A Tour of Battle Abbey and Battlefield Hastings
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Looking out over a green expanse of gently rolling farmland, dotted with piles of newly mowed hay, it’s hard to believe that the most famous battle in English history was fought here. I’m standing on a wide, brown gravel pathway, with towering ruins of an old stone Abbey behind me, trying to picture this quiet English countryside as it would have been on 14 October 1066. In just over one square mile thousands of Saxons and Normans fell in the Battle of Hastings.
About six miles inland from the wind-swept coastal town of Hastings, in a small, quaint village called Battle, you can walk around the former battlefield and explore the ruins of the abbey that William the Conqueror had built as a memorial to the soldiers who died there. The battle is as renown as the Battle of Waterloo, and had a massive impact on England from that day on. Its repercussions are still felt today, because vestiges of Norman law can still be found in the modern British judicial system.
Your tour starts outside the magnificent, medieval, great gatehouse, dating from 1338 that served as the entrance to the abbey. Two round stone towers, 60 feet high, rise about 10 feet above the gapped battlements that overlook the entrance. With its cross-shaped arrow slits, and arched windows (now filled in with stonework) the gatehouse is one of the finest medieval facades in England, and very much dominates the town of Battle.
Carts entered through the wide passageway in the middle of the gateway, while pedestrians walked through the smaller one to the left. Once inside, you enter the Museum of Abbey Life as you proceed up some spiral stone stairs in one of the gatehouse towers. The museum is situated in the old courthouse that forms the wings of the gatehouse. Inside, readerboards, artifacts and diagrams describe the life of the Benedictine monks who lived in Battle Abbey since 1076. When first started, the abbey was merely a series of timber buildings but by 1094 the church was consecrated with King William II (1087-1100) present.
I learn that the abbey managed its lands competently, and was one of the wealthier ones in the country, being a special project of King William I and thus generously financed. The abbot was the head of the abbey, even serving in the House of Lords. The early abbots were trained in the monasteries of Normandy. The prior was the next in authority to the Abbott, and responsible for the smooth running of the abbey. Their duties included the security of the abbey and guarding its treasures. The Sacrist was responsible to the Abbot for the contents of the church and its general maintenance, and the timekeeping of the clocks to maintain the monk’s strict timetable. Other important positions were the cellarer who provided for food and drink, the Precentor who was in charge of church music and singing, and the Monastic Scribe, who wrote the manuscripts and church records.
Enlightened about the life of the monks, I continue my living history tour to the Visitor’s Centre, where I watch a short, informative film about the history and tactics of the Battle of Hastings. By now I’m primed to see the battlefield. As I walk across a wooded field I come to a dirt and gravel path that meanders along the edge of a hill, called the Monk’s Terrace. With the Abbey ruins to my left, and a long gently sloping downhill to my right, I’m overlooking the battlefield.
The Saxons, under King Harold, made their stand on the hill behind me, with their front ranks right where I’m standing. They were packed tightly, about 6,000 of them—foot soldiers loaded down with steel helmets, mail armor, shields, swords and bows. They formed a wall of shields against William’s 2,000-3,000 knights, mounted on horses, an early cavalry.
So tightly packed were Harold’s soldiers, that when they fell they remained upright, supported by their comrades. The battle raged all day, 9 hours in all, so evenly matched were the two sides. Attacks were made up and down the hill I’m standing on. The Norman attacked up the hill continually, to be repulsed by the fierce Saxons, who wielded massive battleaxes that cleaved the Norman shields and armor.
Finally, Harold fell, an arrow through his eye, and was hacked to pieces. A rout ensued where the retreating Saxons were mercilessly hunted down. I continue my walk through the atmospheric ruins of the Abbey. William I had the grandiose Abbey built as a way of showing the Saxons his power and authority, and that he was there to stay.
I walk through the stone remains of the chapter house and dormitory, its long rectangular walls interspersed with narrow arched windows then get lost wandering through the west range undercroft, with gothic naves gracefully curving up the high ceiling above me. The site of the abbey church and high altar is today just a series of foundation stones outlining its lengthy shape, rounded at one end. A large sandstone plaque, inset into the ground, marks the site of the high altar, placed where King Harold fell. It’s the site of the fiercest fighting on that fateful day. A little girl kneels in front of the memorial, making a poignant sight.
I continue past the Abbot’s great hall and library, now used as Battle Abbey School. Tourists cannot go inside this beautiful 13th century house, rebuilt as the Abbot’s house and guest quarters, but it can be admired from the grounds. My tour ends here. The entire circuit from the gatehouse is less then a mile, but each step is a powerful reminder of the magnitude of the battle that was fought here, and how King William cunningly transformed the battlefield into a memorial, while making it serve as a reminder of his new power over the Saxons
Written by and photos by Roy Stevenson for EuropeUpClose.com