'It was a battle fought on a knife edge - and it is questionable whether the best man won.....'
It is very difficult not to feel emotion after a visit to this magnificent Benedictine Abbey which commemorates one of the most famous events in English history, the Battle of Hastings on 14th October 1066. The altar of the Abbey Church was positioned, by the orders of William I, at the spot where Harold was believed to have been killed on that fateful day. This page is about what happened to the Field of Hastings after the Battle.
Few events conjure the imagination as much as that which took place here when William the Bastard, Duke of Normandy took on the Saxon King Harold, in what was to be a desparate struggle for the Throne. It was the last time the British Isles suffered a sucessful invasion, and the events of that day were as dramatic as to what followed in 'Norman England' as a result.
The death of King Harold from the Bayeux Tapestry
The Abbey, it is said, was to have been founded as a result of a vow made by Duke William in an Abbey at St Valerie Sur Somme, before the sea crossing, in which he promised to establish a monastry free of episcopal control if God granted him victory. This story only first appears in a forged Charter of 1154, which was produced by Monks before Henry II as part of their struggle to maintain independance from the control of the Bishop of Chichester whose Diocese the abbey lay. The Chronicles of Battel Abbey written in c1180 state that the Abbey was;
" Founded by the Conqueror in expiation for the sin involved in the conquest "
The most likely story is that William's vow was probably made in 1070. It was in that year that he was formally recrowned by Papel legates. The Papel authorites imposed heavy penances on the Normans for the bloodshed of the invasion and the building of an Abbey on the Field of Hastings would not only be welcome by his followers, but be a lasting memorial to those who died in the Battle and populate a comparativly empty stretch of country which had shown itself to be a good invasion point. The original name given for the Abbey was Holy Trinity but was later changed to Battel Abbey in honour of the dead.
The Seal of Battle Abbey
The Domesday book tells us that William gave the Abbot all the land within One and a half miles of the Abbey as well as other lands throughout the County, although 16 of these holdings were near to Battle, Alciston lay 17 miles to the west. Once the decision had be made to build, four Monks from the Benedictine abbey of Marmoutier on the Loire came over from France to form the community.
The Monks were horrified when they saw the site chosen, there was a clay valley bottom which was swampy and undrained, and to build on the edge of such a slope where the Saxon line stood was to incur a good deal of extra costs. Not surprisingly, the Monks began to build on the more favourable ground to the west, but when William heard of this he was extremely angry and ordered them to stop and establish the community at the correct place, as the building costs were funded by William they duly moved it to the correct position.
By 1076 the eastern arm of the abbey was completed enough to allow for consecretion. William initally intended the Abbey to have 60 monks and later be capable of supporting up to 140. In the early stages the monks lived in temporary wooden buildings, once the church was complete the permanent buildings of the cloister and outer court could begin. In February 1094 the Abbey church was consecrated in the presence of William II, the Archbishop of Canterbury and seven Bishops.
Battle Abbey school showing remains of the Cloisters.
On the Conqueror's death he left many items to his 'favourite' Abbey which included his royal cloak, and a portable altar used on his campaigns. William had endowed the Abbey to such an extent that on his death it was the 15th wealthiest religious house in the country. The most important of these gifts was the granting of the leuga to the monks. This meant that all the land and men within one and a half miles of the high altar was under supreme jurisdiction of the Abbey. Although rough uncultivated land when it was gifted, with careful management (especially under the guidence of Abbot Ralph ) it managed to quadruple its value between 1086 and 1115.
Abbot Gausbert (1076-1095) was also good at solicitoring gifts from various wealthy Barons and sucessfully persuaded a knight to give 30 acres of his estate near Bodiam to the Abbey. The surviving records of the Abbey tell us a great deal of its affairs, petitions to the King, encroachment of its lands and the foodstuffs purchased. Also, details of upsets in the community caused by the French pirate raids along the coast during the later half of the 14th century are mentioned.
One of the main problems the Abbey had in the first 150 years of exsistance was to keep its status as a Royal Peculiar with its exemption from episcopal control. No bishop welcomed such exemption and the Bishop of Chicester was no different, also this being such a rare prize for an Abbey, they were keen for it to continue. They didn't have a problem with this during William I and II's rule, the problem was how to maintain this with Kings who had no link or tie to the Abbey.
The Terrace where part of the Saxon lines stood in 1066.
Battle in 1147 was under great pressure from the Bishop of Chichester, Bishop Hilary, a trained Church Lawyer. He wasn't happy with Battle's status and exemption from his control, as the Abbey at Battle lay in his diocese. The Abbey at this time was one of the richest religious houses in the country and held other vast estates all over the county of Sussex.
The Abbey continued to buy up all the adjacent lands to the Abbey once they became available and this soon started to cause resentment in the community. This is where Bishop Hilary of Chichester gets involved, no doubt thinking of the extra revenue he would command if Battle were under his control. The argument carried on until Hilary excommunicated the Abbot of Battle, Walter de Luci, who appealed to the King.
De Luci had a good representation at the King's council with his brother, Richard de Luci, one of two justiciars and leading adviser to King Henry II. The Bishop meantime appealed to the Pope and it ceased to be a local problem and could be seen as an Episcopal attack on the royal prerogative, ie Battle's status granted by the Conqueror.
It was in this part of the dispute which involved the appearance of the forged Royal Charter in 1154 and on this very Charter, Richard de Luci states to King Henry II the famous words:
" We should all ourselves be Charters, for we are all feoffees from that conquest made at Battle."
The charter doesn't try and make the claim for its special Royal status, that is already there. The Royal status existed after William through Rufus and Henry his sons, even Stephen confirmed it. What the charter tries to do is justify the Abbey gaining the extra land by saying that they were responding to their original instructions, given by the Conqueror, by regaining all the land originally given to them within the leuga ( the circular estate which was the Monks initial most important endowment).
In the charter, William the Conqueror is made to instruct Abbot Gausbert (1076-95),
"To keep Battle banlieu or leuga free of hereditary leases of any kind. The Abbot is to avoid at all costs the domination of servants, giving over to them for lease only the land within the leuga which he could not farm directly..........."
In May 1157 the matter was settled by Henry II and Thomas Becket in the Abbey's favour, but this was not the end of the matter. The Monks continued to get harsh treatment from the Bishop until they paid the substantial sum of 1500 marks to King John in 1211. In return the King confirmed the Abbey's ancient privilege and agreed the Monks were free to appoint their own Abbots. In 1222 Ralph Neville became Bishop of Chichester and again attacked Battle's exemption and in 1223 appealed to Rome. In 1235 a compromise was gained where the Bishop, if invited, could preach to the monks in the chapter and could also check if the election of a new abbot had been conducted correctly. He was also given other access to the Abbey at certain times but only with permission of the Abbot. The Abbey seems to have won its long dispute for special privilages.
Much of the 13th and early 14th century saw large rebuilding programmes taking place at the Abbey, the cloister and extension of the church. The finances of the Abbey were in excellent order thanks to its careful management of resources.
In the 14th century the Abbey's life was to be disturbed again, but not in the form of past legal disputes. From the 1330's onwards the Abbots were one of the main organisers for defence from the French raids along the coast from Romney Marsh to Pevensey. In 1338 the building started on the Great Gatehouse and the sourrounding walls were also improved no doubt with an eye to security. One of the finest medieval gatehouses in England it provided access to the outer court of the Abbey, its bakery, brewhouse and administative offices as well as having its ajoining precinct wall with its military wall-walk at the east side.
By the end of the 14th century French raids were increasing and in the summer of 1377 Abbot Hamo gained enduring fame when he headed his troops to repulse some French raiders. At this time the Abbey was kept busy providing food and clothing to the poor and refugees who fled from the coastal areas. The Black Death also took its toll, when in 1347 they had 52 monks it was reduced to 34 in 1352, their numbers were to never recover and later dropped to around 25. Careful management was needed as the French raids and Black Death also affected the income of the Abbey. This was done and rebuilding took place throughout much of the 15th century with the Abbey becoming almost self-sufficient.
The Dorter Range
In 1529 John Hammond was elected Abbot with signs all around him that monastic life was seriously under threat. In the summer of 1535 the abbey was inspected by Thomas Cromwell's inspector, Dr Richard Layton. By the spring of 1538 Robertsbridge and Battle were the only monastic houses surviving in Sussex and Robertsbridge surrendered on 16th April of that year. In May, Layton returnedto Battle to make an inventory of the contents and when this was completed on 27th May, Hammond and 18 Monks surrendered the house. Layton described Battle as;
" So beggary a house I never see, nor so filthy stuff "
Its income of £880 in 1535 made it one of the most prosperous Benedictine houses in the country, perhaps they knew the end was near and so gave away all movable assets. Abbot Hammond was given a large pension of £100 a year and moved to a house opposite in Battle High Street where he died in 1546.
In 1538 the Abbey and most of its lands were given to Sir Anthony Browne, Master of the Kings Horse and great friend of Henry VIII. Browne demolished the Abbey Church, Chapter House and part of the cloisters and started an extensive rebuilding programme turning it into a royal residence although no royal ever came and stayed. One can't help wondering how Hammond must have felt to see his beautiful abbey ripped apart in front of his very eyes. Browne did extremely well from the dissolution and spent the rest of his life undertaking building on his properties. On his death in 1548 he was buried in Battle Church where his spendid effigy stands with his wife alongside. The Abbey stayed within the Family, slowly falling into disrepair until Sir Geoffrey Vassel Webster spent considerable sums on rebuilding in the late 18th century, although it was he who finally un-roofed the monastic dormitory.
The next celebrated owners also spent vast amounts on the Abbey. The Duke and Duchess of Clevland in 1858 employed the architect Henry Clutton to build a library in the SW end of the west range and also saved ruinous parts of the Abbey. After WW1 the west Range was leased to Battle Abbey School, who still occupy it. In 1976 during the American Bi-centinary a group citizens gave a generous donation and it was purchased for the nation. It is now managed and run by English Heritage.
Battle additional information
Battle Abbey is managed by English Heritage.
Open all year round.
Hours 1st April - 1st November 10am - 6pm, Dusk in October.
2nd November - 31st March 10am - 4pm, closed 24th - 26th December.
Abbot's Hall open to the public during school summer holidays.
Entry Adults £4.00 Children £2.00, Family Ticket (2 adults 3 children ) £10.00
Telephone - 01424-773792
Local Tourist Information - Battle 01424-773721
OS Map - No 199: Ref TQ 749157
The magnificent Medieval Gatehouse seems to bar your way as you make your way down through the very pretty High Street in Battle. The Abbey is served by it's own car park to the right of the gatehouse, 50 yards down a narrow road. There are also Pay and Display tickets available in a small car park directly outside the Gatehouse, but this is restricted to 2 hours only.
Recently the Abbey shop has been reopened in the courthouse attached to the Abbey where it is now larger with more stock. Entrance fees are paid here also. Headset tours of the site are available in English, French, German and Japanese and a braille guide is available in English only. There is a fairly interesting Audio Visual display also on site as well as a very interesting Abbey Museum.
There are special events running throughout the year from a Napoleonic Battle display in May to the annual Battle of Hastings reconstruction in October. They also have their own fully kitted out resident Norman Soldier on hand ( Derek ) to scare the children and answer your questions on his clothing and the Battle.
The lovely Parish Church of St Mary's is just outside the Abbey Wall, 50 yards from the Great Gatehouse and is well worth a visit. It contains the Effigy of Sir Anthony Browne and his wife who pulled down the Abbey Church and Cloister as well as a brass of John Lowe c1426. Recently some fine Medieval paintings have been revealed on the north nave wall.
If your are lucky enough to visit during the school summer holidays a visit to the Abbot's Hall is not to be missed. Also may I recommend a visit to take in the fantastic Battle Bonfire procession and Bonfire held on a saturday nearest to November 5th. This used to be held on the ancient ring outside the Great Gatehouse in the middle of the Car park and was most spectacular, but due to the numbers, the Police have managed to get it moved last year to the field of the Battle and I feel now it shall never return to its original and ancient place. The Whole event is well organised by Battel Bonfire Boyes who along with their other Sussex Bonfire Societies usually make it a night to remember. The French usually send over a few Norman Knights from Battle's twin town St Valerie-sur-somme to add spice and some rivalry. I nearly forgot, don't miss the annual appearence of the Sussex Green Man .
I have grown up with this fantastic monument on my doorstep and I always go to the Abbey when I visit my family. It is a wonderful place steeped in history that is very special to me. I hope these pages encourage you to visit.
Information on Battle Abbey was obtained from :
History of the Norman Kings by William of Malmesbury - Ed Joseph Stevenson.
The Gesta Guillelmi of William of Poitiers - Ed RHC Davis & Marjorie Chibnall.
The Chronicles of Battel Abbey - Ed E Searle.
The Domesday Book - ED Thomas Hinde.
English Historical Documents 1040-1189 - ED David Douglas, George W Greenaway
The Battle of Hastings - Ed. Stephen Morillo.
Battle Abbey East Sussex - JG Coad.
The Abbeys and Priories of Medieval England - Colin Platt.
The Monastic Grange in Medieval England - Colin Platt.
1066 - The Year of the Three Battles - Frank McLynn.
The Battle of Hastings - Peter Poyntz Wright.
William I - Maurice Ashley.
The Field of Hastings - Lt Col Charles H. Lemmon, DSO.
Anglo-Saxon England - Frank Stenton
The Norman Monasteries and their English Possessions - Donald Matthew.
The Bayeux Tapestry - ED Norman Denny & Josephine Filmer-Sankey.
Oxford History of Medieval England - Nigel Saul.
Conquered England 1066 - 1215 - George Garnett.
England and its Rulers 1066 - 1272 - MT Clanchy.
Sussex, The King's England - Arthur Mee.
Sussex - Desmond Seward
The English Heritage Handbook.
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