History of Battle Abbey and Battlefield

The Battle of Hastings, fought on 14 October 1066, is one of the best-known and most decisive events in England's history. The victory of William, Duke of Normandy, and the death of Harold, King of England, were crucial to the success of the Norman Conquest. The battlefield, remarkably devoid of modern development, owes its survival to the founding by King William ‘the Conqueror’ of the Benedictine Battle Abbey on the site as penance for the bloodshed and to commemorate his victory. Much of the battlefield became part of the abbey's great park, which formed the nucleus of a country estate after the suppression of the abbey in 1538.

Battle Abbey seen from the battlefield

Battle Abbey, seen looking north from the battlefield

Prelude to the Battle

1066 was a turbulent year for England. King Edward the Confessor died on 4 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 5 January.

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, with each thought to have had between 5,000 and 7,000 men.

A scene from the Bayeux Tapestry, in which Norman knights attempts to break the Saxon shield wall

Norman knights on horseback attempt to break the Saxon shield wall, in a scene from the Bayeux Tapestry, one of the main sources for our knowledge of the battle
© Alamy

The Battle of Hastings

The principal sources for the Battle of Hastings are the Bayeux Tapestry and the chronicler William of Poitiers.[1] Between them they provide more information than for any other medieval battle, although many details remain unclear.

At daylight on 14 October Harold deployed his forces along the ridge now partly occupied by Battle Abbey. Opposite, on rising ground to the south, William ranged his army.

Both armies were equipped with similar armour and weapons, but the Norman archers also had powerful crossbows and the Norman army relied on a cavalry force of perhaps 2,000–3,000 knights and esquires.

The English forces travelled on horseback, but fought on foot. At their centre were the housecarls, the king’s retainers, with their fearsome battleaxes, perhaps the finest infantry in Europe.[2]

 The Battle of Hastings was exceptionally long by medieval standards, lasting all day, an indication of how evenly matched the rival armies were. The English, protected by their ‘shield wall’, withstood repeated and bloody assaults up the hillside by Norman cavalry and archers.

Gradually the Normans gained the upper hand until in the last attack Harold was killed. Leaderless, the English finally gave way and fled. William assumed the throne of England, was crowned on Christmas Day 1066 and ruled until his death in 1087.

A reconstruction of Battle Abbey church, showing how the interior of the abbey might have looked soon after its consecration in 1094

A reconstruction of how the interior of the abbey church might have looked soon after its consecration in 1094
© English Heritage (drawing by Peter Urmston)

Foundation of the Abbey

The Benedictine abbey of Battle was founded and largely endowed by King William in about 1071. 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 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.[3] When the new church was consecrated in 1094 in the presence of William II (r.1087–1100) and the Archbishop of Canterbury, it was one of the richest religious houses in England.

Reconstruction of the east end of the abbey church at Battle after modernisation in the 13th century

Reconstruction of the east end of the abbey church after modernisation in the 13th century. The crypt can be seen below the east end of the church
© English Heritage (drawing by Peter Urmston)

Life in the Abbey

Until its suppression in 1538 the abbey, like many other English monastic houses, played a central role in the spiritual, economic, agricultural and military life of the area. It is not known whether the number of monks ever reached the 140 intended by the Conqueror. The Black Death of 1348–9 reduced the community from 52 to 34 monks, a figure that remained fairly constant over the next century.

Surplus produce from the abbey’s extensive estates sold on the open market was an important source of income.[4] The adjacent town of Battle owes its existence and growth to the abbey’s patronage of its merchants, traders and craftsmen.[5] The varying fortunes of the abbey are reflected in its surviving architecture, with periods of prosperity leading to modernisations and rebuilding.

As mitred abbots (subject only to the authority of the Pope) and important landowners, the abbots of Battle sat in the House of Lords and played a part in affairs of state, maintaining lodgings in London and Winchester, Hampshire, for this purpose.

During French raids in the Hundred Years War (1337–1453), the abbots organised local defences and provided food and clothing for refugees fleeing the coastal towns. In 1377 Abbot Hamo became famous for leading his forces in person in the successful defence of nearby Winchelsea.

The remains of the east range, viewed from the site of the abbey church. The layout of the east end of the church is marked out on the ground

The remains of the east range, viewed from the site of the abbey church. The layout of the east end of the church is marked out on the ground

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 monks of Battle surrendered to the king’s officials in May 1538.

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.

The undercroft of the west range of Battle Abbey in the 19th century, when the Duke and Duchess of Cleveland used it as a drawing room

The undercroft of the west range of Battle Abbey in the 19th century, when the Duke and Duchess of Cleveland used it as a drawing room
© Historic England Archives

Battle as a Country Estate

In 1721 Browne’s descendants sold the estate to Sir Thomas Webster. Save for the period 1857–1901, when the Duke and Duchess of Cleveland owned the property,[6] it remained in the ownership of the Webster family until 1976 when it was acquired by the state.[7]

As in the case of many such estates, there were absentee owners, long periods of neglect and the sale of land to raise funds. Between 1810 and 1820, however, Sir Godfrey Vassall Webster repaired many of the buildings, as did the Clevelands later.

Since 1922 the abbot’s lodging has been leased to a school. Under state ownership there has been an extensive programme of building conservation with recording and archaeological excavations.[8]


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About the Author

Jonathan Coad is a historian and archaeologist, and worked for many years as an Inspector of Ancient Monuments on the conservation and display of Battle Abbey and Battlefield. He is the author of the English Heritage Red Guide to the site.

Footnotes

1. William of Poitiers (Guillaume de Poitiers), Histoire de Guillaume le Conquérant, ed R Foreville (Paris, 1952); DM Wilson and J Le Carpentier, The Bayeux Tapestry (London, 2004); R Porter, ‘“On the very spot”: in defence of Battle’, English Heritage Historical Review, 7 (2012), 4–17 (subscription required; accessed 23 June 2014).
2. J Bradbury, ‘Battles in England and Normandy, 1066–1154’, in Anglo-Norman Studies VI: Proceedings of the Battle Conference 1983, ed R Allen Brown (Woodbridge, 1984), 1–12 (accessed 23 June 2014); M Chibnall, ‘Military service in Normandy before 1066’, in Anglo-Norman Studies V: Proceedings of the Battle Conference 1982, ed R Allen Brown (Woodbridge, 1983), 65–78 (accessed 23 June 2014); RHC Davis, ‘The warhorses of the Normans’, in Anglo-Norman Studies X: Proceedings of the Battle Conference 1987, ed C Harper-Bill (Woodbridge, 1988), 67–82; J Graham-Campbell, ‘Anglo-Scandinavian equestrian equipment in eleventh-century England’, in Anglo-Norman Studies XIV: Proceedings of the Battle Conference 1991, ed M Chibnall (Woodbridge, 1992), 77–89 (accessed 23 June 2014); N Hooper, ‘Anglo-Saxon warfare on the eve of the Conquest: a brief survey’, in Anglo-Norman Studies I: Proceedings of the Battle Conference 1978, ed R Allen Brown and M Chibnall (Woodbridge, 1979), 84–93 (accessed 23 June 2014).
3. E Searle, Lordship and Community: Battle Abbey and its Banlieu, 1066–1538 (Toronto, 1974).
4. E Searle (trans and ed), The Chronicle of Battle Abbey (Oxford, 1980); E Searle and B Ross (eds), Accounts of the Cellarers of Battle Abbey 1275–1513 (Sydney, 1967).
5. E Searle, ‘Inter amicos: the abbey, town and early charters of Battle’, in Anglo-Norman Studies XIII: Proceedings of the Battle Conference 1990, ed M Chibnall (Woodbridge, 1991), 1–14 (accessed 23 June 2014).
6. CLW Cleveland, Duchess of Cleveland, History of Battle Abbey (London, 1877).
7. R Pryce, Battle Abbey and the Websters: Two Hundred Years of Ambition, Profligacy and Misfortune (Heathfield, 2005).
8. JN Hare, Battle Abbey: The Eastern Range and Excavations of 1978–1980 (London, 1985).

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