Battle Abbey Sussex Reviews
1066 and all that Aug 30, 2015
Certain battles and dates are so engrained in a nation’s psyche that they are eponymous with that country’s history. Of all the battles from the many wars that Britain has been involved in, the 1066 Battle of Hastings is perhaps the conflict that is more singularly known than any other. It is the last battle in which an invading army to these isles was triumphant, and it’s the first thing high school students are taught in History lessons, your humble author included. The battle is significant for ushering in the Norman era in England, a watershed moment that altered the course of history forever.
The invading Normans were led by William, Duke of Normandy, aggrieved that the throne of England – promised to him by previous King Edward ‘the Confessor’ – had been seized by one Harold Godwin, an Anglo Saxon, upon Edward’s death. When the two sides faced off in October 1066 at what is now called, aptly enough, ‘Battle’ Harold had rushed to the field having just seen off a Viking invasion in the North of the country from another claimant to the throne at Stamford Bridge. The battle was a close-run thing, but a combination of English fatigue and superior Norman arms and tactics ensured William’s triumph and Harold’s death.
Today, the site of the battle is an English heritage site complete with visitor centre, gardens and the ruins of the abbey that was built to commemorate the battle. The visitor centre serves as a good introduction for the uninitiated, with exhibits providing context on both the Norman and English armies. Beowulf and the Song of Roland, epic poems recited by bards to the English and French respectively on the field of battle, play in muted, dulcet tones from a bench in the middle of the room. And a movie, narrated by celebrated historian Dr David Starkey in his trademark clipped and slightly aggressive manner, tells the story of the battle in suitably dramatic fashion.
Venturing out to the battlefield affords the visitor with the opportunity to walk in the heavy-duty footsteps of the soldiers who waged this bloody, tumultuous conflict. The landscape has altered, with farming and other developments making the hill the Normans charged up in their assault on the English lines a little less steep than it was 950+ years ago. But it’s still possible to get a sense of the battle, particularly if you opt for the audio guide, which does a good job of bringing it to life with its detailed breakdown of the battle’s events, complete with tales of individual derring-do and focus on the crucial turning points.
The best is saved for last, though, with the Abbey itself, without which the place would amount to a bunch of fields. William built it as a means of atoning for the carnage – some 7000 soldiers were killed, equating to roughly half the total number of men who took the field – and it was inhabited by the Benedictine Order of Monks, about whom you can find out more about in the Gatehouse museum. Only a fraction of the original abbey remains, thanks to the dissolution of the Monasteries under Henry VIII and more modern additions to the grounds such as a walled garden. But it is an impressive ruin nonetheless, with the grand Novice and Common rooms, majestically buttressed by ornate pillars, the standouts.
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Abbey turned battlefield Apr 15, 2009
The historical town of Battle is so-named because this is the location of the last invasion of England, William the Conqueror brought his Norman army across the channel and gave Harold a good seeing to.
The Abbey was here before the battle itself was fought in 1066. Not much of the place is left after almost a thousand years but there is certainly enough to satisfy an interested visitor.
You enter the Abbey grounds through the Tower Gate. This imposing fortress houses the ticket booth and souvenir shop as well as several rooms set up as display and education rooms by the Heritage Society.
It is in good condition and we climbed the towers to see the treasures and how the rooms were used all that time ago.
There were also some little nooks and crannies off these rooms that I had to check out. Ma wasn't convinced we were allowed into these tiny spaces, but they weren't blocked off and once we'd crawled up and down the stone steps we entered out into a large space within one of the great round towers. Sometimes you have to go off the beaten track to find a hidden treasure!
We decided not to collect the headset that would tell us about the site as we moved about. We had a pamphlet that explained things well enough for us and we set off around the track leading down through the actual battlefield.
The track winds through a wooded area to the rear of the Abbey site where the earth still shows signs of trenches and moats created to protect the buildings from the French attackers. The undercrofts are along the back wall and though these are hollow caverns now in their recent history they were great for smugglers to stash their loot.
Continuing along the wall we came to the Monks Common room and Novices' quarters. Just a shell now there building is still whole enough that you can appreciate the rooms as they may have been used by the monks and the arches are still very impressive.
The next points of interest are more modern features. The Abbott's Hall was used as a farming estate in recent times. Here there are now two newish buildings from this period, a butter room, where butter was churned, and an ice room, sunk into the ground to assist with keeping the butter fresh.
The hall is used as a private school these days so this part of the site is inaccessible to the public. Moving past these buildings, you come to the foundations and crypts of the William's church, long since flattened, where there lies a flagstone commemorating the alter erected at the place where King Harold drew his final breath.
Finally we came to the Abbey wall, connecting to the Tower Gate. From these ramparts you can enjoy a commending view over Battle's town center.
All in all the site was a very interesting way to spend half a day.
Part of the Mercy Dash travel blog
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