As part of a recent whistle-stop tour of Sussex’s most iconic venues, Battle Abbey was a must. Most of us Sussex folk have probably visited Battle as a child as part of a school trip or a day out with family. But knowing that we’ve been there and done it, how often, as adults, do we take time out to revisit?
For my part, I found myself exploring the battlefield and Abbey recently and my visit was worth every minute. Battle Abbey is owned by English Heritage and is a Grade I listed site. For those that don’t know it, it is also where the famous 1066 Battle of Hastings was fought and King Harold died following an arrow to his eye.
Subsequent to the battle, William the Conqueror built a Benedictine Abbey on the site although it wasn’t finished until after he died. Battle continued life as an abbey until the 1538 dissolution of the monasteries under King Henry VIII. A visit can be divided into three sections: the battlefield, the Abbey and ruins, and the gatehouse and courtyard, and as such, it offers a fascinating connection with and insight into our county’s past.
1066 and the Battle of Hastings is well and truly engrained in most of our psyches. It was a definitive point in Saxon history and references to it repeatedly pop up across Sussex as part of our local heritage. As a result, there is something very evocative about being able to walk the battlefield.
These days it is just a field, with clumps of trees, sheep, and the odd watering hole but at the same time, English Heritage has done a great job at bringing it alive, with wooden sculptures of soldiers of battle and a headset which talks you through the stages of battle. At the time, the landscape would have felt very different, right on the edge of the Wealden Forest in this remote corner of England.
I wasn’t going to go all the way around the battlefield, but it’s not a long walk and in the end, I did because I just couldn’t resist. When you’re there, listening to birdsong and the occasional bleat of a grazing sheep, try and imagine the roar of 14,000 soldiers charging into a ferocious and deadly battle. The bloodshed, courage, and fear. It’s a compelling juxtaposition with the views back across the fields to the Abbey and the tranquillity of the surroundings.
The Abbey fell into disrepair after its dissolution through a combination of deliberate damage and neglect but the ruins remain evocative and charged with atmosphere. You really need to have a map handy (available at the entrance) to understand how what is left would have fitted together. When you first enter through the main gate there’s a large building ahead of you which was at one time part of the cloister, then a country residence and is now a private school. On the other side of this, you find the rest of the remains and the map shows how these would have formed a quad.
Most of the buildings were reconstructed in the 13th century. The vaulted roof of the ground floor of the dormitory is the most impressive, believed to be a day room for novice monks where they were trained although probably with other uses over the years.
There’s a grand doorway that led to the cloister walks and a smaller one to the latrines. You have to try and conjure it up as it would have been with plastered walls, polished Sussex marble and the hushed voices of the monks going about their business.
Upstairs is the large dormitory which would have tiled floors and plastered walls. There are thin lancet windows which give views of Battle Abbey School … what a place to go to school! In the space in between would have been the kitchen and refectory.
You can also see the remains of the latrine (no explanation needed), an octagonal thatched Gothic dairy built in 1818, an underground ice house, also dating to about 1818, and the Duchess of Cleveland’s Victorian walled garden. The Duke and Duchess of Cleveland bought Battle Abbey in the mid-19th century and the garden is filled with fruit trees planted in memory of what would have been available at their time.
The Abbey church was modernised during the 13th century, inspired by Westminster Abbey and would have been unbelievably impressive at the time. Although it’s no longer standing, you can see the layout and remains of the crypt.
Gatehouse and outer courtyard
From the ruins, you can walk along the top of the precinct wall (probably a later addition) or if you prefer, in amongst the camellias below which take you back to the great gatehouse. This dates back to 1338 and is still the town’s showstopper!
A climb up to the top of the gatehouse is another must because at the top you get 360-degree views of the Sussex landscape as well as a great sense of awe!
Much of the land around the Abbey was owned by the monastery, having been granted to it by William the Conqueror and I couldn’t help but think of Lewes Castle and Priory (built by William’s fellow soldier in arms at the Battle of Hastings) away to the west. What must it have felt like to have been a local Saxon watching these vast structures go up across their landscape as both Normans and religious orders became ever-powerful?
From the gatehouse, there’s the 16th century courthouse which is now a shop or walk down to the visitor centre and enjoy a bite to eat at the cafe under the watchful eye of the wall.
Battle Abbey was and remains simply magnificent for all it represents both in terms of historic landmarks (in every sense) but also in the preservation of the everyday detail of monastic life hundreds of years ago. It’s well worth combining a trip here with other local landmarks such as Bodiam Castle, but above all else, it’s just a glorious celebration of our Sussex past and should be on everyone’s must-visit list. Hey, but that’s just my humble opinion.
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