The traditional battlefield surrounding Battle Abbey is a poor geographical, topographical and military fit for what we are told about the Battle of Hastings in the contemporary accounts. It is not supported by any archaeological or physical evidence. It makes no sense. These inadequacies have led some people to suggest that the battle was fought elsewhere.
Figure 58: Traditional and proposed battlefields: B=Battle Abbey; C=Caldbec Hill; T=Telham Hill; O=Telham Court; W=Wadhurst Lane; H=Hurst Lane
We are among the sceptics. We explain our theory that the battle was fought near Sedlescombe here. Credible arguments have been made for other battlefields. The most established of these are Caldbec Hill whose main proponent is John Grehan, and Telham Hill whose main proponent is Nick Austin. English Heritage and ‘the establishment’ have started to back Time Team’s east slope of Battle Hill theory. Less plausible cases have been made for the chevron shaped ridge at Wadhurst Lane and Old Heathfield in the Weald. Here are some direct links for those with specific interests.
None of these alternative battlefield candidates has unearthed any battle related archaeology. We therefore intend to apply the same process that we used for the traditional battlefield. We will match each of them to military, geographical and topographical descriptions from the contemporary accounts, as well as to common sense and to our idea of the leaders’ personal motivations. We will also consider any additional site-specific information that their backers have discovered.
As we say repeatedly, the clues in the contemporary accounts are equivocal or enigmatic. None of the place names survive. Some of the clues seem to be contradictory, most notably whether or not the English were attacked in their camp. Many of the clues use unqualified adjectives like big, narrow, close, near, steep, long, etc, that have a wide range of meanings. Some clues are ambiguous in their original language or in translation. Some of the locational clues are relative to the Norman or English camps, for which there are no confirmed locations. It is no wonder that different historians read the same clues and reach wildly different conclusions.
The easy part is that Caldbec Hill, Telham Hill, Telham Court hill and Wadhurst Lane are all ridges or spurs, one of the clues. They were all close to a wood, another clue, although the same might be said of pretty much everywhere in East Sussex. None of them are nine Roman miles from Heastinga as John of Worcester states: They are all at least two Roman miles too far from Winchelsea or at least two Roman miles too near to anywhere else the Normans might have camped on the coast.
Woods are an interesting factor in the battle. William’s horses, lances, archers and armour would all be ineffective in dense woodland. Woodland was so ubiquitous in medieval Sussex that Harold would never have been more than a few hundred metres from one. Why then would Harold even consider fighting behind a shield wall? In a battle between a static shield wall against cavalry, infantry and archers, the shield wall cannot win. It can only survive. If Harold's objective was to survive, his best chance would be to melt away into a nearby dense woodland.
We reject claims that a retreat into woodland would be deemed cowardly. It is true that Saxons and Vikings took pride in shield wall fights. If the English were fighting Vikings or other Saxons, they may well have thought it dishonourable to shy away from a shield wall fight. But, despite their common ancestry, the Normans were neither Saxon nor Viking. They fought behind equine tanks and at distance with arrows and quarrels. The English would have thought them dishonourable cowardly cheats. If we were in English shoes, any tactic that led to ultimate victory would have been honourable. Harold was a medieval aristocrat. Hunting in woods would have been in his blood. We think he would have jumped at the chance to nullify the Normans’ superior armour, weapons and mobility by skirmishing in a wood. If a cover of dense woodland was nearby, we think he would not have hesitated to order a retreat into it.
We can only imagine that the woods near to the battlefield were too small or too thin to provide decent cover. Harold had a manor nearby at Crowhurst. Perhaps he had had the woods thinned and the undergrowth cut back for hunting. The only woodland that could not have been thinned was the Andredsweald, which was too far away to be relevant to the battle scenarios discussed below, bar perhaps Wadhurst Lane.
Caldbec Hill, Telham Hill and Wadhurst Lane all rely on impenetrable woodland to force the Normans to attack from a disadvantageous direction or to prevent them outflanking one or both ends of the English shield wall. We are reliably informed by Helen Read, a world-renowned expert on medieval woodland, that mature deciduous woodland is never impenetrable in temperate latitudes because the trees have large canopies that prevent light getting to the ground, threreby stunting saplings and shrubs. Helen pointed out that a lot of medieval woodland was coppiced and that copses can be impenetrable at the mid-stage of their cycle. But copses are managed. Foresters need paths to get around. We believe that impenetrable woodland did not play any part in the Battle of Hastings, but we will temporarily forbear to give each of the alternative battlefield theories a chance.
All the alternative battlefield theories feature straight English shield walls. We list nine clues in the contemporary accounts that suggest the English shield wall was enclosed. We therefore offer an alternative scenario for each alternative theory in which the shield wall is enclosed.
There is another fundamental issue with the battlefield candidates apart from Wadham Lane and Hurst Lane, which is that they are on the Hastings Peninsula. William's plan was to lure Harold to the Hastings Peninsula and kill him. Why the Hastings Peninsula? We think because the four crossing points allowed William to capture saboteurs trying to scorch-earth while offering an unrivalled opportunity to ambush Harold. Even if William did not realise this when he arrived, he would have known two weeks later when Harold turned up. He might have placed himself and his barons somewhere remote and vulnerable, but we are convinced that most of his troops were secreted up near the crossing points. In our opinion, the only way that the battle would have been fought on the Hastings Peninsula, is at a crossing point, but this would contradict all the contemporary accounts, so it could not have happened. We will temporarily shelve this issue as well, to give all the battlefield candidates a reasonable airing.
Wherever the battle was fought, it needed to fit with William and Harold’s motivations and tactics. We talk about these in the main Sedlescombe battlefield blog. To summarise, William needed to kill Harold and his brothers quickly. He needed to lure Harold and as many brothers as possible, prevent them from fleeing and then kill them all. The longer it took, the bigger the English army, the more attrition to the Norman army and the greater the probability that someone would annex Normandy. We think that this was in Harold’s mind too. Normandy, Anjou, Maine and part of Brittany had been left lightly defended. We think that Harold wanted a quick victory, or at least a quick siege, because he hoped to plunder or annex Normandy before anyone else got a jump on him.
Figure 59: 1770 Yeakell and Gardner hachure map of Sussex
We have updated this blog since the first edition of our book to incorporate evidence from the 1770 Yeakell and Gardner hachure map (Figure 59). It was collated 700 years after the battle. A lot had changed in the meantime. Some combination of glacial rebound and silting lowered the effective sea level by 5m, the Camber and Crumbles shingle spits had been washed away. Pevensey Levels, Combe Haven and much of the Romney Marshes had been inned and silted up. This made the coast almost unrecognisable. Inland is a different story. They lacked the tools and manpower for widespread deforestation. It seems unlikely that they would plant new woodland in a region covered in woodland and short of farmland. We believe that this map provides a good proxy for inland land usage in 1066.
Momentous Britain inspecting the trig point on Caldbec Hill
Caldbec Hill is traditionally where the English camped on the night before the battle. It is a park now. English Heritage have a plaque at the entrance to remind us of its supposed history. Grehan and Mace think that the Normans attacked the English army at this camp.
We were impressed by the amount of research Grehan and Mace seem to have done. We had already spent twenty years investigating the battle when we read their book, yet we had not seen half the references they cite. Unfortunately, we think they made a few early analytical errors which set them off on the wrong foot and which then compounded through their arguments.
Figure 60: East Sussex in 1066 with Roman road (black) ridgeways (white), possible tracks (white dots) and places that are relevant to the battlefield candidates
Firstly, and most crucially, they have got confused about the Brede’s tidal limit. As we mention in the Introduction, in the early Holocene, the Brede was 200m wide at Sedlescombe (S on Figure 60), but by the 11th century, due to some combination of glacial rebound and silting, it was the normal head of tide. Grehan and Mace do not allow for this, so they assume that the Brede could only be crossed by ferry in the 11th century. In practice, the road was still busy, so it must have been easily traversable by bridge and causeway, or by a shallow solid ford.
Upstream, the fluvial Brede was just a small river with a 100 km² catchment area. For comparison, the Thames is 63m wide at its tidal limit. If the fluvial Brede was in a river channel, it would have been no more than 5m wide and easily fordable. As we mention in the Introduction, this was a busy crossing in Roman times. We think that they channelled the river and crossed the valley with a causeway and bridge. We further think that the abbeys of St Denys and Fécamp restored the causeway and bridge. If not, there would have been a shallow shingle ford across the fluvial Brede at Sedlescombe. In either case, it would have been an easy crossing place, quite unlike the impassable barrier proposed by Grehan and Mace.
Secondly, they say that Caldbec Hill (CH) was chosen for the English camp because it was at the junction of the roads to London and Lewes. Again, we guess they got confused insofar as the nearest road to London was at Lewes. That road was 23 miles away through the primeval Andredsweald forest. Other roads were closer. A Roman road (black line) to Rochester and a possible ridgeway from Netherfield (N) to Lewes were some three miles from Caldbec Hill. They were probably accessible via fords and/or circuitous ridgeways. But this does not make Caldbec Hill some sort of communications hub. Those fords and ridgeways would have been unsuitable for army supply carts and treacherous for movement after dark. With a third of his army still to arrive, poor road access makes Caldbec Hill an unlikely English camp.
Thirdly, they think that the Andredsweald stretched down to Caldbec Hill, providing cover for one half of their proposed battlefield. This cannot be right. Petley, Beech and Duniford Woods were north of Caldbec Hill, with farmland beyond them. There is a line of manors between Ashburnham and Robertsbridge that had both, then nothing north of them. This line marks the southern boundary of the Andredsweald. Simon Mansfield used a different method to reach much the same result. If we are right, the Andredsweald did not come within 5km of Caldbec Hill. Indeed, Yeakell & Gardner (Figure 59) shows no trees within 1km of Caldbec Hill, which suggests it was treeless in the 11th century too.
Fourthly, they think the Norman camp was at its traditional location near Hastings. There is close to zero chance this is right, for reasons we explain in boring detail in our Place Names blog.
These errors have led to flaws in their analysis. For instance, armed with the notion that the only way off the Hastings Peninsula was to cross the Isthmus Ridge, they deduce that Harold’s plan was to occupy the ridge in order to block the Normans’ escape. Likewise, thinking that there was no way for the Normans to get their cavalry across the Brede or the Line, they deduce that there was no reason for Harold to enclose the northern end of his shield wall. Alas, the early errors, especially the confusion about the Brede's tidal limit, percolate through all their arguments.
More fundamentally, we do not trust the evidence that the English camped on Caldbec Hill. It is mostly based on one translation of Poitiers’ statement that the English: “were camped on a hill near to the forest through which they had come". Grehan and Mace reason that this must be Caldbec Hill because it was just outside the southern boundary of the Andredsweald, which was the only real forest in the region. We think they have miscalculated the southern boundary and of the Andredsweald and that they take the translation too literally. The original Latin is ‘montem silvæ’ which can mean any sort of hilly wood. They were all over East Sussex. The English would have been near to a hilly wood through which they had come wherever they decided to camp.
Time Team metal detected the summit of Caldbec Hill for the TV special. They failed to unearth any finds. It was not just that they did not make any battle related finds, but they did not make any finds at all, as if the land had never been occupied.
Grehan and Mace support their theory with evidence that ‘haran apuldran’, which ASC states to be Harold’s destination in Sussex, referred to a ‘hoary apple tree’ that was a hundred boundary marker on Caldbec Hill. We do not trust the translation, for reasons we explain here. We have more faith in Giles’s, Ingram’s and Tyson’s translation of apuldran to Appledore, with haran meaning ‘estuary’ or ‘anchorage’ as they suggest, not least because modern Bodiam on the Rother is the most likely place that Harold would muster with his troops from Kent and his sea-borne huscarls.
For the English to have got to Caldbec Hill, they would have had to cross the Brede or the isthmus. We talk about this in the main battlefield blog. In the unlikely event that William allowed the English over Sedlescombe crossing unmolested, they would head east to Cottage Lane, Starlings Hill or Lower Snailham, not west to Caldbec Hill. The only alternatives were to cross the ford at Whatlington or to take the ridgeways via Netherfield (N). But both these options would have been ambush prone and risky for carts carrying army supplies. The only plausible reason Harold might have used them is if the Sedlescombe crossing was blockaded or guarded. In either case, he would have camped north of the Brede while the other side was scouted. Once again, we think Grehan and Mace were misled by their confusion about the Brede's tidal limit.
If Caldbec Hill was not the English camp, it is difficult to imagine how the English army might have ended up defending it in a battle. Why would they go there at all? Grehan and Mace suggest they were trying to block a Norman escape from the Hastings Peninsula by occupying the Isthmus Ridge, but this assumes the Normans wanted to leave the Hastings Peninsula, which they clearly did not, and it is based on their confusion about the Brede's tidal limit. If the English had been attempting a surprise attack but got caught on the Hastings Ridge, it is feasible they might retreat to Caldbec Hill, but a surprise attack against the Norman cavalry at a location the Normans had been fortifying for two weeks is preposterous.
Figure 61: Caldbec Hill battlefield deployment; after Grehan and Mace
Pah, we must put all these quibbles behind us. Caldbec Hill is a hill in roughly the right area for the battlefield. It has long been associated with the Battle of Hastings, albeit as the English camp. The battle could have happened there, regardless how it came about. We must give it a chance. If it fits enough of the primary source descriptions, we can return to think about how and why the English might have ended up defending it.
Grehan and Mace have a battlefield deployment diagram in their book. Unfortunately, their deployments are superimposed on the contours, so it is difficult to see what is going on. Figure 61 shows our reproduction with the contours on top. They left a gap between the ridgeway (yellow line) and the wood (bottle green) to the north. We guess it was a mistake, so we filled it in. Our extension stretches the shield wall out to 1500m, which leaves it precariously thin, but this must be better than allowing the Norman cavalry to ride unhindered through a yawning gap in the defence.
Figure 62: Caldbec Hill Relief - CH = Caldbec Hill; x = Battle Abbey
Figure 61 shows a common issue with Battle of Hastings battlefield theories. It assumes, as with the traditional narrative, that William would attack whatever shield wall was presented to him, no matter what the other possibilities and no matter how disadvantageous. In this case, Grehan and Mace suggest that William would attack from the southeast, but that would be idiotic. Caldbec Hill is at the junction of the Hastings Ridge and the Isthmus Ridge. Like all ridges on the Hastings Peninsula, it would have had shallow dry slopes on its ridge crests. Those crests probably had ancient ridgeway tracks. If the English were deployed as in Figure 61, there is no way William would have attacked up the steep boggy slope to the southeast. He would clearly have attacked along the shallow dry ridge crests to the northeast, south and west.
Moreover, Grehan and Mace's theory contradicts one of the few statements about the battle that is agreed by most of the primary sources: That William placed himself and his elite Norman troops in the middle division, where the fighting would be most intense. Grehan and Mace's theory has the middle column on the steepest slope, where the fighting would have been least intense. The intense fighting would have been on the Norman left flank, attacking on the shallow slope to the south.
Figure 61 shows another common issue with Battle of Hastings battlefield theories, in that it assumes woods were impenetrable. As we say above, as far as we know, there was no such thing as an impenetrable mature wood in temperate latitudes. The Andredsweald may well have been the densest wood in Britain, in the sense that it had no glades. But that also means that the trees were widely spaced and the understory sparse. The Normans had all day to find a 200m route that circumvented either end of the shield wall. It would not have been that difficult. Once through they could have occupied the summit to shoot at Harold from behind and above.
In one way or another, we think that William would have got troops behind Grehan and Mace's shield wall within an hour or two. If they did not outflank the defence via the wood, they would have employed an oblique order attack to break through somewhere else because the defensive line was so thin. This cannot be what happened.
Grehan’s argument is pretty academic, because Yeakell and Gardner show Caldbec Hill to be treeless (Figure 63). It seems unlikely that it would have been de-wooded in the intervening 700 years, because lack of running water would make poor farmland. If Caldbec Hill was treeless and the English line was stretched to fill the gap, it would have been untenably thin. Grehan and Mace’s battle scenario is therefore implausible.
Figure 63: Yeakell and Gardner Caldbec Hill
We guess that Grehan knows. When Time Team presented him with their alternative theory, he made no attempt to defend his own. He meekly accepted theirs, even though it was clearly invented at the last moment to compensate viewers for having not seen an iota of proper evidence. If Grehan had more confidence in Time Team's joke theory than his own, we can be fairly sure that his own was unsound.
Enclosed loop shield wall at Caldbec Hill
As promised above, we considered an enclosed loop shield wall at Caldbec Hill (Figure 64).
Figure 64: Enclosed shield wall on Caldbec Hill
Caldbec Hill has a flattish top. The shortest useful shield wall would have been 1250m long; 30% longer than the traditional shield wall, but only 500m long at the main contact points to the northeast, south and southwest. Harold could have packed his defences eight deep at the main contact points and still had enough men to be three-deep elsewhere.
Several primary sources say that the Normans attacked in three divisions controlled by William’s voice and hand signals. This could only have happened at Caldbec Hill if William chose not to attack on the northeast ridgeway. The only likely reason he would give up this excellent option is if Harold fortified it. Wace does say that the English protected one side of the battlefield with a barricade and fosse. Perhaps this was it. It just needed to be substantial enough to persuade William to concentrate his attack on the ridge crests to the south and west. It seems unlikely that the English could dig a deep enough fosse in the available time, but perhaps they were helped by a landslip. We will assume it was there for now (red line in Figure 64).
This scenario could lead to a stalemate battle. The main contact point to the south and west would be only 300m long. Harold had enough men to defend that part of the shield wall 10 deep and still have enough men to be three-deep elsewhere. Despite the shallow slope, the narrowness would have made the fight difficult for the Normans. At any one time they could only engage perhaps 300 infantry in the fight. They had no chance of breaching a determined defensive line. Doubtless the Normans would have probed the other defences, not least to prevent English reinforcements getting to the main combat point, but the terrain would have made it difficult. It is easy to imagine the fight lasting all day and only ending thanks to a ruse. But how does it fit the other primary source descriptions?
Caldbec Hill backs onto Oakwood Gill, which is the traditional location of the Malfosse. John of Worcester says that the English were drawn up in a narrow place. Caldbec Hill would have been narrow from the Norman point of view. Wace, Huntingdon, Brevis Relatio and Draco Normannicus suggest that the English were standing back-to-back. The contact zone is now under a road and housing estate, which might explain why no archaeological finds have been made. And, as Grehan and Mace say, Caldbec Hill's summit is known as Mountjoy, which is the English version of a name sometimes given by Normans to the sites of their military victories.
Carmen, Poitiers and Malmesbury are usually interpreted to be saying that the battlefield hill is high, steep and conical with a distinct summit. We question these interpretations but, taken in their traditional context, Caldbec Hill is a qualified match. It does have a distinct summit, it is high by Hastings Peninsula standards, it is conical near the top, and it has steep slopes to the southeast and northwest. On the other hand, it has shallow or level approaches on the sides of the hill that the Normans were likely to attack.
In all other ways Caldbec Hill is a poor fit. It is not overlooked. It is not beside a plain. It was not covered in Lowland Greensand scrub. It had no nearby sandy lake that could be Orderic’s Senlac. It was not near anywhere named Herste. A fosse would not have enclosed the battlefield. It is not visible from the Norman fortress at Winchelsea or anywhere else the Normans might have camped. It is not steep enough for rolled stones to be dangerous on any slope the Normans might have used to attack. It would have been easy to surround. The nearest woods, Petley and Beech, were 1km away with no crossing tracks, which makes it unlikely that the Normans would see the English emerge from a wood. The Normans would not be seen crossing a valley or appearing over rising ground. The valley below is not within javelin throwing range. There is no reason the fighting should be more intense in the middle than the flanks; indeed, the reverse is more likely. There is no reason the English would deploy as an infantry column.
We come back to several fundamental issues. We cannot think of any plausible reason Harold would have gone to Caldbec Hill, let alone camp there or defend it to the death. Even if the English did end up defending Caldbec Hill, we do not believe that they could have made fortifications that were strong enough to dissuade William from a pincer attack. We are all-but certain that William would have found a way around or over any fosse the English could have constructed in the time available. Once the line was broken or circumvented, William would (and, wherever the battle happened, did) enjoy a quick and decisive victory.
Much as we say about the traditional battlefield, Caldbec Hill fits some of the general primary source descriptions, but none of the more specific and enigmatic. It just seems to be a random hill in a landscape covered in random hills. It cannot be discounted as the battlefield, but it seems to us the least likely of the genuine candidates.
Crowhurst / Telham Hill
Momentous Britain checking the new sign on the Crowhurst Yew
Nick Austin’s Crowhurst battlefield theory has more adherents than all the other alternative battlefields combined. To summarise. The Normans landed at Redgeland Wood in Combe Haven (R on Figure 65) and camped nearby (1). The next day they moved 750m northwest, to the top of the hill at Upper Wilting (2). On the day of battle, the English army was heading south on what Austin refers to as the ‘old London road’. The Normans saw them coming and headed north on the same road. As Harold crested Telham Hill, a spur off the Hastings Ridge, he saw the Norman army heading towards him. He set up his shield wall 10m below the spur ridge crest (T), on the steepest part of the south slope of Telham Hill. The Normans passed through Crowhurst (C) and attacked up Telham Hill where they routed the English army and killed Harold.
Figure 65: Nick Austin's battle scenario around Crowhurst
We first heard Nick Austin’s theory when we saw him present “Secrets of the Norman Invasion" back in the 1990s. His approach was a revelation which we quickly copied and without which we would never have found the most likely battlefield. His theory sounded credible and coherent too, but the more we investigated, the more flaws we found in his evidence, and the more we realised that it is based on spurious assumptions.
Coombe Haven landing and Hæstinga port
Austin’s theory about the landing place names is ingenious. He thinks that Hastingas and cognates referred to Hæstinga port, which he places at Bulverhythe (B on Figure 65). He thinks that Pevensey and cognates referred to the region defended by the fortress at Pevensey, which would include the entire Hastings Peninsula. Thus, all the landing accounts could be right because they all say that the Normans landed and/or camped somewhere that sounds like one or the other or both.
The landing and Norman camp are crucial to Austin’s battle narrative because there are only a couple of places that the Normans could have camped that might lead to a battle on the southern slope of Telham Hill. If the Normans camped anywhere north or west of Crowhurst, they would have intercepted Harold before he reached Telham Hill. If they camped anywhere south of Crowhurst, they would have looped around ridgeways to attack from the north. That leaves the southeast and east. Nowhere east of Crowhurst was navigable from Combe Haven. If the Normans attacked up the south slope of Telham Hill, they must have camped to the southeast of Crowhurst. The Tapestry depicts the Norman camp on raised ground. The only raised ground southeast of Crowhurst and adjacent to somewhere navigable from Combe Haven is Green Street and Upper Wilting. Wace says that Harold first sees the Normans crest a hill and cross a valley. That hill can only be Green Street, so they can only have camped at Upper Wilting.
The only obvious reason the Normans might have camped at Upper Wilting is that they landed nearby. Austin therefore predicted in Secrets of the Norman Invasion that there must have been a port at Redgeland Wood. He was vindicated during survey work for the Bexhill Link Road in 2015 when the remains of Romano-British era jetties were found at Redgeland Wood.
Figure 66: Yeakell and Gardner map of Combe Haven's north shore
It is a shame then that there are some discrepancies about a Redgeland Wood landing. Austin says that the Normans would need at least 2 miles of shore upon which to land (we calculate over 3), but there was less than 2 miles of strand between Little Bog, which would probably not have supported horses, and the sea. Yeakell and Gardner (Figure 66) shows that Monkham Wood and Redgeland Wood were more extensive than now in the 18th century, lining most of the proposed landing site to a depth of 500m. If the wood was like this in 1066 - and it is difficult to believe that anyone would plant a wood between 1066 and 1770 - it is quite unlike the level plain next to the landing area described by Wace or the flat treeless camp depicted in the Tapestry.
There are some discrepancies about Austin’s Hastingas and Pevensey theory too. Several primary sources say that William did not stay in ‘Pevensey’ but quickly moved to ‘Hastingas’. This would not make sense using Austin’s definitions, because they did not leave the region controlled by the fortress at Pevensey until a week after the battle. Orderic says that the Normans occupied ‘Pevensey’ and ‘Hastingas’, which would make no sense if, as Austin suggests, the latter was inside the former. Several primary sources say that the Normans built their first camp at ‘Pevensey’, then their second at ‘Hastingas’. But both camps would be in Austin's Pevensey. CBA says that William leads his men from where they landed to a “port not far away", but Austin thinks that they landed at the port.
Hæstinga port’s location is crucial to all landing theories because several contemporary accounts specifically say it is where the Normans landed, most of the others say it is where they camped. It is especially crucial to Austin’s theory because the only straightforward way that the battle could have been fought on the southern slope of Telham Hill is if the Normans landed at Redgeland Wood. Therefore, Austin’s battlefield theory depends upon Hæstinga port having encompassed Redgeland Wood. If, as Austin thinks, the main port was at Bulverhythe, this is not unreasonable because Bulverhythe was an island. Natural resources could have been shipped by barge from Redgeland Wood to sea going vessels at Bulverhythe.
SOTNI has four main arguments that Hæstinga port encompassed Redgeland Wood, and Nick contacted us about another after the publication of the first edition of our book. He uses the name Hedgeland as the modernised version of Hechelande.
First, the most specific locational clue is in CBA, which says that the Normans dress for battle – i.e., it is one of their camps - at a hill named 'Hechelande’. Austin thinks Hechelande referred to Redgeland Wood (R), where he proposes the Normans landed. He explains that Hechelande and Redgland would be pronounced similarly in the local dialect of the day. It seems a tenuous link and improbable. Redgeland Wood is 1km southeast of Austin’s Norman camp at Upper Wilting, in the opposite direction to his battlefield. Needlessly returning to Redgeland Wood to dress for battle would waste an hour which might have been crucial with English reinforcements due at any time.
Second, SOTNI states several times that CBA “specifically names the port at a place named Hedgeland” or equivalent. Austin does not explain how he reaches this conclusion, and we cannot understand it. CBA mentions Hechelande five times as a place adjacent to the ridge near Telham, 4½ miles from the nearest coast. A sixth reference says that it is ‘a parte Hastingarum’, which Lower translates as ‘in the direction of Hastings, Searle as ‘which lies towards Hastings’. By tradition, this Hastingarum referred to Hastings castle, making both translations consistent with Hechelande being adjacent to the ridge near Telham. Austin is undeterred. He says that Hechelande is “falsely named by the monks of Battle Abbey as being at the top of the ridge” without explaining how he worked it out.
Third, Austin says that the first Norman Sheriffs were “installed at Wilting Manor", the location he proposes for the second Norman camp. He says that this reflects Wilting’s “paramount importance”, implying it was the administrative centre for Hæstinga port. The first two Sheriffs were Reinbert and Ingelrann, both of whom were joint subtenants of Wilting along with three others. But Reinbert was sole subtenant of 15 other Sussex manors, including valuable Udimore and Whatlington, plus joint subtenant of 8 more. Ingelrann was subtenant of only two other Sussex manors, Hooe and Filsham, but referred to himself as Ingelran of Hooe. It seems to us that their involvement with Wilting was incidental and their bases were elsewhere.
Fourth, Austin tries to calculate the location of the second Norman camp – and therefore Hæstinga port - by an analysis of Domesday manor valuations. His principle is that the manors most plundered, and therefore those that lost most value during the Conquest, would have been those closest to the Norman camp. He disqualifies what he believes to be unlikely camp/port candidates, including small manors and those that lost no value in 1066. His analysis shows that the manors most plundered lined the north bank of Combe Haven, centred on Wilting manor. Austin concludes that the second Norman camp was probably at Upper Wilting. It sounds scientific but, in our opinion, makes some faulty assumptions.
The manors lining the north bank of Combe Haven, especially Crowhurst, Hooe and Filsham, had the biggest and best agricultural land on the Hastings Peninsula. They alone had enough livestock and grain stores to feed the Norman army. Moreover, they were in Harold’s ancestral homeland. Some say his wife and children lived in Crowhurst manor. These manors were bound to be most plundered, no matter where the Normans landed or camped.
In addition, we think the qualification process is flawed because Rameslie manor around the Brede estuary, where we think the Normans landed and camped, belonged to the Norman Abbey of Fécamp. It lost no value in 1066, so Austin qualifies out its port of Winchelse as a Hæstinga port candidate. But William was the abbey’s patron. In effect, Rameslie belonged to William and it paid taxes to the Roman Church. He would not have plundered himself or his most important sponsor, the Pope, so it would not have lost value in 1066 even if the Normans landed and camped there.
Fifth, Austin has found new evidence concerning Hæstinga ceastre. As we note in the Place Names section, Hæstinga ceastre was probably encompassed by, or adjacent to, Hæstinga port. ‘Ceastre’ is the Old English term for a Roman fortification. Austin has found the impression of a probable Roman fortification on a LIDAR scan of Upper Wilting. One of King Alfred’s burhs was at Hæstinga ceastre. Its dimensions are recorded in a document known as the Burghal Hidage. Those dimensions match the LIDAR impression at Upper Wilting. Austin is confident it is Hæstinga ceastre. If he is right, whatever our misgivings, part of Hæstinga port probably was at Redgeland Wood, but there is no evidence he is right.
Alfredian burhs were typically built on promontories. Upper Wilting was not a promontory. Their main purpose was to watch for Viking sea raiders. The sea view from a burh at Upper Wilting would have been blocked to the east and southeast and interrupted to the southwest. The Bexhill Link Road excavations unearthed no evidence of Saxon or Norman occupation. It did uncover 14 Roman era bloomeries at Wilting and a Roman road from Wilting to Crowhurst Park where there were more Roman era bloomeries. Almost certainly then, iron products were exported from a major port at Redgeland Wood in Romano-British times. It would have had a nearby enclosure, from where the port was administered. We think it just happens to be roughly the right size to have been Hæstinga ceastre but is otherwise unrelated.
We checked Monkham, Redgeland and Upper Wilting against some of the other primary source landing and camp clues. Carmen says an English spy was standing at the bottom of a sea cliff watching them land. There are no sea cliffs beside Combe Haven. Warenne Chronicle says that the Normans entered England between two fortresses. Fortresses are usually built on high ground, which was absent beside Combe Haven. Austin counters that a building associated with the port might have looked like a fortress. One was a mint, so it is possible. Carmen says that a monk emissary leaves the Norman camp on a road (Latin 'iter’). 'Iter’ usually means a paved road, of which there was only one on the Hastings Peninsula, on the far side of the Hastings Ridge. Austin thinks it referred to a trackway on the route of his old London road, along which he thinks that the English army approached.
In our opinion, Austin’s argument that Hæstinga port was in Combe Haven rather than the Brede estuary is getting the cart before the horse. Consider the day before the invasion. The Brede basin produced 70% of the region’s salt and 90% of its iron products. It is implausible that bulk products like salt and iron were hauled up, over and down the Hastings Ridge to be exported from Redgeland Wood when they could be exported entirely by water via Winchelse. If they were exported from Winchelse on the day before the invasion, Winchelse was the major port in the region and the most likely place to have been Hæstinga port. This cannot be made wrong just because the Normans plundered elsewhere. Indeed, it is unlikely to change over the next decade or the next century. And the only unambiguous clues about the region’s major port – mid-12th century De Viis Maris, the 1204 Pipe Rolls and the 1227 Ship Service records – all list Winchelse as the major port in the region, with one minor entry for Bulverhythe and nothing for Redgeland.
As far as we can judge, there are flaws in all five of Austin’s arguments that Hæstinga port was at Bulverhythe and Redgeland Wood on the banks of Combe Haven. It has only superficial matches against the contemporary account landing site and camp descriptions. De Viis Maris lists no ports between Winchelse and Pevensey Levels and we think that there were none at the time of the invasion.
Nevertheless, in order to assess Austin’s battlefield narrative, we will temporarily forbear. As we said above about Caldbec Hill, if Austin’s battle narrative is credible and his battlefield fits enough of the primary source descriptions, we can return to think about how and why the Normans might have landed in Combe Haven.
Nick Austin's battle scenario
Figure 65 sets Austin’s scene at 09:00 on the day of battle with the English at Pye’s Farm (T) and the Normans at Crowhurst (C). Figure 67 shows the English shield wall and the Norman attack. The shield wall would have been roughly 650m long, perhaps 20% shorter (and therefore 20% deeper) than the traditional shield wall at Battle Abbey. Austin says that it was bounded at the sides by impenetrable woodland - Fore Wood to the west and Hunters Gill to the east - forcing Normans to attack up the slope from Crowhurst.
Figure 67: Crowhurst battlefield OS map
Yeakell and Gardner (Figure 68) shows the geography in the 1770s. It is probably a good indication of how the area looked in 1066. Austin's proposed battlefield would have been virtually treeless with the English shield wall on the shading that depicts the steepest part of the slope. Fore Wood was tight against the west side of Austin's battlefield. Note that no woodland is depicted on the eastern side of the battlefield, apart from along the base of the gill. It is essential for Austin's theory that there was impenetrable woodland to the east of the battlefield, so we will assume that it was at least as woody as it is today.
Figure 68: Yeakell and Gardner map of Telham Hill
If the battle was fought on the southern slope of Telham Hill, in the circumstances that Austin describes, it would have been horribly difficult for the Normans. The hill would have been steep, slippery and untilled, exactly as described by most of the contemporary accounts. If Fore Wood and Hunters Gill protected the English flanks as Austin suggests, his scenario might have led to a battle that lasted all day and only ended thanks to a ruse.
Austin has worked out his battle narrative to fit all the traditional primary source battlefield descriptions. He says that the English Standards would be visible from the Norman camp, which fits with Carmen. The English would see the Normans appearing over rising ground (Green Street), then cross a valley, which fits with Wace. There is a plain below the shield wall which fits with Wace. The English are attacked in their camp, which fits with Poitiers and ASC. The English see the Normans coming and occupy a nearby hill, which fits with Carmen. The battlefield seems to be enclosed by woods and difficult to surround, which fits with Wace. The battlefield would be overlooked from Telham on the ridge, which fits with Wace. The slope of the battlefield is steep, which fits with Poitiers and Carmen. It is steep enough for rolled stones to be deadly, which fits with Malmesbury. Hunters Gill is steep enough in parts to have been the Malfosse, which fits with WP and CBA.
It is easier to note where Austin's scenario does not fit the traditional primary source battlefield descriptions. Telham Hill is not conical, but we do not trust that translation. It is not small, but Ingulf is not a widely trusted source. The battlefield is not narrow, although it is 20% narrower than the traditional battlefield at Battle Abbey.
Austin offers two morsels of physical evidence to support his battlefield theory. We were thrilled. It is the only physical evidence that anyone has offered to support any battlefield candidate (including our own). One is the ruins of what he refers to as Crowhurst Abbey, which he thinks was a first attempt to build William's Abbey on the battlefield. The other is a low stone wall that he thinks might be a battlefield marker mentioned in CBA. Or, at least, CBA says there was a 'spinam' on the battlefield that Eleanor Searle translates as 'low stone wall'. The wall is under a 2000-year-old yew tree in Crowhurst cemetery, the ruins are behind the house next door – see our photos in Figure 69.
Figure 69: Secrets of the Norman Invasion, wall and ruins in Crowhurst
We lost confidence in the wall and ruins upon inspection. The wall looks Victorian. The ruins look no earlier than 13th century. Austin points out it has some 11th century features. He kindly contacted us about some new research showing that it is made of Caen stone, and therefore likely to have been constructed by Normans before the 13th century. Even if he is right, the building is not really on his battlefield - it is 1500m away - and it might have been built for any number of reasons. Martin White, who owned the property at the time, told us that the medieval wall is thought to be underneath the wall there now. We did not persevere because we decided Professor Searle's translation of 'spinam’ is faulty. None of this matters. Nowhere else has anything better.
Figure 70: View towards Nick Austin's Telham Hill battlefield from summit of Upper Wilting
We are sceptical that William would have been able to see the English Standards from his camp. Figure 70 shows the view towards Austin’s battlefield from Upper Wilting in July 2020. The tiny grey haze in the red circle is the top of an electricity pylon that is immediately above the centre of Austin’s battlefield. Only the top 5m is visible, which means that the English Standards would need to have been 30m high to be visible from Upper Wilting. The trees that obscure it are less than half-way to the battlefield. Even if there were no trees to obscure the view in 1066 - which seems unlikely considering that this was a heavily wooded region - William would have needed the eyes of a hawk to see any Standards.
Austin’s photograph in SOTNI should show the same scene, only with trees in the foreground – they were removed during the construction of the Bexhill Link Road shown in our photo. But it does not show the electricity pylons that cross Austin’s battlefield, and it does not show the gently curving outline of Green Street hill in the middle ground. The white building that Austin claims to be on Telham Hill ridge seems to be at Green Street. Very odd.
We do not like the look of Austin's Malfosse at Hunters Gill either. This is the scar into which WP and CBA report that many Norman knights fell, crushing and killing those beneath, while they chased the fleeing Englishmen. Poitiers describes it as a 'labyrinth of ditches', which Hunters Gill is not. The steepest part of the gill, with a drop of perhaps 5m, is southeast of Austin's battlefield. The English would have had to run through the Norman lines to get to it, which seems implausible. Even if they did, the ground is covered in soft mulched leaves, twigs and ferns which would cushion any fall. The stream is 100m into the wood from Austin's battlefield and the woodland is too dense for a horse to trot. If Norman knights were chasing the fleeing English, they were not going fast enough to fall into the gill.
Austin explains that there was a path through Hunters Gill heading to the bloomeries at Crowhurst Park. He shows a photograph in SOTNI of a dilapidated bridge over the gill. But this path is no more than two horses wide and it is at the northern end of the gill where the drop is only a few metres. Perhaps two lead riders might have fallen over the edge and got crushed by their horses but those behind would have had plenty of time to stop.
Another problem is that Telham Hill does not fit the new battlefield clues that we have found, especially the more peculiar of them. The English would not be seen emerging from a wood. The English would not have been fighting back-to-back. The English deployment would not be enclosed or wedge shaped or look like a castle. There is no reason that the fighting might have been more intense in the middle than on the flanks; the opposite is more likely. The valley is out of javelin range. The English would not have deployed as a military column. The Normans would not have passed an open fosse into which they were later driven. Harold and Gyrth would not risk scouting close enough to the Norman camp to be able to hear their horses.
Impenetrable woods around Telham Hill
Figure 71: Possible flanking routes; English shield wall shown in magenta
The Normans would not have attacked up a horribly difficult hill if there was a way to flank or loop behind the English shield wall to attack from above. They had four flanking possibilities: through Fore Wood (1 on Figure 71), through Hunters Gill (2), to Crowhurst Park and then across Hunters Gill (3), or up to and along the Hastings Ridge then out along Telham Hill spur (4). Austin’s battlefield scenario therefore relies on Fore Wood, Hunters Gill and the section of Hastings Ridge between Telham and Baldslow being covered with impenetrable woodland.
For evidence SOTNI shows some photographs of dense thicket in Hunters Gill and Austin says that the 18th century stagecoach route from London to Hastings branched off the Hastings Ridge at Battle because the Hasting Ridge was impenetrable beyond. If he is right that the stagecoach route went through Telham Hill, Crowhurst and Wilting, he might have a point because it entails an otherwise unnecessary crossing of four streams, a bog, a gorge and a fall and rise of over 110m.
We went to check for ourselves. The first point is that the SOTNI photos are taken beside open paths that allow the sun to penetrate - the sky is visible on one of them - so they will develop dense thicket. It is not typical of either woodland. Both Fore Wood and Hunters Gill are quite open inside, especially the latter. It took us about an hour to traverse Fore Wood south to north - roughly 1km - without using paths, although we were delayed by a railway and rhododendron groves, which would not have been there to bother the Normans. Hunters Gill took around 30 minutes.
If Fore Wood and Hunters Gill were as open then as they are now, and there is no reason to think otherwise, the Normans could have crossed each of them 100 abreast to get the entire army onto Telham Hill crest within an hour or so. Even if they were impenetrable, both woodlands are traversed by north-south streams that would have given an express route through the woodland to the crest of Telham Spur for anyone that did not mind getting their feet wet. When we pointed this out to Nick Austin, he replied not unreasonably that it would be impractical to get 6000 men onto the crest of Telham Hill on two streams that were only 1m wide. It would not have been necessary. The English had no archers. If the Normans could have got 50 archers on the crest of Telham Hill, they could have shot at Harold with impunity. Even if they failed to kill him, the shield wall would be forced to break in order to defend him, thereby allowing the Norman cavalry through the gaps.
We do not like the look of Austin’s evidence that the Hastings Ridge was blocked either. It seems to be based on the name of the route, which he refers to as the ‘old London road’, and a public footpath that traces the route. It is not labelled ‘old London road’ on any maps we have seen and there is an actual Old London Road between Hastings and Ore. The footpath is just that, entirely inappropriate for freight or stagecoaches, needing to cross Little Bog, four gloopy tributaries of the Powdermill Stream, a gorge at Hollington Stream and make a vertiginous climb up and over Telham Hill.
It seems unlikely to us that the ridgeway was ever blocked anyway. There were Saxon settlements at Telham and Baldslow on the Hastings Ridge, which must have had traffic along the ridgeway. Westfield, Crowhurst, Wilting and Luet were also in Baldslow hundred. There must have been branches off the ridgeway to get to them. And a Saxon era ridgeway road is described between Battle Abbey and Hechilande in CBA. The Flimwell to Hastings Turnpike Act (1753) authorised the turnpike to use the real Old London Road from Hastings to Ore, then the ridgeway to Battle, so it was not blocked in the 18th century. Local historians George Kiloh and E J Upton reckon it was built on a pre-historic ridgeway.
We suspect the confusion comes from a statement in Dawson’s History of Hastings Castle: “there are no evidences of any such thing as a main road to London from Hastings at this early period, or indeed for many years afterwards”. Austin interprets this to mean that the ridgeway was blocked at the time of the invasion, forcing freight traffic from his port at Redgeland Wood to take an alternative route north via Crowhurst. We doubt there was any freight traffic through the port at Redgeland Wood but this is not what Dawson means anyway. He was trying to say that there was not a paved road on the ridgeway until the 17th century. It is clear from the very next paragraph that he was not implying the ridgeway was blocked at the time of the invasion: “The artificial highways lay along the crests of the hill-ranges … one of the principal of these tracks, in the neighbourhood of Hastings, ran along the crest of the range between Fairlight and Battle”.
We consulted Helen Reed, an expert in medieval woodlands about the possibility that the ridgeway was blocked by woodland and/or that Austin’s battlefield might have been protected by impenetrable woodland. She confirmed that mature deciduous woodland is almost never impenetrable because the wide tree canopies block light which stunts the understory. She pointed out that many pre-industrial woodlands in Sussex were coppiced for iron smelting charcoal. As she says, during one phase of their growth cycle, coppiced trees are too dense for passage. But, like any managed woodland back to time immemorial, the foresters would have had paths to get around the densest woodland.
Even if all Austin’s woodlands were impenetrable, the Normans would still have had two ways to outflank the shield wall. Austin’s argument for Hæstinga port being at Redgeland Wood is that it exported iron products being made at Crowhurst Park, to which it was connected by a Roman path. His argument for the Malfosse at Hunters Gill is that there was a path through Hunters Gill woodland from Pyes Farm to Crowhurst Park. If he is right on both counts, the Normans could have used both paths to outflank the English line. Alternatively, they could have looped horsemen onto the ridge behind the English line by riding around via Sedlescombe or Catsfield to follow whatever route the English took from Battle to Telham Hill.
The details make no difference. The contemporary accounts suggest that it was impossible to outflank or loop or surround the English defence. It was not impossible on the south slope of Telham Hill. Therefore, in our opinion, the battle could not have been fought on the south slope of Telham Hill.
An alternative battle scenario
As promised above, we considered an encIosed loop shield wall at Telham Hill. Indeed, if we were in Harold’s shoes and found ourselves being attacked at Telham Hill, we would have no hesitation in establishing an enclosed shield wall at the top of Telham Hill spur (Figure 72). We would protect the rear with whatever fosse could be made in an hour. If, as Austin thinks, the adjacent part of the ridge was impenetrable, the fosse would be better placed at the low end of the shield wall, from where the Normans would attack.
Figure 72: Alternative location of English shield wall, shown in magenta with fosse in red dots
This alternative deployment would not only have been defensively superior but is similar to that we propose at Hurst Lane spur, so it fits most of the additional battlefield clues we found in the contemporary accounts. It fits the twelve enclosed shield wall clues by definition. It means that at least one of the side valleys was within javelin range, that the Normans could have been shield charged into a fosse and so on. It is not as good a fit to the contemporary accounts as Hurst Lane spur, insofar as it probably had no protection from the ridge and its the northwest slope is relatively shallow. Moreover, the engagement scenario would be convoluted and we think it unlikely that the Normans landed in Combe Haven.
As with the traditional battlefield, we have no proof that the battle was not fought on Telham Hill. Austin’s battlefield scenario looks far too leaky to us, with lots of possible ways the Normans could have outflanked or looped behind the English line for a quick victory. The enclosed shield wall at the top of Telham Hill spur is more plausible. If the battle proves not to have been fought at Hurst Lane, this is probably the least unlikely alternative.
Time Team & English Heritage
Figure 73 : Tony Robinson's bench
Thanks to the power of television, the best-known alternative battlefield theory is Time Team's, from their 2003 Battle of Hastings TV show. Tony Robinson (sitting on the bench in Upper Lake, Figure 73) concludes that the battle probably did happen on Battle Hill, only with the Normans attacking along the ridge crest from the east rather than up soggy fields from the south.
We are reliably informed by one of the producers that Time Team did not take their theory seriously, but thought they needed to say something positive because the entire dig made no finds, no advances and no useful discoveries. We were therefore surprised to read an interview conducted by Roy Porter, English Heritage's Head of Property, with The Guardian: “The one place we know the armies weren't is the low ground below the abbey, where most visitors understandably think the battle must have been fought." Then, the Guardian reporter, presumably prompted by Porter, says that the view from the gatehouse roof shows the: "high ground towards Hastings from which William’s army marched". It sounds like English Heritage have accepted Time Team's theory. The Sussex Country Archaeologist had previously told us (in private) that this is his personal view too.
Figure 74: Time Team battlefield deployment
It is difficult to see the point of English Heritage's u-turn. Figure 74 is our interpretation of the traditional English battlefield deployment with the Normans attacking from the east. Tony Robinson’s bench is under the head of the middle arrow. The Norman attack would come along Marley Lane from the east. In other words, Time Team’s battle scenario is the same as the traditional battle scenario, only with the entire Norman army compressed into the traditional right flank. The English shield wall would still have to stretch between the two stream heads, in order to prevent the Normans riding around the open ends of the English line.
If the Normans attacked along the ridge crest, Harold would concentrate his forces on his eastern flank. Exactly as Time Team suggest, the ridge crest attack makes far more military sense than the traditional attack. The Normans would have better ground than on the traditional battlefield and they would not be fighting up any noticeable hill.
The idea would be to draw the English huscarls to the east end of the line before launching an oblique order attack on west end. The battle would have been over in 30 minutes. But the contemporary accounts say that the battle lasted most of the day. It is totally implausible that the Normans would spend all day attacking the best defended part of the English line, when they could canter up to the weak end and break through in minutes.
Battle was already a poor match for the contemporary account battlefield and engagement descriptions. A Norman attack along the ridge crest contradicts those few clues where it did match. It would no longer be overlooked by Telham Hill, the English would no longer first see the Normans cresting a hill and crossing a valley, there would no longer be a plain below either of the Norman flanks, the battlefield would no longer be untilled ground on a steep slope. We list 30 clues about the battlefield above. Time Team's theory does not match a single one. We are embarrassed on their behalf.
English Heritage's change of heart means that the battle's killing zone would be under the town and Abbey. As the Guardian says: "To add to the confusion, the annual recreation of the battle by costumed re-enactors, which will be fought with increased fervour in October, is held in the wrong place, since the town and the abbey ruins occupy the true site." We have a sneaking suspicion that English Heritage have bought into Time Team's joke theory because it absolves them of any responsibility to find archaeological evidence of the battle on their proposed battlefield. The theory is no more likely than the traditional battlefield, and the chances of that are negligible.
Wadhurst Lane / Beech Farm
Momentous Britain in a gale at Beech Farm
Through to the late 1990s, we still accepted the traditional view that the English army camped on Caldbec Hill. Wace says that the Norman fleet steered towards a port. He implies that they passed through the port to land upstream of it. We speculated that they steered towards pefenes ea, then passed it to land in the Ash Bourne estuary. If they landed there, they would have camped on Standard Hill, a mile south of the western end of the Isthmus Ridge. Caldbec Hill is at the eastern end of the Isthmus Ridge.
Figure 75: Hastings Peninsula isthmus topography
If the Normans camped at Standard Hill and the English camped at Caldbec Hill, we speculated that the battle might have played out as tradition suggests, only rotated 90 degrees clockwise onto the Isthmus Ridge instead of the Hastings Ridge. In other words, the English were heading west along the Isthmus Ridge to attack the Norman camp on Standard Hill, when they ran into the Normans heading the other way. As in the traditional scenario, and as Carmen specifically says, we thought the English might then have occupied a nearby hill where they set up their shield wall.
The two candidates are High Wood hill on the B2096 and Wadhurst Lane, both of which are roughly a mile north of the Isthmus Ridge. High Wood hill is higher and steeper but, as its name suggests, it is ancient dense woodland. The battle described in the primary sources could not have happened in woodland, let alone such dense woodland as High Wood. We concentrated on Wadhurst Lane.
Figure 76: Simon Coleman's proposed battlefield at Beech Farm
Wadhurst Lane follows the north-south leg of a chevron shaped ridge (Figure 75). He east-west leg crosses Beech Farm. We investigated several places along the ridge where the battle might plausibly have happened, before abandoning the location when we realised that the Normans almost certainly did not land in the Pevensey lagoon. Simon Coleman took up the baton, proposing that the Normans attacked a shield wall across modern Beech Farm (Figure 76).
One major issues we had with Coleman’s theory is that Yeakell & Gardner (Figure 77) show that Beech Farm was covered by woodland in the 18th century. If it was covered by woodland in the 18th century, it was almost certainly covered by woodland in the 11tgh century, which makes it implausible as a battlefield
Figure 77: Yeakell and Gardner 1770 map of Beech Farm
In the first editions of this book, we dedicate a section to other reasons we believe Coleman’s Beech Farm theory is implausible. We note that he has now abandoned the theory, so we have redacted our comments. He is instead backing Dr Wiseman’s Old Heathfield battlefield theory.
Momentous Britain investigates Hugletts Farm / Sky Farm battlefield candidate near Old Heathfield
Dr Rebecca Wiseman thinks the battle was fought near Old Heathfield, some ten miles northwest of Battle. Her theory is incomplete but has enough flesh for us to comment.
Figure 78: Old Heathfield & Dallington in 1066
Wiseman’s theory is based on two clues that have not previously been considered. First, a dozen or more 18th century references that state the Battle of Hastings was fought at ‘Heathfield’. Second, a place named ‘Horeapeltre Common’ near Heathfield that is referenced in a 14th century charter. ASC-D says that Harold: “assembles a large army and goes to meet him at haran apuldran”. Whitelock translates haran apuldran as ‘hoary apple tree’. Horeapeltre sounds like a Middle English version of ‘hoary apple tree’. In other words, Dr Wiseman speculates that Harold went to meet William at ‘Horeapeltre Common’ near Heathfield, so the battlefield must be nearby.
Modern Heathfield is a mile away from the original settlement, on the other side of Heathfield Park. The pre-20th century Heathfield is now known as Old Heathfield. She proposes the battlefield was 1km to its northeast, at 50.96465, 0.29663, between Sky Farm and Hugletts Farm.
The obvious major departure from all the other battlefield theories is that Heathfield is a long way from the Hastings Peninsula. A consensus of contemporary accounts say that the battle started at the third hour of the day. There is no way that the Normans could have marched 15 miles or more from their ‘Sea Camp’ to Old Heathfield to start the battle at the third hour of the day. Wiseman therefore proposes that the Normans had previously moved to a battle camp at Dallington, five miles east of Sky Farm. It is plausible. We too think they had a battle camp on the Hastings Peninsula and that the battle was fought nearby but off the peninsula. There is a list of reasons above, some of which would apply to Dallington.
We are less positive about the rest of her theory. Most fundamentally, we do not believe that the ASC was trying to say that Harold went to meet William at ‘the hoary apple tree’. Wiseman is sceptical too, so she translates haran apuldran as ‘hoary pollard tree’. It is no better as far as we are concerned. Readers would still not know where it was. Whatever the ASC meant by haran – estuary, anchorage and boundary are all plausible – we think apuldran must have referred to a nationally well-known place, perhaps a royal hunting park or, more likely we think, Appledore.
Even if haran apuldran did refer to a hoary apple/pollard tree, we doubt it was at Horeapeltre Common. The charter in which it is first mentioned is dated 1338 (Wiseman thinks 150 years earlier but does not explain why), which is an awful long time after the battle. A few Saxon coins have been found 5 miles away but there is no evidence of Saxon occupation near Old Heathfield. It seems likely to us that Horeapeltre Common was created during the 13th century clearing and settlement of the Andredsweald. If there was no Saxon occupation, there is no reason for it to have had a name at the time of the battle. Wiseman talks a lot about the LIN 129 and LIN 131 ridgeways that pass nearby, but there is no evidence they were being widely used in Saxon times and we think it unlikely.
Even if a proto Horeapeltre Common did exist in Saxon times, we are sceptical that Harold would have used LIN 129 and LIN 130 to cross the Andredsweald, for reasons we explain elsewhere. Wiseman notes that the Andredsweald trackways would offer the best opportunity for Harold to catch William with a suprise attack, which is true but mute, because they had been exchanging messages/insults over the preceding days, and scouting each other’s camp according to Poitiers, Carmen and Wace.
Wiseman’s battlefield at Hugletts/Sky Farm is an ‘L’ shaped hill with three peaks at the corner and ends of the ‘L’. Each individual peak is too small to accommodate an army of 1,000, let alone the likely figure of 6,000 plus followers. The hill-top encompassing all three peaks is 1,500m around, double the length of the traditional shield wall at Battle, which would spread the English line precariously thin. If they tried to encompass either pair of peaks, the Normans would have had a level slope to use for their attack, which would contradict most of the contemporary accounts.
Even if all this were not so, we are convinced that the link between the battlefield and Heathfield is spurious. The first reference is in Aubry de La Mottraye’s book ‘Travels Through Europe, Asia and into Part of Africa’ published in 1723. He says that he investigated the battle while he was stuck in Hastings for a few days when his ship was delayed. In his account, he says: “They generally call that the Battle of Hastings, in which he gained the Crown, though it was fought some 6 or 7 miles distant to the NE, upon a Plain called Heathfield.” Wiseman thinks that La Mottraye read this, or heard about it, from an unknown contemporary battle account that has subsequently disappeared. It seems implausible to us.
La Mottraye was only in Hastings for a few days. The probability that he found a previously unknown account that immediately and permanently re-disappeared seems negligible. A more credible origin is that he made a misleading deduction from the Chronicle of Battle Abbey. CBA says that the Normans attacked from a place named Hechelande, which it reports to have been an area between Telham and Battle Abbey. It then claims that Battle Abbey was built where Harold died. The fighting would have been at the English shield wall, somewhere between Harold – and therefore Battle Abbey - and whence the Norman attacked. It would be perfectly logical, therefore, to deduce that the battlefield was named Hechelande. La Mottraye’s book was in modern English, so we think he translated Hechelande to Heathfield.
The rest is straightforward. La Mottraye’s Travels was the first battle account written in a modern language. All the other reports of the battle being fought at Heathfield were in popular press books and magazines. We think they all used La Mottray’s Travels as their source, probably because their authors could not read Latin, Old French or Old English. No academic accounts suggested the battle was fought at Heathfield, presumably because academics could read Latin. No new reports of a battlefield near Heathfield were published after 1820, we think because this was when Lower published his English CBA translation. We presume that subsequent popular press articles used Lower’s translation as their source and the authors realised that CBA is not suggesting the battle was fought near Heathfield in the Weald.
None of the authors of the 18th century references cite their source but we are confident that most of them did not mean Heathfield in the Weald because they say that it was 6 to 7 miles from Hastings. This would be accurate for the distance to Hechelande but not the 15 miles to Old Heathfield. The only exception is Brice (and Luckcombe, whose narrative is based on Brice) who specifically says that the battle was fought at Heathfield in the Weald. We guess he got confused.
Taking a step back, we cannot believe that William would be naïve enough to be drawn into a woodland battle. Old Heathland was in the heart of the Andredsweald. Wiseman says that it was on the edge but does not explain why. Regardless, as soon as the English saw the Normans coming, they would have melted away into dense woodland where the Norman horses, armour and archers would lose their advantage. Harold would have moved to safety. The English would have blocked the ridgeway back to the Hastings Peninsula. The Normans would be trapped in unknown woodland. The invasion would have failed.
In summary, Wiseman’s theory is based on her interpretation of two new clues, neither of which is convincing. Stripped of that evidence, the rest of her theory is weak. Dr Wiseman’s narrative is just about plausible but, in our opinion, not credible.