Debunking the Battle Abbey battlefield

Are you convinced that the Battle of Hastings took place at Battle Abbey? If so, it sounds like you need to read our critique of the traditional battlefield, here. If not, we hope you can contribute to what would be the greatest discovery of the 21st Century. Yes, you! Thrilling new evidence has come to light, proof of which is as likely to come from a schoolgirl or a pizza chef as it is from a Nobel Laureate.

First things first: What is this new evidence? It comes from Dr David Robinson, a world renowned expert on medieval landscapes working out of the University of Sussex. We asked him about the topography around Battle in the 11th century. He explained that: "Away from the immediate coast, rates of erosion are very slow and the physical form and depth of the valleys are unlikely to have changed since the 11th century." He didn't think that he was telling us anything important. We think it is a crucial first step in unravelling the orthodox narrative; the first unbiased scientific evidence, albeit indirect, that the battle was not fought at Battle.

Dr Robinson's insight is important because of the traditional battlefield terrain and the orthodox Battle of Hastings troop deployments. The diagram above is a consensus of historian battle scenarios compiled by Stephen Morillo and superimposed on the Ordnance Survey map. The green line is the traditional English shield wall. The cyan arrows show the traditional Norman points of attack. The original Abbey, supposedly built on the spot where Harold died, is below the 8 near the hill summit. English Heritage now propose a minor variation of the traditional battlefield deployments with the Normans attacking from the east. Wikipedia has another minor variation, showing the English deployment with refused ends - i.e. bending back on themselves (below). It makes no material difference. They all show the English deployment as an open line bending around the southern slope of Battle Hill.

William had a huge cavalry. Harold had none. Harold was commanding his forces from behind the shield wall, protected only by his footbound personal guard. We know that this guard could not put up an effective defence against Norman knights because the contemporary accounts tell us that they got to Harold soon after breaking through the English line. Harold knew it too. Before the battle, he ordered his troops to keep their positions whatever was going on around them, explaining that the English would lose if any gaps appeared in the line and Norman knights managed to get through.

Why then did William spent most of the day trying to break through the English shield wall, when he could have sent his cavalry around the open ends of the English line to lop off Harold's head in the first fifteen minutes? And why was Harold not worried about it?

As we explain in our main battlefield blog, our answer to both puzzles is that the English shield wall was an enclosed loop rather than in an open line, and that they were not at Battle. The orthodox answer is that the English line was brilliantly positioned by Harold between two streamheads, whereby the streams protected the English flanks. In other words, the boundary streams were impossible to cross on foot or on horseback.

The battle lasted for at least six hours. There are only three possible explanations: i) The orthodoxy is right that the battle was fought at Battle and its boundary streams were impossible to cross (and there was no other way for the Norman knights to loop around behind the English lines); or ii) The battle was fought at Battle and its streams were easy to cross but the English shield wall was not an open line; or iii) The battle was not fought at Battle.

We discuss the second of these possibilities in our Traditional Battlefield blog. Three contemporary accounts suggest that the English were deployed as an enclosed loop. It is militarily more plausibe. It is defensively more secure. It is possible that an enclosed loop shield wall around the summit of Battle Hill might have held out for six hours. But, in our opinion, the Normans would have attacked an enclosed shield wall on the dry shallow ridge crests to the east and northwest. It would contradict all 30 of the battlefield clues we list in our main battlefield blog, including those usually thought to be inviolable - such as that the Normans attacked up a steep slope, that they attacked in three divisions with William in the middle, and that the battlefield was rugged and untilled.

An enclosed English shield wall on Battle Hill isn't the battle described in any of the contemporary accounts. Therefore, if we can show beyond reasonable doubt that Battle's streams were not impossible to cross, the only other possibility is that the battle was not fought at Battle.

So, what would make Battle's streams impossible to cross? The Bayeux Tapestry (above) depicts the Norman cavalry crossing the Couesnon Estuary. It wasn't easy. Some of them got stuck in the mud and drowned. Others, according to the caption, were hauled out by Harold Godwinson. Enough got across the estuary to defeat Conan in battle. If the Norman cavalry was not daunted by the prospect of crossing a 170m wide estuary, what sort of impediment would prevent them crossing the streams at Battle? Wide deep fast flowing rapids? A steep gorge? A quicksand bog? Impenetrable brambles?

Here we are standing astride the two streams that traditionally protected the English flanks -  western to the left, north-eastern to the right. 'Stream' is being overly generous. They are barely brooks. Neither of them is more than shoulder width across. Neither of them has more than a trickle of water. It is only to be expected. Their catchment areas where we are standing are only a few hectares.

The Normans would clearly not be intimidated by Battle's streams as they are today. Nor by the steepness of the banks, the slopes of which, never more than 20°, can be seen on the Ordnance Survey contours above. Nor by the boggy banks. The ground is soft but we saw horses unhesitatingly trot across the eastern stream. There were hoof prints all around the banks. If Battle's boundary streams and banks were as they are today, the Norman knights would have charged across as if they were not there.

The obvious retort is that the streams must have been deeper, wider and/or faster in the 11th century, and/or that the valley sides were steeper or more boggy. Could it be, for instance, that the runoff from the Hastings Ridge has been absorbed by modern drainage and irrigation? Or has global warming made the climate much drier?

Dr Robinson thinks not. He reckons that the expanse of impermeable surfaces in the town centre more than compensates for modern drainage; that a greater amount of water is channelled into the streams that radiate out from Battle. The shallow valley sides suggest that the streams have been feeble since long before modern drainage was installed. The topography is the same now as it was when Ordnance Survey contour maps were introduced 150 years ago and much the same as when Yeakell & Gardner's hachure map was compiled in the 18th century. Still, there is a big gap from the 18th century back to the 11th century, and global warming has made the climate warmer and drier on average. But medieval Britain enjoyed a local micro-climate in what Hubert Lamb referred to as the 'Medieval Warm Period'. Our 11th century climate was warmer and drier than now. According to Domesday, there were vineyards as far north as York, and York was so warm at the beginning of October 1066 that the invading Norse army had to leave their armour in their ships on the day of the Battle of Stamford Bridge.

Dr Robinson has confirmed scientifically what we always suspected empirically, that the streams radiating out from Battle are unlikely to have been any more difficult to cross in 1066 than they are now, and they would not daunt a two-year-old toddler now. But 'unlikely' is not proof. Dr Robinson explained that the only way to reconstruct an 11th century landscape would be to analyse downstream deposition, but the streams radiating from Battle are too small to create any significant downstream deposition.

If Battle's streams were easily fordable in the 11th century, the other potential impediment to consider is impenetrable shrubs or brambles along the stream banks. The Normans had swords to cut through brambles and shrubs. The bramble patch would have to have been perhaps 50m deep and to have lined the streams all the way down to the Brede in order to hold the Normans at bay for six hours. It seems unlikely, especially considering that there are only small isolated shrubs and brambles along the banks today. But, again, 'unlikely' is not proof.

This is where you come in.

1. Can you think of any way to prove that Battle's streams were traversable in the 11th century? We are thinking along the lines of landscape regression modelling software, or a medieval path or ford, perhaps.

2. Can you think of any way to prove that Battle's streams were not lined by impenetrable shrubs and brambles? We are thinking along the lines of soil analysis, seed analysis or a medieval path, perhaps.

If you can help with either of these questions or have any other thoughts about this, please email us: