Daytripper – Battle Abbey

October 12, 2010

In the first of an occasional series featuring daytrip destinations from London, we’re taking a look at Battle Abbey in East Sussex, site of the country-defining Battle of Hastings in 1066.

Last weekend, the clash of weapons could once more be heard on the field below the abbey ruins as about 350 re-enactors gathered as they do every year close to the anniversary of the Battle of Hastings on 14th October and fought it out all over again (pictured above). Yes, King Harold and the English army were defeated (again!), but there’s always hope for next year!

And while you’ll now have to wait a year to see the re-enactment played out once more, given its location only an hour-and-a-half from London by train, the abbey ruins and battlefield site are a great site for a daytrip.

The abbey itself was built soon after the Battle of Hastings on what was then known as Senlac Hill and although it has been suggested Duke William of Normandy (aka William the Conqueror or William the Bastard) made a vow before the battle to build the abbey should God grant him victory, it is believed he ordered the abbey’s construction as both a memorial to the dead and a public act of penance.

The building work began within a few years of the fight with the high altar to be placed on the site where King Harold had fallen. The church was used from about 1076 onwards but was officially consecrated in 1094 in the presence of King William himself.

Quickly becoming one of the country’s wealthiest religious houses (thanks largely to gifts from the king), it housed monks of the Benedictine order until, in the mid-1500s, the monks left as part of Henry VIII’s suppression of religious houses and the property was granted to the king’s friend Sir Anthony Browne.

His descendant, the sixth Viscount Montague, later sold it to the Webster family in 1721 and it remained a family home and later also housed a school (the Battle Abbey School which still occupies part of the site).  In 1976, it was bought by the government with the aid of funds from Americans.

Not too much now remains of the original abbey – some ground floor chambers once used by novices still stand in what was the dormitory range (and feature incredible vaulted ceilings), the west range around the cloister still stands (now in use as part of Battle Abbey School) and the foundations of the chapter house are still there.

The church itself is no longer existant but the site of the high altar, where King Harold died, is now marked with a memorial stone which, when we visited was laden with memorial wreathes.

Of particular significance is the Great Gatehouse – the current structure dates from 1338 and is said to be one of the finest monastic gateways still surviving in Britain. It now contains an exhibition on the abbey’s history. There’s also a cafe on the site.

Below the abbey lies the rest of the battlefield site and while remains from the battle have never been found, English Heritage provide audio guides on which events from the day are reconstructed as you follow a path around the field.

The surrounding market town of Battle – dominated by the abbey gatehouse – is also well worth a look – it’s attractions include Yesterday’s World, a museum in a 15th century Wealden Hall House which contains memorabilia about life in the Victoria era through to the 1970s. The town also lies on the 1066 Country Walk, which runs from Pevensey to Rye and retraces the steps of King William’s army after they landed in England.

WHERE: High Street, Battle, East Sussex (trains run from Charing Cross to Battle station); WHEN: 10am to 4pm to March 31st (open to 6pm from April to September) ; COST: Free for English Heritage members or £7 adults/£6 concessions/£3.50 children/£17.50 a family ; WEBSITE: www.english-heritage.org.uk/1066

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