Friday, 14 October 2016

950th Anniversary of the Battle of Hastings - Why is Battle Abbey at Battle?

Ever since I first started writing a revisionist geography and history of the Battle of Hastings I have been asked the same questions.  Where was the battle?  If it wasn't at Battle then why is Battle Abbey there?

No one can answer the first question.  We don't know where the battle was because all that 100 years and more of archaeology have found is a single axe head three miles from Battle and a single skeleton of a 10th century violent death victim almost 20 miles away.  The axe could have been lost by a woodsman eaten by wolves.  The victim of violent death could have died a thousand different ways any time in that violent century.

All we can know for sure is that the nearest fortification to the battle was Hastingecaestre (not to be confused with modern Hastings which didn't exist in 1066).  The Normans had a naming convention that named battles for the nearest castle or  fortifcation, as Shakespeare reminds us in Henry V when the king names the battlefield for the nearby fortress of Agincourt.  Wherever the battle was, the nearest fortification was at Hastingacaestre.

Today I mark the 950th anniversary of the Norman Conquest by answering the second question of why Battle Abbey is at Battle.  I finally know why Battle Abbey was sited where it was and it is a really, really good reason.  Medieval minsters were sited along the coast so that they could be viewed by mariners coming into port.  The mariners could then give thanks for their successful voyage by visiting the minster and making offerings.  Battle Abbey was built on the promontory that  dominated the view of the mariners on ships entering the Brede Basin between Winchelsea and Rye at the ostium of the great estuarine port owned by Fecamp Abbey where the Normans had landed their fleet in 1066 and camped their army while waiting for King Harold, his Anglo-Danish earls and thanes, his Danish mercenaries and whatever Saxons may have followed him.

The breakthrough came at the 2016 Battle Conference, where we were housed in the Battle School within the Abbey's grounds.  The accommodation was basic (3 to a room and shared bathrooms on the landing) but my view was priceless.  From my first story window I could see the wind turbines turning on Camber Sands.  That gave me the idea that the abbey - which had stood just east of my window - could also see down the great Brede Basin to Camber Sands between Winchelsea and Rye.  Fortunately for me English Heritage had just opened up the roof of the Gateway Tower to the public, so I could run up the tower and check the view to be certain.  My heart pounded all the way up, and not from the stairs.  Sure enough, from the tower you can see all the way down the length of the Udimore Ridge to the ostium of the great medieval port between Rye and Winchelsea.

I jumped in my car and drove to Icklesham, which is where I believe the Normans had their camp.  I raced down the footpath into the flat bottom of the now pastoral valley.  Sure enough, from the bottom of the valley you can see Battle hill clearly against the horizon at the top of the valley.  There is a gap in the great ridge above Hastings that reveals Battle to the port.  Had I been on the deck of ship entering on a rising tide I could not have offered a more heartfelt prayer of thanks.

I raced around the valley to Udimore in the slanting afternoon sun in time to assure myself that Battle could also be seen from a tower or high window at Udimore where Court Manor had stood in the days of William the Conqueror.

Below is the photographic proof.  Battle Abbey was sited at Battle because it could be seen from the port, and also from King William's royal manor at Udimore.

It feels really good to have figured this out after all this time.  I went down to the Brede Basin again a few weeks ago with the Winchelsea Archaeological Society and we all walked out to the middle of the basin for the view.  Everyone who was with me was just as excited as I was.  We now have an answer for why is Battle Abbey at Battle: so it could be seen by Norman mariners and warriors and settlers as they came into the great port that had hosted the conquering fleet and army.

Happy 950th anniversary!  More to come as I continue my researches.


  1. Well done Kathleen, It's a wonderful feeling when bits of research come together, isn't it? I had couple of those lively "score" moments recently - adding minutiae to my paper "To Rescue Our Soldiers - May-June 1940". Best wishes from "old" Jersey.

    1. Cheers, Matthewe! The moment was both lively and lovely. Of course I told everyone at the Battle Conference, including Roy Porter from English Heritage, about the discovery. Academics are a funny lot. They would rather argue over the unknowable than embrace a proven reality they could see themselves with their own eyes. I guess I'll have to write it up for a journal with citations before the fact of the abbey's geography overlooking the port can be accorded any academic significance.

  2. Oooops! Typo - - that should have read "lovely Score moments"