Museum – 1066 Battle of Hastings Abbey and Battlefield

Reviewing the best military history exhibitions with Calum Henderson.

As an historical event, the Battle of Hastings is misleadingly named. A pleasant seaside town on the south coast of England, Hastings has its fair share of piers, arcade rides, and fish-and-chip shops.

But the clash of 955 years ago, which ended the Anglo-Saxon era and replaced it with the rule of the Normans, actually took place seven miles inland. The village near the site today is straightforwardly known as ‘Battle’.

That said, Duke William of Normandy’s forces did land very near Hastings in late September 1066, using the fort there as a base after their perilous cross-Channel journey. A previous attempt earlier in the summer had failed because of strong winds. But William was determined. After all, he believed himself cheated out of his claim to the English throne.

The entrance to Battle Abbey serves as the modern- day gateway to the battlefield site. Opposite the entrance is the village square.

The story is well known. After the childless Edward the Confessor died in January 1066, it threw England into a crisis. Edward’s brother-in-law Harold Godwinson ascended the throne, but there were at least a handful of other claimants believing themselves to be the rightful heir.

One of them was William. A couple of years earlier, he and Godwinson had fought alongside one another in France against the Duke of Brittany. After their victory, Harold promised he would support William if he ever made a bid for the English throne. Or so the Normans claimed.

William was not a man to be messed with. Nor, to put it bluntly, were the other figures involved this dispute, ruthless warriors each of them. But the Channel crossing would prove risky enough, let alone defeating another army on foreign soil.

William had determination, but he also had luck. Harold, wary of the threat, kept his hardened Anglo-Saxon army on alert for invasion throughout the summer.

Yet he failed to anticipate a separate invasion in Northumberland in September by Norwegian king Harald Hardrada (Hardrada meant ‘hard ruler’). In alliance with Harold’s own brother Tostig, Hardrada decided that he too wanted a shot at the English throne.

Hasting’s Old Town and the coast as seen from a nearby viewpoint. The town’s castle is nearby and also open to visitors.

Believing Duke William would not invade after all, Harold led his army north to deal with the Norwegian-led threat, and deal with it he did. The Battle of Stamford Bridge on 25 September was said to be so brutal that the Humber ran red with Viking blood.

Harold’s undoing

Yet what had been seemingly Harold’s finest hour was in fact his undoing. In one of a few instances in which plain old physical geography plays an absolutely crucial role in these events, Harold and his men were still far north when William and his men landed. Hearing of the invading force, the King rushed south, with the Normans moving quickly to meet him.

Today, it takes just a short train journey to travel north-west from Hastings to Battle. The alleged site of the clash itself (for it has never been precisely located) is within the grounds of the Abbey. Now a tourist attraction, it offers visitors a view over the neighbouring village – complete with a former pub called The 1066 – from atop its ramparts.

The battlefield itself, with the ruins of the Abbey on the right. Clearly visible is Senlac Hill, up which the Normans charged, initially with no success.

After exploring the Abbey, visitors are encouraged to follow a path that swoops around the south of the battlefield in an anti-clockwise direction. Initially it seems pleasant enough, with waterways and birds chirping in the background. But it is only once you begin to turn around, heading towards the Abbey again, that you get a sense of what happened here, and why it did.

The two armies encountered one another on the morning of 14 October. Once again, luck seemed to be against William, with he and his men situated at the bottom of a steep hill. This gradient only really becomes visible once you’ve made it a certain way around the site.

At the top of the ridge, King Harold and the Anglo-Saxon army entrenched themselves, standing many ranks deep, shoulder-to-shoulder, and behind a wall of shields that made them seem impregnable. As battle commenced, one account said that the English ‘drove back those who dared to attack them with drawn swords’. For Duke William, the situation seemed bleak.

One of the model soldiers that are dotted along the pathway around the hill. An estimated 13,000 men fought on both sides.

Today, only the odd life-sized wooden soldier can be seen dotted about the battlefield, some of which are inexplicably grinning. Although they are themselves heavily outnumbered by sheep.

But on that afternoon nearly a millennium ago, the field would have been a maelstrom of chaos. And within that chaos, things seemed to be going terribly for the Normans. For hours, their attacks were pushed back, and eventually a rumour spread that William had been killed.

A stone marks the location of the high altar at Battle Abbey, and also where King Harold died.

The English, believing the battle won, then made a fatal mistake. They charged down the hill, expecting to finish the Normans off, but in doing so they threw away their crucial, geographical advantage.

Meanwhile, William responded to the rumours of his demise by removing his helmet and proclaiming himself alive. After rallying his men, they went on to defeat the now scattered and disorganised English.

The Bayeux Tapestry, a rare visual depiction of the battle, famously depicts King Harold being killed by an arrow through his eye. This is a slightly peculiar take on a violent regicide. Other accounts suggest he was hacked to death by a dedicated killing squad personally overseen by William.

And with their king’s death, the English lost their leader and their will to keep fighting. By the day’s end, this now serene and peaceful place ‘was covered with the flower of English nobility and youth, drenched in blood’.

Continuing conquest

On Christmas Day 1066, the English got their third king in less than a year, when William was crowned in Westminster Abbey. But Hastings alone had neither completed nor stabilised the Norman Conquest.

A French monument to King Harold, erected close to the high altar stone. St Mary the Virgin Church is visible in the background.

The new monarch was forced to spend many years stamping out further uprisings by a people who resented his violent arrival and the loss of power that came with it. And at any moment, foreign forces could have done to William what Tostig and Hardrada had earlier done to Harold – invade from overseas.

William therefore had a nightmare of a national security question. His attempts to deal with it reached their bloody apotheosis in the Harrying of the North: a Nero Decree of its own time, by which the King’s army, through widespread destruction, made swathes of England uninhabitable, and thus impossible to invade.

And through the Domesday Book, a mixture of charter and census, the King collated extensive data on his newly conquered subjects. The information would prove invaluable if any of them thought to rebel.

England’s first Norman king lived until 1087, his death aged 59 provoking yet another succession crisis. But despite the brutality that characterised his reign, there is evidence of a remorseful side to this king. Not least Battle Abbey itself, built on William’s orders as ‘penance’ for the blood spilt that day.

The ruins of the Abbey, although partially destroyed in Reformation times, are still beautiful to walk around.

Another tyrant, Henry VIII, came along and demolished it a few hundred years later. But not completely: there are still many ruins to explore. Coupled with the battlefield itself, the site makes for a fascinating visit.

Battle proves what is so often said, that in order to understand history you have to walk the ground on which it unfolded.

1066 Battle of Hastings, Abbey, and Battlefield
Open 10am-5pm daily
High Street, Battle, East Sussex, TN33 0AE
+44 (0) 370 333 1181