1066 Battle of Hastings, Abbey and Battlefield

An expedition through the history and sites of the famous battle

English Heritage

The Battle of Hastings (1820) by Francis William WilkinOriginal Source: 1066 BATTLE OF HASTINGS, ABBEY AND BATTLEFIELD

On his deathbed in 1066, the childless English king, Edward the Confessor, nominated as his successor Harold Godwinson, the leader of England’s leading noble family. However, it seems that earlier in his reign Edward had also promised the throne to his cousin, William, who ruled the Duchy of Normandy across the English Channel. When Edward died and Harold assumed the role of king, William chose to fight for the crown. At the Battle of Hastings, which took place in October 1066, Harold was defeated. William was crowned two months later, on Christmas Day, in Westminster Abbey. Later, as an act of penance for the bloodshed caused by his conquest of England, William built Battle Abbey on the site of the Battle of Hastings in East Sussex. In this Expedition, we’ll explore both the battlefield and what remains of the abbey.

An aerial View of Battle AbbeyOriginal Source: 1063 BATTLE OF HASTINGS, ABBEY AND BATTLEFIELD

The Battle of Hastings, which took place here on 14 October 1066, is one of the most famous battles ever fought on English soil. The battle lasted a full day and ended in the death of King Harold II. The triumph of Duke William of Normandy over King Harold marked the end of Anglo-Saxon England and saw the imposition of a new ruling class.

To the left is the ridge where Harold Godwinson stationed his forces. At the time of the battle, it was backed by forest. It was also more prominent—after the battle, parts of the ridge were levelled and terraced to build the abbey.

The death and violence of the Battle of Hastings has left no trace on the land where it was fought. In 1066, the slopes were probably scrubby grazing land. The battlefield now reflects its later use as a park and farmland

Duke William and his troops marched to this area along the high ground from Hastings. Once here, he ranged his forces to the south, on the far hillside above the marshy valley.

Today, the battlefield walk is dotted with wooden sculptures that present moments of the battle frozen in time. The sculptures realistically depict the types of weapons used and the armour worn by the Anglo-Saxon and Norman soldiers.

This would have been William’s view when he arrived here and looked out across the battlefield to the English line on the ridge. William had learnt of Harold’s approach the day before the battle and moved his forces inland in response. The two armies camped within sight of each other that night.

William was commanding a mixed force made up of Normans, Bretons and French. He positioned his Norman troops in the centre, the Bretons to the west, and the French to the east.

Re-enactment of the Battle of Hastings by English HeritageBritish Museum

Soon after dawn on 14th October, Harold arranged his forces along the ridge. The soldiers stood shoulder to shoulder with their shields overlapping in front of them. This ‘shield wall’ formation was difficult to attack, but it also left little room for manoeuvre.

While King Harold assembled his shield wall on the ridge, William arranged his forces in three ranks: the archers in front, then the infantry (some armoured), and behind them the heavy cavalry of knights and esquires on horseback.

In 1534, King Henry VIII broke with the Catholic Church and proceeded to dissolve monasteries across the British Isles. The most important religious buildings at Battle Abbey were demolished. This remarkable vaulted room, gives us an impression of the quality of the buildings at the abbey before they were ruined. It was most likely used as the monks’ common room.

The building sits on a hillside, so the ceiling had to be quite high to create a level floor for the dormitory above. Originally, the walls were plastered and probably painted with thin red lines to suggest fine masonry. The pillars are Sussex marble.

The two openings in the north wall gave access from the Common Room to a Parlour beyond.

The room was lit by a line of five lancet windows—narrow windows that come to a point at the top—in the eastern wall. The position of the windows helped the monks make the most of the day’s sunlight.

In 1857, Battle Abbey became the country estate of the Duke and Duchess of Cleveland. They planted an orchard here in part of the walled kitchen garden. With its southern exposure and good drainage, this plot of land may have been a garden or orchard in earlier times, too. It was part of the slope defended by Harold’s Saxon troops during the Battle of Hastings. Now, the Victorian-era orchard has been restored.

The Duke and Duchess of Cleveland were keen gardeners. The Duchess cultivated apples and pears here, along with mulberry, almond and fig trees. The orchard provided fruit for both the family and servants.

The Duchess’s head gardener planted many varieties of fruit trees. Each type of tree bore fruit at a different time of the year. With careful storage, there could be fruit to eat all year round.

The Duchess also used the walled garden as a peaceful private retreat, although sometimes the public found a way in. She wrote of once finding two ladies being swung by an ‘attentive cavalier’ in the garden hammock.

English Heritage has replanted the Duchess's orchard with local varieties that would have been available in her time. Among the wild flowers and beehives, you’ll see Wadhurst Pippin and Sussex Mother apple trees and pear trees from England and Northern France.

Most of the east range of Battle Abbey, with its huge dormitory and latrines, dates from the 13th century, when the community improved its living quarters. Clean water and drainage were important to monastic life, as standards of hygiene tended to be high. However, the abbey’s hilltop site didn’t provide a steady supply of running water. Eventually, wells were dug and rainwater channelled to ease the problem. Evidence from the remains of the main latrine drain suggests that it had to be cleared out periodically.

Projecting east from the southern end of the dormitory are the remains of the latrine block. Originally, the latrine was three stories high, almost as tall as the dormitory itself.

Monks would have entered the latrines directly from the dormitory through two small doorways. Inside, seats were arranged over the main drain. Below, a doorway linked the ground floor of the east range with a long first-floor chamber inside the latrine block.

The ground floor was once a vaulted room with a main entrance, windows and a fireplace. At a later stage, a small room was added at the eastern end. These rooms might have been living quarters for novice, or new, monks.

This space was once the location of the abbey church, which was thoroughly destroyed immediately after the suppression, or closure, of the abbey in 1539. The stone plaque surrounded by a semi-circle of grass is known as the Harold Stone and marks the place where the church’s high altar is believed to have been located. According to early tradition, the altar was placed on the spot where King Harold’s body was discovered after the Battle of Hastings on 14 October 1066.

Battle Abbey’s layout followed a typical Benedictine plan found throughout northern Europe, with the claustral buildings—the buildings where monks lived and worked—located to the south of the church. Most of the abbey buildings were reconstructed in the 13th century.

This monument was erected in 1903 by the ‘Souvenir Normand’ society. It stands a few yards away from where Harold was killed.

From this spot you can see the remains of the first floor of the dormitory building, which stands in the east range. There, the monks slept in one large open room with beds arranged in rows against the walls.

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