Find the answers to your questions about 1066 Battle of Hastings Abbey and Battlefield. Did it really happen here? Did Harold die in battle? And more…
Did the battle actually take place here?
Despite recent claims that the battle of Hastings occurred elsewhere, there is an academic consensus that Battle Abbey was built on the site of the battle. The reason for this lies with the various historical sources which describe William founding the abbey on the site of his great victory.
These sources include the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which in its obituary of William notes that he built an abbey “on the very spot” where God granted him victory. The tradition that the high altar of the abbey had been placed at the spot where King Harold had raised his standard was established by the early 12th century and within living memory of the battle. In the 1120s William of Malmesbury recorded the tradition that the high altar was located at the place where King Harold’s body had been found after the battle.
The whole of the today’s town would once have been part of the battlefield, for example Harold’s troops almost certainly retreated up what is currently Battle High Street. The battlefield we care for today is part of a bigger landscape that in 1066 was host to this violent event in our history. Battle Abbey is far more than a battlefield - there is a huge amount to enjoy here and it continues to be the central place to discover one of the most defining moments in England’s story.
Why have no bodies or archaeology been found from the battle?
If the historical sources are correct in saying that the abbey was founded on the site of the battle then much – if not most – of the archaeological evidence associated with the battle will have been disturbed when the abbey was built.
This work involved major changes to the topography of the ridge on which the abbey and parts of the surrounding town were constructed. Historical descriptions of the battle suggest that the ridge was the focus of the fighting.
The open land to the south of the abbey was its park, used for hunting, pasturing animals, quarrying and for agricultural purposes. These activities will have affected the archaeological record but there has been relatively little intrusive archaeological fieldwork in this area and English Heritage hopes to investigate it further in the future.
Did Harold actually die at the battle?
All the early accounts of the battle agree that King Harold was killed at the battle of Hastings, as do the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and other contemporary Norman and English sources.
The way in which Harold died is still debated by historians because the various sources offer different accounts, from the celebrated ‘arrow in the eye’ to the brutal but more likely scenario of Harold being hacked down and mutilated.
There is nothing in the early sources to suggest that Harold survived the battle. It is not until a work of the early 13th century, the Vita Haroldi, that the incredible tale of Harold’s escaping from the battlefield appears in an English source. This story is regarded by historians as being completely without substance.
Why is it called the Battle of Hastings if it wasn't in Hastings?
The town of Battle grew up around the abbey founded to commemorate William’s victory. At the time of the battle there was no settlement here, and the uncultivated land on which it was fought lay just outside the great Wealden forest.
The battle was named after Hastings because it was the closest major town to the battlefield. William had based himself at Hastings, and had constructed a timber and earthwork castle there in the period before the battle.
Why was the abbey built?
In founding an abbey on the site of his victory, William I was following the example of earlier and contemporary victors both in England and elsewhere. Such foundations could be established as acts of penance for the blood shed in battle or could be a way of commemorating a successful outcome.
The evidence related to Battle suggests that both motives were in force. Penances imposed on William and his followers by the papal legate included building a church for those who could not remember how many people they had killed. But calling the abbey Battle Abbey might suggest that commemoration rather than penance was foremost in William’s mind.
The Chronicle of Battle Abbey, written in the late 12th century, reflects this dual purpose. On the one hand it says that abbey was to be a place “where servants of God might be brought together for the salvation of all” and especially for those who fell in the battle, “a place of sanctuary and help for all, paying back for the blood shed there by unending chain of good works.” On the other hand, The Chronicle also records that the abbey was founded by William I to “preserve the memory of his victory”.