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Visiting Battle Abbey and Battlefield, Battle, East Sussex, England: where the Battle of Hastings was really fought

Updated on March 22, 2013
Flag of England
Flag of England | Source
Battle Abbey, in Battle
Battle Abbey, in Battle | Source
The site where King Harold II died.
The site where King Harold II died. | Source
Map location of Battle, East Sussex, England
Map location of Battle, East Sussex, England | Source

Where an era of English history began

This remarkable place explodes a number of myths. The Battle of Hastings fought in Battle? people may ask. We thought it happened — in 1066, of course — in Hastings... .

Well, no. If there is one thing certain about the location of the Battle of Hastings, it is that it wasn't at Hastings. In fact, it occurred at Battle, a small town with a remarkable, partly ruined Abbey.

But, then, prior to the great and decisive Battle when the native English forces were defeated by William the Conqueror (c. 1028-1087), there wasn't a town called Battle, of course; at the time, the nearest town was Hastings, hence the name. So to be precise, the Battle was fought at Battle, but near Hastings, but is called the Battle of Hastings.

Now that we have got those prepositions — at, near, of — right, we may proceed.

So what else? how about the supposed fact that at the Battle of Hastings, William the Conqueror's Normans beat the English? Well, the English forces, led by King Harold II (c, 1022-1066) were indeed beaten, but if Duke William had relied only on his Norman forces, he might not have won the Battle of Hastings at all. In fact, the Normans fought successfully in alliance with Breton forces (Brittany remaining separate from France until the 16th century).

So what else is there about the Battle of Hastings that so many people think they 'know'? It is often stated that King Harold met his demise by an arrow in the eye. Well, maybe he did. And maybe he didn't. Historians are not agreed whether later depictions of King Harold being killed by an arrow in the eye are actually based on fact. (But it makes for a dramatic story, anyway.)

Later, in 1070, Pope Alexander II ordered William, by now King of England to build an Abbey as a sign of regret for all the Englishmen that his forces had slain at the Conquest (yes, in those days, popes gave orders to kings). This Abbey, built at the site of the battlefield, was completed in about 1094, a sumptuous structure.

The Abbey function lasted only until the 16th century, however. At the Reformation, monasteries in England were dissolved by Henry VIII, and the Abbey buildings declined, some by deliberate damage, others by neglect. The remaining buildings were later used for a variety of purposes. Battle Abbey School, which still exists, was founded in 1922, the main building of which is the Abbot's House. The most impressive, surviving structure of Battle Abbey is the Main Gate, which on first appearance seems to belie the fact that much of the Abbey is ruined.

Today, the totality of the site is called '1066 Battle of Hastings, Abbey and Battlefield' and is operated by English Heritage. For those who are energetic enough to walk down the incline of the Battlefield, the positions of the warriors may be traced via the commentary of portable recording devices.

When I visited the Battleground, a reenactment was in progress, with costumed people giving an impression of what people would have looked like in 1066. (For North Americans familiar with the many Renaissance Fair reenactments, this particular one was rather different, however: 1066 was hundreds of years before the late Medieval and Early Modern periods of history, reenactments of which often show women in colourful, flowing dresses and men in elaborate outfits, and maybe opportunities for the display of Gothic-style jewellery.) The reenactors at the Battle of Hastings Battlefield, however, essentially represented earlier Medieval serfs and peasants, dressed in much simpler smocks. What they may have lacked in colour and glamour, therefore, was compensated by an accurate degree of period specificity.

An exhibition at the site displays much information by way of historical background.

Also worth seeing

Hastings (distance: 10 kilometres); noted features of this seaside town include the Norman castle, its funicular railroads at East Hill and West Hill and its Pier.

Eastbourne (distance: 26 kilometres); visitor attractions include the scenic Beachy Head, its Pier, and Wish Tower and Redoubt Fortress museums


How to get there: Continental Airlines flies to London Heathrow Airport, where car rental is available. (Distance from London Heathrow to Battle : 127 kilometres.) There are rail links to Battle from London Charing Cross railroad station. Please note that some facilities may be withdrawn without notice. You are advised to check with the airline or your travel agent for up to date information.

MJFenn is an independent travel writer based in Ontario, Canada.

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