Wednesday, 7 September 2022

A Journey to 1066: The Battle of Hastings Battlefield & Abbey

Battle Abbey Gatehouse | Battle Abbey and 1066 Battlefield

Today is an auspicious day for I get to tell you all about one of my favourite days out. I’d wanted to visit Hastings for the longest time and a great part of that was due to my interest in the Battle of Hastings in 1066. I couldn’t believe that the whole fate of a nation could hinge on one battle but it was actually my visits to France that really piqued my interest in the events of 1066. Whereas we see many Norman and medieval structures and influences in South East England, French cities such as Boulogne have urban histories dating back to the 9th century and even earlier. It is clear that a lot of what we see now in England is post-Norman and that the conquering powers destroyed much of what was here already.

Of course, that is nothing compared to the destruction that Henry VIII rained down upon his own people, but more on him later.

The Visitor Centre

We began our visit in the superb visitor centre which provides a full audio-visual account of the key reasons for the battle as well a display of the various weapons and armour used by the opposing forces. We learned that Edward the Confessor died without a direct heir, that he appointed Harold Godwinson as protector of the kingdom but that William, Duke of Normandy disputed Harold’s legitimacy as King. William and his forces successfully invaded and defeated England’s army on 14 October 1066. Known now as William the Conqueror, he ended Anglo-Saxon rule in England, established Norman rule and changed the course of history forever on this little island.

The Battlefield

Norman Infantryman with kite shield | Battle Abbey and 1066 Battlefield

Armed with a lot of knowledge, we picked up our audio-guides and went for a leisurely 3 mile stroll around the famous battlefield. Note that there is some controversy as to whether this is indeed the site of the famous battle as no human remains have been found here but William famously built Battle Abbey ‘on a site overlooking the famous battleground’ and so this area is proclaimed to be it.

Anglo Saxon infantryman with round shield | Battle Abbey and 1066 Battlefield

We were guided on the path by numerous statues on infantrymen, cavalry and archers. There was a large group with children up ahead and they were having the best time playing amongst the statues and shields. I must say that the audio-visual guides were excellent – it appears that there is more than one version out there as mine was different to Stephen’s, but mine had a man and a woman narrating, each presenting the view of the Norman and English armies respectively.

A Norman kite shield and an Anglo-Saxon round shield | Battle Abbey and 1066 Battlefield

There are two types of shield depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry. We have no way of knowing definitively, but kite shields are associated with the Normans. Their tapered end would have provided greater protection for the body and lower torso than the round shields associated with the English army.

Kneeling Norman Soldier | Battle Abbey and 1066 Battlefield

Looking over the shoulder of this kneeling Norman infantryman, you can get an idea of the scope of the ground and how hilly it is. Battle Abbey is just visible in the distance (and more so in the photos below).

Norman Archer | Battle Abbey and 1066 Battlefield

The Norman army consisted of cavalry, archers and infantry whereas the English army was mainly infantry with a few archers. The English forces consisted of the King’s royal guard – the housecarls who were well-trained, paid and wore superior armour. The remaining English forces were not so lucky, known as fyrds they were largely conscripted to fight for the king and were expected to provide their own weapons and provisions due to the expected brevity of their service.

 | Battle Abbey and 1066 Battlefield

The full story of the Battle of Hastings is quite complex but ultimately the Norman victory was due to better formation, a well-equipped army and a healthy dose of good luck.

As our very informative walk around the battlefield drew to an end, we approached the ruins of Battle Abbey, built to honour the Norman victory and destroyed by Henry VIII.

Battle Abbey

The Ruins of Battle Abbey | Battle Abbey and 1066 Battlefield

Following the Battle of Hastings, Pope Alexander II ordered that the Normans should do penance for the amount of lives lost in the Battle of 1066. William the Conqueror vowed to build an abbey at Battle but sadly died before it was completed. The abbey became home to Benedictine monks.

Inside Battle Abbey, Looking Out | Battle Abbey and 1066 Battlefield

Today the abbey lies in ruins, a victim of King Henry VIII’s notorious Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1538.

Inside Battle Abbey | Battle Abbey and 1066 Battlefield

The high altar of the abbey is purported to be the spot where King Harold lost his life.

Battle Abbey Dorter | Battle Abbey and 1066 Battlefield

I couldn’t help but be impressed by this incredible building. At over 900 years old, it survived near destruction in 1538 yet still cuts an imposing figure on the horizon. What an incredible marvel of Norman architecture.

 | Battle Abbey and 1066 Battlefield

With one final look at the battlefield and a quick look at the Cloisters, our visit was over. We made our way over to Burton’s Tea Room located by the front gate of Battle Abbey and enjoyed some truly delicious English fare (and yes, it was another Ploughman’s lunch for me!)

 | Battle Abbey and 1066 Battlefield

1066 Battle of Hastings, Abbey and Battlefield
Butter Cross
High St
Battle
TN33 0AE

Hint: Book ahead online! Tickets cost from £12.90 for adults and £11.60 for concessions, which is a saving of about 15% over buying at the venue.

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© 2008 - Mandy Southgate | Emm in London

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