Today, Battle Abbey in East Sussex serves as a monument to a bloody and pivotal event in British history: the Battle of Hastings. Tradition has it that this structure was founded on the very ground where Harold and William fought for the crown of England, the high altar marking the spot where Harold’s banner fell. With the abbey commissioned by William himself, its presence would seem to put the location of the fighting beyond doubt, unlike many other battlefields. Recently, however, this assumption has been called into question. Two new theories argue that the clash of arms took place elsewhere.
In his book, The Battle of Hastings 1066: The Uncomfortable Truth, military historian John Grehan states that Caldbec Hill, a mile north of the abbey, is a far more suitable candidate for the battlefield. This was the rallying point for Harold’s army and its steeper slopes appear to make it strategically superior to the abbey site on Senlac Hill. Grehan argues that the difficult terrain forced the monks to look elsewhere for a suitable building plot for their abbey.
Grehan is not alone in voicing doubts about the evidence. Local historian Nick Austin agrees that the traditional battlefield site is wrong. He does not think that the fighting took place in the village of Battle at all, but two miles to the south at Crowhurst. What is more, he thinks he has the artefacts to prove it. If either of these new theories proved correct, it would prompt a radical reassessment of the events of 1066 and might help explain Harold’s defeat. It was an intriguing possibility, but if Time Team was going to move the debate on then archaeological evidence was needed.
We knew from previous experience that searching for relics of Medieval battles is a notoriously difficult task. Looting and stripping of the dead in the aftermath of fighting was a common occurrence. Unsurprisingly, not a single artefact certainly linked to the 1066 battle has ever been found. To make matters worse the village of Battle that subsequently grew up around the abbey would have obliterated any traces of the fighting, which limited surveying opportunities to the remaining, undeveloped, open areas.
Despite these obstacles the opportunity to search for evidence of the most famous, and one of the most influential, battles in our history was too good to pass up. Luckily archaeologist Dr Glenn Foard, from the University of Huddersfield, felt the same way.
After his success in finding the true site of Bosworth, Glenn and his team had already started to investigate the traditional battlefield of Hastings, and in 2011 completed an intensive metal-detecting survey of the area. They quickly discovered that with regular re-enactments and thousands of annual visitors, the site had become choked with modern metal rubbish. This made it impossible to use the metal-detectors effectively. Glenn, however, had a plan. It was thought that by removing the topsoil we could survey the levels where the battlefield archaeology should lie. In the summer of 2013 Glenn joined Time Team and English Heritage to put this theory to the test.
To maximise our chances of success we decided to cut a 4m transect down the full length of the battlefield, amounting to a whopping 180m! At the same time we wanted to extend the metal-detecting survey to Caldbec Hill, and visit the village of Crowhurst to investigate Nick Austin’s claims that he alone had recovered dateable artefacts from the battle.
With the benefit of fine weather and an enthusiastic team we started work, a large mechanical digger stripping away the finely manicured turf of the traditional battlefield site. We quickly discovered that Glenn’s methodology was sound. By removing the top contamination layer we began uncovering earlier artefacts. A 13th- century brooch inscribed with the Latin phrase ‘love conquerors all’, a fragment of a Medieval bell, and a coin of Edward IV all emerged from the ground.
Up on Caldbec Hill, however, things did not proceed as smoothly. Without the aid of a mechanical digger every response from the metal-detectors had to be investigated and the open areas were stuffed full of modern agricultural debris. The team persisted with admirable doggedness, but as time started to run out the phrase ‘needle in a haystack’ began to be used with increasing frequency. We decided to investigate the rather unlikely prospect of Crowhurst.
Nick Austin has spent the last 25 years trying to convince experts that the Normans landed at a site called Upper Wilting in the Combe Haven, on the eastern edge of Hastings. He believes that it was from here that they marched north, finally encountering Harold’s forces at Crowhurst. As proof of this theory, he claims that two Norman helmet rims and a Medieval crossbow had been found in the area. We asked Dr Thom Richardson from the Royal Armouries to examine the evidence.
With the lack of any supporting historical documents, it would take finds of major historical importance to add credibility to Nick’s claims, and we quickly realised that these were disappointingly absent. The helmet rims proved to be either barrel hoops or bucket rims, and the crossbow was nothing more than a stain in the ground. Excavations at Upper Wilting also drew a blank. Faced with this lack of evidence, we were forced to reject Crowhurst as a viable candidate.
We returned to Battle where frustratingly we were no closer to resolving the debate. Despite having great success with the survey methodology and recovering some interesting Medieval artefacts, there was still no sign of anything related to 1066. We did, though, have one final trick up our sleeves.
Eye in the sky
LiDAR, which stands for Light Detection And Ranging, is a technology that will be familiar to CA readers. By flying over the area with a high-resolution laser it is possible to map the terrain in 3D, and then use a filter to remove all the modern features. Of course, this technique has revolutionised the world of landscape archaeology. By stripping away the buildings, trees, and roads at Hastings, we could essentially place ourselves back in the landscape of 1066.
Prof. Stewart Ainsworth from the University of Chester was brought in to analyse the data, and straight away we began to see results.
Caldbec Hill, while being the best site to rally troops, was not in fact strategically superior to the abbey site. The position could be easily outflanked, and appeared to be too big to cover with an effective shield wall – the Anglo-Saxon’s favoured fighting technique. It is also too far from the all-important Hastings–London road, now the modern A2100. This was the main routeway that the Normans undoubtedly used to advance up country.
Turning our attention to the traditional battlefield site we found that, surprisingly, the data looked equally unsympathetic. The ground at the base of Senlac Hill appeared to be wet and boggy, making it unsuitable for William’s cavalry. This site, too, was peripheral to the main course of the road.
With the help of Colonel Richard Kemp, former Commander of the British Forces in Afghanistan, we began to look at an alternative location 90º east of the traditional battlefield. Today the area is heavily built-up and lies primarily under a roundabout where the Hastings–London road enters the village. This spot was previously only considered in relation to Harold’s left flank. But once the LiDAR had removed the modern features, the perfect place for Harold to centre his shield wall was identified. It had the advantage of a steep approach, two plunging slopes protecting the flanks, and a clear view of William’s approach. The location also dovetails with the abbey, whose high altar is sited directly behind the roundabout.
Having discounted Caldbec and Crowhurst, this alternative site in Battle seems like a strong candidate, and it is comforting to think that the monks may have been right all along. It also makes more sense when we consider the aims of the opposing generals in 1066.
In order for William to claim the English throne he needed to kill Harold outright, but with Viking raids in the north it was never a certainty that the English king would personally face William in battle. Indeed, Harold’s brothers tried to stop him from marching south, but he was successfully goaded into action by Norman raids on his personal estates in Sussex.
Once committed, it may have been Harold’s plan to simply contain the Normans on the Hastings peninsula. With winter approaching and supplies running low, they would inevitably have to return to France if they could not break free. By blocking the main road and taking up a key defensive position, Harold may have been employing sound military tactics, but in doing so he inadvertently gifted William the opportunity he needed for a knockout blow.
The resulting battle was a long and bloody affair, with Norman historians recording it lasted all day. The topographic advantage the Anglo-Saxons enjoyed was obviously well conceived to counter William’s cavalry. In the end, perhaps it really was that fateful arrow in the eye that succeeded in breaking the deadlock.
Whether we find any archaeological evidence of this epic struggle is now a question for the future, but English Heritage has already indicated that excavations may continue on the traditional battlefield site. Perhaps one day the investigation will be expanded to incorporate Time Team’s proposed location as well. After all, if Richard III can be discovered under a car park, who would bet against Harold – whose burial place is not certainly known – being found under a roundabout?
1066: The Lost Battlefield – a Time Team Special – was broadcast on Channel 4 on Sunday 1 December 2013.
If you missed it, the episode is available online at www.channel4.com/programmes/time-team-specials/4od
ALL IMAGES: courtesy of Time Team unless otherwise stated.