Where Did the Battle of Hastings Happen?
Historians have long accepted that Battle Abbey was built ‘on the very spot’ where William the Conqueror defeated King Harold. So is there any truth in recent claims that the battle took place elsewhere?
The Battle of Hastings, fought on 14 October 1066, is the most famous battle in English history. There is widespread consensus among historians that William the Conqueror founded Battle Abbey in penance for the blood shed at the battle and to commemorate his great victory, on the very spot where he defeated King Harold.
Recently it has been suggested, however, that the battle was not fought here. Several alternative locations have been put forward, including Crowhurst, about three miles south of Battle, and Caldbec Hill, about a mile to the north. Advocates of both sites claim that the Battle Abbey monks invented the association between their abbey and the battlefield, which first appearing in the Chronicle of Battle Abbey, written in the late 12th century.
The Chronicle provides a colourful account of the abbey’s foundation. It describes how, just before the battle, William vowed to found an abbey, and insisted that it should be sited on the battlefield, even though the local ground conditions were unfavourable. In fact, according to the Chronicle, the monks overseeing construction were so dismayed with the spot that they decided to build their monastery a little way off, before being ordered to move onto the correct spot by the king.
But there is perhaps good reason to question whether the monks’ account can be trusted. During the 12th century they were embroiled in a hard-fought legal battle with the Bishop of Chichester about his authority over the monastery. They argued that they enjoyed independence from his jurisdiction thanks to liberties granted to them by William I. To prove this they forged at least two charters purportedly issued by William. So did they also invent the story about the abbey being located on the battlefield, to increase the prestige of their house?
A LONG PEDIGREE
The answer is no, they did not. While some aspects of the story in the Chronicle, such as William’s vow before the battle, are probably later invention, the claim that the abbey was built on the site of the battle has a longer pedigree and is found in many other historical sources. The earliest is the collection of annals known as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Although the Chronicle’s accounts of the battle are very brief, in one annal for 1086 there is an obituary of William I, written by a man who claimed to have known the king and to have been present at his court. It states:
On the very spot where God granted him the conquest of England he caused a great abbey to be built; and settled monks in it and richly endowed it.
Chroniclers and historians writing in the early 12th century told the same story. One of them, William of Malmesbury, wrote in his Deeds of the Kings of the English about 1125 that the abbey:
is called Battle Abbey because the principal church is to be seen on the very spot where, according to tradition, among the piled heaps of corpses Harold was found.
Other contemporary writers – including John of Worcester, Orderic Vitalis and Henry of Huntingdon – agree. And a life of William the Conqueror, written at Battle Abbey in the second decade of the 12th century, states that Harold and his army arrived ‘at a place now called Battle’ and that the battle took place ‘on the site where William, count of the Normans, afterwards king of the English, had an abbey built’.
So the notion that Battle Abbey was located on the site of the Battle of Hastings was not a much later invention – it was current by at least the second decade of the 12th century. The statement in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is hard to date for certain, but if it was written by a courtier of William I, then the association between abbey and battlefield was made within living memory of the battle. And the tradition that the east end of the abbey church was built on the spot where Harold’s body was found had its origins long before the Chronicle of Battle Abbey was written.
Viewed historically, then, there is good reason to be confident that Battle Abbey lies on the site of the Battle of Hastings. Further, none of the proposed alternative locations are identified as potential sites for the battle in the historical sources, and there is no evidence to suggest that anybody questioned the abbey’s claim in the years following the battle.
Archaeology could, in theory, provide evidence for or against the abbey’s claim. Unfortunately, the very act of building the abbey and parts of the surrounding town would have involved major changes to the topography of the ridge – the focus of the fighting, according to the sources – and so destroyed most if not all of the potential archaeological evidence that might be expected to survive from the 11th century. And a recent survey made by archaeologists from the Time Team television series if anything reinforces the notion that the abbey was founded on the spot where Harold fell.
AN UNSUITABLE SITE FOR AN ABBEY
Finally, building the abbey on the side of a hill presented the monks with practical difficulties they could have avoided had they chosen to build elsewhere. It is difficult to see why they would have chosen to build the abbey in such an awkward spot without a compelling reason.
The weight of the historical evidence suggests this was indeed to mark the very spot of William the Conqueror’s great victory.