On 14 October 1066, Duke William of Normandy defeated King Harold of England at the battle of Hastings.
Arguably it was the most decisive, and certainly the most famous, battle ever fought on English soil. William’s triumph, and his subsequent coronation as King William I (1066-87), marked the end of Anglo-Saxon England, the creation of new ties with Western Europe, and the imposition of a new and more cohesive ruling class.
Society became bound by ties of feudal loyalty, leading to a greater concentration of power in royal hands, while the development of common law had consequences that still affect our lives today, after nearly 1,000 years. Hastings was fought here, on the edge of the town which it ultimately spawned, and whose name has long served as a reminder of that momentous day of conflict – Battle.
The death and violence of 1066 have left no visible trace in the landscape, nor have any relics of the battle ever been found. Nevertheless, the site has remained remarkably intact and covers around 100 acres (40ha). The topography can be explored on foot, and by following the paths it is at least possible to envisage the broad course of events.
The English, under King Harold, had taken position on the ridge-top, where the later buildings lie. At first they watched the Normans advance towards them from below, holding fast behind a wall of shields. Early in the battle, part of the Norman army panicked and retreated, but Duke William rallied his soldiers and successfully counter-attacked. Several ‘pretended retreats’ followed, in which the English were lured into breaking ranks in pursuit, only to be cut down. After some ten hours of fighting, the Normans launched an assault which finally broke the fatally weakened English shield wall. At this stage King Harold was killed, perhaps struck in the eye by an arrow as depicted in the famous Bayeux Tapestry. By nightfall the Norman victory was complete.
No later than 1070, King William ‘the Conqueror’, as he now was, marked his victory by establishing a great Benedictine abbey at Battle. On the one hand, this important religious foundation would serve as a memorial to the dead, and could be seen as a public act of atonement by the king for the bloodshed caused. Even the abbey’s own chronicler was to later write that the fields had been ‘covered in corpses, and all around the only colour to meet the gaze was blood-red’. But there was another purpose to the foundation, one reflecting the more calculating side of William’s nature: it would stand as a symbol of the Norman triumph. Indeed, the abbey chronicler reports the king’s insistence that the high altar in the abbey church was to stand on the very spot that Harold fell.
William envisaged an initial community of 60 monks at Battle Abbey, rising to an eventual total of 140. Building works began almost immediately, and by 1076 the eastern arm of the church was ready for occupation. However, not until 1094, during the reign of William II (1087-1100), was the completed church consecrated. The ceremony was performed by the archbishop of Canterbury, along with seven other bishops, and in the presence of the king and a host of his nobles and courtiers. Meanwhile, as a result of the Conqueror’s generous endowments, Battle was on the way to becoming one of the richest monastic houses of medieval England. It was to flourish for over 400 years until religious life at the abbey was brought to an end in 1538, during the suppression of the monasteries under King Henry VIII (1509-47).
Today, only the outline of the Norman abbey church survives, together with the more extensive remains of a 13th-century extension to the eastern arm. The monks’ dormitory range, also dating from the 13th century, survives rather better and features several superb rib-vaulted chambers at lower level. On the west side of the cloister stood the abbot’s lodging and nearby was the guest range, of which a series of undercroft rooms may still be seen. Best preserved, and most impressive of all, is the abbey’s great gatehouse, rebuilt from 1338 to replace an earlier structure. It stands as one of the finest monastic gatehouses in Britain. On the first floor there is an exhibition, with an extensive collection of artefacts found during excavations on the abbey site.
Following its suppression, King Henry gave Battle Abbey to his friend Sir Anthony Browne (d. 1548) who demolished many of the monastic buildings, including the church. Browne converted the abbot’s lodging into a substantial private house, at the centre of an estate created from the former battlefield and abbey land.
In 1721, the estate passed to the Webster family, and it remained with that family for the following 250 years. During this time, large portions of estate land were sold off, and many of the medieval buildings fell into further ruin. After the First World War, the house was leased to Battle Abbey School, and the school continues to occupy it today. When the Webster trustees finally put the estate up for sale in 1976, the battlefield and all the remaining monastic structures were bought by the government on behalf of the nation.