Posted by: vikingsinspace | June 7, 2010

I.4.01.1.12. Visit the Site of the Battle of Hastings

Date Accomplished:  March 2006

Site of the Battle of Hastings

As many people know, in the year 1066, William the Bastard, Duke of Normandy, invaded England and killed the Anglo-Saxon King Harold II (Godwinson) at the Battle of Hastings and essentially won himself the kingdom.  The actually history behind the Norman Conquest is quite a bit more complicated than that, but there’s no need to go into it all that here – this is about the time I visited the site where this battle occurred.

Battle Abbey

Despite the name, the Battle of Hastings did not take place in Hastings.  At the time of the fight, Hastings was the nearby village which is why it received the name, but now a small town has been built around the site, appropriately named Battle.  Battle’s founding can be traced to William’s victory, where, claiming he came to England with the Pope’s blessing to reform the Anglo-Saxons, he swore to build a church at the site of his victory, with the altar placed at the site King Harold died.  Thus, Battle Abbey was created (first on the wrong hill until William corrected the builders, but there is still a small question to the accuracy of the current site), and the ruins can still be seen today.

Battle Terrain

The basic story of the battle itself is that Harold lined up his men at the top of senlac hill (senlac, meaning ‘lake of blood,’ was named as such after the battle) after a two-day forced march from the Battle of Stamford Bridge (in Yorkshire) where he defeated the Norwegian King Harold Hardrada.  The Anglo-Saxons did not fight on horse, but instead formed a tight shield wall to hold off the Normans.  They were greatly outnumbered by the Norman cavalry, but had a reasonable chance of winning the battle if they could hold their formation through the day until the remainder of Harold’s army was able to join the fight.  The Normans, fighting on horseback, were having little luck until after a couple maneuvers of fake retreats caused a portion of the saxon army to break rank and be defeated.

The Bog

The details of the battle itself are surprisingly well recorded for the time period, so being able to point out portions of the field where certain events occurred was a great deal of fun for the medieval geek in me.  Taking the longer trail around the site, at the bottom of the hill one encounters a boggy area which is probably where the saxons, chasing after the first retreat of the Normans, got caught and were surrounded and killed.  A bog is specifically mentioned, but whether this is the same bog or not is questionable – but the ground all around the bottom of the hill was definitely marshy!  The hill itself is a fairly steep grade, and one can certainly get a sense of the difficulty the Normans faced trying to march or charge up it.  Harold Godwinson certainly chose a brilliant spot for his defence, and I believe the path at the top of the hill marks where his army lined up.

The Site of the Altar / Harold's Death

The remains of Battle Abbey are much like any of the other ruined monasteries in Britain, but a part has been taken over and a school built in it.  The rest of it is still very nice, and of course there is the obligatory plaque to mark both the spot of the altar and therefore the spot that King Harold is said to have died.  I have been back once since 2006 when I attended the Battle Conference (a medievalist conference on Anglo-Norman studies, held in Battle every year until recently when the venue was shut down).

The Saxon line on top of Senlac Hill

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