Before I came to Hastings, my mind always seemed to prefix the location with The Battle Of. Little did I know, until I was recently educated, that the historic site of The Battle of Hastings actually isn’t in Hastings.
When the event took place in the year 1066, Hastings was the nearest town (thus giving the event its namesake), but afterward another town grew in the location due to a memorial abbey built upon the field.
This is the town of Battle.
And so it was that Ricky and I went to Battle to see said abbey and the battlefield it immortalizes – fittingly named Battle Abbey.
The day started out quite rainy, so we boarded the train with some trepidation.
Would we be able to get much photography in? Would we get pneumonia in the process? And how muddy were our shoes going to get? (Worry dispeller: we did indeed get much photography in, we didn’t get pneumonia, and a reparable amount of mud got on our shoes).
But the rain had tapered off to an on-off sprinkle by the time we rolled into Battle Station. We met up with Sue, Ricky’s Nan and resident of Battle, who kindly offered her company to show us around.
The entry was completely congested with French students on a school trip, but after breaking out ma langue Quebecoise, I managed to get us through the crowd and into the grounds.
For a while we had to take refuge from the sudden downpour in the learning center. This was quite enjoyable though because they had models of weapons used in the Battle of 1066, maps, interactive screens, and even a short film. It probably was a good place to stop first to learn some of the history too – because at least personally I was quite poorly informed on the subject prior to my arrival.
So for the history in a nutshell, the Battle of 1066 was the last successful invasion of England and changed their course of history forever. At the time, King Edward the Confessor (1042-1066) had just died and King Harold took up the throne. But his right to the throne was contested.
Duke William of Normandy was one of said contesting parties (for complex political reasons I’m not going to mention here because I’d butcher it). He led an army to the shores of England, and learning of King Harold’s secret advance of his own army, managed to surprise the new English King. On October 14th 1066, Duke William of Normandy secured his victory over King Harold in a bloody battle.
This event marked the end of the Anglo-Saxon period, moving the country into a tradition of feudalism. It all but broke from its Norse heritage, moving instead into a greater Western European influence. King William I, or William the Conqueror, was crowned King of England on December 25th 1066.
In about 1070, Battle Abbey was commissioned by King William. It was said that he swore to build an Abbey if God granted him victory over the King of England, but more realistically speaking it was probably an imposed penance by the papal legates that year.
Still, considering there were tons of revolts happening in opposition to his claiming of the throne, it was a way to express a sense of grandeur and permanency in his conquest to the people. Indeed, it was quite permanent as there are parts still standing today nearly 1000 years later.
Phew, okay, so if you made it through the history part, congrats! Photos will now dominate this post.
So we got our crash course in English history and were rewarded when we stepped outside to the shining sun. Out whipped our cameras.
Unfortunately the Great Gatehouse was under construction and therefore closed to wandering tourists. But I’ll have to come back as it promises a museum inside…
Opposite the Great Gatehouse is a fancy private school where students are now taught. It’s actually a series of buildings built over the centuries, the first being the West Range abbot’s lodging built in the 13th century (to the far left, but not in frame), then the abbot’s great hall built in the 15th century (the squarish one dead center), and finally the library wing built in the 19th century (the building to the far right).
You can also see a distant turret over the green, part of the remaining guest house lodgings – but details on that later (spoilers, we walk around the grounds and see it up close).
We wandered towards the gardens where they had lovely flower pots for sale.
Considering I can’t even keep a cactus alive I don’t know why seeing potted plants always fills my heart with longing.
There were so many narrow walks and high hedgerows to explore. This one led up to the school, which was sorely tempting to follow.
Entering the gardens, we were led under the boughs of camellias trees in full spring bloom. The trees were planted by the Duchess of Cleveland, so we know exactly who to thank for how beautiful it now is.
It felt like walking into a medieval fairy tale. Indulge my excess flower photography in this area.
We had a chance to climb up what’s left of the Precinct Wall at this point.
It was so strange to see the modern world right over the other side…
The view also made me realize how much I enjoy looking at English rooftops, which are never straight and always speckled in moss and lichen from the damp.
The wall originally surrounded the whole of the Abbey to give privacy and protection from robbers. It’s quite rare for an Abbey to have, however, and so has led to the speculation that it’s a modern addition during the 13th century due to the Hundred Years War. The stretch in this area was the best preserved, but much of the rest has since fallen into disrepair.
From here, you can see the parish church of St Mary on the other side of the wall.
The gardens then transformed into giant hedge rows. Not quite a maze, but close.
It was quite eerie but exciting to walk through the greenery. Although maybe it’s because I had just recently read The Shining and was therefore expecting the topiary to come attack me.
When we emerged, we came upon the Abbey Church.
Or rather, what’s left of it. Which isn’t much.
Sadly during Henry VIII’s reign in 1539, his suppression of religion meant that many abbeys and churches across the country were deconstructed.
Battle Abbey was personally given to Sir Anthony Browne, King Henry VIII’s close friend, who kept the Great Gatehouse but got rid of most of the religious buildings including the Church, most of the Chapter House, Refectory, and Cloister Walk. He kept some of the lodgings for his personal residence, however, preserving some of what we’re able to see today.
One of the things partially left behind was the Chapter House, seen below. It was a central part of the daily lives of the monks living at the abbey. The whole top floor was a dormitory while the bottom level was filled with benches for their daily meetings.
Since it was handed down by Henry VIII, Battle Abbey has changed hands many times. Thankfully not every instance of this was met with destruction: several buildings were put up too as was seen fit during the different centuries.
One of the most interesting (and indeed rare survivals) is a thatched dairy house and an accompanying underground ice house that looks very much like a hobbit hole. They were additions to the grounds in about 1818 during the ownership of Sir Godfrey Vassall.
The path then led down into one of my favourite places on the grounds, the Duchess of Cleveland’s walled garden. Although at this time there isn’t much to see, fruit trees of all kinds have been planted to favour the original horticulture of the Duke and Duchess’ preference during the mid 19th century.
Pear, apple, fig, and almond trees along with mulberries were planted during their ownership of the Abbey so that they could have fruit stored all year long for both them and their servants. In the distance there were also some bee hive huts. Though I’m not sure when they were in use, they added a very picturesque look to the scene.
In all though, it was a beautifully peaceful place. If I had a walled garden, I’d have a hammock and a book out there all the time. Possibly with a servant hired with the sole task of bringing me tea.
Although there is a lovely hour-long walk that takes you all around the fields where the Battle of Hastings is said to have been physically fought, we figured we didn’t trust the weather (nor the state of the trail) enough to risk such a committed endeavour.
Instead, we went along the terrace walk where we could look down onto the southern part of the battlefield.
The sun came out at last, leaving us dazzled by the brilliance of the lush fields illuminated by daffodils waving in the breeze.
On the opposite side of our view was another structure still standing – although only just.
The building here is actually divided into two construction periods. The lower level is the original 13th century construction made by the abbott of the time. Built near his own house, these were guest quarters for the more illustrious visitors the Abbey received.
The more grand and obvious turrets were a part of a reconstruction done by the Browne family after Henry VIII gifted the Abbey to them. Instead of demolishing the building as they did to many of the surrounding others, Sir Anthony Browne had it remodelled as a bigger and grander guesthouse.
It was only in the 19th century when the Duke and Duchess of Cleveland demolished the 16th century addition except for the two western towers, leaving the 13th century undercrofts.
We could actually walk around in these undercrofts which was super exciting as the rest of the buildings on the site were closed for maintenance.
These rooms were old. The stone was worn away from thousands of footsteps over hundreds of years. The stonework felt ancient. But of course humans are humans, and so contemporary carvings are all over their face.
Once inside, you could go from room to room, but these interior linking doorways are a modern addition. Originally each was separated from the other and probably used for the abbey cellarer’s storerooms. Later on in the 18th century when smuggling was rampant in England, it’s believed that they were used to hide contraband.
After the guest range, we headed along the far end of the terrace walk and ended up looping back to where we started.
I was bitterly tempted to get some mead from the gift shop (yes, they had actual mead and a sampling table), or maybe some books (one in particular on medieval women looked so interesting!), but I was good. I had my guide book, and I was quite happy with that.
In all, if you’re interested in history, Battle Abbey is well worth the visit. The grounds are beautiful, the buildings are considerably well preserved (the ones not dismantled by kings several centuries back, that is), and is rich with history. I’m so glad that I was able to go – especially having lived in Hastings for the past four months. It would have been tourist sacrilege to skip out on seeing the thing this town is most famous for – even if it’s technically in another town.
And actually, as a closing disclaiming note, I feel obligated to mention that modern archaeological study now believes that the grounds of Battle Abbey aren’t in fact where the battle literally took place. That honour, apparently, goes to what is now a roundabout off the highway. Still, whether or not William the Conqueror overshot his memory of where the battle took place (or, more likely, chose a more scenic/convenient setting for construction), the history that Battle Abbey has accumulated over the last thousand years is more than enough to grant it historical favour.
If you want to watch the Otherwise Chronicles video that I made on my trip to the Abbey, here it is below.
Until next time!