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Curtain Capers - A Ghost Story From Battle

by Alex Askaroff

Battle is steeped in history and, today, survives in a time-warp. A great abbey that was built a thousand years ago dominates the top end of the High Street. Battle gets its name from a turning point in British history. You guessed it, from a battle!

The year is 1066. King Edward dies and leaves a weak county and many broken promises. In Norway a Viking king greedy for power has his eye set on our land. He assembles a huge army and sets sail for northern England. In the south Harold Godwinsson is quickly crowned and sets off to get rid of this Norwegian upstart in cahoots with his half brother.

A bloody battle ensued at Stamford Bridge near York and Harold is victorious, killing both would be usurpers. Before he can turn around another foreigner was up to no good. William, Duke of Normandy was invading in the south. William had also been promised the throne by the recently departed Edward. Some say Harold also offered it to him when in France, but I doubt it.

Harold gathered his weakened army and marched at full speed across England to meet William. Harold and his army marched 250 miles in thirteen days. One of the most impressive forced marches in history. William had landed at Pevensey Bay unopposed. He built a makeshift castle in Hastings and started to march toward London. The last successful invasion of England had begun.

However things were not going to be easy. Harold caught him by surprise and brought his army down on William"s a few miles north of Hastings. Two great armies faced each other along a ridge, later to be named Senlac -sea of blood-ridge. Harold"s men outnumbered the French by over two thousand but they were tired from fighting and marching.

This great turning point in British history is full of questions. By far the biggest is why did Harold not have his archers with him? They were lightly equipped and would have been easier to move the distance from York. It would be the same as a modern army not having their rifles.

Although Harold had the high ground and more men they were easy pickings for the French archers. At one stage the battle almost stopped because William had to send for more arrows. Normally the opposition would soon return the arrows shot at them, with vengeance! In this battle it could not happen.

The Normans had a very different way of fighting than the Anglo Saxon English. The English were armed with swords, spears and large two-handed axes. They fought much as they had done for centuries, having been influenced by the Vikings. They rode to battle but always fought on foot. Their horses were far too precious to lose in battle.

The Normans on the other hand were a modern army. Using battle horses to mow down and break up the foot soldiers for the archers to kill at a distance. They were far more mobile and thought about their strategies during the conflict, altering them as needed.

Slowly Harold"s men were struck down. Then William faked a charge on both Harold"s flanks and retreated. Harold"s flanks, thinking the Normans were in retreat, charged down from their ridge and chased them. Suddenly they found themselves surrounded, counterattacked and slaughtered.

Nevertheless, the battle raged on all day with no clear winner. Rumours were rife of William"s death. At one point William rode through his men with his helmet off so they could see he was still alive.

Then things changed. Legend tells that one of the arrows struck Harold in the eye leaving him alive but mortally wounded. William, expecting surrender, thought the day was his.

This was not to be. Harold"s finest men, his Housecarl, surrounded the King, picked him up and fell back to the highest point of Senlac ridge.

William had no option but to keep fighting into the evening. Not one of King Harold"s personal guards surrendered. They fought on even as the remains of Harold"s army fled, scattering into the night. As the last rays of light left the battlefield Harold, his brothers Gyrth and Leofwine and many of his personal guard lay dead. For each of Harold"s guards that fell, five enemy soldiers lay around them. The ground was soaked in blood.

Later that night Harold"s mother pleaded with William to allow her son a proper burial, even offering William her son"s weight in gold"but she was denied. Harold"s mutilated body was identified by his common- law wife Edith Swan-Neck and spirited off for secret burial. Some say on the shores of Hastings seafront.

William brought up his priests and they gave thanks to God for their victory.

After the battle William had a huge fire built and spent the night on the battlefield alone with the dead and dying. He gave thanks to God and vowed to keep the promise he had made before the battle. William later ordered a great Abbey to be built on the site where Harold died.

So started the town of Battle and a turning point in our history.

Stories of the ghost of Harold still abound. He was last seen by a schoolboy, back in 1972, standing in full armour near the Abbey gazing out toward the battlefield. In spring locals say the fields still run red with the blood of the fallen. This is partially true because occasionally the fields do seem to have blood coming from them. Specialists have put this down to the high iron content of the area that seeps out as red rust.

England was won in a day and the face of our country changed. Over the following decades dozens of castles and hundreds of Norman church towers stretched across our soil. Although it was to be another five years before Hereward fled, the country truly belonged to William.

The history of England changed from the shadowy Dark Ages that had been with us since the departure of the Romans to one of strength and great kings"to crusades and splendid tales of knights and damsels and of course good old Robin Hood.

Never again did the English repeat their mistake of coming against the enemy without archers. In 1415 Henry V with 6000 men was cornered near Calais in northern France by 25,000 troops. He won a resounding victory. They slaughtered more than 10,000, and wiped out the flower of the French aristocracy for the loss of less than 500 English. The battle of Agincourt was testament to the English bowmen and how important they were in war.

The town of Battle is much today as it was centuries ago. A traveller or pilgrim making his way from the coast, perhaps on a pilgrimage to St Thomas Becket"s shrine at Canterbury or another monastery, would recognise it instantly. The Pilgrims Rest in front of the Abbey still serves good wholesome food under the same oak beams that have burnt black from the open fires of centuries past. Fittingly enough at the moment it is French cuisine that is served.

One evening I had a phone call from a lady in Battle who was obviously in a state of shock. I could feel her shaking down the phone. She asked if there was any reason that her should start sewing on its own. I explained there was several things that could make a machine misbehave in this way and arranged to have a look at it later in the week.

Her house lay in the shadow of Battle Abbey and she ushered me in to the drawing room where a pretty Singer 99 sat on the table. I examined the foot control, no problem there. The wiring was clean but on inspecting the motor I found that the suppresser had shorted out causing the motor to run by itself.

I removed the offending item and showed Mrs. Bailey the suppresser. She kept turning it over in her hands asking if I was positive that this was the problem. Then she told me why she was upset.

In the drawing room over the leaded-glass windows hung some bright, almost tacky-looking, curtains. The sort of thing that would remind you of a South London fruit market. Mrs. Bailey hated those curtains but her husband loved them so they agreed to disagree. However time rolled on and poor Mr. Bailey popped his clogs. He has only been in the ground a week, hardly had a chance to push up the daisies, when Mrs. Bailey whips up the street to the local haberdashery shop and buys new curtain material.

She cut out the curtains then heaved the trusty old Singer 99 out of the cellar and proceeded to sew them up. As the evening drew on she decided to have a break and made herself a lovely cup of Earl Grey tea.

The phone rang and she answered it. As she was chatting to her friend, a cuppa in one hand and phone in the other, she became aware of a noise coming out of the drawing room. She glanced across into the dark room where the only light was the one a on her . To her horror, the new curtain was moving through the machine by itself!

Frightened stiff she dropped her tea and the phone.

Convinced that her hubby had come back to get her for changing his favourite curtains she approached the machine. The foot did not respond and the curtain was moving faster. That"s when she unplugged the machine and then shaking like a leaf in an autumn storm, contacted me.

I fixed the machine and gave it a good service. As I left she was still examining the suppresser with a suspicious look.

Many years passed before I was called back to service the machine. I could not help but notice that she still had her old curtains up and I commented on them. She told me that while the machine was behaving itself she was not going to tempt fate and change them just in case it was her husband that had come back to haunt her after all!

Many a strange thing may have happened in Battle!

Another short story from Alex Askaroff"s Random Threads Trilogy. More stories are available on his website @ www.sewalot.com.