16 October 2014

England: Off to Battle

We’d had heavy rain in the night and more was threatening but we didn’t let that put us off – we headed off to Battle, armed with coats and brollies, prepared to battle the elements if necessary.

Detail from JMW Turner's c.1794 painting Battle Abbey, from English Heritage booklet
Battle Abbey is supposedly built on the site where the Battle of Hastings was fought on 14 October 1066. William, Duke of Normandy, and Harold, the Saxon Earl of Essex and current King of England, both claimed the English throne, so William invaded with his army. Less than 24 hours later, Harold was dead, William had earned the nickname the Conqueror, and the future of England was forever changed.

Though no material remains of the battle (arrowheads, swords, armour) have ever been found on the site, construction of the Abbey began in the same year, to commemorate the battle and on the site nominated by newly crowned King William. You would assume then that he and the locals remembered quite well where they’d so recently fought so the lack of military archaeological finds is something of a mystery.

Visitors enter this historic place, now administered by English Heritage, through the huge and mighty impressive gatehouse, built in 1338 to replace an earlier construction. The building has some interesting characters lurking in corners (see photo below) and now houses a discovery centre and museum, with archaeological remains and background information about the site.

We walked the path that circuits the battlefield. Though it's now just fields (plus a 19th-century pond and a series of medieval fish ponds), the well-placed signboards provide explanations of what happened where on that fateful day and help you build up a mental picture of the events, with the assistance of images from the Bayeux Tapestry.

The end of the battlefield walk brought us to the ruins of the Abbey buildings. The Abbey housed a large community of Benedictine monks and was one of the wealthiest religious houses in England until the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1538. Henry VIII gifted the property to Sir Anthony Browne, his master of horse and good friend. Browne sold the country estate to the Webster family in 1721, and ownership remained in their family for the following 250 years, except for the period from 1857 to 1901, when the Duke and Duchess of Cleveland were the owners. The state acquired the property from the Websters in 1976.

Reconstruction of Battle Abbey in its heyday, from English Heritage booklet
When Browne took ownership in 1538, the abbey church and parts of the cloister were demolished, leaving us with mere footprints in the well-trodden earth. The west range of the Abbey cloister had already been adapted from its original purpose to become the Great Hall, the residence for the abbot, a fact which ensured its survival after the Dissolution – this substantial building became the later owners’ country house. It is now used as a school – bad news for the visitor as you can’t see inside the buildings but great to see that the building is being well maintained and used.

Along the side of the former Great Hall you can see where the cloisters once were and nearby is the site of the abbey church, where the High Altar was supposedly built over the exact site where Harold were killed – a plaque marks the spot. All that remains of the church is the late-13th-century crypt.

Most interesting to explore are the south and east areas of the abbey: to the south are the undercrofts of the range where guests were once housed, and to the east is the dormitory range where the monks used to sleep and spend their down time. There you can find the novices’ chamber, the dormitories and the monks’ common room. The vaulting in the ground-floor rooms is particularly remarkable.

In this range, you can also see the remains of the latrines, and I learnt a new word for latrine from a signboard near the ablution block: reredorter. This block was built in the mid 13th century and it was not just a hole in the ground. Monks could access the loos directly from their dormitory, there was a paved main drain which discharged down the valley – wouldn’t want to live down there! – and the large arches in the bottom part of the building allowed easy access for cleaning. A sophisticated set up!

From the property’s more recent use as a great house and estate, there are also a small icehouse, a dairy and a walled garden to be explored. And there is a good café on site - we lunched there before heading out for a wander around the town of Battle, which, of course, owes its existence to the abbey. Traders, craftsmen and merchants were needed to supply the needs of the monks and maintain the buildings, and St Mary’s Church was established by Abbot Ralph around 1115 to serve the local community. 

Battle’s main street is full of lovely, very old historic buildings, and we enjoyed mooching round the Almonry Museum, with its rather eclectic mix of local bits and bobs, and the pretty adjoining garden around a half-timbered building which had superb carved heads adorning its walls.

Whether or not it was the weather, Battle Abbey certainly had a sense of the dramatic and atmospheric about it, and Battle township was a lovely place for a wander. I’ll definitely be back.