I often talk about the fact that there are places where history exists in layers, where you can physically feel the weight of the past on the present. Battle Abbey in East Sussex is one such place. The importance of what happened here in October 1066 is still palpable nearly one thousand years later, for this is the site of what we now know as the Battle of Hastings – one of the most crucial moments in all of English history.
It all began (and ended) with the death of a king, as these things so often do. And, as is also so often the case with medieval history, that’s where it all gets a bit complicated. On 4th January 1066, King Edward (‘the Confessor’) died. He had no children and thus no direct heir. As a result, his death was likely to leave something of a power vacuum in England.
This was a problem in the making, since the English throne was among the most desirable in all of Europe due to its significant economic and military strength at the time. Unsurprisingly, amongst all the interested parties there were a number of claimants sniffing round the throne (although who claimed or promised what to whom will never be known with any accuracy now), with three in particular having perhaps the most legitimate claims to the English crown at the time.
These three were Harold Godwinson, Earl of Wessex; the Norwegian king Harald Hardrada; and Duke William of Normandy (then known as ‘William the Bastard’ because he was illegitimate, rather than because he was an unpleasant person – although, it must be said that the amounts of power and ambition floating about probably didn’t help as far as the latter was concerned). For all kinds of reasons, this wasn’t necessarily going to be a fair fight.
During Edward’s final illness, it had become obvious that a choice desperately had to be made as to who would be his successor. Edward’s advisors all knew that whoever the dying king chose would not have an easy time of it in the immediate aftermath of his accession. Indeed, it was highly likely that his rivals to the throne would make their presence felt, possibly quite violently. The risk of invasion or even civil war was a very real one at this stage.
And that’s exactly what happened. Edward’s eventual choice was Earl Harold of Wessex, who was already not only the most powerful noble in the country, but also the dead king’s brother-in-law and in charge of the royal army. Under the circumstances, choosing Harold was probably a logical decision and he did turn out to be an effective leader to begin with – but there was always a risk to his rule from his rivals to the throne (and others), including his own brother, Tostig, who was out for revenge after losing his territories.
After a tense summer waiting for his enemies to turn up on his doorstep (in particular, the risk of an invasion from across the Channel was high), Harold might have been forgiven for thinking these enemies would give up on the idea as autumn and winter began to approach. However, if he had been thinking that, he’d have been wrong, because in mid-September 1066 Harald Hardrada, persuaded by the exiled and embittered Tostig, landed an invasion force in the north of England.
This opportunist invasion was the beginning of the end for King Harold. Inevitably, it meant he was forced to defend his position and his crown, so he rapidly moved north with a hastily-assembled army. The two forces met on 25th September near York at the Battle of Stamford Bridge (no, not that Stamford Bridge…), where Harold comprehensively defeated the Norwegians, terminally putting paid to Tostig’s scheming and neutralising Hardrada’s ambitions towards the English throne with extreme prejudice.
Across the Channel, William saw his opportunity. News of Hardrada’s invasion and Harold’s reaction to it would have spread rapidly, and it is likely that William would have realised that southern England was probably now poorly defended as a result. He set sail for England only a day or so after Stamford Bridge, landing completely unopposed at Pevensey, on the Sussex coast.
There is no historical evidence as to where Harold actually was when he first heard of William’s arrival, but it is traditionally believed he was still in York with his army while they recovered from their exertions against the Norwegians (as well as probably drinking a lot in celebration of their victory). Tired, and probably hungover, Harold’s army was dragged south in short order. I can just imagine the grumbling.
On his arrival in London, instead of taking some time to think tactics and build up a new force (as would probably have been the most logical thing to do), the threatened and probably by now extremely annoyed king understandably paused only to collect a few new troops before rapidly setting off to Sussex to confront William.
By 13th October, Harold was approaching the south coast, hoping to surprise the Normans (much as he had surprised Hardrada and the Norwegians at Stamford Bridge less than three weeks earlier). But it wasn’t to work like that this time – William discovered Harold’s impending presence and quickly moved his troops the better to defend his position.
That night, both armies were camped in the vicinity of what is now Battle Abbey. Harold, William and their respective forces must have known that a battle was imminent, that one side would attack very soon. The night air must have been full of tension and fear and hypervigilance on both sides as the two armies waited out the cold hours of darkness the best they could.
Harold held back until dawn had broken on 14th October before making his move, lining his troops up, ready to go. William followed suit, and what became known as the Battle of Hastings began at 9am. It lasted all day, with the Norman cavalry repeatedly attacking Harold’s infantry in an effort to take the ridge they were defending. By late afternoon, the daylight was fading and the Normans decided to make one last attack – and it was this attack which turned out to be the fateful one for Harold.
If the Bayeux Tapestry is to be believed, it was now that King Harold was seriously wounded by an arrow to the eye (this has been questioned by a number of historians over the years, but, y’know, tradition), and then hacked to death as he collapsed. However he really did meet his end, it was a deeply unpleasant one. And having lost most of their military leaders and now their royal figurehead (and with the fears of night rapidly approaching), Harold’s troops were well and truly beaten.
It was over.
Of the three main rivals to the English throne at the beginning of 1066, only William was left standing by the end of the year – no longer just William the Bastard, he was indeed now William the Conqueror. On the Christmas Day of that same year, he officialised his position with a coronation at Westminster Abbey. However, decisive as the Battle of Hastings had been, William still had to deal with resistance to his new regime from rebellious groups right across the country for the next five years.
He was merciless in this, stamping his authority on England via military force – and via the building of a huge number of intimidatingly Norman castles, churches and cathedrals. Amongst these was Battle Abbey, built for a variety of reasons, but mostly both to prove a highly visible point about William’s newly-won power and to act as a memorial to those who had died in the battle of 1066. The high altar of the Abbey Church is said to be built on the spot where King Harold’s standard finally fell that October afternoon and the history of England irrevocably changed.
William died in 1087, before the abbey could be finished (although he made generous provision for it in his will). The Abbey Church was finally consecrated in 1094, and the town of Battle soon began to develop around it – as with the towns that grew up around Roman forts in an earlier period, there was always money to be earned from supplying the abbey with both luxuries and the necessities of life, and the abbey, it seems, had money enough to spare as the town rapidly became prosperous.
Surviving war and plague, the abbey was eventually unable to beat back the forces of Henry VIII’s anti-monastic greed, and the property was given to one of the king’s friends, who promptly demolished most of it. Changing hands several times during the 18th and 19th centuries, it was a private home for many years before becoming a school in 1922. In January 1931, serious damage was caused to the abbey buildings by a fire, and, less than ten years later, the army moved onto the site. In a curiously inverted twist of history, soldiers billeted there in 1944 took part in the D-Day Normandy Landings. It’s now looked after by English Heritage.
You can still feel the tension of that October day in 1066 as you walk around Battle Abbey – really, all of its history lingers, the dramatic and the mundane side by side in a tangle of memory and impression – although I have to say it really is a beautiful place to be when the sun comes out, as you can see from the photographs above. I was there on a chilly winter afternoon, and as the sun briefly slipped behind the clouds the sight of the bleak battlefield made me shiver and wonder about the way the ghosts of history – those remnants of the past that never leave us – still make themselves felt today.
It’s no surprise, then, to learn that those lords of darkness, Black Sabbath themselves, appear to have filmed a video there in the 1980s, or that the site is actually allegedly haunted by earthbound knights (one, at least, is supposed to appear every year on the anniversary of the battle) and the obligatory ghostly monks. Even King Harold himself is said to make incorporeal comebacks occasionally, the fatal arrow still lodged in his eye as his legend maintains…