A new site for the Battle of Hastings?

Last night’s Time Team aired on Channel 4 and apart from cringing at the prospect of watching myself on TV, I was very keen to see it. Earlier this year, we were approached by Time Team to make a programme about the Battle of Hastings and we welcomed this opportunity to further our understanding of the abbey and battlefield.

It was agreed to dig three trenches on the fields below Battle Abbey under the supervision of Dr Glenn Foard of the University of Huddersfield, a leading battlefields archaeologist. The topsoil would be removed and the ground beneath subject to careful investigation using metal detectors to look for archaeology from 1066. This work would allow us to build on a pilot scheme undertaken by Glenn in 2011.

Time Team on site at Battle Abbey in August 2013
Time Team on site at Battle Abbey in August 2013

Time Team’s excavation revealed no battlefield archaeology, but their landscape analysis and LiDAR survey produced some really interesting results. It suggested that a focus of the fighting was about 200 metres east of the later abbey church, at the junction of Upper Lake and Lower Lake, with William’s army having approached from the southeast. In the pursuit of ‘ground-breaking’ TV, Time Team interpreted this evidence as proof of a new site for the Battle of Hastings, even though this area is already understood by historians to have been part of the battlefield. [1]

What is interesting about Time Team’s landscape analysis is that it suggests that a particular part of the traditional battlefield was the focus of the action and that holding this ground may have been critical to either army. It also strongly affirms the defensibility of the ridge on which Battle Abbey was later built. Within living memory of the battle the abbey was described as being constructed on the site of the conflict, with the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle saying ‘On the very spot where God granted him [William] the conquest of England he caused a great abbey to be built; and settled monks in it and richly endowed it.’[2] Early 12th-century sources tell us more specifically that the abbey church was built at the point where Harold’s body had been found after the battle.[3] The east end of the abbey’s church stood at the top of the ridge, giving a commanding position over the area, only about 200 metres away from the junction of Upper Lake and Lower Lake.

Caption Needed
Aerial view of Battle with the Abbey at the centre

We know from early sources that Harold’s standard was placed at the summit of the hill on which the battle was fought, a point which perfectly describes the relationship between the location of the abbey church and the ground to the east.[4] Time Team’s work therefore reinforces the notion suggested by the historical sources that the abbey was founded not only on the site of the battlefield but also at the point where Harold raised his standard, a location which by the early 12th century was increasingly regarded as the place where Harold had been killed.

If William’s army approached from the southeast, it means that much of the land south and southeast of the abbey church in the guardianship of English Heritage would have been contested by the left flank of William’s army and the right flank of Harold’s. In the valley directly south of the abbey, the LiDAR survey showed suggestions of former streams, not a surprise given that the monks of Battle Abbey later created three fishponds in this landscape, but interesting in the context of a scene in the Bayeux Tapestry. This appears to show an episode of fighting between the opposing forces within a marshy area, which may be a reflection of the conditions found on this area of the battlefield, rather than a fantastical flourish as some have previously thought.

Current caption: View across pond and battlefield
View across pond to Battle Abbey

Landscape analysis in itself does not prove where the action of the Battle of Hastings took place but it does give pointers as to how the Saxon army may have taken advantage of the natural features of the landscape at Battle to protect itself and to make the advance of William’s army as difficult as possible. The defensive qualities of the Battle ridge also suggest that this position was deliberately chosen by Harold. It has long been understood that the battle’s action ranged across an area of land beyond the boundaries of the parkland south of the abbey, with the Saxon retreat, for example, almost certainly being along the line on which Battle High Street was later laid out.

Rather than finding a new site for the battle, Time Team’s work is a useful addition to our collective understanding of the physical constraints within which the opposing Norman and Saxon armies met each other in 1066. These insights may help to explain some of the peculiarities of the Battle of Hastings as described in historical sources and when it comes to revising our interpretation at Battle Abbey (which we do regularly at all our sites), we will certainly include them. The new work also reinforces the centrality of the abbey’s location in relation to the fighting, buttressing the information provided by the historical sources. At a commanding position overlooking the battle, the location at which the abbey was founded would have made an obvious point for Harold to place his standard.

Roy Porter is a Properties Curator for English Heritage. He plays a lead role in the conservation management of some of England’s most popular and iconic historic properties including Dover Castle, 1066 Battle of Hastings, Abbey and Battlefield and Osborne, where he is currently involved with a major conservation and re-interpretation project at the Swiss Cottage.  Roy is a graduate of Oxford University and prior to joining English Heritage in 2007, spent five years as a Casework Officer at the Advisory Board for Redundant Churches.

[1] See, for example, J.H. Ramsay, The Foundations of England (Oxford, 1898) and, more recently, M.K. Lawson, The Battle of Hastings 1066, Stroud, 2007).

[2] GN Garmonsway (ed.), The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Letchworth, 1972, 219.

[3] For example, P McGurk (ed.), The Chronicle of John of Worcester, III, Oxford, 1998, 155; RAB Mynors, RM Thomson and Michael Winterbottom (eds), William of Malmesbury: Gesta Regum Anglorum, The history of the English Kings, I, Oxford, 1998, 493.

[4] Frank Barlow (ed), The Carmen de Hastingae Proelio of Guy Bishop of Amiens, (Oxford , 1999), 23; Elisabeth van Houts (ed.), ‘The Brevis Relatio de Guillelmo nobilissimo comite Normannorum, written by a monk of Battle Abbey’, in Elisabeth van Houts, History and family traditions in England and the Continent, 1000 – 1200, Aldershot 1999, chapter VII, 32.

9 comments on “A new site for the Battle of Hastings?

  1. Interesting. I thought the programme did seem to gloss over much of the evidence or lack thereof. It also seemed to jump to conclusions. This is probably due to the limitations of the format, but it was still an interesting hour of telly.

    It is good to see your opinion here that the programme didn’t really bring a huge amount of extra info to the table. The LiDAR survey was definitely the most enlightening piece of the show.

  2. Shane Dopson

    Haven’t seen the show (yet), but after the article, it seems that the lack of evidence shows just that… a lack of evidence. Very hard to determine anything without any new evidence.
    I applaud the effort though! Any attention to this subject is interesting to me.

  3. Found the programe was very missleading!,
    The evidence is in the Crowhurst Valley

  4. The programme introduced a phrase I had not heard before; the Hastings peninsular.

  5. I agree the Crowhurst Valley has lots of actual physical evidence.
    The other sites offer well nothing really!

    Start investigating the Crowhurst site please

  6. Only problem the Malfosse is not here. There is still not a shred of evidence for the Battle Abbey site being the battle field.

  7. peter stone

    The only artefacts produced on this interesting
    topic came from the crowhurst site.The expert
    asked to comment on a rim of a norman helmet
    would not give a definite answer as to whether
    it was or was not a norman helmet.Where the
    hell do you get your experts from.
    The solution is simple,ground scan and dig
    a few inspection trenches,this would solve
    the argument either way.I can’t understand
    why this has not been done already.
    I do not believe battle abbey is the correct
    location of the battle.You cannot have thousands
    of men killed,smahed,pulverized and trodden
    into the ground without a single trace being
    left.I just cannot believe this.

  8. Andrew Scheidl

    It was an interesting TT programme to be sure, but the lack of any finds seems telling. For something so important, can funding not be found to investigate the Crowhurst site to disprove or prove it? Investigating either the alleged first abbey site of posited alternate battlefield would be basic due diligence given the documentary material that has been brought forward. Crowdfunding and pooling of resources in lead up to the 950th seems easily feasible.

  9. Since the Abbey is on the slope of the hill, where is the exact summit?

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