Saxon law also reappeared. Magna Carta, although initially designed to protect the rights of the barons not the common people, was largely based on the old English laws with respect to the protection of private property, individual liberty and the right to justice.

Some of our most celebrated folk heroes are also Saxons taking on the Norman invader, Ivanhoe and Robin Hood have both become champions of English liberty against an oppressive regime.

The drinks landscape of England also changed. Although it is a subject much debated it seems the Normans were largely responsible for bringing cider apples to England. There were Bretons in William’s army too and of course Normandy and Brittany are the home of French cider making so it’s possible the invader’s influence encouraged and enhanced a native English cider industry even if it did not completely introduce it.

The Normans did though have an important impact on wine in England. The Romans are said to have tried to introduce vines to Britain but without much success. In 282 AD the Emperor Probus, in overturning Domitian’s decree of AD 92, is said to have authorised the planting of vines in this most northern colony but viticulture clearly did not take off. There may have been some vineyards in England in 1066, perhaps attached to monasteries but plantings certainly grew in the wake of the invasion. In the Domesday Book of 1086 some 40 vineyards are chronicled, the furthest north being those at Ely. Yet the wine produced in England seems to have been considered inferior to that of France. In 1152 with Henry II’s marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine huge vineyards in the Loire and Gascony provided England with cheaper, higher quality wine and local production withered.

Until now of course, English (and Welsh) wine is enjoying a renaissance and the number of wineries now reaches over 500, with 4,500 acres under vine.

So if you feel like raising a glass to the Conqueror’s victory or perhaps mourn the death of Godwinson here are some ideas:


The natural drink of the Englishman. Battlefield Brewery in Shropshire has two beers that are right for the occasion, ‘Saxon Gold’ (named after a Saxon mint located in Shrewsbury) and ‘1066’. Ridgeway Brewing meanwhile has a beer called ‘Ivanhoe’ for those that want to celebrate some English pluck and one is rather spoilt for choice when it comes to the sheer array of Robin Hood-themed ales.

Hastings itself has many breweries and Kent and Sussex are the home of English hops so in a pinch just about anything from these southern counties will more than suffice.


A special drink in Anglo-Saxon times and one in the middle of a comeback as those terrible ‘hipsters’ continue their quest for authenticity and cool retro things. Chefs René Redzepi and Simon Rogan are among mead’s high-profile fans. The Cornish Mead Company has been flying the flag for the drink since the 1960s, Gosnells London Mead was founded in late 2013 and Lurgashall Winery in West Sussex is also a top mead brewer. So make today a chance to try some mead, wassail heartily and discover the honeyed delights of this ancient northern European brew.


Where to begin with cider, yet another drink that has surged in popularity in recent years and offers the discerning drinker a wealth of choice. Kent and Sussex ciders are often sweeter and more like their Norman and Breton cousins than the cloudier, perils of West Country brew. Pick wisely. Despite being a big name brand, Strongbow is 27930_gosnells-longon-meadnamed after the Anglo-Norman lord, Richard de Clare – but that’s a tale for another time.


Normandy no longer has much of a wine producing industry, although one winery, Arpents du Soleil, does exist. So choose something English. Most English wineries are based in Sussex and Kent which makes them conveniently close to the site of the battle. Still or sparkling, it doesn’t matter which, English wine has never been better and with many producers saying 2016 could prove an exceptional vintage there’s every reason to hope there’s more to come.

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