Battle Abbey, East Sussex
1066 is renowned for being one of the most famous years in English history. It is a historical narrative etched into our brains since school. On 5th January, the English king named Edward the Confessor died without a direct heir. The following day, Harold Godwinson, the popular and resolute Earl of Wessex, was elected to sit on the vacant throne. William, Duke of Normandy (later known as William the Conqueror, also known as William the Bastard), and Harald Hardrada, King of Norway—were two ruthless leaders who yearned for conquest and claimed legitimacy to wear the English crown. Harald Hardrada would be the first to strike England with King Harold’s exiled brother, Tostig Godwinson. After the Norwegian invasion force had landed, the two moved on to York and defeated Edwin, Earl of Mercia, and Morcar, Earl of Northumbria. On 25th September, Harold would march his army north to best them at the Battle of Stamford Bridge. Within days, Duke William would make his move and arrive with his fleet at Pevensey (or other nearby landing sites) in East Sussex. King Harold’s army would swiftly endure a march of 270 miles to face-off with William’s forces at a location near Hastings, East Sussex; this location would later be known as Battle. On 14th October, the Battle of Hastings famously ended in Harold’s death and defeat, with William succeeding the crown in victory and the eventual conquest over England.
William had layered reasons to endorse the abbey’s construction. Tradition states before the battle, William pledged to build in commemoration an abbey free from episcopal control if he were to be victorious. Freedom from episcopal governance meant that the community had certain privileges protecting it against intervention from church authorities, such as regional bishops. These precursory mandates made Battle a propriety abbey, also known in Germanic Christian culture as an ‘eigenkirche’ and an ‘ecclesia propria’ in Latin. Only Canterbury had the same measure of status. In addition to the battle, William would dedicate the establishment of the abbey to the Holy Trinity, Virgin Mary and St Martin of Tours—a favoured saint among Norman society. William’s motivation to push for the abbey’s creation could have been born from either self-merit, guilt or spiritual penance, or a mixture of all three. A good indicator of William’s character and consideration is that the chosen site was unpopular with both monks and builders. The ground area had a soft clay surface compounded with an undrained swamp. The nearby battlefield would have been uneven heathland partly enclosed by the dense forest of the Weald (a large forest that once covered most of South East England). Nonetheless, despite the extra building costs and lack of a suitable water supply, William fiercely commanded the project to proceed with the high altar of its church marking the spot where Harold ostensibly fell in battle after receiving the famous arrow to the eye.
Thousands died at the Battle of Hastings in 1066, but many more perished in England as William consolidated his throne with an iron fist. A ruthless example of William’s attempt to quell any rebellions against his rule was during the campaigns of 1069-70 in Northern England, known as the Harrying of the North. An Anglo-Danish uprising would engender William to march his forces North to commit the mass slaughter and starvation of its people, the destruction and pillaging of its communities and farmsteads, and the displacement of its regional Anglo-Saxon nobility and population. William did a scorched earth tactic to break the North’s will while sending a message to the rest of England that he was here to stay. However, this unsurprisingly came at a cost to his image and conscience. Thus, Battle Abbey’s existence was likely also born from moral atonements demanded by Pope Alexander II and the Bishops of Normandy for the ruthless invasion and subjugation of the English. According to a contemporary Benedictine monk named Orderic Vitalis, William the Conqueror was quoted to have confessed his transgressions on his deathbed:
‘I’ve persecuted the natives of England beyond all reason, whether gentle or simple. I have cruelly oppressed them and unjustly disinherited them, killed innumerable multitudes by famine or the sword and become the barbarous murderer of many thousands both young and old of that fine race of people.’
Aside from the Bayeux Tapestry and accounts made by a contemporary historian named William of Poitiers,the exact location of the Battle of Hastings is shrouded in mystery. The longstanding concept is that the battle took place on abbey grounds. Although, some sources debate whether the bulk of the fighting near the Hastings area instead happened at Crowhurst (a village 3 miles south of modern-day Battle) or Caldbec Hill (1 mile north of the abbey). However, from William’s unyielding drive and detail to construct the abbey against opposing requests, we can surmise from its ongoing special status that its location held substantial value both historically and politically. The first holy residents of the abbey would be monks imported from Marmoutier, France. Though founded in 1067, the completion of the abbey and its church would happen between 1070-1094. William the Conqueror would never see the project finished, but his son, William (also known as Rufus, meaning ‘the Red’ in Latin), would see it completed. At the time of completion, it was one of the wealthiest religious establishments in the whole of England.
During its heyday, the abbey would have consisted of a great gatehouse (as the entrance), a courthouse, a chapter house, an inner parlour, a precinct wall, the abbey church (which included the alter positioned in the legendary spot where Harold died during the battle), a terrace and guest range (used by the Cellarer for offices and additional storage), a common room, a cloister, an infirmary and a dairy and icehouse. In addition, the dining hall, kitchen and frater were located in the south-range; the west-range housed storage and accommodation; and lastly, sited at the east-range was the dorter, latrines and novices’ chamber.
Historical significance alone would bestow wealth and advantages upon Battle Abbey. Being free from episcopal polity left it spared from clerical examination by the local Bishop of Chichester. Nonetheless, the Archbishop of Canterbury still had the sole right to interfere with the abbey’s domestic affairs.
‘He who labours as he prays lifts his heart to God with his hands.’
These are the words and Rule of St Benedict that the monks at Battle lived by daily. A mixture of prayer, liturgy and work structured life at the abbey. As the abbey flourished, so did the town of Battle on its doorstep. Local merchants, traders, farmers and artisans profited greatly through providing services and commodities to the monastic community. The town’s contribution did not go unnoticed; in 1115, St Marys Church (which still stands today) was established by Abbot Ralph and his monks for the community.
From 1139, Abbot Walter de Luci became a prominent protector and innovator for Battle Abbey. Unfortunately for de Luci, the abbey’s existence did not sit well with opposing jurisdictions at Canterbury and Chichester. Theobald of Bec, Archbishop of Canterbury, did not want a rival establishment of equal power; moreover, Bishop Hilary of Chichester did not want to omit a valuable asset within his diocese. So, in 1157, a case was put together and presented to Henry II that challenged the abbey’s charter. To Canterbury and Chichester, the story of William’s pre-battle vow of episcopal control was seen as being a convenient and far-fetched safeguard for Walter. And they both had a right to be dubious—for, in 1154, the aforementioned vow initially emerged in a forged charter which the monks at Battle had produced. Nonetheless, due to personal affinities from the king and his court, the forgery was still enough to preserve the abbey’s special status.
During the thirteenth century, the abbots put most of their finances towards revamping the abbey’s church and the buildings near the cloister. In 1211, to keep Battle’s old episcopal freedoms, the monks had to pay King John 1500 marks, which was a considerable amount of money for the time. Battle earned more power and privileges during Hamo of Offyngton’s tenure as abbot from 1364–83. Though the mitre (an ornate hat worn for special ceremonies) is exclusively bespoken for bishops, consent was granted by the papacy for the abbots of Battle to wear one thenceforth. In addition, it became common for Battle abbots to contribute to matters of secular governance via a seat in parliament (the House of Lords). Alas, what also became common, were coastal incursions made by French forces during the Hundred Years War. The abbots would provide security and safety to the local towns and their inhabitants, to the extent that Abbot Hamo himself, at the head of a small army, successfully repelled a French force close to Winchelsea in 1377. The defences against French raids would amount to further costs. Eventually, in the fourteenth century, the Black Death would incur a substantial loss of life within the Battle community. These compounding factors massively drained the abbey’s resources
The final blow came during the reign of Henry VIII after his split from the Catholic faith. From 1536-1541, King Henry would dissolve monasteries, abbeys, friaries, convents and priories across his kingdom. It would be a time known as the Dissolution of the Monasteries, and not even Battle Abbey could escape its penalties. Henry’s decision to split from Rome to create the Church of England was very advantageous for him. Not only could he divorce his wife, Catherine of Aragon, but he could confiscate many wealthy Catholic assets within England. For example, during the 16th century, Battle Abbey’s income was valued at £880 per year, equivalent to £873,000 today. The contemporary abbot was John Hamond, and although Henry would remove Hamond and his monks from the abbey, the king would still grant them pensions and reparations.
Henry would gift Battle and most of its estates, along with a nunnery, priory and two other abbeys, to Sir Anthony Browne. Anthony was the king’s Master of the Horse, Standard Bearer, Knight of the Shire and closest confidant. Before turning the west-range (the abbot’s residence) into a secular country house, Anthony demolished sections of the cloister while completely tearing down the church and chapter house. Additionally, he restructured the old guesthouse into lodgings for notable visitors. During the late 17th century, his great-grandson, Francis Browne (3rd Viscount of Montagu), had the old monastic kitchen razed.
Being best mates with the most powerful man in the country had its perks for Sir Anthony Browne. Anthony would pass these paternal privileges down to his son and successor, also named Anthony Browne. During the short reign of Mary I, she made Anthony Browne (Jr) the 1st Viscount of Montagu. Paradoxically, despite his father playing his part well in the Dissolution, he was devoted to Catholicism and created a national hub at Battle for contemporary Catholics.
The abbey’s fate fell to another Anthony Browne—the 6th Viscount of Montagu—who sold the estate between 1715-1721 to politician Sir Thomas Webster, 1st Baronet. Under the Websters, they demolished the guest range renovated initially by the first Sir Anthony Browne, with the estate grounds and parks falling into poor condition. Yet, it would take the 5th Baronet, Sir Geoffrey Webster, to make beneficial investments in restoring and excavating the property during the early 19th century. More keen renovation investors came when the Duke and Duchess of Cleveland bought and resided in the abbey from 1857–1901. The two would employ the services of the architect Henry Clutton, who would build a new library in the west range alongside improving other derelict areas.
The Duchess of Cleaveland would die in 1901, resulting in the Webster family repurchasing the estate. Even today, only the slight layout of the old abbey church remains. As a result, the famous high altar, which would have stood to mark the alleged area where Harold fell, would be replaced by a memorial plague in 1903. The plaque was erected as a symbolic monument to Harold donated by the people of Normandy. From 1922 to the present day, the abbot’s lodgings in the west-range has been part of the Battle Abbey School. Unfortunately, parts of the estate were severely damaged during a fire in 1931. However, another architect by the name of Sir Harold Brakspear would create a further restoration project. Alongside architecture, Brakspear was also an avid archaeologist and would publish an illustrated historical sketchbook of Battle Abbey. During WW2, Canadian troops were predominately stationed at Battle Abbey, with one bomb being dropped by a low flying German aircraft that narrowly missed the main gatehouse.
In the wake of 900 years of history, the lack of upkeep funds resulted in long periods of intermittent disuse and disrepair; in the end, the Webster descendants sold the abbey to the state in 1976. This purchase was only possible thanks to a donation given by a group of American citizens to celebrate the bicentenary of the United States. It is now under the care of English Heritage as a Grade I listed site with continuous structural conservation and archaeological excavations. Tourists flock from across the UK and worldwide to visit the abbey ruins, 13th-16th century buildings, museum, re-enactment events and assumed battlefield location (situated in front of the site to the south).
Author: Thomas Davies