The Traditional Battlefield

We think that we have found the Battle of Hastings battlefield near Sedlescombe. If we are right, the battle was not fought at the traditional location around Battle Abbey. Yet it is supported by hundreds of books, thousands of articles and just about every medieval historian and military expert that has ever lived. How could they all be wrong?

We are not contradicting any archaeological evidence, for the simple reason that there isn’t any. We are not really contradicting the experts either. None of them think that Battle Abbey is a likely battlefield. Rather, they accept seven relatively early contemporary accounts which say or imply that Battle Abbey was built on the battlefield, so they have devised ways to justify it. We are contradicting the base evidence: the seven contemporary accounts which say or imply that Battle Abbey was built on the battlefield. We do not take it lightly. If they are independent, seven references would normally be definitive for medieval events.

First, we review Battle Hill as a battlefield. How it matches military or geographical clues in the contemporary accounts, how it matches William and Harold’s personal motivations, 11th century military tactics and, not least, common sense. If the battle was not fought at the traditional location, Battle Hill is just a random hill that happens to be in roughly the right area. It may match some clues, but only through chance. It is unlikely to match the more peculiar or specific clues.

We will then address two associated issues. If the battle was not fought at Battle Hill, the seven 'Abbey was built on the battlefield' references must be mistaken or misinterpreted. We will investigate how this might be. It also means that Battle Abbey was not built on the battlefield. We will look at how this might be and why else Battle Abbey might have been built where it is.

Figure 48: The traditional Norman attack

To set the unlikely scene, the cyan line on Figure 48 shows the traditional Norman attack from the one direction they would almost certainly have avoided.

Battle Hill as a battlefield

Back on our school trip to Battle Abbey in 1966 we were shown Colonel Charles H. Lemmon’s battlefield diagram below. It is one of those used by Stephen Morillo to create his synthesis diagram (Figure 49) which shows more clearly what historians are thinking. Even as eight-year-olds, we could see it has major flaws.

Harold’s shield wall only works if the English are on rising ground, but historians place them in a line across the hill where two-thirds of the English army are perpendicular to the slope. The English flanks would have been level with their adversaries, virtually defenceless against Norman couched lance attacks. It beggars belief that Harold would use this deployment and, if he did, William's tactics make no military sense.

Figure 49: Battlefield deployment derived by Stephen Morillo from other commentaries.

William had a huge cavalry, Harold had none. William would surely have outflanked the English line to attack Harold from behind and above, where he was only protected by his personal guard. Indeed, Baudri of Bourgueil reckons that they had already outflanked the shield wall before the battle started. He says: “Backing up the enemy line, at a distance, were horsemen, waiting to intercept anyone trying to flee”. If Norman horsemen were on the far side of an open shield wall, they would have ridden up to Harold from behind and lopped off is head as soon as the battle started.

If Baudri is wrong and the Normans could not outflank the defence, their best military tactic would be what soldiers refer to as an ‘oblique order’ attack, matching their best troops against the weakest flank. A line breach or flanking manoeuvre would have delivered a quick victory against the traditional shield wall, but instead we are led to believe that William risked everything in melee combat on the battlefield’s most adverse terrain against Harold’s elite huscarls.

Hopefully our reworkings of Lemmon’s diagram in Figure 50 and Figure 51 give a clearer indication of what military historians are thinking. The idea of the traditional English deployment is to stretch the shield wall between two stream heads, then bend it around the southern slope of Battle Hill. The bend puts more of the English shield wall on rising ground and it accommodates the place where Harold is supposed to have died. The streams protect the English flanks, preventing the Normans riding around the open ends of the line. Fuller refers to them as “ravines, that were covered in brushwood”. Allen Brown says they were in “close forest”. We can only imagine that historians have a poor grasp of geography and never investigated the site.

Figure 50: Traditional battlefield deployment with contours, after Morillo
Figure 51: Traditional battlefield deployment with relief, after Morillo

Figure 52 shows us standing astride the protective streams. Neither of them is more than shoulder width, at least within 1km of Battle. Their valleys are 5m deep in places but so shallow that we saw horses cross without breaking stride.

Figure 52: Streams flanking the traditional battlefield, northeast to the left and west to the right

Doubtless some would claim that the flanking stream valleys were steeper in the 11th century. They would be wrong. Dr David Robinson, a world-renowned expert on medieval landscapes, told us: “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." And, if they had changed, they would have got deeper. That is how erosion works.

Others might follow Allen Brown in thinking that the flanking streams were lined with impenetrable dense woodland or thicket. But, as we explain elsewhere and as confirmed to us by world-renowned medieval woodland expert Helen Read, there is no such thing as impenetrable mature deciduous woodland, and thicket could only line the stream banks where light gets in. The Normans could easily cut through with their swords.

Even if we accept for a moment that there was some reason the Normans did not try to cross the flanking streams, they could have looped around behind the English line. After all, the English army can only have got to Battle from Sedlescombe, Whatlington or Netherfield. The Normans just needed to go there and follow the English army’s tracks to attack from behind and above. It would not have taken more than an hour for coursers without breaking into a canter.

It is not only that the Normans did not outflank or loop the English line, but the contemporary accounts do not mention they tried. We interpret this to mean that wherever the battle was fought it was not possible to outflank or loop behind the English line, which is not the case with the traditional deployments at Battle. We find it incredibly frustrating. It is as if the world’s greatest intellects have been arguing for 200 years about whether locks, chains or bars will best keep burglars out of their bank when the side walls and rear wall have not yet been built. If only they had visited Battle, historians would have realised that everything else is irrelevant unless they can answer why the Normans did not outflank or loop behind the English line.

Even if someone does cobble together some excuse for the Norman failure to get behind the traditional English line at Battle, why then did they not try an oblique order attack? The contemporary accounts say that William concentrated his elite Norman troops on the centre of the English line, matched against Harold’s elite huscarls. At Battle this would put them be on the steepest part of the hill. It is exactly the wrong tactic. They would surely have concentrated on one end of the English line, where the ground was level, to draw the elite defenders, then use the Norman cavalry’s greater mobility to attack the other end. We cannot believe that William would be so stupid or so naïve as to concentrate his elite forces at the one place that were liable to fail for the entire day.

Despite all this, if William’s elite troops were occupying Harold’s elite huscarls in the centre, it should have been easy for his Frankish and Breton troops to break through one of the English flanks. They were on level ground, fighting English peasants armed with billhooks, hatchets, hoes and other agricultural tools. Wace says that the English had made a fosse across the battlefield that protected one side of the shield wall. This does not fit the traditional battlefield because a fosse across the battlefield would protect the entire shield wall. Perhaps he meant that it went across part of the battlefield. The English only had an hour to prepare fortifications. It is difficult to believe that it would hold back the Normans for long. Even if it did, the other flank should have been easy pickings, yet they failed to make a break for six hours, and then only by a ruse. It just seems implausible to us.

Figure 53: Wikipedia Battle Hill deployments

Wikipedia, which represents the consensus on most subjects these days, shows the English deployment with what soldiers refer to as ‘refused’ ends (Figure 53). It left us perplexed. It is no more difficult to outflank. It just means that the Normans would have to ride 400m further north, which is nothing in this context. On the other hand, it would have stretched the shield wall from 700m to 1200m, which would make it a third thinner and therefore much easier to breach. It would have done nothing to prevent the Normans looping around to the north via Sedlescombe and Whatlington. In our opinion, this formation is inferior to Lemmon’s … and Lemmon’s is feeble.

An alternative Battle Hill engagement scenario

There is a more fundamental issue. How could the English have ended up defending such a miserable position as Battle Hill? According to the traditional narrative, they were caught trying a surprise attack. This is plainly ridiculous. William knew it was Harold’s trademark tactic and had prepared for it. William and Harold had been swapping messages and scouting each other’s camps the previous day, accordimng to Carmen and Wace, so Harold knew he was prepared and knew that the Norman cavalry gave them a huge advantage on open ground. He would never have attacked the Norman camp short-handed. Others, including Grehan and Mace, have used this argument to justify their theories that the battle was not fought on Battle Hill.

Figure 54: Possible pincer attack

Many years ago, we came up with a plausible engagement scenario (Figure 54) that better explains how the battle might have been fought on the slope south of Battle Abbey (x). At the time we thought that the English were camped at their traditional location on Caldbec Hill (C). We had already decided that the Normans were camped at Winchelsea (W) but they could have used the same tactic wherever they had camped on the Hastings Peninsula.

We postulated that William looped his cavalry around via Sedlescombe and Whatlington to attack the English camp from the north. We thought that the English saw them coming and tried to escape south, only to run into the Norman infantry coming up the Hastings Ridge from the southeast. This neatly explains why Harold did not run away or retreat north – because the Norman cavalry was blocking that route - and it gives a plausible explanation for why the English left Caldbec Hill to fight on the defensively inferior Battle Hill.

If Harold had been trapped on Battle Hill with the Norman cavalry to the northwest and the Norman infantry to the southeast, we wondered what he would have done. The slope to the north was steep but the slope to the south was shallow and the slopes to the northwest and east were virtually level. We think that Harold would have enclosed the summit in a looped shield wall, like Figure 55, , and we list 12 clues on above that the English did enclose their shield wall.

Figure 55: Enclosed shield wall on Battle Hill

A well-fortified enclosed shield wall might have survived intact for six hours, but the English had hardly any time to prepare. The only possibility we could come up with was some sort of natural fortification, like a redirected stream or landslip. Neither is likely on a ridge crest, but the latter is less unlikely. We postulated that a landslip between the stream heads (red line) partially protected the northwest approach. Perhaps the English had time to dig a 200m fosse to partially protect the eastern approach (magenta line). In this scenario, it is feasible that William might have chosen to attack on the traditional battlefield to the south.

Figure 56: Tapestry Panel 50

We scoured the contemporary accounts for an interpretation that might support this theory. We could find no indication that William used a pincer attack or that he tried to attack on a shallow ridgeway approach. Indeed, the contemporary accounts say the exact opposite: that the Normans attacked together in three divisions and they attacked up a steep uncultivated slope. Also, Tapestry Panel 50 (Figure 56) shows the English scout shielding his eyes. It might be just a figurative representation of a lookout. Otherwise, it means he is looking south or east from the English camp in the morning whereas the Normans would have been coming first from the north. There is substantial evidence that the English employed an enclosed shield wall, but it could apply anywhere.

Then we saw the Time Team Battle of Hastings TV special, with its evidence that the English probably did not camp on Caldbec Hill. We had to abandon this alternative engagement scenario. That left us back at square one, with no plausible explanation for why the battle might have been fought on Battle Hill and, assuming it was, how it could fit any plausible military tactics of the day.

Traditional battlefield and the primary sources

Misgivings forbear. How does the traditional battle scenario fit the contemporary account battlefield descriptions? The traditional English shield wall is straight, so it will obviously not match any of the 11 contemporary account descriptions of the shield wall having refused flanks, in a horse-shoe, wedge shape or enclosed loop. How does Battle Hill match up with the other 27? Here they are again:

  1. Orderic says that the battle was at Senlac. Senlac was Saxon for ‘sandy loch’ or ‘sandy lake’.
  2. Chronicon says that the engagement was: “nine miles from Heastinga, where they had fortified a castle”. We assume Roman miles from the Norman sea camp at Winchelsea. It is not as specific as it sounds, because it does not say whether this is crow flying or walking distance.
  3. CBA says that the battle was near Herste. Hyrst is the Old English term for a wooded hill, ubiquitous in medieval Sussex, but the context implies near somewhere named Herste
  4. CKE says that the English were: “roused with indignation as the Normans strived to gain the higher ground, drove them down into the valley beneath, where hurling their javelins and rolling down stones on them as they stood below, destroying them to a man". The part about rolling stones is usually interpreted to mean that the battlefield hill was high and steep. We think it is trying to say that the battlefield was compact and steep near to the shield wall. We interpret the part about javelins to mean that the valley beneath the battlefield hill was no more than 70m away and no more than 18m lower.
  5. Tapestry Panel 54 depicts the battlefield hill as small, steep sided, flat topped and rugged.
  6. Wace, Carmen, Jumièges and Orderic, in one way or another, say that the battle started at the third hour of the day. Given the time needed to don armour, assemble and receive a pep talk and commands, the battlefield cannot be much more than a one-hour march from the Norman camp.
  7. John of Worcester says that: “the English were drawn up in a narrow place”. It is not clear whether he was referring to the battlefield, the English formation or both.
  8. Carmen says: “Suddenly the forest poured forth troops of men, and from the hiding places of the wood a host dashed forward. There was a hill near the forest and a neighbouring valley … they seized possession of this place for the battle”.
  9. Carmen says that the battlefield: “was untilled because of its roughness”.
  10. Wace says that: “The Normans appeared, advancing over the ridge of a rising ground; and the first division of their troops moved onwards and across a valley”.
  11. Orderic says that the English: “... formed a solid column of infantry, and thus stood firm in the position they had taken".
  12. Wace says that the English built up a barricade before them: “... with their shields and ash and other wood, that had been well joined and wattled together".
  13. Wace and Carmen say that William divided his troops into three, Franks and Bretons on the flanks, Normans in the middle. Poitiers says that William wants his three divisions to be visible all the time, so that he could command them by voice and hand signals. He orders them to attack different places. Wace says that William chooses to “fight in the middle throng, where the battle shall be hottest".
  14. Wace says that: “In the plain was a fosse which the Normans had now behind them, having passed it in the fight without regarding it. But the English charged and drove the Normans before them, till they made them fall back upon this fosse. Many were seen falling therein”. We interpret this to mean that the fosse was parallel the Norman attack, to the side of the battlefield, below the shield wall and within driving distance of the shield wall (perhaps 100m).
  15. The statement above also means there was a plain below the shield wall. This is confirmed later by Wace, at least below the section where the feigned retreat happened, because he says: “following the Normans, as they go rejoicing in the success of their scheme, the English scattering themselves over the plain”.
  16. Poitiers says that even late in the day after having suffered heavy casualties the English position was still “very difficult to surround".
  17. Carmen says that: ”The Duke sighted the King far off on the steeps of the hill”. It might mean William is looking from his camp or that he could see Harold over the shield wall, which is only possible if the slope behind the English line was greater than the slope in front of it.
  18. Wace says that the youths, common herds, priests and clerks move onto rising ground to watch the battle, which means the battlefield was overlooked.
  19. Domesday flags those manors that were wasted during the conquest. We would expect the battlefield manor to be wasted.
  20. Pseudo-Ingulf says of Harold’s demise: “At last, towards twilight, he fell, on a small hill where he had collected his forces”. We interpret this to means that the battlefield was a small hill.
  21. CBA mentions a ditch named the Malfosse, into which many Norman knight fell and died as they chased the fleeing English after the battle. It must have been within sprinting distance of the battlefield. Poitiers describes it as a ‘labyrinth of ditches’, which implies iron ore mining.

Then there are the five ambiguous clues.

  1. Carmen says: “In summo montis vexillum vertice fixit ", which is usually translated “At the highest point of the summit of the hill he planted his banner". By tradition, it means that the battlefield hill was high, steep and with a conical summit. But it is a tautology. We interpret ‘summo’ to mean hill crest: “He planted his banner at the highest point of the crest of the hill". We interpret this to mean that the battlefield was on a spur whose crest sloped down toward the advancing Normans.
  2. CKE says that the English were: “rolling down stones on them as they stood below, destroyed them to a man”. This is usually interpreted to mean the battlefield hill was high and steep. We think Malmesbury was trying to say that the English rolled their stones when the Normans were tightly bunched within perhaps 30m of the shield wall. The stones were fatal because the Normans were too packed to move sideways to get out the way. If so, the battlefield was not necessarily high and only steep at the shield wall.
  3. Poitiers says that the Normans: “... began slowly to climb the steep slope". Carmen says the Duke: “boldly approached the steep slope".
  4. This is usually interpreted to mean that the battlefield hill was long and steep. We think they are trying to say that the hill was steep enough that the Normans could only climb it slowly. It might be because the slope below the battlefield was wet and slippery while the Normans were barefoot or wearing slick soled shoes rather than that it was particularly steep.
  5. Poitiers says that: “... the English were camped on higher ground, on a hill close to the forest through which they had come". This is usually interpreted to mean that the Normans attacked the English in their hilly camp. Alternatively, it might be trying to say that the English occupied a hill close to their camp, where they were attacked.
  6. ASC says that: “William came against them by surprise, before his army was drawn up in battle array ". This is usually interpreted to mean the English were victims of a surprise attack. We suspect it is trying to say that William attacked unwarily.

Wace and Carmen say that the battlefield was overlooked from rising ground. The south slope below Battle Abbey was overlooked from Telham Hill. A tick. Wace says that the English first see the Normans appear over rising ground, then cross a valley. The English could have first seen the Normans appear over Telham Hill then cross the stream now dammed at New Pond. Another tick. There is a plain below the centre and western flank of the shield wall. A tick. Battle Hill could be described as a 'small hill', not in terms of area but in terms of elevation. A tick.

Carmen, Poitiers and Malmesbury are usually interpreted to be saying that the battlefield hill is high, steep and conical with a distinct summit. We dispute the interpretations but, taken in their traditional context, Battle Hill gets half a tick. It does have a distinct summit, it is fairly high by Hastings Peninsula standards and it is a tad conical near the top. On the other hand, the traditional battlefield is on the shallow southern slope of Battle Hill and it is virtually level on the ridge crest to the east and northwest. CBA and WP refer to the Malfosse which is thought to have been Oakwood Gill, some 1500m north of the traditional battlefield. It is just about close enough and in a plausible direction that some might flee. Another half tick.

On the negative side, Battle Hill was not untilled or covered in Lowland Greensand scrub. It could not have had a fosse that went across the battlefield. It has nowhere that could be described as a narrow place. It is as far from a wood (roughly 1km) as anywhere on the Hastings Peninsula. It has no nearby lake that sounds like Senlac. It was not near anywhere named Herste at the time of the battle. It would not have been difficult to surround. It is not steep enough for rolled stones to be dangerous on any slope the Normans might have used to attack. The nearest valley is ten times the world record javelin throw away, and that is not from where the Normans would have attacked. 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. The Normans would not have passed a fosse parallel to the battlefield into which they were later driven. The English would not be standing back-to-back. It is eleven Roman miles as the crow flies to where we think the Normans built their fortress at Winchelsea, and only seven from where they traditionally camped.

In summary, the traditional battlefield does fit a couple of the most general battlefield descriptions and partially fits a few others. It fails to fit more than half the primary source descriptions, including all the most peculiar or specific. Indeed, it seems that the more specific the description, the worse the correlation with Battle Hill. In our opinion, Battle Hill is exactly what we would expect of a random hill in the roughly the right area for the battlefield.

Traditional Malfosse

WP, CBA, Orderic and others report that many Normans fell to their death at a place named Malfosse. C T Chevalier, supported by Elizabeth van Houts and other eminent historians, suggests that the Malfosse survived as a similar sounding place named Maufosse. A 13th century Charter records the transfer of Maufosse to Battle Abbey. It was 1500m north of Battle Abbey on the edge of Duniford Wood. Maufosse was drained by Oakwood Gill. Chevalier therefore suggests that Oakwood Gill was the Malfosse.

A Malfosse at Oakwood Gill is used as evidence that the battle happened at Battle Abbey. With the Normans attacking from the south, the English would presumably flee north. After 200m they would hit the Isthmus Ridge. They could flee west or northeast along the ridgeway, or north down into the River Line valley and Duniford Wood. They would probably have split into all three. The last of these skirts around the western side of Caldbec Hill, then runs parallel to the River Line. If they stayed ahead of the chasing Norman cavalry for 1km, they would reach Oakwood Gill, almost exactly where it is now crossed by the A2100. If it was a steep-sided gorge, the Norman cavalry might have ridden over the edge and fallen to their death.

Chevalier refers to Oakwood Gill as ‘a deep ravine’, with steep banks, brambles, undergrowth and a stream. Well, it is fairly steep sided by Hastings Peninsula standards, though that hardly means it was precipitous. The south bank is perhaps 45 degrees at its steepest. The stream is barely shoulder width. Some might claim that it was steeper in the 11th century. We doubt it. Precipitous gorges are cut into porous rock or geological faults. Oakwood Gill cuts into clay. Earthen banks erode into the stream leaving relatively shallow sides. They always have done and always will do.

We doubt that Oakwood Gill was ever steep enough for a horse to fall unless it was at full gallop, which seems unlikely after the battle. There is a common misperception that medieval warhorses were like modern shire horses. They were more like sturdy ponies, no more than 15 hands, for the simple reason that an unseated armoured rider needed to be able to vault back on without ladder, stirrups or leg-up. They were bred for strength and stamina more than speed. Any speed they might have would have been dulled after carrying an armoured rider for 8 hours. We doubt they were even cantering in pursuit of the English battle survivors.

Even if the Normans were chasing at a gallop, we doubt they would come to much harm at Oakwood Gill. It was probably lined by trees, in which case the horses would have had slowed to a walk. If it was not lined by trees, brambles would have grown at the valley bottom, which would have cushioned any fallers.

Poitiers describes the post-battle fosse which claimed many Normans lives as a ‘labyrinth of ditches’, which has never applied to Oakwood Gill. We are not even convinced by Chevalier’s association between Malfosse and Maufosse. Maufosse, after all, is French for 'grumpy'. All the land in this area was given to quasi-French speaking Normans after the Conquest. It makes more sense to us that the area was named Maufosse after a bad harvest or hunting accident rather than corrupted from Malfosse.

The Malfosse accounts differ considerably between the primary sources. As Morillo concludes, it is far from certain that it was not just an invention that got corrupted through many tellings. There was another incident during the battle in which the Normans got pushed back into a fosse. Perhaps this is how the story originated.

If the Malfosse ever existed, we think it is most likely to be some sort of cut and fill iron-ore workings. Footlands is the only likely place north of Battle Abbey that it might have been, but it is on the far side of Petley Wood. If the English made it into Petley Wood, they would have spread out and hidden rather than run out the other side.

All in all, if the Malfosse incident happened, quite the reverse of the tradition, we think it is evidence that the battle did not happen at Battle Abbey rather than that it did.

Evidence that Battle Abbey is on the battlefield

The important point to take away from what we say above is that the only evidence that the battle was fought at Battle is the seven relatively early contemporary accounts – listed below - that say Battle Abbey was built on the battlefield. As recently as 2014, they were still the only evidence offered by English Heritage’s Roy Porter in his paper ‘On the Very Spot: In Defence of Battle’. It was endorsed by English Heritage, Battlefields Trust, Royal Armouries, the Sussex County Archaeologist and several celebrity TV historians, so they presumably did not have any extra evidence to add.

  • Anglo-Saxon Chronicle E. Its obituary for William (originally written c1100) says: “On the very spot where God granted him the conquest of England he caused a great abbey to be built".
  • Brevis Relatio written by a monk at Battle Abbey (c1115) says : So Harold, leaving London with all his army, came to a place which is now called Battle”. Later it says: “Now the battle was fought on fourteenth October on the ground where William, then Duke of Normandy, but afterwards King of the English, ordered an abbey to be built, in memory of the battle and for the pardon of all the sins of those who were slain there.”
  • Chronicles of the Kings of England written by William of Malmesbury (c1125) says  of the monastery that: “... the principal church is to be seen on the very spot where, as they report, Harold was found among the thickest heaps of the slain."
  • The Ecclesiastical History of England and Normandy written by Orderic Vitalis (c1125) says that: “William founded at Senlac, where the decisive battle took place, the Abbey of the Holy Trinity". 
  • Historia Anglorum written by Henry of Huntingdon (c1129) says : “The battle was fought in the month of October, on the feast of St. Calixtus. King William afterwards founded a noble abbey on the spot, which obtained the fitting name of Battle Abbey.”
  • Roman de Rou written by Wace (c1160) says that Harold, “erected his standard and fixed his gonfanon right where the abbey of the battle now stands. There he said he would defend himself". Much later it says: “Where the battle had been, he built an abbey and put an Abbot therein".
  • The Chronicle of Battle Abbey written by the monks of Battle Abbey (c1170) says: “... Harold, the usurper of the realm, speedily collected an army, and fearlessly, but rashly, hurried to the place which is now called Battle, ...". During the battle: “Upon the hill where the Abbey now stands, the English supported their King in compact body". Before the battle William made an oath: “I make a vow on this very battlefield I shall found a monastery for the salvation of all, especially those that fall". The monks of Marmoutier, who were appointed as prime contractors for the construction, wanted to build the Abbey elsewhere. William would have none of it, commanding them to: “lay the foundations of the temple on the very place where he had achieved victory over his enemy". The monks comply: “they wisely erected the high altar on the precise spot where the ensign of King Harold, which they call the Standard, was observed to fall."

Seven corroborating accounts, if they are independent and trustworthy, is an awful lot by medieval standards. Five were written in England, two in Normandy, at six different monasteries, which suggests they were independent. We are sceptical.

For one thing, they are less specific than they sound. The ASC is ambiguous; we will return to it momentarily. Orderic’s Senlac could refer to an area rather than a spot. Roman de Rou says that the Abbey is ‘where’ the battle took place, which could also be an area rather than a spot. The standard translations of Brevis Relatio and Historia Anglorum both refer to the battlefield as a ‘spot’, but both use the Latin term ‘in loco’ which usually refers to a less specific ‘place’. Malmesbury says that CKE’s information comes from the monks of Battle Abbey, making it sound like he does not trust them - Vidler reckons it shows that Malmesbury thinks the story is “a mere invention of the monks”. This means that CBA’s statement about the altar being placed where Harold’s body was found was an outright fib.

CBA alone explains how and why the Abbey came to be on the battlefield: It says that William was fulfilling a vow he made before leaving Normandy and another made before the battle that he would build a magnificent monastery on the battlefield if God granted him victory. Unfortunately, on this subject at least, it is not trustworthy.

Professor Eleanor Searle, a renowned historian who made the definitive CBA translation, thinks these alleged vows are bogus. She notes that the only other record of them did not appear until 1155, ninety years after the battle, and then only in a charter forged to fend off the Bishop of Chichester’s attempt to subjugate the Abbey. The CBA context is wrong too. William’s words place him on the battlefield but the narrative places him at the Norman battle camp, putting on his armour. It does look as if the vows were invented to defend the Abbey against subjugation in the 1150s, then clumsily recorded in CBA to defend it against future subjugation attempts.

The protection is a little convoluted. William’s alleged promise was that he would give the monastery and battlefield to God. In effect, this implies that God granted the Normans victory because he was so pleased with William’s promise. With victory came Norman power and wealth. Thus, future Norman kings would be reluctant to interfere with the Abbey for fear God would rescind their power and wealth, while the Church would be reluctant to interfere because they could not be seen to be thieving from God. It worked for nearly 100 years, against determined opposition.

Professor Searle’s alternative theory, which sounds right to us, is that William built the Abbey as a penance to comply with the Pope’s ‘penitential ordnances’ of 1070. It instructed the Norman invaders to build and/or endow a church (or abbey) if they could so afford.

To be clear, Professor Searle was not denying that the Abbey is on the battlefield, but what she says - That the abbey was founded by the Conqueror, and on the scene of the battle, there need be no doubt” - is hardly a ringing endorsement when she could easily have said: “That the abbey was founded by the Conqueror, and on the battlefield, there need be no doubt”. The only evidence she provides that the Abbey was founded “on the scene of the battle” are some of the references above. It looks like fence-sitting to us, only acknowledging that the battlefield was within a few miles of the Abbey.

CBA is two manuscripts written roughly contemporaneously and bound together. Professor Searle goes on to say that they are both based on Wace and Poitiers – copies of which were found in Battle Abbey’s library – plus bits of some Norman legends that were collated by the monks of Battle Abbey into Brevis Relatio. Poitiers wrote before the Abbey was started. CBA’s references to the Abbey being built on the battlefield must therefore be elaborations of the accounts in Wace and/or Brevis Relatio.

Wace says that Roman de Rou was partly based on first-hand accounts recorded by his father. But those first-hand accounts could not have reported that the Abbey was built on the battlefield because it was not started until long after they left. The rest of Roman de Rou was based on Jumièges, Poitiers, CKE and Brevis Relatio.  Jumièges and Poitiers wrote before the Abbey was started, so the ‘Abbey on the battlefield’ references must have come from Brevis Relatio and/or CKE.

CKE says: “... the principal church is to be seen on the very spot where, as they report, Harold was found among the thickest heaps of the slain." The ‘they’ Malmesbury refers to are the monks of Battle Abbey. It implies that he either read and embellished Brevis Relatio, or that this was the response he received in written or verbal correspondence about the battle with the monks.

So, the statements in CBA, Wace and CKE about the Abbey being built on the battlefield probably all originated with the monks of Battle Abbey, and probably all via Brevis Relatio. Where then did Brevis Relatio source its information that the Abbey was built on the battlefield?

Brevis Relatio was written 50 years after the battle, so its source could have been a first-hand account from someone that witnessed the battle, albeit someone pretty old. Or perhaps one of the first monks at Battle Abbey recorded first-hand accounts. Both possibilities seem unlikely. The region had a low population before the invasion, all the locals would have fled when the Normans landed, every Englishman that survived the battle would have gone home, and no Englishman that lived locally or that survived the battle would have been literate.

We think Brevis Relatio’s most likely source was the Peterborough/Kent ASC obituary for William, recorded at least 15 years earlier. Garmonsway’s standard translation of William’s ASC obituary says: “On the very spot where God granted him the conquest of England he caused a great abbey to be built". It is perfectly plausible that an Old English speaking monk at Battle Abbey would reach the same conclusion as every historian since, that ‘the spot’ was the battlefield, and deduce from it the two statements in Brevis Relatio. Orderic and Huntingdon, both half-English and almost certainly native Old English speakers, also used the ASC as an important source. Their statements, other than Orderic’s claim that the battlefield was at Senlac, could also have been deduced from that same ASC entry or from Brevis Relatio.

It is likely then that all references that the battle was fought at Battle and that the Abbey was built on the battlefield – which amount to the same thing – derived ultimately from ASC’s obituary for William. This would undermine the independence and mutual corroboration of the seven ‘Abbey on the battlefield’ accounts, but the ASC is fairly compelling evidence on its own. It was written comfortably within living memory of the battle when the details would have been relatively fresh. Roy Porter of English Heritage concludes: “This evidence, written by an Englishman in English and emphatic in its identification of the abbey site being on the battlefield of Hastings, is crucial …”. But is it emphatic?

On the very spot where God granted him the conquest of England he caused a great abbey to be built" is an odd and ambiguous choice of words. The conquest of England was not granted until London decided not to resist, weeks after the battle and nowhere near Battle. Perhaps it is meant spiritually. It was, after all, written by a medieval monk who would have believed to his bones that God decided the battle’s outcome in advance, that God guided each side accordingly, and that God granted victory to the protagonist that was most pious or that promised most to promote God’s will. In this light, if the words mean anywhere specific, they mean where William prayed before the battle. But he cannot have taken Mass at Battle if it was the battlefield.

One interesting feature of this ASC passage is that it is the only example in the entire ASC of a major event at a place not named. It is well known that the 1086/7 entry for William’s obituary was written some time before 1100. We guess it was written before the town of Battle got the forerunner of its name and that it previously had no name, thereby preventing the ASC from simply saying that: “William built a great abbey at Battle”.

Even so, if the ASC was trying to be specific, why not simply say: “He caused a great abbey to be built on the battlefield" or “He caused a great abbey to be built where he took Mass"? We think there is some tradition bias in the translation. What the ASC actually says is: “On ðam ilcan steode þe God him geuðe þæt he moste Engleland gegan, he arerde mære mynster, munecas þær gesætte.”ðam ilcan steode’ can be translated as ‘the very spot’ but its natural translation is ‘the same place’. Indeed, Thorpe translates as ‘the same stead’, which means the same. We think the translation should read; “On the same place that God granted he should subdue England, he reared a noble monastery”.

A ‘place’ is less specific than a ‘spot’ because we subconsciously accept slippage for remoteness and context. Thus, the place where Marc Bolan died was a particular tree on Queens Ride but the place where William Rufus died was the New Forest. In general, the more remote and less inhabited the place, the vaguer the size of a place. For most of us, the place where Apollo 11 landed was the Sea of Tranquillity which is 500 miles wide. The Hastings Peninsula, like everywhere south of the Andredsweald, was very remote in Saxon times. “On the same place that God granted he should subdue England” or “the conquest of England” could mean anywhere on or near the Hastings Peninsular.

ASC’s obituary for William could be saying that the Abbey was built on the battlefield, but it is not doing so definitively, emphatically, or even clearly. If that is what it is trying to say, it is needlessly and uncharacteristically vague and ambiguous. We think it is trying to say that the William built his Abbey in the vicinity of the battlefield, which might have been several miles away.

In summary, the seven references might be independent, but we think it more likely that the last five references are based on Brevis Relatio or ASC or both. Brevis Relatio’s references to the Abbey being on the battlefield might be genuine and independent, or they might be a misinterpretation of ASC or they might be fabricated. ASC might be saying that the Abbey was built on the battlefield or it might be saying that it was built in the vicinity of the battlefield. None of the others contain useful original information. In our opinion, these accounts fall far short of compelling evidence that the battle was fought at Battle Abbey, and there is nothing else.

English Heritage’s argument

Historians are in an invidious position. They know the evidence supporting the traditional narrative is weak, but in the absence of tangible evidence, they can no more accept that the battle was not fought at Battle Abbey than a biologist can accept that Darwin and Wallace were wrong about evolution. It would destroy their careers. Their position is embodied in Roy Porter’s 2014 paper entitled ‘On the very spot: In defence of Battle’. With one exception, the only evidence it provides are the seven ‘Abbey on the battlefield’ contemporary account statements we list above. We have explained why we think they are ambiguous or unreliable.

The exception is English Heritage’s argument that: “Building the abbey on the side of a hill presented the monks with practical difficulties they could have avoided had they chosen to build elsewhere. It is difficult to see why they would have chosen to build the abbey in such an awkward spot without a compelling reason". Their implication, without saying so, is that one compelling reason that Battle Abbey might have been built on the side of Battle Hill is that William instructed the monks of Marmoutier to build the Abbey where Harold died and that was where he died. We are sceptical.

For a start, William’s original Abbey was closer to the ridge crest where the ground was flatter than the surviving ruins. The original Abbey was also smaller, so the slope would have presented less difficulties. True, the ground under the original Abbey was not level but, in our opinion, it would not have presented significant practical difficulties for the Normans, who were, after all, master stone masons.

Coombes Church 35 miles along the coast is older than the original Battle Abbey and built on a steeper slope by Saxons. Its chancel survived into the 18th century. If Saxons could build Coombes Church with money raised by village crowd sourcing, the Normans would have had few problems building the original Abbey. They might even have enjoyed the challenge.

Also, note that ‘difficulties’ are different from ‘impossibilities’. At the end of the day construction ‘difficulties’ are just a matter of cost and time, both of which had been indemnified by William. The construction was not that difficult anyway. When the original Abbey fell in the 13th century, its replacement could have been built anywhere, but they chose to build it further down the hill where the slope was greater.

Why Battle Abbey is where it is

Time to step back, to think about William’s motivation for building his abbey. English Heritage say that: “there is a widespread consensus among historians that William the Conqueror founded Battle Abbey as a penance for the blood shed at the battle and to commemorate his great victory". Certainly, William had built penance abbeys previously. Certainly, the Pope did impose church/abbey building penances on the Normans as redemption for the blood they had spilled. There are other possibilities. William’s alleged vow in the CBA was for his abbey to give salvation to those that fell in battle and to repay God for giving him victory. Brevis Relatio says that it was built as a memorial of the battle and to pardon the sins of those who were slain there.

William’s motivation for building his abbey could have been any or all of these, but none of them bound his abbey to the battlefield. No one ever fought at Karnak, or at Titus Arch or at Trafalgar Square. Æthelstan’s Muchelney Abbey was penance for the Battle of Brunanburh which happened hundreds of miles away. de Luci’s Lesnes Abbey was penance for killing Thomas Becket which happened fifty miles away.

The Pope’s penitence instructions to the invaders were to: “do penance for one day in each week for the remainder of his life, or to let him redeem his sin by perpetual alms, either by building or by endowing a church". His objective was to raise money and to promote Christianity. A remote hill with no local inhabitants would have been low on his list of places for the new King to build his money-no-object abbey. Indeed, we find it hard to believe that the Pope would approve of a monastery on a battlefield: Many would interpret it to be a glorification of violence. 

Professor Searle presumably discounted all these traditional reasons too because she thought that William put his abbey on the battlefield to curry favour with his barons; an act of insolence to humiliate the English and to quell rebellions. We think this unlikely. The Abbey was not completed until 1094, by which time the worst of the danger was over. The uninhabited hill on which the Abbey was built was so remote that Anglo-Saxon renegades are unlikely have given two hoots what it was used for. And, anyway, the local population, just 370 families on the entire Hastings Peninsula, were mostly Jutes. If William wanted to humiliate and/or quell anyone important, he would have built his abbey at Tamworth or Winchester (and, indeed, perhaps for this very reason, he did build a castle at Tamworth and a cathedral at Winchester). 

The only rational explanation we can envisage for William wanting to build his abbey on the battlefield is if he believed that close proximity to the place of violence might help sanctify his personal sins and/or those of his fellow invaders and/or give the Norman dead a better chance of salvation. As far as we know these notions have no religious merit, but if this was what he believed, the Abbey should be on the Norman side of the battlefield or at the Norman graveyard. Located where it is, it would be more likely to sanctify and/or salve the English than the Normans. 

In our opinion, the entire argument is inside out. We think that William would have wanted his abbey anywhere except the battlefield and absolutely anywhere other than where Harold died. Putting it elsewhere would rob English insurgents of a focus. It would prevent the English using the abbey to venerate Harold as a martyr. It would prevent the monks being haunted by the souls of unburied English warriors - a huge fear at the time. It would prevent scavenging on the abbey grounds. It would let William hide the evidence of his sins. It would be clear that he was not glorifying violence. It would let him use the land for his own purposes. It would let him choose a location for his abbey where it might help the defence of his new realm. 

Turning the argument around, it is perfectly plausible that the Abbey was built on Battle Hill despite the battle having happened elsewhere. In addition to all the reasons just mentioned, perhaps the battlefield land belonged to another religious order. If so, William would not have wanted to rile the Pope by sequestering land from the Church when the whole idea was to earn the Pope’s absolution. Or perhaps the battlefield had become overgrown or lost during the seven-year gap. Or perhaps the monks of Marmoutier decided to build the Abbey elsewhere. CBA says that they thought the battlefield inappropriate for an important abbey. It goes on to say that William instructed them to build his abbey on the battlefield anyway, but perhaps this last bit was invented whereas the need to build elsewhere was not.

Assuming the battle happened elsewhere, why might William have chosen to build his abbey at Battle Hill? And why build on the side of the hill? Even though we reject English Heritage’s argument that it would have been horribly difficult to build the abbey on the side of a hill, it would certainly have been easier to build it somewhere flatter, lower and closer to fresh running water. There must have been a reason.

It is possible that William instructed the monks of Marmoutier to build his abbey on a hill because he wanted it to be prominent. Battle Hill is not as prominent as Caldbec Hill or Blackhorse Hill, but perhaps William preferred it because it was closer to the battlefield, or more reminiscent of the battlefield, or perhaps he just liked it. Or perhaps the monks of Marmoutier preferred it because it was treeless on the summit and therefore had better foundations and less need of site clearance.

Figure 57: Battle Abbey lines of sight

We think the overwhelming reason for the Abbey’s exact position was line of sight (Figure 57). Professor Searle says that William probably wanted to position his Abbey on the Hastings Ridge for defensive purposes. She notes that it played an important defensive role when Sussex was invaded by the French several centuries later. But, assuming its location was not tied to the battlefield, he could have chosen anywhere on the ridge. Blackhorse Hill and Caldbec Hill were both 40m higher and had better defensive possibilities.

Battle had compensations. It was the only place on the Hastings Ridge that had a seaward treeless arc. This made it the only place on the Hastings Peninsula that had an uninterrupted view of Winchelse and pefenes ea, the two most likely incursion points for a future invasion (black dotted lines). It was also the only place on the Hastings Ridge with a view of the Sedlescombe crossing point and our proposed battlefield at Hurst Lane (white dotted line). The view was along a Brede tributary through a tiny gap between Petley Wood and Bodeherste (now Great) Wood. Perhaps this extraordinary coincidence alone was enough to persuade William it was the right place for his Abbey.

In addition, it was in Harold’s former land which became William’s upon accession. As far as we can see, placing the Abbey at Battle would have been convenient, politically easy and strategically sensible.

If this is right, why was the original Battle Abbey located 50m away from the ridge crest? It is not far, but it did lower the Abbey by a few metres, and it did complicate the construction. The shift might have been enforced by poor ground conditions on the ridge or to improve the lines of sight. We guess it was because the ridge crest already had a ridgeway. Doubtless William could have diverted the ridgeway to make space for his Abbey, but it would then no longer be a ridgeway, so it might have hindered the Normans’ ability to deploy in defence of their new realm.

None of this is to absolutely refute the possibility that the Abbey is on the battlefield, and thus that the battle happened at the traditional location. Only physical evidence elsewhere can do that. Rather, it is to say that the evidence that the battle happened at the traditional location is flimsy and probably contrived. The battle could have happened on pretty much any hill within, say, five miles of Battle. And, given the lack of archaeology and poor match with the contemporary account descriptions, it is extremely unlikely to have happened at the traditional location.