'When Roland sees the battle there must be
Leopard nor lion grows half so fierce as he.'
From 'The Song of Roland ' Anon (about 1040 A.D.) trans Dorothy L Sayers (1893-1957)
In the coming week there are two battles to commemorate and all the tragedy and heroism of ordinary men to remember. We are used to thinking of conscription as a modern phenomenon, but if you were an Anglo-Saxon serf or a press-ganged sailor you had no choice about whether to serve and leave your loved ones back home to fend for themselves.
Duke William of Normandy landed at Pevensey on the 28th September 1066 with an army of Norman Knights, their followers, Flemish mercenaries and other soldiers of fortune. There were cavalrymen and archers, many men were protected by chain mail and those without bows carried great shields, swords and lances.
For two weeks they waited on the south coast for King Harold to arrive and engage them in battle. During this time as the Bayeux Tapestry shows they lived off the land. We can see a Knight identified as ‘Wadard’ in charge of the cooks and provisioners. They kill a sheep, take a pig, and cook small fowl and coneys on long skewers. A cauldron hangs over a blazing fire and a sort of dutch oven stands nearby.
William and his brother Bishop Odo feast around a curved table, you can clearly see the cooked fish laid before them. The nobles are served by a man carrying water and cloths to clean their hands. Other knights use their shields as makeshift trestles.
On the morning of the battle the armies are gathered round their standards; ‘The Fighting Man’ of the Anglo Saxons and the Normans' Papal standard of St Peter. A poet, one Ivon Taillefer, (cleave-iron) begs the privilege of striking the first blow and leads the Normans onto the field whilst singing of the exploits of the Breton hero Roland against the armies of Charlemagne.
It was a closer run thing (to quote the Duke of Wellington after another battle) than we are usually led to believe, but at the end of the day, one King is dead and a new monarch is poised to change Britain forever.
King Harold’s body lay with thousands of others on the field of battle. His mother, the Danish Princess Gytha, offered her son’s weight in gold to have his body returned, but William refused. He believed Harold was a perjurer and as such did not deserve Christian burial. Eventually Harold’s mistress ‘Edith of the Swan Neck’ identified the King by marks known only to her and his body was taken to Waltham Abbey for permanent burial.
It’s interested to speculate what would have happened if the Normans had not been successful. Everything – our food, our culture, our names, our language, our social structure would be vastly different. Years ago I was with my first husband looking at the names on a First World War Memorial in the chapel porch of an Oxbridge College. Every single surname was of Norman French origin. ‘Think on’t’ as they say up north.
Both the Anglo-Saxon and Norman courts used lots of herbs and spices. So here is a little salad fit for a King – or for Edith of the Swan Neck- a few tender rabbit livers, a scrip of spices and some foraged leaves.
Salade de foie du lapin
Take a tub of rabbit or chicken livers, rinsed and trimmed. I usually scald liver by putting it in a sieve and pouring over a kettle of boiling water. Dry it with kitchen paper.
Make a spice mix of 1tsp allspice, 1tsp cinnamon, 1/2tsp salt and a few grinds of black pepper.
Make ready a green salad and dress it with a mustardy vinaigrette.
Heat a frying pan and pour in a couple of tablespoons of oil. I think a light oil is better here than olive.
Toss in the liver and leave it to brown on one side, then turn it and sprinkle on the spice mix – be generous.
Keep it all moving and when the liver is browned but still pink in the middle it's ready. Put it on the plate and add a few croutons or pine kernels for a bit of crunch.
The whole thing takes less than five minutes and it's delicious. We sometimes have it with a rice salad and sometimes on grilled sourdough, it makes a great starter or a light lunch.
'The minstrel boy to the war is gone
In the ranks of death you'll find him
His father's sword he has girded on
And his wild harp hung behind him.'
From 'The Minstrel Boy' by Thomas Moore (1779-1852)