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Posted on Nov 18, 2005 in Front Page Features, Stuff We Like

Battlefield Tour – Hastings

Armchair General

BATTLEFIELD TOUR – HASTINGS

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It’s no exaggeration to say that the Battle of Hastings is one of the pivotal moments in British history; perhaps even the history of the world, and it is certainly the most famous battle to have been fought on British soil.

Following the death of Edward the Confessor in January 1066, the English throne was claimed by no less than three mighty warriors, King Harald Hardråda of Norway, Harold Godwinson – a member of Edward’s Court and last, but by no means least, Duke William of Normandy. Both Harold and Duke William claimed that Edward had promised them the succession, and William even believed he had Harold’s support for the throne, but it was Harold and not William who was to be crowned King of England a day after Edward’s death.

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Thus, Duke William, finding himself denied that which he had been promised, resolved to take the Crown under arms and prepared an Army to invade the British Isles, his force consisting of 7,000 men in over 600 ships.

Bad weather delayed William’s departure and he did not land on British soil, at Pevensey, until September the 28th, 1066, whereupon his troops marched East and set to work building a prefabricated wooden Castle near Hastings to use as their base. Once secure, but still close to their ships (in case a hasty retreat was called for), the Norman Army began systematically to lay waste to the area. This was a direct challenge to King Harold, since the landing region, a part of Sussex, was his own personal realm.

But Harold had been busy elsewhere and was unable to meet the Normans as they landed. For only three days before the Norman force had landed, his troops had fought and destroyed another invading Army led by Harald Hardråda at the Battle of Stamford Bridge some way to the North near the town of York. Hardråda had been killed at that battle, and there would never again be any threat from Scandinavia, but upon hearing reports of the new invasion to the South, Harold made haste to meet William and rode to meet him in battle, eventually stopping some 7 miles North of Hastings to prepare his forces.

Although the forces were closely matched and the battle was a close-run thing, I’m not going to be spoiling any surprises by revealing that the Normans won the day and a new era of English history began, one which would ultimately have many profound effects across Europe. But how was that battle won and what can be found at the battlefield now, nearly 1,000 years later? I took a trip to find out.

This article covers the following:

1) The Gatehouse and Grounds.

2) The Museum.

3) Prelude to Battle Exhibition.

4) Battle Abbey.

5) The Battlefield.

All pictures in this article were taken using a Sony DSCH1 at 5.0 Megapixels, since resized for this piece. Click on the thumbnails for larger images.

THE GATEHOUSE AND GROUNDS

Before I start, I apologise if this photo-tour might seem, on the face of things, to be a little back-to-front, but it’s essentially in the same order that any visitor will experience a visit to the battlefield for themself. Plus, I wanted to save the best bits until the last, thus this article will firstly deal with the post-battle constructions on site before it covers the battlefield itself.

It might be slightly disconcerting for some visitors to learn that the battlefield that played host to the Battle of Hastings is not…actually…at Hastings at all. It’s actually in a town that is rather appropriately called Battle. At the time of the battle, there was no town at this place, and Hastings was the nearest settlement. Some years after the battle, Duke William of Normandy (now William I of England, or simply William the Conqueror), himself under instruction from the Pope, ordered the construction of an Abbey on the site of the battle to atone for the great loss of life that had occurred during the conquest of England. The Abbey became known as Battle Abbey, and over the years, it would continue to grow and evolve. Eventually a town sprung up to service the needs of the Abbey itself, the town itself becoming known simply as Battle.

Entrance to the battlefield and the remains of Battle Abbey is made through this impressive Monastic Gatehouse, which dates largely from 1338, having replaced an earlier structure. The second photo on the right shows a view of the town centre from the steps of the Gatehouse.

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The Gatehouse was the Abbey’s link with the outside world and was a place to receive visitors and tradesmen, as well as an administrative centre. Upgraded in 1338 to provide additional security, the ornate carvings and decoration are an indication of the wealth of the Abbey at that time.

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The centre section of the Gatehouse has small octagonal turrets on each corner. The second picture shows a view of the Gatehouse from the South-West. The Town Courthouse adjoining the Gatehouse dates from around 1550.

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Extending from the Gatehouse, the remains of a Precinct Wall run along the more recent main road that winds through the town of Battle. This wall was constructed at the same time as the fortified Gatehouse in 1338 and used to encompass all of the Abbey Buildings. The Abbey was licenced by the Crown to fortify itself to defend against French raids which were prevalent at the time.

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Here’s a view through the perimeter wall and down to the high street below. And in the next picture, the West Range of the Abbey, which was once used as a Stately Home but which is now a Private Girls’ School.

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Just around the corner from the Gatehouse can be found the remains of the Abbey Church, which was completely destroyed during the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1538 (you can blame King Henry VIII for that). Here you can see the remains of the Crypt area. There is one other bit I want to show you from the Church, but I’ve kept it right for the end.

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A thanks from a grateful nation – it was due to the efforts of some generous US Citizens that the battlefield and the Abbey can be visited today. The plaque speaks for itself. Thanks chaps!

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1 Comment

  1. Nice work, Andrew. I appreciate the photos of the battlefield. I am a public historian (M.A. plus public history training and work experience) and I would give anything to come over give tours of that special place. Thank you for the photo tour. I enjoyed it. Best, Jim

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