History of Battle Abbey and Battlefield
The Battle of Hastings, fought on 14 October 1066, is one of the best-known events in England’s history, when William of Normandy defeated the army of King Harold of England. The battlefield owes its survival to the founding by William the Conqueror of Battle Abbey on the site as penance for the bloodshed. Much of the battlefield became part of the abbey’s great park, which formed the core of a country estate after the abbey’s suppression in 1538.
Prelude to the Battle
1066 was a turbulent year for England. King Edward the Confessor died on 5 January leaving no direct heirs and the country threatened with invasion by two rival claimants, Harald Hardrada, King of Norway, and William, Duke of Normandy.
Edward entrusted the English throne to Earl Harold of Wessex, who was his brother-in-law and the commander of the royal army. Harold was consecrated king in Westminster Abbey, London, on 6 January, the day after Edward’s death.
In May, Earl Edwin of Mercia defeated an invasion of eastern England led by King Harold’s exiled brother Tostig, while Harold concentrated his forces along the south coast.
Following news of Hardrada’s Norwegian army landing near York in mid-September, Harold moved swiftly north, decisively defeating the allied forces of Harald Hardrada and Tostig at the Battle of Stamford Bridge on 25 September. A few days later the king heard that Duke William had landed at Pevensey in Sussex.
In a series of forced rides the English army returned south, pausing briefly in London to gather fresh troops before arriving opposite William’s forces at what is now Battle (7–8 miles from Hastings) on the evening of 13 October. By contemporary standards the opposing armies were substantial – modern scholars suggest that each had between 5,000 and 7,000 men.
The foundation of Battle Abbey
The Benedictine abbey of Battle was founded and largely endowed by King William in about 1071. Dedicated to the Trinity, the Virgin and St Martin of Tours, it was established as a memorial to the dead of the battle and as atonement for the bloodshed of the Conquest. It was also a highly visible symbol of the piety, power and authority of the Norman rulers.
Despite the unsuitable location on top of a narrow, waterless ridge and objections from the first monks, William insisted that the high altar of the abbey church be placed to mark where Harold had been killed. When the new church was consecrated in 1094 in the presence of William II (reigned 1087–1100) and the Archbishop of Canterbury, it was one of the richest religious houses in England.
The Suppression of Battle Abbey
Religious life continued to be observed into the 16th century, but Battle Abbey could not escape the destruction of the monasteries by Henry VIII. The official reason that monastic religious observances were moribund masked the reality that the king wanted the monastic lands and assets. The abbot and the 18 remaining monks of Battle surrendered to the king’s officials in May 1538. The abbey’s annual income was assessed at £880 and its plate was valued at over £300.
Henry VIII gave the abbey and much of its land to his friend and master of the horse, Sir Anthony Browne. The church and parts of the cloister were demolished and the abbot’s lodging was adapted to serve as a country house.