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.

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    Prelude to the Battle

    Aerial view looking west across the battlefield to the abbey buildings on the hilltop. The precise extent of the battlefield is not known

    Aerial view looking west across the battlefield to the abbey buildings on the hilltop. The precise extent of the battlefield is not known

    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.

    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

    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.

     

    Reconstruction of how the interior of the abbey church might have looked soon after its consecration in 1094

    Reconstruction of how the interior of the abbey church might have looked soon after its consecration in 1094

    © Historic England (illustration by Peter Urmston)

    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.[3] 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.

    READ MORE ABOUT THE ABBEY’S FOUNDATION
    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

    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

    © Historic England (illustration 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. Its founding community came from Marmoutier in France. The Chronicle of Battle Abbey states that the Conqueror resolved that the founding community should be composed of 60 monks, but he intended that it would increase to 140, although it is not known if it ever reached this figure. The Black Death of 1348–9 reduced the community from 52 to 34 monks, a figure that remained fairly constant over the next century.[4]

    The monks lived according to the Rule of St Benedict and divided their day into periods of prayer, reading and manual labour. They gathered in the church for 8 services a day and daily mass. A single surviving service book from the abbey provides important evidence of the saints honoured with feast days at the abbey. St Martin had a special place of honour.[5] The abbey's accounts record expenditure on images, crosses and vestments. Battle would have had a substantial library, but only 24 books are known to survive.[6]

    Surplus produce from the abbey’s extensive estates sold on the open market was an important source of income.[7] The adjacent town of Battle owes its existence and growth to the abbey's patronage of its merchants, traders and craftsmen.[8] The varying fortunes of the abbey are reflected in its surviving architecture, with periods of prosperity leading to modernisations and rebuilding.

    Battle Abbey had a number of very important privileges. It was exempt from visitation by the local bishop (the bishop of Chichester), and only the archbishop of Canterbury could intervene in the internal running of the monastery. Abbot Hamo of Offyngton (1364–83) was granted papal permission to use the mitre and other ornaments normally reserved for bishops; after this time the mitre appeared on the abbey’s coat of arms.[9] 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.[10]

    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

    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.[11]

    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.

    Battle as a Country Estate

    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 Archive

    Despite profiting from the Suppression, Sir Anthony Browne had conservative religious views and in the late 16th and early 17th centuries Battle became an important centre of Catholic recusancy.[12]

    In 1721 Browne's descendants sold the estate to Sir Thomas Webster. Apart from the period 1857–1901, when the Duke and Duchess of Cleveland owned the property,[13] it remained in the ownership of the Webster family until 1976 when it was acquired by the state.[14]

    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.[15]

        

    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.

    Buy the guidebook to Battle Abbey and Battlefield
    The battlefield and abbey buildings seen from across one of the abbey fishponds

    The battlefield and abbey buildings seen from across one of the abbey fishponds

    Footnotes

      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). These and other sources for the battle are discussed in R Porter, ‘“On the very spot”: in defence of Battle’, English Heritage Historical Review, 7 (2012), 4–17 (subscription required; accessed 23 June 2014).
      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).
      E Searle, Lordship and Community: Battle Abbey and its Banlieu, 1066–1538 (Toronto, 1974); Porter, op cit.
      E Searle (trans and ed), The Chronicle of Battle Abbey (Oxford, 1980) 68–9; William Page (ed), The Victoria County History of Sussex, vol 2 (London, 1973), 52–6 (accessed 2 Dec 2015).
      Trinity College Cambridge, MS 0.7.31.
      For the surviving books, see Medieval Libraries of Great Britain (accessed 2 Dec 2015).
      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).
      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).
      The papal grant to Abbot Hamo of the mitre and other pontificalia is discussed in various antiquarian sources, though the original document cannot be traced. A late 14th-century stained glass panel of the abbey's coat of arms, now at the Burrell Collection, Glasgow, is charged with the mitre; see FS Eden, ‘The arms of Battle Abbey’, The Connoisseur, 86: 349 (1930), 174–5.
      E Searle, Lordship and Community: Battle Abbey and its Banlieu, 1066–1538 (Toronto, 1974).
      Page, op cit.
      AC Southern (ed), An Elizabethan Recusant House, comprising the Life of Lady Magdalen Viscountess Montague (1538–1608), translated into English from the Original Latin of Dr. Richard Smith, Bishop of Chalcedon, by Cuthbert Fursdon, OSB in the year 1627 (London, 1954); M Questier, Catholicism and Community in Early Modern England: Politics, Aristocratic Patronage and Religion, c.1550–1640 (Cambridge, 2006).
      CLW Cleveland, Duchess of Cleveland, History of Battle Abbey (London, 1877).
      R Pryce, Battle Abbey and the Websters: Two Hundred Years of Ambition, Profligacy and Misfortune (Heathfield, 2005).
      JN Hare, Battle Abbey: The Eastern Range and Excavations of 1978–1980 (London, 1985) (accessed 2 Dec 2015).
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