Hi my lovely readers!
I am always keen to learn more about the UK and this time I stepped back almost 1000 years in time! I visited the site where the most talked about event in English history took place, the site of the 1066 Battle of Hastings.
This battle was very significant and changed the course of England forever. It was super interesting to see the site at first hand and imagine what the battle and life afterwards might have looked like.
It is rare for these sites to survive as normally they get build on, hello another apartment block, but this one luckily survived as the Abbey onsite was build as a symbol and the surrounding land including the battle field belonged to the Abbey’s estate.
If you are a history geek and culture lover like me, this site is for you!
BRIEF HISTORY OF THE BATTLE OF HASTINGS
1066 was an eventful and significant year in England’s history. At the beginning of the year on 5 January King Edward the Confessor passed away without leaving an heir behind.
This ultimately lead to invasions by several claimants to the throne who all thought they were entitled to be the next King of England. The two biggest rival claimants known are Harald Hardrada, King of Norway, and William, Duke of Normandy. Edward passed the throne on to his brother-in-law Earl Harold of Wessex, who was crowned king just one day after Edward died.
Over the year, England was invaded by the rival claimants including Harold’s own exiled brother Tostig, who was defeated along his ally Harald Hardrada, King of Norway at the Battle of Stamford Bridge on 25 September.
After the defeat of the two allied forces, Harold was informed that Duke William landed in Sussex. He quickly had to return from the North of England all the way to the South to face him in what is now known as The Battle of Hastings.
The battle took place on 14 October and lasted rather long for medieval standards, one entire day, as both sites were evenly matched. Both armies were using similar weapons and wore similar armour.
The Normans advantage was its archers, who had powerful crossbows as well as its cavalry force of up to 3000 knights and esquires. The English on the other hand were exceptional at protecting themselves through their “shield walls”, travelled on horseback and fought on foot with housecarls, well-trained, full-time soldiers using fearsome battleaxes.
However, bit by bit the Normans gained the upper hand and closed in. Harold was killed during the battle. Without their king and leader, the English gave way, fled and surrendered. William was crowned King of England on Christmas Day 1066 and ruled the country until his death in 1087.
William became know as William the Conqueror, first Norman King of England.
The grounds are made up of the battlefield, Battle Abbey and its ruins, the gatehouse with an exhibition and viewing platform, the diary with the ice house, the walled garden as well as the visitor center, cafe and shop.
It took my partner and I around two hours to explore the grounds, but it might take you a bit longer if you want to grab a bite from the shop or bring your own picnic for lunch.
Visitors can go for a stroll around the battle grounds and battlefield. Along the way you will spot a few Saxons, wood carved statues of the army of King Harold. There are different once to spot along the way and they might help you to imagine what the battle could have looked and been like.
It is really impressive and a bit peculiar, at least for me, to imagine that you are standing on the site that changed the history of England and that many people were killed right where you are standing, even though this happened almost 1000 years ago now.
Abbey Grounds and Ruins
Battle Abbey was build by William the Conqueror in 1071, just a few years after he was crowned King of England. Some believe it was build as a monument to all the people that died on 14 October 1066. However, the other theory is that he chose to build the Abbey on the site to mark the spot where he claimed victory. He instructed for the high alter, today this spot is marked by flag stone, to be build exactly where Harold was killed. It also served as a symbol of power, authority and piety of Norman rules.
Its first use was a place of worship. Monks used to live in Battle Abbey and the monks daily activities included prayer, reading and manual labour. When walking around the grounds, there are some signpost showing how Battle Abbey used to look like and what the Monk’s lives might have been like as most of Battle Abbey is a ruin now.
The town around Battle Abbey grew extensively due to the Abbey’s backing of its merchants, traders and craftsmen. The Abbey had a big estate and sold its goods on the open market. Hence, it was an important source of income.
Battle Abbey flourished for several hundred years, however during the reign of Henry VIII in the 16th century, it was confiscated and ultimately destroyed. Henry VIII fell out with the Catholic Church and started the English Reformation. As a result, he dissolved convents and monasteries and seized their land, including that of Battle Abbey.
Battle Abbey and its land was given to Henry’s friend and master of the horse, Sir Anthony Browne, who demolished parts of the church and cloister and turned the lodging, where the monks used to sleep, into a country house.
From the 16th Century until 1976, the estate served more or less as a country house until it was acquired by the state. In 1922 the country house was leased to a school, which it still is today. Therefore, the lodging can not be viewed during certain seasons and requires prebooking.
Some of the foundation of Battle Abbey is still visible, but much has been destroyed. Still, one can get a good idea how big it used to be and can walk around the ruins.
Exhibition and Gatehouse
The Gatehouse, which is also the entrance to the site, hosts an exhibition. A small collection of original artefacts and replicas that tell Battle Abbey’s story after 1066.
If you walk all the way to the top, you come to a viewing platform where you get great views across the town, surrounding area and of course the battle landscape. This is such a bonus as the views are just so peaceful.
Walled Garden, Diary and Ice House
Next to Battle Abbey is also a small wild walled garden with lots of fruit trees. It is not your normal and well maintained garden with fruit and veg, more like a mini orchard. Here you can also find some wild flowers for the Abbey’s bees to come as they are producing honey on site for the shop and cafe.
Next to the walled garden is the dairy and ice house. Dairies were used for entertaining guests and the ice house, as the name suggests, stored ice that was collected from ponds in the winter to be used during the summer. The diary sits on top of the underground ice house.
Visitor Center, Cafe and Shop
When you enter through the gatehouse, there is the visitor center, the cafe and a picnic area to the left. The visitor center was unfortunately closed due to Covid. Staff said they could not manage it safely, hence it could not reopen. The toilets are located here, too. As far as I could tell, these were the only toilets onsite.
The cafe was open and served food and drinks, the usual suspects such as bakery, sandwiches, coffees and so on. There was a seating area just next to it with a few tables and a picnic area with a few tables as well. Both were outside.
The shop where you can buy some souvenirs, fancy spirits and nibbles and all sorts of lovely and homely items including cookbooks or gardening secateurs was on the way out. You always exit these sites through the shop. You cannot miss it, I promise.
- Opening times: Open daily from 10 am – 5 pm
- Admission: Adults £15, Children (5 – 17 years) £9.10, Concession £13.50. Free for English Heritage members
- For more information please visit: English Heritage
- How to get there: By car – High Street, Battle, East Sussex, TN33 0AE and look out for the signs. Battle Abbey is south end of High St. Take the A2100 off the A21. By Train – The closest train station is Battle, about 1⁄2 mile walk away from the site on the outskirts of the town.
FINAL THOUGHTS …
This was such a super interesting day out for me and I learned a lot. I felt really close to history and the wooden soldier statues along the battlefield certainly helped to imagine who played a part in this battle and what their duty and tasks where.
It was a bit sad not to be able to see the small exhibition in the visitor center, but safety comes first. I am just glad that these sites are open again, even with limited capacity for everyone to enjoy and hopefully take something away from the visit.
Right now, all English Heritage sites require prebooking due to Covid. Therefore, do not wait too long to book if you want to go as otherwise you might not be able to secure a spot as they are limited. Some sites have some events going on and during those days tickets get booked out fast.
And after your visit, you can make your way to Hastings and explore the seaside and have some Fish n’ Chips. Perfect day!